Best Upcoming Documentaries from the Fall Festivals

Sr., Good Night Oppy, Retrograde, and a host of gripping and moving documentary features premiered recently and we breakdown our favorites.

by | October 7, 2022 | Comments

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While the Venice Film Festival, Telluride Film Festival, and Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) are primarily known for premiering dozens of would-be blockbusters and Oscar contenders—films like The Fabelmans, Don’t Worry Darling, Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, The Woman King, Bros, and The Whale—the fall festivals are also a hugely fertile ground for unveiling great new documentaries. Several recent Best Documentary Feature Oscar contenders have premiered at the fall festivals, including Attica, Free Solo, and Collective, and it looks like several likely contenders were revealed this year as well. 

Close to 50 documentary features premiered between Venice, Telluride, and TIFF, and although we didn’t see all of them, we sure saw a lot. Read on for our picks of the Best Documentaries from the Fall Festivals and check back here for more festival coverage.   

Moonage Daydream (2022)

(Photo by Toronto International Film Festival)

Brett Morgen has made some of the most visually and technically stunning biographical documentaries in recent memory, including highly lauded films on Kurt Cobain (Cobain: Montage of Heck) and Jane Goodall (Jane). But knowing that won’t prepare you for what Morgen does with David Bowie’s life and work in Moonage Daydream, which is almost more of a conceptual art project than a documentary film. That’s a good thing, by the way. For 135 minutes, Morgen takes us deep into Bowie’s mind, his influences, his ever-evolving identity and personas, and some of the most timeless music ever made. The result is an aural and visual collage that feels more like an experience than a movie, and one can only imagine that Bowie would be proud. Moonage Daydream premiered at Cannes and also played at TIFF before opening theatrically, where it’s currently available in both regular theaters and on IMAX screens courtesy of Neon. 

Sidney (2022)

(Photo by Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival)

When Sidney Poitier passed earlier this year, we lost one of the great actors and movie stars in the history of American cinema, but this timely portrait by director Reginald Hudlin (Marshall) and producer Oprah Winfrey provides a wonderful way to appreciate the screen legend. Numerous luminaries are on hand to describe what Poitier’s work—as both an actor and an activist—meant to them, including Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, Halle Berry, Robert Redford, and Spike Lee, while Poitier’s daughters also tell the story of the man behind the movie star. Sidney doesn’t challenge the audience in style or substance, but some American lives are so grand on their own merits that their stories defy the need for creative filmmaking. Sidney premiered at TIFF and is now available to stream on Apple TV+. 

Louis Armstrong's Black & Blues (2022)

(Photo by Courtesy of Apple TV)

The best kind of biographical music documentaries are those that help place the breadth of someone’s career in a new and greater context, and that’s absolutely what happens here with Louis Armstrong. Filmmaker Sacha Jenkins (who has an extensive history of working with Black musicians, including Rick James and Wu-Tang Clan) uses a treasure trove of material—including Armstrong’s own audio diaries—and an exciting visual style to show viewers that Louis Armstrong was far more than just a singer and a trumpet player. Armstrong’s voice and music come alive in the film, but so do the personality and politics of a Black man who was immensely famous in America during the height of mid-20th-century racism. Louis Armstrong’s Black & Blues premiered at TIFF and is being released by Apple TV+, where it will be available to stream beginning October 28. 

Good Night Oppy (2022)

(Photo by Telluride Film Festival)

In 2004 NASA landed two rovers on Mars, both of which were expected to remain operational for about 90 days. They lasted quite a bit longer, and Opportunity—affectionately called Oppy by her operational staff—continued functioning for nearly 15 years. Director Ryan White (The Case Against 8) takes us both inside the NASA control rooms and to the surface of Mars (where Oppy always began her day with a newly selected “Good morning” song) for a fun, engaging, and emotional look at the life cycle of this little robot that could, and at the support staff that started to feel a profound attachment to her role in their daily lives. Good Night Oppy is a love letter not just to space and exploration, but also to the way we create and find meaning in sometimes odd places. Good Night Oppy premiered at Telluride and will get a theatrical release from Amazon on November 4 before then being available to stream on Amazon Prime Video starting November 23. 

All the Beauty and the Bloodshed (2022)

(Photo by Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival)

Acclaimed artist Nan Goldin has spent the last several years waging a personal war against the Sackler family—owners of Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin—and the way they would wash their name through the great museums of the world, cultivating a clean reputation as celebrated art donors. Oscar-winning documentarian Laura Poitras (who so memorably captured Edward Snowden taking on the NSA in 2014’s Citizenfour) is back with another stunning portrait of one person’s fight against a broken system. Poitras switches back and forth in focus, covering both the historical context of Goldin’s famed art career and her present battles against the art world that normalizes and legitimizes the Sackler name. All the Beauty and the Bloodshed premiered at Venice and will receive a theatrical release from Neon on November 23 before eventually streaming on HBO. 

Retrograde (2022)

With films like Cartel Land (a 2015 Oscar nominee), City of Ghosts, and The First Wave, Matthew Heineman has proven himself to be one of the world’s most adept documentarians and filmmakers at capturing the realities and aftermaths of war zones and global hotspots. That skill is once again showcased in Retrograde, which takes viewers inside the final months of the war in Afghanistan and shines a spotlight on the Afghan officers being trained by American Green Berets to continue the fight after the US withdrawal. As always with Heineman’s films, he manages to capture the human lives at the heart of a conflict without sacrificing the macro view of the conflict itself. Retrograde premiered at Telluride and will be released theatrically by Nat Geo, but no date has been set yet.

