2014 Best Documentaries

The following list, selected and compiled by Video Librarian staff, honors the best new documentaries reviewed in the magazine and online during 2014. Unless otherwise noted, titles are available from most distributors.

Cover for "The Address"

The Address

(PBS, 90 min., DVD: $24.99 [$54.99 w/PPR from www.teacher.shop.pbs.org])

This inspiring PBS-aired film by famed documentarian Ken Burns chronicles an annual event at the Vermont-based Greenwood School—a specialty institution of last resort for young males with severe learning/behavioral disorders, including dyslexia and ADD—in which the students recite the entire Gettysburg Address from memory. (VL-7/14)

After Tiller

(Oscilloscope, 88 min., DVD: $34.99 [$295 w/PPR from Bullfrog Films, www.bullfrogfilms.com])

Co-directed by Martha Shane and Lana Wilson, this controversial documentary presents a sympathetic, non-sensationalized portrait of Drs. LeRoy Carhart, Susan Robinson, Warren Hern, and Shelley Sella—the last four doctors in America who are publicly willing to terminate pregnancy in the third trimester. (VL-7/14)

American Winter

(View Film [www.americanwinterfilm.com], 90 min., DVD: $20: individuals; $100: public libraries; $300: colleges & universities)

The twin blows of job losses and advancing poverty hit several Portland, OR, families hard in filmmaker Joe Gantz’s melancholy HBO-aired look at paycheck-to-paycheck despair and reduced circumstances in the wake of 2008’s economic crash. (VL-5/14)

Cover for "Bay of All Saints"

Bay of All Saints

(Women Make Movies [www.wmm.com], 74 min., in Portuguese w/English subtitles, DVD: $89: public libraries; $350: colleges & universities)

Filmed over six years, director Annie Eastman’s documentary traces the impact of a World Bank–funded effort to eliminate Bahia’s slums, focusing on single mothers who experience a deep loss of community and independence when the government initiates relocation efforts as part of an ecological restoration effort. (VL Online-3/14)

Cover for "Best Kept Secret"

Best Kept Secret

(BKS Film [www.amazon.com], 85 min., DVD: $17.95 [$295 w/PPR from Alexander Street Press, http://alexanderstreet.com])

Filmmaker Samantha Buck’s documentary—shot over a year and a half at the John F. Kennedy High School for special needs students in Newark, NJ—follows dedicated teacher Janet Mino as she tries to make her severely autistic charges ready for life in the outside world. (VL-3/14)

Bible Quiz

(Virgil, 86 min., DVD: $19.99 [$200 w/PPR from www.biblequizmovie.com])

Filmmaker Nicole Teeny won the Grand Jury Award at Slamdance for this compelling and sincere documentary about 17-year-old Mikayla Irle, one in a three-person team from her church aiming to compete at the national Bible Quiz championship, who finds her concentration skills challenged due to a growing infatuation with the handsome team captain. (VL-9/14)

Cover for "Freedom Summer"

Freedom Summer

(PBS, 120 min. DVD: $24.99 [$54.99 w/PPR from www.teacher.shop.pbs.org]

Acclaimed documentary filmmaker Stanley Nelson brilliantly captures the passion, anguish, and fury of Mississippi’s 1964 summer months during the volatile Civil Rights era in this PBS-aired film. (VL-11/14)

The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden

(Zeitgeist, 120 min., DVD: $29.99)

Husband-and-wife filmmakers Dan Geller and Dayna Goldfine raise the curtain on an exotic, haunting, and unsolved Depression-era true murder mystery involving a Berlin doctor, his mistress, a gun-wielding Viennese baroness, and others who start a new life on an uninhabited Galapagos Island. (VL-11/14)

Gideon’s Army

(Third World Newsreel [www.twn.org], 95 min., DVD: $80: public libraries; $400: colleges & universities)

The inequities of America’s justice system are highlighted in Dawn Porter’s excellent HBO-aired documentary focusing on the work of Georgia public defenders Travis Williams and Brandy Alexander, who strive to mount the best possible defense for their clients despite huge caseloads and meager resources. (VL-7/14)

Cover for "God Loves Uganda"

God Loves Uganda

(First Run, 83 min. DVD: $24.95)

Serving up stunning revelations about the ways in which the African nation of Uganda became a hotbed for hatred aimed at gays and lesbians in the last decade, Oscar-winning director Roger Ross Williams’s powerful documentary finds that part of the blame lies with American evangelical churches. (VL-7/14)

Cover for "Hawking"


(PBS, 90 min., DVD: $24.99 [$54.99 w/PPR from http://www.teacher.shop.pbs.org])

Filmmaker Stephen Finnigan’s PBS-aired documentary presents a rare behind-the-scenes look at physicist and author Stephen Hawking’s complex and fascinating life story, which includes challenges stemming from his progressive motor neuron disease that has left him confined to a wheelchair, unable to speak, but able to communicate via computer. (VL-7/14)

How to Make Money Selling Drugs

(Cinedigm, 96 min., DVD: $26.95)

First-time director Matthew Cooke here presents an invigorating look at the U.S. narcotics industry, focusing on both the dealers who soak up millions in profits and the law enforcement agents who work to put dealers behind bars, including former police officer Barry Cooper, who now advocates against what he defines as illegal police tactics that are used to drive up drug-related arrests. (VL-3/14)

