If any genre truly flourished in 2023, it was the documentary. No other genre of cinematic medium saw so many masterpieces last year as did the documentary. From films about shark bites and freediving, to biographical documentaries about artists and celebrities, to fearless investigative reporting, to boundary-pushing cinematic experiments, the documentary medium truly moved the goalposts of cinema in 2023 and broadened our idea of what a film can be.
There are much more than 23 great documentaries from 2023, but we tried to narrow it down to the most accessible, unique, brilliant, and important. Some of these films could be released any year and still be perfect; some of these films needed to be released now, and reflect harsh truths about our contemporary society. Whatever kind of film it is, these documentaries run the gamut of the human experience and truly show us what film was capable of in 2023.
23 STILL: A Michael J. Fox Story
Michael J. Fox seems like one of those people who are impossible to dislike (which is why it was so funny when Larry David got into a fight with him in Curb Your Enthusiasm). And that’s not just because of sympathy over his Parkinson’s disease, but because of his extraordinary career (from Family Ties and Back to the Future to Spin City), his activism, and the kindness he’s show to many. So it’s a charming and emotional experience to sit with him through STILL: A Michael J. Fox Story, a documentary which keeps things simple and lets Fox educate and entertain us.
The Moving Biography of Michael J. Fox
Like his film An Inconvenient Truth, David Guggenheim’s new film is basically a one-man show, with the director fully trusting Fox. He speaks directly to the audience or narrates reenactments and quickly edited footage, telling the story of his life, the pain of his disease, his alcoholism, and his recovery. Despite its title, the film is energetic and keeps us entertained, thanks to a wide-ranging soundtrack and Fox’s great sense of humor. Like the actor himself, this is a special one. Stream on Apple TV.
22 Silver Dollar Road
It’s said that Black farmers lost 90% of their land in the 20th century; in just the 24 years between 1949 and 1973, 2,532 eminent domain projects displaced over 650,000 African-Americans, as The Institute for Justice reports. Silver Dollar Road follows just one of these instances, a legal case that has been ongoing since the 1970s. The Reels family owned property in North Carolina beginning in the days after slavery, but when a descendant didn’t leave a will after distrusting the courts in the ’70s, one thing led to another and developers staked a claim on the land, ultimately leading to two members of the family going to jail for eight years for refusing to leave their home.
A Family Tells Its Story
While the film tangentially explores the larger systemic issues of eminent domain, reparations, and the prison-industrial complex, the film is mainly an intimate family drama that lets the Reels tell their story. Director Raoul Peck (I Am Not Your Negro) draws from nearly 100 hours of reporting fro Propublica, focusing on the smaller moments like a 95-year-old’s birthday party. You’ll come to feel great sympathy and respect for the Reels, along with the fury of injustice. Stream on Prime Video.
21 The Deepest Breath
There’s been a weirdly prolific amount of films in the past two years about diving and swimming, from The Swimmers and Nyad to the excellent No Limit and this year’s wonderful documentary, The Deepest Breath. The film follows Italian freediving champion Alessia Zecchini’s ongoing attempts to beat the world record, something which would ultimately cost the life of her safety diver, Stephen Keenan.
A Suspenseful Tragedy with Stunning Visuals
Paralleling the lives of Keenan and Zecchini until they meet (leading to the heartbreaking events of the 2017 Vertical Blue freediving competition in the Bahamas), director Laura McGann maps out the trajectories of two kindred spirits with aplomb. The underwater cinematography, crystal clear and scattered with perfect streaks of sunlight, is gorgeous, and the editing builds a suspenseful momentum as the story takes its inevitable course. Stream on Netflix.
20 This Much We Know
Director L. Frances Henderson takes a very different approach with her film, This Much We Know. Loosely adapting an experimental non-fiction book, About a Mountain by John D’Agata, Henderson heads to Las Vegas to explore its exceptional suicide rates and the seemingly arbitrary suicide of a young man. In Leave the World Behind, the director probes investigators, family, and friends to try and find some kind of answer or reason relating to the suicide. Meanwhile, she explores the decades-long project to turn the Yucca Mountains near Las Vegas into a storage site for nuclear waste.
