Hyperallergic began devoting dedicated coverage to documentary this year, producing some terrific articles in the process. Nonfiction art is currently blossoming and evolving like never before. Modern tools allow both it and experimental cinema to probe new directions for the form. We polled some of our film contributors on their favorites from this past year, then collected their picks as this list. Some of these titles can be streamed right now, while others are currently in limbo. Keep an eye out for when they may crop up in theaters, online, or in galleries. —Dan Schindel
1. No Data Plan
There’s a moment in No Data Plan when director Miko Revereza, in voiceover, recalls the feeling of panic. He’s traveling from Los Angeles to New York by train, and right as he pulls into the station in Buffalo, a white Border Patrol SUV pulls up. The camera shakes and jolts its way around a train platform, sketching out the frantic movements of its operator, who seems to be running. “This is it. This is where they catch up to me,” Revereza, who is undocumented, remembers thinking. And while they don’t, the impression you’re left with is that they could — anytime they want. It’s precisely that feeling of forever looking over your shoulder that No Data Plan captures so well. Composed of handheld footage Revereza shot in stations and train cars throughout his trip, it offers an essayistic portal into the circumstances one must navigate as an undocumented person. Meditative and observational, the film upends the idea of the travelogue, focusing instead on the tension in how individuals like Revereza, his mother (whose voice also comes in through the use of non-sync voiceover), and others he encounters have to move to avoid detection. Yet what’s most stunning about the film is how quiet it is. It simmers slowly and sits with uncertainty, reminding viewers that to be undocumented is to live in a constant state of waiting. —Dessane Lopez Cassell
2. My First Film
This is beyond basic description, pulling you into a truly innovative cinematic experience from the moment you get your first AirDropped Instagram story. Told in fragments —scenes from an unfinished feature, emails, family videos, and an ongoing text window that director Zia Anger types into silently in real time — it feels as cathartic as it does casual, perfectly scripted like a true stream of consciousness. Anger weaves together a beautiful web of disappointments, pleasures, confessionals, and lies in a performance like no other this decade, solidifying her as one of the most unique voices in cinema. —Juan Barquin
Read our original review.
An ecstatic, dreamlike look at African American representation, both real and imagined. Garrett Bradley initiates a dynamic conversation with the past, attempting to recreate a lost history through a series of 12 vignettes interwoven with scenes from the unfinished 1913 film Lime Kiln Club Field Day. America blurs the lines between fiction and documentary, looking forward and backward in time, resulting in a wholly novel and invigorating experience. —Susannah Gruder
Read our interview with director Garrett Bradley.
4. Amazing Grace
Aretha Franklin knew the songs she grew up singing in her pastor father’s church wouldn’t sound the same in a recording studio. So in 1972, she recorded what became the best-selling gospel album of all time at the New Temple Missionary Baptist in Los Angeles. Amazing Grace is the soul-stirring concert film director Sydney Pollack made of her performance. While the cameramen seem woefully out of step with the organic rhythms of the black church and therefore not always well-positioned to best record the spontaneous moments of the choir and the congregation, this is an archival gem that preserves Franklin’s genius in a way that defies words. It can only be felt in one’s bones. —Beandrea July
5. The Image Book
At 89 years old and over 40 feature films into a towering oeuvre, Jean-Luc Godard is still breaking new ground. Following his 3D experiment Goodbye to Language, he continues in his essay mode with this characteristically discursive and dense investigation into the political resonances of representation and cinema. Featuring a mélange of drastically edited film, text, and music sources, all with an especially intricate use of 7.1 stereo sound, it showcases a filmmaker as tenacious and brilliant as ever. —Ryan Swen
Not content to simply let the instantly canonized live stream of her 2018 Coachella performances stand by themselves, Beyoncé radically reworked video of the concert with behind-the-scenes and private footage to create an impressionistic rumination on black history and art, as well as an autobiography. The result is a powerful statement of the personal as political, finding a throughline between the singer’s artistic growth, motherhood, and increasingly political music that feels neither vain nor oversimplified. It’s such a radical, unique achievement in the concert film genre that the fact that it features one of the most sublime performances of the modern era feels almost incidental. —Jake Cole
7. Midnight Traveler
Both lightning and a message in a bottle. A tender family portrait counted out in a devastating three-year odyssey, director Hassan Fazili captures the very essence of survival. He dissects not only what it means to live as part of the global refugee crisis, but more importantly, what it takes to process it as well. —Poulomi Das
The shadow of a camera drone flirts with the threshold of visibility on the lefthand side of the frame as it widens, zooming out into an expanse of grassland. Fluctuating reds and oranges — a finger over the camera aperture. Enigmatic text: “TUNNELS,” “FAHRENHEIT.” Sometimes it’s all white. Bagpipes are deployed in service of sounds you’ve probably never attributed to bagpipes before, punctuating snippets of voiceover recollection. This genderqueer safari resonates even if you can’t quite understand what’s going on. Charlotte Prodger’s film for this year’s Venice Biennale stitches together the moments that are typically excised during editing in a delightfully opaque affront to every first-year film professor’s admonition that good directors “show, not tell.” —Adina Glickstein
Read our original review.
9. Black Mother
There are explicit shots of a Black woman, presumably Jamaican, giving birth to a child. The image holds nothing back. The woman, straddling the fine line between the mystical and the so obviously natural, the sacred and the profane, carries with her Jamaica’s history, its people, its culture. This crushing responsibility, to be both a vessel of life and of desire, frames Khalik Allah’s film, and calls into question the weight a Black mother carries. —Zoe Guy
10. 3 Faces
A road trip that doubles as a tribute to the late cinematic titan Abbas Kiarostami, 3 Faces navigates the rural terrain of Iran with director Jafar Panahi’s infamous defiant nature. It expresses his commitment to courage through themes of gender, tradition, and violence. —Rooney Elmi
11. The Hottest August
Taking random samplings from interviews conducted all over New York, from stoops to startups, Brett Story weaves this rich and variegated human data into a persuasive, troubling work of cultural geography. A robust and lovely NYC movie, The Hottest August is also deeply of its moment, filmed at it was during the “new normal” of August 2017, with Hurricane Harvey gathering strength and white supremacists marching across wall-mounted greasy spoon flatscreens. A sense of wary powerlessness hangs in the air, as palpable as the humidity. —Mark Asch
Read our original review.
12. Varda by Agnes
In her last film, released posthumously in the US, Agnès Varda tells us about her life, her activism, and her art, all wistfully underscored by an acute awareness of her impending death. It’s a masterclass in letting go, but using every bit of what’s left of your life to raise more hell and create more art. —Bedatri D. Choudhury
Read our original review.