As is the case most years, the best documentaries of 2019 reach back into 2018, maybe forward into 2020, US release dates sometimes more than a year out from festival premieres. Trapping such sprawl within a tidy six months is messy at best, futile at worst.
How this translates to the following 10 films is, at least, hopeful: Most of these, if not found easily on Netflix or similar streaming network, have had theatrical releases—typically in bigger markets, granted—or should be available on VOD by the end of the year.
Regardless, these movies record the particular timbre of our loud and anxious lives in 2019, from three concert docs of three era-defining performers, to lyrical portraits of home, to hyper-personal glimpses of political firebrands.
A few years after the Apollo 11 mission, a different type of cosmic occurrence occurred at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles. Over two nights in January 1972, Aretha Franklin (just shy of her 30th birthday) recorded what would become the greatest-selling gospel album of all time—and arguably her finest album, period. The record Amazing Grace has been with us ever since, but the record of that night, shot by a young filmmaker named Sydney Pollack, has been kept away from public view for myriad reasons. Sadly, it took Franklin’s death last year at the age of 76 for that film to finally come to light. Though Amazing Grace was probably destined to be one of those much-rumored “lost” films that could never live up to its legend once the world got to see it, it’s a titanic vision of a performer whose extraordinary gift is self-evident, and the movie simply lets her be her magnificent self. Not credited to any director but completed by music producer Alan Elliott (and shot by Sydney Pollack), Amazing Grace is a straightforward presentation of archival materials without contemporary context or insights. But that’s enough, because history roars to life in this film, especially whenever Franklin opens her mouth and that incredible voice pours out. And, among its many attributes, Amazing Grace brings back the young Aretha Franklin who’s a human being rather than the totemic figure she became. She’s touchingly vulnerable, hesitant, normal in between songs, as if she’s just living her life, not consciously delivering an iconic album. And while the music critic in me will note that it’s a tad disappointing that the film peaks early, with her excellent version of Marvin Gaye’s “Wholy Holy” as the night’s first song, Amazing Grace hums with the thrill of lightning being captured in a bottle—a thrill that’s as much a treat for the eyes as the ears. —Tim Grierson
Directors: Steven Bognar, Julia Reichert
The plight of the American Rust Belt in the era of globalization, mechanized labor and outsourced jobs is real but, also, a media construct that’s been simplified into a talking point. For those not experiencing that reality on a daily basis, it can very easily become an abstraction. Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert’s American Factory sympathetically illustrates what those everyday pains look like, bringing us into the world of an Ohio automotive plant laid low by the 2008 recession. Several years after the factory closed, a Chinese company called Fuyao moved in, hiring back many of the employees of the old plant and offering hope to an economically depressed community. The American workers would help build windshields for cars and, ideally, along the way discover that Chinese and American employees can live together in harmony.
Bognar and Reichert’s film chronicles how that wishful thinking collapsed, but this is not a simpleminded story in which we can grasp onto an easy rooting interest. While American Factory is certainly told more from the perspective of the Americans, there’s an evenhandedness to the filmmaking, which gives the material the sobering weight of grim inevitability. Early on, we can surmise that things may not work out: The Chinese bosses note derisively to their cohorts that the Americans have fat fingers, while the American workers feel alienated by motivational slogans put on the walls in fractured English. American Factory is a portrait of how two cultures clash—not violently or maliciously or even intentionally. Nonetheless, divisions start to form, and overriding financial interests take precedence over individuals, resulting in employment shakeups for both workforces.
