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 into 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:
#60 to #21
60. The Show Must Go On: Queen + Adam Lambert (Netflix – 2020): Ponch: 3/10 – IMDB: 7.9/10 – RT: N/A% – Metacritic: N/A% – Streaming on: Netflix Subscription
59. Shawn Mendes: In Wonder (Netflix – 2020): Ponch: 3/10 – IMDB: 6.5/10 – RT: 50% – Metacritic: 40% – Streaming on: Netflix Subscription
58. Wild Card: The Downfall of Radio Loudmouth (HBO Max – 2020): Ponch: 3/10 – IMDB: 5.9/10 – RT: N/A – Metacritic: N/A% – Streaming on: HBO Max
57. Babies (Netflix – 2020): Ponch: 4/10 – IMDB: 6.9/10 – RT: 75% – Metacritic: 58% – Streaming on: Netflix Subscription
TONS OF MUSIC DOCS IN 2020 BUT MOST SOUNDED FLAT
56. Ariana Grande: Excuse Me, I Love You (Netflix – 2020): Ponch: 4/10 – IMDB: 6.5/10 – RT: 50% – Metacritic: 70% – Streaming on: Netflix Subscription
55. David Foster: Off The Record (Netflix – 2020): Ponch: 4/10 – IMDB: 6.3/10 – RT: 88% – Metacritic: 56% – Streaming on: Netflix Subscription
54. Fear City: NYC vs the Mob (Netflix – 2020): Ponch: 4/10 – IMDB: 7.1/10 – RT: 67% – Metacritic: 61% – Streaming on: Netflix Subscription
THE STORY OF THE CHAMPS TOLD BY THE CHAMPS THEMSELVES
53. America’s Game: The Super Bowl Champions – Kansas City Chiefs (NFL Network – 2020): Ponch: 5/10 – IMDB: N/A% – RT: NA% – Metacritic: N/A%
Side Note: Most of the “America’s Game” series of documentaries about the Super Bowl past champions are pretty riveting. I’m not sure whether it was the Chiefs players themselves that weren’t interesting or whether there was a dip in quality since the earlier seasons but this was one of the worst documentaries of that series (I am sure Chief’s fans loved it). I highly recommend episodes from the first two seasons of champions and the third called the “Missing Rings”. Much like “Hard Knocks”, if you like the team, I am sure you will love it. – Streaming on: NFL Network, YouTube
52. Be Water (ESPN – 2020): Ponch: 5/10 – IMDB: 6.9/10 – RT: 75% – Metacritic – 58% – Streaming on: ESPN + or Netflix Subscription
51. The Pharmacist (Netflix – 2020): Ponch: 6/10 – IMDB: 7.7/10 – RT: 89% – Metacritic: 73% – Streaming on: Netflix Subscription
50. Spaceship Earth (Hulu – 2020): Ponch: 6/10 – IMDB: 6.4/10 – RT: 87% – Metacritic: 73% – Streaming on: Hulu Subscription
49. Long Gone Summer (ESPN – 2020): Ponch: 6/10 – IMDB: 7.1/10 – RT: 75% – Metacritic: N/A% – Streaming on: ESPN + or Netflix Subscription
48. I Am Greta (Hulu – 2020): Ponch: 6/10 – IMDB: 8.1/10 – RT: 78% – Metacritic: 78% – Streaming on: Hulu Subscription
47. Challenger: The Final Flight (Netflix – 2020): Ponch: 6/10 – IMDB: 7.3/10 – RT: 92% – Metacritic: 76%- Streaming on: Netflix Subscription
BEST OF THE REST DOCS OF THE YEAR
#45 to #26
46. Jeffery Epstein: Filthy Rich (Netflix – 2020): Ponch: 6/10 – IMDB: 7.1/10 – RT: 81% – Metacritic: 61% – Streaming on: Netflix Subscription
45. American Masters (PBS – 2020): Ponch: 6/10 – IMDB: 8/10 – RT: 100% – Metacritic: 67%
Side Note: If you enjoy classic documentaries about cultural artists, there are tons of great “American Masters” episodes. – Streaming on PBS.com
44. A Secret Love (Netflix – 2020): Ponch: 6/10 – IMDB: 7.9/10 – RT: 100% – Metacritic: 77% – Streaming on: Netflix Subscription
43. Belushi (Showtime – 2020): Ponch: 6/10 – IMDB: 7.3/10 – RT: 88% – Metacritic: 72% – Streaming on: Showtime Subscription
42. All In: The Fight for Democracy (Amazon Prime – 2020): Ponch: 6/10 – IMDB: 6.3/10 – RT: 100% Metacritic: 78% – Streaming on: Amazon Prime Subscription
41. Marvel’s 616 (Disney + – 2020): Ponch: 6/10 – IMDB: 6.4/10 – RT: 100% – Metacritic: 84% -Streaming on: Disney + Subscription
