The Best of 2020: THE YEAR OF THE DOCUMENTARY – Top 20 Documentaries of 2020 – Pt 2 of 2

2020 YEAR IN REVIEW: THE YEAR OF THE DOCUMENTARY

Written By – C. A. Ponch

Documentaries dominated people’s televisions in 2020. When planning my end of the year reviews and thinking about what I wanted to concentrate on; I realized that a majority of what I watched and enjoyed were shows about real life. I think a lot of people gravitated toward documentaries this year. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, people couldn’t go out and experience life themselves, so instead they choose programing that could provide them a lot of those experiences from their couch, bed or treadmill. A majority of those documentaries didn’t disappoint either, it was a fantastic year for non-fiction.

ANY TOPIC YOU WANT, DOCUMENTARIES HAD IT ALL LAST YEAR!

The documentaries on this list comprise a large range of topics like sports, true crime, cooking, wildlife, politics, etc. I ranked them while taking in to consideration their entertainment value, educational value, production value, popularity/impact, and potential legacy. I am pleased to say a large majority of these docs were well done and would be interesting to a lot of viewers, I enjoyed most of what I watched. It was a very strong year for this genre. I did not watch every documentary released this year but I tried watching at least every notable English speaking documentary available to most people by streaming service. These were the 60 I watched that came out in late 2019 to late 2020, ranked in order of preference. Netflix seems to be the new streaming service for the best documentaries, overtaking HBO who isn’t that far behind them.  For documentary buffs, I hope I can help you with your next watch, and for people looking for a good series or film that don’t watch a whole lot of documentaries, hopefully I can point you in the right direction and you will enjoy the top 25 as much as I did!

BEST OF THE REST DOCS OF THE YEAR:  

#20 to #1

20. Totally Under Control (Hulu – 2020): Ponch: 7/10 – IMDB: 7.4/10 – RT: 77% – Metacritic: 80%

“Totally Under Control” is a documentary film that follows the Trump administration’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States, often comparing the American response to that of South Korea. Due to the pandemic making it difficult to film, cinematographer Ben Bloodwell came up with a kit that was sent to subjects in the film, which they would pick up and begin recording themselves. Filmed in secret over five months, “Totally Under Control” uses interviews with medical experts and government officials to show each opportunity the government missed to stop the virus from arriving in the U.S. or preventing it from spreading.

THE MISHANDLING OF THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC

I’m shocked at how quickly this documentary was released and even more surprised at how much information they were able to get while still taking such inventive prevention measures. I knew that the US government made some bad decisions and didn’t handle the pandemic properly but I had no idea how badly this was botched. Some will point to this as anti-Trump propaganda; I don’t see it that way. There are plenty of others on the state level and nationally to take some of the blame, Trump just happens to be the voice and figurehead of all those mistakes and should have owned up to his share of the lack of response. With that said, there were far too many people interviewed that were credible, directly involved sources. The sources seemed to be honest and truthful, even if slightly skewed. The problem is timing, the story on coronavirus isn’t over yet, so there is no real ending to the documentary. It seems this was released a little prematurely. If they develop a second part detailing the steps the Trump administration did make and finish with the transition to the new administrations successful (or non-successful) actions, I feel it would be a more complete story.  The most interesting aspect of the film was the comparison to the quick actions taken by South Korea while the US fumbled its pandemic response. This highlighted all the issues of the US response and it did make me very angry, as it will most viewers. Of all the documentaries I saw this year “Totally Under Control” was the most relevant. 

Streaming on: Hulu Subscription

19. Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez (Netflix – 2020): Ponch: 7/10 – IMDB: 7.4/10 – RT: 77% – Metacritic: 75%

“Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez” is a true crime documentary series about convicted murderer and former NFL player Aaron Hernandez.  The series explores Hernandez’s conviction for the murder of Odin Lloyd and other murder cases in which he was a suspect. Family, Friends, attorneys, police, journalists, and former teammates discuss the factors in his life that led him down the path of murder, ending in a sentence of life in prison and his eventual suicide.

FROM TOM BRADY THROWING YOU PASSES TO THROWING YOUR WHOLE LIFE AWAY

As a huge football fan, I still and will never understand the events I witnessed in the “Killer Inside”. Why throw your whole life away? Well, the creators of this documentary suggest that Hernandez’s CTE and other developments in his life led him down a Killer’s path. It’s a well-crafted documentary that includes trial footage, interviews with friends and family, prison phone conversations and archival news broadcasts. This is a pretty thrilling fast paced docu-series that never really slows down. It keeps your attention and is more than just a series about murder; it really examines the mind and the dangers of CTE. I am glad they didn’t link every bad decision made to the brain disease, and did talk about other aspects of his life including early abuse. The series really hits on multiple subject matters and is a must-see for sports fans, crime fanatics and people interested in the effects of concussions and CTE.

