Must Watch Documentaries
Credit: Austin Hargrave/Hulu; Sundance Institute; Neon; Owen C. Shaw/Getty Images; Magnolia Pictures

Documentaries can be like taking your brain or your heart to the spa. Or sometimes it’s like putting them through the wringer. Here are some great films from 2019 to go on a journey, no matter the destination.

The Biggest Little Farm

May 10 (Neon)

The animations are so twee, she harumphed to herself. Sentimental music and a story about a dog. But it didn’t take long for my cynicism to dissolve under The Biggest Little Farm’s spell. Mature and brimming with uneasy hope, the doc tells the years-long story of a senselessly optimistic couple who exit their cool Los Angeles life to start a farm from scratch 50 miles northwest of the city. The pair and their team’s commitment is tireless, while their insecurities going into the endeavor are refreshingly bare. The life arc of the farm’s animals — a rooster named Greasy, some shaggy pups, a big pregnant pig, hungry ducks and coyotes, even its fish — will have you more invested in life or death than the Snap did in the Avengers movies.

John Chester, the co-proprietor of the farm and director of the film, is sure-footed in capturing the poetic natural beauty of his land. The film answers some of the burning questions about the complexities of farming: What are the biggest costs? How do you make a farm profitable? What are the risks and threats? How many years does it take to achieve working biodiversity? There are a lot of movies out there that, primarily or tangentially, explain how humans are killing the most precious environs in the world, but there is no lecture at all in The Biggest Little Farm — merely an argument for life.

One Child Nation

Aug. 9 (Amazon)

Through a personal, unflinching lens, directors Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang walk viewers through China’s now-defunct one-child policy, and why it is part of the lump sum of gross human rights violations to come from the country’s mainland. Chinese interviewees, often in practiced deadpan, recall horrors: steep penalties for parents who bore a second child without permission, forced sterilizations, abandonment, forced abortions, the killing of numberless babies (the majority of which were female) — in short, infanticide, neonaticide. What makes this historical tragedy about population control palpable as a screen endeavor is how story-rich each interviewee is as an individual, even as they concede time and again to the collective “those were the rules” and “we were just following orders” — making this film a bedfellow of Joshua Oppenheimer’s excellent The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence docs. Wang and Zhang deftly bring the story (clocking in at 85 minutes) closer to North America, connecting the policy to the overseas adoptions industry.


May 3 (OPC Media/Cinetic)

I’m obsessed with the 2006 documentary Wordplay, and I’m not even a crossword fan. Director Patrick Creadon has a way to bring suspense and curiosity around a simple subject — in the case of his latest, the late Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, former president of the University Notre Dame — to get you hooked and invested in the outcome.

Island of the Hungry Ghosts

May 20 (acquisition)

The manner in which Gabrielle Brady’s Island of the Hungry Ghosts unfolds is ultimately chronological, but far from linear. On obscure Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean, where thousands of asylum seekers have been ushered into an Australian detention center, humans — immigrants, military, workers — are forced to share the land with its original inhabitants: millions of red crabs. The metaphor of dwelling in a place but not being of the place seeps into the quiet crawl of this film, which jags around the tropical climes, into a therapist’s house and into her office and her own crumbling psyche, down the streets that seem to come alive with the motion of crustacea. The deliberative pace and queasy mood of this film is compassionate and unforgettable, simply one of the best movies I’ve seen this year.

United Skates

Feb. 18 (HBO)

A really beautiful piece about a critical slice of Americana — roller skating rinks — and how it reflects the past and present of the country’s race relations.

General Magic

May 10 (Spellbound Productions II)

If you have lightning, and you have a bottle, are you guaranteed to capture that lightning in the bottle? This fascinating film has a visceral and playful way of laying out how the invention of the smartphone — years before the first iPhone — didn’t pan out for the creators at startup General Magic, highlighting how those skilled smarties still went on to found and support some of the biggest companies in Silicon Valley today. No technical experience necessary.

Amazing Grace

April 5 (Neon)

Watching this documentary is a great way to get your mom off your back when she asks if you’ve gone to church.

The Amazing Johnathan Documentary

Aug. 16 (Hulu)

Earlier this year, I saw this film — like several on this list — at the wonderful True/False Film Festival in Columbia, Mo.; the event expressly features many titles that don’t necessarily fall into a “traditional” doc storytelling mode, sometimes putting the audience on its back foot about what is… well, true or false. Not that anything’s a discernible outright lie in The Amazing Johnathan Documentary, but this insanely hilarious film takes on more of a sculpted, surprising “nonfiction” bent than bare improvisation, much in the way “unscripted” reality shows still have an arc they gotta tell.

