They might not get the 3,000-screen openings or reams of publicity that Hollywood blockbusters get, but documentaries have become increasingly popular and easy to access in recent years. Which is as it should be because the filmmaking in some of them is nothing short of masterful, tackling subjects from Scientology and corrupt cops to acting legends and musical geniuses taken before their time. These films capture a sense of drama in their stories that’s as compelling (or more so) than anything you’d find in the fictional realm, and they come with the added benefit of sharing a lot of useful knowledge about their varied subjects. So if you’re in the mood for a little entertaining enlightenment, check out this collection of 12 riveting documentaries from 2015.
12. Going Clear
Going Clear retraces Scientology’s steps from its beginnings in Hubbard’s science-fiction novels to its pursuit of celebrities and eventual establishment as a tax-exempt religion built on a campaign of blackmail and bullying. The core of the film is made up of interviews from former Scientologists who have come to the realization that Scientology is much less of a path to enlightenment and much more of a money-making cult headed by the inscrutable David Miscavige. The film doesn’t seem to have much of a problem taking sides either, as it’s made painfully clear that Scientology, and many of the people who follow it, are just plain crazy.
11. The Seven Five
A lot of documentaries and fictional stories have dealt with the topic of police corruption, but The Seven Five manages to eke some surprisingly fresh content out of the subject by delving into a true life story that’s as evocative as anything you’d find in a Martin Scorsese crime drama.
Set in the late ’80s and early ’90s of East Brooklyn’s 75th district, Michael Dowd is the film’s central character—a young cop with good intentions who finds his values compromised after accepting a small bribe during a routine stop. Before he knows it, Dowd winds up working as a bodyguard for drug dealers and getting involved in plots to kidnap people for the cartels. Director Tiller Russell tells the story through an engaging mix of graphics, archive footage, and integral interviews with nearly every person who figures prominently into the story, including disgraced police officers and Dominican drug lords. The stories that come from the interviewees all feel like they could easily be green-lit as potential HBO drama series, and the documentary itself actually plays out a lot like Hollywood thriller—with some of the most shocking information being held back until the story nears its conclusion.
Iris is a documentary about nonagenarian fashion icon Iris Apfel. The effervescent American businesswoman has been a staple in ad campaigns and New York fashion circles for several decades, but even for people who’ve followed her entire career, she’s remained a bit of mystery. In Iris, filmmaker Albert Maysles finally gives the public a candid look at the “Rare Bird of Fashion” as he follows Apfel, 93, around her Park Avenue and Palm Beach homes, letting her tell her own story, which is full of reminiscence and recommendations. In one scene she buys a two-dollar item at a clothing swap meet, and then in the next, an Oscar de la Renta outfit. Of course, at all times she’s sporting her trademark black, thick-framed eyeglasses.
Supplementary interviews with fashion industry insiders about her influence along with archival footage and photos help complete the picture. There are also a few cutaways to Maysles while he’s filming, or the sound of his voice from off-screen. These few shots are a pleasant bonus as this was one of the last features the renowned documentarian worked on before his death in March.
A swampy body of water on the border between Louisiana and Texas forms the basis of all life for the peculiar people of a town called Uncertain. The lake provides an occupation central to the citizens of the tiny town where people like drifters and ex-cons often come to get lost. But when a mysterious, invasive weed called salvinia threatens to strangle the lake’s waterways and dry up its tributaries, their livelihoods are in danger of being stolen by an unknowable force against which they have no defence.
Uncertain is an ominous American documentary by Anna Sandilands and Ewan McNicol that is no less about environmentalism than it is about human survival.
8. How to Change the World
In 1971 the U.S. government was set to perform nuclear weapons testing near Amchitka Island, Alaska. To protest, a group of hippies from Vancouver set sail for Alaska on a boat they called Greenpeace. Several month later, those protestors found themselves to be at the head of the most popular environmental organization in the world.
Jerry Rothwell’s film How to Change the World tells an incredibly exciting story of the early history of Greenpeace using a treasure trove of never-before-seen archival footage. It’s no secret that Greenpeace was aware of how powerful the media could be in shaping a movement, so they made sure to film pretty much everything they did. At times the film even feels like a thrilling action movie as you watch a tiny Greenpeace vessel attempt to stop a massive Soviet trawler from harpooning a whale. Whatever your feeling on Greenpeace might be, this is a documentary that shouldn’t be missed.
7. Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck
Musicians and documentaries go together like pork chops and apple sauce, so maybe it shouldn’t come as a surprise that there were two documentaries released in 2015 that showcased the life of iconic Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain. But while Soaked in Bleach focuses primarily on the circumstances surrounding Cobain’s death, Montage of Heck is told as a chronological narrative via a stunning collection of little-seen archive footage showing a young Cobain as a child though to his final days. It also includes interviews and clever animated sequences that bring both the man and his music to life.
Although the film does have a few gaps, most noticeably the absence of a Dave Grohl interview, it still paints a beautiful portrait of a warm, funny, talented and sometimes tormented man, and it’s the most comprehensive Cobain documentary to-date.