A documentary as bluntly titled as American Factory may suggest a definitive take on a large socioeconomic situation, but Bognar and Reichert’s film succeeds because it stays micro. Even their conclusions are measured, if also dispiriting. American Factory doesn’t suggest that China is the future—or that America is in decline—but, rather, just how much power corporations have in shaping society and dictating our fates. One of this film’s most crushing ironies is that its true villain is a faceless, insatiable desire for higher and higher profits. Every person we meet in American Factory is at that monster’s mercy. —Tim Grierson
Director: Khalik Allah
When any advertising agency is commissioned to shoot a Jamaican tourism commercial, they’ll inevitably wend their way around to the same old hook: Bob Marley’s “One Love.” Come and visit Jamaica, the land of All Right! Everything’s all right, all the time here on the Jamrock! The ad people are just following the path most traveled (and perhaps even dictated by travel agencies and tourism boards), promoting Jamaica as a land of leisure and ease, where the sun shines, people smile, life is good, and no one wants for anything, especially spiritual assuaging. Advertising may sell audiences on a Jamaican ideal, but with his documentary, Black Mother, director Khalik Allah achieves a goal far greater: presenting audiences with the truth, however lovely or hideous it may be. Allah’s approach takes the form of a visual essay/tone poem. It’s a fractured piece of work, a story about Jamaica the way that Hale County This Morning, This Evening is a story of Alabama. Allah’s filmmaking functions as stream of consciousness. He eschews narrative documentarian traditions. This approach poses a challenge to the viewer—Black Mother is made in a language rarely spoken in cinema, be it multiplex or arthouse. Allah throws his audience into the ocean and forces them to tread water, soaking in the country’s textures and contradictions and trauma. Through his lens, Allah presents a nation decayed by oppression, whether political, social or even religious, and a people forced to do whatever they can to sustain themselves. That doesn’t mean Allah is committing poverty tourism. Instead, he’s a character in the film, made invisible by the tool of his trade. But he lets the people he meets tell their stories in their words, and anchors those words to truth through imagery. The effect of Black Mother’s technique—Allah shot on both 16mm and HD—is dizzying to the point of overwhelming, but the discipline required to engage with it is rewarded by a singular moviegoing experience. —Andy Crump / Full Review
Director: Claire Simon
“Sit around and listen to French people argue about students of cinema for two hours” sounds like a drag, but Claire Simon’s The Competition doesn’t drag at all. It’s propulsive. Her film condenses the demanding application process at La Fémis, the most prestigious film school in all Paris, into just under 120 minutes, providing only the bare necessities for context and comprehension before launching into a series of tests and interviews, corralled as vignettes. That The Competition’s narrative is so cohesive belies the absence of cohesion in La Fémis’ examinations. The school’s hopefuls number in the hundreds, vying for just 40 slots; the observers in charge of their fates range from theater managers to filmmakers to critics and editors and everything else in between, and they, too, number on such a scale that objectivity becomes a joke.
Maybe that’s as it should be. Film, after all, and arts criticism writ large, is a subjective gig. Watching the observers’ various subjectivities collide turns out to be a hoot at times, a learning experience at others, or just good drama at others still. Surprise: Putting a bunch of French folks in one room and letting their passions and tempers flare makes for good filmgoing!
Simon’s fly-on-the-wall approach functions as an investment in the process, and in the outcome of the process for the select few students we get to meet. There are too many waiting their turn for Simon to chronicle all of them, but those that do make in front of her camera give context and rationality to their seemingly irrational bid for a spot at La Fémis: Cinema, to them, is everything, whatever side of the industry they’re interested in taking. It’s worth the stress of the process. It’s worth the great risk of failure. Simon hasn’t just captured La Fémis’ enrollment philosophy in The Competition, she’s captured its would-be students’ hopes and ambitions, and treated them with loving care. —Andy Crump
Directors: Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, Ed Burke
Childish Gambino, Ariana Grande, Tame Impala: None of those performers, or any of the others at Coachella 2019, were able to match the grandiosity of Beychella, Beyoncé’s epic pair of sets at last year’s festival. Netflix’s Homecoming, a documentary written, produced and directed by Mrs. Knowles-Carter herself, features stunning footage of each weekend’s set and dives deep into the symbolism, production and eight-month rehearsal process behind Beychella. The film also arrived with a surprise live album encompassing the entire Coachella set as well as new music. It’s all just The Carters’ latest in a long line of masterpieces, a colossal, visually stunning spectacle that not only summarized Beyoncé’s 20-year career, but also Historic Black Colleges in an entirely new way. We see clips from football games at schools like Howard University and Alabama A&M interspersed with Beychella rehearsal footage, the entire performance and film a celebration of those institutions, perhaps even an antithesis to what most people would consider a primarily white experience. If you haven’t seen it yet, you might want to consider canceling your plans tonight: Bey deserves your full attention. —Ellen Johnson
Director: Brett Story
The Hottest August has a novel structural hook: Director Brett Story spent every day of August 2017 interviewing people across New York City, getting to know them, observing them at their jobs, at their homes or during their downtime. And while she asked them lots of different questions, one common inquiry kept popping up: Do you worry about the future? What Story learns is that, for the most part, the answer is yes. Why people are worried—and how they’re learning to cope—is what powers this remarkable documentary.
