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)
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)
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)
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 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)
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.