40. John Lewis: Good Trouble (HBO Max – 2020): Ponch: 6/10 – IMDB: 7/10 – RT: 96% – Metacritic – 70% – Streaming on: HBO Max
39. Becoming (Netflix – 2020): Ponch: 6/10 – IMDB: 6.8/10 – RT: 93% – Metacritic: 66% – Streaming on: Netflix Subscription
38. Justin Bieber: Seasons (YouTube – 2020): Ponch: 7/10 – IMDB: 5.6/10 – RT: N/A% – Metacritic: N/A% – Streaming on: YouTube
37. Crazy Not Insane (HBO Max – 2020): Ponch: 6/10 – IMDB: 6.9/10 – RT: 92% – Metacritic: 78% -Streaming on: HBO Max
36. The Speed Cubers (Netflix – 2020): Ponch: 7/10 – IMDB: 7.4/10 – RT: 92% – Metacritic: N/A% – Streaming on: Netflix Subscription
ITS A HARD KNOCK LIFE FOR US
35. Hard Knocks: Los Angeles (HBO Max – 2020): Ponch: 7/10 – IMDB: 7.6/10 – RT: N/A% – Metacritic: N/A%
Side Note: A lot of the Hard Knock seasons vary on the team getting profiled. If you like the team from that season, I am sure you will enjoy the season more. This particular season was average. There have been some great seasons and some less interesting ones of this show depending on the individuals they highlight during that team’s pre-season. – Streaming on: HBO Max
34. Howard (Disney + – Late 2019): Ponch: 7/10 – IMDB: 7.7/10 – RT: 93% – Metacritic: 76% – Streaming on: Disney + Subscription
33. Laurel Canyon: A Place in Time (EPIX – 2020): Ponch: 7/10 – IMDB: 8.2/10 – RT: 100% – Metacritic 85% – Streaming on: EPIX
32. Song Exploder (Netflix – 2020): Ponch: 7/10 – IMDB: 7.4/10 – RT: 88% – Metacritic: 80% – Streaming on: Netflix Subscription
31. Murder on Middle Beach (HBO – 2020): Ponch: 7/10 – IMDB: 7.5/10 – RT: 100% – Metacritic: 76% – Streaming on: HBO Max Subscription
30. The Go-Gos (Showtime – 2020): Ponch: 7/10 – IMDB: 7.5/10 – RT: 97% – Metacritic: 81% – Streaming on: Showtime Subscription
29. Time (Amazon Prime – 2020): Ponch: 7/10 – IMDB: 7.2/10 – RT: 98% – Metacritic: 91% – Streaming on: Amazon Prime Subscription
TAYLOR TIMES TWO
28. Taylor Swift: Miss Americana (Netflix – 2020): Ponch: 7/10 – IMDB: 7.8/10 – RT: 91% – Metacritic: 65%
27. Folklore The Long Pond Studio Sessions – Taylor Swift (Disney + – 2020): Ponch: 7/10 – IMDB: 8.4/10 – RT: 100% – Metacritic: 76%
Side Note: “Miss America” and “Taylor Swift: Folklore The Long Pond Studio Sessions” are both documentary films that give viewers an intimate look into the life of one of the most popular musicians of all time and arguable the biggest musician of this generation: Taylor Swift. “Miss America” is more of a classic “Rock Doc” that showcases Swift’s life over the course of several years of her career including interviews and “The Long Pond Studio Sessions” is more of intimate concert with confessionals. I would have loved for these two documentaries to be combined somehow, which would have really broken new ground. These are both fun entertaining docs. If you are fan, you should absolutely watch both. – “Taylor Swift: Folklore The Long Pond Studio Sessions” – Streaming on Disney+/“Miss Americana” – Streaming on: Netflix Subscription
26. Welcome to Chechnya (HBO Max – 2020): Ponch: 7/10 – IMDB: 7.9/10 – RT: 100% – Metacritic: 86% – Streaming on: HBO Max Subscription
TOP 25 DOCUMENTARIES OF 2020
#25 to #20
25. The Apollo (HBO Max – Late 2019): Ponch: 7/10 – IMDB: 6.4/10 – RT: 95% – Metacritic: 79%
“The Apollo” is a documentary television film about the rich history of New York City’s iconic Apollo theater in Harlem. The documentary follows The Apollo’s inaugural staging of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ acclaimed “Between the World and Me” among other highlights and star turns on the stage of The Apollo.