Given the title of this film, this is no fly-on-the-wall POV. Director Ben Berman’s bag is in comedy, having directed dozens of episodes of Comedy Bang! Bang!, Tim Heidecker’s On Cinema, and other left-of-center television like Lady Dynamite and Jon Benjamin Has a Van. His sensibilities seemed ripe for a doc on standup comedian and magician The Amazing Johnathan, who was diagnosed with a fatal heart condition in the mid-aughts. But what could’ve been a very traditional talking-head documentary of an edgy Vegas entertainer gripping to life quickly catches fire and falls off a cliff into lava, with Berman finding himself cringingly in the middle of a documentary that is purportedly about some other funny man.

They Shall Not Grow Old

Jan. 11 (Warner Bros.)

We’re so used to high-definition in our moviegoing experience, it’s sometimes hard to be wowed by films and film work of the past. Peter Jackson and his team’s innovative technique of “updating” 100-year-old World War I video footage is so literally breathtaking, adding color to this where there used to be none and voices for the now-silent dead. A real treat for any film lover, and a creative way to honor the past.

American Factory

Summer 2019 (Netflix)

I can’t believe this film got made. It’s not anything as death-defying as, say, climbing a sheer rock face without safety gear. But rather, Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert were somehow allowed into seemingly every fraught fluorescent-lit corner of an Ohio-based auto glass factory, formerly owned by GM and re-opened by a Chinese billionaire. The filmmakers captured and interviewed the American workers and managers and the Chinese immigrant workers and managers (plus, yes, the billionaire) dead in the middle of all their eye-popping culture clashes, from the social dynamics of a small team roll-call to the conflicts surrounding union-forming (and -busting). Bognar and Reichert are tonal experts, allowing American Factory’s working-class portraiture to feel folksy but never flippant.

Hail Satan?

April 17 (Magnolia Pictures)

To many, this explainer about the Satanic Temple organization will be the feel-good story of the year. Think less fire and blood, and more about community, culture hacking, and social activism. With some male nudity.

Ask Dr. Ruth

May 3 (Magnolia/Magnet/Hulu)

At the risk of sounding reductive in comparing this film to Betsy West and Julie Cohen’s super RBG documentary last year, Ask Dr. Ruth is in the same vein. Yes, each movie centers on an older woman (Ruth Bader Ginsburg in her 80s and Ruth Westheimer in her 90s) whose lane-carving subversions have catapulted them beyond their respective professions into icon status within larger popular culture. But it’s more that each film is particularly adept at exploring both the public face and the private lives of these unique women, digging in a little deeper on what actually motivates and keeps their engines running. Even with her light, no-nonsense demeanor, entertainer and therapist Dr. Ruth scared — and still scares! — the sh— out of people. And even in the glow and celebration of his doc, Ryan White makes sure to hit the broad strokes of why sex-positivity in modern media is still controversial.

30 for 30: Seau

April 16 (ESPN)

Junior Seau was statistically one of the greatest to ever play the game of football and beloved by fans and colleagues. The late linebacker, who killed himself in 2012 at age 43, is also one of the major names that comes up when you talk about CTE, a brain disease caused by repeated blows to the head, which has become a full-blown medical crisis threatening the very nature, financial future, and sport of professional football.

This 30 for 30 arrived six years after League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis, helmed by ESPN writers, was reportedly brushed aside by the network due to pressure from the NFL (it landed at PBS instead, and you can watch it in full here). With that history underneath it, this 33-minute 30 for 30 thankfully goes in — using the power of the series’ emotionally driven storytelling timbre to make an argument for public safety and health when it comes to what we consider sport. And I don’t say “thankfully” with any sense of glee — as a huge football fan, the role of media like this aids in understanding and appreciating the gravity of entertainment and (like with Leaving Neverland below) keeps me in an important state of re-examination.

Apollo 11

March 1 (CNN Films / Neon)

After so many space odysseys on film, another trip to the moon may feel like a trip through the drive-thru. Not so with Apollo 11, which is 100% archival film, a lot of which has never previously been seen by the public as a cooperative uncovering effort from filmmaker Todd Douglas Miller, NASA, and the National Archives and Records Administration. No talking heads, video quality as it was on sexy large format, and audio in the raw (a word of note: watch with closed captions on, should you have the option, to catch some of what might be lost, babe). From the burst from Earth to the precise executions it took to lunar land, this film will reinstate your awe of human will and intellect.

Leaving Neverland

March 4 (HBO)

This two-part documentary should perhaps be watched over several shorter sittings for the sheer weight of the matter. In it, subjects James Safechuck and Wade Robson recall their alleged experiences of being sexually abused by the late pop superstar Michael Jackson. The allegations, in all their graphically intimate and private terms, are shattering and sickening. The documentary holds firmly to their perspectives rather than try to explore all sides of what was — and continues to be — a public and legal debate. Leaving Neverland may not be the easiest or subjectively greatest documentary to consume this year, but, for the sake of anyone willing to engage with pop culture on a personal, realistic, and historic level, it’s a must-see.

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The Biggest Little Farm (2019 Movie)
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