Screen critics’ top documentaries of 2023

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Screen’s executive editor for reviews and new talent. Read her top ten films of the year here.

1. 20 Days In Mariupol

Dir. Mstyslav Chernov

Who will speak up when they come for you? The Associated Press correspondent Chernov is in Mariupol, Ukraine as the Russians invade — and the answer is, nobody. Only his camera watches as the lights go out, essential services — from fire engines to hospitals — are targeted repeatedly and the priority becomes to get this footage out, to let the world know of the death and devastation. 20 Days In Mariupol is by far the most impressive, and dangerous, first-person witness to the events of our time.

2. Beyond Utopia

Dir. Madeleine Gavin

On the other side of the coin, Gavin’s documentary about an ‘underground railroad’ for refugees was made without her ever being able to enter North Korea, but the stakes could not be higher for the people who place their absolute trust in her.

3. High & Low: John Galliano

Dir. Kevin Macdonald

I do not believe for a second that there is any real rehabilitation going on — by any person or any entity — in Macdonald’s examination of the disgraced clothing designer, at least as a ‘civilian’ might recognise it, but what a fantastic deep-dive into the venality of fashion at its fiercest.

Screen’s senior US critic, based in Los Angeles, has written for the publication since 2005. Read his top ten films of the year here.

1. Occupied City

Dir. Steve McQueen

Past and present clash provocatively in McQueen’s intellectually rigorous four-hour-plus documentary, juxtaposing shots of modern Amsterdam with voiceover accounts of the atrocities that occurred in those locations during the Nazi occupation. An unanticipated companion piece to The Zone Of Interest, Occupied City articulates how the ghosts of old sins haunt our contemporary spaces, refusing to fade into history.

2. Four Daughters

Dir. Kaouther Ben Hania

Tunisian writer/director Ben Hania recounts the gutting story of a mother who lost two of her four daughters to Isis, the filmmaker casting actresses to portray the two women and their mother alongside the real-life family members. Therapeutic but also emotionally raw, Four Daughters is a deft bit of cinematic role-play and a heart­breakingly personal portrait of the pain of radicalisation.

3. 20 Days In Mariupol

Dir. Mstyslav Chernov

As the Russian shelling of Ukraine continues, 20 Days In Mariupol stands as a sobering frontline snapshot. Photojournalist Chernov captures the confusion and sheer terror of a warzone, the sense there is no escape — and that there is no end in sight.

Hunter has worked for Screen since 1990. He is based in Edinburgh and recently retired as co-director of Glasgow Film Festival. Read his top ten films of the year here.

1. 20 Days In Mariupol

Dir. Mstyslav Chernov

The hell of war finds a powerful expression in Chernov’s compelling documentary. He remained in Mariupol to capture the escalating horrors when Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022. Bearing witness to history creates an urgent, thriller-­like narrative alert to the suffering of individuals and the responsibilities of frontline journalism.

2. Smoke Sauna Sisterhood

Dir. Anna Hints

A woodland sauna is refuge and confessional for a group of Estonian women in a documentary marked by its intimacy, deceptive simplicity and the bond of trust between the filmmaker and the subjects.

3. Tish

Dir. Paul Sng

A portrait of photographer Tish Murtha, whose sympathetic images captured life in post-­industrial Britain. Made with her daughter, this is a celebration of her work and of the struggle facing working-class voices.

Ide joined Screen in 2015 as a UK-based critic, and is also the chief film critic for The Observer. Read her top ten films of the year here.

1. Four Daughters

Dir. Kaouther Ben Hania

Ben Hania’s illuminating and uncomfortable hybrid documentary brilliantly uses dramatic reconstructions and actors interacting with the film’s subjects — a Tunisian mother and her two remaining daughters — to interrogate the radicalisation process. It is an inventive and daring approach, but central to its success is that Ben Hania allows the women to have considerable control over the telling of their stories.

2. Beyond Utopia

Dir. Madeleine Gavin

Harrowing insights into life under the authoritarian and secretive regime in North Korea are cut together with candid footage shot during a family’s escape attempt from the country. Gavin’s skill as an editor is evident throughout — this is as propulsive and taut as a political thriller.

3. Smoke Sauna Sisterhood

Dir. Anna Hints

The arcane tradition of the Estonian smoke sauna offers a rare intimacy; within the velvety darkness of this wooded shed, a group of women share stories, laughter and pain.

A longtime contributor to Screen, Romney also writes for Film Comment, Sight & Sound and The Observer, and teaches at the UK’s National Film and Television School. Read his top ten films of the year here.

1. The Eternal Memory

Dir. Maite Alberdi

The director of The Mole Agent offers a tender, super-intimate portrait of a Chilean couple contending with the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. The relationship of Augusto Gongora and Paulina Urrutia is all the more moving and compelling because of their own longstanding engagement with the memory of a traumatised nation.

2. Little Girl Blue

Dir. Mona Achache

Part documentary, part dramatic reconstruction, part filmed installation work, this bold hybrid from a hitherto mainstream-friendly director sees Achache contemplate the troubled life of her writer/­photographer mother, with help from Marion Cotillard.

3. Man In Black

Dir. Wang Bing

Chinese documentarian Wang takes a sidestep with this concise but power­ful portrait of 86-year-old modern composer Wang Xilin, who lays himself bare — figuratively and literally — in a searing reminiscence of the Cultural Revolution.…Read more by

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