2018 Best Documentaries

The following list, selected and compiled by Video Librarian staff, honors the best new documentaries reviewed in the magazine and online during 2018. Unless otherwise noted, titles are available from most distributors.

78/52: Hitchcock’s Shower Scene

(Shout! Factory, 92 min., Blu-ray/DVD Combo: $29.99)

Director Alexandre O. Philippe’s insightful documentary focuses on the infamous shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. (VL-7/18)

Abacus: Small Enough to Jail

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

Filmmaker Steve James’s PBS-aired Frontline documentary centers on the family-owned Abacus Bank, founded to cater to NYC’s Chinese-American community by Thomas Sung, whose American Dream became a nightmare when the bank was the only financial institution to face criminal charges in the wake of the 2008 economic meltdown. (VL-1/18)


(Ro*co [www.rocoeducational.com], 90 min., DVD: $95: public libraries; $295 w/PPR: colleges & universities)

Director Greg Kohs’s documentary on the ancient Chinese board game Go follows a nail-biting competition between the titular Google-owned DeepMind company’s artificial intelligence program and Go master Lee Sedol. (VL-9/18)

The Art of the Shine

(PBS, 78 min., DVD: $24.99 [$54.99 w/PPR from teacher.shop.pbs.org])

Filmmaker Stacey Tenenbaum’s unusual PBS-aired documentary looks at the archaic world of the shoe shiner, from Mexican male shoe shiners so embarrassed by their “lowly” status that they cover their faces with ski masks to a suit-wearing Japanese artisan. (VL Online-8/18)

The Force

(Kino Lorber, 92 min., DVD: $29.95)

Director Peter Nicks’s documentary centers on the police department in Oakland, CA, which has a history of community relations problems, but also employs law enforcement officers who are trying to do their finest. (VL-3/18)

The Freedom to Marry

(Ro*co [www.rocoeducational.com], 86 min., DVD: $95: public libraries; $350 w/PPR: colleges & universities)

Offering tribute to same-sex marriage activist Evan Wolfson, the title of Eddie Rosenstein’s documentary refers to the political advocacy nonprofit group founded by Wolfson and to its ultimately successful mission to ensure that gay and lesbian couples were able to receive marriage equality under U.S. law. (VL-7/18)

From This Day Forward

(Bullfrog [www.bullfrogfilms.com], 76 min., DVD: $350)

Filmmaker Sharon Shattuck’s documentary explores the familial ramifications when a loved one is transgender, focusing close to home on the story of how her father Michael’s—now Trisha—revelation that she is transgender has affected their family over decades. (VL-1/18)

Germans & Jews

(First Run Features, 76 min., in English & German w/English subtitles, DVD: $24.95)

Filmmaker Janina Quint’s thoughtful documentary examines Germany’s obligation to reflect upon and remember its responsibility for the Holocaust. (VL-1/18)

Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story

(Kino Lorber, 94 min., DVD: $29.99, Blu-ray: $34.99)

Hollywood art director and storyboard artist Harold Michelson and his wife Lillian—who ran a Hollywood research library that was an essential resource for hundreds of productions—are the subject of this affectionate documentary from filmmaker Daniel Raim. (VL-1/18)

The King

(Oscilloscope, 109 min., DVD: $34.99, Blu-ray: $39.99)

Filmmaker Eugene Jarecki’s cinematic essay argues that the life and death of Elvis Presley can serve as a fitting metaphor for the original promise and sad decline of America, as Jarecki traverses America in a vintage Rolls Royce once owned by Presley. (VL-9/18)

Love & Bananas

(Cargo, 75 min., in English & Thai w/English subtitles, DVD: $24.95 [$495 w/PPR from www.loveandbananas.com/host-a-screening/)

Actress Ashley Bell directs and appears in this emotionally-charged documentary about the sad state of the Asian elephant, helping renowned conservationist Sangdeaun Lek Chailert transport a 70-year-old partially blind elephant to the latter’s sanctuary in Thailand. (VL-11/18)

Monkey Business

(Passion River, 82 min., DVD: $24.95 [$299 w/PPR from edu.passionriver.com])

Filmmaker Ema Ryan Yamazaki’s documentary about the authors of the famed picture book series featuring mischief-making monkey Curious George tells the story of the German-Jewish married writing team of Hans and Margret Rey. (VL-1/18)


(FilmRise/MVD, 94 min., DVD: $19.95, Blu-ray: $24.95)

