Without a doubt, 2020 has been a unique year for folks across the globe due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which has forced many of us to spend more time indoors. Fortunately, there were plenty of great TV shows, movies and, of course, documentaries on hand to help us make it through. In fact, so many great docs premiered this year that whittling down a shortlist of must-watches can be difficult. Don’t fret — we’ll help you queue up 2020’s best.
Editor’s Note: We’ve also rounded up the most impactful documentaries of 2021.
This year the NXIVM scandal was all over the news, and Starz’s four-part docuseries Seduced traces the story of one former cult member: India Oxenberg, daughter of Dynasty actress Catherine Oxenberg. Unlike the folks in HBO’s more biased (and less earnest) series The Vow, India has an interest in examining not just her status as a survivor, but her culpability as well, despite the indoctrination. Punctuated by interviews with cult experts, therapists and deprogrammers, Seduced is the hard-hitting docuseries you need to get a fuller, more honest picture of NXIVM’s abusive secret sorority and the ways in which Keith Raniere’s insidious, misogynistic doctrine shaped all facets of the alleged self-help organization.
10. The Fight
Throughout 2020, more and more folks have found themselves attending protests and becoming more involved in activism in regards to both social and political causes. The Fight is one of those documentaries that shows us just how important the efforts of everyday citizens can be and the way our actions can have a lasting impact. The film follows a “scrappy but determined” team of American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) lawyers as they take on various legal battles to protect the rights of U.S. citizens and immigrants alike. As exciting as it is informative, The Fight will give you a clear and thrilling look at the inner workings of the ACLU.
9. The Painter and the Thief
The next time you find yourself overwhelmed by the human condition, The Painter and the Thief might just be the perfect documentary to get lost in. The film chronicles the story of artist Barbora Kysilkova — and the fact that two of her paintings were stolen from an art gallery in Oslo, Norway. Curious about the thieves’ motives, Kysilkova approaches one of the men accused of committing the burglary, and the two end up forming an unlikely friendship. As one critic for The Times put it “[their story has] more human interest, more narrative urgency, than most feature films.”
8. Mucho Mucho Amor: The Legend of Walter Mercado
In 1969, Puerto Rican astrologer Walter Mercado launched an incredibly successful career in television and radio, with millions of folks around the world tuning into his broadcasts on a daily basis. Mucho Mucho Amor, which gives viewers a glimpse into both Mercado’s early years and meteoric rise, aims to understand just how he became one of the most influential astrologists in the world — and one of the most influential Latinx television personalities of all time. “A treat for his multitudes of fans and an eye-opening introduction for others, this movie is a festival of Walter Mercado,” writes Renee Schonfeld of Common Sense Media. “[It’s a] one-person testament to audacity, kindness, and amiable self promotion.”
7. I’ll Be Gone In the Dark
Based on the late Michelle McNamara’s book of the same name, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark traces the author’s investigation into the notorious Golden State Killer. The serial killer roamed California in the 1970s and ’80s and, in the end, is connected to an estimated 50 home-invasion rapes and at least 12 murders. McNamara’s book — a sort of magnum opus — debuted just two months before the Golden State Killer was identified and arrested. In the docuseries, filmmakers provide a platform for the survivors of the violent predator’s crimes, so that they can share their stories. In many ways, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark also delves into our strange addiction to true crime — and how one woman’s obsession brought the truths of this particular case to light.
Time provides an unsettling, yet all-too-relevant portrait of the U.S. legal system from the perspective of a woman fighting for her husband’s freedom. In a moment of desperation back in the 1990s, Fox Rich and her husband, Rob, commit a robbery, which lands Rob with a 60-year prison sentence. The documentary follows Fox’s journey as she campaigns for her husband’s release and, as one Entertainment Weekly critic noted, the story is “as urgent and beautifully human as almost anything on screen this year.”
5. John Lewis: Good Trouble
The late Congressman John Lewis was a longtime voice and a prominent leader in the fight for racial equality in the United States. Before serving in the House of Representatives for Georgia’s fifth congressional district from 1987 up until his death, this civil rights hero and activist challenged segregation, made radical calls for justice and advocated for getting into some “good trouble.” This year, Lewis may have passed away, but the documentary, John Lewis: Good Trouble, helps to keep his legacy alive. As we take to the streets and find other ways to fight against police brutality and systemic racism, this one is a must-see.
