Between social media and gossip sites, it sure feels like we know everything about the rich and famous. And yet in 2022’s crop of excellent documentaries, one dominant theme was celebrity intimacy. People who spend a lot of time in the public eye often lose control of their own story as the press and the public push them into soap operas filled with romance, betrayal, heroism and villainy. In film after film in 2022, the celebs pushed back, took us deep into their mental health issues and family traumas, and explained how hard it is to always please fans and critics.
It is possible to make a “10 best documentaries of 2022” just from those films: Jennifer Lopez: Halftime (on the stress of putting together a Super Bowl show), Louis Armstrong’s Black & Blues (which tells the story of a jazz hero through his private archives), Lucy and Desi (a look back at one of TV’s most volatile couples), Nothing can stand against it (follow the rise and fall of Sinéad O’Connor), The return of Tanya Tucker (about a country music legend who reluctantly returns to basics), Selena Gomez: My Mind & Me (a terrifying look at a superstar’s performance anxieties), Spring Awakening: the ones you’ve known (in which the now famous stars of a Broadway smash reflect on their youth), Stutz (in which Jonah Hill performs both his therapist and his own therapy), Sr. (Robert Downey Jr.’s simultaneous salute to his filmmaker father and lament over the drug-fueled lifestyle they both once led), and Tony Hawk: Until the wheels fall off (a study of athletic obsession).
As it happens, all of them fell just short of the final cut on our list. But their spirit is represented by some of the list makers below. More importantly, all of these films (including the one above) show how great documentary storytellers find original and illuminating angles on material we think we already know. Whether it’s celebrities, gun violence, systemic racism, addiction, or love, these movies made ordinary issues feel new.
10. The princess
The British royal family has been in the news a lot in 2022, perhaps as much as they have been since the very public rise and fall of the romance between the current King Charles III and his late ex-wife, Diana Spencer. Ed Perkins’ surprisingly intense The Princess tells Diana’s story from her first introduction to the public as a bride-to-be to her later embrace of philanthropy and social activism—and then her eventual death while trying to flee relentless paparazzi. Using only news clips and home movie footage, Perkins emphasizes the pressures of fame, evident in the constant questions and camera clicks Diana encountered. It’s a cautionary tale about what happens when the press and the public turn a real person into a fantasy character.
The Princess flows through HBO’s highest value.
9. All the beauty and the bloodshed
Photographer Nan Goldin rose to prominence in the New York art world by documenting the communities in which she lived in the 1970s and 1980s: the queer people, the punks, the sex workers and the political radicals. The documentary by Laura Poitras All the beauty and the bloodshed is partly about how Goldin’s creative journey was shaped by living among misfits, artists who built their own scenes, then held them through the ravages of AIDS and drug addiction. But the film is also about the uproar the artist has caused as an activist by demanding that museums cut ties with the Sacklers, a well-to-do family of art patrons who made much of their fortune through the opioid epidemic. Poitras insightfully connects these pieces of Goldin’s life, showing how grassroots organizing and radical honesty drive them.
All the beauty and the bloodshed is currently playing in limited theatrical release.
8. Is that black enough for you?!?
This exciting fusion of cultural history and passionate personal essay is the work of Elvis Mitchell, a veteran film critic who uses the heyday of 1970s blaxploitation films such as Super Fly and Foxy Brown as a way to dig deep into the complicated history of black representation in American cinema. Because of Is that black enough for you?!?clips from smash-hit action pictures like Shaft interspersed with scenes from long-forgotten oddities, all interspersed with commentary by Black showbiz legends like Whoopi Goldberg and Samuel L. Jackson. But the most important voice and perspective here belongs to Mitchell, whose vast cinema knowledge and experience allows him to find the greater meaning in even the smallest moments.
Is that black enough for you?!? flows through Netflix.
7. The Janes
The most obvious selling point for Tia Lessin and Emma Pildes’ thoughtful look back at the history of abortion rights is that it is suddenly relevant given the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn its previous Roe v. Wade decision. But treating the film as homework would do a disservice The Janes, which is less about abortion per se than it is about how feminism flourished in the 1960s, thanks to underground networks that tried to raise the secrets ladies whispered to each other and make them common knowledge. The surviving members of the secret Chicago health care organization JANE tell stories not only of connecting desperate women with helpful doctors, but of letting those sisters know they were not alone.
