The best documentary films of 2022, ranked

The best documentary films of 2022, ranked

Our favorite docs of the year, from Moonage Daydream to Fire Of Love, prove filmmaking is in the midst of a nonfiction resurgence

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AVC EOY Best Documentaries
(Clockwise from bottom left:) Fire Of Love (Image’Est), Three Minutes – A Lengthening (Family Affair Films, © US Holocaust Memorial Museum), Moonage Daydream (Neon), Cow (IFC Films)
Graphic: Rebecca Fassola

While the merits of streaming and its impact on the theatrical exhibition marketplace can be debated, there’s no doubt that the advent of digital streaming has contributed to a boom in nonfiction filmmaking. Viewers who would never have seriously considered getting in their car, seeking out a theater, and plunking down $10 or $15 to watch a documentary have indulged curiosity in the genre at a massive scale. A lot of this interest, of course, comes in the form of unambitious pop-culture rehashes and true crime rib-pokers—some uninspired or unnecessary (do we really need to hear what Casey Anthony has to say?), some actually elevated or compellingly rendered. But if those types of low-hanging nonfiction fruit are largely driving the market, there is still fascinating work being done. To wit, let’s look at 14 of the best documentaries of 2022, ranked from least to most essential. For The A.V. Club’s overall best films list, click here!)

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2 / 16

14. Cow

14. Cow

Cow - Official Trailer | HD | IFC Films

The shot only lasts 61 seconds, but it may forever alter your perspective on the sad, arduous life and premature, violent death of a farm animal. It comes early in Cow, Andrea Arnold’s unsparing experiential documentary about a dairy cow named Luma living on a farm in the south of England. Moments after farmers have separated Luma from yet another of her newborn calves, she looks straight into camera and plaintively moos five times over the course of one minute. Refusing to cut away, forcing us to look Luma directly in the eye and hear her cries, Arnold gives us ample time to consider what emotions the cow is trying to express. Even the most skeptical among us would have to agree that Luma is expressing an anguish that is felt no less deeply than our own… [Mark Keizer]

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3 / 16

13. Blind Ambition

13. Blind Ambition

“Blind Ambition” - Official Trailer

Sometimes, at least in the sociopolitical realm, documentaries struggle with reflecting the full emotional spectrum of real life. Subjects with lesser means are often presented in flat, simplistic strokes, and as it pertains particularly to the refugee experience, many of these movies adopt a down-tempo solemnity—as if a dour tone is the only way to make viewers care about their plight.

Co-directors Warwick Ross and Rob Coe’s Blind Ambition is a refreshing exception to this trend. It tells the incredible true story of four Zimbabwean refugees, men with no prior connection, who meet in South Africa while hustling and trying to provide better lives for their families via jobs in the service industry. After they each become sommeliers at different restaurants and hotels, the foursome come together to compete under their national flag at the World Wine Tasting Championships. Threading a needle between difficulty and hopefulness, the movie honors the melancholic and at times brutal pasts of its subjects. But it also plugs into the unadulterated joyful embrace of their unexpected and inspiring new lives. [Brent Simon]

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4 / 16

12. Liquor Store Dreams

12. Liquor Store Dreams

Liquor Store Dreams Clip

Director So Yun Um’s rewarding, deeply felt Liquor Store Dreams illustrates why there is still considerable value in the old adage from which many aspiring authors, filmmakers, and other artists these days seem to desperately run: “write what you know.” Using her own childhood as the film’s narrative framework, Um’s movie tells the stories of first-generation Korean immigrants who made the most of limited economic opportunities by running liquor stores in predominantly Black communities in Los Angeles, as well as the impact of this fraught existence on their children. Restless but eventually hopeful, it sifts through immigrant yearning and generational divisions to deliver a story that reflects upon the jostling, grinding nature of the lower ladder rungs of the American dream, as well as minority race relations. The result is a moving, intensely personal work that also plugs into a larger, long overdue cross-cultural conversation. [Brent Simon]

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5 / 16

11. Nothing Compares

11. Nothing Compares

Nothing Compares (2022) Official Trailer | Documentary | SHOWTIME

Irish singer Sinéad O’Connor has for most of her career polarized audiences, speaking out on a wide variety of social causes while also grappling publicly with bipolar disorder and other mental health issues. Debut feature director Kathryn Ferguson’s sensitive and sympathetic Nothing Compares serves up a rich portrait of this complicated, ahead-of-her-time figure. Adroitly interweaving archival footage with exclusive interviews, the film ably chronicles the many controversies which have swirled around O’Connor (including, most famously, her incendiary 1992 performance on Saturday Night Live, in which she tore up a photo of Pope John Paul II to protest his silence on the sexual abuse of children endemic in the Catholic Church), challenging and deconstructing the frequent media portrayal of the singer as unhinged by rooting these characterizations in an industry and a broader culture itself gripped by misogyny and patronization. [Brent Simon]

