Last year was big for buzzy documentaries, but 2020 has already come up with a fresh slate (opens in new tab) of enthralling documentary films: Cheer, Tiger King, and The Last Dance have ensured that some of the most talked-about films of the year haven't been fictional. And there's so much more to come. From Hillary Clinton and French fries to biopics about '80s girlbands and an Obama-produced film about the disability revolution, these are the documentaries you won’t want to miss this year.
Note: some of these releases may change due to the coronavirus pandemic. But since some of these documentaries premiered at Sundance, they may have already been completed by then. If some of these premiere dates move to 2021, we'll keep this story updated.
'Totally Under Control'
Now available to stream through Election Day for free, Totally Under Control gives a scrutinizing look at how the Trump administration handled the COVID-19 pandemic. Filmed in secret, it features interviews with ex-White House staffers, scientists, medical professionals, and more, unpacking where the U.S. went wrong (and is still doing so) when it comes to the deadly virus that has claimed the lives of more than 200,000 Americans.
'The Way I See It'
Official White House photographer Pete Souza captured two of the most iconic presidents in history: President Ronald Regan and President Barack Obama. With the help of director Dawn Porter, the famed photojournalist is opening up how he went from capturing events to becoming a voice to the voiceless in a political climate where facts are everything. Using archival footage and his photographs, it's the ultimate lesson on just what it takes to be one of the country's most influential people.
'John Lewis: Good Trouble'
If you're unfamiliar with John Lewis, or you only became aware of him because of his death this year, this is a particularly important film. Follow his long, long career, from activist alongside Martin Luther King Jr. to a long career in politics. He's an inspiration to so many other lawmakers, civil rights advocates, and Black Lives Matter allies all over the U.S. (many of whom speak about his influence in the film) that you begin to understand his profound, unequivocal influence. Pair this with his recent New York Times (opens in new tab) piece (opens in new tab), published upon his death, and be inspired to continue his fight.
'Welcome to Chechnya'
Another inspiring and brutal story, Welcome to Chechnya takes us deep inside anti-LGBTQ persecution in Chechnya and the small group of activists working to save the lives of people in the queer community. Academy Award-nominated director David France spotlights the underreported persecution and documents the atrocities with a keen, unflinching gaze. It puts a well-deserved, much-needed spotlight on the ongoing tragedy, and needs to be seen.
The first (and only!) girl band to write, sing, and play their own instruments and rise to worldwide prominence, the Go-Go's have the quintessential "overnight success" narrative—with a twist. The '80s rockstars get candid about the divisions and frustrations within the group, the opportunities and pitfalls of being female breakthrough artists, their breakups (and reconvenings) over the life of the band, and their relationships now. With a small summer tour coming in 2021, it's a long and often beautiful look at the women who will forever be indelible parts of each other's lives.
'Disclosure: Trans Lives on Screen'
The documentary covers the long and often terrible representation of transgender characters in popular culture, from other-ing to villainization to comments about sexual perversion. And yet, despite the seriousness of the topic, it's entertaining, comprehensive, and also highly educational, especially if you're not familiar with the subject—you'll be surprised how many movies are anti-trans, once you take a good look at them. LaVerne Cox gives interviews and also is executive producer here. Often utilized as the go-to expert to explain transgender identity, she uses the documentary as a way to offer the final, hopefully definitive word on the subject.
'The Last Dance'
If you know anything about basketball (or even if you don't), you know something about Michael Jordan. This ESPN docuseries wisely doesn't cover every single aspect of his long, epic career, instead choosing to center around his last season with the Chicago Bulls. The doc comes complete with never-before-seen footage of the epic drama going on behind the scenes. If the reviews, recaps, and think pieces about the somewhat controversial series (opens in new tab) is any indication, everyone's watching. And there's something for you, too, even if you're not into sports.
