An image from the film ‘Moonage Daydream’.

BMG

Best documentaries of 2022

Often overlooked in favor of narrative features, documentary films can be just as engaging—if not more so. If you’re someone who doesn’t normally watch documentaries but is curious to check out a few good ones, 2022 was a banner year for nonfiction filmmaking. These include films from all over the world, wide-ranging in content, style, and creator, often award-nominated and award-winning.

You could learn about the assassination attempt on a Russian presidential candidate (“Navalny”), the life of two ordinary dairy cows (“Cow”), or the history of an underground network of women who provided access to low-cost and free abortion (“The Janes”). Documentaries allow us to expand our understanding of the world in a riveting way, opening our minds to something we might never have thought to seek out. It is cinema that offers tangible discovery.

If you’re looking to find a great documentary film to throw on, Stacker has you covered with a list of the 25 best documentaries that came out in 2022.Stacker used Metacritic data on all movies released in the U.S. in 2022 to rank the top 25 nonfiction films. Data is current as of Dec. 2, and ties were broken internally by digging deeper into the data from Metacritic.

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An Image from the documentary ‘Nothing Lasts Forever’.

Kilo Films

#25. Nothing Lasts Forever

– Director: Jason Kohn
– Metascore: 79
– Runtime: 87 minutes

Taking a close look at a secretive industry, “Nothing Lasts Forever” reveals the unseen conflicts rising within the world of diamonds, and director Jason Kohn ends up discovering a widespread conspiracy that threatens the value of all diamonds. The film won the Sidewalk Film Festival’s special jury prize for Best Documentary Feature. Kohn’s previous documentary, “Love Means Zero,” was nominated for a Sports Emmy for Outstanding Long Sports Documentary.

A still image from the documentary ‘Cow’.

BBC Films

#24. Cow

– Director: Andrea Arnold
– Metascore: 80
– Runtime: 94 minutes

This compassionate documentary takes a look at the life of two dairy cows in an attempt to grant humans a greater understanding of this often misunderstood and beautiful creature. The film was nominated for Best Documentary at the BAFTA Awards. “Cow” is director Andrea Arnold’s first documentary feature, having previously directed critically acclaimed narrative films such as “Fish Tank” and “American Honey.”

Louis Armstrong in the documentary 'Louis Armstrong's Black & Blues'.

Apple TV+

#23. Louis Armstrong’s Black & Blues

– Director: Sacha Jenkins
– Metascore: 80
– Runtime: 106 minutes

The legacy of one of jazz music’s founding fathers is chronicled in this documentary exploring the life of Louis Armstrong. Using archival footage, real conversations, and recordings, the film traces Armstrong’s roots in this intimate exploration of a titan in American music history. Writing for The Guardian, critic Leslie Felperin described the film as “packed with dynamics, sprinkled with astonishing high notes, and immensely pleasurable.”

A scene the documentary ‘Tantura’.

Reel Peak Films

#22. Tantura

– Director: Alon Schwarz
– Metascore: 81
– Runtime: 94 minutes

Unearthing a controversial graduate thesis from the late 1990s, Alon Schwarz co-wrote and directed this revealing documentary that examines the founding of the state of Israel in 1948; a battle for land that Israelis refer to as “The War of Independence” and Palestinians call “Nakba,” meaning “The Catastrophe.” The film takes a look at the village of Tantura and an alleged massacre that was carried out there by Israeli troops. Schwarz won the Jury Award prize for Best Documentary Feature at the 2022 Philadelphia Film Festival.

A still image from the documentary ‘Master of Light’.

One Story Up Productions

#21. Master of Light

– Director: Rosa Ruth Boesten
– Metascore: 81
– Runtime: 83 minutes

Black Classical painter George Anthony Morton went to prison for a decade on drug dealing charges, but was able to further hone his abilities while inside. Finally released, Morton travels back to his hometown to mend ties and paint his family members, while facing his past and the white-dominated art world. Writing for IndieWire, Robert Daniels wrote that “Master of Life” is “a gentle and graceful film defined by the capriciousness of sight.”