IMAGINE SOMEONE ACTUALLY BOOING LAURYN HILL, THAT’S THE MAGIC OF THE APOLLO
“The Apollo” is a classic documentary that won the Emmy for Outstanding Documentary in 2020. The theater opened in 1934 and somehow the creators were able to cram 85 years of performances into a 102 minutes, which is pretty remarkable. The film highlights how the theater celebrated Black culture while talking about the racial struggles and what it means to be Black in America. The Apollo helped remedy those struggles by giving Black artists a platform to perform. If it weren’t for the theater a lot of these performers would have never gotten a chance. The most interesting parts of the documentary were the “Notes” Frank Schiffman the first Manager of the Apollo Theater and of course some of the performances themselves. Unlike some of the docu-series that I think should have been cut down into movies, “The Apollo” I feel could have worked better as a series touching on more aspects of why it closed down in the 70’s and how it catapulted artists to stardom over the years. The film was shot beautifully and well-paced, but as I mentioned it is more of a classic and not the most ground breaking documentary. The most interesting aspects were the artist themselves. When someone as talented as Lauryn Hill gets booed at The Apollo, you know it’s a special place and that the artists need to bring it every night when preforming there. Watching those early performances and how the theater helped mold those artists was incredible. Streaming on: HBO Max Subscription
24. The Vow (HBO Max – 2020): Ponch: 7/10 – IMDB: 7.5/10 – RT: 82% – Metacritic: 76%
The Vow is a true crime documentary series following members of the cult group NXIVM whose famous members like Allison Mack of “Smallville” fame and leader, Keith Raniere, that were convicted of several crimes including racketeering and sex trafficking. The documentary reveals the emotional manipulation and toll a cult takes on members told by members who broke away from the group.
FROM SELF IMPROVEMENT GROUP TO A HOLLYWOOD SEX CULT
The subject matter of “The Vow” is immensely compelling and this should have been ranked much higher on this list, if it were not for the creators stretching the story out into a series rather than mini-series or film. It starts slow, taking the viewer through the humble beginnings of the self-improvement group. In retrospect, I can see why they did this: The creators wanted to show the audience how easy it was to buy into a cult if positioned correctly. I admit, as I saw these member’s lives improve on screen from the self-help service, it was hard to deny that this wasn’t the right decision for them. This gave the series some context and the participants some empathy from viewers that they would need by the end of the series when you realize they were all duped. By the third episode, everything gets ramped up. You start to see more aspects of a cult and the involvement of famous clientele. These are the most captivating aspects of the series and also the most horrifying. Raniere comes off as a complete sleaze and is easily viewed as the villain, but as a huge fan of “Smallville”, it’s Alison Mack’s involvement that is so disheartening and gripping. Why would anyone do these awful things to their friends; especially someone who had such a promising career in Hollywood in front of them? This is the first series that I have seen that shows the internal conflict of joining a cult and the guilt these people still harbor. “The Vow” is an incredibly engaging watch that gives you a lot more info than what you get from the headlines, taking you right into the center of a sex cult. Streaming on: HBO Max Subscription
23. Class Action Park (HBO Max – 2020): Ponch: 7/10 – IMDB: 7/10 – RT: 96% – Metacritic: 69%
“Class Action Park” is a documentary film about an amusement park, named Action Park, which used to be located in Vernon Township, New Jersey. The documentary begins by chronicling the life of the owner Eugene Mulvihill up to him opening Action Park in 1978. The first half of the film focuses on the popularity of the park featuring former Action Park guests and employees, discussing the park’s more dangerous rides. The second half of the film focuses in on the poor safety record of the attractions located on its grounds and the dangers of Action Park telling the story of George Larsson Jr. and other patrons who died on the park grounds.
