Somewhat belatedly, here is a list of my 20 favourite documentaries of 2018, which is the second post of my three-part round-up of last year (click here for the first bit; the third will follow in the next week or so). The simple criteria is that the films were officially released in the UK during 2018 in cinemas, shown on streaming services or screened on TV.
20. Make Us Dream (Blair): The first of three football-related documentaries on this list, which is more a reflection of my love of and interest in the sport, as opposed to us being in some kind of golden age for such films. This one’s about Steven Gerrard’s Liverpool career, and it smartly eschews the hagiographical style of your usual football puff piece, focusing as much on the lows the all-action midfielder experienced as a player as it does on the relative highs and providing plenty of psychological insight along the way.
19. Matangi / Maya / M.I.A (Loveridge): A fine portrait of the life of the musician and activist M.I.A., covering her arrival as a refugee in London, her time at art school and then her fairly rapid rise to global star. Director Stephen Loveridge is a long-time friend, and although that means this is hardly a critical or detached examination of a public figure, there is a certain unguarded intimacy to all the hours of footage shot as a result.
18. Bobby Robson: More Than A Manager (Clarke, Jones): And here’s the second. This is a warm portrait of a thoroughly decent gentleman, whose generous kindness and geniality was not always reciprocated by the media or the people who employed him. There’s plenty of interesting material here about Robson’s time as manager of Barcelona, in particular.
17. McQueen (Bonhôte, Ettedgui): A thorough portrait of a major, influential designer within the fashion industry, charting Alexander McQueen’s career from youthful, exuberant apprentice on Savile Row to his later, often controversial, collections, shows and collaborations. His suicide at the age of 40 hangs over every minute in which his death isn’t being explicitly discussed; this is the sad tale of a man who was, by all accounts (I don’t have much knowledge about the fashion world myself), a great talent.
16. Take The Ball, Pass The Ball (McMath): The Barcelona team managed by Pep Guardiola is the best that I have seen in nearly 40 years of watching football, and I firmly believe that Leo Messi is the finest player that has ever walked this planet, so this film – which traces the formation of the Barcelona style and the gradual steps to near-perfection taken by the team featuring Messi – is like catnip for me. Couldn’t get enough of the wide-ranging, insightful interviews, particularly those involving the tactically-astute Xavi.
15. The Price Of Everything (Kahn): I do wish this eyebrow-raiser, which gleefully spends time analysing the shocking amounts of money changing hands within the modern art world, was a little bit more forthright in its condemnation of… well, anything (even if it was just venomous about the ugliness of it all). The director’s approach is deliberately – and often infuriatingly – standoffish, but I applaud those who took part who were only ever going to come out of it looking bad or embarrassed. This is an effective summation as to how cosy art and commerce have become as bedfellows, albeit a film that tiptoes around egos a little too lightly.
14. Bros: After The Screaming Stops (Pearlman, Soutar): This one quickly gained notoriety on account of the cringe-worthy, unintentionally hilarious soundbites provided by (former?) pop stars Matt and Luke Goss as they reformed their band Bros for a one-off gig. The ‘Spinal Tap’ moments are plentiful, but the twin brothers came across well overall, and it’s hard not to feel some sympathy for them as they unwittingly stitch themselves up. Third band member Craig Logan (or ‘Ken’ as he was once regularly called by Smash Hits) wisely steered clear of the whole affair.
13. Shirkers (Tan): There are two equally-fascinating stories in this film by Sandi Tan; the first concerns her youth in Singapore, its burgeoning indie film scene and her attempt at making a movie within that environment, which was thwarted by a man who mysteriously and cruelly disappeared with all the footage. The second relates to the present, twenty years on, in which the 16mm film is discovered and Tan and her colleagues analyse their memories of the time, the working relationships they had with one another and the act that – temporarily, at least – stopped them in their tracks.
12. Filmworker (Zierra): You could make the rather cruel argument that this film is less about the former actor Leon Vitali and more about the man Vitali would work with as a personal assistant for many, many years – a certain Stanley Kubrick. However, this is also a study in the dedication, the loyalty and the constant effort put in by a relatively-unknown crew member working behind the scenes, and the unusual nature of the subject matter – we don’t hear from these people so much – was welcome.
11. The King (Jarecki): Elvis as conduit for 20th century America; rather than a hagiographic biography this does not shy away from questions of cultural appropriation and more, with a wide range of interviewees appearing in a studio and in one of the singer’s old Rollers. I wasn’t expecting much but this was utterly fascinating from start to finish.
