This was a year filled with thought-provoking and groundbreaking cinematic takes on cultural moments, icons, and social movements through documentary. While some of the below projects and series made an early mark at the documentary competitions at Sundance Film Festival, others found their home on streaming platforms, showing the appetite for true stories is as great as ever. From Sundance hits like Amy Poehler’s Lucy and Desi to Lifetime’s Janet, here are our favorite documentaries and docuseries from 2022:
Music documentaries were big at Sundance this year, with more than one portrait of a musical artist making headlines. Kathryn Ferguson’s Nothing Compares, a deep dive into the intriguing and enigmatic life of Irish musician Sinead O’Connor, received positive reviews early. However, the song referenced in the title of the film was stopped by the estate of Prince (the recording artist behind the original version of “Nothing Compares 2 U”) so the documentary does lack what is perhaps O’Connor’s best-known track. But the artist’s fired-up politics still remain front and center.
It’s hard to believe that a documentary has never before been made about Janet Jackson, the pop star who, starting in the 1980s, laid the groundwork for performances that followed her decades later. Although she’s historically a private artist, all of that changes with this two-part film event on Lifetime. Artists like Britney Spears and Ariana Grande can be counted as her successors, and icons like Samuel L. Jackson and Mariah Carey make appearances in the documentary.
Meet Me in the Bathroom
Dylan Southern and Will Lovelace put together a 2000s time capsule based on Lizzy Goodman’s book of the same name—an oral history of the aughts rock movement that took place in Lower Manhattan between 2001-2011. The book features the voices of musicians behind bands such as the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and LCD Soundsystem, but the documentary focuses on 1999-2004, with a heavy lens on Karen O, lead singer of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. The film opened in New York and L.A. at the end of October with a nationwide release on November 11.
Lucy and Desi
If you didn’t care for Aaron Sorkin’s fictionalized take on the drama between I Love Lucy stars Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, then Amy Poehler’s documentary, which screened at Sundance and is now streaming on Amazon Prime, might be for you.
A “coming of age” story doesn’t have to start at adolescence. Take the sixtysomething ladies who star in Calendar Girls, for example. Maria Loohufvud and Love Martinsen chronicled the lives of older women who compete on a dance team in South Florida and star in this revealing portrait.
The underground abortion group, the Jane Collective, is the subject of Tia Lessin and Emma Pildes’s documentary, The Janes. Although their radical community care work lasted from 1969 to 1973, this documentary about the Jane Collective feels just as relevant today. The Janes is streaming on HBO Max.
Following three popular personalities on the social media platform, TikTok, Boom attempts to understand the algorithmic, geopolitical, and commercial experiences of content creators in the digital age.
No matter how much you think you know about the late Princess Diana, you still will never know enough. The Princess is proof that we’re still not over our Diana fever.
We Need to Talk About Cosby
W. Kamau Bell investigates the rise and fall of the actor who used his status as “America’s Dad” to sexually abuse and rape approximately 60 women over the course of many years in this four-part docuseries airing on Showtime.
White Hot: The Rise & Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch
White Hot chronicles the ascent and eventual downfall of the brand that changed the American shopping mall and the customers in it—mostly for the worse. This investigation into how Abercrombie & Fitch’s racist hiring practices and products, as well as the brand’s emphasis on exclusivity at all levels, reveals how A&F went from being the “It” brand of the aughts to the laughing stock of the mall. The documentary is streaming on Netflix.
Not So Pretty
If you’ve ever caught yourself feeling fearful of the bacteria in your standing pot of moisturizer or wondered about the potential microplastics in your shampoo, then Not So Pretty, a new HBO Max docuseries narrated by Keke Palmer, is for you. The doc traces the impact of colonialism on global communities of color, particularly of the African diaspora, interviewing hair and beauty influencers who were victims of the chemicals in popular shampoos like DevaCurl and Wen, products which are still on the market, and many of which are marketed towards Black women. The skincare episode, and the revelation that there can be 10,000 industrial chemicals used in products that pollute our hormones and endocrine systems, fertility, and more is equally as frightening. The docuseries is now available on HBO Max.
driving home 2 u (a SOUR film)
Raise your hand if you didn’t get Olivia Rodrigo’s Sour tour tickets in time. If that’s you, just watch her documentary about recording the album on Disney+ and pretend you’re swaying along with a crowd of Gen Z fans instead.
Margaret Brown’s Descendant tells the story of the descendants of the Clotilda — the last-known slave ship to arrive on United States shores in 1860. The ship arrived illegally, decades after the Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves was passed in 1808, but two wealthy white men made a bet that they could still import slaves. They then burned the ship to cover up its existence; Brown’s documentary follows the residents of Africatown, Alabama as they trace their lineage to the ship and try to find its remains, and includes interviews with descendants of the white ship owners, too. Descendant is streaming on Netflix.
The Andy Warhol Diaries
Ryan Murphy’s intimate look at Warhol examines the life and work of the renowned artist from a new perspective. The six-part series draws on Warhol’s unpublished diaries examining his process and the secrets behind his success, which he began writing after he was shot in 1968.
The Tinder Swindler
A thoroughly modern tale of online dating and deception, The Tinder Swindler—part cautionary tale, part true-crime drama—tells the unbelievable yet true story of how one man scammed his way into the hearts and wallets of several unsuspecting women.
The Last Movie Stars
Ethan Hawke’s The Last Movie Stars docuseries (now streaming on HBO Max) gives unprecedented access into the life of Paul Newman through his abandoned memoir and his wife Joanne Woodward—ultimately telling a larger story about one of Hollywood’s golden eras and its biggest stars. Through interviews with Newman and Woodward’s family members, along with a voice cast including George Clooney and Laura Linney, Hawke crafts an intimate story of life, love, loss and legacy.
All the Beauty and the Bloodshed
Laura Poitras’s film documents how photographer Nan Goldin rose to prominence in the ’70s and ’80s New York art world. All the Beauty and the Bloodshed is as much about the queer and punk communities of which Goldin was a part, as it is about her work documenting those communities. The film also covers the history she made as an activist who demanded museums and other cultural institutions cut ties with the Sackler family.
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