Picking at Disparate Threads
Mysterious and ambiguous, Leave the World Behind finds Henderson narrating with deadpan philosophical insight as she studies people looking for answers for different things. The movie almost becomes an existential detective story, with the director using the film and its subjects to vicariously seek answers for her own friend’s suicide. There’s a lot going on in this haunting little film, which will put you in a very specific, thoughtful headspace. Not yet on streaming.
19 American Symphony
Audiences may know Jon Batiste from his seven years as bandleader with his group Stay Human on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. If you don’t know his face, you may have heard his music — he’s been nominated for 20 Grammy Awards, won Album of the Year in 2022, and won the Oscar for Best Original Score for Soul. The documentary American Symphony chronicles his latest endeavor, the titular piece of music the film is named after. In the film, he prepares to conduct its premiere at Carnegie Hall while his wife suffers from leukemia.
A Beautiful Tribute to Love and Creativity
At the heart of American Symphony is a sweet love story between Batiste and his wife, writer Suleika Jaouad. The film studies their relationship and what they give and provide for each other while she endures hospital visits and the health care system and he attempts to complete his musical work. With a phenomenal score and engaging glimpses into Batiste’s process and rehearsals, American Symphony is a gift to music lovers (and lovers of love everywhere). Stream on Netflix.
18 Last Stop Larrimah
A gleefully enjoyable film, Last Stop Larrimah discards any of the faux gravitas that most true crime documentaries use to hide their basic intention — entertainment. It’s true crime at its most fun, which may seem sick, but it’s only a result of the eccentric, interesting characters on display here. Larrimah is a tiny town in Australia that used to have a population of 11 people, until one man and his dog mysteriously vanish. Afte extensive police searches around town, it seems like one or more of the 10 Larrimah residents is hiding something.
Won’t You Beat My Neighbor?
Chronicling the investigation at the time and following up with the residents of the town, the HBO documentary introduces us to some hilarious people, some sad people, and some mysterious people. Nearly everyone has their quirks and seems to know more than they let on. It could be argued that the filmmakers are mocking these people, but really it’s more a case study of the secrecy and resentments birthed from living in a small town. Ultimately, the film is a funny but unsettling meditation on neighbors and towns, and the timeless problem of community — how do we live together when we don’t like each other? Stream on Max.
17 Beyond Utopia
Beyond Utopia is an intense and powerful documentary that feels like Schindler’s List or The Lives of Others in its dramatic tension and emotional resonance. The film connects us with Seungeun Kim, and we’re all the better for it. Kim is a South Korean pastor who has been helping more than one thousand North Koreans escape their country for the past 25 years. Madeleine Gavin’s film is a harrowing firsthand account of some of these rescues, while also providing context on North Korea and how this situation came about in the first place.
Profiles in Courage
Beyond Utopia is not the prettiest or most stylish film, but the small handheld cameras and night vision immerse you in the actual rescues and border crossings we get to witness. Kim is a modern-day saint, but the film also details the bravery it takes for any North Korean citizen to attempt this journey to freedom. Meanwhile, Beyond Utopia gives us a disturbing glimpse into the current realities of North Korea, which only seems to worsen by the year. Rent or buy on digital platforms like YouTube, Apple TV, and Vudu.
16 After the Bite
Many times, a documentary’s merit is less about the subject and more about how the subject is approached. Ivy Meeropol’s documentary After the Bite is a great example of this, as we’ve seen or are aware of countless shark films and documentaries. And yet, Meeropol weaves together different testimonials and opinions to create a somewhat neutral look at sharks and, more importantly, the human relationship with nature. The film mostly documents the citizens around Cape Cod, where a large influx of sharks (and even more seals) have appeared on their shores.
Sharks Are Just Part of the Story
The film was initiated after a bad shark attack in Massachusetts left someone dead, and while shark attacks are still relatively rare, it’s true that more and more sharks are swimming closer to shores, likely as a result of human activity, though many people want to blame the seals. A wide range of interviews reflect differing opinions, making for a comprehensive study of not just shark problems, but the increasing problems we’ll have with nature as a result of climate change, overpopulation, and overfishing. The film shows that we are just one part of a larger ecosystem, and how that pisses some people off. Stream on Max.
