We may crave escapism more than ever these days, but some of the most effective movies of 2018 were documentaries—four of which made my list of top 10 favorites. I can’t claim these are the year’s best movies, but they’re the ones I found most arresting, admirable, and/or entertaining!
Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal write themselves terrific roles in this love letter to the diverse culture and community of Oakland, turning in virtuoso performances as buds confronting issues of race, class, identity, and their own volatile, longtime friendship. Rookie director Carlos López Estrada makes bold, stylistic choices, and while the story can be intense, it’s told with plenty of sharp humor.
The superhero movie of the year, this documentary by Julie Cohen and Betsy West celebrates legendary Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. As cunning as Loki, she wields her opinion with the precision of Thor’s hammer, and achieves actual change, fighting for gender equality under the law as she has for five decades of groundbreaking decisions.
This Queen biopic, directed by Bryan Singer (later replaced by Dexter Fletcher) is a nonstop joyride for Queen fans. Central is the dynamic performance of Rami Malek, unorthodox enough to embody Freddie Mercury’s outsider persona, yet soulful enough to engage us in the singer’s lifelong quest to become himself.
TEA WITH THE DAMES
In Roger Michell’s irresistible documentary, four great British actresses (Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Joan Plowright, and Eileen Atkins, each of them honored with the title of Dame and all longtime friends) get together for an afternoon of tea and conversation—always trenchant, often hilarious—about life, love, friendship, and the craft of acting.
THREE IDENTICAL STRANGERS
Tim Wardle’s engrossing documentary follows the true story of three young men who met by chance and discovered they were triplets, separated from each other and their birth mother as infants. None of them had any idea that the other two existed. How this happened—and the darker question of why—makes Wardle’s movie as gripping as any thriller.
THE HAPPY PRINCE
Rupert Everett wrote, directed and stars in this remarkable portrait of ruined nobility, disturbing in its intensity as it digs beneath both the surface glitz of Oscar Wilde’s fizzy celebrity as a dramatist, and his blackened reputation as an infamous sodomite, to explore the complex personality within.
HEARTS BEAT LOUD
Nick Offerman and Kiersey Clemons are wholly engaging in Brett Haley’s gently-calibrated story about a middle-aged father and his teenage daughter who bond over a shared love of songwriting and playing music together. A simple scenario brought to life by nuanced performances and a light and easy directorial touch.
The excruciating angst of being 13 is captured to poignant comic perfection in this first feature film from Bo Burnham. Most remarkable is Burnham’s insight into young female psychology, and the eggshell-strewn minefield of parent-child relationships. Elsie Fisher is galvanizing as an eighth-grader enduring her last week of middle school.
Based on an acerbic Nick Hornby novel, this story of a middle-aged music fan obsessed with a has-been rocker is a wry divertimento for three voices: the obsessed fan (Chris O’Dowd), his neglected, fed-up girlfriend (Rose Byrne), and the reclusive rocker himself (Ethan Hawke), the fantasy figure whose unexpected appearance in real life throws all of their worlds into comic turmoil.
WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR?
Filmmaker Morgan Neville shows us the radical side of Fred Rogers (of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood), not only in the way he tapped into the darkest parts of the cultural zeitgeist to help kids cope with them, but also insisting that every child is unique, valid and deserving of respect.
Honorable Mention: Monsters and Men, Isle Of Dogs, Black Panther, Leaning Into the Wind, We the Animals.