Streaming on: Netflix Subscription

18. After-truth: Disinformation and Cost of Fake News (HBO – 2020): Ponch: 7/10 – IMDB: 6.9/10 – RT: 100% – Metacritic: 79%

“After Truth: Disinformation and the Cost of Fake News” is a documentary television film about the effects of disinformation campaigns on social media and the impact of conspiracy theories including “Pizzagate”.  The documentary shows that although the elements of fake news are not new, modern fake news is enhanced and amplified by social media technology. Along with “Pizzagate” it highlights the background of two conspiracy theorists to create and promote a conspiracy theory regarding special counsel Robert Mueller in order to smear him.

WHAT TRULY IS FAKE AND WHAT IS REAL

The term “fake news” has cemented itself into the American lexicon. What I find interesting about “After-truth”, is how the documentary presents the dangers of “fake news” from a few different angles of the political spectrum, although most conservatives will most likely chalk it up to liberal propaganda considering Brian Patrick Stelter’s production on the project. If it is liberal propaganda, it’s certainly very convincing liberal propaganda as the examples given of fake news do seem false and dangerous. The experts seem credible and most importantly the threat of conspiracy theories are real, as they can damage our democracy. “After Truth” is at its best when talking about the dangers of social media as a news source. It’s a film that really makes you think about what news sources you are digesting. 

Streaming on: HBO Max Subscription

17. The Painter and the Thief (Hulu – 2020): Ponch: 7/10 – IMDB: 7.6/10 – RT: 96% – Metacritic: 79%

“The Painter and the Thief” is a documentary about a very talented Czech artist Barbora Kysilkova who forms an unlikely friendship with Karl-Bertil Nordland, a man who stole two of her paintings, yet claims he doesn’t remember any of it due to a black out from drug use.

A SPECIAL BOND BETWEEN TWO UNLIKELY PEOPLE THROUGH ART

This film is driven by pure emotion by this strange bond that the artist has with someone who stole something personal to her. Some of the best scenes of the documentary are the ones where these two people who are basically strangers describe each other in very open ways. The way they were able to see the flaws in total strangers without being able to see their own flaws is both fascinating and a reflection of the average person who struggles to solve their own issues.  The look on Karl-Bertil’s face when Barbora shows him a painting of himself is pure raw emotional honesty and one of the highlights of the film. You can feel through his reaction the weight of the moment, almost like he is seeing something beautiful for the first time. The viewer can see the beauty of the painting in his expression as much as they can see it in the portrait itself. This is a movie about what drives artistic people. “The Painter and The Thief” is for fans of movies about the human condition. Anyone who is interested in the undefinable aspects of artwork and the inspiration behind the art will really enjoy this film. Although the later part of the film slowed down a little, the final scene was brilliant and said a thousand words.

Streaming on: Hulu Subscription

16. Cheer (Netflix – 2020): Ponch: 8/10 – IMDB: 8.2/10 – RT: 96% – Metacritic: 81%

“Cheer” is a six-part television docuseries following the nationally ranked Navarro College Bulldogs Cheer Team from Corsicana, Texas who have won fourteen NCAA National Championships in the junior college division, as well as five “Grand Nationals” titles for the highest score of all teams at the national competition. “Cheer” primarily focuses on five athletes of the 40 individuals coached by Monica Aldama, as they prepare to compete in the National Cheerleading Championship held annually in Daytona Beach, Florida. The episodes include elements of the history of cheerleading and the formation of the National Cheerleaders Association.

THIS IS NOT A CHEEROCRACY

My sister was a cheerleader and I have befriended enough cheerleaders over the years to understand how mentally and physically draining it can be, but nothing like what we get to see in “Cheer”. This docu-series is highly entertaining, bordering on reality TV. I almost didn’t include this series because of my rules on reality shows (vs documentaries) but ultimately decided this was as much a documentary on the sport of competitive cheerleading as it is a reality show about the athletes being spotlighted. The creators had to have a good idea of what they had when they choose to follow Navarro College rather than a larger NCAA Division I University. Ultimately, it was a very smart decision, because the cheerleading squad members are a captivating group coming from all walks of life. The team (and the series) is anchored by Coach Monica Aldama who is far more than just a gorgeous ex-cheerleader. She is a master mind bull dog of a coach and business manager who demands excellence in everyone. She cares for these cheerleaders and wants to ensure their physical health but if they aren’t in it to win and are weak mentally, there really isn’t a place for them on her team. Ex-athletes, coaches and even staunch business managers will find it very hard not to fall in love with Coach Aldama and the series.  

Streaming on: Netflix Subscription

TOP 25 DOCUMENTARIES OF 2020

#15 to #5

15. Visible: Out on Television (Apple TV + – 2020): Ponch: 8/10 – IMDB: 8.3/10 – RT: 100% – Metacritic: 89%

“Visible: Out on Television” is a documentary miniseries about LGBTQ+ representation in television. The five chronological episodes focus on LGBTQ+ people both on-screen and behind the camera each involving a theme: “The Dark Ages”, “Television as a Tool”, “The Epidemic”, “Breakthroughs”, and “The New Guard”. The docuseries integrates new interviews of LGBTQ+ people in the TV industry and archive footage. 

