Year in Review | The Best Documentaries of 2019
Reality is stranger than fiction, the old saying goes, and in 2019 that has never felt more true. With the world seemingly falling apart around us, documentaries feel more essential than ever, a kernel of truth in a world defined by fake news and "alternative facts." And what a year for documentaries it was - from avant-garde cinematic poems to raw portraits of the human cost of war to examinations of the state of labor in the United States and China to explorations of the unheralded contributions of cinema's female pioneers, 2019's crop of documentaries run the gamut of global topics and have produced some of the year's most indelible cinematic moments.
Here are the ten documentaries that stuck with me the most in 2019.
It's a rare thing to be left speechless by a film. Even more so for someone who writes about film for a living; yet Black Mother is the kind of film that defies description, a work of such radical beauty that it nearly reshapes the entire cinematic experience in its own image. Part documentary, part travelogue, part poem, Black Mother is a deeply personal tribute to Jamaica (the ancestral home of Allah's mother) and to the black experience, specifically the black women who actually birthed a nation.
1. BLACK MOTHER (Kalik Allah, USA)
Allah examines the effects of religion on the tiny island nation, both as a symptom of colonialism and a reaction to it, as Christianity and Rastafarianism blend together into something beautiful and unique. Allah, a renowned photographer, captures snippets of island life and blends them together into a singularly breathtaking. There are films that move you, there are films that shake you, and then there's Black Mother - a transcendental meditation on life, love, and black identity that takes the mundane and makes it feel miraculous.
2. CHINESE PORTRAIT (Wang Xiaoshuai, China)Urban ruin and decay gives way to rebirth, life moves steadily forward even as progress leaves people behind. Chinese Portrait examines moments of humanity in a rapidly evolving nation, reflecting a remarkably diverse country both economically and religiously - Muslim prayers are even featured prominently despite rising anti-Muslim violence in the country. It's as much a portrait of the nation as it could be as a portrait of the country as it is, offering glimpses of its potential along with with its foibles.
One might expect a film comprised of mostly static tableaus to become tiresome or dull, but as the film progresses it becomes something at once wondrous and revelatory, a dynamic living document of modern China that invites viewers to take in the world around them, to become enveloped by its fluctuating scenarios. The effect is at once riveting and enchanting, a quietly electrifying avant-garde documentary that creates a clear-eyed portrait of our ever-changing world without ever uttering a word.
3. THE GOSPEL OF EUREKA (Micheal Palmieri, Daniel Mosher, USA)Much like human sexuality, faith transcends boundaries, refutes hatred, and ultimately finds a place of belonging in the most unlikely of places. At a time when our country feels more divided than ever, films like The Gospel of Eureka feel all the more essential. Its sense of empathy feels almost defiantly out of step with the world at large, and yet it manages to touch on some deep and essential truths. It is a celebration of queerness, of faith, and of the deep and abiding ties that bind.
4. FOR SAMA (Waad al-Kateab, Edward Watts, Syria)Waad al-Kateab and Edward Watts's documentary For Sama is perhaps the most personal and essential account of the conflict in Syria yet made. From al-Kateab's on-the-ground vantage point, For Sama becomes a harrowing account of Bashir Assad's assault on the people of Aleppo, made ostensibly as a document of remembrance for her infant daughter, Sama.
While films like The White Helmets and Last Men in Aleppo, both Oscar winners, have given appropriately disturbing looks into the human elements of the conflict, none have felt quite so deeply empathetic as this one. The framing of a mother attempting to make something for her daughter so that she knows and understands the history of her people and those that love her creates something universally recognizable. The terror and the human toll of the conflict feel tangible and immediate - as al-Kateab documents the world crumbling around her while her husband tries to open hospitals safe from Assad's bombs, their fear and anxiety become palpable. It's not an easy watch, but it's impossible to look away from the massive scale of human atrocity on display that is preserved here not just for young Sama, but for a world that remains frustratingly indifferent.
