Special Topic - Fall 2017
Best Documentaries of 2017
by Matt Reid, Published 12/13/2017, Updated 1/13/2018
This year may have been a mess of depressing news, but the selection of documentaries made available on streaming services has been impressive to say the least. As a documentary aficionado, I am always excited to discover new films containing sociological themes and I am happy to have the opportunity to share with you my favorite selections from this past year. These films may not be as educative as they are captivating, but I think all of them will spark your interests as explorers of the social world. All of these films had me engaged from start to finish, and some even had me screaming furiously at the TV or jumping for joy at the downfall of a real-life villain. Nonetheless, I hope you find these films as thrilling as I did, and maybe you will spot other sociological themes outside of those I highlighted below.
These are my picks for the top 5 documentaries of 2017 with honorable mentions included. All of these films were released to at-home audiences this year although a few may have had theatrical debuts in 2016. I am sure there are many critical reviews of these film written much better than what I managed below, and if my description fails to move you, I hope you still give the film a chance (or watch the trailer at the very least). All of my reviews here are spoiler-free too. Winter break is coming… Have you prepared your watch list yet?
Amazon Prime, 1h 33min
Who gets an obituary in the New York Times? This documentary gives us a glimpse inside the most prestigious obituary outlet in modern day America. Editors and writers tell us what makes for a good obituary as well as the type of person they profile in these widely-read life histories. Many people aspire to an obituary in the NYT—in fact, it’s become a form of social status—but only a precious few get in, mostly people who made headlines during their lives.
Sociological themes include: Social status, culture, the media, objectivity, and death/dying…
Netflix, 2h 1min
This documentary explores the systematic doping of Russian athletes in the Olympic games through information revealed by a whistleblower who was once in charge of the doping program. Furthermore, as the whistleblower flees Russia in response to threats on his life, he becomes the responsibility of the filmmaker-turned-caretaker. We learn how the deception of Olympic officials was accomplished, how the Russian government directly sponsored the illegal doping program, and how far the Russian government was willing to go in their attempts to cover up the mess—denials, lies, and assassinations. Revelations made in this film implicate the entire Russian government, nearly every Russian athlete, and the International Olympic Committee which turned a blind eye for years. The film makes us question the fairness of modern athletics and whether steroid-free sports are still possible.
Sociological themes include: Sports, state-sponsored crime, power…
Mommy Dead and Dearest
HBO, 1h 22min
When Gypsy Rose Blanchard aided in the murder of her mother back in 2015, friends and family were shocked-- not only because of the murder, but because they all knew Gypsy as a sickly, wheel-chair bound girl physically incapable of such an act. This documentary explores a fascinating case of “Munchausen syndrome by proxy” (aka factitious disorder imposed on another), an abusive situation whereby a parent or guardian forces an imagined illness onto a vulnerable dependent. As a result, the once-healthy person often becomes sick from forced treatments and/or unnecessary medication. Gypsy’s mother was guilty of this terrible practice and used Gypsy’s conjured illness to elicit sympathy, money, and other kindnesses from family, friends, and neighbors. The con went on for over a decade until Gypsy’s desire to break free led her and her Internet-boyfriend to kill the mother. Gypsy ends up on trial for the murder despite that fact that her acts were arguably justified. This documentary forces the viewer to contemplate criminal responsibility and the inadequacies of our current system in dealing with victims of abuse.
Sociological themes include: Families, health & illness, child abuse, criminal justice, victimology, power, and sexuality...
Netflix, 1h 36min
This documentary has 2 subjects. The first is Gerald Foos, a voyeur who secretly observed guests at his motel. Foos built an observation platform above the motel’s rooms and spent decades spying on guests through fake ceiling air vents. In violating the privacy of his guests, Foos witness their unmanaged, backstage selves in addition to sexual acts, heated arguments, and even a murder. Even more intriguing, Foos considers this to be his “research”. We see Foos candidly discuss his method of voyeurism and brag about the perverse details of his observations, all free from consequence since the statute of limitations has long expired. Yet we only know of Guy Foos thanks to Gay Talese, an iconic literary journalist and the second primary focus of this documentary. Talese began collaborating with Foos in the 1980s, and we get a behind-the-scenes look into the publishing process of Talese’s latest book, “The Voyeur’s Motel”. Throughout the documentary, Talese reflects on journalistic standards, ethics, and his role in exposing the voyeur. Needless to say, Talese knew of Foos’ criminal activity for years and did nothing to prevent the continued victimization of the motel guests. Regardless, the audience is treated to a trilling journey of ethical conundrums, plot twists, and raw deviant behavior.
