2019 was a good year for documentaries, but then nearly every year of late has been a good year for documentaries. There’s certainly no lack of subject matter just begging to be covered, and documentarians these days use all the creative tools of the cinematic art. The films on this list couldn’t be more different from the documentaries that bored you in high school, and display a wide range of subject matter and approaches to storytelling.
Amazing Grace: In 1972, Aretha Franklin recorded a live gospel album, Amazing Grace, at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles. Sydney Pollack and a film crew were there to record the process, but due to technical difficulties the film was not released until this year. The result is a documentary that is not only amazing musically (Franklin is at the height of her powers, and the album also includes, among others, the Southern California Community Choir and singer/keyboardist James Cleveland) but also refreshingly straightforward. Great musicians, a great performance, and that’s all you really need.
American Factory: We all know that China is an important economic rival to the United States in the world market, but Chinese ownership and operation of American factories is something else again. Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert’s documentary American Factory looks at what happened when the Fuyao company bought a shuttered General Motors plan in Moraine, Ohio, staffed with American workers and Chinese management, and captures some remarkably frank assessments of the process from both camps. Fun fact: American Factory is the first film from Barack and Michelle Obama’s production company, Higher Ground Productions.
Apollo 11: Like Asif Kapadia’s 2010 documentary Senna, Todd Douglas Miller’s Apollo 11 consists entirely of archival footage. Fortunately, he had a lot to choose from—the first mission in which men walked on the moon was, understandably, a big deal—and the result is a stunning film that captures the feel of the 1969 mission. Even if you don’t care about the space race you can enjoy the cinematography, some of which was shot on 70 mm, and Apollo 11 will also impress upon you what a white dude project the space program was at the time.
At the Heart of Gold: Inside the USA Gymnastics Scandal: Many Americans seem to lack a basic appreciation of the role power plays in human relationships, and that goes double when the topic is sexual abuse. There’s also a bizarre belief that sexual predators can be identified on sight, and couldn’t possibly be that charming fellow next door. Hopefully viewing Erin Lee Carr’s documentary At the Heart of Gold will educate at least a few people as to the reality of sexual predation, as practiced by team physician Larry Nassar on members of the USA Women’s Gymnastics team as well as numerous other female athletes. Fun fact: Erin Carr is the daughter of the late New York Times journalist David Carr.
The Cave: Director Feras Fayyad gives you the experience of the Syrian war up close and personal, through the experience of Dr. Amani Ballour. She runs a hospital in Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus, located in tunnels beneath the city (hence the film’s title) to try to protect patients and staff from frequent bombing attacks by the Russian and Syrian armies. Dr. Ballour and her staff valiantly strive to save patients with little in the way of supplies, and the female medical staff, including Dr. Ballour herself, also must fight against societal attitudes that they should be at home changing diapers. She refrains from telling one particularly obnoxious individual “Hey, I’m only saving lives here!” but you can tell that’s what’s running through her mind.
The Competition: Trust the French to turn even the process to applying to film school into a bureaucratic endeavor in which the trials the applicants undergo have little to do with the actual work of creating a film. More than a thousand applicants every year try for the 60 places available in Le Fémis (whose graduates include Alain Resnais, Claire Denis, and Céline Sciamma), and Claire Simon’s The Competition expertly captures the stress, absurdity and occasional sheer randomness of the process by which successful strivers gain access to a privileged foothold in the French film industry.
Honeyland: Hatzide Muratova is a beekeeper in rural Macedonia who follows the old ways, never taking so much honey from a single hive that it becomes unsustainable. She’s managed to support herself and her aged mother for years in this manner, while having enough left over for the occasional luxury, like hair dye. Tamara Kotevska and Ljobmir Stefanov’s documentary begins by exploring the very basic life of Muratova, then takes an unexpected turn when a nomadic family of cattle herders arrive in her village and decide get into the beekeeping business as well. You couldn’t find a more apt metaphor for Karl Marx’s statement that capitalism respects neither traditional customs or relationships in its unquenchable search for profits.
Knock Down the House: 2018 has been called “The Year of the Women” due to, among other things, 36 new female candidates winning seats in the House of Representatives. Rachel Lear’s documentary Knock Down the House follows the campaign for four female Democrats running for Congress in 2018—Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Amy Vilela, Jean Swearengin, and St. Louis’ own Cori Bush—on the campaign trail. It helps that AOC is a natural before the cameras, and that she understood from the first that she could never be just another candidate, or just another politician, as long as she was surrounded by a sea of white men.
One Child Nation: From 1979 to 2015, China’s official policy was that each family was only allowed one child, with occasional exceptions for people in rural areas and ethnic minorities. The results of this draconian method of population control are explored in Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang’s documentary One Child Nation, which pulls no punches while also reminding you of what it meant to live in a totalitarian society that regulated even the most intimate aspects of people’s lives. That that burden fell more heavily on females is also not lost on Wang, herself a product of the one-child policy as well as the not-even-subtle cultural valuation of boys over girls.
Where’s My Roy Cohn?: There aren’t enough words in the dictionary to describe the evil that was Roy Cohn, and although he’s been dead and buried for over 30 years, his influence lives on in the person of the current president of the United States. Where’s My Roy Cohn?, a documentary by Matt Tyrnauer, demonstrates the power that comes from being absolutely unprincipled, and is particularly useful in filling in what Cohn was up to between the McCarthy hearings in the 1950s and his death in 1986 from complications of AIDS. | Sarah Boslaugh