15 To Kill a Tiger
An extremely heavy and infuriating film, To Kill a Tiger follows the family of a 13-year-old girl who was gang-raped as they try to seek some form of justice in India. Instead of 90% of rapes, which go unreported, the young woman’s family and determined father fight to have the three rapists prosecuted, but they are up against a system where the girl is pressed to marry one of her rapists and ‘reclaim her honor.’
A Painful Look at Misogyny and Injustice
To Kill a Tiger is a difficult watch but an important scream of righteous anger. Nisha Pahuja spent three and a half patient years following the case and speaking with activists and a new generation of Indian men who are being ‘reprogrammed’ away from the rape culture of some Indian communities, and it pays off in one of the most powerful documentaries of the year. Not yet streaming, find screenings and info here.
14 Carpet Cowboys
It makes sense that Carpet Cowboys was executive produced by John Wilson, of the incredible show How to with John Wilson. It shares the same curiosity about human eccentricity, the same ability to take something very small and connect it with something big, and a similar combination of humor and melancholy. The film follows some of the carpet manufacturers in Dalton, Georgia; more than 90% of the world’s functional carpet is made within a 65-mile radius of the town.
Quirky Characters and the Death of Old America
Directors Emily MacKenzie and Noah Collier speak to a variety of wonderfully eccentric characters throughout the film, but they truly investigate the American Dream by following the story of Roderick James, a Scottish man who came to America to be a cowboy. He writes jingles he hopes to sell for advertisements and designs textiles, but has arguably hit the end of his career in America. Combining this with stories of generational inheritance and footage of the decaying town creates an oddly sad but humorously absurd eulogy for the American Empire. Not yet streaming.
13 Geographies of Solitude
Part character study, part experimental nature film, Geographies of Solitude feels like Stan Brakhage directed a Natural Geographic doc. Jacquelyn Mills takes her camera to the small, uninhabited Sable Island in Nova Scotia, where she mainly follows the isolated Zoe Lucas, an environmentalist who leads the Sable Island Institute. She has lived most of her adult life on the island, currently in a small house. She maps the terrain, transplants beach grass, and studies the mysterious horses who roam the island.
Alone Is Not Lonely in This Audiovisual Feast
The image of long-haired horses on a small island sets the strange tone for Geographies of Solitude — how did they get there, and how did they survive? You start to wonder the same thing about Zoe Lucas as you spend the film with her measuring grass and taking samples of dung, no other human or building in site. She fills notebooks and spreadsheets with data going back decades. The film doesn’t attempt to psychoanalyze her or explain her, but just spend time with her and listen to her, the way the filmmaker lays contact microphones throughout different natural things (sand, feces) to hear how they sound throughout the day. It’s a beautiful, mysterious little film.Rent or buy on digital platforms like YouTube, Vudu, and Apple TV.
12 The Disappearance of Shere Hite
The study of human sexuality in the 19th and 20th centuries has led to some great media; we’ve had Kinsey, Masters of Sex, A Dangerous Method, and even WR: Mysteries of the Organism, telling the stories of the scientists behind the research. With Shere Hite’s death in 2020, director Nicole Newnham (Crip Camp) decided to explore the life of a brilliant sociologist who nonetheless disappeared from the cultural lexicon, as the title of The Disappearance of Shere Hite suggests. Her findings were just too disturbing for most people to handle.
Provocative and Unsettling Research Gets Its Due
Ultimately, Hite’s research led her to conclude that at least 70% of women don’t have orgasms during penetrative vaginal sex. It may seem like a small fact, but this statistic (and her conclusions that infidelity was much more frequent than ever reported) was insidious to the male ego. If taken seriously, men would have to reckon with their sexual relationship to women, and they didn’t want to do that. As the always astute critic Monica Castillo writes, “In essence, she was slut-shamed out of history, and we are forced to reckon with that loss.”