6. Finders Keepers
When a lively North Carolina man with aspirations of becoming a celebrity discovers a severed human foot inside a grill he purchased at an auction, he sees it as his golden ticket to stardom. But John Wood has other ideas. He’s another North Carolinian who just so happens to be the foot’s rightful owner.
Bizarre stories like this are usually gobbled up by local TV stations, but Clay Tweel and Bryan Carberry decided to chronicle the entire ordeal, following it with their cameras for many years until it eventually became Finders Keepers—an equally hilarious and heartbreaking study of ownership issues, identity, and ego amidst a lot of family dysfunction and two contrasting personalities. On one hand you have a man who needs to reclaim a foot to reconcile his past, and on the other, a contemptible huckster who’s showboating repudiates some darker issues concerning neglect. The documentary is a fascinating tale of two strangers forced to deal with each other under very unusual circumstances. However, there are also a lot of insights to be gleaned in both men and their very human problems. In the end, Finders Keepers does a great job of finding the humanity in the absurd.
5. Something Better to Come
Over the course of Vladimir Putin’s 15 year rule over Russia, the lives of nearly everyone living in the country have changed significantly. But perhaps less so for Yula and her family, who have spent these years living on the outskirts of Moscow in one of Europe’s largest dumping grounds.
Filmmaker Hanna Polak never tries to make things look better than they are, and this documentary is so vibrant you almost feel like you’re right there digging through the trash with them, but she’s careful to avoid making Something Better to Come just a transparent outcry against social desperation and poverty. It’s also a powerful coming-of-age story and, as unlikely as it might seem, there is eventually the potential for something better to come of it. After some rough experiences and very difficult choices, Yula is able to give herself the possibility of a better life, but whether she will succeed or not is left as an open question for the audience to ponder.
4. Cartel Land
Tim Foley is a rough veteran who spends his days patrolling the Arizona desert along with a group of like-minded friends. Calling themselves the Arizona Border Recon, they hunt for smugglers who bring illegal immigrants into the country. Meanwhile, in the Mexican province of Michoacan, local doctor Jose Mireles leads a partisan group in a fight with a drug cartel that has enforced their rule over the region.
Director Matthew Heineman serves as the main cameraman and is right in the middle of the action on both sides in Cartel Land. Fifteen minutes into the film we see him trying to escape from the line of fire with his camera still rolling. But the film isn’t purely about the exciting battles between good and evil, it’s also a study of how good and evil aren’t always so black and white. At times, it almost feels like a real life version of Breaking Bad, with characters on the verge of becoming outright criminals to see their goals achieved.
Earning the top prize for documentaries at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, Meru is a death-defying mountain climbing documentary that will keep you gripping the edge of your seat and questioning the sanity of everyone who was involved in making it.
The film focuses on three friends who try and scale the supposedly “unclimbable” Meru, a mountain at the base of the Indian Ganges river that features a perilous “shark fin” peak which is known for it’s crumbling surface and fragile footholds. The men attempt to conquer the mountain and fail, cheating death a number of times along the way, including surviving an avalanche that left one of them badly wounded. Broken but not defeated, the trio attempts to complete the feat one last time.
Meru is a stunning documentary that gives an intimate and personal account of a harrowing journey and demonstrates the amazing things that can be accomplished with sheer will and determination.
2. Chuck Norris vs. Communism
In 1985 Romania, freedom of creative expression was at an all-time low as media and entertainment was heavily policed under communist ruler Nicolae Ceausescu. But through the introduction and popularization of the video home system (VHS), the catalyst for a powerful civil movement was soon revealed.
This is the story at the heart of Chuck Norris vs. Communism, an inspiring and nostalgic documentary-narrative amalgamation that takes an in-depth look at the guerrilla movie-smuggling movement that claims to have brought down the Romanian Communist regime in 1989.
Although much of the world took American mainstream films for granted, at the time, the Romanian people were filled with a sense of luminous wonder and idolization seeing American culture portrayed on screen. To those under Ceausescu’s regime, Western film was an escape, a glimpse into a looser political climate where pop culture and commerce flowed freely and ideas were uncensored. The smuggled VHS tapes weren’t just idle entertainment, they were instruments of morale and were often used as bartering currency to bribe officials and keep the movement in motion; in the face of adversity and oppression, they became artifacts of an uprising.
Chuck Norris vs. Communism gives a very interesting perspective on how Western film was viewed from a foreign party, demonstrating the far-reaching ability that film—even something as uncomplicated as a Chuck Norris action picture—has to unify audiences and give hope to a generation.
When filmmaker Lyric R. Cabral made the discovery that her Harlem neighborhood friend was an FBI informant, the story eventually grew into an amazing investigative piece that’s told in real time and chronicles of the first-ever active FBI counter-terrorism sting operation.
Mounting essentially their own infiltration operation, they follow “Shariff,” the 63-year-old black revolutionary turned FBI informant, as he begins to befriend a suspected Taliban sympathizer. The thing is, Shariff hasn’t yet told his FBI superiors about the rapport, and tensions begin to mount as the layers of truth and deceit lead to some shady backgrounds and shocking methods. (T)Error is brilliant in its deconstruction of governmental failure and the underlying systems in the war on terror that are not only failing to keep America safe, but also impacting the entire geopolitical arena. This is a break out first feature for Cabral and an absolute must-see.