The Janes flows through HBO’s highest value.
6. 2. Chance
Too many true crime documentaries lately just play up the dirty details of sex, violence and chicanery. And too many are being split into multiple parts to pad program hours on cable and streaming services. Ramin Bahrani is strange, surprising 2nd Chance runs a refreshingly zippy 89 minutes, and although the story is full of death and conspiracies, it is more of a pointed character sketch about a colorful bulletproof vest tycoon who sold himself as a friend to law enforcement and the army while his business was put alive by cutting corners. Although often funny and poignant, this film is really about how we define “criminal”, and about the people we as a society – rightly or wrongly – deem worth protecting.
2nd Chance currently playing in limited theatrical release; it will stream in 2023 (date TBA) on Showtime Anytime.
5. Fire of Love
When French volcanologists Katia and Maurice Krafft died on the job in 1991, they left behind a voluminous archive of notes, tapes and photographs, which collectively provided insight into the decades they had spent their lives risking to understand one of nature’s most dangerous phenomena. But the Kraffts’ real legacy was their film and video footage, which capture striking images of smoke and lava, dwarfing their vulnerable human figures. Sarah Dosa Fire of love set those photos—full of searing color and eerie landscapes, all abstract and strange—to a haunting score by Air’s Nicolas Godin and narration by Miranda July, and turns this couple’s romantic adventures into something wonderfully cinematic.
Fire of love flows through Disney Plus.
4. We Met in Virtual Reality
A welcome counterpoint to alarmist takes on alienation and extremism in the age of social media, Joe Hunting’s lively animated documentary We Met in Virtual Reality considers the ways in which online interaction has been beneficial for people with physical, neurological, psychological or logistical disabilities. Taken entirely within the online community VRChat, the film celebrates the real relationships that develop within virtual spaces, and celebrates the creativity and bonhomie that lead users to build so many striking meeting spaces populated by sexy and/or whimsical goofy humans – animal hybrids.
We Met in Virtual Reality flows through HBO’s highest value.
Director Margaret Brown is best known for her nuanced non-fiction films about southern culture, such as her excellent 2008 documentary The order of myths. In front of Descendant, Brown took her cameras to a coastal Alabama community, where historians and amateur treasure hunters were searching for an infamous shipwreck. In 2019, the discovery of the Clotilda – the last known slave ship to reach American shores, arriving in the middle of the 19th century – caused a lot of interest and conversation internationally. But for this film, it’s important that all the attention gave the Black Alabamans of “Africatown” a chance to reflect on how the stories of their ancestors have been largely erased from the historical record, leaving only folklore and anecdotes. as the way in which the community preserves its truths.
Descendant flows through Netflix.
2. Riotsville, United States
In the late 1960s, civil unrest in America led to a national debate about possible solutions, and to two major initiatives—both covered in Sierra Pettengill’s remarkable and revealing Riotsville United States. In one corner, a bipartisan commission studied the causes of the riots, and found that the best way to reduce crime and violence would be to improve education, introduce work programs and recognize institutional racism. In another corner, a coalition of military and law enforcement leaders constructed fake city blocks in the middle of nowhere and used them to train soldiers and officers to crack the skulls of hippies and ethnic minorities. Pettengill’s film, composed almost entirely of archival footage and TV clips, is set more than 50 years ago, but feels like it’s about the 2020s.
Riotsville, United States is available for purchase from Amazon, Appleand Google Play.
1. Moonage Daydream
Don’t come to Brett Morgen’s expansive, sensational movie experience Moonage Daydream expects to learn the basic facts about the late pop star and experimental artist David Bowie. With the immense help of the Bowie estate – which gave the director access to a large archive of audio and video – Morgen has produced a kaleidoscopic 140-minute film, mixing old film clips and cranked-up rock music in a dizzying swirl of sound and vision. The film describes the frequent metamorphoses of its subject as a performer and a public figure as the work of a brilliant actor, disappearing into the role of an eccentric celebrity as a way to entertain his fans, while his real life and even for a partially protected from view.
Moonage Daydream is for rent or for sale on Amazon, Appleand Google Play.