THE DEFINITIVE LOOK AT LGBTQ+ REPRESENTATION ON THE SMALL SCREEN

While watching “Visible: Out on Television” and other similar documentaries where the main topic is equality, I often find the experience to be very eye-openly jarring. It’s astonishing to me that a lot of the “firsts” weren’t that long ago. I lived through a lot of them, not really understanding the impact at the time.  Even more importantly, I thought big moments like Ellen DeGeneres coming out, helped her career or at least set it off on a better path; when in actuality people who help the cause usually did so by hurting themselves in the process. The director Ryan White does a great job of connecting all these big TV moments, sending the viewer down a path that spans seven decades; each one of those moments inspiring the next group. The documentary is brilliantly narrated by Margaret Cho, Asia Kate Dillion, Neil Patrick Harris and Lena Waithe showing us the star power of the LGBTQ+ community. Without their contributions TV would look very different.  “Visible: Out on Television” is a great overview of the progression of the LGBTQ+ community in pop culture and it really shows how we have become a more accepting society in a very short amount of time.

Streaming on: Apple TV + Subscription

14. McMillions (HBO – 2020): Ponch: 8/10 – IMDB: 7.2/10 – RT: 89% – Metacritic: 72%

“McMillions” is a documentary miniseries about the McDonald’s Monopoly promotion game scam that happened between 1989 and 2001. The series details how the scam was perpetrated by Jerry Jacobson who was the Head of Security for the agency that ran the promotion.  The series looks at the $24 million worth of fraud that corrupted the McDonald’s Monopoly game in which there were almost no legitimate “million dollar winners” during that time.  The docuseries introduces all the people involved in every aspect of the crime, including the FBI and other legal authorities who investigated the Monopoly game heist, as well as the fake “winners”.

THE FBI HELPS MIKEY D’S TAKE DOWN A BUNCH OF HAMBURGLERS

On the surface “McMillions” doesn’t seem like a documentary that would be all that interesting of a topic, but it was one of the more entertaining and fascinating documentaries I saw in 2020. It starts off as this fun story about the FBI tracking down con-men, but this is more of a story about human nature and preying on the vulnerable.  “McMillions” is carried by the charism and earnestness of the agents and the “winners”, but ultimately this is a story about how people can be susceptible to cons and use bad judgement because they were looking for some advantage in life that was never offered to them before. “McMillions” shows us that con artists prey on the hapless and that if an opportunity sounds too good to be true, it usually is. There is no winning in cheating, and the “winners” from “McMillions” found out the hard way. Luckily, we get to see it unravel and the game is far more enjoyable for the viewers than the participants.

Streaming on: HBO Max Subscription

13. Boys State (Apple TV + – 2020): Ponch: 8/10 – IMDB: 7.7/10 – RT: 94% – Metacritic: 84%

“Boys State” is a documentary about a thousand teenage boys attending Boys/Girls State leadership program in Austin, TX. The boys vote on members and build a representative government from the ground up. The American Legion Boys State and American Legion Auxiliary Girls State are summer leadership and citizenship programs for 17 to 18-year-old high school juniors, which focuses on systematic American government and politics. The programs are sponsored by the American Legion. 

THE YOUNG GOVERNMENT BOYS CLUB

“Boys State” is a very bold experiment that is a microcosm of the United States government and really the nation as a whole. What I found most interesting is my own polarizing feelings toward the young men in the documentary. Overall I think these 17 year olds sounded like smart, sophisticated leaders. Some of them made me proud to be an American and very good about the future of the country. I felt like a lot of them were striving toward compromise, then other parts of the documentary made me think we are all doomed to repeat histories mistakes over and over. I think the director wanted us to feel this way. “The Nationalists” and “The Federalists” are supposed to have no pre-existing political positions on topics, yet by the end of the movie they easily slip into left wing versus right wing based groups. The best part of the film is the look into our governments’ future and how politics work. The worst (yet most fascinating) is when you see some of these teenagers, trying to come to an understanding and compromise with very centric and neutral feelings only to learn that it’s easier for them to lie to get ahead. They learned quickly that they get more votes off of radical stances on hot button topics like the 2nd Amendment and abortion. “Boys State” is a great look at ourselves and how we will keep reliving the mistakes of the past by passing down those same issues to the next generation, unless we let the younger generation go their own way; which in my opinion is really the better option. Throughout the whole documentary I kept thinking the same thing, we are going to see some of these boys again as adults and it will be interesting to see how much these men will have changed from the time this documentary was shot. This is definitely a film that will be referenced and not forgotten if even one of the teenagers showcased holds high office in the future.

Streaming on: Apple TV + Subscription

12. Beastie Boys Story (Apple TV + – 2020): Ponch: 8/10 – IMDB: 7.8/10 – RT: 94% – Metacritic: 74%

“Beastie Boys Story” is an on-stage performance documentary told by Mike Diamond (Mike D) and Adam Horovitz (Ad-Rock) of the Beastie Boys. It’s an intimate, and very personal story of their band, and their 40 years of friendship together anchored by the loss of their third band member Adam Yaunch (MCA).

