In Depth

The best documentaries of 2020

From Tiger King to The Last Dance - here’s the must-watch list

Documentary fans have been spoiled this year with so many new films being released on TV and the various streaming services. 

At the 72nd Emmy Awards there were high-quality nominees shortlisted for the 2020 outstanding documentary or nonfiction series and the outstanding documentary or nonfiction special.

The Last Dance, which chronicles the rise of basketball superstar Michael Jordan and the 1990s Chicago Bulls, won the documentary series Emmy ahead of American Masters, Hillary, McMillion$ and Tiger King

In the special category the Emmy went to The Apollo ahead of Beastie Boys Story, Becoming, Laurel Canyon: A Place In Time and The Great Hack

With so much variety in the genre right now here’s a pick of the documentaries you must watch.

Billie

This “smart and accessible” documentary about the legendary Billie Holiday combines “phenomenal” footage of her performances with previously unheard audio testimony from people who knew her, said Chris Willman in Variety. The latter was recorded for a planned biography by journalist Linda Lipnack Kuehl and has lain untouched since she died in 1979, 20 years after Holiday’s own death aged 44. Listening to these interviewees – relatives, band members, musicians including Charles Mingus and Tony Bennett; even the “chuckling” pimp who pressed Holiday into prostitution as a teenager – is thrilling, like hearing “the dialogue from some forgotten noir”. And while a clear picture of Holiday’s tragic life emerges, the film does not make her a victim, but instead focuses on her defiant spirit and her supreme talent. Where to watch: Amazon and Apple TV 

Time 

The mass incarceration of African Americans is a subject that has been explored in several recent documentaries, but Garrett Bradley’s Time is unusual in focusing on the people waiting outside the prison walls, said Clarisse Loughrey in The IndependentWhere to watch: Amazon Prime Video 

The Last Dance

Critics have raved about The Last Dance this year. As proved by its Emmy win, the ten-part documentary series co-produced by ESPN Films and Netflix is not just for sports fans. BBC Sport’s Ciaran Varley reported that The Last Dance overtook Tiger King as the world’s most in-demand documentary. Where to watch: Netflix   

Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem And Madness

Few documentary projects have made as big a splash as this Netflix series, says Esquire. Its tagline promises “murder, madness, and mayhem” and this smash hit definitely delivers. With Joe Exotic and Carole Baskin taking centre stage, Tiger King is the “year’s wildest Netflix series”, according to The GuardianWhere to watch: Netflix  

Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich

Based on the 2016 book of the same name by James Patterson, this miniseries about the now-deceased convicted sex offender is “difficult to watch without a choking sense of outrage”, says The Guardian’s Adrian Horton. Stories from survivors fuel this docuseries examining how Epstein used his wealth and power to carry out his abuses. Where to watch: Netflix  

Beastie Boys Story

In 2018 and 2019, the Beastie Boys’ surviving members, Adam Horovitz and Michael Diamond, went on a storytelling tour, Empire reports. This is an edited version of the final Brooklyn show, filmed by long-time cohort Spike Jonze. As Mike D and Adrock recount their own history, the Independent says “there’s an honesty here that makes Beastie Boys Story appealing even to rap novices”. Where to watch: Apple TV+ 

Hillary

Four-part documentary series providing an intimate portrait of former first lady and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, featuring exclusive footage from her 2016 presidential campaign. The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw says: “This epic documentary ranges across Hillary Clinton’s life, from the Arkansas governor’s mansion, through the White House years to her own shot at the top job - but the enigma remains.” Where to watch: Sky Documentaries/Now TV

McMillion$

From executive producer Mark Wahlberg, McMillion$ takes a look into the con that allowed one man to rig the results of McDonald’s popular Monopoly game for an entire decade. The Guardian’s Lucy Mangan says this six-part documentary series is a “rip-roaring romp” around the McDonald’s Monopoly scandal. Where to watch: Sky Documentaries 

Danny Dyer on Pinter 

“Underestimate Danny Dyer at your peril,” says The Daily Telegraph. “Pause your laughter, this unlikely pair were like father and son.” Taken under his wing following roles in films like 1997’s Human Traffic, Harold Pinter cast Dyer in several of his plays, including No Man’s Land and The Homecoming. Now, 12 years after Pinter’s death, Dyer takes a look back at his mentor’s work and the profound influence he had on his life. Dyer said: “My relationship with Harold is something I will always cherish and I was very touched by the whole experience. What an incredible complex humble human being he was. I miss him every day.” Where to watch: Sky Arts 

Cheer 

Netflix kickstarted its 2020 documentary slate with one of the first hits of the year, says Esquire. Follow the cheer squad of Navarro College as they bid to win the coveted US national title. Described by Netflix as “gritty, inspiring and exciting”, TheWeek.co.uk’s three-word review of Cheer is “peppy, colourful and heartening”. Cult viewing. Where to watch: Netflix 

Andy Murray: Resurfacing 

This documentary tracks the British tennis star’s journey from 2017 to 2019 as he battles injury, surgery and rehabilitation before returning to the court. Resurfacing is “my favourite documentary” says Alex Pattle of the Independent. He adds: “Unlike films such as Diego Maradona and Senna, Resurfacing isn’t the story of a genius; it is the story of a grafter with a painful commitment to hard work, a boy who survived a school shooting and everything the sport of tennis could throw at his deteriorating body, only to come back as formidable as ever.” Where to watch: Amazon Prime 

All or Nothing: Tottenham Hotspur

After reaching the Champions League final in 2019 the following season saw the Amazon cameras go behind the scenes at Tottenham. Mauricio Pochettino did not last long as manager with Spurs replacing him with Jose Mourinho. The Special One’s arrival in north London “saved the day” for Amazon, says Radio Times. The latest All or Nothing “needed Mourinho more than they realised”. The series is narrated by star actor Tom Hardy. Where to watch: Amazon Prime  

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