The first time I watched this trailer, I turned to my husband and said, "Wait. This is real??" Take a look for yourself: In 1991, eight people embark on an "adventure" in Biosphere 2, a self-sustaining replica of Earth's ecosystem, complete with food, water, and air. The community endeavors to live there for two years without leaving once—and, as you'll see, things start to get very Lord of the Flies-y. Was it just a cult, like critics said? Was it a group of dreamers who hoped to find a solution to climate change? Was it something else entirely? Just watch.
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'Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution'
Executive produced by the Obamas, this documentary explores the landmark movement towards equality and access for people with disabilities—and it all started with a group of teenagers at summer camp, just down the road from Woodstock. What starts out as an exploration of a close-knit group of people turns into the minute-by-minute documentation of a nation-wide campaign. From moment one, you feel the frustration, anger, and devastation that serves as the necessary spark for change.
'After Truth: Disinformation and the Cost of Fake News'
Like many documentaries on this list, consider this to be a tough but necessary watch. Before the "fake news" we currently hear about, there was the real "fake news": Propaganda and disinformation (the deliberate telling of lies to further an agenda) that have devastating effects on truth-telling and credibility. Even if you don't watch the news every day, understanding the real, concrete danger that's inherent in these lies is absolutely imperative.
Agnes Gund, long-time philanthropist, watched Ava DuVernay's 13th—another must-watch documentary—and was so deeply affected that she immediately sold her favorite Lichtenstein painting for $165 million so she could start "Art for Justice." With the fund's focus on helping incarcerated artists and groups that fight mass incarceration, she's devoted her time, energy, and dwindling money to criminal justice reform. With an initial debut at Sundance, early reviews are tremendously positive, both as a celebration of Gund and another important look at the necessity of prison reform. The New York Times (opens in new tab) wonders if she's "the last good rich person."
'Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness'
This Netflix docuseries has been a roaring success (pun definitely intended, sorry). In case all of your friends haven't already told you about it, the series covers Joe Exotic, the eccentric polygamist musician and presidential candidate who owned and operated a zoo of big cats. Yes, it's as strange as it sounds. Oh, and he's in jail on a murder-for-hire plot, which is the driving force of the narrative. The series is now getting backlash (opens in new tab) from some of the interviewees as well as animal rights activists, but the deep dive into the insane world of big cat owners, and the terrible conditions the animals suffer, was absolutely eye-opening for me.
Even non-parents will find something to love here: 15 infants, their parents, and 36 renowned scientists work together to discover exactly how a little baby turns into a teeny tiny human over the course of a year. There are plenty of cutesy moments with all those little hands and feet, but the Netflix series is really exploring evolution and science. How do we become...human beings? What does it mean to be alive? How does our first year affect the rest of our existence? If you care about any of those questions, it's a fascinating watch.
It might be hard to relive the 2016 election, but this four-part documentary on Hulu offers an in-depth look behind the scenes of that disastrous year—including never-before-seen footage of Clinton's campaign. It's also an intimate look at her life and political career, and features interviews with the Clinton family, journalists, and colleagues. The documentary doesn't shy away from tough questions, from the Lewinsky scandal to "but her emails" and the Democratic candidates in the running this year. As we prepare for the 2020 election, it's a good time to look back, understand what happened, and hear from the woman who was (and is) hoping for a different result.
Dan Schneider lost his son—killed in a drug-related shooting—and set out to get the killer off the streets. Then he changed direction. After he began to see healthy young people filling prescriptions for OxyContin in his work as a pharmacist, he recognized the signs of addiction in his community. What follows in this Netflix documentary is a David vs. Goliath tale for the modern day, with one knowledgeable, heartbroken, determined man again all of Big Pharma. Considering that the opioid epidemic continues to rage, it's a necessary watch to understand the inner workings of the pharmaceutical drug industry.
