2019 was an exceptional year for fiction films, with a diverse array of crowd-pleasing pictures telling exciting stories with impressive artistry — all while demonstrating a willingness to engage with what’s going on in the real world. But the year’s documentaries were just as strong, keeping pace with the likes of Parasite, Us, and Knives Out. Some of the best nonfiction filmmakers are tinkering with (or tossing out) the old formula of “interviews, archival footage, and authoritative narration,” and looking for more imaginative ways to communicate complicated ideas about historical events and the realities of modern living.
Few of the films on this list of the year’s best documentaries feel conventional. Most of them experiment with form, aiming to surprise and provoke viewers. We’ve grouped several of them into pairs, too, because in 2019, it often seemed like cinema around the world was engaged in a larger conversation.
1. Apollo 11
Director Todd Douglas Miller and a remarkable team of archivists and editors inject new life into an oft-told story, cutting together rarely seen NASA footage of the first manned moon landing into a 1960s-style “you are there” documentary, with audio drawn from broadcast news reports and official mission radio chatter paired with minimal on-screen text. Apollo 11 makes it clear throughout that this astonishing, historic feat came from real people, with their own quirks and personalities, rather than from a faceless team of functionaries. But Miller also emphasizes the massive support teams and the enormous engineering marvels that made the moon landing possible, subtly and movingly making the point that humans can still do the improbable, if they have the skill and the will.
2. 63 Up
Since the early 1960s, director Michael Apted has been involved in an ambitious documentary film project, checking in every seven years with a dozen or so British men and women of varying classes, to see how their lives and plans have been affected by changing economic and social conditions. The series started with 7 Up, a TV special introducing a handful of 7-year-olds, and it’s continued through 14 Up, 21 Up, and so forth. The latest installment, 63 Up, is one of the series’ best, in part because the subjects are aware they’re moving into their sunset years, and in part because they also know the 78-year-old Apted may never make another one of these films. He and the people he’s been tracking for more than half a century now interrogate each other in 63 Up, speaking with undisguised emotion about what they’ve all learned from stopping every now and then to publicly take stock of their lives and their desires.
Where to stream: 63 Up isn’t on streaming yet, since it only recently hit theaters, but its predecessor, 56 Up, is widely available for those who want a primer or a catch-up.
3. For Sama
Over a 5-year period, as the Syrian city of Aleppo was crumbling under targeted airstrikes and guerrilla bombings, a young woman named Waad al-Kateab picked up a camera to document her life: her marriage to a doctor, the birth of their first child, the various ways they and their neighbors have learned to adjust to a daily threat of destruction. Framed as an archival record left for the filmmaker’s daughter, For Sama brings a personal perspective to an international news story, making it easier for outsiders to understand.
4. The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley
5. Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened
Decades from now, anyone looking for insight into American life in the 2010s should start with these two documentaries, both of which are about self-styled innovators who crashed and burned after raising piles of money from investors who were persuaded to buy into something potentially groundbreaking. Fyre is a comedy of errors, with its story of an exclusive music festival that turned into an underplanned, underfunded disaster. The Inventor is an escalating outrage generator, depicting a once-hot health-tech company that thrived for a few years due to nondisclosure agreements — and due to a widespread desire for its too-good-to-be-true founder to be the real deal. Both films are ultimately about leaders and public figures with such an all-consuming hunger for success that they’d rather cling to lies than admit they’ve made terrible mistakes.
6. American Factory
7. Midnight Family
As the global economy increasingly funnels money upward to the wealthy, average working folks can still find jobs and make a living, but can’t necessarily expect the kind of dignified labor or reasonable work-life balance their parents and grandparents enjoyed. That’s the theme of these two engaging, revelatory documentaries. American Factory examines a Chinese-owned glass factory in Ohio that shocked some of its local hirees with its apparent disregard for employee health and safety. Midnight Family is about one of Mexico City’s many independent ambulances, staffed by nonprofessionals incentivized to keep costs low and to speed their patients to the priciest hospitals. Both of these films are reflections of the present difficulties of blue-collar work, with alarming implications for the future.
It’s rare for any documentary to be marketed as an “experience,” but the theatrical releases of these two films relied heavily on their unique physical sensations. Victor Kossakovsky’s Aquarela — an abstract meditation on the power of water in a warming climate — was shot and screened at an extraordinarily high frame rate, and scored with an ear-splitting, symphonic take on heavy metal music. Alla Kovgan’s biographical documentary about avant-garde choreographer Merce Cunningham combines archival footage with newly staged versions of some of his most famous dances, shot in 3D. The movies are both good enough to be enjoyed reasonably well just on a regular TV set. But they play to their maximum advantage on the big screen.
10. Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story
11. David Crosby: Remember My Name
Here are two very different approaches to rock mythology. In Rolling Thunder Revue, Martin Scorsese captures Bob Dylan’s mercuriality by taking a look back at one of his most famous tours — an adventurous 1975 barnstorming run, loaded with formidable guest stars — and then adding fictional elements that are all but indistinguishable from the true story. Remember My Name, meanwhile, is anchored by an unusually candid Cameron Crowe interview with one of the hippie era’s most undervalued singer-songwriters, a scandal-plagued counterculture survivor who seemingly burns a new bridge every time he speaks. Both films are filled with marvelous musical performances, and both raise questions about how much an artist’s image should affect how people perceive their work.
12. Mike Wallace Is Here
13. Scandalous: The True Story of the National Enquirer
These two entertaining, eye-opening films connect the modern era’s fast and loose, profit-driven journalism to changes in the news business in the latter half of the 20th century, when the popularity of sensational scoops started to drive what got covered. Mike Wallace Is Here is an artfully assembled character sketch, using archival clips to survey the life of a complicated TV reporter, infamous for asking pushy questions regardless of the consequences. Scandalous is something of a cautionary tale, about a publication that won millions of readers by exposing the hypocrisies of celebrities and politicians — until the owners discovered they could earn just as much money by protecting the powerful.
Like Billy Corben’s earlier documentaries Cocaine Cowboys and The U, his latest film explores the peculiar culture of Miami, where athletes, entrepreneurs, and drug dealers intermingle. Ostensibly the story of Major League Baseball’s Biogenesis scandal, in which multiple players were implicated for using performance-enhancing drugs, Screwball is really about sports stars and businessmen who cut corners, eager to fast-forward to the part of their lives where they’re rich, famous, and partying in beachfront mansions.
15. The Hottest August
Part reportage and part essay, Brett Story’s experimental documentary The Hottest August functions a little like a journal, collecting anecdotes and impressions from around New York City in the summer of 2017. While tracking the effects of climate change and the global rise in fascist sentiment, Story also asks regular people simple questions about how they’ve been getting by. Like so many of 2019’s best documentaries, The Hottest August brings a sensitive perspective to these times of great worry, showing how humanity endures.
Where to stream: The Hottest August only hit theaters in November, and isn’t on streaming yet. Watch here for its online release.