With the help of wizard editor Nels Bangerter—who previously worked on Let the Fire Burn and Cameraperson, two documentaries absolutely dependent on editing to establish their rhythm and pacing—Story moves from subject to subject, only occasionally returning to an interviewee later in the film. We meet someone working in virtual reality. We meet someone who runs a facility where people can break stuff in order to relieve stress. We meet skateboarding teens. We meet a middle-aged married couple relaxing outside their home. We meet flood victims. We go to baseball games and bars and parties, and we hang out with folks who are checking out that month’s total solar eclipse. And if you remember a cataclysmic moment that happened in America that month, well, you’ll see that integrated into The Hottest August as well—integrated so offhandedly and elegantly that the moment shocks and stings all over again.
What precisely is Story driving at? The Hottest August’s beautiful mosaic invites a personal, intimate interpretation—the movie is about a dozen things if it’s about any one thing. There’s an apocalyptic tenor to the film, which touches on global warming and the seemingly systemic belief (especially among her younger subjects) that the future will be bleak—if there’s even a future at all. And yet, the movie finds such warmth in its depiction of these sometimes kooky individuals. Story doesn’t judge her interviewees, and the cacophony of different voices, if anything, speaks to what’s still so extraordinary about human beings, despite their endless limitations and idiocies. —Tim Grierson
Director: Werner Herzog
Werner Herzog is a documentarian who has always been interested in the multitudes of the human experience. Dour, poetic and blunt—Herzog’s films are like Herzog, as much about outward expeditions into the unknown as they are obsessively introspective looks into the filmmaker himself. But in Meeting Gorbachev, Herzog trades his self-seriousness for fandom, or at the very least, what fandom looks like when filtered through the meta-textual lens that is Werner Herzog the man, the story-hyperbolizing myth, the meme. Herzog sits down with an ailing Mikhail Gorbachev to swap words about the objective truths regarding the histories that the two men have experienced, lessons they’ve learned and how one—anyone—never really stops suffering. It may sound very Herzogian, but the conversational and subjective reality that flows jazz-like through their various dialogues cannot be overstated. Their exchanges are less Socrates versus Glaucon and more akin to two old weary souls sharing a pint at a sticky-floored pub as the modern world continues to ebb and flow all around them. Meeting Gorbachev is a triumphant look at history through the most subjective of lenses—the spoken word. —Cole Henry
Director: Hassan Fazili
Afghan filmmaker Hassan Fazili gives viewers a harrowing immigrant experience in the form of Midnight Traveler, which chronicles his family’s frightened exodus in the wake of the Taliban calling for his death. (Fazili had made a documentary, Peace in Afghanistan, about a former Taliban fighter, Mullah Tur Jan, who renounced his ways. After that film’s airing, the Taliban killed Tur Jan.) Shot on three mobile phones, Midnight Traveler was chiefly a way for Fazili, his wife (filmmaker Fatima Hussaini) and their two young daughters to document their three-year ordeal, traveling through deserts and snow in the hopes of reaching sanctuary in Europe. But as Midnight Traveler rolls along, it becomes clear that Fazili wasn’t just trying to make an official record of their torment—he was trying to instill normalcy in a situation in which normalcy was nearly impossible.
As a result, the notion of documentaries as home movies is especially fascinating in regards to Midnight Traveler. Like Revereza, Fazili might not have been explicitly thinking about making a film, but the finished product (co-directed by Emelie Mahdavian, who’s also credited as the movie’s editor and writer) is alternately gripping and disarming. A buzzing sound design hints at the unease that Fazili’s family feels at all times, but then there are these seemingly ordinary domestic scenes—brief glimpses into family life in which we see parents and children spending time together, even if it’s in a makeshift refugee camp.
