We certainly didn't get to see a lot of movies in theaters in 2020, but while we have all been home in various stages of quarantine since the beginning of the year, there have been countless documentaries and docuseries on various streaming services and premium cable channels to help expand our horizons and give us an escape for a short period of time. Over the course of the past 12 months, we've seen series like HBO's I'll Be Gone in the Dark, The Last Dance, and Tiger King, as well as feature-length documentaries like Beastie Boys Story and Jasper Mall.
If there were a golden age of non-fiction storytelling, it would be now thanks in part to all of the outstanding films and series that have been released this year. But with so many out there, keeping track of them all is no easy task. Fret not because here is a list of more than a dozen of the best of what the world of documentaries and docuseries had to offer in 2020.
I'll Be Gone In The Dark (HBO)
The HBO docuseries I'll Be Gone in the Dark is really two stories wrapped into one six-part docuseries centered on the crimes and capture of the Golden State Killer, a former police officer who preyed on dozens of victims in various locations throughout California during the second half of the 20th Century. On one hand, you have interviews with survivors and families of the victims of the Golden State Killer, but on the other you have an emotional and riveting story of the late Michelle McNamara, the obsessive true-crime writer who wrote the book on which the series was named. Sadly, McNamara never got to see her work (both the book and the capture of her subject) come to fruition before her April 2016 death.
Jasper Mall (Amazon)
Once you get past the irony of Amazon distributing a documentary about a dying mall in small town in Alabama, the 2020 film Jasper Mall is one of the best titles on this list and Prime Video, for that matter. Over the course of a year, Bradford Thomason and Brett Whitcomb popped into the once-booming mall just outside of Birmingham, Alabama, to document its employees (specifically Mike McClelland, the mall's superintendent and the driving force to keep the place open) and visitors who do everything from shop, eat, watch gospel concerts, and play dominos. Each little vignette is filmed at a different point throughout the year, which does a remarkable job of showing the mall's fight for survival in a dying town seemingly forgotten by time.
The Social Dilemma (Netflix)
There have been few documentaries that have affected me as much as the 2020 Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma. This enlightening yet terrifying documentary breaks down how social media companies (most notably Facebook and Google) prey on its users and get them addicted to the platforms so they can continue to mine their data as well as influence their behaviors. And with an unusual setup of having a standard documentary with a scripted short film highlighting what the various psychologists, sociologists, and former tech engineers are saying, the documentary does a tremendous job of illustrating issues with social media.
Beastie Boys Story (Apple TV+)
One of the biggest draws to Apple TV+ in 2020 was the premiere of Spike Jonze's live documentary experience Beastie Boys Story (opens in new tab) which featured surviving members Adam "Ad Rock Horovitz and Michael "Mike D" Diamond taking a theater full of Bestie Boys fans through the group's nearly 40-year history and the unbreakable bond they formed along the way.
Over the course of the nearly two-hour documentary/two-man show/Q&A panel, Ad Rock and Mike D tell stories from the road, their final show at Bonnaroo 2009, and the impact that Adam "MCA" Yauch had on them and continues to have on them eight years after he succumbed to cancer on May 4, 2012. Anyone one grew up with Beastie Boys cannot miss this hilarious, emotional, and engaging experience.
Totally Under Control (Hulu)
Years from now when people look back on the year 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic will be one of the first things they learn about. The ongoing public health crisis has affected essentially everyone on the planet and no industry has been left untouched. But a lot of great documentaries about the pandemic and the way it has reshaped society, including the Hulu film Totally Under Control, which does a great job of breaking down the United States federal government's response to the crisis at various stages throughout the year. There are more in-depth documentaries that focus on certain topics or areas, but Totally Under Control is perfect for anyone wanting a more general look at the health crisis and its toll on society.
The Vow (HBO)
There are few outlets (both streaming and traditional television) that released as many great documentaries and docuseries in 2020 than HBO, and one of the biggest of those films was The Vow, a nine-part series on the cult NXIVM, it's leader Keith Raniere, and the various members who broke free of the organization and attempted to get as many people out before too much damage could be done. Each episode focuses on a different aspect of the story as things grow from a group putting on self-help seminars in hotel conference rooms to a global organization whose leaders are serving extended stints in prison due to various crimes committed under their guidance over the years.
The Last Dance (ESPN/Netflix)
Back in April 2020 when everyone was looking for new and fresh content to watch (especially sports), ESPN and Netflix elected to release its 10-episode limited series about the dominant 1990s Chicago Bulls dynasty earlier than expected. The Last Dance, which featured in-depth interviews with everyone from Michael Jordan to Barack Obama to the late Kobe Bryant offered and unparalleled look at the life and careers of some of the Bulls' biggest names that was intertwined with the 1996-1997 season where the team won its sixth NBA Finals Championship.
