Updated: Dec 31, 2019
Making this list was incredibly hard. Documentaries this year were better than ever and touched on an array of topics using a variety of methods. Archival was huge this year - I can’t remember a year in which this many mostly-archival or all-archival docs were released.
There are so many films I would have loved to include on this list, but I’m limiting it to 11. This list doesn’t even mention such stellar docs as THE CAVE, DIEGO MARADONA, ROLLING THUNDER REVUE, THE EDGE OF DEMOCRACY, THE KINGMAKER, and numerous others. These 11 films are all among the best in recent years, and it would be unfair to rank them. Thus, they’re ranked alphabetically.
AMAZING GRACE (Produced and realized by Alan Elliott) — An instant classic, AMAZING GRACE is as close to a religious experience as one is likely to get from watching a movie. Listening to Aretha Franklin sing gospel in her prime is an unmatched experience. Shot by a Sydney Pollack-led crew in 1972, the film didn’t see the light of day until last year due to technical and legal issues. Its existence is a miracle, and the passion brought to the film by Elliott is palpable.
AMERICAN FACTORY (Dirs. Stephen Bognar, Julia Reichert) — Few films this year captured cross-cultural tensions and the future of American industry quite like AMERICAN FACTORY. Set in a formerly American, now Chinese-owned automobile glass-making factory, this endlessly-complex, impartial film is a thoughtful, provocative piece that's one of the few docs that would warrant a follow-up.
APOLLO 11 (Dir. Todd Douglas Miller) — We’ve seen numerous films about the moon landing, but none have had the immediacy and thrill factor of Todd Douglas MIller’s all-archival APOLLO 11. With Matt Morton’s pulsing score, restored, never-before-seen 70mm footage, and sharp editing, APOLLO 11 brings us into the danger and excitement of this historic event and makes it extremely intimate. A landmark achievement.
THE BIGGEST LITTLE FARM (Dir. John Chester) — Shot over the better part of a decade, THE BIGGEST LITTLE FARM tells the story of a couple who decide to leave the urban life to build a self-sustaining farm. The stunningly-shot and life-affirming FARM admirably doesn’t gloss over the tougher aspects of farm life and puts honesty before anything else.
COLD CASE HAMMARSKJÖLD (Dir. Mads Brügger) – Who knows how much of this bizarre documentary is even true, but if even five seconds of it are, the implications it has are terrifying. Taking the suspicious death of former U.N. Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld as a launching point, this outrageously entertaining and ultimately disturbing film digs into places that most people wouldn’t dare. I don’t want to say any more though because going into COLD CASE HAMMARSKJÖLD blind is the best way to experience it.
FOR SAMA (Dirs. Waad Al-Kateab, Edward Watts) — No film has captured life inside a war zone like the searing FOR SAMA. Co-director Waad Al-Kateab made this film for her unborn daughter to show what life was like before and after the attacks on Aleppo in Syria. Al-Kateab’s footage is unforgettable and frequently hard to watch, but it also serves as a testament to people like her and her husband who decided to stay behind to care for others.
HONEYLAND (Dirs. Tamara Kotevska, Ljubomir Stefanov) — HONEYLAND starts as an unassuming film about Hatidze, a beekeeper in Macedonia who respects her bees and treats them as her own. But, this quiet, lyrical film becomes far more unsettling when Hatidze’s way of life is threatened by new neighbors. HONEYLAND is one of the most wrenching docs of the year and also a potent environmental fable that stayed with me months after viewing.
MAIDEN (Dir. Alex Holmes) — An insane story thrillingly told, MAIDEN chronicles the first all-women crew to compete in the Whitbread Round the World yacht race. Using a mix of archival footage and new interviews with the crew members, MAIDEN is beautifully-crafted and genuinely inspirational.
MIDNIGHT FAMILY (Dir. Luke Lorentzen) – Intense doesn’t even begin to describe MIDNIGHT FAMILY, a cinéma vérité film about a family who runs a private ambulance service in a wealthy area of Mexico City as they race against time to beat both public and private ambulances to jobs and make ends meet. Featuring luminous cinematography and highlighting numerous social issues plaguing Mexico, MIDNIGHT FAMILY is urgent, you-are-there filmmaking that leaves a devastating impact.
ONE CHILD NATION (Dirs. Nanfu Wang, Jialing Zhang) — Taking a multi-faceted deep-dive into China’s one-child policy and its horrifying ripple effects across multiple generations of Chinese citizens, the ambitious ONE CHILD NATION covers a lot of ground while never forgetting to show the toll the policy has taken on individuals. Few documentaries pack this much this effectively in an 85-minute running time.
WESTERN STARS (Dirs. Bruce Springsteen, Thom Zivny) — Essentially a filmed concert version of Bruce Springsteen’s new album with brief narration between songs, WESTERN STARS is obviously very personal for Springsteen and finds him exploring his demons in a way that brought tears to my eyes (and I am not a Springsteen fanatic). WESTERN STARS is poetic, thoughtful, and musically gorgeous.