Even then, though, the images are fraught. During a key moment in Midnight Traveler, one of Fazili’s daughters enthusiastically dances to Michael Jackson, mimicking his moves. For a moment, viewers’ conflicted feelings about the King of Pop, whose legacy of alleged child sexual abuse was laid bare in Leaving Neverland, melts away in that girl’s happy playing. And yet, her difficult situation—an Afghan without a home—is punctuated by her impassioned singing along to Jackson’s “They Don’t Care about Us,” an attack on racism and bigotry that speaks to this young woman’s reality more profoundly than anyone should have to endure. —Tim Grierson
Director: Martin Scorsese
Bob Dylan’s life and career are so encased in myth that it can be hard to untangle the romanticism from the reality. As much a symbol as he is a man, Dylan has spent most of his adulthood resisting being labeled the voice of his generation while slyly welcoming fans’ desire to dissect his every utterance, devoting much of the last couple decades opening up the vaults to release a series of official “bootleg” recordings associated with his most iconic albums and tours. He invites us to look deeper and listen harder, as if the answers can be gleaned from closer study. Long before David Bowie, Tom Waits, Madonna or Lady Gaga dabbled in persona play, Robert Zimmerman made us ponder masks in popular music. He’s both there and not there, which can be frustrating and fascinating. Both sensations are on display in Rolling Thunder Revue, the oft-spectacular, sometimes shtick-y chronicle of Dylan’s 1975 Rolling Thunder tour. As is typical when depicting anything in the Dylan universe, this concert film/documentary simultaneously oversells its subject’s genius and provides overwhelming evidence of what a brilliant artist he is. The documentary’s full title should also be a disclaimer: Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese. Early on, the movie features a contemporary interview from Dylan confessing that he doesn’t quite remember what prompted Rolling Thunder or what his ambitions were. “I don’t have a clue because it’s about nothing,” he says, another example of obscuration and seduction. The movie is a “story,” which means some parts might be invented or exaggerated, and because it’s “by Martin Scorsese,” the whole film is filtered through one artist’s perspective on another. Scorsese is after something grander than mere documentation—more layers of myth are applied while trying to present an honest account of a tour and a performer. At nearly two-and-a-half hours, Rolling Thunder Revue is overlong but also overpowering, inconclusive yet undeniably stirring. It left me exhausted, but I kinda want to see it again. —Tim Grierson / Full Review
Director: Tim Travers Hawkins
Moral imperative pushes the protagonist of XY Chelsea, Tim Travers Hawkins’ documentary following Chelsea Manning from the moment she’s pardoned by Barack Obama to pretty much now (the film obviously added to in its final hours to encompass the transgender military ban and Manning’s imprisonment due to her refusal to testify to a grand jury). At times unbearably intimate—Hawkins’ camera inhabited fully by Manning’s face as she poses for photo shoots, or puts on makeup while explaining how she trial-and-errored her way through learning how to do so in an environment without YouTube tutorials, or ponders the consequences of her decision to attend an alt-right rally in the midst of her grass roots Senate run—XY Chelsea catechizes this trans woman’s positivity and moral idealism against a society bent on destroying her and everything she believes.
Hawkins allows Manning as much historical context as she needs to foreground her own history, and yet, why she leaked so many documents to Wikileaks isn’t emphasized so much as how she did it, and how isn’t mused about so much as why, in the aftermath, in prison and undergoing persistent public scrutiny as a “traitor,” the threat of the death penalty a real possibility, she decided to come forward as transgender and then sue the government for her right to begin hormone treatment, subsidized under the same medical programs afforded any prisoner, while still under federal custody. Manning makes it clear early in the film: The only connection between her actions as a whistleblower and her journey as a transgender person is that they weren’t choices. This is her identity—to conflate the two is to tokenize the life behind such heroic actions.
The film, while far from apolitical, breathes with judgment-free vérité. Hawkins simply seems to want to give Manning the chance to explore who she is outside of that which has gained her infamy, the space to define how her politics enrich her personality, and vice versa. To demand her to explain her idealism is beside the point. We watch her find her voice again through Twitter, talk to constituents about her political campaign, lose her shit on her campaign staff after the negative fallout of that alt-right rally. Perhaps most saliently, XY Chelsea is about being a queer person in a society still attempting to understand what that even means—about navigating the responsibilities of self against the tide of expectation that one represent all of queerdom. By necessity, the film must be strikingly personal. —Dom Sinacola