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10 Best Documentaries of 2019

From Scorsese’s bold new Dylan doc to a completely different look at the moment that man landed on the moon

Rolling Stone's 10 Best Docs of 2019. Clockwise from the left: 'Honeyland,' 'Rolling Thunder Revue' and Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am.'

A small village in rural Macedonia, a cozy musical storefront off of Bleeker Street, the assembly lines of an Ohio factory, the Sea of Tranquility, backstage at a vintage Dylan show or abandoned on an island waiting for a Blink 182 set that well never happen — the best documentaries of 2019 didn’t just record moments or capture events for posterity. They transported viewers, letting them walk miles in another person’s shoes (or, in one case, moon boots). Like the best of nonfiction cinema, the 10 movies listed below may have left you feeling inspired, enlightened, moved, thrilled, worried and/or scared for what lies ahead. But each one of them gave you a front-row seat to someone else’s experience, whether it was an elderly European beekeeper, an award-winning author or Neil Armstrong. A wise man once said that movies are “the most powerful empathy machines in the arts.” The docs in this list proved that notion to be true, 24 frames (or the digi-equivalent thereof) per second.

Any making of a year-end best-of list, especially one limited to a mere 10 entries, inevitably leaves a lot of great titles on the cutting room floor. Shout-outs also go to: One Child Nation, Nanfu Wang’s indictment of China’s strict procreation laws; Black Mother, a contemplative and sometimes profane tone poem about Jamaica; David Crosby: Remember My Name, which lets the Sixties singer give himself a victory lap and a pitiless self-examination; Shooting the Mafia, Kim Longinotto’s look at Italian photographer Letizia Battaglia; Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool, a jazzbo’s dream of a music doc courtesy of the great Stanley Nelson; Leaving Neverland, a gamechanging, controversy-generating two-part testimonial regarding allegations of abuse against Michael Jackson; The Cave, which follows a Syrian doctor treating victims of the Syrian civil war; Knock Down the House, a reminder of how much good luck and great access play into nonfiction filmmaking; The Kingmaker, which will ensure you never view Imelda Marcos the same way again; and the latest (and last?) of Michael Apted’s peerless doc series, 63 Up.

Magnolia Pictures

10

‘Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am’

Timothy Greenfield-Sanders’ look at the literary giant took on a new level of poignancy when the Song of Solomon author passed away this past August; suddenly, it was impossible not to view the film through a veil of grief. But that’s not the reason The Pieces I Am is on this list. The photographer-turned-documentarian has his stylish tics — fans of Greenfield-Sanders’ Black List series will recognize that signature talking-head shot of subjects speaking against neutral, solid backgrounds — yet he still gives the marvelous Ms. Morrison plenty of space to editorialize her personal history. And the director has a knack for charting her extraordinary impact within the publishing industry, and the revolutionary way that she translated black life on to the page as a writer, in a beautifully clean, concise manner without giving his subject short shrift. It’s a textbook example of how to do a portrait of an artist correctly.

Abd Alkader Habak

9

‘For Sama’

Framed as an open letter to her baby daughter, Waad al-Kateab’s video-diary feature (co-credited to veteran investigative documentarian Edward Watts) immediately drops viewers into a shelling in Aleppo. Doctors, victims and civilians seeking shelter in the basement of a makeshift emergency ward scurry for treatment and safety. We then get a you-are-there backstory of the early days of the Syrian uprising in 2012; the pushback against students and protestors by the al-Assad regime; how Waad and her fellow revolutionary, a doctor named Hamza, fell in love; and the birth of their child Sama as their city is systematically destroyed around them. An intimate, emotionally devastating look at life during wartime that, much like Feras Fayyad’s The Cave (another standout this year), goes past the headlines and details the conflict in the most personal manner possible.

Netflix

8

‘Fyre’

A man “buys” an island in the Bahamas. He plans to throw a huge, high-roller music shindig there, advertising Champagne wishes, caviar dreams and supermodel cavorting. It’s tailored for folks with expensive tastes and disposable income. If you’ve heard of the Fyre Festival, you know how this all turns out. Chris Smith’s cinematic autopsy gives you lots of footage of this cultural-flashpoint car wreck as it progresses, detailing how paying customers were left fighting over FEMA tents while everyone from investors to vendors got the shaft. You revel in the gobsmacking hubris of it all, as well as the Harold-Hill-soaked-in-Cuervo charm of Fyre founder Billy McFarland — and then you gasp at how the absurdity turns into evidence for a three-alarm indictment against a sociopath.

Courtesy of Netflix

7

‘American Factory’

Six years after the closing of a General Motors plant in Moraine, Ohio, left a community in economic free-fall, hope arrived in the form of the Fuyao Glass Industry Group. The Chinese manufacturing company wanted to employ local workers besides their own homegrown staff and get a toehold in the American market. To say that there were some cultural differences between the Midwesterners and the managers who came over from the mainland, however, would be putting it mildly. Very mildly. Steve Bognar and Julia Reichert’s deep-dive starts as a look of a mutually beneficial mix of helping hands and open palms, both calloused from labor. It ends as a testament to the immutable characters of two national identities, the common ground of global-corporate meat grinders and the notion that some gaps simply can’t be bridged.

