Pass the Remote: Top 2020 documentaries with Bay Area connections

The eight inhabitants of Biosphere 2 discovered that their project was a work in progress. "Spaceship Earth" takes a look at the people behind the experiment. (Courtesy of Neon)

As 2020 draws to a close, Pass the Remote revisits some of the standout full-length films that had Bay Area ties. This week, we’ll count down some of the best, but by no means all, documentaries. Next week, we’ll spotlight narrative features. 


  1. “Crip Camp”: Oakland filmmakers James LeBrecht and Nicole Newnham’s Sundance Film Festival winner is not only inspiring and educational, but it’s also lively, funny and even raunchy. Part memoir on an influential, rowdy summer camp for teenagers with disabilities in the Catskills but mostly a chronicle of the disabled-rights movement and its roots in the Bay Area, “Crip Camp” opens eyes, minds and hearts. It also celebrates the remarkable achievements of the determined leaders in the movement, and how they fought for change. (Available on Netflix)
“Crip Camp,” which was co-directed by Jim Lebrecht, was one of the best documentaries of 2020. (Courtesy of Netflix)

  1. “Athlete A”: The hardworking wife/husband filmmaking duo of Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk delivered one of their finest films yet in 2020. That’s saying a lot. After revisiting the climate crisis with former Vice President Al Gore (“An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power”) and issuing a warning on the dangers of social media (“Audrie & Daisy”), the award winners tackled the USA Gymnastics team scandal. They do so by telling the tangled story from two perspectives — of the young sexual-abuse survivors preyed upon by the squad’s doctor and of the intrepid band of investigative journalists at the Indianapolis Star who revealed the nauseating cover-up. It’s a riveting indictment on corruption that demands to be seen. (Available on Netflix)
Maggie Nichols is featured in “Athlete A.” (Courtesy of AP/Netflix)

  1. “Dear Santa”: Gosh darn that Dana Nachman. The Los Altos journalist-turned-documentary maker can make us cry and in the best way imaginable. Here, the filmmaker behind “Pick of the Litter” and “Batkid Begins” (two must-sees for families) warms our hearts by tagging along with Santa’s helpers from USPS’s Operation Santa. The journey provides one of the best mood boosters of 2020, reminding us that there are good people out there granting the wishes of those in need. The letter to Kris Kringle from an isolated gay kid will leave you in ruins. (Available for rental on various streaming platforms)
“Dear Santa” tags along with the Operation Santa program. (Courtesy of IFC)

  1. “Citizen Penn”: Alameda filmmaker Don Hardy follows the Bay Area’s Sean Penn and other volunteers during their tireless attempts to help Haitians after a 7.0 quake in 2010. Not only will you gain a better appreciation for Penn and his commitment to humanitarian projects, but also for Hardy’s dedication to bring a positive portrait of volunteers enacting change. (On the festival circuits) 

Sean Penn’s tireless commitment to helping those in need after the 2010 Haiti quake is captured in Don Hardy’s “Citizen Penn.” (Courtesy of KTF Films)

Sean Penn’s tireless commitment to helping those in need after the 2010 Haiti quake is captured in Don Hardy’s “Citizen Penn.” (Courtesy of KTF Films)

  1. “Boys State”: Even if you’re sick of politics (and who isn’t?), this gripping doc focused on four 17-year-old candidates who are seeking office in an annual mock election in Texas will win your vote. The Bay Area’s Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine give us a nail-biter that not only reflects how dirty the system can get, but also how today’s teens are seeking ways to make it better and to respect differing opinions, rather than just going for the throat. (Available on AppleTV+)
“Boys State” follows a group of 17-year-olds who are establishing a mock government. (Courtesy A24)