THREE FRIENDS WHO ARE CLOSER THAN BROTHERS WHO GOT THAT ILL COMMUNICATION 

If you are a fan of the Beastie Boys (or the early days of Hip-Hop in general) you are going to love this documentary. For people who weren’t huge fans or maybe have never heard of the Beastie Boys, it’s still an underdog story with a ton of heart. In the beginning of the year, still in the streaming service’s infancy, this documentary was the best thing on the Apple TV +, a reason to subscribe.  Anyone who was born between 1965-1985 probably love the “Beasties”, and realize everything they touched was cool, this on-stage documentary is no exception.  Diamond and Horovitz tell the story of how they met, meeting Ric Rubin, their friends, early career triumphs and their mid-career setbacks. The real heart of the documentary comes anytime they talk about their friend and bandmate Yaunch. He passed away from cancer in 2012 and because he was the main driving creative force behind the Beastie Boys, it essentially ended the band. Yaunch’s bandmates gush about him with such admiration and he is by far the most interesting Beastie Boy but all three band members are extremely captivating, and this was worth the watch.

Streaming on: Apple TV + Subscription 

11. Hillary (Hulu – 2020):  Ponch: 8/10 –  IMDB: 6.3/10 – RT: 80% – Metacritic: 75%

“Hillary” is a documentary series about the life of former first lady and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. The Docuseries shows how she is one of the most loved and hated woman in the world and features never-before-seen footage from her 2016 presidential campaign and confessionals from former President Bill Clinton and others. 

THE MOST POLARIZING WOMAN IN THE HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES

“Hillary” isn’t the documentary I thought it would be. It’s as much a docu-series about the potential and possibility of becoming the first female President as it is about Clinton, herself.  Hillary Clinton is a very polarizing individual, and love her or hate her, you don’t need to be a fan of hers to find this documentary riveting. I am sure people who furiously dislike her, will probably not watch this docu-series anyway, but the people who find Hillary more interesting than likeable, will fully enjoy this series. Anytime you talk about politics, it’s going to be controversial and this is a pretty controversial series. The creators flip back and forth from behind the scene footage of the 2016 Presidential campaign to archival segments from her past, both personally and from Clinton’s education and career. I give a lot of credit to the Director Nanette Burstein, who did the impossible by really bringing balance to a project, that will be viewed by some as too harsh and others as not harsh enough on the subject matter. As more of a centric, I think this is why I enjoyed the documentary so much. I can’t stress enough the craftsmanship and the obvious time Burstein put into this project. I applaud everyone involved in the making of it including the Clintons, for allowing a lot of the story to be told without a whole lot of inhibition. I wonder if this documentary would have been edited very differently had Clinton won.  I feel we actually got a more open and honest documentary because she didn’t win, and it did make her seem warmer. I also wonder if a version of this documentary had come out before the election, would it have made a difference in the results?

FORTUNATELY, OR UNFORTUNATELY, ITS ALL ABOUT BILL   

Although my partner will disagree with me, the most compelling parts of the docu-series were the confessionals by Bill Clinton, especially when he speaks about his infidelity. I know it may sound sexist to say that the best parts of a documentary about the first woman to receive a major party Presidential nomination, were the parts involving her husband, but he was POTUS. Sadly, anyone who has seen this docu-series already, deep down knows this is true. Every time Bill gave a confession, you immediately become more engrossed. “Hillary” the documentary is kind of a metaphor for Rodham-Clinton’s own life. Brilliant, intriguing, polarizing and over-shadowed by Bill’s success as a politician and failure as a husband.  

Streaming on: Hulu Subscription

10. My Octopus Teacher (Netflix – 2020): Ponch: 8/10 – IMDB: 8.3/10 – RT: 100% – Metacritic: 70% 

“My Octopus Teacher” is a wild life documentary about filmmaker Craig Foster’s relationship with a young octopus that lives in a kelp forest off the coast of Cape Town, South Africa. While free-diving, he decided to keep visiting the octopus den and tracking her movements every day for a year. He slowly earns the octopus trust and the two form an intimate bond. The octopus allows Foster to hold and play with her inviting him into her world including feeding, mating and staving off attacks, including a tense attack by a Pyjama shark.

WOULD YOU LIKE TO BE, UNDER THE SEA, IN A OCTOPUS GARDEN WITH ME 

“My Octopus Teacher” isn’t like most wild life documentaries, it’s more of a love story. Foster talks about the young octopus like dog-lovers talk about their canines.  At first it’s a tranquil and quit soothing film, it almost puts you too sleep with its gorgeous colors and Foster’s calm educational voice. Gradually you become more invested in the “mollusk”, just like Foster did. The documentary becomes something more emotional and thought provoking, making you think of time spent and wasted and your place on this Earth as a whole. Foster truly comes to love this animal and the documentary has far more emotional depth than any nature film I have ever seen. Make sure you bring tissues.