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Nick Cave performing in a scene from ‘This Much I Know to Be True’.

Uncommon Creative Studio

#20. This Much I Know to Be True

– Director: Andrew Dominik
– Metascore: 81
– Runtime: 105 minutes

Director Andrew Dominik depicts the performing and recording of songs for Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ most recent album, “Carnage,” and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ “Ghosteen.” The film explores the creative process that binds Ellis and Cave as both artists and fierce friends. Dominik (who also directed the 2022 Marilyn Monroe biopic “Blonde”) documented Cave on film once before in 2016’s “One More Time with Feeling.”

An image from the documentary ‘Hold Your Fire’.

InterPositive Media

#19. Hold Your Fire

– Director: Stefan Forbes
– Metascore: 82
– Runtime: 93 minutes

In 1973, a botched robbery by four Black Sunni Muslims in Brooklyn, New York, led to the longest hostage situation in NYPD history, after a police officer was killed in an exchange of fire. The NYPD had a deadly policy in place for dealing with hostage sieges, but police psychologist Dr. Harvey Schlossberg and the Black community fought to change the system and save lives.

Alexei Navalny in a scene from ‘Navalny’.

CNN Films

#18. Navalny

– Director: Daniel Roher
– Metascore: 82
– Runtime: 98 minutes

In 2020, former Russian presidential candidate Alexei Navalny fell into a coma, later discovered to have been the result of poisoning by a military-grade nerve agent. Navalny’s survival and subsequent quest to uncover his would-be assassins are chronicled in this urgent and shocking documentary. At the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, “Navalny” won both the Audience Award for best U.S. Documentary as well as the Festival Favorite Award.

Celeste Bell in a scene from ‘Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliche’.

Generation Indigo Films

#17. Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché

– Directors: Celeste Bell, Paul Sng
– Metascore: 82
– Runtime: 96 minutes

Lead singer of the British punk band X-Ray Spex, Poly Styrene, died in 2011 at age 53 of cancer. Now, her daughter, Celeste Bell, the film’s co-director, searches through archival footage and interviews in order to explore the legacy and history that her mother left behind. Lisa Kennedy’s review in The New York Times called the film “a thoughtfully finessed filial reckoning.”

A still image from the documentary ‘The Janes’.

HBO Documentary Films

#16. The Janes

– Directors: Tia Lessin, Emma Pildes
– Metascore: 82
– Runtime: 101 minutes

During the pre-Roe v. Wade era, an underground network of female activists who called themselves “JANE” established care and access to 11,000 women seeking an abortion. This riveting documentary honors the heroic women who put their lives on the line so that people could have affordable reproductive care. The film was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize in the Documentary category at the Sundance Film Festival.

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Promotional image from the documentary ‘Is That Black Enough for You?’.

Netflix

#15. Is That Black Enough for You?!?

– Director: Elvis Mitchell
– Metascore: 83
– Runtime: 135 minutes

In this engaging documentary, director Elvis Mitchell traces the history and evolution of Black cinema in America, from its beginnings through the revolutionary films of the 1970s. Mitchell uses a mix of archival footage, interviews with artists like Laurence Fishburne, Whoopi Goldberg, and Samuel L. Jackson, as well as personal history in his cinematic exploration.

An image from the documentary ‘Riotsville, U.S.A.’.

Arch + Bow Films

#14. Riotsville, U.S.A.

– Director: Sierra Pettengill
– Metascore: 83
– Runtime: 91 minutes

This documentary details how the United States took its strange first steps toward police militarization in the 1960s. Director Sierra Pettengill uses unearthed archival footage from a model town for military training purposes called “Riotsville,” where law enforcement learned how to respond to civil unrest from the U.S. army. “Riotsville, U.S.A.” was called a “transfixing doc [that] unveils the ugly truth of America’s riot police” by IndieWire.