'Surviving Jeffrey Epstein'
In the next chapter of its "Surviving" series (following Surviving R. Kelly and Surviving R. Kelly II), Lifetime is debuting a new docuseries this summer. It'll be a similarly tough subject: It dives in deep on the Epstein scandal, including the financier's trial and death in 2019. But since there's already been a ton of coverage and airtime devoted to the topic, it'll also offer coverage beyond the news stories and TV segments. Surviving Jeffrey Epstein takes a look at how the former financier was able to get away with his predation for as long as he did, as well as the network that aided, abetted, and profited off his procurement of underaged girls. It'll be a devastating, but necessary, watch.
Completed with the participation of Bruce Lee's family and friends, Be Water (premiering at Sundance and now an ESPN 30 for 30) looks at the martial arts icon through his philosophy and activism. He's most known for his acting and athletic ability, but he also advocated for diversity on film and worked to change attitudes about Asian Americans in the United States. The title's taken from the kung fu mantra about adaptability and strength, which Lee is now known for popularizing and integrating into his work and life. The director (opens in new tab) envisions what Lee would be doing if he were still alive, including work with young martial artists and potentially a stint in politics.
'Visible: Out on Television'
This Apple TV+ docuseries is an absolute must-watch, particularly if you only know Ellen DeGeneres as the mega-successful talk show host. (DeGeneres came out (opens in new tab) in 1997 via Oprah interview, and her titular character similarly admitted she was gay in an episode later that day. To say it was controversial, and that there was backlash, would be an understatement.) Cataloguing LGBTQ+ acceptance and representation on television, particularly in the past 20 years, the series gets incredible first-person interviews from the likes of Rachel Maddow, Oprah Winfrey, and Lena Waithe. It's an emotional look at how the small screen has played a critical role in the long and arduous journey towards progress.
'Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez'
Many of us know the basics of this story: Hernandez, at the time a football player for the New England Patriots, was accused of murdering three people (and convicted for shooting one, his future brother-in-law). But what's so compelling about this Netflix docuseries—beyond the sports component, if that's not your thing—is what an intimate look we get at the former player's life. We even hear from the man himself, via recorded tapes from prison, and learn more about his family life, his sexuality, and the traumas that formed the backbone of his short, tragic life.
'I am Greta'
It’s hard to believe now that her face is plastered on protest signs around the globe, but less than two years ago, Greta Thunberg was a lone and unknown 15-year-old student in Sweden who decided to go on strike for climate change. If world leaders didn’t care about her future on earth, why should she care about school, she reasoned. The filmmakers behind I am Greta, on Hulu later this year, have been following the now world-famous 16-year-old from the early days, through her trips across the sea to the United Nations where she gave her rousing “How dare you!” speech to world leaders this past fall.
In another tale of youth activism on the global stage, Us Kids follows the teen survivors of the February 2018 shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, where 17 of their classmates and staff members were killed. The film, premiering at Sundance, tracks how the survivors catalyzed the Never Again movement for gun control, which culminated in the March For Our Lives, one of the largest protests in U.S. history.
More than 40,000 people have been registered as “disappeared” in Mexico, many the result of the country’s ongoing drug cartel wars. One case that has become a symbol of the lack of rule of law in Mexico is that of the 43 college students from a teacher training school who have been missing and presumed killed since September 26, 2014, when their convoy was attacked in Iguala, a city in southwest part of the country, by local police officers and other masked assailants, working with a criminal gang and the mayor. Six people were killed, dozens wounded, 43 male students were forcibly "disappeared," and the reason why they were targeted remains a mystery.In interviews with surviving students and grief-stricken family members, this new documentary from Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei, premiering at Sundance, looks at the psychological and emotional toll of endemic violence and systemic injustice in Mexico.