10. New Town Utopia (Smith): A fascinating study of an English ‘new town’, ie one created after the Second World War to accommodate the London overspill. In this case, the subject is Basildon in Essex, and Christopher Ian Smith’s film seems to me to be a thorough, exhaustive study of the place – the camera tracing all that Brutalist, concrete architecture (underpasses and shopping precincts appear a lot, if memory serves) and numerous residents providing an entertaining oral history of ‘Bas Vegas’ through their interviews.
9. A Northern Soul (McAllister): Having lived in the city of Kingston upon Hull for a number of years, this film about Steve Arnott’s work during Hull’s UK City of Culture celebrations really struck a chord. At the time of filming Arnott was balancing his job as a warehouse worker with his family duties and a desire to realise his dream of running a hip-hop bus for the benefit of the younger members of his local community; however funding was hard to secure, and financial struggles pervade every minute of Sean McAllister’s smartly political documentary – for here is a man that embodies the very notion of David Cameron’s Big Society while living within a city that has suffered more than most from the actions of various UK governments, and particularly at the hands of the Tories. It was made by a director with similar roots to Arnott’s, and it’s never patronising.
8. Ex Libris: New York Public Library (Wiseman): Frederick Wiseman’s latest examination of a major institution or community (and I guess, in a way, this library can be seen as being a micro-community) is typically bum-numbing, at 197 minutes, but engrossing for pretty much all of that running time. I visit two of my local libraries two or three times a week, on average – they are the last quiet refuges in most towns, now – and to see the intricate workings of one this big was a real treat. Wiseman’s chronicling of high-level meetings is a necessary feature of his documentaries, but I preferred the rest of the assembled footage here, which managed to show the different roles the NYPL performs in people’s lives.
7. Dawson City: Frozen Time (Morrison): Hypnotic essay film about an unearthed cache of celluloid and the story of the town that found it, which expanded rapidly during the Klondike Gold Rush. The score is superb and the choice of footage to illustrate change and the passing of time is exemplary.
6. American Animals (Layton): I wondered whether to put this docudrama on this list or on a forthcoming one that will detail my favourite (non-documentary) 2018 releases, for it could easily sit on either. The story, about a botched heist by four students, is ripe for such cinematic treatment, of course, and its telling here is pretty riveting (the switches from talking head interviews to dramatic reconstructions are incredibly smooth). A subtle examination of modern white male privilege and the extraordinary and damaging drive some people have for new experiences.
5. Black Mother (Allah): A restless, personal documentary about womanhood, Jamaican identity and the country itself that endlessly shifts from one form to another – juddering between 16mm film, digital and so on. There’s no music on the soundtrack, and voices come in and out of the mix to haunting effect.
4. They Shall Not Grow Old (Jackson): I had such a strong reaction to this film when I saw it on the big screen and then, three days later, on TV, that I’m surprised it hasn’t cracked the top three of this list. The colourised archive footage of the First World War (specifically the Somme trenches populated by British soldiers) is startling, and the digital adjustments made by Jackson and his team seemed to me to be made with sensitivity.
3. Free Solo (Chin, Vasarhelyi): Glad I saw this in a cinema; it was a blast. My palms were sweating repeatedly during the various climbs undertaken by Alex Honnold as he takes on El Capitan in Yosemite National Park without any safety harnesses, and the filmmakers – who previously made the excellent Meru – do a great job in capturing it all, reducing the main attempt down to half-a-dozen key moments. It’s a fine study into the mental state of a climber – particularly one whose approach is as extreme and dangerous (or as pure, depending on your point of view) as Honnold’s – and the way in which their pursuit of a goal can affect the people who are closest to them.
2. Arcadia (Wright): A journey into the heart of the British countryside that’s often dark and weird, making great use of the BFI’s vast archive of film and a superbly unsettling soundtrack by Will Gregory and Adrien Utley. Arcadia is at its best when it is suggesting an underlying oddness existing within the rural environment, but there is real breadth to the included footage: fox hunting, the beauty of the landscape and nature (as well as its harmfulness), farming, cheese-rolling, the gradual removal of services from village life – there is much to ponder in this deliciously offbeat amalgamation.
1. Faces Places (JR, Varda): I had Paul Wright’s Arcadia listed as my favourite documentary of 2018 and Agnès Varda’s life-affirming street-art—rural-celebration-travelogue – which she made with the artist JR – at number two. But Varda’s recent death at the end of March got me thinking about Faces Places again, and how welcome such an optimistic work is at this point in time. It’s a great celebration of people and art, with an emphasis on the act of seeing as well as on the aging process, and the touchingly bittersweet ending will resonate even stronger now Varda has passed. Despite Jean-Luc Godard’s rather cruel snub, Varda’s positive, forward-thinking outlook is irrepressible – nobody can stop the good vibes that radiated from her, and that can be found in this wonderful film.