Best documentaries of 2020

WTOP's Jason Fraley salutes 2020 documentaries (Part 1)

The end of the year is always a time for critics to publish their entertainment best lists.

This year was unlike any other as folks turned to streaming to stay sane during a pandemic.

For the rest of this week, we’re reflecting on the best content we all watched in 2020. Stay tuned on WTOP for rankings of my favorite TV shows of 2020 (Thursday) and favorite movies of 2020 (Friday).

But first, let’s start by ranking the Best Documentaries of 2020. These are the fascinating true stories that captured us, comforted us, enlightened us and distracted us when we needed them most.

Let the countdown begin!

Honorable Mention:

“Love on the Spectrum”

Director: Cian O’Clery

Technically, this show aired in Australia in 2019, but Americans discovered it when it hit Netflix in 2020. Reality dating shows like “The Bachelor” are often the opposite of reality and thus would never qualify for a list of best documentaries.

However, “Love on the Spectrum” was uniquely heartwarming as it chronicled folks on the autism spectrum, endearing us to an array of characters over the course of three episodes.

10. “Dear Santa”

Director: Dana Nachman

In 2015, Dana Nachman directed “Batkid Begins,” chronicling a 5-year-old cancer patient becoming Batman for a day in San Francisco, courtesy of the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

In 2020, Nachman inspired us again with “Dear Santa” about the U.S. Postal Service’s century-old program Operation Santa, showing what happens when kids send letters to the North Pole. You’ll instantly want to adopt the letters yourself to grant more Christmas wishes for children, while gaining new respect for an embattled Postal Service after a heated election year of mail-in ballots.

9. “Time” 

Director: Garrett Bradley 

If Ava DuVernay’s documentary masterpiece “13th” (2016) exposed systemic racism in America’s criminal justice system, “Time” gave it a human face by following a single mom raising kids while her husband serves 60 years behind bars.

Audiences reaction is mixed as some viewers may find it hard to root for convicted bank robbers, but the film urges forgiveness and punishments that fit the crimes.

Shot in black-and-white to match the family’s home movies, the final montage is devastating, reversing the footage in an attempt to rewind the family’s lost time.

8. “76 Days”

Director: Weixi Chen & Hao Wu

If one news event defined 2020, it was COVID-19, infecting millions of people around the globe. “76 Days” chronicles the 76-day lockdown in Wuhan, China, at ground zero of the coronavirus pandemic, providing a raw look at front-line medical professionals treating patients, praying for their recovery and giving the heartbreaking news to grieving families.

Opening with a woman wailing as a body bag is placed in an ambulance, “76 Days” is hard to watch but impossible to forget, proving that some documentaries are great for their rare access during a historic crisis.

7. “The Dissident”

Director: Bryan Fogel

In 2017, Bryan Fogel won the Oscar for Best Documentary with “Icarus,” evolving from a Lance Armstrong expose to an Olympic doping scandal by the Russian government.

In 2020, Fogel delivers another riveting thriller with “The Dissident,” chronicling Saudi Arabia’s state-sponsored murder and dismemberment of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul, Turkey.

The documentary presents damning evidence against Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, exposing his crusade to crack down on opposing voices via social media and secret hacking.

6. “Desert One”

Director: Barbara Kopple 

Decades after her Oscar-winning documentary “Harlan County, USA” (1976), Barbara Kopple recounts one of the most daring rescue attempts in American history: a secret mission to free U.S. hostages during the 1979 Iranian Revolution.

Playing like the opposite of “Zero Dark Thirty” (2012), “Desert One” is a case study in Murphy’s law where everything goes wrong. Kopple’s work shines with unprecedented access to President Jimmy Carter and the U.S. Special Forces reliving their biggest regrets.

5. “Boys State”

Director: Amanda McBaine & Jesse Moss

Winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, “Boys State” explores a youth program where 1,000 teenage boys gather at the Texas state capitol to build a mock representative government. The boys are divided into two political parties, the Federalists and the Nationalists, as they run for political office and craft their own campaign slogans akin to “Yes We Can” and “Make America Great Again.”

Some of the boys will drive you mad with their close-minded testosterone, while others just might be rising political stars in the making, namely Steven Garza and René Otero, who compares government to a plane needing two wings, a left wing and a right wing, in order to fly forward.

4. “Tiger King”

Director: Eric Goode & Rebecca Chaiklin

Love it or hate it, there’s no denying that “Tiger King” was arguably the biggest pop culture sensation of 2020, re-engineering our viewing habits by trending at No. 1 on Netflix at the outset of the pandemic. This deliciously trashy true-crime docuseries follows the bonkers story of mullet-wearing, meth-addicted, polygamist tiger collector Joe Exotic, who is accused of a murder-for-hire plot against his rival animal park operator, Carole Baskin.

For months, viewers buzzed on social media about whether Baskin murdered her husband, and whether Exotic deserved a pardon after seven wild episodes of the most eccentric cast around.

3. “The Social Dilemma”

Director: Jeff Orlowski

Is social media a super-spreading virus? Are Big Tech companies rewiring our brains? These are the terrifying questions posed by “The Social Dilemma,” exploring the dangerous human impact of social networking by interviewing tech experts sounding the alarm on their own creations.

It could have done without the reenactments at the family dinner table, something that tragically disqualified Errol Morris’ pioneering true crime doc “The Thin Blue Line” (1988). Even so, the message is powerful and just might make you delete your social media accounts as the credits roll.

2. “The Last Dance”

Director: Jason Hehir

Nothing was more exciting to watch in 2020 than this 10-part docuseries about the six-time NBA champion Chicago Bulls.

Non-basketball fans may have been confused by the shifting timelines, intercutting the chronological history of Michael Jordan’s career with footage from the team’s “last dance” in the 1997-98 season. However, fans couldn’t wait for new episodes each week to see what Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, Steve Kerr and Phil Jackson would reveal about the collapse of basketball’s biggest dynasty.

Ultimately, it leaves viewers with a nagging question: How could ownership move on from the greatest team ever?

1. “Crip Camp”

Director: James Lebrecht & Nicole Newnham

Winner of the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival, this Netflix original chronicles the groundbreaking summer camp for teenagers with disabilities near Woodstock in the 1960s, teaching them life lessons that would blossom into a landmark political movement for the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, led by relentless activist Judith Heumann. It reminds us that public buildings didn’t always have wheelchair ramps or accessible bathrooms. They had to be fought for during an often underappreciated strand of the civil rights movement.

You probably don’t have a soul if you don’t get emotional watching a boy climb out of his wheelchair and climb up the U.S. Capitol steps like Rocky. We should all root for this film to win the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature come April.

WTOP's Jason Fraley salutes 2020 documentaries (Part 2)

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