Neon

6

‘Honeyland’

To bee, or not to bee. Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov’s award-winning, years-in-the-making doc focuses on the work of one Hatidze Muratova, an elderly Macedonian woman who’s the last female beekeeper in Europe. Her new neighbors are also honey-gatherers, but they’re being pressured to produce a lot more than is sustainable in the long run…which throws Muratova’s traditional methods off-balance. It’s a sensual, absolutely gorgeous look at rural living as well as a bona fide eco-nightmare. Honeyland knows too well that its heroine’s future is uncertain and her harmonious way of life may be soon be rendered extinct. But it still gives her a moment in front of the camera with dignity and grace.

Daniel Dal Zennaro/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

5

‘Varda by Agnès’

Agnes Varda’s passing in March of this year left behind an invaluable back catalog, and a hole that will never be filled. Her final work, culled from a number of lectures and public appearances she made in the last few years of her life, does more than let viewers enjoy the pleasure of her company a little bit longer. It’s also a self-portrait, a film history lesson, a remembrance of things past, and a perfect coda to her career. Varda holds court on everything from her late husband Jacques Demy to love, art, cats, and the need for collaboration, with everything returning to the one subject that connects these elements together for her: cinema. “We make films to share with audiences,” she notes. “How awful it’d be if they didn’t listen or watch.” We did. And thanks to her generosity, we were better people for it.

Netflix

4

‘Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese’

Welcome to Scorsese’s other Netflix-aided-and-abetted triumph this year: A long, rollicking look at Bob Dylan’s 1975-1976 tour, in which the Rock & Roll Bard played small venues, marathon shows and deconstructed earlier hits while wearing Kabuki make-up. As the copious amount of concert clips attest, it was even weirder (and more brilliant) than it sounds, and had the director done nothing but finally find a way of making all that Renaldo and Clara footage watchable, the film would already be a success. (The hard-rockin’ version of “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall” is eye-opening.) Instead, Scorsese takes a cue from his subject, and…well, when the legend becomes fact, print the legend. Don’t follow leaders, or trust anyone onscreen or behind the camera, either. “I don’t remember a thing about Rolling Thunder,” Dylan claims in the present, exasperated. “It happened so long ago I wasn’t even born!” Truer words were never spoken.

Courtesy of Grasshopper Film

3

‘The Hottest August’

In August of 2017, filmmaker Brett Story (The Prison in Twelve Landscapes) went to New York and asked a random assortment of citydwellers — stoop sitters, skaterats, Staten Island ex-cops, fishermen, economists, everyday folk — for their thoughts on the future. The result is a first-rate city symphony, and a rare look at Gotham from the ground up. But it’s also a loose, hodgepodge portrait of a center that can’t hold, in which everything from the effects of climate change to economic disparity to our current uncivil discourse is filtered through a collective sense of anxiety. It’s somehow life-affirming and apocalyptic at the same time. This is how the world ends, the doc suggests, not with a bang but with a resigned shrug, a softball-game scuffle and the sound of the closing subway doors.

Abramorama

2

‘Carmine Street Guitars’

Head down to Carmine and Bleeker Street in downtown New York, and you’ll see Rick Kelly and his associate, Cindy Hulej, crafting intricate, insanely detailed guitars made from locally recycled wood — if the materials happen to be from a Gotham landmark like McSorley’s, all the better. Filmmaker Ron Mann (Comic Book Confidential) details a week in the life of a beloved West Village institution, from famous-folk drop-ins (Jim Jarmusch, Nels Cline, the Roots’ Kirk Douglas) to being solicited by realtors looking to build condos around his modest storefront. It’s a love letter — to NYC, to the concept of community, to the bohemians and musicians who call the place home, to the art of crafting a damn fine customized Stratocaster, to taking pride in your work, and to finding a place for freaks and misfits to call home.

Universal History Archive/Shutterstock

1

‘Apollo 11’

There was every reason to believe that the archive of clips, audio recordings and overall documentation had been exhausted in regards to the historic first manned flight to the moon in July 1969. Then along comes this extraordinary stem-to-stern chronicle of this one giant leap for mankind, courtesy of documentarian Todd Douglas Miller (Dinosaur 13). Utilizing a treasure trove of unseen footage and giving lots of screen time to the moments between take-off and touchdown, the film details every aspect of Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins’ flight into the cosmos, sans narration or talking heads. Even the famous first step is seen from an entirely different angle. You are right up past the stratosphere alongside these souls, before the movie brings everything back down to Earth with equal agility and grace. It’s less a history lesson than a fully immersive experience, a vital work of nonfiction artistry — and a masterpiece.

In This Article: 2019YearinReview, direct, Documentary