Last week, I released my list of the 25 Best Feature films of 2019. There, I explained that I typically do a separate rundown for documentaries. I have found that most who choose to include both forms of filmmaking in their end of the year lists tend to only include two or three entries for docs. The rest are naturally shortchanged in lieu of narrative features. Rather than make such a grave error, I made another rundown solely for documentaries.
And for good reason. 2019 witnessed stories covering a soul legend, space explorers, a honey maker, sexual predators, an ambulance chasing family, and a tragic death. I couldn’t imagine not highlighting every single one of these singular films. Here, are the Best Documentaries of 2019.
Amazing Grace (Sidney Pollack and Jeff Buchanan)
In 1972, Sydney Pollack (Out of Africa and Tootsie) was enlisted for a once in a lifetime opportunity. Accompanied by the Southern California Community Choir, the Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin recorded her live album Amazing Grace at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles. Pollack came to record the event for a later concert film. However, technical errors caused the audio to separate from its images. Much as he tried, the famed director couldn’t rectify his mistake. It took decades before editor Jeff Buchanan to retool the footage. The result, transports us back into time to witness an artist at the height of her powers, and for us to shout “praise be.”
Where to watch: Hulu
Apollo 11 (Todd Douglas Miller)
I caught Apollo 11 at the tail end of Sundance 2019. By that point, the festival was ablaze with excitement for the film. Usually I chalk up such enthusiasm as festival hype, but Todd Douglas Miller’s Apollo 11 is far more. Another instance of salvaging and restoring footage, the 70mm film follows Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins on their journey from earth to the moon. Without interviews or recreations, the editing by Miller makes for an exhilarating journey and a triptych portrait of a time gone by: from fashions to hopes, to unbridled confidence.
Where to watch: Amazon Prime ($3.99)
Black Mother (Khalik Allah)
With 2015’s Field Niggas, Khalik Allah seemed to rewrite the rules of cinema in a poetic rendering of Harlem street life. However, his follow-up Black Mother confirms the director as a visionary in the medium. Set in Jamaica, the highly personal film (Allah is of Jamaican descent) is as much an ode to the people of the island, than as an individual’s search for identity, and an immersive examination of the country’s history. Lyrical and spiritual, Black Mothers wanders through the travails of Jamaica’s Black women—some of them sex workers, as they negotiate prices and receive ultrasounds. Allah’s filmic essay documents a struggle against arduous economic circumstances, along with a deeply moving religiosity, which communes with gorgeous shots of the Jamaican landscape for an evocative yet powerful reconstruction of Black existence.
Where to watch: Criterion Channel
The Black Godfather (Reginald Hudlin)
Kingmakers are rare today. Before partisan political maps, 24/7 news coverage, and the internet, influencers could raise unknowns to grand political and artistic heights. One of the rare remaining examples is Clarence Avant—founder of Sussex and Taboo records, concert promoter for Michael Jackson, and fund-raiser for Democratic politicians. In The Black Godfather, Reginald Hudlin follows the straight-talking expletive-spitting “Godfather of Black music” as he recounts his life and witnesses his influence. More than a profile of a behind the scenes legend, the film demonstrates the continual need and joy that comes from Black men and women raising each other up.
Where to watch: Netflix
The Cave (Feras Fayyad)
At AFI Fest, I declared the Syrian filmmaker Feras Fayyad (Last Men in Aleppo) the most important documentarian of his generation. With America interested in the region yet disinterested in its people, Fayyad has consistently provided one of the few eyewitness testimonials of a silent tragedy. This time, he profiles Amani Ballor —a female doctor and head of a hospital in Ghouta. With medicine in short supply, and constant air raids from Russia, Amani must also contend with a still-sexist and religious definition of a woman’s role. Her strength and devotion to her patients, doctors, and nurses forces her to make the most of what’s available. To these ends, the hospital also operates in a makeshift cave. The result shows courageous men and women trying to help those in the most dire of needs even as the world doesn’t seem to be listening.
For Sama (Waad Al-Kateab and Edward Watts)
Like The Cave, Waad Al-Kateab and Edward Watts’ For Sama is a brutal unflinching look inside the Syrian War. An intimate documentary, Waad dutifully films herself over the course of five years: from marriage to the birth of her daughter, during the siege of Aleppo. A tale of resiliency, Waad captures moments of pure disrepair: the death of a child on an operating table, and instances of hope—the belief in a cause. She also documents a burgeoning revolution, passionate protests for freedom, and the final embers of its fire snuffed out through betrayal. Determined, touching, and sobering Waad elucidates how a country descends into horror—and the multiple ways its citizens try to hold their lives and their nation together.