Streaming on: Netflix Subscription

9. Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution (Netflix – 2020): Ponch: 8/10 – IMDB: 7.8/10 – RT: 100% – Metacritic: 86%

“Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution” is a documentary film about Camp Jened, a summer camp in New York started in the early 70’s that is a camp designed for teens with disabilities. The film focuses on those campers who turned themselves into activists for the disability rights movement and follows their fight for accessibility legislation. 

THE REVOLUTIONARY EDUCATION OF CAMP JENED

You need to give “Crip Camp” a little time to get warmed up, the documentary builds slowly just like the movement that inspired it. It’s one of the best feel good documentaries ever and it’s a truly inspiring story, it’s also a very interesting one. I had never heard of Camp Jened before the documentary, but for anyone with a disability or anyone who has just felt like and outsider, I highly recommend the film. Listening to the camp participants talk about how much it all meant to them and then to watch those same motivated people come together as activists, makes you want to do more in your own life. Their physical restrictions never held them back, these activists were the backbone of the movement that eventual led to the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.  “Crip Camp” for me is one of defining moments in film regarding equality and civil rights. It’s a documentary that can be truly educational for anyone wanting to know more about the ADA and anyone who wants to watch a more positive story from 2020.  

Streaming on: Netflix Subscription

8. 30 for 30: Lance (ESPN – 2020): Ponch: 9/10 – IMDB: 8.8/10 – RT: 90% – Metacritic:  N/A%

“Lance” is a two-part sports biopic about the very public rise and epic fall from grace of American cyclist Lance Armstrong that is part of ESPN’s 30 For 30 documentary film series. The series is told by former teammates, coaches, agents, family members, doctors, business managers, and Armstrong himself. “Lance” introduces viewers to the world of cycling and Armstrong’s influence on its popularity in America.

PEOPLE REALLY HATE THIS GUY, BUT SHOULD THEY

 “Lance Armstrong” is one of the best athletes to ever live, he also is an arrogant jerk (but he seems to know that, and doesn’t care). I didn’t know a whole lot about Lance outside of a “Livestrong” bracelet and the headlines of his downfall. “Lance” came right on the tail of “The Last Dance”, with ESPN seemingly trying to strike while the sports docu-series irons were hot, with both series profiling two very similar individuals as far as mind set, bent on domination. Lance seemed to be as hypercompetitive as Jordan and that’s about where the similarities end. Jordan is still beloved; Lance seems to be hated by everyone in the sport of cycling. If I learned anything from “The Last Dance” and “Lance” it’s that pro-athletes in front of the camera really are toning it down. That’s part of what I loved about “Lance”, it was one of the most honest documentaries I have ever seen, even if Armstrong was lying to himself and everyone else when he said “everyone else was doing it”.  It was honest in that it was his “truth”.  I enjoyed that Armstrong didn’t try to hide and neither did the filmmakers. They didn’t pull any punches, which made for a very entertaining yet polarizing story.

CHEATERS NEVER WIN, BUT CAN THEY HELP CURE CANCER 

The Lance Armstrong foundation has raised over 470 Million dollars since 1997 for the fight against cancer. The Foundation has helped over 2.5 million cancer survivors. Armstrong killed the sport but helped save millions of lives. It makes everyone outside of true cycling enthusiasts, walk away from the series feeling conflicted about Armstrong. How can you still be angry at someone, who has done that much good in life? Well, Lance makes it very hard for the average person to still like him, after all that good will. Cancer survivors credit him, the cycling community still hates him and Lance doesn’t seem to care either way. 

Streaming on: ESPN +, Netflix Subscription

7. I’ll Be Gone in the Dark (HBO Max – 2020): Ponch: 9/10 – IMDB: 7.4/10 – RT: 96% – Metacritic: 82%  

“l Be Gone in the Dark” is a true crime six-part docu-series about Michelle McNamara, her book of the same name and her obsessive amateur investigation of the “Golden State Killer.  The book and docu-series were both released posthumously. Both explore the case of the killer who victimized Californians in the 1970’s and 1990’s, committing over 50 sexual assaults and 10 murders. The docu-series follows McNamara on her quest to bring him to justice and is told by her friends, family and others with involvement in the case.

TRUE OBESSION WITH CATCHING SERIAL KILLERS

“I’ll Be Gone in the Dark” is an amazing series because it’s really three documentaries in one. It hooks you in with the story of the “Golden State Killer”. Like any true crime doc, it is very interesting, and serial killer documentaries are very popular right now, but what sets this series apart is the personal story of the book’s writer, Michelle McNamara. McNamara was married to comedian Patton Oswald and she had a daughter, yet her life was dedicated to catching this killer. She had a true obsession with crime blogs and chat rooms. McNamara tragically died of a drug overdose trying to finish the book of the same name, and without her book (that came out two years after her death) the killer probably wouldn’t have been captured. The toll this took on McNamara, her family and friends is almost as interesting as the actual detective work itself.