"Sr." (2022)

Image from Sr.

(Photo by Courtesy of Telluride Film Festival)

40 years before Robert Downey Jr. became one of the biggest stars in the world by playing Marvel’s Iron Man, his father, Robert Downey Sr., helped create the independent American cinema scene of the 1960s. With irreverent, satirical, and absurdist classics like Putney Swope and Greaser’s Palace, Downey Sr. turned underground cinema on its head and forged a path that countless subsequent filmmakers would follow. Sr. captures the eponymous subject at the end of his life (he died last year), as his son attempts to understand his father and say goodbye. Director Chris Smith (Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond, American Movie) knows how to tell a story with a unique character or relationship at the center, and the Downey men certainly qualify. But Sr. is also a touching and heartfelt story of family, legacy, and mortality. After premiering at Telluride, Sr. was acquired by Netflix, who will release it sometime later this year. 

The Grab (2022)

(Photo by Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival)

After making the Oscar-nominated Blackfish in 2013, filmmaker Gabriela Cowperthwaite took some time away from documentaries to make two acclaimed features, Megan Leavey and Our Friend. But since 2016 Cowperthwaite has also been working on an explosive new documentary that was finally unveiled to enthusiastic praise in TIFF. The Grab is a shocking, globe-trotting exposé about the ways countries like Russia, China, and Saudi Arabia have been making covert land grabs around the world—including several in the US—to try and control the future of water, farming, and livestock. 

We talked to Cowperthwaite about her film, which had so much material that she had to cut an entire plot element about a brewing conflict between Egypt and Ethiopia because Ethiopia is trying to dam the Nile to harness it as an energy source. “It could have been a series,” Cowperthwaite admits. “But I also knew that people’s appetite to sit with this information hour after hour, it’s asking a lot.” Cowperthwaite will be taking another break from documentaries and has already finished shooting her next narrative feature, a space station thriller called I.S.S. starring Ariana DeBose. “Documentaries can own you,” Cowperthwaite said. “It’s very hard for me to untether. I tend to just live with this stuff.” But The Grab was worth it, and it’s an incredible film that should start a lot of conversations when audiences get to see it. The film is currently in negotiations for distribution, but Cowperthwaite acknowledges the challenge of “upping her enemy count” with the film. “In this one, we picked a lot of battles,” she said. But the battles were worth it for a finished product this good, as audiences will hopefully see in the near future. 

Casa Susanna (2022)

(Photo by Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival)

At a large house in the Catskills, during the prim and proper 1950s and early ‘60s, an increasingly large group of cross-dressing men and transgender women gathered in secret, cultivating a private community where they could feel unafraid and proud. Through archival footage and contemporary interviews, filmmaker Sébastien Lifshitz explores the lasting legacy of these gatherings, both on the people who frequented them and also on the larger LGBTQ+ community in New York, which began slowly coming out of the shadows in the subsequent years. Casa Susanna plays almost like a prequel to the classic documentary Paris Is Burning, filling in the blanks on a forgotten but crucial place and time in the story of America’s LGBTQ+ community. Casa Susanna premiered at Venice and will be shown on PBS’s American Experience sometime in 2023. 

Free Money (2022)

(Photo by Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival)

Since Andrew Yang launched his Presidential run in 2019, the concept of Universal Basic Income has become a hot topic beyond just economists. But how might it look in practice? That’s what a nonprofit called GiveDirectly has been attempting to find out. Using a series of villages in Kenya and other Sub-Saharan African countries for a targeted experiment that began in 2018, the idea is to give every member of these villages a regular monthly income for 12 years and see how it affects their lives. Filmmakers Sam Soko and Lauren DeFilippo take us inside the first four years of this project, showing both the intended benefits and the unintended consequences for the villagers of Kogutu, Kenya, as the 12-year experiment continues to unfold. Free Money premiered at TIFF and is still seeking US distribution. 

Icarus: The Aftermath (2022)

(Photo by Courtesy of Netflix)

Five years after Icarus (which won the 2017 Oscar for Best Documentary Feature), filmmaker Bryan Fogel is back to continue his story about Russian doping in sports, but this time the story takes a far darker, more deadly turn. Following the events of the first film, Russian scientist Grigory Rodchenkov received a death order from Russian President Vladimir Putin. Over the course of three years documented in the film, Fogel tracks Rodchenkov’s efforts to survive his own country’s efforts to kill him, which involve continuous movement, a security detail, and an attempt to obtain US citizenship. Like its predecessor, Icarus: The Aftermath crafts a continuously evolving story with several surprises in store, but this time the focus shifts from a global issue with relatively small stakes to a small, personal story with the stakes of life and death. Icarus: The Aftermath premiered at Telluride and is still seeking US distribution. 

Patrick and the Whale (2022)

(Photo by Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival)

In some of the most beautiful and breathtaking footage you’ll see this year, marine videographer Patrick Dykstra provides incredible access to a pod of sperm whales and gets much closer than expected to one of them over a period of time. That premise may sound like a rehash of My Octopus Teacher, but the execution here is quite different, more subtle, and more about the imagery and majesty of the animals than the relationship. The visual scale of Patrick with the whales is especially stunning, and the underwater photography captures it perfectly. Patrick and the Whale premiered at TIFF and is still seeking US distribution. 

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