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6 / 16

10. Claydream

10. Claydream

Claydream - Official Trailer (2022) Will Vinton

Will Vinton was a pioneering figure in animation, a would-be second Walt Disney who in the 1980s brought “claymation” to the forefront of the medium through the creation and application of a variety of dazzling new techniques. The fact that no one really knows his name—his rebranded, formerly eponymous studio wrested it away from him two decades ago—and he’s gone on to garner considerable acclaim, fanciful origin story and all, speaks to a time-honored Hollywood axiom: when the legend becomes fact, print the legend. Claydream’s director Marq Evans, in telling this fascinating story, raises questions about the complex intersection of art and commerce, and whether, in today’s world, if accomplishment in the first realm matters at all if there isn’t a baseline competency and some protective guardrails in the latter. [Brent Simon]

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7 / 16

9. 2nd Chance

9. 2nd Chance

2ND CHANCE | Official Trailer | Bleecker Street & Showtime

Iranian American Ramin Bahrani’s first documentary 2nd Chance focuses on Richard Davis, the founder and owner of a body armor manufacturing company that was the first to use kevlar and synthetic fibers. A gregarious, one-time pizzeria owner whose possibly dubious origin story involves surviving a shootout as a delivery driver, the Michigan-born Davis became something of a pre-Internet viral superstar by way of scores of self-produced and distributed videos in which he shot himself at point-blank range, in order to show off his company’s product. These VHS tapes, as well as in-person demonstrations, made him a celebrity among law enforcement, leading to dozens of lucrative supply contracts with police departments across the United States. Eventually, the videos would become more elaborate, peddling stories with entire arcs, as well as a very specific sociopolitical view. Bahrani’s biographical film is, oddly enough, the rise-and-fall story of an independent filmmaker. [Brent Simon]

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8 / 16

8. The UnRedacted

8. The UnRedacted

The UnRedacted(Jihad Rehab) Official Trailer

Screened at Sundance under the controversial (or is that merely triggering?) title Jihad Rehab, director Meg Smaker’s The UnRedacted is a fascinating, clear-eyed look at attempted de-radicalization of former Gitmo detainees at a unique Saudi detention facility, focusing for the most part on three Yemeni men—Nadir, Mohammed, and Ali—swept up in America’s vaguely defined and even more dubiously prosecuted “war on terror.” Affording no easy answers, the film delivers a portrait of the tangled geopolitical priorities and cultural differences which complicate attempts to dismantle terrorist ideologies among non-hardcore believers. (The movie’s disowning by Sundance and its cancellation by other festivals in the wake of protests, meanwhile, tells an equally fascinating parallel tale, rooted in no small part in identity politics.) [Brent Simon]

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9 / 16

7. Navalny

7. Navalny

Watch the trailer for award-winning film ‘Navalny”

Debuting at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, where it was announced as an addition to the slate only after the festival began, Navalny picked up both the U.S. Documentary Audience Award and Overall Festival Favorite prizes. Directed by Daniel Roher (Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson And The Band), the movie tells the story of Alexei Navalny, a lawyer whose anti-corruption activism catapulted him to the status of Russia’s chief opposition leader—a target of assassination by Vladimir Putin. Coursing with sociopolitical currency and edited like a thriller by Maya Hawke and Langdon Page, the movie highlights Putin’s specific criminal illegality but also the deep insecurity, paranoia, and inherent frailty of (would-be) autocratic rulers everywhere. [Brent Simon]

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10 / 16

6. Eternal Spring

6. Eternal Spring

Eternal Spring (長春) Official Trailer

One could program an entire nonfiction festival, of considerable quality, of documentaries banned in China over the last half-dozen years, some for reasons quite obvious and others for reasons less so. And Eternal Spring’s inclusion would be a no-brainer. Canada’s official international film Academy Award entry, it tells the story of an infamous television hijacking, and the subsequent consequences for those involved. When members of Falun Gong, an outlawed spiritual practice, took over the feed for a government-controlled satellite broadcast in China, their aim was to refute government messaging and correct the public record about their religion. For comic artist Daxiong, this move meant he had to flee his home. Like last year’s Flee, executive produced by Riz Ahmed and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Eternal Spring infuses a somewhat conventional narrative arc of a refugee tale with compelling 3D animation. [Brent Simon]

