The Best Documentary Films of 2020 A Good Year for Documentary Features

April 25, 2021
M.N. Miller 0
Features, Ranked

I’m here to share the best of 2020 documentary films on this Oscars Sunday morning. As usual, most of my favorites have been ignored during this award season. However, with streaming platforms becoming more popular than ever, documentary filmmaking has reached its golden age. There have been so many great moments from the list of films below, I can’t possibly list them all here. Though, let’s give it a try:

We have a nightmarish sequence of loved-ones being caught in a firestorm blackout, a man cuddling his octopus friend, the terrible gerrymandering in key swing states, an unflinching and honest look at an American icon, the elegant brutality of CRISPR versus viruses, the never-ending struggle to perform public services, a staggering shockingly racist reveal of a government overreach, a lyrical rewind of one’s socioeconomic despair, a thrilling Lord of the Flies conclusion to an electoral process, the image of a patient in a burn ward that’s seared in my memory, and finally a single moment of gut-wrenching heartbreak in film with a final single shot of sums up the never-ending cycle of trauma that shapes generations.

Please look at my list of top documentaries from this past year, you can find almost all of them on streaming services right now!


15. My Octopus Teacher

Here’s a documentary film from Pippa Ehrlich that reminded me a bit of the work of the great Werner Herzog. It’s a bit of an odd-ball, that contains an unlikely pair in a wondrous setting with some internal conflict. My Octopus Teacher has a bit of magic in it.

It’s available to stream on Netflix right now!

14. The Mole Agent

The Mole Agent is a fun little documentary that’s charming, poignant, and has a surprise twist that’s a cherry on top.

It’s available to stream on Hulu right now!

13. On the Record

No documentary filmmaker today gets more out of his subjects on camera. Kirby Dick (Netflix’s The Bleeding Edge) returns to form with On the Record — a gripping, and devastating look at one woman’s stance against sexual abuse within the music industry.

It’s available to stream on HBO Max right now!

12. Rebuilding Paradise

Howard’s gripping and soul-stirring documentary honors those departed from earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, by focusing on the residents who picked up the pieces, grieved for their families, and lived to fight for another day.

It’s available to stream on Hulu right now!

11. Human Nature

Human Nature is an elegant, delicate, and beautiful documentary film that couldn’t be more relevant since we have no idea what the future holds at the current moment. It’s entertaining, engaging, and educates the viewer when it could resort to outright patronization.

It’s available to stream on Netflix right now!

10. Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets

Yes, you can make a very good argument that this isn’t a documentary. But I can guarantee you that Bloody Noses, Empty Pockets has the most authentic people on the screen that are more purely themselves than most nonfiction filmmakers can dream of. A natural slice of Las Vegas life.

It’s available to stream on Kanopy and Topic right now!

9. Zappa

Icon, difficult, trailblazer, scrupulous, advocate, irascible, philanthropist, abrasive, family man, lothario, composer, stubborn, and brilliant. Alex Winter’s detailed documentary on Frank Zappa is a strikingly honest representation of a musician and iconoclast.

It’s available to stream on Hulu right now!

8. Slay the Dragon

Here’s the deal — everything that has happened in America since 2012* has been a white, Republican response to losing a grip on voters because of a growing diverse population. Slay the Dragon is a searing look at the redrawing of voting lines by erasing the ethical ones.

It’s available to stream on Hulu right now!

7. The Dissident

A slick and thoroughly riveting documentary by Icarus director Bryan Fogel that moves at a breathless pace. The Dissident shows the importance journalism plays in holding world leaders accountable by telling truth to power despite where it may lead or how it may end.

It’s available to stream on Spectrum right now!

6. Boys State

A fascinating look at how our future interacts with politics in action and an engrossing case study to answer the old debate on if a man is inherently good or evil. Boys State is a bird’s eye view of our future leaders at a time that is now more important than ever.

It’s available to stream on Apple Tv Plus right now!

5. MLK/FBI

One of the year’s very best documentaries, MLK/FBI is a completely engrossing feature that gives fair and equal treatment to its subjects. Mr. Pollard’s film gives a fascinating inside look at a systemic problem that remains in our government agencies today.

It’s available to stream on Spectrum right now!

4. Time

Time is viewed through the human toll of racial economic disparity. It’s a slice of socioeconomic despair while living under a cloud of the faux culture of poverty, and mass incarceration that has replaced slavery. It is uncomfortable, lyrical, and beautifully done.

It’s available to stream on Amazon Prime Video right now!

3. Collective

When I watch a documentary on corrupt practices, I’m constantly reminded how everything is a business & marketing will beat out medicine every time. Collective is vehemently told and offers a searing look at corruption inside public services with horrific results.

It’s available to stream on Hulu right now!

2. City Hall

No other feature this year was as current and of the moment. Frederick Wiseman’s City Hall is practically a living and breathing thing. It’s full of advocacy, empathy, and cold hard truths. His chronicling of public servants and at-risk groups trying to navigate a trumped-up society is an epic achievement.

It’s available to stream on PBS right now!

1. Father Soldier Son

Netflix’s Father Soldier Son shapes our understanding of what is real sacrifice, the power of purpose, the cycle of trauma, and even American Manhood. The themes are under the radar and have devastating effects that shape generations — it’s the year’s very best documentary film and no one is talking about it.

It’s available to stream on Netflix right now!

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