In honor of movie awards season — and the fact that the Oscars are right around the corner — we’ve compiled a list of the year’s most important documentaries as well as recent standouts you shouldn’t miss. From sexual assault on colleges campuses to Florida’s “stand your ground” law, these films address many of today’s most important legal issues.
1. “The Hunting Ground” looks at sexual assault on campus and the aftermath
This 2014 film by Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering premiered at the Sundance Film Festival this year and looks at the phenomenon of sexual assault on college campuses in the U.S. The film follows survivors in the aftermath of assault and analyzes university administrations’ reactions to the events. With college rape continuing to make headlines, it’s sadly a very timely subject.
2. “3½ Minutes” follows a trial for the murder of an unarmed black teen
Another Sundance standout from this year, “3½ Minutes,” won a Special Jury Award for Social Impact. The film covers the trial of Michael Dunn, a white man who fired at four black teens in a parked car at a gas station, killing one, because he thought their “thug music,” as he called it, was too loud.
The title refers to how long this brief event lasted. Ten bullets and 3 ½ minutes after Dunn and his girlfriend pulled into the gas station, 17-year-old Jordan Davis was dead. Dunn insists he felt threatened and that he did no wrong, citing Florida’s “stand your ground” law. In addition to the trial, the film covers the implications of gun culture and “stand your ground” laws.
3. “The Invisible War” exposes sexual assault in the military
Before they made “The Hunting Ground,” Dick and Ziering produced this film about sexual assault in the military in 2012. It was nominated for and won several awards, including the Sundance Audience Award for a U.S. documentary, a Peabody Award and an Emmy. It was also nominated for an Academy Award in the best documentary category.
This powerful film not only garnered plenty of praise but also was instrumental in effecting real change in the military. Former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta cited the film as an influence in his 2012 decision to change the way sexual assault cases are handled in the military. Now, instead of allowing commanders to handle cases in their own units, matters of sexual assault immediately go to an officer with a rank of colonel or higher.
4. “Citizenfour” lets Snowden have his say
Laura Poitras’s documentary premiered at the 2014 New York Film Festival in October and was nominated for an Oscar for best documentary feature soon after. Poitras had been working on a documentary about monitoring programs for a while when she received an email from a man who called himself “Citizen Four” and offered to give her inside information on illegal intelligence gathering practices at the National Security Agency. She made contact with Citizen Four, since then revealed to be Edward Snowden, and conducted the interviews that make up the bulk of this film.
Snowden is still living in Russia and reportedly seeking asylum in the European Union.
5. “The Long Night” investigates domestic sex trafficking
Tim Matsui’s film follows a subject that most can hardly bring themselves to contemplate: child sex trafficking. Not only is it going on, it’s happening right here in the U.S. The film, which is set in Seattle, Washington, follows young girls who have been forced or coerced into the American sex trade, parents who are looking for their missing daughter, and police offers who are trying to create a more just system for the children they encounter on the streets each night.
The film premiered in Seattle last December and is available to watch online.
6. “(T)ERROR” shows counterterrorism in action
Filmmakers Lyric R. Cabral and David Felix Sutcliffe won the Special Jury Prize for Breakout First Feature at this year’s Sundance festival. For over two years, they followed an unnamed FBI informant as he carried out his duties in a counterterrorism sting. Sundance says the film “feels like a political spy novel set in your own hometown.”
7. “How to Survive a Plague” examines activism in the early days of AIDS
Like the Oscar-nominated “Dallas Buyers Club,” this documentary focuses on the early stages of the AIDS epidemic in America and how activists fought with the government for more research and better access to safe, effective medicine to combat the disease. In particular, it follows the group ACT UP, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, which was formed in 1987 to advance the rights of people with AIDS and improve medical research.
Filmmaker David France dedicated the documentary, which premiered at Sundance in 2012 and was nominated for best documentary feature at the 85th Academy Awards, to his partner who died in 1992 from AIDS-related pneumonia.
8. “Blackfish” looks at SeaWorld’s orca whale captivity
This 2013 film by Gabriela Cowperthwaite did not win any Sundance awards or Oscar nominations but was hotly discussed in the media and sparked backlash against SeaWorld.
The documentary focuses on the inhumane and dangerous practice of keeping orca whales in captivity, specifically following one SeaWorld orca named Tilikum. Experts describe the extreme psychological trauma they believe Tilikum suffered during his time in captivity, which they blame for the deaths of three humans, including trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010.
More than a year after the film’s release, SeaWorld is struggling with attendance, lawsuits and continued controversy over whether it is humane to keep whales in captivity.