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My Favorite Documentaries of 2017

I can watch documentary films any time. They are some of the best things we have going in a free society where our newspapers and investigative journalists are disappearing, and our mid-range priced movies are getting harder and harder for studios to green light. 

The Best Documentaries below are presented in Alphabetical Order...

1. "Abacus: Small Enough to Jail

Steve James, the director of "Hoop Dreams" and "Life Itself," does it again with this intimate look at a family-run bank (the only one) criminally indicted as a result of the 2008 mortgage crisis. It's a maddening study of the injustice that leads to the opposite result of "too big to fail." Congratulations to James for making the Oscar shortlist, and I sure hope he earns his first Best Documentary nomination from the Academy.

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2. "Chasing Coral

In light of the wildfires sweeping across California, I am including two documentaries on this list that provide an essential look at how climate change is having a destructive impact on our world. The first is Jeff Orlowski's heartbreaking, Oscar-shortlisted study of coral reefs and the unprecedented rate at which they are vanishing from this earth. Jeff's previous award winning film was "Chasing Ice."

3. "Faces Places"

Agnès Varda is unquestionably one of the most beloved figures in world cinema, and at age 89, she is still making pictures that celebrate our individuality. In this documentary, Varda embarks on an art project with her co-director, the renowned photographer/muralist JR, in which they explore small towns and ferret out the most interesting everyday citizens and construct gigantic installations of their faces on the sides of buildings. This draws attention to people who would otherwise be overlooked in a crowd, and their emotional reactions are beautifully poignant. The fact that there is an almost forty year difference in the ages of Agnes and JR adds to the symmetry of the beauty they find. In the same year she received an honorary Oscar, Varda's film also made the Academy's shortlist. If she snags an Oscar nomination, it will be her first.

4. "Icarus

Bryan Fogel's Oscar-shortlisted documentary details a massive scandal in sports history, and it is indeed a jaw-dropper. He had initially set out to make a film about doping in sports, but after meeting a Russian scientist, the direction of his story is altered dramatically. This connects the dots to why the Russians are being excluded from the upcoming Olympics.

5. "An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power" 

The second invaluable film about global warming on this list is Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk's follow-up to Davis Guggenheim's Oscar-winning documentary, "An Inconvenient Truth," featuring Al Gore (and yes, this follow-up made the Oscar shortlist as well). This new picture provides a frank analysis of our current environmental catastrophe while building genuine hope for the potential of an energy revolution. You will gasp when you realize what it took for the United States and the 190 other nations to join the Paris Climate Accord, and rail against our withdrawal from that agreement. 

6. "Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World"

Native Americans are too often portrayed in our culture as archaic history rather than an essential part of our modern world. Catherine Bainbridge and Alfonso Mairoana's documentary, which earned the top prize at the Hot Docs Film Festival this past April, explores the Native American rockers who rose to become giants in the music industry. Some will surprise you. Wait until you see the segments about Jimi Hendrix, African-Americans in New Orleans, and some of the other biggest influences on rock music. Enlightening.

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7. "Step"

I absolutely loved taking a trip through first-time director Amanda Lipitz's documentary to the world of these young ladies from Baltimore. They struggled to make it from high school to a path of higher education using the  steps of their drill routine as an anchor. Lipitz and editor Penelope Falk document the trials and tribulations of the girls in a way that made me emotionally invested in the outcome. I confess, by the end of this film, my tears were flowing. The movie leaves audiences cheering. It highlights how the love and deep caring of the students' families, their principal, their coach and guidance counselor are instrumental to their success. And it also emphasizes the saving grace of education. Very worth seeing. 

8. "Strong Island"

Like "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri," Yance Ford's chilling documentary is a howl of outrage expressed by a grieving soul in the aftermath of their loved one's demise. When the judicial system allows the killer of Ford's brother to walk free, the filmmaker explores how radicalized killing is still justified in our less-than-civilized society. But it also gives a human face to the suffering of the family members left behind. This was the very first documentary that received a grant from the Ebert Foundation through the Good Pitch organization. It is the sixth film in my Top 10 shortlisted for an Academy Award.

9. "They Call Us Monsters"

First time director Ben Lear gives us a remarkable documentary, "They Call Us Monsters," centering on the lives of three Latino teenage inmates in a juvenile detention hall. The possibility of these young people getting tried as adults and being sentenced to life in prison for crimes they committed before they were 18 could potentially be overturned by the proposed Senate Bill 260, which would give juvenile offenders in California the opportunity for a second chance. I was introduced to this movie through the Catalyst Forum at the Sundance Institute, and it moved me deeply. This issue of juvenile justice and reform is so important that the Ebert Foundation donated a small amount to help with the film's social impact campaign. The interaction between the volunteer filmmakers who go into the detention halls to teach screenwriting classes and the detainees gives us hope that some rehabilitation is taking place. It's just the sort of real-life tale that inspires audiences to help make a difference in the world.

Click here to read my interview with Ben Lear.

10. "Whose Streets?"

Sabaaah Folayan and Damon Davis' "Whose Streets?" is an electrifying street-level view of the 2014 protests that occurred in Ferguson. They were spurred by the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, an 18-year-old black man, at the hands of a white police officer. You won't find a more penetrating look at the beating heart of the Black Lives Matter movement than this film. This film is also shortlisted for an Academy Award.

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