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Top 30 Documentary Hits of 2018

Each day a different year in review topic. Here's Glenn Dunks...

Documentaries had one of their biggest years on record in 2018. In fact, the upper realms of non-fiction at the North American box office started to look like what the foreign-language charts once looked like. There was at least one major cross-over smash, several very impressive eight-figure grossers, a selection of not insignificant titles that did over one-million, and a long list of niche titles that did business anywhere from respectable to disappointing depending on expectations and release size. The year even started strong for docs with 2017 hits Bombshell the Hedy Lamarr Story and Faces/Places continuing to earn tidy sums buoyed by word of mouth and an Oscar nomination respectively.

My column Doc Corner will continue in 2019 so here’s hoping the new year offers just as bountiful a crop. It's been good to see documentaries reaching the mainstream, zeitgeist conversation.

Domestic Box Office Grosses Only - Figures as of March 2nd, 2019. 🔺 = the film is still in theaters

The Eight Figures Club
(The Uber Success Stories)

01 Won’t You Be My Neighbor $22.8 (Jun 8th)
The runaway winner of 2018 doc hits was this film about Fred Rogers. The charms of Morgan Neville’s film somewhat escaped me, but Americans clearly responded to the goodness of its subject in a time of such social and political chaos. This bodes well for Marielle Heller’s Mr. Rogers feature with Tom Hanks due next year. Neighbor ended its run as the 12th most successful documentary of all time despite only reaching 893 cinemas at its widest run. [REVIEW | CRITICS CHOICE | TOM HANKS AS FRED ROGERS

03 🔺 They Shall Not Grow Old $17.1 (Dec 17th)
This number for Peter Jackson’s colorized WWI doc is even more impressive when you consider it made this figure on a single day. I found the movie to be extraordinary in parts, while also giving me the whim whams in others. One suspects it’s also more of a creative success for Jackson than Mortal Engines. [REVIEW]

02 🔺Free Solo $16.9 (Sep 28th)
For directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, this big hit improved on the take of their last mountain-scaling doc, Meru, by over $12 million [OSCAR NOMINEE]

04 RBG $14.0 (May 5th)
If home entertainment releases weren’t locked into the schedule so far in advance, this bio-doc portrait of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg probably could have gone even higher as she continues to be in the news on a weekly basis. [REVIEW | DIANE WARREN TRIBUTE OSCAR NOMINEE]

05 Three Identical Strangers $12.3 (Jun 29th)
The much buzzed about so-strange-it’s-true tale of identical triplets was a huge hit for Neon. [REVIEW]

The $1 Million Plus Club 

06 Fahrenheit 11/9 $6.3 (Sep 21st)
Surely the steepest fall from original to sequel in box office history? I haven’t done the research, but Michael Moore’s 2004 Palme d’Or winner took home an all-time doc box-office chart conquering $119mil, a figure that’s unlikely to ever be beaten. Moore probably would have liked results more in line with at least his more modest hits like Capitalism: A Love Story, and a gross below 1989’s Roger & Me will always be a disappointment, but in today’s landscape, more than $6mil for an independently-released doc is still somewhat impressive. [REVIEW]

07 Death of a Nation $5.8 (Aug 3rd)
Convicted felon D*nesh D’S*uza was still able to convince some people to see his movies, but in levels nowhere near 2016: Obama’s America or Hilary’s America. Small mercies, I suppose.

08 Pandas $5.7 (Apr 6th)
IMAX releases stick around for years. We didn’t get a Disneynature release in 2018, nor a Jane, so this is the closest nature buffs got. 

09 Whitney $3.0 (Jul 6th)
Kevin Macdonald’s bio-doc opened well and was hoping for Amy legs, but fell quickly for reasons that seem unclear considering it was well-reviewed (albeit not by me). Still, it did better than Neil Broomfield’s 2017 doc, Whitney: Can I Be Me, so there’s that. [REVIEW]

10 Pope Francis – A Man of His Word $2 (May 18th)
Considering the state of the Catholic Church these days…

11 McQueen $1.2 (Aug 20th)
For a fashion doc, McQueen did very solid business for Bleecker Street. We only wish the documentary branch had been a bit more open-minded and included this industry legend in their shortlist. [REVIEW]

12 Maria by Callas $1.2 (Nov 2nd)
The release of his opera singer doc is winding down, but may just have enough gas in its tank to overtake McQueen.

13 The Dawn Wall $1.0 (Sept 19th)
This documentary about a free-climber scaling El Capitan was the unfortunate casualty of Free Solo’s shadow. The Infamous to that film’s Capote.

Just under the $1 million mark
Performed well given the marketplace for documentaries.

14 Nothing Like a Dame (aka Tea with the Dames) $862k (Aug 21st)
Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Eileen Atkins and Joan Plowright offer their own unique form of star power in this conversational doc directed by Notting Hill’s Roger Michell. Probably could have expected more, but it’s also the sort of film that plays extremely well on television so I suspect many will discover it there.

15 Love, Gilda $626k (Sep 21st)
This Gilda Radner doc was a quiet achiever in the second-half of the year.

16 Itzhak $618k (Mar 9th)
Managed to do well, likely targeting classical music fans and Jewish audiences.

17 Pick of the Litter $537k (Aug 31th)
Sure to be even bigger once it’s on Netflix and younger audiences who are typically adverse to going to documentaries are able to discover its cute pups.

