Social issue documentaries tend to have an unfair reputation that they’re like spinach — overcooked and undersalted, no less — on your plate. But in this day and age, the best documentary directors don’t lead with the issue, they focus on story and let the social relevance emerge from the narrative.
2014 was a great year for such films; here are 10 of them.
The Case Against 8
Only after the fact does the repeal of Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage in California, seem like a given. The Case Against 8 lays out what it took to get there: a dream team of lawyers and plaintiffs who had the tenacity and sense of justice to fight for their rights. Directed by Ben Cotner and Ryan White. (Stream on xfinity HBO)
The story of the tea party “movement” starts with two men, the billionaire Koch brothers, who helped financed it. Directors Carl Deal and Tia Lessin follow the money in Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s campaign battle against unions to reveal the power of the almighty dollar and a poisoned political system. (Stream on Netflix | Rent on Google Play, iTunes, Sony, Vudu, YouTube)
Edward Snowden, who leaked classified information in 2013, has been depicted ad nauseam in print and by bloviating talking heads, but he hasn’t really been revealed until this. Director Laura Poitras’ real time portrait of Snowden while he was releasing his files puts us right in the Hong Kong hotel room where she and Snowden made history. (Find a screening)
A special division of the organization Human Rights Watch goes to far flung locales to investigate allegations of abuse. Directors Ross Kauffman and Katy Chevigny follow them there in this gripping vérité depiction of speaking truth to power. Sad side note: James Foley, who was held hostage and murdered by ISIS, shot footage for E-Team. (Stream on Netflix)
The Great Invisible
Director Margaret Brown dives deep into the Deepwater Horizon oil spill to reveal its far-reaching impact on the Gulf of Mexico. It’s an anatomy of the accident, an indictment of corporate negligence, and an intimate portrait of communities strained, ecosystems destroyed and human lives ruined. (Find a screening)
The opaque morass that is the “health care problem” gets a riveting jolt with this first-hand look at America’s most frantic emergency room, through the eyes of director and doctor Ryan McGarry. (Find a screening)
It’s the documentary Michelle Obama doesn’t want you to see! Seriously, this film, backed by producers Katie Couric and Laurie David (An Inconvenient Truth) and directed by Stephanie Soechtig, takes a hard look at the obesity epidemic and doesn’t shy away from the pointing finger at big agribusiness and the US government that supports it. (Rent on Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Sony, Vudu, YouTube)
The difficult plight of three homeless teens in Chicago is the subject of this intimate documentary that provides an unsparing look at poverty and its human cost. While systems fail, these inspiring individuals seek a better life. Directed by Anne de Mare and Kirsten Kelly. (Rent on Google Play, iTunes, Sony, Vudu, YouTube)
The domestic abuse relationship is so uniquely tragic because it happens behind closed doors where it abides by its own twisted rules and illogic. In director Cynthia Hill’s Private Violence, there’s hope in dismantling that terror. The film is a disturbing and bold depiction of a social issue that necessitates the abuse be so bad that help may no longer be relevant. Thankfully, as told here, there are advocates and women courageous enough to fight back so that healing can take hold. (Stream on xfinity HBO)
The titular national park in Congo where the last, largest community of mountain gorillas lives in the wild is the setting of this riveting tale of brave park rangers who defend the earth against government corruption and corporate greed. Yes, it sounds like a Hollywood storyline, and it plays like one too, in one of the best films of the year, directed by Orlando von Einsiedel. (Stream on Netflix)
It’s worth noting that this year, on the flip side of the nonfiction/fiction divide, the issue of race took the foreground in a narrative feature film, Selma. The images may be acted out and directed, but the emotional truths are quite real in this reenactment of Martin Luther King’s critical march in Alabama during the Civil Rights Movement. (Opens Christmas Day. Find a screening)