Third Coast Review Ranks Best Documentary Films Of 2020

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As I’ve said before, the reason I separate documentaries into their own Best of the Year list is not because I feel they should be judged any differently than feature films, but because I want to put as many great docs in the spotlight as I possibly can, and trying to do that and still limit my main list to 40 or 50 movies is impossible. I get such a charge from a great documentary, whether it’s on a subject I know a great deal about or if it covers ground I’d never even considered in terms of perspective, information, or fuel for outrage.

That being said, I’ll fully admit a shortcoming in my selections this year: I didn’t watch any docs this year that dealt with the COVID-19 pandemic. Granted, there weren’t that many (Totally Under Control and 76 Days being the most notable), but I feel like we’re going to be bombarded with films on the subject of the current pandemic—in particular, America’s severe mishandling of it—over the next couple of years, and I just wanted to have a little distance from the threat of the coronavirus before I dove into documentaries on the subject. I may feel differently in 2021, but I couldn’t bring myself to look directly into the eyes of the subject in a 2020 film.

Part of the thrill of being a living, thinking, evolving human being is taking in new things and experiences, and allowing this newness to inspire us with fresh ideas. That’s the standard to which I hold documentaries: don’t just move me or teach me, but change me in some fundamental way. Here are 20 titles I think do just that…

20. Vinyl Nation (Dirs: Christopher Boone & Kevin Smokler) — Read my full review

19. Creem: American’s Only Rock ‘N’ Roll Magazine (Dir: Scott Crawford)

18. I Am Greta (Dir: Nathan Grossman)

17. Assassins (Dir: Ryan White)

16. The Truffle Hunters (Dirs: Michael Dweck & Gregory Kershaw)

15. MLK/FBI (Dir: Sam Pollard)

14. Beastie Boys Story (Dir: Spike Jonze)

13. The Way I See It (Dir: Dawn Porter) — Read my full review

12. The Painter and the Thief (Dir: Benjamin Ree)

11. Zappa (Dir: Alex Winter)

10. Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets (Dirs: Bill Ross IV & Turner Ross)

9. Crip Camp (Dirs: James Lebrecht & Nicole Newnham)

8. Time (Dir: Garrett Bradley)

7. Dick Johnson Is Dead (Dir: Kirsten Johnson)

6. The Dissident (Dir: Bryan Fogel)

5. On the Record (Dirs: Kirby Dick & Amy Ziering)

4. Boys State (Dirs: Amanda McBaine & Jesse Moss)

3. City Hall (Dir: Frederick Wiseman) — Read my full review

2. David Byrne’s American Utopia (Dir: Spike Lee)

1. Collective (Dir: Alexander Nanau)

Third Coast Review is Chicago’s locally curated website, specializing in Chicago-area arts and culture coverage. Read more at

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