Jerome’s Top 50 of 2020: Docuseries and Documentaries

Discussing 2020 as a terrible year is almost a cliché at this point. If it’s possible for opinions to be subjective, then saying 2020 was bad would be a truth. However, there were some excellent examples of visual media. Hopefully, these projects have served as a distraction to those who have needed it, but they should never make us forget the realities of what it means to be a citizen of the world. Many of these top 50 do so in subtle and not so subtle ways. Today, I’ll focus on some documentaries and docu series. Tomorrow will be television shows. Thursday I’ll end with movies.

Normally, I have done my end of the year film list, but it does not feel appropriate this time around given the lack of top end movies and blockbusters.

When it comes to docuseries, Tiger King ended up being a sensation as the pandemic first came to light in the United States. I am going to write this off as everyone experiencing the kind of trauma that led to watching this abhorrent and poorly put together series. This show sucked, and there needs to be a reckoning with how these streamers exploit certain people and situations. Since this is a mixture of movies and television, these will not be ranked. I will rank the television shows and movies to show Kevin Ford I am not a coward.

A Secret Love

While Netflix unleashed a ton of docuseries, this is one of the most sensitive and lovely things I watched this year. Ryan Murphy godfathered this project, and he continues to be an enigma. On one hand, we get a lot of stories we may not have otherwise seen. On the other hand, his storytelling has all the subtlety of a bludgeoning hammer. Thankfully, this has almost no Murphy. It’s a tale of Terry Donahue and Pat Hensche, two women who kept their romantic relationship a secret for decades and are also facing some life challenges as they get older. This is a sweet movie at times, but it also portrays the hard decisions we all have to make about out our grandparents and parents as well as ourselves.

Disclosure

I learned so much watching this documentary, also one that was on Netflix. I was tremendously impressed by how trans issues were discussed as they focused on Hollywood portrayals and the impact those can have on society. Some great stories were shared Laverne Cox, Chaz Bono, Mj Rodriguez, and others. I fully admit that I am not as well versed as I should be in regards to these issues. This documentary went a long way in illustrating just how important we still need to continue to progress.

Athlete A

This is the most difficult film on the list to watch but what an important discussion of sexual assault and power. Bonnie Cohen and Jon Shenk follow a group of journalists from he Indianapolis Star who are investigating sexual assaults of various gymnasts. It’s pretty meticulous and echoes the structure of other journalistic fictional films like Spotlight. There is a lot of focus on the survivors as the documentary goes on. One thing that becomes clear is how much of a monster Larry Nassar is. He was the doctor at the center of a scandal that went from Michigan St. all the way to various Olympic games. Although some justice has been served with Nassar, the film makes it clear just how much power certain people have.

How to with John Wilson

This is a very different type of project. Wilson basically films everything. He carries a camera on his person and captures all manner of life in New York. Early episodes about small talk and scaffolding are amusing. Each episode is well paced as Wilson starts with a premise and eventually gets into various other issues. I thought the show was fairly funny and harmless but really lacked that extra oomph. The last episode about making risotto not only elevates this show comedically but also addresses the contemporary issue of 2020 in a sensitive but appropriate way. I won’t spoil what happens, but this is well worth watching and can be done in one evening (It’s six episodes and three hours).

Taste the Nation with Padma Lakshmi

Anthony Bourdain gets a lot of credit for re-inventing the food show with Parts Unknown. He traveled around the world and ate amazing food. Many of these episodes are pleasurable to watch, but his passing left a serious food in this genre. Padma Lakshmi has picked up the mantle with a great Hulu venture that highlights foods, not around the world, but in the United States. She focuses a lot of her attention on immigrant communities and gets to the heart of what makes an American food. Each episode focuses on the food and some of the immigration issues in that given area. It elevates the show past food porn or a typical travel show. We are all united by a love of food and this is something Lakshmi really brings to the forefront.

The Last Dance

I cannot believe this is the first time I’ve discussed this documentary in any public forum beyond Twitter. I am a Chicago Bulls fan and was a young fan during the second three peat when Michael Jordan came back after his first retirement. This ten part documentary was so anticipated that people were calling for it to be released early when there was no sports for the late spring and most of the summer. This drew incredible ratings on Sunday nights for five straight weeks. We got a lot of memes and genuine pleasure from this ten hour series. It’s hard to develop a sports docuseries like this because there are so few worthy teams and people. Plus, a lot of athletes are really boring. Michael Jordan is thankfully completely insane and we learned just how obsessed he was with greatness, for better and worse. I could write pages and pages about this, but I’ll just say this was genuinely one of my favorite anything I saw in 2020.

Atlanta’s Missing and Murdered: The Lost Children

This is a story that was the focus of the fictional Mindhunter, but it’s only this four part docuseries that aired around the same time as Tiger King and The Last Dance that illuminated just how awful this situation. You cannot address these murders without looking at the history of race in this country, and in this case, the city of Atlanta. Like so many other series, it throws into question the case and how law enforcement had its own agenda in closing all these cases. This documentary is not an easy watch, but I wish this had been more seen given the discussions on race and social justice we’ve been having since George Floyd’s murder.

Boys State

This is a terrifying documentary about the politics in Texas. Essentially, they have created a venue for bad politics to breed as a group of teenagers try to channel their inner Karl Roves and build a “representative government” from the ground up. I consider this to be a horror movie as I watched these young men argue about issues they don’t even believe in. This is a perfect illustration of why the politics in this country are broken as it becomes more about the cult of personality and machinations. It is greatly amused to see the more liberal group stomped on and for them to show no backbone when it comes to actual issues. If that isn’t accurate to what really happens, I don’t know what is.

Borat: Subsequent Movie Film

I hated the first Borat with a fiery passion and really only watched this one because it was right there on Amazon prime. I figured there would be at least a couple of laughs. Plus, I knew about the Giuliani incident and wanted to see the actual context of that scene. I walked away thinking this was the far superior film and that Maria Bakalova should be nominated for an Academy Award. The comedy feels sharper but also less cynical. The first film had a nastiness to it. Maybe Sacha Baren Cohen has matured. Maybe the 2016 election has affected him as it has so many others, but this felt like the best version of this character and his brand of comedy. I think this is legitimately one of the best things I saw all year and am very surprised to feel this way.

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