More than sports, however, The Last Dance touches on the culture of the era and just how significant Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, and the rest of the historic squad were to everyone from all walks of life.
Heaven's Gate: The Cult Of Cults (HBO Max)
Before watching Heaven's Gate: The Cult of Cults on HBO Max in early December 2020, I thought I knew all there was to know about that "crazy UFO cult" who committed mass suicide in order to be picked up by an alien spacecraft in March 1997, but that was far from the case. This four-part docuseries detailing the infamous cult's demise, also sheds light on the human side of the story through interviews with surviving members and the families of those either started the cult or took part in the group's final act at a spacious southern California mansion 23 years ago. This engaging and informative documentary doesn't attempt to justify the actions of Heaven's Gate, but attempts to tell the story that didn't make the news clips on the major evening news shows.
40 Years A Prisoner (HBO)
One of the main purposes of a documentary is to shed light on a subject or event that most people watching don't know about or don't fully understand, and that's very much the case with Tommy Oliver's 2020 documentary 40 Years a Prisoner, which focuses on the 1978 raid by the Philadelphia Police Department on the radical group MOVE that resulted in the death of an officer and extended prison terms by members of the group. Through archival footage and eyewitness interviews, Oliver tells the story of that fateful day as well as the struggle decades later by Mike Africa Jr., the son of two MOVE members convicted of the murder, as he seeks out the truth of what really happened.
Tiger King (Netflix)
There was nothing (well, besides Animal Crossing and pizza delivery) that got me through the first couple of weeks of quarantine than the Netflix dumpster fire that is Tiger King. The seven-part docuseries chronicling the rise and fall of Joe Exotic, aka the Tiger King, his nemesis Carole Baskin, and the rest of the grifters and drifters who took up residence in their solar system of big cats, murder for hire plots, and general insanity gave everyone a much-needed escape in March. Hopefully there's a part two considering how this story continues to go off the rails with each passing month.
American Murder: The Family Next Door (Netflix)
Another documentary that made the case for Netflix having the best year of all the streamers out there is American Murder: The Family Next Door, which was viewed by a staggering 52 million subscribers in the first 28 days of release back in September 2020. The documentary covering the disappearance and murder of Shanann Watts and her two young daughters (and unborn son) by her husband Chris Watts didn't hold back in its coverage of the grisly crimes committed by a man who seemed to a loving husband and father. And while it's sometimes hard to watch what is being shown in the documentary, the film's exploration of man in crisis and the fallout is worth a watch.
Atlanta's Missing And Murdered: The Lost Children (HBO)
Mindhunter Season 2 did a great job of incorporating the story of the Atlanta child murders that took place in the southern metropolis in the early 1980s, but there is only so much you can do in a scripted series that also touches on a great deal of other serial killers and landmark cases. That's where the 2020 HBO documentary Atlanta's Missing and Murdered: The Lost Children comes in. This five-part docuseries took a deep dive not only into the abductions and murders of all those young lives, but also the way in which the cultural and political divides of the city and its surrounding areas allowed for something like to happen in the first place.
Challenger: The Final Flight (Netflix)
The Challenger disaster of January 1986 remains one of the most memorable and unsettling events to unfold on live television in the United States, and the recent Netflix four-part documentary Challenger: The Final Flight does an amazing job of telling the story of the doomed shuttle, its crew members, and the aftermath of the event that grounded the space shuttle program for nearly three years. The series has a steady pace leading up to the morning of January 28, 1986, and is followed by a detailed account of commission tasked with figuring out what went wrong and how it was allowed to happen.
Miss Americana (Netflix)
Then there is the Taylor Swift Netflix documentary Miss Americana which welcomed fans into the life, mind, and heart of one of the most successful musicians and pop icons of the modern era. The 85-minute film follows Taylor Swift over the course of several years of her career and combines interviews, concert footage, and unparalleled access to recording sessions from the creation of her Reputation and Lover albums. The documentary also shows a raw and exposed version of the pop star that few outside of her close circle of family, friends, and creative partners have seen before. It's a must-watch for T. Swift fans as well as those who want to better understand one of the biggest names in music.
Those are just a few of the great documentaries and docuseries that came out in 2020. There were other greats like Netflix's Dick Johnson is Dead, The Reagans on Showtime, and countless others that all found various levels of success this year. Do you have a favorite documentary or docuseries that came out this year? If so, sound off in the comments below.
Philip grew up in Louisiana (not New Orleans) before moving to St. Louis after graduating from Louisiana State University-Shreveport. When he's not writing about movies or television, Philip can be found being chased by his three kids, telling his dogs to stop yelling at the mailman, or yelling about professional wrestling to his wife. If the stars properly align, he will talk about For Love Of The Game being the best baseball movie of all time.
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