Cover for "Informant"


(Music Box, 81 min., DVD: $29.95)

Writer-director Jamie Meltzer’s documentary presents a complex and compelling portrait of Austin, TX-based former left-wing activist Brandon Darby, chronicling his radical shift towards becoming an FBI informant and Tea Party conservative. (VL-1/14)

Let the Fire Burn

(Zeitgeist, 95 min., DVD: $29.95)

Relying on comprehensive archival material, filmmaker Jason Osder’s searing documentary uses archival footage to recreate a horrific episode in American race-relations history in 1985, when Philadelphia authorities laid siege to and bombed the stronghold of a radical Afro-centric group called MOVE. (VL-5/14)

Cover for "Life According to Sam"

Life According to Sam

(HBO, 95 min. DVD: $19.98)

On the long-list for an Academy Award for Best Documentary, Sean Fine and Andrea Nix Fine’s wrenching and inspiring HBO-aired film centers on Sam Berns, a 16-year-old with the rare fatal disease progeria, which rapidly ages the body, giving young people the physical appearance and accompanying ailments of old age. (VL-7/14)


(First Run, 82 min., DVD: $24.95)

Sixteen-year-old Laura Dekker made headlines in 2012, becoming the youngest person to sail around the world alone, a story chronicled in director Jillian Schlesinger’s documentary, which draws on Dekker’s remarkable video journal of her near-two-year adventure. (VL-9/14)

Cover for "Menstrual Man"

Menstrual Man

(Coup Communications [www.sale.menstrualman.com/education], 63 min., in English, Hindi & Tamil w/English subtitles, DVD: $195)

Director Amit Virmani’s often humorous documentary honors Arunachalam Muruganantham, a grassroots inventor-businessman who sidestepped extreme cultural taboos in India in his dogged quest to mass-produce and distribute affordable sanitary pads. (VL-7/14)

More Than Honey

(Kino Lorber, 91 min., DVD: $29.95, Blu-ray: $34.95 [$349 w/PPR fromwww.kinolorberedu.com])

Centering on the mysterious disappearance of the honeybee worldwide, Swiss director Markus Imhoof’s eye-popping documentary is an intimate and artistic film, offering close-up views of the amazing world of the hive. (VL-1/14)

Cover for "Muscle Shoals"

Muscle Shoals

(Magnolia, 111 min., DVD: $13.98, Blu-ray: $16.98)

Greg “Freddy” Camalier’s documentary tells the story of how the distinctive music sound tied to the little Alabama town of Muscle Shoals was originally created by record producer Rick Hall, who brought black and white players together—and ultimately laid the foundation for some of the most memorable music of the 1960s and ‘70s. (VL-5/14)

Cover for "Pandora’s Promise"

Pandora’s Promise

(Kino Lorber, 86 min. DVD: $29.95 [$250 w/PPR from www.kinolorberedu.com])

In a media marketplace saturated with anti-nuke documentaries, director Robert Stone’s provocative film offers a very different take on atomic energy, featuring pro-nuke comments from authors Gwyneth Cravens, Richard Rhodes, and Whole Earth Catalogfounder Stewart Brand. (VL-1/14)

Trash Dance

(Panther Creek Pictures [www.trashdancemovie.com], 68 min., DVD: $21.95: individuals; $59: high schools & public libraries; $299: colleges & universities)

Garbage collection literally becomes art in Andrew Garrison’s documentary following the year-long creation of a performance piece built around sanitation workers, created by determined Austin choreographer Allison Orr, who teams up with the city’s Solid Waste Services Department. (VL-1/14)

Cover for "The Unknown Known"

The Unknown Known

(Anchor Bay, 103 min., DVD: $24.98, Blu-ray: $29.99)

Documentarian Errol Morris’s latest documentary spotlights Bush administration Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in an archival-material-enhanced incisive interview that deftly explores national self-deception in a time of war. (VL Online-7/14)

Cover for "An Unreal Dream: The Michael Morton Story"

An Unreal Dream: The Michael Morton Story

(First Run, 92 min., DVD: $24.95)

Director Al Reinert’s documentary traces the case of a Texas man wrongfully convicted of murdering his wife and subsequently imprisoned for a quarter-century before being exonerated by evidence that the prosecution failed to share with Morton’s lawyers. (VL-5/14)

Valentine Road

(Cinedigm, 88 min., DVD: $29.95 [$295 w/PPR from Bullfrog Films,www.bullfrogfilms.com])

Filmmaker Marta Cunningham’s riveting documentary investigates the media circus aftermath of a 2008 school shooting at an Oxnard, CA, junior high school, where an openly gay student was fatally wounded by a fellow classmate he had teased. (VL-9/14)

Cover for "We Always Lie to Strangers"

We Always Lie to Strangers

(Virgil, 108 min., DVD: $19.99)

For five years, filmmakers AJ Schnack and David Wilson followed showbiz folk in upstart entertainment capital Branson, MO, delivering an almost anthropological view of the lives of the players performing in the live-entertainment venues. (VL-9/14)

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