ONE MORE LIFE TAKEN TOO SOON

Because the “Golden State Killer” moved up and down the state of California he actually went by several monikers including the “East Area Rapist”. Which is really the third topic of the documentary, a real inner look at rape victims and their healing. These survivors deal with their feelings of helplessness, depression, group consultation, and finally recovery. In the final act, these people found strength in number, talking about their similar experience with the murder/rapist and the creators did a great job of weaving McNamara’s death into the narrative, as if the killer took one last life. McNamara’s death is bittersweet. She is the hero of this story and even the FBI and police admitted that they could not have solved the case without her (which they acknowledge is rare with internet sleuths, who usually only get in the way), but leaves behind loved ones all because of an obsession and a misuse of drugs. It’s hard to watch the spiral knowing it could have been prevented. Years from now, this documentary will stand out from the crowd of true crime docs because of McNamara’s talents and legacy.

Streaming on: HBO Max Subscription

6. On the Record (HBO – 2020): Ponch: 9/10 – IMDB: 7.8/10 – RT: 99% – Metacritic: 84%

“On the Record” is a documentary that centers on the harassment and sexual abuse in the hip-hop music community and the allegations against hip-hop leaders and moguls Russell Simmons and L.A. Reid. The documentary primarily focuses on the story of Drew Dixon, a former A&R executive at Def Jam Records who claims that Simmons raped her in his apartment. Over 20 women give interviews accusing Simmons of abuse and agreeing on the lack of Black women’s voices in the #MeToo movement.

THE HIP HOP INDUSTRY’S TERRIBLE SECRET OF CORRUPTION

There have been a rising number of films regarding harassment and sexual abuse since the beginning of the #Metoo movement but I doubt any of them will have the impact that “On The Record” will have. For me, this is the defining story of corrupt powerful men who take what they want, without any regard to the people they have hurt physically and emotionally. This is a documentary about sex and race, and how even the most deplorable actions can be worse for some than others and how movements can leave groups behind.  Hearing Drew Dixon’s recounting of her time in the music industry is gut wrenchingly sad. Dixon was the first woman to publicly raise allegations against Russell Simons and this documentary really goes into detail about why this was so brave. When levying allegations against someone who is a hero to a community, that community feels you aren’t just taking down that individual but the community itself. This really hit home with me and helped me understand how hard it is for women to come forward in these situations. Dixon recounts how this wrecked her career not once but twice. She tells the story of how common this is in the music industry especially in Hip Hop and it is saddening.

A TALENTED WOMAN, WHO DESERVED MORE

As a huge Hip Hop fan, I enjoyed hearing about Dixon’s success and the behind the scene stories about her early triumphs at Def Jam, which makes the rest of her story all that more upsetting. The defining moment in the film for me is when she talks about being blocked from signing Kanye West and John Legend at Arista. If you are a Hip Hop fan, you know who these two heavy-weights in the industry are and you know they were can’t miss talents that couldn’t fail, so did Dixon. Her talent was evident, and wasted by these men, and I am glad she had a chance to tell her side of the story.  I hope this film is able to prevent a lot of these atrocities from happening again. 

Streaming on: HBO Max Subscription

TOP 25 DOCUMENTARIES OF 2020

#5 to #1

5. TIE – Dick Johnson is Dead (Netflix-2020): Ponch:  9/10 – IMDB: 7.6/10 – RT: 100% – Metacritic: 89%

“Dick Johnson Is Dead” is a dark comedy documentary film directed by Kirsten Johnson focusing on her father Richard, who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. The documentary depicts a series of different ways in which he could ultimately die, some of them are violent accidents or things that have nothing to do with dementia.  In each scenario, Johnson’s father plays along with his daughter’s black humor and imaginative ideas on how he could die.

HE’S NOT REALLY DEAD YET BUT THAT’S THE POINT

“Dick Johnson is Dead” is one of the more stylized documentaries ever made and really pushes the boundaries of what a documentary can be. With Kristen Johnson telling her father’s story, it really makes the tone serious yet playful and humorous. The documentary is somehow both modernized but feels traditional. The elaborate ways that Kirsten “kills” her father are so unique and darkly hilarious and the cinematography/framing is phenomenal during these moments. The transition from what’s real including the moments with his family to the fake moments are so smooth. At first, it’s hard to tell what is real until Johnson’s fake death’s start to get more elaborate accumulating in his fake funeral. Too most people, this probably sounds a bit twisted and some of the deaths are a little jarring but it’s highly entertaining only because it is always followed up by so much love from the family. The moments in between the deaths, are the real draw. Seeing how a family deals with aging and dementia on screen is both heartfelt, joyful and honest. The bond between father and daughter makes this documentary very special. It can be sad and a little depressing at times but it’s all these elements that the Johnson’s were able to capture that will have people talking about this film for years to come. “Dick Johnson is Dead” reminds us to spend as much time you can and care about your loved ones while they are still here.

