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The 10 Best Documentaries of 2015

17 January 2016 | Features, Film Lists | by Ioana Trifu

best documentaries 2015

After a year full of so many documentaries about compelling topics, it is difficult to compile a list of the ten best documentaries of 2015, but there are certainly a few that stood out. While many of the films were biographical films of well-known personalities, there were also a few that succeeded in bringing forward powerful stories of ordinary people.

The power of documentary film is that of exploring situations and lifestories usually unavailable to the general public, a fact that has popularized documentary film more and more, year after year. What drives us towards documentaries is curiosity, borne from our thirst for knowledge, an immortal trait of humankind. The films on this list did the best job in provoking the viewers’ voyeuristic disposition.


10. Finders Keepers (Bryan Carberry, Clay Tweel)

Finders Keepers

This is a highly entertaining film about what appears to be an ordinary American reality TV subject. Shannon Whisnant, amateur entrepreneur as he calls himself, buys a storage locker in which he finds a human foot, hidden in a grill. In his attempt to gain fame over this finding, the authorities intervene and they find the owner of the storage space, and the leg, John Wood.

The film is a tragicomedy exploring the life beyond the absurd debate of who is the proper owner of the foot. The foot becomes an obsession, and the film interestingly documents its importance to the parties involved. John Wood’s family is interviewed, revealing the history of hardships the family has had to face.

The film quickly transforms into an intimate family portrait, put in contrast with Whisnant’s own troubles, which he seems to disregard, at least in front of the camera. In the beginning of the film, a montage raises the sense of suspense surrounding what happened to the foot, but as the story develops, the ultimate question becomes, “Did the characters get what they wanted, and are they happy?”

Once again, the subject proves its bitter sweetness when the two main characters’ real emotions are exposed in the end of the film in a raw manner.


9. Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (Alex Gibney)

Going Clear Scientology and the Prison of Belief

Alex Gibney returned in 2015 with another controversial subject in the insightful Going Clear. Interviewing members of the Church of Scientology, he exposes the history, practices, and abuses of the cult. It is a highly informative film, but also filled with stories that generate something between sadness, disgust, rage, and shock.

After hearing from ex-members of the cult about the torturing, blackmailing, and the tax exemption, it is hard to believe that such a thing exists or to comprehend the persuasive power of such an organization.


8. The Wolfpack (Crystal Moselle)

The Wolfpack

What makes The Wolfpack so astonishing is the uniqueness of its subject, the Angulo family, who live in isolation from the outside world in an apartment in New York City. The secrets and issues that are brought to the surface are difficult to accept, but the process has also provided an escape route for the six long-haired Angulo brothers who grew up on movies and movie scenes reenactments.

The Wolfpack is the perfect example of the power of a documentary to change the lives of those involved in the process of making it: some of the boys moved out of the house and found jobs in the entertainment industry, but all of them have become a point of interest for the American public, offering them opportunities to meet their cinema idols and make a life of their own.


7. Seymour: An Introduction (Ethan Hawke)

Seymour An Introduction

Seymour Bernstein is a happy ex-performer, now a piano teacher. His portrait is constructed in Ethan Hawke’s documentary debut in a genuine manner, and the greatness of the documentary stands in its ability to inspire the viewer. Listening to this charming man, we dive into his life, discovering his personality, due to his openness to sharing his thoughts.

His words of wisdom, his recounting of remarkable life events, and his reflections on creativity and art make this film seem like an intimate conversation over tea. The film is highly enjoyable and warm, a perfect combination of an overall uplifting message and beautiful music, some of which is performed by Bernstein himself.


6. What Happened, Miss Simone? (Liz Garbus)

What Happened, Miss Simone

Another insightful documentary of 2015 is What Happened, Miss Simone?, a look into the life of jazz singer and Black Power icon Nina Simone. The meticulousness of this film is striking, as it reaches into the deepest corners of the singer’s personal life, bringing to surface questionable actions, obsessions, relationships, and habits. Its nomination for Best Documentary Feature at the upcoming Oscars is understandable to say the least.

The film is an important piece, also because it documents Nina Simone’s transformation from classical pianist as a child, to jazz singer, and then activist. She played a significant role, both in music history and civil rights activism. But more than that, she was a genius suffering from a mental disease. Her daughter and her life-long friend and colleague provide insightful information of who she was in her struggling private life.



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  • Ivan Milke

    Best musical documentary last year
    “Theory of Obscurity: a film about The Residents” (Don Hardy)

    Avant-garde geniuses or the world’s longest-running rock
    novelty act? For those not previously converted or exposed, “Theory of
    Obscurity” will leave that big question hanging. Its survey of the
    Residents’ singular 40-year career — marked by anonymity as much as
    eccentricity — offers plenty of eye- and ear-catching
    stimulation without really making the case for this large body of work
    having the depth to match its breadth. Still, fans and newbies alike
    will be delighted by much of Don Hardy’s documentary, which draws on an
    expansive archive of surreal expressions from an (alleged) quartet whose
    creative emphasis was as much visual as sonic from the start. Minor
    theatrical exposure is possible before a healthy career in niche

    Their story told by various fans and collaborators — at least some of
    whom almost certainly are members of the “band” — the Residents
    themselves have never been identified by name. Their roster and number
    may well have changed over the years, but their primary image has
    remained the same: four figures in tuxedos with giant eyeballs as heads.
    There were rumors over the years that their ranks included some very
    famous people. But the likelier story told here is that they were
    spawned by a group of creative misfits from near Shreveport, La., who
    were drawn to leave the conservative South and head toward the
    countercultural haven of the San Francisco Bay Area around 1970.

  • Viktor Ivanov

    “Winter on fire”! It should be high on every list for documentaries for the last year. And I’m shocked that, it didn’t even make yours…

    • Gilles Beleuze

      i wouldn’t consider Winter on Fire one of the top 2015 documentaries. for me the documentary lacks something essential which is political discussion. they chose to vilanize the government’s military forces instead of showing who controls it. it pictures the evil on people who are merely obeying orders. when someone gets hurt or dies, the movie blames the military forces, not the one who ordered it to shoot to kill.

  • Afinso Sousa Soares

    Racing Extinction 2015 is on top of my list

  • Slobodan Cedic

    This one is very good!

    • It is indeed, I highly enjoyed it. But it’s a documentary TV series, not a documentary film 🙂

  • Jewow

    Jaco (2015)???

  • Pingback: List Friday: The 10 Best Documentaries of 2015 – reviews by jo()