What I Saw Last Year – Best Documentaries 2022

All That Breathes (Shaunak Sen)  Powerful film concerning Nadeem Shehzad and Mohammad Saud, two brothers in New Delhi who run a clinic that treats black kite birds that frequently fall from the sky because of pollution and other environmental issues. They’ve treated 20,000 black kites during the last 20 years. Daniel Fienberg of The Hollywood Reporter wrote that the film “encapsulated a vision of New Delhi in which modern life, particularly pollution and overpopulation, have placed new strain on the balance between humans and nature.” Per director Shaunak Sen: “I am drawn by the subject of the interconnectedness of an ecosystem — one that humans are a part of, not apart from. How man, animals share space and become part of the whole.” All That Breathes is beautifully shot and edited, and deeply moving.

Available for streaming on HBO Max.


All the Beauty and the Bloodshed (Laura Poitras, director)  Nan Goldin is a photographer and activist. This excellent documentary covers her largely successful efforts to get museums, art galleries, universities, and other cultural institutions to refuse philanthropic donations from the Sackler family because of their connection to OxyContin and the opioid addiction crisis. The film spends a lot of time on Goldin’s life and career, so that by the time she begins her mission against the Sacklers, we have a good sense of who she is. Opioid addiction is still very much an issue, so the film is very relevant.

Not yet available for streaming.


The Automat (Lisa Hurwitz, director)  Immensely entertaining history of the chain of Horn & Hardart Automats, vending machine restaurants that were located in Philadelphia and New York City from 1902 to 1991. I remember there was one on 42nd Street, maybe the last in Manhattan, though I don’t think I ever ate there. Too bad. Lisa Hurwitz had the great luck to involve Mel Brooks in the film. He jumped in with both feet and a lot of enthusiasm. The Automat is punctuated with lively testimonials from Brooks, Carl Reiner, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Colin Powell, Elliott Gould, and others. It’s very well made and a lot of fun.

Available for streaming on HBO Max.


Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, a Journey, a Song (Dayna Goldfine & Dan Geller, directors)  Who doesn’t love Leonard Cohen and this song? I was hooked from the first minute to the last. This film is full of feeling. Hard to resist, though why would you want to?

Available for streaming on Amazon Prime.


Los Angeles Plays Itself (Thom Andersen, director) 2003. Remastered.  I first saw this astonishing film in 2004 at Film Forum. Comprised of hundreds of film clips — either over 100 or over 200, depending on your source, in any event, a lot — that show how Los Angeles has been represented or misrepresented in feature films over the years. It’s a nearly three-hour feast for film buffs, of which I’m a proud member, and a fascinating, idiosyncratic history. Though for years, due to the overwhelming prospect of trying to clear the rights for all those clips, it could only be seen at museum showings and the like. In 2014, lawyers advised that the rights issue was not really an issue because of the fair use doctrine. A home video release followed. So why is it in this listing of best documentaries of 2022? Because I finally saw it again last July when it returned to New York City, this time at the IFC Center. I think it’s an important film and wanted to include it here.

Available for streaming on MUBI and YouTube.


Moonage Daydream (Brett Morgan, director)  Edited comments from my previous blog post on this film:

“Calling Moonage Daydream a documentary doesn’t begin to cover it. I saw the film on opening day on an IMAX screen and was properly overwhelmed. Directed by Brett Morgan, the film is a dense overload of overlapping sound and image. It seldom slows down to let you catch your breath. It was hard at times for me to keep up with, to keep everything sorted. Finally I just gave up and let the film rush over me. Moonage Daydream takes us into Bowie’s life and work in a way that seems to randomly ricochet from one point to another, like a pinball game. It can feel chaotic, but I don’t think it’s random at all. This is far from a traditional movie biography As someone said, it’s not about facts and stats. There’s no narration, no on-screen titles or talking-head interviews to guide us. We hear Bowie in voice-over and clips from various interview shows over the years. He tells his own story. There’s a loose progression from the early years to the later, but it’s not strictly chronological. David Bowie was continually changing his appearance, persona, and musical styles. He’s been frquently called a chameleon. Moonage Daydream shows us Bowie as a writer, artist (painting and sculpture), actor, and most importantly, as a musician. There’s always been something otherworldly about Bowie, as though he was just visiting. That’s what made him perfect casting for The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), in which  he was literally an alien from outer space.”

Available for streaming on Amazon Prime.


