I’m not sure this is the Golden Age of documentaries, because it’s probably the only one. Before cable and streaming, nonfiction filmmakers had few outlets for their work; HBO paved the way, and now the field is open to top-tier talent. The Making of a Murderer and The Jinx whet our appetites for these latest award-winning docs.
The Keepers (Netflix)
The unsolved murder of a beloved young nun in 1969 Baltimore becomes unwound decades later. Her former students become amateur sleuths in the ’90s when they start asking, “What really happened to Sister Cathy?” The answers slowly unlock the secrets of their parochial school, the entire Archdiocese, the Baltimore police force, and the political establishment. Compelling and at times harrowing, the story is masterful and never sensationalized.
Wild Wild Country (Netflix)
When an Indian guru and his sexy secretary enact their plan to create a utopian community in the Oregon desert, their followers confront the local ranching community in a mind-boggling war. Revisiting this ’80s scandal, in-depth portraits of the cult members along with the townspeople and amazing archival footage create an utterly bizarre story of New Age mysticism, bio-terror, grand larceny, murder, and mayhem.
A huge international sports scandal emerged when filmmaker Bryan Fogel began investigating doping in bicycle racing. Contacting the head of a Russian anti-doping lab for his expertise, Fogel uncovered such a high-level Olympics conspiracy that his source’s life was gravely threatened. I wasn’t that interested in this subject at first, but then I couldn’t stop watching.
American Factory (Netflix)
Co-produced by the Obamas, this excellent doc about a Chinese mega-corporation taking over a defunct GM factory outside Dayton, Ohio, scores a home run. Capturing the issues facing blue-collar workers now, the big story is about a culture clash of epic proportions.
The Fear of 13 (Netflix)
This is the most riveting one-man show on air. Nick Yarris, a Death Row inmate for 20 years, tells his own shockingly surprising story that’s as much about crime and punishment as it is about upending your preconceived notions of truth and justice.
Into the Abyss (Amazon)
Werner Herzog covers a Texas triple homicide objectively but without sacrificing compassion for the two killers. It’s the portrait of a bleak town, a grimly banal crime, the paths that led the people to their fates, and what comes after. It’s about the humanity at the heart of everyone Herzog interviews, including an executioner. It’s memorable.
Leaving Neverland (HBO)
Michael Jackson’s victims: Oy vey.