Sociological themes include: Deviance, research ethics, issues of consent and privacy, the role of the researcher, credibility and objectivity, power, and the media...
HBO, 1h 32min
This documentary isn’t really about tickling. Rather, it’s a documentary about masculinity, domination, fetishes, and the media. It’s also my favorite documentary of the year, thanks in part to an additional 21-minute update just as bizarre as the film itself. Tickled is basically a film about how the YouTube-based world of “competitive tickling” is a run by a secretive exploitative millionaire named David D’Amato, a man who inherited his fortune and served as an assistant principal to 8 different high schools over the course of just 10 years. D’Amato would pay young straight men to tickle and be tickled by their friends, all on film, all completely clothed, and all under the guise of a homophobic, pseudo-religious media organization called Jane O’Brien media. D’Amato would entice young, working-class men to do humiliating, homoerotic acts on video and eventually use such tapes as blackmail to retain their financial dependency. What we essentially see is a cowardly man accomplishing masculinity through threats, intimidation, and the brutalization (and emasculation) of younger men. When a gay filmmaker from New Zealand begins to investigate this matter, he becomes a target of D’Amato's abuse as well. We get to see a mess of drama, provocative discoveries, and candid confrontations between the filmmakers and “Jane O’Brien Media”. The film's captivating suspense is made even more fascinating by the fact that all of this competitive tickling nonsense is still going on at this very moment.
Sociological themes include: Masculinity, power & control, sexuality, deviance, the media, and the law...
NOTE: Developments after the film’s release are captured in a 21-minute follow-up called “The Tickle King”. Furthermore, another significant development happened after this follow-up’s release! Since I don’t want to spoil anything, I will simply suggest you search for these updates after watching the film.
There are 12 runners-up deserving of special recognition for their captivating engagement of the sociological concepts. In no particular order...
- Too Funny to Fail: The Life & Death of The Dana Carvey Show [Hulu] - Comedy and humor, commercialization, media (television), deviance, consumerism, and public tastes... (more info).
- Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press [Netflix] - Media (gossip), credibility, public image, pop culture, and censorship... (more info).
- Rolling Stone: Stories from the Edge [HBO] - Media (journalism), countercultures, pop culture, music, deviance, and social change... (more info).
- The Problem with Apu [TruTV] - Race and ethnicity, stereotypes, controlling images, media (television), racism, and oppression... (more info).
- My Scientology Movie [Netflix] - Religion, social control, in/out groups, group loyalty, cults, and power... (more info).
- The Legend of 420 [Netflix] - Drugs (marijuana), subcultures, countercultures, politics, propaganda, deviance, and criminal justice... (more info).
- Ruby Ridge (American Experience) [PBS] - White nationalists, bureaucracies, red tape, state power and control, abuse of force, and media spin... (more info).
- Citizen Jane: Battle for the City [Hulu] - Urban sociology, urban decay/renewal, politics, bureaucracies, planned cities, and grassroots activism... (more info).
- Kim Dotcom: Caught in the Web [Hulu] - File sharing, the Internet, politics, conspiracy, power & control, innovators, and consumerism... (more info).
- Unlocking the Cage [HBO] - Animal rights (non-human rights), personhood, legal activism, and anthropocentrism... (more info).
- One of Us [Netflix] - Religion, socialization, identity, group affiliation and loyalty, social control, and deviance... (more info).
- The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson [Netflix] - gender, social movements, intersectionality, violence against trans folk, police negligence, and oppression... (more info).