  1. “River City Drumbeat”: This indie movie miracle was the emotional salve we all needed this year, a gratifying reminder about the importance of compassion and community. San Francisco filmmaker Anne Flatte teams up with Marlon Johnson and tours West Louisville, Ky., to observe the River City youth drum corps as they employ any resources they can find to create their drumline and steer young musicians toward a common artistic goal. (Screening virtually)
“River City Drumbeat” captures what goes on behind the scenes of a drumline in Kentucky. (Courtesy of the 2050 Group)

  1. “Spaceship Earth”: San Jose native Matt Wolf avoids the obvious in his engrossing account of the 1991 Biosphere 2 terrarium experiment in Arizona, making his documentary more of an epic on creative dreamers endeavoring to achieve something radical, and then illustrating how it became a punchline for some. Wolf lets us get to know these eccentric amateur scientists and creative thinkers and shows they experimented in Oakland and San Francisco. “Earth” celebrates communal ingenuity and how it can lead not only to innovation but also mistakes. (Available to stream on various platforms)
The eight inhabitants of Biosphere 2 discovered that their project was a work in progress. “Spaceship Earth” takes a look at the people behind the experiment. (Courtesy of Neon)

  1. “John Lewis: Good Trouble”: The storied career and life of the late House of Representatives politician is given the respect and reverence they richly deserve. San Francisco filmmaker Dawn Porter revisits how Lewis played instrumental roles in the civil rights movement, advocating for voting rights up to his final days. (Available to stream on various platforms)
USA. Selma, Alabama. October 7, 1964. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) organized “Freedom Day”, an attempt to get residents registered to vote. John Lewis being arrested.

  1. “The Way I See It”: Porter was certainly one of the most productive Bay Area documentary makers of 2020, releasing along with the Lewis documentary this crowd-pleaser that profiles former chief official White House photographer Pete Souza and his working relationships with the Reagans, the Obamas, and — briefly — the Trumps. Porter focuses mostly on the Obamas and how Souza gained tremendous, unprecedented access while covering them. (Available on various platforms)
President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama wait in the Map Room before the State Arrival ceremony to welcome President Felipe Calderon of Mexico and his wife Margarita Zavala on the South Lawn of the White House, May 19, 2010. (Courtesy of Focus Features/Official White House photo by Pete Souza)

  1. “The Boys Who Said NO!”: Bay Area filmmaker Judith Ehrlich revisits the Vietnam War draft resistance and how Oakland was pivotal ground for landmark protests. Ehrlich’s documentary does a deep dive into the lives of these rebels, and includes interviews with singer/activist Joan Baez and Daniel Ellsberg and archival interviews with Muhammad Ali and Martin Luther King, Jr. (On the festival circuit)
“The Boys Who Said NO!” takes us into the lives of those who stood up against the draft. (Courtesy of Larsen Associates)

“The Boys Who Said NO!” takes us into the lives of those who stood up against the draft. (Courtesy of Larsen Associates)


  1. “Belly of the Beast”: Erika Cohn’s documentary is a shocking look back at the heinous sterilization of female inmates in the California prison system. Cohn focuses on two protagonists — Oakland nonprofit attorney Cynthia Chandler and Kelli Dillon, whose personal testimony and courage helped lead to reform. Cohn’s documentary sounds the alarm bell about the need to continue to overhaul the system. (On the festival circuit)
Kelli Dillon and Cynthia Chandler joined forces to expose the injustices happening to female California inmates. “Belly of the Beast” follows their tenacious work. (Courtesy of the 2050 Group)

  1. “Playing for Keeps”: Marin County’s James Redford, who passed away this year, reminds viewers to take a break from social media and demanding bosses and rediscover the joy of playing. That message couldn’t be more needed. Filled with examples of stressed Bay Area folks ditching the job to pursue favorite or newfound hobbies during a break, Redford’s feel-good doc is just what the doctor ordered. Redford, who was the son of Robert Redford, specialized in documentaries that mattered. He will be missed. (On the festival circuit)
James Redford’s last documentary before his death — “Playing for Keeps” — was a reminder that we need to play more to lead more fulfilling lives. (Courtesy of the Mill Valley Film Festival)

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