What makes a documentary a success in theaters is often hard to pin down; charged political movies, filmed concerts, and visually stunning nature docs make up the highest-grossing entries in the medium. Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 is the only one to ever make more than $100 million domestically (it ended up with $119 million in 2004); his films Sicko, Bowling for Columbine, and Capitalism: A Love Story are also on the all-time charts. Other hits include music movies about Justin Bieber, Katy Perry, and Michael Jackson, as well as the hard-right films of Dinesh D’Souza (his 2016: Obama’s America did especially well).
The kind of films that are hitting big this year are the opposite of Moore’s or D’Souza’s work. RBG and Won’t You Be My Neighbor? warmly embrace their subjects, celebrating their legacies in largely uncontroversial ways. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is a particularly calming piece of cinema, delving into Rogers’s attitude toward TV production while also evangelizing for his open-hearted life philosophy. RBG spends much of its running time on Ginsburg’s emergence as a sort of pop-culture mascot, and happily trades on that image, down to its stylized cartoon poster.
Just a year ago, the box office’s big documentaries were far more challenging—think of the Al Gore–led sequel to An Inconvenient Truth (which reminded the public of the dangers of climate change) and Raoul Peck’s Oscar-nominated I Am Not Your Negro, an impressionistic look at the life of James Baldwin told through his own writing (narrated in voiceover by Samuel L. Jackson). In 2018, even as current events and U.S. politics remain fraught, audiences are flocking to a more benign form of truth-telling.
Netflix’s reliance on documentaries to beef up its library of original content may have helped spur the genre to new relevance. Though the streaming service doesn’t release viewing data, original films like Amanda Knox, Casting JonBenet, Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond, and What Happened, Miss Simone? have been given huge publicity pushes. True crime (like Making a Murderer and The Keepers), twisty sports drama (like the Oscar-winning Icarus), and the lives of major celebrities are pillars for Netflix. Those parallels can be found in the world of podcasting where My Favorite Murder, Missing Richard Simmons, and Dirty John are among the most-downloaded of recent years (not to mention Serial).
Not everything playing well in theaters is as soft-edged as Won’t You Be My Neighbor? or RBG. Three Identical Strangers, which is getting a serious release campaign from the indie studio Neon, is the kind of holy-cow story that glues you to your seat from moment one. Though it’s told glossily, with gauzy staged re-creations and infuriatingly obvious needle drops, it has a story twist midway that is genuinely, wickedly shocking (the less you know going in, the better). As an engrossing personal narrative that suddenly shifts into something more sinister, it reminded me more of Netflix’s Wild Wild Country or the podcast S-Town.