When Taylor Swift took the stage at the 2019 American Music Awards, where she was named Artist of the Decade, she opened her performance by singing “The Man” while dressed in a stark white shirt dress with the names of her six albums in big black lettering, reminiscent of a prison uniform’s stripes. The outfit and song were a nod to what the singer had revealed on social media 10 days earlier: That Scoot Borchetta and Scooter Braun, founders of Big Machine Label Group, her former label, were preventing her from performing songs from her archive. Suffice to say, it’s been a wild few years in the famed singer’s life. Director Lana Wilson was along for the ride, following Swift for the highly anticipated documentary premiering on the opening day of this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
'Fries! The Movie'
Two of our favorite things: French fries and Chrissy Teigen. They're joining forces next year in a documentary that seeks to answer the crucial question: Why do we looooove the famed fried potatoes so much? The film, produced by Teigen’s Suit & Thai Productions company and financed in part by a fancy ketchup company (I kid you not!) follows chefs like Le Bernardin’s Eric Ripert, celebrities including Teigen, farmers, food scientists, and others as they try to get to the bottom of our obsession.
“I always knew my love of fries and years of experience in the field were meant to serve a higher purpose,” Teigen said in a statement to Variety. We can’t wait to watch it, in part because surely theaters will serve fries during screenings instead of popcorn, right? RIGHT?!
Thirty-six hours after President Donald Trump signed an executive order known as the Muslim ban, lawyers with the American Civil Liberties Union emerged from a Brooklyn court house with fists raised triumphantly in the air: They had won the first crucial victory in preventing the order from taking effect. The Fight, produced by Kerry Washington among others and premiering at Sundance, chronicles that courthouse battle and others waged by the ACLU in the years since Trump’s election, including cases regarding the administration’s actions to expel transgender people from serving in the military, roll back voting rights, separate children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border, and prevent detained migrant teens from getting abortions. The film depicts the ultimate David vs Goliath story as the scrappy ACLU lawyers serve as a check on the president’s power at every turn.
On February 13, 2017, Kim Jong-nam, the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, was waiting for a flight at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Malaysia when two women covered his face with a cloth containing a nerve agent, killing him. The women pled not guilty, saying they thought they were taking part in a harmless TV prank, and it is widely believed that Kim Jong-un ordered the murder.
In Assassins, premiering at Sundance, director Ryan White, the filmmaker behind recent hits Hulu’s Ask Dr. Ruth and Netflix’s The Keepers, follows the trial of the female assassins in gripping detail, investigating whether the women were truly trained killers or unknowing and innocent pawns for North Korea.
'A Thousand Cuts'
In 2018, Maria Ressa, a Filipino-American journalist and cofounder of Rappler, a Manila-based investigative news website, told PBS Frontline about how the government in the Philippines had created a massive propaganda machine to spread misinformation on Facebook, drowning out factual reporting from Ressa and others on corruption and crimes perpetrated by the authoritarian regime of President Rodrigo Duterte. “It’s death by a thousand cuts,” she said. A version of that quote is now the title of a documentary by Filipino-American documentarian Ramona S. Diaz, premiering at Sundance this year. The film takes viewers behind the scenes with Ressa as she documents abuses of power and fights for the truth, even when doing so gets her thrown in jail. Prepare to be inspired.
When Joy Buolamwini was a college student studying computer science, she couldn’t complete an assignment that relied on artificial intelligence (A.I.) facial detection because the software couldn’t detect her dark-skinned face. Buolamwini, who is black, had to borrow her white roommate’s face to finish the project, as she wrote in The New York Times. The A.I. fueled discrimination continued when she was a graduate student in M.I.T.’s Media Lab—she resorted to wearing a white mask to conduct her work—but this time she had the power to do something about it. Today, as the founder of the Algorithmic Justice League, Buolamwini works to combat what she calls “the coded gaze” by highlighting algorithmic bias and pushing for the development of more inclusive technology. Coded Bias, which will premiere at Sundance, follows Buolamwini as she works to pass the first-ever legislation to govern A.I. in the United States, alongside powerful testimonials from people whose lives have been impacted by unjust algorithms.
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Kayla Webley Adler is the Deputy Editor of ELLE magazine. She edits cover stories, profiles, and narrative features on politics, culture, crime, and social trends. Previously, she worked as the Features Director at Marie Claire magazine and as a Staff Writer at TIME magazine.
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