An image from the film ‘Moonage Daydream’.

BMG

#13. Moonage Daydream

– Director: Brett Morgen
– Metascore: 83
– Runtime: 135 minutes

Brett Morgen’s music documentary attempts an illuminating look at rock icon David Bowie, drawing mostly on his songs from the ’70s and using never-before-seen performances and footage. “Moonage Daydream” has already grossed $12.2 million worldwide (as of December 2022), making it the highest-grossing documentary of 2022.

Bitaté Uru Eu Wau Wau in a scene from the documentary ‘The Territory’.

National Geographic Documentary Films

#12. The Territory

– Director: Alex Pritz
– Metascore: 83
– Runtime: 85 minutes

The lives of the Indigenous Uru-eu-wau-wau people are constantly under attack due to deforestation efforts in the Amazon, despite having been promised protected dominion over their territory. Partially shot by the Uru-eu-wau-wau themselves, “The Territory” looks at these threats and the Indigenous peoples fighting back against the destruction of their home by setting up their own news media team. Writing on the film for the Los Angeles Times, Robert Abele wrote that “your capacity to be both awed and enraged is ultimately well-served by ‘The Territory,’ a gripping portrait of an endangered community.”

A still image from the documentary ‘Fire of Love’.

Sandbox Films

#11. Fire of Love

– Director: Sara Dosa
– Metascore: 83
– Runtime: 98 minutes

Married volcanologists Katia and Maurice Krafft were as in love with one another as they are with the subject of their research, some of nature’s most beautiful and violent marvels. “Fire of Love” details the Kraffts’ two-decade-long search to uncover the mysteries of these eruptions, leading up to their deaths during a volcanic explosion in 1991. The film was nominated for Sundance’s Grand Jury Prize for Documentaries.

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Illustrated promotional poster from the film ‘Bad Axe.’

Baker’s Dozen Films

#10. Bad Axe

– Director: David Siev
– Metascore: 85
– Runtime: 100 minutes

In the face of COVID-19 and a growing white nationalist movement, an Asian American family in rural Michigan fights to keep their restaurant in business. “Bad Axe” creates a portrait of a family trying to survive during the pandemic under the Trump administration. At the 2022 South By Southwest Film Festival, director David Siev took home the Audience Award for Best Documentary Feature.

An image from the documentary ‘All That Breathes’.

Rise Films

#9. All That Breathes

– Director: Shaunak Sen
– Metascore: 86
– Runtime: 97 minutes

Two brothers dedicate their lives to saving the black kite, native birds of prey in New Delhi which have increasingly dropped from the skies due to pollution. Meanwhile, the city simmers with civil unrest as the brothers struggle to keep their home animal hospital above water. “All That Breathes” has received a plethora of awards and nominations, including the Grand Jury Prize for World Cinema – Documentary at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.

An image from the documentary ‘My Imaginary Country’.

Atacama Productions

#8. My Imaginary Country

– Director: Patricio Guzmán
– Metascore: 86
– Runtime: 83 minutes

In 2019, more than 1 million people flooded the streets of Santiago, Chile, to demand more democracy and social reform. Director Patricio Guzmán obtains footage of the frontline struggle and interviews with activist leaders to paint a portrait of a society no longer waiting for change. For Variety, Jessica Kiang wrote that “with unassuming, generous elegance, [Guzmán] finds hope and political optimism in his homeland’s 2019 protest movement.”

Promotional poster from the film ‘A Night of Knowing Nothing’.

Petit Chaos

#7. A Night of Knowing Nothing

– Director: Payal Kapadia
– Metascore: 87
– Runtime: 99 minutes

Exploring university life in India, this doc chronicles letters written by a student named L at the Film and Television Institute of India to her estranged boyfriend. The letters offer insights into their relationship and reveal social changes against religious and caste-based discrimination happening under Narendra Modi. Director Payal Kapadia won the Golden Eye award at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival. Judges noted, “We were all won over by a film with a strong artistic vision, which combines the personal and the political in a hypnotic way. For a first film, that makes it even more amazing.”

