Many documentaries suffer from a good-for-you coating, but the best ones have always been art in all its creativity, compassion and complexity. This year was no exception. Whether personal or observed – straightforwardly told or formally experimental – the cream of 2019’s bumper non-fiction crop dazzled with filmmaking brilliance.
Runners-Up: This year floored me with the dance majesty of “Cunningham,” the gospel truth of “Amazing Grace,” the kids today of “Jawline,” the pointed jocularity of “Hail Satan?”, the nomadic poignance of “Midnight Traveler,” the testimonial heft of “Leaving Neverland,” the geopolitical smarts of “The Kingmaker,” the lush positivity of “The Biggest Little Farm,” the soulful breadth of “The Apollo,” and the patriotic power of “Knock Down the House.”
10. “The Island of Hungry Ghosts”
On Christmas Island, land crabs migrate under protection, while behind the walls of an Australian detention facility nearby, captured asylum seekers open up to a caring counselor. Gabrielle Brady’s hauntingly evocative and at times secretly-shot film explores these heavy metaphors with uncommon poetry of image, sound and humanity.
9. “For Sama”
As the Syrian war raged, Waad al-Kateab trained a camera on her life as a student, journalist, wife and new mother in a besieged Aleppo, the result being one of the more harrowing, arresting and yet somehow hopeful documents of living through this catastrophic conflict.
8. “Midnight Family”
Prowling the streets of Mexico City for the accident that will pay off, the Ochoa family operate a private ambulance, because a city of 9 million has only 45 public ones. Luke Lorentzen’s elegant, character-rich shadowing of what a broken, privatized healthcare system looks like up close at emergency time is nothing less than a pulse-pounding ethics thriller.
7. “The Disappearance of My Mother”
Who’s looking and who’s seen is at the heart of Beniamino Barrese’s rich portrait of his mother Benedetta, an ex-fashion model ready to flee the world of images, starting with her son’s relentless focus. The result is a probing, expressive work about camera and subject, and the gaze women endure, that becomes, by the end, a beautiful gift of abiding intimacy.
6. “The Edge of Democracy”
Petra Costa’s gripping lamentation for Brazil’s authoritarian shift is both an overview of scary political winds being reflected everywhere, and an inner view she somberly narrates as the daughter of dictatorship-fighting militants, one with singular access to the popular Workers’ Party leaders whose presidencies were delegitimized by a confluence of scandal, populist fear, and exploitative right-wing politicians.
The year’s avant-garde triumph was the gathering force of Viktor Aleksandrovich’s epic water opera, which starts amusingly with cars trapped in Siberian ice lakes and builds to apocalyptic waves and civilization-wrecking storms, eventually playing like an origin story for water as a benign element turned ecologically-triggered, shape-shifting global adversary.
4. “Apollo 11”
A treasure trove of unreleased footage (some in 70mm) from the titular 1969 moon mission makes the human drama and technical might of that historic flight dazzling all over again. No interviews, no narration, no recreations, just a crisply assembled, immersive experience in you-are-there archival storytelling from director-editor Todd Douglas Miller.
3. “One Child Nation”
When filmmaker Nanfu Wang became a mother, she went back to China to explore the devastating impact of its notorious family-planning policy. Her quietly wrenching, narrated personal journey, co-directed with Jilang Zhang, makes plain the terror, despair and rage that happens when a government poisons the body politic by ensuring women’s bodies are political.
For a first film, this stunningly photographed, heartrending tale of tradition and ecological upheaval in remote Macedonia from Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov was a knockout. Few characters in cinema this year were as memorable as lonely, spirited village beekeeper Hatidze, and few dramas were as tense as her suddenly threatened way of life.
1. “American Factory”
When a Chinese company reopened a shuttered Dayton, Ohio, auto plant, labor-doc veteran Julia Reichert and co-director Steven Bognar were there to film 21st-century global capitalism as experienced over many years by American workers under Chinese management. Keenly observed, humanely presented, with no easy heroes or villains, it’s a towering achievement of old-school direct cinema.