5. VARDA BY AGNÈS (Agnès Varda, France)ike a personal cinematheque retrospective hosted by Varda herself, Varda by Agnès takes us on a tour through her career as she meets with audiences of eager film students around the world, sharing stories, experiences, and amusing anecdotes about her process and craft. Just listening to Varda discuss her career would have been enough to make a fascinating viewing experience, but the legendary French filmmaker isn't content to simply sit in front of a camera and talk about herself. This isn't merely a "concert film" comprised of clips of Varda's public appearances. She returns to the scenes of several films, recreating various techniques and breaking the fourth wall with the kind of wistful fondness of a lion in winter reflecting on the days of old. It is fitting, then, that Varda by Agnès ended up being Varda's final film before her death earlier this year at the age of 90. The film is a sublimely autumnal reflection of a legendary career, but it never feels mournful or melancholy - instead, it is a celebration of the "dreams and reveries" of a life well-lived, an endlessly engaging ode to a titan of cinema proving she's still playful, still vibrant, and still filled with childlike wonder at the endless possibilities of the artform she held dear. Varda was consistently an artist ahead of her time, a filmmaker who refused to compromise her sense of self or her the inherent politics of her identity, who consistently sought to push the boundaries of cinema and better understand the world around her. And in this, her final film, she writes a bittersweet epitaph for herself, and the world now seems like an infinitely less interesting place without her.
6. ISLAND OF THE HUNGRY GHOSTS (Gabrielle Brady, Australia)The foggy shores of Australia's Christmas Island becomes a crossroads for migrants both human and animal in Gabrielle Brady's haunted and moody documentary, Island of the Hungry Ghosts; chronicling not only the island's famous crab migration, but its lesser known high security encampment that houses thousands of refugees seeking asylum in Australia.
In an ironic juxtaposition, Brady explores the ubiquitous crabs' journey to the sea with the stagnation of the asylum-seekers trapped in what is essentially a glorified prison, treated as criminals for the simple act of seeking a better life. The animals are free to carry on with their ancient journey, lead by an instinct to procreate and seek a better life for their children, while the humans are punished for similar desires. While the film deals with Australian immigration practices in particular, one can't help but recognize the universal plight of the displaced currently facing immigrants in Donald Trump's America and across Europe. Island of the Hungry Ghosts feels like a quiet rebuke of right-wing populism and anti-immigrant sentiments, yet Brady avoids turning this into a simple political issue, eschewing rhetoric for the subjects' intrinsic humanity. Here, on an island made famous by migratory animals, Brady paints a poetic and at times chilling portrait of life in transit, of a struggle for survival as old as time now playing out in both the macro and the micro; an eternal flux on one tiny island in a time where humans are treated with less dignity than even the lowest of creatures.
7. APOLLO 11 (Todd Douglas Miller, USA)As awe-inspiring as anything in First Man, Todd Douglas Miller's documentary, Apollo 11, uses breathtaking archival footage of NASA's moon landing mission to create a first-person, fly-on-the-wall document of one of the 20th century's most significant events.
You'll find no talking heads, no interviews, no voice-over narration here, Miller (acting as his own editor) crafts the film like a verité narrative, offering breathtaking never-before-seen perspectives of the rocket launch and moon landing that play as a monument to human achievement, grandly gazing upward toward the heavens as the stuff of science fiction becomes bracing reality. In 2019 space travel is often taken for granted, but Miller dazzlingly reminds us of the monumental achievement of the Apollo 11 mission, capturing, if only for a couple of hours, what it was really like to dream of the stars.
8. HONEYLAND (Ljubomir Stefanov, Tamara Kotevska, Macedonia)Ljubomir Stefanov and Tamara Kotevska's quietly powerful enthographic documentary, Honeyland, is a film of singular and mesmerizing beauty. I have often said that the very best documentaries take us inside a world with which we are unfamiliar and have never truly seen, and they do so without feeling like colonialist safaris designed for voyeuristic western audiences eager for a peek into the lives of others. Don't come to Honeyland expecting the usual poverty porn, this small-scale wonder is a deeply powerful (and deeply human) exploration of the world of nomadic beekeepers in rural Macedonia.