An image from the documentary ‘No Bears’.

Off Center Media

#6. Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America

– Directors: Emily Kunstler, Sarah Kunstler
– Metascore: 87
– Runtime: 117 minutes

Going back from the time of slavery up into our present era, civil rights lawyer Jeffrey Robinson paints a portrait of America as inextricably impacted by white supremacy and anti-Black racism, using his own interviews, personal anecdotes, and lectures. In her review for The Wrap, critic Ronda Racha Penrice writes, “[The film’s] existence speaks to the power of cinema to reflect the times by sparking conversations and changing minds.”

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An image from the documentary ‘Aftershock’.

Impact Partners

#5. Aftershock

– Directors: Paula Eiselt, Tonya Lewis Lee
– Metascore: 87
– Runtime: 86 minutes

This shocking documentary sounds the alarm on a little-known crisis in America. “Aftershock” takes a look at how the maternal health system in America routinely fails Black and Brown women, leading to a disproportionate number of deaths due to complications during childbirth. Shot during the height of the pandemic, the documentary has a grassroots feel and, to many viewers’ surprise, also follows Black fathers whose partners died in childbirth. Speaking to The New York Times, co-director Tonya Lee noted that this wasn’t just a women’s issue, “It’s a family issue. It’s a community issue. It’s everybody’s issue.”

An Image from the documentary ‘Descendant’.

Higher Ground Productions

#4. Descendant

– Director: Margaret Brown
– Metascore: 88
– Runtime: 109 minutes

The remains of the ship Clotilda—the last known illegal slave ship which arrived on the shores of Mobile, Alabama, in 1860—are discovered, and it offers the chance for direct descendants of the ship’s passengers, who now live in Africatown, to reconnect with their heritage and seek justice. “Descendant” premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, where it won the U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award for Creative Vision.

Promotional image from the documentary ‘Three Minutes: A Lengthening’

Family Affair Films

#3. Three Minutes: A Lengthening

– Director: Bianca Stigter
– Metascore: 90
– Runtime: 69 minutes

A three-minute snippet of home movie footage from 1938, depicting residents of the town of Nasielsk in Poland offers a brief, emotional, and historically precious glimpse of Jewish life right before the start of World War II. In addition to directing “Three Minutes: A Lengthening,” Bianca Stigter also served as an associate producer for Steve McQueen’s films “12 Years a Slave” and “Widows.”

Nan Golden in ‘All the Beauty and the Bloodshed’.

Participant

#2. All the Beauty and the Bloodshed

– Director: Laura Poitras
– Metascore: 90
– Runtime: 113 minutes

Using Nan Goldin’s own slideshows, interviews, and photography, the documentary follows the artist-activist as she works to take down Purdue Pharma owners the Sackler family, who are accountable for the opioid epidemic. The film also covers Goldin’s founding of the advocacy group P.A.I.N. (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now). “All The Beauty and the Bloodshed” was named Best Non-Fiction Film by the New York Film Critics Circle and won the Golden Lion for Best Film at the Venice Film Festival.

An image from the documentary 'Herr Bachmann und seine Klasse’.

Madonnen Film

#1. Herr Bachmann und seine Klasse

– Director: Maria Speth
– Metascore: 92
– Runtime: 217 minutes

In a German industrial town, middle school teacher Dieter Bachmann teaches immigrant students from nine different countries. Using unconventional teaching methods that often don’t align with the cultural realities of the town they live in, Bachmann forms a close bond with his students as he attempts to instill in them a sense of belonging. In his review for The New York Times, A.O. Scott described the film as “an acknowledgment of the hard work of learning, and the magic of simple decency.”

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This story was written by Stacker and has been re-published pursuant to a CC BY-NC 4.0 License.

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