The Best Documentaries of 2024, So Far

Now that 2024 is half over, I’ve started collecting candidates for my list of the year’s best films — and that, of course, includes documentaries. I’ve written about many great nonfiction films already this year (including some favorites like “Songs of Earth,” “Ryuichi Sakamoto: Opus” and “Art Talent Show”). Yet plenty fly under the radar, so I wanted to highlight three documentaries I haven’t written about that are worth your time.

The first is “Spermworld” (Hulu), directed by Lance Oppenheim (who also made the recent, amazing HBO documentary series “Ren Faire”). Oppenheim’s singular style is dreamlike, heightening reality so it becomes poetic and unworldly. In this movie, he follows several “sperm kings,” men who connect with would-be parents looking for sperm donors via the internet, rather than at a sperm bank. The movie illuminates the reasons they choose to donate as well as the reasons people seek donors in this unconventional way. That premise could be cheesy, exploitative or salacious. Instead, it’s gripping and empathetic and unlike anything you’d expect. (The documentary is based on a 2021 New York Times article, and is a New York Times co-production.)

I also loved “Onlookers,” Kimi Takesue’s unusual film about tourism in Laos. You can imagine a journalistic approach to this topic, which might involve interviews and investigative work, or perhaps a first-person travelogue approach. But Takesue eschews all those tools for something entirely different: a series of long takes, set up as locked, wide camera shots. Tourists and locals amble through the frame, taking pictures, talking to one another, buying items and going about the activities typical of tourism in the region. What you slowly realize you’re watching is the way that constant observation creates a certain sort of performance as well as disruption. Tourists are there to look at locals, and locals look right back at them, watching their behavior as well. But there’s an extra layer, because here we are as viewers, watching people be watched. So who is the real onlooker?

A final film worth seeking out is Sam Green’s “32 Sounds” (Criterion Channel), an immersive sound documentary that Green has toured as a live performance throughout the world over the past few years. Now it’s available for home viewing, and the good news is that the experience is just as excellent through your headphones as it might be in a theater. That’s because “32 Sounds” aims to make you aware of the world of sound literally vibrating around you, and it’s designed to make you feel as if you’re inside the documentary rather than just watching it. Green narrates the film, which is both funny and full of ruminations on how sound creates meaning in our lives. Sometimes onscreen text instructs you to close your eyes so you can pay fuller attention to what you’re hearing. It’s the sort of movie that can change the way you live, and that’s what the best films do, isn’t it?

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