Honeyland (Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov)
In a remote village of North Macedonia exists Hatidze Muratova, a beekeeper living in another era. Between the ruins of homes, she lives with her 85-year old bedridden mother. Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov’s Honeyland sees Muratova’s way of life threatened as outsiders begin to encroach upon her tiny village. Human greed, loss, and an apathetic mother nature nearly break Muratova in this poignant film about surviving through perseverance—even when the honey turns sour.
Where to watch: Amazon Prime ($5.99)
Leaving Neverland (Dan Reed)
Revered as the “King of Pop,” Michael Jackson lived a life that seemed outside the bounds of reality. Wildly famous, incredibly rich, and extremely guarded, any peak into his existence felt performative. In this regard, there was no greater nor more horrifying stage than Neverland Ranch, a theme park and compound that espoused all of Jackson’s cruelly ironic fantasies. Even so, his secrets unraveled when he twice went through sexual molestation trials (1994 and 2005). Dan Reed through the testimonies of Wade Robson and James Safechuck exposes Jackson’s acts of grooming, manipulation, and statutory rape with two young boys in a two-part documentary that serves as an uneasy study of a sexual predator that’ll make you never want to listen to another Michael Jackson song again.
Where to watch: HBO Go
Love, Antosha (Garrett Price)
On June 19, 2016, Anton Yelchin’s jeep rolled down his driveway and unsuspectingly pinned him against a pillar resulting in the end of his life. While it might sound vacuous to say loss and grief are never easy, when tragedy strikes at 27 the statement rings devastatingly true. In this regard, Garret Price’s Love, Antosha is a thoughtful memorial to the young performer. Featuring interviews with friends and co-stars, the film recounts the actor’s struggles with cystic fibrosis as he crafted his promising career. While Price mines personal stories that reflect the unique and brilliant individual Yelchin was, the most poignant moments arrive through interviewing the performer’s still heartbroken parents. Love, Antosha isn’t just a film about a talented actor’s untimely death, it’s about the grief that accompanies the loss of a son and a friend.
Where to watch: Amazon Prime ($3.99)
Midnight Family (Luke Lorentzen)
In Mexico City, there are many independent ambulance drivers, all racing to the next accident. If they’re lucky enough to find someone in need, they can take them to an independent hospital where they receive a reward. I had worried that Midnight Family would be forgotten after Sundance 2019. Thankfully, the Academy Awards shortlisted Luke Lorentzen’s harrowing but conflicting portrait of a family operating a private ambulance in the heart of Mexico City for their Best Documentary Feature category. The Ochoas are the perfection subjects for the film because they’re uniquely aware of how their precarious financial situation and business might be dangerous to their patients too. But in an economically desperate environment, which offers few alternatives, they work to survive to the next day. Heroes and profiteers at once, Lorentzen documents the difficult results of economic disparity through the Ochoas in an incredible moralistic crucible.
Where to watch: In Theaters January 8th
One Child Nation (Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang)
In a defiance of censorship and government intimidation, with One Child Nation Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang interview family members, former-party officials, and several parents affected by the one-child policy for a frightful portrait. Wang looks back on the period of 1979 to 2015, when in an effort to curb rampant population growth, China instituted the one-child policy. Graphic and distressing, Wang discovers lost generations hidden in trash dumps and in the memories of mothers and fathers, who became the policy’s victims, for a startling picture of state-sanctioned murder.
Where to watch: Amazon Prime (with subscription)
Surviving R. Kelly (Nigel Bellis and Astral Finnie)
Leaving Neverland wasn’t the only film that exposed a molester. Like Jackson, R. Kelly’s history of grooming and statuary rape (in this case of underage women) was widely known. In 2002, the singer was charged with multiple counts of child pornography but ib 2008 was acquitted on every charge. Moreover, in 2017 there were allegations of Kelly running a sex cult. It wasn’t until Nigel Bellis and Astral Finnie’s 6-part Lifetime docuseries that multiple walls caved in on the singer. Featuring brave survivors speaking on record about Kelly’s abuses, the film is a harrowing take down of a sexual predator. A flash point, Surviving R. Kelly demonstrates the power a documentary has to institute change,
Where to watch: Netflix
That’s it for my 2019 lists. Once again, thank you for following along. From here on out, it’ll only be 2020 movies. Look out for my Sundance coverage coming soon!