18 Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood $461k (Jul 27th)
This and McQueen proved to be the two most successful LGBTQ-focused docs of the year. This one centered on the scandalous life of, essentially, a pimp for Hollywood’s closeted superstars. [REVIEW]

19 The Gospel According to Andre $401k (May 25th)
This portrait of fashion icon Andre Leon Talley deserved more attention, particularly from audiences eager to see thorny explorations of race and gender. [REVIEW 

20 Leaning Into the Wind $400k (Mar 9th)
Another good example of the changing theatrical landscape. Thomas Riedelsheimer’s earlier Andy Goldsworthy doc, 2001’s Rivers and Tides, was able to stay in cinemas for a year and made over $2 million. Still, considering the subject matter, this figure is respectable enough and shows there’s a curiosity about Goldsworthy’s work. REVIEW]

21 Anthropocene: The Human Epoch $400k (Sep 28th)
Four years in the making for this Canadian doc about the reengineering of the Earth. Was released just two weeks after its world premiere in Toronto. What a concept!



22 Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami $375k (Apr 13th)
Pretty good result considering Jones has been absent from the public for some time now (apart from press for this movie) and the film covers events that happened nearly a decade ago. FWIW, this film features the funniest moment of 2018 so there’s that. [REVIEW]

23 Mountain $364k (May 11th)
Jennifer Peedom’s Mountain became one of the most successful documentaries of all time in its home of Australia last year aided by special screenings featuring a live score performed by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. I was less enamoured, disappointed by the unnecessary inclusion of narration by Willem Dafoe. If you haven’t seen Peedom’s earlier doc, Sherpa, then you should definitely put it on your list. It is excellent.

24 Kusama: Infinity $360k (Sep 7th)
This examination of the life of Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama performed better than most of the artist profile docs released this year like Antonio Lopez 1970: Sex, Fashion & Disco, Love Cecil, and Susanne Bartsch: On Top.

25 Science Fair $276k (Sep 14th)
I know for a fact how hard this doc was being pushed as a Spellbound for a new generation. This box office figure and its absence from the documentary shortlist must be a blow for this film that did feel like it had the hallmarks of a crossover hit. I wasn’t a fan for my own reasons, but that doesn’t explain why audiences didn't latch onto it. 

26 The King $259k (Jun 22nd)
An unconventional documentary about Elvis Presley that’s more broadly about America itself. A little bit esoteric and avant-garde, in terms of what people would expect from a doc titled “The King”, it was always going to struggle. Hopefully this doesn’t dissuade director Eugene Jarecki. I was a big fan. [REVIEW]

27 Generation Wealth $237k (Jul 20th)
Like Vice, unfortunately no amount of acclaim or awards could really ever get me in the mood to watch Lauren Greenfield’s examination of pathological capitalism.

28 Matangi / Maya / M.I.A. $231k (Sep 28th)
Was likely to always be more of a festival hit than a theatrical release hit. Will hopefully be discovered through streaming. [ REVIEW ]



29 Dark Money $217k (July 13th)
Trans filmmaker Kimberly Reed (of Prodigal Sons fame) took an unexpected turn into investigative journalism style documentary. It's one of 15 finalists for the Oscar nomination this year.  [REVIEW OSCAR FINALIST]

30 The Final Year $191k (Jan 19th)
This documentary about Obama's final year in office was an Oscar hopeful last year but didn't make the finals. Audiences still went out to see it during Oscar season but perhaps not in the numbers they would have.

Other noteworthy titles from the top 50 that we reviewed: Studio 54 ($187k), Bad Reputation ($148k), Bisbee ’17 ($118k), Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda ($117k), Love Cecil ($106k), Filmworker ($99k), and The Price of Everything ($87k).


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Reader Comments (7)

I have to get to some of these. ack. I've been so remiss with docs... even moreso than usual. From this list i've only seen THREE IDENTICAL STRANGERS

December 24, 2018 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

I've seen 14 of these. The bigger grossers are all fine, but I preferred "Love Gilda" and "Tea with the Dames."

December 24, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterBruno

Bruno -- wow. nearly half the list. so does this mean you're disappointed in Oscar's 15 finalists?

December 24, 2018 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

So many terrific documentaries this year. The cream of the crop are "Minding the Gap" and "Free Solo," but I also enjoyed RBG, Won't You Be My Neighbor?, Tea with the Dames, and Three Identical Strangers.

December 24, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterRaul

@Nathaniel: Seems as good a list as any, though it'd have been nice to see "Love Gilda" make it at least. While I enjoyed "Tea with the Dames" immensely, that's because it's pure porn for actressexuals with a British bent. Interestingly, I haven't yet seen "Free Solo" but did see the other El Capitan climber doc "The Dawn Wall," which I rather liked.

December 25, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterBruno

Why didn't you like Science Fair...I kinda loved it...Gave me hope for the next generation

December 25, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterDO

DO, I found its editing rather frustrating. They were still introducing new people half way through the runtime! And I just don't think it really utilised the drama in these kids lives enough, but instead kept the obversations fairly on the surface.

December 26, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn Dunks

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