Personality Crisis: One Night Only (Martin Scorsese & David Tedeschi, directors)  I love David Johansen and saw him many times after moving here in 1977, usually at The Bottom Line. I was really looking forward to this film, which we saw at the New York Film Festival last October. We stayed for the Q&A after. You can see from the photo that it was quite an ensemble. Moderator Dan Sullivan opened by saying, “I can’t believe I’m on stage with David Johansen.” I find it amusing that he could say this while sitting directly next to Martin Scorsese. Pretty funny. The film is great. Performance and interview clips from Johansen’s career are interspersed with footage shot over two nights during his shows at the Cafe Carlyle in Manhattan. Johansen is quite a character, funny, witty, a terrific musician, and extremely entertaining. The energy of the performances is a rush, going back to his beginnings with the proto-punk New York Dolls and through a solo career that includes his alter ego, Buster Poindexter. Scorsese has a feel for the music and the personalities. He knows how to do this, as his previous films on Bob Dylan, George Harrison, and the Band have shown.

Not yet available for streaming, though the Q&A referenced above will be included in the supplemental post to follow.


“Sr.” (Chris Smith, director)  A funny, touching, and very loving portrait of filmmaker Robert Downey, orchestrated by his son, Robert Downey Jr. He’s probably best known for his film Putney Swope (1969), a jaw-dropping satire that deals with, among other things, race and advertising. It’s also incredibly funny (“How many syllables, Mario? How many syllables, Mario?”). If you’ve seen it, you know. Another of his films, which I haven’t seen, is Two Tons of Turquoise to Taos Tonight (1975), a great title and a triumph of alliteration. “Sr.” shows the full range of his accomplishments and his relationship with his son.


Tales of the Purple House (Abbas Fadel, director)  I’d seen two previous films by this director. The first was Yara (2018), a narrative feature I liked a great deal; the second was Bitter Bread (2019), a documentary showing daily life in a Syrian refugee camp in Lebanon. Fahdel is definitely a humanist. His films are a reflection of this. They bear witness to what he sees. Tales of the Purple House has been shown at numerous international film festivals over the last year, including the New York Film Festival, which is where I saw it last October. It’s three hours long and dense with mood and information. Here’s the NYFF description:

“…another extraordinary, expansive cinematic vision combining images of mundane observation with social and political upheaval. Filmed over more than two years, Tales of the Purple House centers on the experiences of Nour Ballouk, a Lebanese artist living in the house she shares with Fahdel (her husband, who stays off-screen) in the dramatic mountainous countryside outside of Beirut. As she works on her latest paintings, communes with stray cats, and bonds with Syrian refugee neighbors, the nation struggles with turmoil, from the breakout of the COVID pandemic to citizens protesting the corruption of the political elite to ongoing violent attacks from neighboring Israel; meanwhile, the vibrant beauty of their home and its surroundings provides solace and regeneration. With the simplest of brushstrokes, Fahdel’s meditative film captures the creation of art amidst pain, the ongoing hope for revolution, and the struggle to live in the present while constantly bearing witness to the past.”

Not currently available for streaming, but well worth seeing when you can.


Turn Every Page: The Adventures of Robert Caro and Robert Gottlieb (Lizzie Gottlieb, director)  Terrific film about the relationship of author Robert Caro and Robert Gottlieb, his editor for 40 years. They began working together with Caro’s biography of Robert Moses, The Power Broker (1974), continuing through the first four volumes of his massive biography of Lyndon Johnson (over 3,000 pages total so far). Caro is still writing the fifth and final book. They both hope to finish before time runs out. Caro is age 87, Gottlieb is 91, so it’s a concern. This is a film for anyone interested in writing and how writers and editors work. It was directed by Robert Gottlieb’s daughter, Lizzie.

Not yet available for streaming, but it’s still showing in theaters.


¡Viva Maestro! (Theodore Braun, director)  I barely knew who Gustavo Dudamel was before seeing this wonderful, life-affirming film. He’s one of the good guys. In the film, he’s a force of nature, incredibly energetic, a great musical talent with a humanist agenda. I’m excited by the recent news that he’s leaving the Los Angeles Philharmonic to lead the New York Philharmonic in 2026. That’s a few years away, but in the meantime, see this film. It’s a real rush.

Available for streaming on HBO Max.


That does it for this one. Next up: supplemental materials for the titles in this post. Meanwhile, stay safe. — Ted Hicks


About Ted Hicks

Iowa farm boy; have lived in NYC for 40 years; worked in motion picture labs, film/video distribution, subtitling, media-awards program; obsessive film-goer all my life.
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4 Responses to What I Saw Last Year – Best Documentaries 2022

  1. David M Fromm says:

    Lots to look forward to viewing/

  2. 104amsterdam says:

    Hi, Ted🌟

    Our mutual friend, Sharon van Ivan, introduced me to you about 4 years ago when we were walking on Broadway together one afternoon and you two saw each other.

    Am reaching out now to express my appreciation for your excellent newsletter about film. BRAVO. You write wonderfully about your cinematic experiences.

    THANK YOU, and be well❣️ ==Sho==

  3. Kimball Jones says:

    A nice list, Ted. I haven’t seen any of them. I would really like to see the Automat one and the one about Los Angeles. Something to look forward to.

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