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11 / 16

5. Moonage Daydream

5. Moonage Daydream

MOONAGE DAYDREAM - Official Trailer [HD]

As a documentarian, Brett Morgen trades heavily in montage and associative editing, and his latest masterpiece highlights the connective rich tissue between David Bowie’s music and its incredibly expressive, performative essence. By combining music, interview audio, and archival footage with original video imagery, Morgen communicates powerful depths about the ideas behind the art itself, as well as the era from which it was sprung. In this regard, Moonage Daydream connects as a charged evocation of the interior creativity from a timeless artist, an immersive glimpse at the frenetic impulses that drove Ziggy Stardust, the Thin White Duke, and beyond. [Brent Simon]

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12 / 16

4. Theater Of Thought

4. Theater Of Thought

THEATER OF THOUGHT | Official Trailer

If Werner Herzog’s boundless curiosity for human life and the world in which we live could be captured and bottled, it could provide sustainable free energy for Earth’s entire population. The 80-year-old legend, possessing one of the most eclectic career filmographies out there, has always oscillated back and forth between fiction and nonfiction work, and his latest effort in the latter field, Theater Of Thought, finds him turning his inquisitiveness inward, speculating in whimsical fashion on whether humans of the future will have autonomy over our own ideas and judgments—or whether our brains will inevitably become fused with technology in the coming decades. If that sounds either stuffy or more suited to a science-fiction action film, this documentary provides a wonderful vehicle for its open-ended questions, thank you very much. Flitting to and fro, indulging narrative digressions as well as his characteristically droll narration (sample: “The New Jersey turnpike allows no hint of the past”), Herzog’s endlessly probing film unfolds like the coolest theoretical scholastic presentation you never had a chance to experience as a teenager. [Brent Simon]

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13 / 16

3. All That Breathes

3. All That Breathes

All That Breathes - Official Trailer

A world premiere at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Grand Jury Prize in the World Documentary Competition, director Shaunak Sen’s movie focuses on two brothers, Mohammad Saud and Nadeem Shehzad, who rescue and treat injured birds. Their work connects back to their childhood in New Delhi, where black kites were revered. Now, the creatures are falling from the sky—suffering and dying from pollution-related disease. The quiet, absorbing brilliance of All That Breathes is the way in which Sen takes this very personal family tale, and connects it to much larger existential questions, without ever overwhelming the narrative. [Brent Simon]

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14 / 16

2. Three Minutes – A Lengthening

2. Three Minutes – A Lengthening

THREE MINUTES - A LENGTHENING [Official Trailer]

It takes only a few more moments than the duration in the title of Three Minutes: A Lengthening to realize what this documentary is going to be. Other voices will appear on the soundtrack, and the filmmakers will tell a story. But the visual element—the primary canvas for cinema as art—is going to focus only on these three minutes of footage for the entire film. Not that it’s on a loop. The imagery runs backward and forward, gets freeze-framed, goes through different filters, and is blown up, reduced, diced, and re-assembled like playing cards. But director Bianca Stigter fully commits to this formalist dare—and it pays off tremendously… [Jordan Hoffman]

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15 / 16

1. Fire Of Love

1. Fire Of Love

Fire of Love Trailer | National Geographic

Director Sara Dosa’s documentary is a one-of-a-kind story of both science and romance, a movie which captures the overlapping unpredictability and ineffable beauty of both volcanoes and human bonds, and the unknown length of fuse which each ultimately possesses. Narrated by Miranda July, Fire Of Love is constructed around hours of jaw-dropping, never-before-seen 16mm footage. On the surface, it tells the story of Maurice and Katia Krafft, pioneering married French volcanologists who throughout the 1970s and ’80s studied, photographed, and recorded lava flows all across the globe. But the movie, a delicate work rooted in collagist sensibility and anchored by a wonderful score from composer Nicolas Godin, also undertakes a more substantive interrogation of nature and humankind’s relationship with it. Vibrating with swollen vulnerability and a counterbalancing infectious curiosity about the world, the best doc of 2022 is the type of film which leaves the trajectory of your day inarguably changed—colors a little brighter, feelings a bit rawer, reflections a bit heavier. [Brent Simon]

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