The Best Documentaries of 2019

At a time when leaders spout lies and cries of “fake news” put reputable media outlets in doubt, audiences showed an astonishing appetite for nonfiction filmmaking. This year, more than 15 documentaries crossed the $1 million mark in theaters, ranging from high-profile concert films (such as Bruce Springsteen’s “Western Stars” and “Bring the Soul: The Movie”) to powerful human interest stories (“Maiden” and “The Biggest Little Farm”). Revolutionary “The Lord of the Rings” director Peter Jackson pushed the boundaries of the medium yet again, bringing fresh dimension to century-old World War I footage in his 3D doc “They Shall Not Grow Old” (that film was technically a 2018 release, but earned more than $12 million in 2019), while high-frame-rate eco doc “Aquarela” changed the way we look at water. All told, it was an incredibly strong year for documentaries, amid which Variety film critics Peter Debruge and Owen Gleiberman singled out these 10 as their favorites.

1. “The Hottest August”
When you think of climate change documentaries, chances are you picture Al Gore giving a PowerPoint presentation, or else scientists talking about rising sea levels in alarmist tones. Brett Story takes a radically different approach, engaging with “normal” New Yorkers (each more eccentric than the last, actually) and editing their thoughts about the issues that concern them most in such a way that subtly reveals the disconnect between the looming crisis and their daily behavior. The result is a brilliant puzzle-mosaic — in which global warming lurks largely unspoken — that every audience member inevitably assembles differently, presenting a good-natured survey of a time when earthlings had the luxury of worrying about other things than the planet’s survival. —PD

2. “Honeyland”
Nestled in the Balkan mountains, a beekeeper sustains an existence that feels tied to something ancient and holy. This lyrical and majestic tone poem is a special kind of feast for the senses. It’s ravishing to look at — because the images are beautiful, but also because the directors, Ljubo Stefanov and Tamara Kotevska, immerse us in a way of life that’s really a way of being. The disruption of the beekeeper’s habitual serenity by a more contemporary tremor — in the form of a honey-gathering interloper who practices something akin to mass production — speaks to a spirit the whole world is losing. —OG

3. “Apollo 11”
An astonishing time capsule featuring footage few us even realized existed, Todd Douglas Miller’s mind-blowing documentary takes audiences inside the Apollo 11 mission. Though the event was filmed extensively at the time, it took half a century for someone to put it all together, using masterful editing and vertebrae-rattling sound design to bear witness to this awesome technological feat. Whereas “First Man” frustrated me with melodrama, this film drove home for someone like me — who was born after Americans had set foot on the moon, and therefore took that achievement for granted — why the mission represented such a giant leap for mankind. —PD

4. “Carmine Street Guitars”
Rick Kelly makes hand-crafted guitars out of blocks of old New York wood in a crowded shop in Greenwich Village. But the guitars have a magical sound (he’s the Geppetto of rock ‘n’ roll), and Ron Mann’s film is a piece of analog alchemy that celebrates the fading of a certain kind of New York bohemia. It’s made to look like a random slice of life, but as the guest stars (Lenny Kaye, Jim Jarmusch, Charlie Sexton from the Bob Dylan Band) swing by, you realize that the store has become a kind of stage set, and that what you’re watching is something more beguiling: the documentary as verité fairy tale. —OG

5. “American Factory”
Directors Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar have been in the right place at the right time before. Their Oscar-nominated short film “The Last Truck” captured the end of an era, as General Motors shuttered an auto manufacturing plant outside Detroit. Less than a decade later, they found themselves returning to the same site to bear witness to a bold new experiment, as Chinese glass company Fuyao moved in, offering locals new jobs under very different terms. This eye-opening film chronicles the rise of China, the decline of American industry, and the enormous gap between the two countries’ work ethic. —PD

6. “Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool”
Each year, there are portraits of artists made in the “classical,” PBS-ready, still-photos-and-talking-heads style, and some of them are very good. This one, however, is great. The beauty of it, apart from the way it channels Miles Davis’ music with pleasurable finesse, is that Stanley Nelson’s enthralling film takes the many sides of Miles — the lyrical jazz genius, the midnight pop star, the drugs and domestic violence, the stubborn inner light — and puts them together, so that we emerge with a full sense of the artist’s contrapuntal humanity. —OG

7. “The Kingmaker”
Essential viewing, especially for those who know more about Imelda Marcos’ infamous shoe collection than they do her family’s political chicanery, which lately involves returning to the Philippines — from which she and dictator husband Ferdinand were exiled in 1986 — and using her family’s name/fortune to engineer a quasi-democratic coup. Considering her morally complicated reputation as a chronicler of the lifestyles of the rich and famous, “The Queen of Versailles” director Lauren Greenfield doesn’t seem the obvious choice to deliver a hard-hitting exposé on political corruption, and yet, Imelda’s narcissism yields incredible access, revealing parallels to corruption in our own country. —PD

8. “The Brink”
Stephen K. Bannon, the huckster of white nationalism, outsmarted the filmmaker Errol Morris — or, at least, he didn’t let him get close enough to peek behind Bannon’s disheveled-regular-guy, working-class-hero mask. But the ace documentarian Alison Klayman proves to be the razor-sharp filmmaker Bannon deserves. She follows him through Europe, after he leaves the Trump White House and goes off to help Europe’s racist nationalist leaders organize their movements into power grabs. This time, we get close-up glimpses of the raging flame-thrower: the carny barker of hate. “The Brink” is a vivid and scary movie that captures the formation of a new world disorder. —OG

9. “Leaving Neverland”
This shockingly intimate exposé, in which Wade Robson and James Safechuck describe the experience of being sexually abused as boys by Michael Jackson, stands as a vital reckoning, one that reveals the greatest pop star of his time to have been a monster. By placing this issue on the table the way it does, Dan Reed’s two-part HBO film created a cultural earthquake whose aftershocks are still being felt. The importance of “Leaving Neverland” lies in the human power of its testimony, which compels us to confront the dark side of celebrity as few documentaries have. —OG

10. “Anthropocene: The Human Epoch”
Photographer Edward Burtynsky has dedicated his career to documenting mankind’s impact on the planet, primarily through stunning, ultra-high-resolution photographs of “manufactured landscapes” — of strip-mining sites, surreal irrigation circles, and mountains of garbage. Now, in the eco-conscious Canadian artist’s third feature-length collaboration with co-directors Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier, the trio leverages the power of cinema to achieve what gallery work so rarely can: to mobilize audiences into action. Traveling the globe to film sites of greatest transformation, the team presents a different kind of disaster movie, hoping to reshape us into more responsible custodians of our planet. —PD

The Best Films of 2019:

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