A daring mission to the spoon, a nerve-wracking war story, a devious political conspiracy. For mainstream audiences, these premises bring to mind some of the year’s most popular blockbuster films. But they also represent the true stories behind some of the year’s best documentaries. Far from the traditional “talking heads” style of yesteryear, non-fiction filmmaking continues to thrive, delivering cinematic thrills and artistry on par with that of narrative features. Indeed, the following list of the Top 10 Documentaries of 2019 includes several films that would hardly feel out of place on awards ballots for cinematography, directing, editing, screenwriting, and sound.
10. “Apollo 11”
dir. Todd Douglas Miller
Where were you when man first walked on the moon? Many Americans – and people all over the world – who were alive for that momentous occasion on July 20, 1969, would have a vivid recollection of that day. But for those of less fortunate to have lived through that experience, Todd Douglas Miller’s “Apollo 11” is perhaps the next best thing. Through beautifully preserved archival footage, this awe-inspiring documentary allows us to relive the anticipation and awe surrounding that eponymous spaceflight, capturing not only the mission itself but the social atmosphere surrounding it. Indeed, the finer details (such as the images of onlookers camped out tailgate-style) and award-winning editing will surely evoke the inspiring feeling of this “one mall step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
9. “Midnight Family”
dir. Luke Lorentzen
One of the best attributes of non-fiction filmmaking is its ability to shine a spotlight on unsung heroes. Such is the case with “Midnight Family,” directed by Luke Lorentzen. Set in Mexico City, where the government’s fleet of ambulances is insufficient to provide for its sizable population, an informal industry of private ambulance services has emerged. One such service is provided by the Ochoa family, comprising a father and his two young sons. With his intimate, observational approach, Lorentzen invites us into their lives to bear witness to both the lighter moments and life or death situations they face. As the Ochoas dedicate themselves to their work for little or no compensation, “Midnight Family” reminds us of the power of volunteerism to benefit the greater good.
8. “Black Mother”
dir. Khalik Allah
Aptly described as a marriage of the sacred and the profane, Khalik Allah’s “Black Mother” is an essential cinematic reflection on Jamaican society. Using the symbolism of the black mother as the original giver of life – as well as a nod to Allah’s own Jamaican mother – this meditative documentary explores the complex tapestry which constitutes modern Jamaican identity. As explained in the film, the island nation has more churches per square mile than any other country in the world. Yet while Christian rhetoric lays the foundation for this striking work of art, “Black Mother” blossoms into a study of the related conflicts between wealth and poverty, African pride and colorism and fervent spirituality and secularism. Using experimental camera techniques overlaid with voice-over excerpts spoken in the colorful Jamaican vernacular, Allah paints an authentic portrait of Jamaica rarely seen in tourism brochures.
7. “Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am”
dir. Timothy Greenfield-Sanders
The late Toni Morrison is well known today as a Nobel Laureate and Pulitzer Prize winner. But her journey towards that level of recognition was filled with many obstacles, as illuminated through Timothy Greenfield-Sanders’ documentary “Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am.” Poignantly recounting her life from a humble childhood to her breakthrough as a self-proclaimed “editor who writes,” Greenfield-Sanders explores the harmful racism which emboldened her to be a champion for black identity and culture in her work. Amplified by fascinating insight from Morrison herself, “Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am” is intellectually stimulating and utterly refined.
6. “For Sama”
dir. Waad Al-Kataeb and Edward Watts
Framed as a letter to her baby daughter, Waad al-Kateab’s “For Sama” chronicles the personal and societal events in the city of Aleppo during the early years of the Syrian civil war. Armed with a handheld camera, al-Kataeb captures the horrors of wartime with bracing immediacy. Yet the film also showcases the resilience and hope of the people through scenes of weddings, childbirth, and everyday acts of heroism. In doing so, “For Sama” resonates as a heartfelt love letter to Aleppo, its people and the power of goodness in the face of evil.
5. “The Cave”
dir. Feras Fayyad
Following up on his award-winning debut “Last Men in Aleppo,” Feras Fayyad returns to the scene of the Syrian Civil War for another devastating documentary about its unsung heroes. In “The Cave,” a team of doctors works tirelessly in a secret, underground hospital to treat the endless victims of the ongoing war above. Predominantly made up of female doctors, Fayyad takes us into their world through the perspective of Dr. Amani, their young but courageous leader. With its outstanding sound design, the film viscerally conveys the terrifying melee of bombs while never losing sight of the human story at its heart.
4. “The Edge of Democracy”
dir. Petra Costa
Blending personal insight with in-depth political analysis, Petra Costa’s “The Edge of Democracy” is one of the most socially relevant films of the year. A rigorous examination of Brazilian history unfolds the rise and fall of democracy in the face of corruption, propaganda and a coup targeted against two of the country’s most beloved leaders Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff. As Costa attempts to understand how her divided country became a hotbed for far-right ideology, this engrossing documentary serves as an unflattering mirror to American politics and other besieged democracies around the world.
3. “The Biggest Little Farm
dir. John Chester
For obvious reasons, many environmental documentaries today serve as cautionary tales of “doom and gloom” in the face of climate change, pollution and the associated loss of biodiversity. And indeed, such scenes of environmental catastrophe open John Chester’s “The Biggest Little Farm” as wildfires threaten the lives and livelihoods of California residents. But for one optimistic and resilient couple, this incident is just part of a natural “circle of life,” a philosophy they adopted when they embarked on a seemingly impossible task. “The Biggest Little Farm” tells the story of Chester and his wife’s efforts to transform a desolate piece of land into a thriving farm, by cooperating with nature and allowing the land to self-regulate without undue human intervention. As it subsequently depicts a web of food chains in action, “The Biggest Little Farm” is an educational, heartwarming storybook tale that comes to life.
2. “American Factory”
dir. Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar
When General Motors closed its Ohio plant in 2008, an unexpected lifeline appeared a few years later for the 10,000 left jobless. “American Factory,” tells the story of a Chinese company’s reopening of that factory, signaling the dawn of a new era. Presenting surprisingly balanced perspectives, directors Steve Bognar and Julia Reichert deliver a fascinating look at the subsequent culture clash between American individualism and Chinese collectivism in the workforce. As this powerful new company seeks to quell a rising pro-union movement however, “American Factory” is a sobering reminder of the ruthless nature of capitalism, regardless of the source.
1. “Tell Me Who I Am”
dir. Ed Perkins
Though it may sound like a cliche, this year’s best documentary definitively proved that truth is stranger than fiction. Indeed, even after seeing “Tell Me Who I Am” you still may not believe this traumatic story of brotherhood and family. Directed by Oscar-nominated filmmaker Ed Perkins, “Tell Me Who I Am” continues his penchant for exposing the dark side of humanity, as a young man loses his memory after an accident. Waking up to a strange world, he relies on his twin brother to restore his memories of a comfortable middle-class life. But a more sinister truth is gradually revealed through photos, reenactments, and heartrending confessions. Like Lulu Wang’s narrative feature “The Farewell,” this gut-punch of a film makes a strong argument that sometimes a lie could be the ultimate act of kindness.