Filmmaker Ramona S. Diaz’s cinema vérité documentary immerses viewers in the controlled chaos of Manila’s Dr. Jose Fabella Memorial Hospital—the busiest maternity clinic in the world—which treats hundreds of young Filipino women struggling with poverty, a cultural bias toward large families, and lack of birth control. (VL-1/18)

The New Radical

(Passion River, 109 min., DVD: $59.95 [$350 w/PPR from edu.passionriver.com])

Filmmaker Adam Bhala Lough’s documentary turns the spotlight on a new breed of radical who gravitates to the extreme right, including Cody Wilson, who invented a plastic gun that can be made on a 3D printer. (VL-5/18)


(Passion River, 83 min., DVD: $24.95 [w/PPR: $95: high schools and public libraries; $350: colleges and universities from Ro*co Films Educational, www.rocoeducational.com])

Filmmaker Kim A. Snyder’s poignant documentary examines the painful aftermath of the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT. (VL-5/18)


(First Run Features, 105 min., DVD: $24.95)

Shot over a period of eight years from 2008-16, filmmaker Jonathan Olshefski’s documentary follows the musical background, trials, and triumphs of North Philadelphia’s tight-knit Rainey family, a hardworking African American household living in an impoverished community. (VL-5/18)


(Magnolia, 98 min., DVD: $26.99, Blu-ray: $29.99 [w/PPR: $95: high schools and public libraries; $350: colleges and universities from Ro*co Films Educational, www.rocoeducational.com])

This laudatory documentary from directors Betsy West and Julie Cohen chronicles the life and career of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, an unlikely trendsetter and icon. (VL-9/18)

The Reluctant Radical

(Collective Eye [www.collectiveeye.org], 77 min., DVD: $50 [$125 w/PPR]: public libraries; $295 w/PPR: colleges & universities)

Shocked at the lack of action being taken against the fossil fuel industry, global warming activist Ken Ward participates in “monkey wrench” sabotage and public protests that ultimately put him on trial in this inspiring documentary from director Lindsey Grayzel. (VL-9/18)

Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan

(Kino Lorber, 93 min., DVD: $29.95)

Filmmakers Linda Saffire and Adam Schlesinger’s documentary serves up a bittersweet portrait of prima ballerina Wendy Whelan, who danced with the New York City Ballet for three decades before retiring in 2014. (VL-1/18)

The Shelter

(Film Platform [www.filmplatform.net], 101 min., in English, French, Romanian, Spanish & Wolof w/English subtitles, DVD: $300)

The subjects of filmmaker Fernand Melgar’s cinema vérité documentary try each night to gain entrance to a shelter in Lausanne, Switzerland, where the demand for beds is so great that jostling for spots can lead to heated scuffles. (VL-1/18)


(Grasshopper, 91 min., DVD: $29.99, Blu-ray: $34.99 [$99.95: public libraries; $375: colleges & universities w/PPR from www.grasshopperfilm.com])

Filmmakers Chris Shellen and Jeff Malmberg’s documentary visits the Tuscan village of Monticchiello—population: 136—which each year stages a play in a tradition dating back to the 1940s. (VL-5/18)

Take My Nose…Please!

(Passion River, 100 min., DVD: $59.95 [$299 w/PPR from edu.passionriver.com])

Filmmaker Joan Kron’s lively documentary centers on female comedians, plastic surgery, and the demands on women in show business to fit a certain ideal of beauty. (VL-7/18)

Three Identitcal Strangers

(Universal, 97 min., DVD: $22.99, Blu-ray: $29.99)

Filmmaker Tim Wardle’s mind-boggling documentary tells the story of three stranger brothers who discovered that they were identical triplets separated at birth, became a media sensation, and then found out they were part of a sinister psychological experiment. (VL-11/18)

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

(Universal, 95 min., DVD: $29.98, Blu-ray: $27.99)

Morgan Neville’s uplifting documentary about the man behind-the-scenes of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood centers on Fred Rogers (1928-2003), who worked to instill in young viewers a sense of self-worth that he believed was fundamental to growing up. (VL-9/18)

The Work

(Passion River, 89 min., DVD: $24.99 [$350 w/PPR from edu.passionriver.com])

Filmmakers Jairus McLeary and Gethin Aldous’s documentary trains the camera on male convicts at California’s Folsom State Prison who gather in long-running therapy groups to talk about their dads and more. (VL-5/18)

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