4. Crip Camp
Crip Camp, a documentary from Barack and Michelle Obama’s production company, tells the story of Camp Jened, a summer camp for disabled young people. Unbeknownst to many, Camp Jened actually became far more back in the 1970s, when it spawned a major revolution that kickstarted the disability rights movement. Narrated by a former camper and featuring a large amount of archival footage, the documentary shows just how far grassroots activism can go. As critic Adam Graham put it, the film “shows change can come from anyone, anywhere, [and] at any time.”
3. Athlete A
Athlete A isn’t the easiest documentary to watch, and it certainly contains triggering content, but it’s an incredibly important film born from the Me Too era. For those who are not aware, the film revolves around Larry Nassar, the sexual predator who assaulted hundreds of young women who were part of USA Gymnastics during his time as a doctor. As mentioned, the film arrives in such close proximity to the height of the Me Too movement, which adds even more power to its fearless exploration of how sexual predators operate — of how they have been able to get away with their crimes for so long. As the Los Angeles Times put it, Athlete A serves as a “reminder that the rot is sometimes within the system itself, not just within the criminals it benefits.”
2. The Last Dance
Over the summer, ESPN made waves with The Last Dance, a docuseries that definitively chronicles Michael Jordan’s career and the Chicago Bulls. Most excitingly of all, it even includes unaired footage from the Bulls’ 1997-98 season, which marked Jordan’s last run with the team. Although it wasn’t the conclusion to the 2019-20 NBA season folks wanted back when it started airing in April, The Last Dance did help us all fill that sports void once pro teams cancelled seasons amid the COVID-19 pandemic. In his review for Consequence of Sound, Robert Daniels wrote that the series is not only “beautifully composed and edited together,” but a “pulsating celebration of greatness.”
In June, Sam Feder’s documentary, Disclosure: Trans Lives on Screen debuted on Netflix. Featuring commentary from trans activists, historians and creatives, the doc takes an in-depth look at Hollywood’s depiction of trans folks over the years — and how what made it to the screen largely informed and shaped American society’s perception of trans folks in turn. From portraying how characters and TV shows reinforced ignorant, dangerous stereotypes to dissecting how cisgender actors portraying trans characters can actually do more harm than good, Disclosure made many truths apparent.
But, chief among them is that trans performers, filmmakers and creatives must be given more agency when it comes to telling their stories — and they must be given the same opportunities and platforms when it comes to storytelling in general. That is, visibility more than matters — it is essential, especially when it comes to undoing the harm of Hollywood’s past. Needless to say, Disclosure is required viewing — and not just for film fans.
As we mentioned up top, so many amazing documentaries came out of this, and it’s incredibly hard to narrow it down. That said, we’ve added a few honorable mentions to the list. They may not have been as significant or timely in some instances, but they’re still must-sees.
If you have a little extra time on your hands, watch a few of our honorable mentions:
- The Phenomenon: Perfect for the people who cared about that UFO footage the Pentagon released earlier this year.
- Miss Americana: Perfect for Taylor Swift fans who have watched the folklore-centric Long Pond Sessions concert on Disney+ ad nauseam and want a way to get their family and friends on board with the prolific musician.
- Rebuilding Paradise: Perfect for folks who were shocked by the West Coast’s particularly intense wildfire “season” and want to learn more about these disasters. This Ron Howard film takes a look at a fire that raged in the Sierra Nevada foothills in 2018.
- The Social Dilemma: Perfect for folks who are looking for a chance to write off Zoom after this long, long year. (In all seriousness, this is a great look at the dangerous human impact of social networking.)
- The Three Deaths of Marisela Escobedo: Perfect for folks who were invested in lengthy, multipart true crime mini-series like Seduced, The Vow or I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, but want something with a shorter runtime.
- Dick Johnson Is Dead: Perfect for folks who need a cathartic exploration of grief, like only art can provide. FilmCritic called it a “very moving personal essay done in a heartfelt, surreal, and funny fashion.”
- Totally Under Control: Perfect for people who want their blood pressure to spike — yet again — over how poorly the United States responded to the COVID-19 pandemic. The film is a poignant reminder of the dangers of politicizing science, health and common sense.
- Spaceship Earth: Perfect for fans of our “Strange Americana” article about Biosphere 2.