The film uses her writings to tell her story, and they’re read by Dakota Johnson, perhaps as an apology for her role in what Fifty Shades of Grey did to the perception of female sexuality. Combining a variety of archival and interview footage of Hite along with contemporaneous home videos and recordings of women and society, Newnham’s film is a vigorous biography of a woman whose honesty was too provocative for her time. Not yet on streaming.
Subject has an ingenious premise, following up on the human subjects of multiple acclaimed documentaries to see how the films affected their lives and what has changed. It certainly helps to have seen the films that Subject follows up on (masterpieces like Hoop Dreams, The Wolfpack, Capturing the Friedmans, The Square, Minding the Gap, The Staircase), but directors Camilla Hall and Jennifer Tiexiera provide enough context not to require it. The result is a fascinating and often upsetting documentary about documentaries.
Deconstructing the Ethics of Documentarians
Subject is masterful in interrogating the ethical dilemmas that often go unsaid in documentary filmmaking — how will making a movie about someone affect their life, and what responsibility does the director have for that? Speaking to the subjects of these films (and the filmmakers in many cases), Hall and Tiexiera shine a light on the moral dimension of documentaries that often gets swept under the rug. It’s a fascinating film that will possibly change the way you watch documentaries forever. Rent or buy on digital platforms like Prime Video.
10 The Mission
Beautifully told by his friends, family, and fellow believers, The Mission investigates the death of a passionate and loving young man who travels to one of the world’s most remote communities with the goal of being a Christian missionary. He would not live long. An important meditation on mission, charity, and Evangelism, The Mission is not a raging anti-Christian film, not is it a faith-based film, and that plays to its strength. Instead, it’s a sad portrait of the human search for meaning and the often warped logic of proselytizers.
A Dangerous Commission
Seeing footage of John Allen Chau and hearing the words he wrote is extremely touching; this was a truly inspired and inspiring man who nonetheless succumbed to the xenophobic and colonialist nature of evangelism. Beyond being a powerful tribute to the young man, The Mission is also a provocative exploration of what missions mean in a post-imperialist world, and how our own thirst for adventure and meaning can be to the detriment of others (and ourselves). Stream on Hulu.
9 The Pigeon Tunnel
Any Errol Morris film is an event, and The Pigeon Tunnel is no exception; in fact, it’s probably his best feature film in a decade, since The Unknown Known. His subject this time is very different from the politicians he’s studied (Robert McNamara, Steve Bannon, Donald Rumsfeld) and the eccentric oddballs he’s lovingly documented (in Gates of Heaven, Tabloid, and more). Morris interviews the famed spy writer (and former spy) John le Carré about his childhood and life, using dreamy reenactments and truly cinematic techniques to study a mystery of a man.
Gorgeous Music and Visuals in Errol Morris’ Hypnotic Film
Very loosely based on John le Carré’s memoir of the same name, Morris includes his playfully combative interviews with the author as part of a larger cinematic tapestry of subterfuge and false identity. With his frequent collaborators Philip Glass and Paul Leonard-Morgan creating a mesmerizing and suspenseful score, and Morris’ trusted cinematographer Igor Martinovic setting up surreal visuals, Morris arguably meets his match with le Carré. The interviewee and interviewer engage in a balletic duel over the truth, a fitting end to the life of a master spy. Stream on Apple TV. Check out our interview with Errol Morris about his excellent film, Tabloid, below:
8 De Humani Corporis Fabrica
Man is matter, as Yossarian says in Catch-22. De Humani Corporis Fabrica (or The Fabric of the Human Body) proves it. The film is part of the continuously groundbreaking Sensory Ethnogoraphy Lab out of Harvard, which creates audiovisual documentary studies of life and nature like Leviathan (about commercial fishing) and Sweetgrass (about sheepherders in Montana). The anthropologist and filmmaker Lucien Castaing-Taylor often helms these projects with different people, and De Humani Corporis Fabrica is co-directed by the brilliant Véréna Paravel in one of the most transcendent (and disturbing) films of the year.
A Close-Up Look at the Human Body Is Open to Interpretation
Without filling audiences’ minds with biased narration or steering them in certain ideological directions, the filmmakers use some of the most technically advanced camera and medical equipment of today to go deep inside the human body during surgeries and autopsies. It’s not for the faint of heart, but the imagery often becomes so abstract through prolonged takes, lack of context, and extreme close-ups, that the film is less a gore-fest and more of an inner travelogue by way of experimental cinema. It will make you think of your insides and the anatomy of human life in a very different way.