The film centers around Hatidzhe Muratova, the last remaining female beekeeper in Europe, as she struggles to find balance between caring for her elderly mother and keeping her traditions of beekeeping alive, a tradition that is threatened by the arrival of a family that does not respect the basic rules of the region's rich culture. Stefanov and Kotevska deftly probe the delicate balance between humans and nature, and the somewhat tenuous connection that allows both to thrive. But surrounded by a rapidly changing world, Hatidzhe is forced to make difficult choices. Facing obsolesce in a culture that has increasingly less time for the time-tested techniques she keeps alive, she alone seemingly stands between environmental harmony and ruin.
Its deceptively dispassionate, observant style allows the filmmakers to develop a sort of relationship between Hatidzhe and the viewer, but it also creates a fascinating dichotomy between fact and fiction - how could they have possibly captured all this without setting some of it up, and what does that line mean for the world it depicts? The results are as inchoate and mysterious as they are breathtaking in their intimacy, existing somewhere in the in-between places of the world seemingly untouched by time struggling against the siren song of modernity.
9. AMERICAN FACTORY (Steven Bognar, Julia Reichert, USA)Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert's documentary, American Factory, is the first film to come out of Barack and Michelle Obama's new Netflix production company, Higher Ground Productions, and features the kind of quiet dignity one would expect from a film backed from our 44th president. It also has the good sense to look at a problem from multiple angles without offering any sort of solution to it, instead choosing to paint a sobering portrait of a post-2008 industrial landscape and the uncertainty facing workers across the globe.
The film centers around a Chinese glass company's attempt to open a factory in an abandoned GM plant in Ohio in 2015. Employing both Chinese and American workers, the idea is to foster unity between the two nations and to revitalize an American workforce decimated by the Great Recession, but cultural differences soon lead to tensions between the workers and the Chinese management, who seem to have no grasp of the workplace laws governing American factories. Whispers of unionizing soon bring tensions to a boiling point as the chairman threatens to shut the factory down if the workers form a union, leading the American leadership to do all they can to prevent it.
American Factory is a fascinating exploration of not only the clash between cultures, but of the increasing obsolescence of the worker in the face of mechanized labor (and therefore why they're more important than ever). Yet the thing that seemingly unites the cultures together is the universal attempts of management to find new and creative ways to exploit their workers, and why unions remain an essential cornerstone of labor. I wish the film had taken a more in-depth look at Fuyao's reasoning for squelching unions in America when they're clearly such an important part of their Chinese factories, but the film makes a very clear case for labor reform and unionization even without directly saying so, creating a complex examination of a globalized economy built on the backs of exploited laborers.
10. BE NATURAL: THE UNTOLD STORY OF ALICE GUY-BLACHÉ (Pamela B. Green, USA)
Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché investigates the incredible life and career of early silent filmmaker Alice Guy-Blaché, throwing back the curtain on one of cinema's greatest and most overlooked pioneers. The film takes its name from the filmmaker's motto - "Be Natural," a reminder for actors that once prominently graced the walls of her studio, Solax, which ran in New York from 1910-1914. Was she forgotten simply because she was a woman? Were other film professionals at the turn of the 20th century intimidated by her prowess? Did film historians simply not take her seriously? Green incisively examines all the factors that lead to Guy-Blaché's seeming erasure for the history books. But the most indelible anecdotes come from archival footage of Guy-Blaché herself, fondly recounting her days as a filmmaker. This was not a woman who put it all behind her went quietly into that good night, this was a woman who was forgotten by history.
Through lack of film preservation and the advent of sound, so many early silent films were lost, and along with them, the rich history that gave birth to them. But Be Natural seeks not only to resurrect that history, but to rectify a great injustice, placing Guy-Blaché in the pantheon of cinema pioneers where she belongs. There is a certain playfulness to her films that sets them apart from single shot actualitiés that were so common at the time. Her films had spirit and wit. She was one of the first to use hand-tinted color, and was an early proponent of Gaumont's Chronophone sync-sound system. To see this lion of cinema tell her story in her own words after nearly a century of silence is truly stunning stuff, and Green tells the story with equal parts awe and righteous indignation, framing it as a historical mystery she and her team must solve. It's a vital, deeply moving documentary that at long last acknowledges Guy-Blaché's invaluable gift to cinema, insuring that this long-forgotten pioneer will finally be given her due.