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The Best Documentaries of 2018

We’ve assembled the best nonfiction films of the year.
Best Documentaries
By  · Published on December 22nd, 2018

15. Seeing Allred

Seeing Allred

Documentarians Roberta Grossman and Sophie Sartain know that their subject, feminist lawyer Gloria Allred, has long-since been cast as a shrew and a sensationalist in the eyes of the public. So they start from the beginning, dutifully tracking the trailblazer through her early days, the memories that informed her career, and current battles and revealing the surprisingly warm person beneath Allred’s memorably tough exterior. The filmmakers have an eye for a great cinematic story and present Allred’s life as such, framing her cases within a context that reminds us of the all-too-recent era during which women, LGBT people, and people of color weren’t seen as full citizens. Allred was in the thick of it during these fights for equality, and Grossman and Sartain elevate her story to a riveting lesson in hard-won democracy. – VE

14. The King

The King

Somehow, Eugene Jarecki got a hold of Elvis Presley’s 1963 Rolls Royce and hit the road with it. Dropping characters like Alec Baldwin, James Carville, and Emmylou Harris in the backseat, the film attempts to understand the cultural earthquake caused by the arrival of that shy guy from Tupelo, Mississippi and how his rise and fall narrative might mimic that of the nation that birthed him. I’m not quite sure Jarecki nails that theme, but neither is he. This confrontational conversation with The King’s legacy is the best dissection of his myth yet. – BG

13. Love Means Zero

Love Means Zero

Following his 2007 Sundance Grand Jury Prize-winning Brazilian crime exposé Manda Bala (Send a Bullet) with a seemingly futile face off against defamed tennis coach Nick Bollettieri nearly a decade later may appear an odd choice for director Jason Kohn, but the resulting sports doc is nothing short of cinematically spectacular. In the early 2000s, Kohn served as research assistant to Errol Morris on The Fog of War and his TV series First Person. The influence shines through in absurdist detail, as the film centers around an extensive interview with Bollettieri that plays like its own epic tennis match with the director serving hot spikes and the cocksure coach countering with his own entertainingly bumptious backhands as they navigate his long and winding career as drill sergeant and mentor to stars like Monica Seles, Jim Courier, the Williams sisters, and Andre Agassi, whom he’s never been able to quite recover from. Hysterical and heartbreaking in equal measure, Kohn’s film seemed to slip under the radar during its summer release on Showtime, but this one is not to miss. – JS

12. Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda

Ryuichi Sakamoto Coda

Director Stephen Schible grants us access into the process of Ryuichi Sakamoto. It is a privilege we shouldn’t take for granted. The film drifts in and out of past and present, exploring the evolution of Sakamoto’s music and the philosophy that steers it. A piano is a tremendous construction of humanity, as is the computer that can manipulate it, but a downpour of rain contains as much emotion. Like the best portraits of artists, the experience of the documentary forever enhances future watches of his work, from Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence to The Revenant. – BG

11. Love, Gilda

Love Gilda

Gilda Radner was always smiling. This is the first thing you notice when watching Love, Gilda, aside from the fact that the mere mention of the late comedian’s name strikes modern funny folks like Bill Hader, Melissa McCarthy, and Amy Poehler with reverent awe. As brought to life through extensive old footage, narration, and — best of all — personal writings that indicate a talent for seriousness, as well as comedy, Radner’s life, is presented as a remarkable case of making lemonade. Her love for laughter and the company of others shines through scene by scene, even as her depression, bulimia, and eventual cancer diagnosis attempt to zap the life from her. Love, Gilda is an entertaining, informative, surprisingly personal, and above all life-affirming doc thanks to director Lisa Dapolito’s gentle understanding of Radner as both a deeply feeling human and, for too short a while, America’s brightest beam of sunshine. – VE

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