Best of 2020: Documentaries

14 Dec 2020 BY Steven Ryder in Film Features

7 mins
White Riot
White Riot

Welcome to the second in our series of end-of-year blogs, as we aim to celebrate cinema in all its forms and introduce you to some great 2020 films you may have missed - or would like to revisit - from this most turbulent of years. Last time out, we looked at the best British films of 2020, and this time we're highlighting some of the superb documentaries released over the last 12 months.

Best Documentaries of 2020

After a surprising and challenging year, it has become more crucial than ever to celebrate the variety and importance of cinema from around the world. Every kind of film has the ability to teach us something about who we are - either as individuals or as a collective - but the value of non-fiction filmmaking becomes more and more evident with each passing year. With so much untold history now being given this treatment and new, exciting real-world stories emerging every day, the documentary has become the preferred format for filmmakers to explore the world around them.

This year has also seen many documentaries take a biographical approach, focusing on world famous figures as well as smaller and more intimate individual stories. Internationally co-produced documentary I Am Greta presents two years in the life of one of the world's most famous teenagers, Greta Thunberg, and her continuing battle against climate change, whilst the sensitive and personal Time, from American director Garrett Bradley, gave a valuable platform to Sibil Fox Richardson, a woman who has been fighting for the release of her husband from a corrupt prison system for almost two decades.

Elsewhere, One Man and His Shoes is an entertaining and informative British debut which examines the social and economic impact that Michael Jordan's Air Jordan brand shoes had around the world. and Totally Under Control is a topical exploration of the American response to this year's COVID-19 pandemic and what could have been improved or prevented with better leadership and a more scientific response. 

Below, each member of Into Film's expert film curation team picks their own personal documentary highlight of 2020.

Capital in the 21st Century - Chosen by Steven Ryder

The 2020 pandemic has led to the exposure of many tenuous structures and rules within society that, when scrutinised, begin to buckle under pressure, and the world economy is one of them. This in-depth but audience-friendly documentary - based on the 2013 book of the same name - was a fascination for an economic novice such as myself but, in detailing the history of how capitalism came to be and examining the west's fixation on accumulating wealth, the film is an eye-opening and oftentimes frightening look at how big money has become an obsession, which could be dangerous for all but the wealthiest amongst us.

Capital in the 21st Century is the perfect example of how a documentary can take a seemingly difficult topic such as economic history and make it refreshing, illuminating and - as if by magic - entertaining. With numerous pop culture references and insightful interviews with familiar faces and leading experts, this is a film that became a wonderful starting point for me to delve into the world of economics and capitalism, and I'm sure others will feel the same.

Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am - Chosen by Maria Cabrera

Toni Morrison's literary work is known for its sharp, daring exploration of relationships and generational trauma, and is grounded in the perspectives of Black people, in particular Black women. Shaking up the literary world, Morrison's work has influenced many arenas, from activism to filmmaking. This intimate and meditative documentary reflects on her expansive work alongside key events in her personal life, pieced together with a narration by the author herself. 

Although including reflections and anecdotes by huge cultural figures such as Barack Obama and Oprah, it is the film's quietest moments that are particularly brilliant and insightful. In one such moment Morrison remembers taking a long break in a small house by a lake. She recalls looking out on the water and envisioning what became the captivating start of Beloved, arguably her most celebrated novel and for which she won a Pulitzer Prize. Hearing directly from the storyteller, we get a sense of the depths of her writing process and just how daring and innovative her point of view was. 

Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am is a wonderful insight into one of the world's most important storytellers that celebrates her enigmatic persona while also offering a well-rounded understanding of Morrison as a Black women in America who was also a mother, editor and college professor.

Rebuilding Paradise - Chosen by Michael Prescott

Ron Howard's documentary visits the fatefully-named town of Paradise, California, which in November 2018 was victim to a devastating wildfire which killed 86 people and left thousands more temporarily displaced. The film focuses on members of this community, who must decide whether they want to go back and attempt to rebuild what they once had, or move on to some place new. There is even a question as to whether the town should be rebuilt at all, given that its location makes it particularly susceptible to natural disasters (though the fires in this instance were caused by a combination of corporate negligence and climate change).

Howard's film begins with incredible, intensely cinematic imagery - reminding us that documentaries are not just small-screen fare - as mobile phone and news footage conveys the scale of the disaster. Particularly relevant to this turbulent year, the film hits upon themes and topics around loss, the power of community, and - despite tragic setbacks - hope for the future. It is a particularly emotive documentary as the citizens struggle to put their lives back together, but ultimately it's a testament to the human spirit. 

Beyond all this, the film also includes an interview with a pyrogeographer; which is a career I didn't even know existed before-hand, but now I want to be one!

White Riot - Chosen by Joe Ursell

In a year when shocking images of brutality and racism on city streets seared their way deeper into the consciousness of people around the world, the release of enthralling documentary White Riot could not have been timelier. Chronicling the rise of the Rock Against Racism movement, formed as a response to the increasing prominence of the National Front within areas of youth culture in the 1970s, the film centres around a legendary, defiant concert that took place in London's Victoria Park, at which some of the biggest bands and musicians from across the world brought audiences of all races and backgrounds together in an empowering call to action. 

White Riot is an electrifying film; an important document of a horrifying part of British history that is too rarely discussed; an uncomfortable mirror to many of the issues we are confronting today; and a demonstration of the power of art to help bring about positive changes in attitudes, politics, and wider society. 

I was fortunate enough to watch this film almost a year ago; its impact has stayed with me throughout 2020; particularly its overriding mood of optimism at the ability of people to unite in the face of hatred. 


Steven Ryder, Curation Officer

Steven has an MA in Film Studies, Programming and Curation from the National Film and Television School. He has previously worked for various exhibitors around England and currently freelances as a film critic/podcaster.

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