2019 was a generally strong year for documentaries, with many of the best ones sharing one or more of several elements: a focus on music, a resonance with the current moment, and the word “Apollo” in the title.
The Year’s Best Documentaries
1. Apollo 11. Directed by Todd Douglas Miller, this documentary made masterful use of archival footage — much of it on 70mm film long not available to the public — to tell the story of the Apollo 11 mission on its 50th anniversary. It’s one of those films that’s nerve-wracking, even as everyone watching knows exactly how it all happened. The film opened in theaters, then showed on CNN, and then returned to theaters this month.
2. The Kingmaker. The Queen of Versailles director Lauren Greenfield takes another look at the ridiculously wealthy, this time catching up with Imelda Marcos, the 90-year-old former first lady of The Philippines. For its first half hour, the film hints that it’s going to be a soft-focused look at a newsmaker of the past, before it takes a sudden turn into showing its subject as a monster who looted her own people of billions and was almost certainly complicit in horrific war crimes. The film played in theaters this fall and will debut on Showtime in early 2020.
3. Love, Antosha. The life of the beloved late actor Anton Yelchin, which ended in a freak accident in 2016, is celebrated with home movie footage, clips of his movies, and interviews with a star-studded array of his co-stars. It’s a sweet remembrance of a talent gone far too soon — while also telling the story, through both letters and interviews, of his relationship with the loving Russian immigrant parents he left behind. Now streaming from on-demand providers.
4. City of Joel. Director Jesse Sweet’s film is an astonishing work of anthropological filmmaking, as he looks at the tension and land disputes between a group of ultra-Orthodox Jews who arrived in an upstate New York town, and their secular neighbors. The film, which played the Jewish film festival circuit and is now available on demand, is uncommonly evenhanded, letting both sides of the dispute have their say.
5. David Crosby: Remember My Name. There were many very strong music documentaries this year, but this film, directed by A.J. Eaton and produced and narrated by Cameron Crowe, was the best of them all. Crosby, knowing he’s in poor health and unlikely to live many more years, is uncommonly candid about his regrets, especially his many feuds with his famous musical collaborators. Now available on demand, it’s also the best film Crowe has been associated with in almost two decades.
6. Cold Case Hammarskjöld. Mads Brügger’s documentary starts off by looking at the mysterious 1961 plane crash death of U.N. Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld, and then goes off in all sorts of crazy directions, including a supposed plot by South Africa’s apartheid government in the 1980s to infect people with AIDS. Not everything asserted here is true (most likely), but it’s all wildly intriguing. Now available on demand.
7. The Apollo. The year’s “other” Apollo documentary takes a look back at the history of Harlem’s famed Apollo Theater, a mecca of African-American culture for nearly a century. The film looks at how the theater has waxed and waned in importance over the years, while using a staged reading of Ta’Nehesi Coates’ “Between the World and Me” as a framing device. This one played at festivals and then debuted on HBO; it’s currently available on HBO’s streaming platform.
8. Horror Noire. Director Xavier Burgin’s documentary takes a look at the history of black horror films, using 2017’s Get Out as an inflection point to look back on decades of African-American representation — as well as ugly tropes — in the horror genre. The film had some big-screen showings before streaming on Shudder.
9. Tell Me Who I Am. Director Ed Perkins’ documentary about a pair of twins, and the family secrets one must tell the other, is very creepy and unsettling, but still essential. It debuted on Netflix, where it’s a perfect fit, and is still streaming there now.
10. Diego Maradona. This look at the 1980s soccer star, directed by Amy filmmaker Asif Kapadia, makes masterful use of archival footage to depict the rise of this one-of-a-kind athlete. The doc, which played on HBO this fall and is still streaming there now, is a must for the many Americans who have gotten into soccer for the first time in the last decade, and are unfamiliar with the stars and stories of the past.
Honorable mention: Black Mother, The Human Factor, Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles, Carmine Street Guitars, Mike Wallace is Here, Varda by Agnes, Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese, Screwball, American Factory, Homecoming: A Film by Beyonce,