OUTSIDE OF the standard conversations about intra-celebrity slapping and best-dressed nominees, the Best Documentary category is rapidly becoming one of the most talked-about subjects each Oscar season. With legendary filmmakers and budding auteurs turning their attention to the craft and others going down more experimental paths in how they portray the real world through film, documentaries now rival their movie counterparts in scale, scope and visual grandeur.
2023 has been no exception, producing some of the most groundbreaking visual storytelling we’ve seen in years, telling stories both tragic and inspiring to boot. Here are our favourites of the year, and those to scope out as awards season approaches.
What are the best documentaries of 2023?
20 Days in Mariupol
The War in Ukraine has fallen somewhat out of the wider public consciousness as other stories crop up and the conflict itself has ground to a bloody stalemate, but PBS’s feature-length episode of Frontline is a poignant reminder of why we should never keep it, and those men fighting for the freedom of their homeland, far out of mind. Filmed by a group of Ukrainian journalists trapped inside one of the most brutally besieged cities in recent times, it’s perhaps the most harrowing documentary made about the war so far.
The story of missionary John Chau and his ill-fated quest to reach, and convert, the uncontactable North Sentinelese briefly captured the entire world’s imagination for a variety of ways, as did its follied and tragic end. National Geographic’s deep dive into the story, deconstructing not just Chau’s own hubris but our own fascination with those who live beyond the fringes of civilisation, is powerful viewing.
Little Richard isn’t a name most millennials this side of the Pacific have a working knowledge of, but at a time where we’re re-evaluating what we know about our rock idols, I Am Everything is a timely and eye-opening tribute to a visionary, a deeply conflicted queer icon and the man many regard as one of the true kings of rock & roll
Little Richard: I Am Everything
Little Richard isn’t a name most millennials this side of the Pacific have a working knowledge of, but at a time where we’re re-evaluating what we know about our rock idols, I Am Everything is a timely and eye-opening tribute to a visionary, a deeply conflicted queer icon and the man many regard as one of the true kings of rock & roll.
Alongside Schwarzenegger and Sly, Beckham is one of a golden trio of high profile Netflix docs made with the express participation of the subject itself, and probably the strongest. All three pull their punches a little when certain topics get a little too sensitive, but Beckham is perhaps the most captivating, detailing the football star’s rise to transcend the sport he was so good at, the pressure of the fame that came with it, and particularly poignantly, just how toxic the media’s relationship with our idols once was.
A documentary that deals with its subject matter as vivaciously as it does tenderly, Kokomo City is an electrifying look at the pride and peril of black trans sex workers in urban America. Taken to the next level by the direction of white-hot emerging filmmaker D. Smith, it’s raucous, unapologetic, essential viewing.
The Deepest Breath
In some ways an extreme sport documentary in the vein of Free Solo and much more than that in others, The Deepest Breath is yet another gripping character study of those who push the limits of human endurance for reasons most mere mortals can’t imagine. Its subject is extreme free diver Alessia Zecchini on her quest to go deeper than any woman before her, with results equal parts nerve-shredding and heart-rending.
The Pigeon Tunnel
It might not have quite the pulsating pace of one of his spy novels, but The Pigeon Novel, which chronicles the life and work of real-life intelligence agent-turned-author John le Carre, real name David Cornwell is every bit as gripping. Based on Cornwell’s memoir and shot over the course of four days before the author’s death a year later, the intellectual tussle between Errol Morris and his subject, as he tries to get deeper than ever before to the heart of his story, is captivating.