The recap of my year-end movie lists was interrupted by current events last week before I could post this final installment, but here it is — the ten best documentaries I saw in 2020, with links to my original reviews, and info on where you can watch them.
#1) “Fiddler: Miracle of Miracles” The only movie that I rated 10 out of 10 this year is a documentary about one of the most beloved Broadway (and movie) musicals, “Fiddler On The Roof.” Director Max Lewkowicz conducted interviews with composer Jerry Bock, lyricist Sheldon Harnick, playwright Joseph Stein, and producer Harold Prince, who explained how they took Sholem Aleichem’s stories of Tevye The Dairy Man and turned them into the first musical on Broadway to run for more than 3,000 performances. The documentary also has footage of productions around the world, done in the local languages to surprising success. You might not think that an American musical about poverty-stricken, observant Jews in 19th-century Russia would be relatable to other cultures — but there’s a wonderful story about a Japanese version of “Fiddler,” whose star asked one of the producers, “Do they get this in America? It’s so Japanese!” That’s proof of the show’s lasting universality. If you’ve ever loved any production of “Fiddler,” you’ll love this documentary. Streaming on Prime Video.
#2) “Harry Chapin: When In Doubt, Do Something“ Director Rick Korn has assembled archival footage from Harry’s earliest days — playing with his brothers, Tom and Steve (backed by their drummer father, Jim), as a folk group in the style of The Kingston Trio — all the way up to his concerts and TV appearances throughout the 1970s. There are also interviews with old friend Robert Lamm (who went on to co-found the band Chicago), Pete Seeger, Harry Belafonte, Billy Joel, Bruce Springsteen, and Pat Benatar. The latter tells a great story from the earliest days of her career, when Harry walked into a bar where she was singing, listened intently, then took her aside to give her a pep talk. I still remember the day in July, 1981, when I was driving to work at WHCN and heard our afternoon guy, Irv Goldfarb, announce that Harry had been killed in an accident on the Long Island Expressway, his little Volkswagen crushed by a tractor-trailer. The news saddened me so much I had to pull off to the side of the road and cry. Those emotions came roaring back as I watched “Harry Chapin: When In Doubt, Do Something,” a marvelous tribute to a unique talent who not only entertained a lot of us, but also tried to change the world. Streaming via video on demand.
#3) “David Attenborough: A Life On Our Planet” Now 94 years old, David Attenborough has spent his life traveling the globe to capture remarkable footage of nature in all its glory. In shows that first aired on the BBC and were then distributed in the US and elsewhere, he has brought us closer to species we’ll never see and areas of our world we’ll never visit. He calls “A Life On Our Planet” his witness statement of concern for the state of our planet due to the impact humans have had on it. I view the documentary as both a lament and a plea, because he spends the last 15-20 minutes explaining what can still be done to reverse the impact of climate change — a scientific manifesto that’s quite inspirational. Streaming on Netflix.
#4) “All In: The Fight For Democracy“ Voter suppression has been a factor in our nation’s elections for as long as there’s been an America. “All In: The Fight For Democracy” is a documentary that traces that history. Its central figure is Stacey Abrams, a Democrat who ran for governor of Georgia in 2018 against Republican Brian Kemp and lost. Since then, Abrams has become an advocate for ensuring that any American who wants to vote can do so without hardship. It’s a battle that’s still being fought in too many states and municipalities, exacerbated by concerns over mail-in voting and finding enough poll workers during a pandemic. Abrams’ impact was evident in the victory by both Democrats in the Georgia Senate races that went to a runoff last week. “All In” should be required viewing for every high school American history class. Unfortunately, in too many states whose legislatures are deeply red, that will never happen — for the same reason virtually no Republicans will watch this movie. Streaming on Prime Video.
#5) “Spelling The Dream“ Like “Spellbound” and “Akeelah and the Bee,” “Spelling The Dream” is about kids trying to get to the finals of the Scripps National Spelling Bee. The difference is that this documentary focuses on children of immigrants from India. Kids of that background have won the national bee for the last twelve years — except for 2019, when the organizers had to declare an eight-way tie for first place because they had used up all the dictionary words they had. And of those eight (pictured above), seven were Indian-American. Director Sam Rega wanted to figure out how South Asians have become so good at spelling, so he embedded with several of them as they studied and prepared for their local and regional bees before advancing to the national stage in Washington, DC. The result is a good example of the power of education, determination, and assimilation unlike anything you’ll see this year. Streaming on Netflix.
#6) “David Byrne’s American Utopia” David Byrne has done something unique — appeared in two truly great concert movies in one career. The first was “Stop Making Sense,” in which Jonathan Demme captured the exuberance of a 1984 Talking Heads concert. The second is “American Utopia,” Spike Lee’s filmed version of the hit Broadway show Byrne was performing earlier this year until the pandemic closed theaters. It is a kinetic and highly enjoyable experience, even if you can’t name a single song of Byrne’s. Streaming on HBO Max.
#7) “Class Action Park” This is a documentary about a New Jersey amusement park of the 1980s and 1990s that may have been the most dangerous such venue ever. Lots of people got hurt on its rides, which included a water slide with a full loop in it, which many people didn’t get all the way around, resulting in more than just a few bumps and bruises. There were lots of other rides and slides that weren’t built with safety in mind — many of the designers were people whose concepts had been rejected by multiple other parks — all overseen by an owner (Gene Mulvihill) who couldn’t have cared less as long as the money kept flowing in. Directed by Seth Porges and Chris Charles Scott III, “Class Action Park” will make you shake your head repeatedly in amazement at what was allowed there and wonder how the place was able to stay open for so long. Streaming on HBO Max.
#8) “The Last Dance” Netflix and ESPN teamed up for this 10-part series about Michael Jordan and his years with the Chicago Bulls. Made with his cooperation, it includes interviews with him, coach Phil Jackson, and many of the athletes who played with (and against) him. Unlike previous stories about that era, “The Last Dance” includes never-before-seen behind the scenes footage from Chicago’s defining championship 1997-98 season. Streaming on Netflix.
#9) “The Way I See It” During the Obama presidency, Pete Souza was the Chief Official White House Photographer, which means he spent all day, every day with the president, capturing thousands of images. That work is featured in this documentary, “The Way I See It,” which documents the highs and lows of those eight years, with Souza explaining not just what’s in each photo, but the circumstances behind it. It also serves as a vivid reminder of the longing so many of us share for a return to a sane, competent leader in the Oval Office. Streaming on Peacock and video by demand.
#10) “Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, and Madness” One of the most-talked about documentaries in years, “Tiger King” is about people who owned exotic animals like tigers and other big cats, whom they exhibited in their own makeshift zoos or sanctuaries or animal parks, depending on who you ask. The main character is Joe Exotic, an egomaniac who had more than 200 big cats on display, plus a group of assistants who look like they came from a central casting audition for lowlifes, rednecks, and recently released jailbirds. Joe was married to a few of the men — two at a time at one point — and carried a pistol in a holster at all times. When asked if that was for protection against the cats, Joe replied, “No, the humans.” He was not talking about his own people, who all worked for ridiculously low pay. He was talking about animal rights activists and local law enforcement, who Joe and his crew were ready to gun down at any time. When you’re making a documentary, you hope your central figure will jump off the screen. Neither Joe nor many of the other characters disappoint. Streaming on Netflix.
Previously on Harris Online…