From corruption to summer camp: the best documentaries of 2020

A stranger-than-fiction year has seen some sterling docs, from Stacey Abrams’s voting rights lesson to a quietly powerful film on 24/7 daycare


“Plays like a thriller” can be trite when describing a documentary but in the case of Collective, Alexander Nanau’s watchful, truly galling film on the corruption-addled aftermath of a 2015 club fire in Bucharest, the description holds water. The two-hour film plays like the best of journalism features, from All the President’s Men to Spotlight, as a team of sports journalists – seemingly the only ones asking the government difficult questions – burrow into layer upon jaw-dropping layer of grift in the Romanian healthcare system. Twenty-seven people died in the fire at the nightclub Colectiv, but another 37 died from treatable wounds in the following weeks, many from bacterial infections caught in the country’s bribery-laced hospitals. Nanau’s hawk-eyed camera watches from car stakeouts, press conference audiences, and meeting rooms, as journalists expose a system mottled with rot. How to uncover truth the powerful seek buried? How to even bend a system resistant to change? Those questions, and the searing crusade of Collective, extend far past Romania.

All In: The Fight for Democracy

Stacey Abrams’ film on voting rights for Amazon recasts dual timelines of America’s failure to fulfill the basic building block of its democracy: equal access to the vote. One timeline stretches all the way back to the country’s founding, when only white male property owners could vote, and traces the painfully slow, non-linear history of enfranchisement in America, from the gains of Reconstruction and crackdown of Jim Crow laws in the south, to the promise of full democracy with the 1965 Voting Rights Act and the new wave of voter suppression tactics employed after a 2013 Supreme Court ruling gutted the law. The shorter timeline revisits Abrams’ 2018 gubernatorial race in Georgia, a state long notorious for its aggressive suppression of black voters, and in which her opponent Brian Kemp’s purging of the rolls probably cost her the race. All In offers a cogent history lesson, a grounded warning, and an empowering call to action. Given the prescience of Abrams’ voter registration work in Georgia, which helped tip the national election to Joe Biden, and the fragility of America’s democratic gains, it’s a broadly accessible and succinct message worth heeding.


In 1997, Sibil Fox Rich and her husband, Robert, were convicted of a bank robbery in Louisiana, an act of desperation after a business failure and a crime for which they took responsibility. Sibil took a plea deal and served three and half years. Robert, given bad legal advice, refused the deal and was sentenced to 60 years without parole. Time, Sundance documentary director prize winner Garrett Bradley’s wistful observance of the bruising passage of years in the wake of one devastating sentence, with a combination of Sibil’s remarkable, stirring home archives – videos of her belly pregnant with twins, birthday parties with her six sons – with recent black-and-white footage as she fights for Robert’s release. Time excoriates America’s prison system as a reincarnation of slavery, but unlike works such as Ava DuVernay’s 13th, Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, Douglas Blackmon’s Slavery By Another Name, Bradley’s film sticks to the strictly, painfully personal, the burden of mass incarceration and excessive sentencing refracted through one permanently altered family. It’s an achingly intimate, time-lapse portrait that at times plays almost as a narrative drama, on the resilience of one black family in Louisiana and the unending toll of America’s punitive criminal justice system that still manages to conjure moments of light.

Boys State

What happens when you task 1,000 high school boys, isolated at the Texas state capitol, with two-party self-governance? A rollicking, at times inspiring, at times terrifying ride known as Boys State, the longstanding American Legion summer youth program and the title of Apple TV+’s Sundance breakout by married film-makers Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine. The Texas Boys State convention in summer 2018, in which participants elect party officials, run rapid-fire campaigns and pass party platforms, is of course not representative of American democracy in microcosm (the girls have a separate week, and the group is overwhelmingly white). But Boys State, the film, is still a fascinating portal into late 2010s adolescent masculinity and alchemic, nascent political instincts at their best (star Steven Garza’s dogged idealism, quick friendships, the occasional prevalence of better natures) and worst (unproductive showboating, the toxic current of demagoguery, racist and personal attacks). It’s a simulation of government and an absorptive, fly-on-the-wall peek (what are the teen boys talking about?) that breeds both hope and deep concern for America’s democratic future.

Through the Night

Through the Night, Bronx-based Afro-Dominican director Loira Limbal’s tender, intimately observed film on one 24/7 home daycare in New Rochelle, New York, both presages the pandemic focus on essential workers and envisions how generous, curious attention on their lives and work could look. Over two years, Limbal follows the daycare run by married couple Deloris (“Nunu”) and Patrick (“PopPop”) Hogan, whose home serves as a pillar of support for both children and their parents, often Latina and black single mothers, strained ever tighter by the demands of American capitalism. Limbal’s camera lingers on small acts of love and the everyday work of caregiving – rubbing lotion on a child’s feet, braiding hair, hugs for tired toddlers and bleary-eyed mothers. It’s a small, quiet film, long in the making for a profession too often dismissed or overlooked, that nonetheless argues implicitly for a radical reorientation of what is considered essential work, and how we could value it accordingly.