7 Smoke Sauna Sisterhood
Conversations in a sauna lend themselves to honesty; it’s hard to obfuscate the basic truth when you’re naked and sweating in close quarters with other people. That’s what filmmaker Anna Hints documents in Smoke Sauna Sisterhood, one of the most intimate films about the experiences of women in a year in which filmmakers like Greta Gerwig and Justine Triet expertly explored the same themes but under the guise of fiction. Hints captures some incredibly frank and emotional moments in this delightful hang-out film.
Truth in the Darkness of a Smoke Sauna
In the film, we partake in the communal conversations of interesting women who detail the most personal and emotional moments of their lives in the hot darkness of a secret sauna. There’s no Margot Robbie or Lily Gladstone, no powerful women artists who help us see the truth behind the trappings of gender. No, we are instead privileged by the presence of ‘normal’ women who lead ‘normal’ lives. Thank God. They expose the incredible moments and difficulties which dot the banal travails of a human life, and are truly fascinating in the process. You could stay in this sauna forever. Pre-order on Vudu.
6 Aurora’s Sunrise
Like the masterful Waltz with Bashir, Aurora’s Sunrise brilliantly mixes animation, documentary, and detailed character study to tell a haunting story of war and memory. Based on the life of Armenian actress and author Aurora (Arshaluys) Mardiganian, Aurora’s Sunrise is a stunning exploration of the Armenian Genocide and a remarkable woman who escaped fate to live a remarkably different life. Director Inna Sahakyan rises above a large learning curve, not having prior experience with animation, to create a visually stunning piece of paper cutout CG animation.
A Genocide Survivor Does More Than Survive
Incorporating interviews with Mardiganian before her death and very old footage from her film performances, Aurora’s Sunrise paints a pretty complete portrait of a very intelligent and courageous young woman who escaped the death marches and ended up in Russia by way of a Turkish harem before heading to New York. The result is an unforgettable portrait of courage and resilience with some incredible animation. Stream on PBS.
5 Four Daughters
Four Daughters is a beautiful study of a Tunisian family torn apart by political and theological extremism, but it’s so much more than that. Kaouther Ben Hania (The Man Who Sold His Skin) heard about the family in 2016, and over the course of seven years, worked with them to construct this unsettling and emotionally powerful film. The kicker is that the cast reenacts their own memories with actors playing family members and others who are no longer with them. It becomes a kind of cathartic art therapy on the one hand and a masterful experiment in meta cinema on the other.
The Women Play Themselves
Kaouther Ben Hania lets the family tell their own story to a bold extent, almost relinquishing her role as director so that the women in this family can shape the actors and the scenarios to most honestly reflect their memories. Scenes of abuse, joy, loneliness, love, and tragedy are miraculously reenacted by these extraordinary women and the actors who occasionally fill in for them. Four Daughters is like an archaeological dig, an excavation into the memories and traumas of one family, and is a masterpiece. Rent or buy on digital platforms like Prime Video, YouTube, Apple TV, and more.
It’s not the most artistically innovative documentary of the year, but Israelism might just be the most politically and socially important film in 2023. That’s because it chronicles the colonialist subjugation of Gaza and the West Bank by Israel, and the political awakening of Jews in America and across the world, who are now understanding the corruption and crimes of the Israeli government and military. Led by Simone Zimmerman, an amazing young woman at the center of the documentary, Israelism fearlessly explores a generation of Jews who are waking up to Israel’s actions in the world.
Israelism Should Not Be Controversial, It Should Be Important
The subject that’s tackled by Israelism (through interviews with people across the board of Zionism) should not be so controversial, and yet the film was subject to censorship and a host of issues. It’s the most important piece of free speech media in 2023, opening a conversation about the state of Israel and its political influence in the West, and whether the international community, Jewish or otherwise, should support the continuing aprtheid state and genocidal tendencies of the country. Not yet on streaming.