Streaming on: Netflix Subscription

5.  TIE – The Social Dilemma (Netflix – 2020): Ponch: 9/10 – IMDB: 7.7/10 – RT: 87% – Metacritic: 78%

“The Social Dilemma” is a docudrama film that explores the rise of social media and the damage it has caused to society. The film focuses on how social media is designed to exploit its users through surveillance capitalism and data mining to make large financial gains. The design of most websites is meant to nurture an addiction, its use in politics, its effect on mental health and rising teen suicide rates, but primarily in its role in spreading conspiracy theories and making money off its user’s views and preferences. The documentary features interviews with many individuals who worked in big tech for some of the largest social media companies.

THE DILEMMA OF NON REGULATED MEDIA

What makes “The Social Dilemma” so freighting is that, deep down we all know that we are being manipulated by our social media platforms, yet we keep using them. Even worse, we keep buying what they are selling. People keep making vital decisions in our lives controlled and possibly manipulated, yet we don’t question it because it reinforces what we want to believe. “The Social Dilemma” reconfirms what we already know, but what separates it from other documentaries like it, is the way it’s presented and who is doing the presenting. All of the commentary is presented by people in the industry, high level executives from Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, etc. The documentary separates itself from others, when you learn what these people do. These employees were paid to monetize their company’s information. The truth didn’t matter anymore, only the amount of views. The documentary shows they are telling us that they are manipulating the public with algorithms that re-enforce already present beliefs. It’s terrifying in a way. “The Social Dilemma’s” most disturbing commentary is on the influence social media has on teenagers dealing with depression, peer pressure and suicidal tendencies.

WE JUST CAN’T STOP, DO WE EVEN WANT TOO

People are still buying products and getting into fights with relatives over politics because of content that is being forced fed to us, yet we don’t question our own ideas, because we want to believe them. Instead of questioning what was already placed inside our heads, people are just jumping to other platforms that do the same thing, reinforcing those same ideas. The experts in “The Social Dilemma” are trying to right the wrongs they have done by telling us to question everything we read online. It does a great job of showing its audience that addiction is real, yet it’s only semi-effective: I will question more of what I read, but I still use Google, and have Facebook, Instagram, Twitter accounts, etc. After watching this doc, now I am just more informed and more paranoid. 

Streaming on: Netflix Subscription

4. Athlete A (Netflix – 2020): Ponch: 10/10 –  IMDB: 7.7/10 – RT: 100% – Metacritic: 85%

“Athlete A” is a sports documentary film that tells the story of years of ignored sexual abuse of young women by the USA Gymnastics Olympic Doctor, Larry Nassar. The team of investigative journalists from The Indianapolis Star broke the story of the assaults and a majority of the documentary is presented by the team of journalists and the gymnasts themselves highlighted by the story of Maggie Nichols, “Athlete A”.

THERE WERE NO WINNERS IN THIS STORY

“Athlete A” is full of raw emotion and one of the more gripping films of 2020. As a father of a young daughter, this was difficult to watch at times. I was both saddened for these young women and enraged that USA Gymnastics allowed this to happen. From the news, I knew how all this ended: Dr. Larry Nassar’s accusers reading their heartbreaking statements, right before Judge Aquilina sentenced him to 175 years in prison. The documentary was more than just shock and outrage, the filmmakers gradually took us through how the sport of Gymnastics changed over the last three decades, showing us the dark path the sport went down, accumulating in the unthinkable, yet somehow seemingly inevitable abuse of these athletes. It slowly became a money making machine, hitting the pockets of parents through their targeted young female audience. For fans of the sport, there are new angles and added context on some of the sport’s more famous faces like Bela and Marta Karolyi, to its biggest moments like Kerri Strug’s iconic vault from the 1996 Olympic games. Unfortunately, most of the context is unsettling, especially the story of gymnast Maggie Nichols, whose abuse went far beyond physical. The lies, corruption and cover-up will make you uneasy, the feelings of hope, change and justice in the end gives the documentary just enough light. 

Streaming on: Netflix Subscription

3. Chef’s Table BBQ (Netflix – 2020): Ponch: 10/10 – IMDB: 8.6/10 – RT: 100% – Metacritic: 86%

“Chef’s Table” is the first original Netflix documentary series, which focuses on different world renown chefs and their style in every episode exploring their personal philosophies and approach to cooking. The seventh season focuses specifically on “pit masters” and the different types of BBQ globally.

A SENSESSES SHATTERING MOUTHWATERING, APPETITE FULLFILLING EXPERIENCE

Every episode of “Chef’s Table” makes you salivate and hunger for more. I have never been this interested in how food is prepared. For fans of the Food Network or cooking shows in general, this is a must watch and quite possibly the best series of the genre.  It’s a very intimate look at these chef’s rise to prominence and their obstacles in cooking and in life. These people are more like artists than they are cooks. Every episode of the docu-series is beautifully shot and edited. The crispness of the editing and cinematography really raises the quality of the show to a level of perfection rarely seen in cooking shows and most docu-series in general. “Chef’s Table” is just as much about the extraordinary people it profiles as it is about the delicious food they create.