Netflix’s Disclosure traces a shameful century of depictions of transgender people in popular culture, from silent film caricatures up through cis actors playing trans characters in awards-bait roles. Director Sam Feder’s film cogently synthesizes a disturbing accumulation of horrific stereotypes, and considers – with the participation of such trans entertainment figures as Laverne Cox, Trace Lysette, Jazzmun, MJ Richardson, Candis Cayne and Tiq Milan – the explosion of promising but still often problematic depictions of trans characters in the past decade. Disclosure also reflects on the double-edged sword of representation – how visibility opens new doors but invites backlash, provides pathways but can mask a lack of policy and material protections for trans people, particularly trans women of color. When 84% of Americans do not personally know someone who is transgender, according to a Glaad survey, cultural depictions take on outsize significance; Disclosure exhumes both the long trail of damaging portrayals baked into our present and how much better we have to do.

On the Record

No documentary that I’ve seen on the by-now long arc of the #MeToo movement approaches the fallout of publicly revealing one’s story of sexual violence with more nuance and psychological acuity than On the Record. The HBO Max film caused a stir at Sundance when, just days before its premiere, executive producer Oprah Winfrey backed out citing vague “inconsistencies”, effectively scrapping its Apple TV+ release. The off-screen drama does not detract from the risky, strikingly vulnerable story told by the accusers of music mogul Russell Simmons, founder of Def Jam records and an elder statesman of hip-hop. Nominally, On the Record, from film-making duo Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering (makers of the campus assault doc The Hunting Ground), follows former Def Jam executive Drew Dixon as she considers telling the story of an alleged rape by Simmons in the mid-90s to the New York Times in fall 2017. But the film smartly balances Dixon’s story with both cultural context – the specific burden of black women speaking out against a black cultural icon, the longstanding misogyny in hip-hop and the music industry at large – and Dixon’s own ever-shifting understanding of what happened to her. What are the consequences of reopening a wound in public, of seeing your story retold in push alerts and relitigated online? The answers are frustrating, ongoing, and demanding of attention past the headlines.

The Painter and the Thief

A magnetic, meticulously rendered portrait of an unlikely and peculiar friendship, The Painter and the Thief delves into the dark forest of human connection. The Painter would be Barbora Kysilkova, a Czech artist relocated to Oslo; the Thief is Karl-Bertil Nordland, a former narcotics dealer who, for reasons seemingly unknown to himself and with the help of an unnamed accomplice, stole two of Kysilkova’s photo-realist paintings with unusual and striking care (the thieves unhooked each canvas from 200 staples, a task that would take an art expert over an hour). The two meet at a court date, then lunch, then embark on a mutual experiment of observance and understanding, as Kysilkova, perhaps ill-advisedly endeavors to paint his portrait. All the while, the Norwegian film-maker Benjamin Ree passively observes from within, in what amounts to a three-year odyssey of empathy, vulnerability, and in a standout, minutes-long scene in which the painter surprises the thief with his portrait, the crackling, yawning human desire to feel seen.

The Scheme

I found HBO’s The Scheme to be one of the more surprisingly enjoyable films of the year, in large part because of the ludicrousness of an FBI sting operation to nail Division I NCAA basketball coaches for corruption by targeting … a low-level 24-year-old sports agency runner. Christian Dawkins, the film’s wry, refreshingly candid star, was a small fish in the bloated money game of college sports, framed by New York prosecutors as a blow against the NCAA’s alleged pay-for-play scheme. Pat Kondelis’s film covers all the absurdity: botched FBI stings, deals struck on a yacht, damning wiretapped phone calls with such powerful coaches as LSU’s Will Wade and Arizona’s Sean Miller, the farce that is Dawkins, a black man, serving 18 months in prison for, as Kondelis put it, “doing the exact same thing that coaches who are older white guys who make $3.5m to $5m a year are [doing].” It’s a toss-up who comes out looking worse in The Scheme, the NCAA or the FBI, but the hare-brained ride is nevertheless, like the big-business racket that is D1 college basketball, very entertaining.

Crip Camp

Crip Camp, Nicole Newnham and Jim LeBrecht’s sweet, surprisingly sweeping film co-produced with the Obamas’ Higher Ground, breathes magic back into the memories of a 70s summer camp for disabled teens in upstate New York. Camp Jened, which LeBrecht attended as a 15-year-old in 1971, was a Woodstock for disabled teens both in setting and its utopic vision of a world that did not automatically assume an able-bodied perspective. With invaluable rolls of vintage footage, Crip Camp fondly recalls the heat of summer camp – first joints, first love, first attempts discussing and articulating a worldview – and the remarkable trail blazed in its wake, as many ex-Jenedians participated in the oft-underplayed disability rights movement in America. It’s nothing short of beautiful to see familiar faces from an informal Jened picnic roundtable about overprotective parents reappear years later, in marches on Washington or a shutdown of Madison Avenue, demanding visibility for disabled Americans and the right to participate fully in American society.


Adrian Horton

The GuardianTramp

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