HILARIOUS 80’s THEME PARK NOSTALGIA
I admit that “Class Action Park” has its flaws and the shift in tone between the first and last half of the film might be too polarizing for some, but this was an immensely entertaining documentary that at times had unrestrained bits of humor. I know people died and I know that I shouldn’t be laughing in the beginning, already knowing what was coming at the end but I couldn’t help myself, because that was the tone the creators set. It was a fun ride down memory lane when times were looser and wild. This is pure whirling 80’s nostalgia and the narrators were hilarious. This is one of the funniest docs I have ever seen, especially every scene of commentary from Comedian, Chris Gethard. I was glad they took this type of nostalgic dark comedy tone, but I do feel sympathy for the families who lost someone to the park’s lack of safety measures. This would have been a disaster of a movie if it was fully dark and somber or the narrators didn’t have such childlike exuberance when gushingly talking about the park, but it wasn’t. Everyone has a memory of a time when they think they almost died, in actuality you probably weren’t that close to dying. You usually laugh about it when you talk about it now, that was the tone of the whole movie. Some of these Park goers have a way better story than what we do, because they almost did die, while having the time of their lives. Streaming on: HBO Max Subscription
22. 30 for 30: Vick (ESPN – 2020): Ponch: 7/10 – IMDB: 7.4/10 – RT: N/A% – Metacritic: N/A%
In November of 2007, NFL QB Michael Vick began serving what would be a nearly two-year sentence for crimes related to his involvement in a dog fighting ring. Vick had gone from superstar athlete to national pariah; from one of the most popular players in the NFL to a man as ostracized as virtually any public figure in America. The full story is chronicled in “Vick,” the two-part 30 for 30 directed by the award-winning documentarian Stanley Nelson. A comprehensive look back at each chapter of Michael Vick’s saga: the incredible rise, shocking fall, and polarizing return.
THE RISE AND FALL OF ONE OF THE MOST POLARIZING ATHETES OF ALL TIME
I am huge sports fan, and some non-sports fans may think I have placed too many sports documentaries in my top 25 but sports are truly universal and have no boundaries. The “30 for 30” series by ESPN is consistently strong and “Vick” is no exception. Like most of the great “30 for 30” series this two-part documentary transcends sports. The rise and fall of Michael Vick is engrossing television. This is more than just a story about a quarterback who murdered helpless animals. This film hits on so many different factors that led to his imprisonment and ultimately to his animal activism, including the popularity of sports, race, poverty, sudden immense stardom, feelings of remorse and survivor’s guilt and finally redemption. “Vick” really supplies context to what led him to these terrible decisions but more importantly gives an update on what he has done since leaving football, and both are equally as fascinating. The series also doesn’t shy away from showing you how rare of a talent Vick was at even the highest of level. He separated himself from other pros. The balance between hero and victim is well executed on multiple levels, making the viewer feel multiple emotions: hate, anger, excitement, sadness, empathy but mostly dumb-fundament. It’s hard to imagine how this very seemingly intelligent, compassionate person could treat these animals so poorly. It’s even harder to believe that he is still this dedicated to righting his wrongs, and has saved far more animals than he has hurt. You want to hate him, but the film shows you how changing his life wasn’t just lip service to get back into the league, and that conflict is the real draw of “Vick”. Streaming on: Netflix and ESPN+
21. Don’t F**K with Cats: Hunting an Internet Killer (Netflix – Late Dec 2019): Ponch: 7/10 – IMDB: 8/10 – RT: 67% – Metacritic: N/A
“Don’t F**K with Cats” is a true crime documentary series that follows a group of internet sleuths who launched a manhunt for Luka Magnotta after he shared a graphic video online of himself killing two kittens. The crowd-sourced amateur online investigation into a series of animal cruelty acts culminated in the murder of a Chinese international student in Montreal in 2010.
YOU SHOULD NEVER MESS WITH ANIMAL LOVERS WHO HAVE INTERNET CONNECTIONS
“Don’t F**K with Cats” came out in late December of 2019 and I usually like to include late December works on these type of lists if I didn’t get a chance to consider them the year before because of release date. Most people viewed the Docu-series like me in 2020 and I am so glad I did. “Don’t F**K with Cats” is highly entertaining, centering around group of animal loving amateurs. Alll the individuals who aided in taking down Magnotta were highly compelling for a group of random amateurs, and much better in front of the camera than your average internet computer geeks. It’s amazing the amount of time and effort these people put in and you will be amazed at their skills of deduction. These internet sleuths seem to find clues out of nothing. As they get closer and closer to finding the killer, their own safety comes in to play, making the series that much more thrilling. These are people like you and me, putting themselves in danger to make sure this man won’t kill again. The crime docu-series genre has become immensely popular in the last five years, but there are few in the genre you will find this disturbing and suspenseful. Streaming on: Netflix Subscription