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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.



‘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


‘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.



‘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


‘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.