Streaming on: Netflix Subscription

2. Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness (Netflix – 2020): Ponch: 10/10 – IMDB: 7.6/10 – RT: 86% – Metacritic: 76%

“Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness” is a true crime documentary miniseries concentrating primarily on big cat lover Joe Exotic and the lives of big cat conservationists including exotic animal trainer and trafficker Doc Antle; Carol Baskin, owner of Big Cat Rescue; and other collectors such as Exotic, whom Baskin accuses of abusing and exploiting wild animals. The documentary series exposes the lives of these big cat fanatics and the craziness of their everyday lives including Exotic accusing Baskin of murdering her husband. The docu-series was so popular that a Special hosted by Joel McHale was released shortly after the original series aired.

LIONS AND TIGERS AND MURDERS, OH MY

“Tiger King” is the liger of all 2020 documentaries. This was the big one that everyone was talking about and this was the inspiration behind all those cat and mullet wearing zoo worker Halloween costumes. Although there may be better executed documentaries, “Tiger King” is one of the most entertaining docuseries ever made. This is the first documentary I have ever seen that successfully blended the educational aspects of a documentary with the entertainment aspects of a reality TV series. While viewing the series, I proclaimed several times “How did they get this on camera”? I think the documentary team got a little lucky: They set out to make a doc about these eccentric “Big Cat” people and in the process of making the series, realized there was a far more interesting story there, with characters that were made for reality TV. It is an achievement that I believe will spawn numerous imitations, that won’t be able to duplicate the spontaneity and realness of the “Tiger King”.  They were able to catch an accidental suicide, and the aftermath of someone getting their arm torn off by a tiger, on camera, and those were somehow not even the most interesting moments of the series. The documentary team was able to produce pure television gold, that will be very hard to match because these “Big Cat” enthusiasts were so fascinating and in some cases insane (also insanely entertaining). 

Streaming on: Netflix Subscription 

1. The Last Dance (ESPN – 2020): Ponch: 10/10 – IMDB: 9.2/10 – RT: 96% – Metacritic: 90% 

“The Last Dance” is a Sports documentary miniseries co-produced by ESPN Films and Netflix. The series main focus is the career of Michael Jordan, specifically his final season with the Chicago Bulls in which Jordan and the Bull’s organization allowed a crew to film them as they chased a sixth title. The footage was kept hidden for over two decades, and Jordan finally allowed the documentary to see the light of day in 2020.  The series features exclusive footage. The film makers had an all-access pass to the Bulls. The docuseries featured commentary by many players including Jordan, Scotty Pippen, Dennis Rodman, coaches and other employees of the organization.

ONE OF THE BEST SPORTS DOCUMENTARIES EVER MADE

 “The Last Dance” is not only the best documentary of 2020, it’s easily one of the top five best sports documentaries of all time. Viewers are so fortunate that Jordan finally gave the approval for this to be made, and it couldn’t have come at a better time. Breaking all kinds of viewership records, this documentary gave sports fans something to watch when all major American professional sports were shut down due to the Corona virus.  “The Last Dance” will be mentioned with “OJ: Made in America”, “Hoop Dreams”, “Senna”, “The Two Escobars”, “Pumping Iron”, “Icarus”, “Free Solo”, and others as one of sport’s best. Pundits can pick their own order on these sports docs, but I believe “The Last Dance” separates itself by truly being about competition and what it takes to win. Most of the other great sports documentaries usually focus on the individual circumstances outside of the sport that brought the stories of their subjects to prominence. Those circumstances (murder, drug abuse, sexual abuse, etc.) typically add to people’s interest in the documentary. While “The Last Dance” does touch on Michael Jordan’s life and influence on the world outside of sports, it primarily focuses on competition, winning and what it takes to stay on top. It isn’t afraid to talk about what really happened on the court and in the locker room. 

SAVE THE BEST FOR LAST

“The Last Dance” also does a great job of giving multiple sides to those stories, but make no mistake this is a documentary about one of the most popular athletes in history and what makes Michael Jordan the greatest. His influence on the docuseries is massive and it’s easy to see that Jordan had the most input into how things were going to be portrayed. There are so many things to love about this series, from the music that really captures the time period, to the wonderful cinematography. For young viewers who have only heard about his greatness or for people who talk about other players like Lebron James as being on his level: “The Last Dance” was a reminder of the conditions in which Jordan succeeded and the obstacles that he and the Bulls were able to overcome to be the best. Jordan had a rock-star type of following that no athlete before or even today has ever had to deal with, that would have been a huge distraction to most people.  He and his teammates won it all despite all of these potential distractions, not once but multiple times, cumulating in the pressure of playing in a final season together in which they already knew would be their last. Mix in that story with the exclusive footage, superb editing and a soundtrack that acts like a time capsule and you have a truly extraordinary documentary. 

Streaming on: ESPN + or Netflix Subscription

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