What a tremendous year for documentaries 2019 was. I had the honor of serving on the nominating committee for the Critics Choice Documentary Awards, meaning that I saw more non-fiction films this year than ever before. Some were theatrical releases, while others took advantage of newer documentary-friendly platforms like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime. Let me tell you, there was a lot of great stuff out there. It's my pleasure to select ten that really spoke to me.
Here are my picks for the Ten Best Documentaries of 2019:
10. Maiden - Archival footage and present-day interviews are combined to tell the story of the first all-female crew to participate in the Whitbred Round the World sailing race. This inspiring film proves once again that anything men can do, women can do just as well, if not better.
9. The Biggest Little Farm - Director John Chester documented the attempt he and his wife Molly made to create and maintain a sustainable farm. I wouldn't have expected to love a film about farming, yet this one really provides a fascinating sense of how complicated things like biodiversity and sustainability are. It's additionally a reminder of how important it is to push through those complications for the benefit of our environment.
8. The Great Hack - A detailed look at the Cambridge Analytica scandal and how it shaped the 2016 presidential election. Making complex subject matter easily understandable is one of the movie's core strengths. Another is showing how vulnerable social media makes us, as it becomes ridiculously easy for companies with bad intentions to use our information against us. Also, Facebook is evil. (Available on Netflix.)
7. Apollo 11 - Never-before-seen footage is at the heart of this breathtaking look back at the titular space mission. Even if you think you've seen it all when it comes to space documentaries, Apollo 11 will captivate you.
6. American Factory - When GM shuts an Ohio factory, a Chinese auto glass company swoops in to open it back up. Chinese management styles clash heavily with American workplace attitudes – where employees understandably want time off, union protections, and other benefits – leading to a riveting culture clash. (Available on Netflix.)
5. For the Birds - I don't know how director Richard Miron got Kathy Murphy to trust him, but I'm so glad he did. The movie follows Kathy, an animal horder who lives with 200 chickens and roosters, as she fights local animal welfare groups who are attempting to convince her to let them go. For the Birds is a gripping mental health case study, as well as a celebration of how people persevere through obsessive-compulsive disorder.
4. David Crosby: Remember My Name - David Crosby is a jerk, and he's trying not to be. That's the gist of this absorbing confessional film that has the musician reflecting back on his career and the bad behavior that helped define it. Crosby gives no proverbial you-know-whats anymore, so his willingness to be self-reflective is refreshing. Rarely do we see such a raw, unfiltered celebrity documentary.
3. One Child Nation - Director Nanfu Wang returns to her homeland of China to look at the impact the country's one-child policy had on generations of citizens. Forced abortions, abused women, and (literally) discarded fetuses are all part of it. The policy continues to have reverberations to this day. Absolutely heartbreaking. (Available on Amazon Prime.)
2. Cold Case Hammarskjold - Did director Mags Brugger really uncover the shocking truth behind the 1961 death of Secretary General of the United Nations Dag Hammarskjold, or has he just fallen into a rabbit hole of conspiracy theories, dragging us with him? Debating that isn't just fun, it's also the entire point of this wonderfully provocative film.
And my choice for the Best Documentary of 2019 is:
1. Hail Satan? - I flipped head over heels for this funny, astute look at how the Satanic Temple is fighting politicians who attempt to blur the separation of church and state. Their methods – like taking legal action for the right to put a demon statue in front of government buildings where Christian monuments are being placed – are hilarious. So are the reactions of the politicos, who are fine shoving their religious beliefs down everyone else's throats but don't like it when a different belief system is shoved down theirs. Of course, these aren't real Satan worshipers, they're advocates who know a shocking approach is the only thing that will work. Far from being anti-Christian, Hail Satan? serves to illustrate why it's important to keep our churches out of our government, for the good of both.