The 9 best documentaries of 2022
Documentaries have become one of the most popular streaming options of the past few years, and so far 2022 has offered up plenty of impressive new films that you won’t want to miss. From insightful behind-the-scenes looks at the lives of famous names to jaw-dropping true crime revelations, there’s a film for every viewer. Here, discover our top picks of the best documentaries to watch now.
The best documentaries of 2022
The Mystery of Marilyn Monroe: The Unheard Tapes
It seems our collective obsession with Marilyn Monroe is nowhere near subsiding, and not just because Kim Kardashian wore one of her iconic dresses to the Met Gala. In this new Netflix documentary, director Emma Cooper goes beyond the tabloid headlines that chased the Hollywood star throughout her life and after her death to explore her personal relationships, how she navigated life in the spotlight and the true stories behind the conspiracy theories. The foundation of the documentary is investigative journalist Anthony Summers, who recorded countless interviews with different individuals who knew Marilyn to write his 1985 book, Goddess: The Secret Lives of Marilyn Monroe. With this documentary, Summers and Cooper go back to the tapes — with actors lip-syncing to the audio — to revisit and challenge the story he uncovered, drawing together a sensitive and fascinatingly intimate look at the star’s life.
Wimbledon may be over, but we’ve still got tennis on the brain. Enter McEnroe, an insightful new documentary focused on the sport’s original bad boy, John McEnroe. Notorious for his foul-mouthed rants during on court performances, the American tennis player remains one of the sport’s most successful — to date, he is the only male player to win more than 70 titles in both the men’s singles and the men’s doubles categories. Director Barney Douglas doesn’t seek to wrap up McEnroe’s life and career in a neat little bow — instead, he’s interested in exploring him in all his complexity. The documentary is unflinching in its examination and McEnroe is an entertaining on screen presence, opening up about his drug use, the pressure of staying at the top of his game and his difficult relationship with his father-slash-manager.
Eric Ravilious: Drawn to War
Despite being one of the most prolific and beloved English artists of the mid-20th century, Eric Ravilious fell largely into obscurity after he died in a plane crash in 1942 while serving as a war artist. Now, thanks to his children posthumously uncovering his drawings, this new documentary makes the case for the artist to be given his dues as one of the great British landscape painters. In her vivid and detailed film, director Margy Kinmonth shines a light on the genius of his artistic skill, with world-renowned creatives such as Grayson Perry and Ai Weiwei offering their own testimony as to why they think Ravilious should be admired.
Jane by Charlotte
Who better to create an insightful new documentary about the enigmatic actress-singer Jane Birkin than her daughter, Charlotte Gainsbourg? As only a daughter can do, Gainsbourg gets beyond the glamour and mystique of Birkin’s celebrity and instead turns the lens on her as an artist, mother and wife, rejecting the already overdone work of documenting her life with her partner, Serge Gainsbourg. This gentle and intimate film uses a series of quiet conversations between the two women to look back on their lives together and Birkin’s life today, whether backstage at a concert or enjoying her Brittany seaside home. As Gainsbourg’s directorial debut, the film triumphs by providing a deeply personal insight into the elusive and enchanting singer.
Jeen-yuhs: A Kanye West trilogy
Kanye West remains one of the most celebrated and most controversial artists of our time, and now his fans and critics alike can get an unprecedented look into his rise from Chicago kid to international stardom. The three-part Netflix documentary is the result of a project that started more than 20 years ago, when Clarence “Coodie” Simmons set about making a public access TV show about Chicago’s hip-hop scene. At the time, West was a local talent looking to break through, and Simmons suggested he follow his journey. As it turned out, Simmons was getting the archival footage of the beginning of one of music’s biggest game changers. These early recordings make up most of the documentary, offering a special look into West’s pre-fame years, charting his relationship with his mother, Donda, crafting his songs for his debut album, The College Dropout, and trying to convince established artists to work with him.
In a time where stories from the LGBTQ+ community are still hugely overlooked, Jay Bedwani’s latest documentary offers a fascinating and timely glimpse inside queer culture and the early trans rights pioneers. At the centre of the documentary is Donna Personna, a performer and playwright who transitioned late in life. We join her in her 70s, when she has come to a place where she is able to comfortably live as her female self, overcoming the oppression she felt growing up as the child of a Baptist minister father in San Jose. While the documentary traces Donna’s own story of transitioning and living in the queer community, it also uses her work as a performer to tell the story of early trans rights activists. The film explores how Donna was approached by an independent theatre director in San Francisco to turn the Compton Cafeteria riot into a piece of immersive theatre. Through this process, she’s able to examine the moment where a transgender woman resisted arrest by a police officer, thereby inspiring a new form of trans activism in the city.
In the wake of the recent overturning of Roe vs Wade, The Janes has never been more timely. Directed by Oscar-nominee Tia Lessin and Emmy-nominee Emma Pildes, this illuminating documentary brings to light the story of a group of unlikely outlaws who helped women access abortions in defiance of state law. Calling themselves “Jane,” a group of seven women in Chicago set up an underground service to help women gain access to safe, affordable abortions, in the process going up against the state legislature that made it illegal, the Catholic Church that condemned it, and the Chicago Mob that was profiting from it. Inspiring and heartbreaking in equal measure, this urgent film documents the ongoing fight for women’s rights and the power to be found in going against the system.
The Tinder Swindler
You can always count on Netflix to provide a great true crime documentary, full of twists and turns, and The Tinder Swindler is currently the frontrunner for 2022. Inspiring a swathe of memes and even more excuses to avoid dating apps, this jaw-dropping tale traces the exploits of Israeli conman Simon Leviev, who used the app to seduce women and emotionally manipulate them into financially supporting his extremely lavish lifestyle. With testimonies from a number of his different victims, the film follows how Simon went from presenting himself as a doting partner who would treat his girlfriends to extravagant romantic gestures, to demanding that they get themselves into dangerous levels of debt so that he could “escape his enemies.” It’s an astonishing tale that offers a chilling insight into the dangers of the digital world.
Lucy and Desi
Beloved Hollywood couple Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz have come back into the spotlight recently, first in Aaron Sorkin’s Oscar-nominated drama Being the Ricardos, and now in comedian and actress Amy Poehler’s new documentary. The big breakthrough for the film is a series of 20 cassette tape recordings with the late actors, provided by Ball and Arnaz’s daughter, which offer a first person insight into their experiences carving a space for themselves in Hollywood and in the American people’s hearts. Detailing their struggles and their successes, the film gives a behind-the-scenes look at the making of their hit sitcom, I Love Lucy, while also exploring the misogyny Ball faced in the industry and the strain the show put on their own relationship.
Main image: Marilyn Monroe photographed by Milton H. Greene © 2017 Joshua Greene archiveimages.com.
Taken from the book The Essential Marilyn Monroe, Published by ACC Editions.