The Best Documentaries of 2017


According to Chinese astrology, 2017 was the year of the Fire Rooster.

This pairing of element + animal hasn’t been seen since 1957, and brought with it the promise of passion, warmth, spark, and enthusiasm. I don’t know about you, but I didn’t see much of that this year. I saw flames, sure, but definitely not the welcoming kind. So instead, I’m gonna go out on a limb here and declare this the year of the documentary. Good ones, bad ones, mediocre ones—I watched them all. Does that make me smarter than you? No, it just makes me unemployed. Here are some of the best ones I saw.

Jim and Andy: The Great Beyond

Recently, footage of a wide-eyed, wizard-bearded Jim Carrey ranting on about the meaninglessness of our lives as we float on tectonic plates led many to assume the comedic actor has well and truly lost his marbles. Jim and Andy confirms he never had them in the first place. Directed by Chris Smith and produced by Spike Jonze, the documentary uses 100 hours of footage from the set of the 1999 film Man on the Moon when Carrey played became comedian Andy Kaufman. The footage is insane. Carrey is insane. It’s method acting beyond anything you can comprehend, and leaves you teetering on two opposing tectonic plates: One where you think Carrey is the biggest asshole on the planet, and the other where you are convinced he is the greatest actor who has ever lived.

Cuba and the Cameraman

Filmmaker Jon Alpert began documenting Cuba and its politics over 45 years ago. Enthralled by the people he met on his first trip there, Alpert continued to travel to the Caribbean island and check in with them for almost half a century, leaving him with over 1,000 hours of footage. One relationship he formed early on was with none other than Cuban leader, Fidel Castro. In fact, in Fidel’s early years of power, he and Alpert enjoyed a blossoming bromance. The footage of a young, charismatic Castro showing Alpert around his hotel is incredible to watch, as is the candid footage of him on a plane to New York, but it’s three farming brothers—Angel, Gregorio and Cristobal—that really capture your heart.

Night School

Ever cried so much your face wouldn’t dry? By the time the credits rolled on Night School, I’d used my sleeve, half a roll of paper towel and my fancy sofa throw blanket to try to absorb the metric tonnes of tears I’d shed. Directed by Andrew Cohn, Night School follows three adult learners, Greg, Melissa and Shynika as they head back to school to attempt to earn their high school diplomas. All three of the documentary’s subjects dropped out of school due to the kind of extenuating circumstances most of us couldn’t even comprehend, but no story will move you quite like Melissa’s, who had her first child at 14-years-old. Now in her early 50’s, she is determined to finish high school, just to show herself that she is capable of it. And my God, how she tries. Her determination, her pride, her resilience. Honestly, humans scare me sometimes when it comes to what they can endure and overcome.

G.L.O.W: The Story of the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling

Okay, so this one actually came out a few years ago, but it only became available on Netflix this year, enjoying a pretty limited release before that. Please do not confuse this with the glossy Netflix series of the same name, which is based on this documentary. The film chronicles the rise and fall of an insanely cool, low budget women’s wrestling show called G.L.O.W that ran on TV from 1986—1990. The craziest part (and there were so many crazy parts) is that most of the women who became wrestlers were actually just aspiring models and actresses who were called to audition based on their looks, and ended up pile driving each other in the ring for four years. The bond they formed was almost as strong as their upper bodies by the time the show abruptly ended almost two decades ago, and the documentary catches up with many of the women since their glory days. Prepare to go down a rabbit hole on YouTube watching old eps of the original show once you finish this doc.

Kedi

Kedi is a documentary about cats. Seven cats, to be precise. If you don’t like cats, will you like this documentary? Probably not. But there’s a bigger issue at play here; why don’t you like cats? Too smart, playful and loving for you? Whatever, it’s your problem, not mine. Cats are great, and so is this film that follows them around Istanbul, Turkey. You get to know their personalities, their surroundings, and their owners and carers, who are interviewed at length. It’s not all ‘oohs and ahs’, either. There’s actually some profound insights to be found in this film, like when Benju’s owner says, “Dogs think people are God, but cats don’t,” because dogs are stupid and cats aren’t. Also, when another owner muses, “If I hadn’t met cats, I would’ve had a very troubled childhood, because interacting only with people is not enough and especially difficult with grown ups.” Amen/meow.

Long Shot

Look, TBH, I could take or leave this actual documentary, but the story behind it deserves all the attention in the world. Directed by Jacob LaMendola, Long Shot tells the tale of Juan Catalan, who was arrested and charged with murder in 2003 despite his innocence. If convicted, the death penalty was on the table. His alibi was that he was at the Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles with his daughter the night of the crime. But how could he prove it? The answer, of course, is Larry David. Wait, what? Just watch it. Life is so nuts.

Nobody Speak: Hulk Hogan, Gawker And Trials Of A Free Press

Full disclosure: I was a huge Hulk Hogan fan growing up. My dad, brothers and I would clear the shelves of the local Video Ezy (RIP) of all their WWF (now known as WWE) releases. Now older, wiser, and woker, I recognise Hulk Hogan, whose real name is Terry Gene Bollea, for the piece of shit he really is. This film is based around his epic takedown of news and culture website Gawker (RIP), who he sent bankrupt after they published the sex tape he made with his best friend’s wife. No, that is not a typo. The story is as ridiculous as you’d expect, but it’s also an interesting and revealing look into censorship in the media too.

Hotel Coolgardie

Hotel Coolgardie is heavy on so many levels, and raises some serious questions about Australia’s whole ‘macho boy’s club’ mentality. The film follows two young Finnish backpackers, Lina and Steph, who work at a local pub in the remote mining town of Coolgardie, Western Australia. The local men who frequent the pub are so rough, sexually aggressive and, well, drunk all the time, that you’d think it was a parody. But it’s all real, and it’s happening right under our noses. This should be required viewing for all Australians.

Dishonourable Mention: Gaga: Five Foot Two

Look, there were more than a handful of forgettable documentaries made this year, but here’s one that I wish I could wipe from my memory forever. The fact that Lena Dunham dubbed Lady Gaga’s self-indulgent, 100-minute long advert “one of the most revealing acts of feminine rebellion you will ever witness” makes my blood boileth over. There are too many reasons to even try to explain why it’s actually the opposite, but here’s a quick ditty:

If you are a feminist rebelling against the unrealistic beauty standards imposed on women by a patriarchal society, why are you putting makeup on your buttcheeks that are peeking out of your shorts? So radical. To be fair, I rolled my eyes so much throughout this film that I was probably watching the back of my skull 70% of the time. My patience for this kind of shit is much shorter than five foot two. The documentary focuses on two things: how talented, famous, and revolutionary Lady Gaga is, and her battle with fibromyalgia. The latter is nothing to joke about, but the part in the film where she visits her doctor while getting her makeup done (not joking) and says her pain is global made me want to drop her in the middle of Syria and show her the real pain of the globe.

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