Ten Great Documentaries of 2019

They Shall Not Grow Old (Warner Bros. Pictures)
It’s a golden age of the genre.

It’s a golden age of documentaries, true-life stories whose grit and drama and twists hit so much harder amid awareness that all of this actually happened. Among documentaries released theatrically this year, here are ten standouts.

10. Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice (CNN, New Year’s Day). The greatest of all female rock singers can’t sing anymore, but this look back at her glory years revels in not only her magnificent voice but also her restless inventiveness as she discarded the rock mold and ventured into big-band ballads, Spanish-language folk songs she’d learned from her dad as a child, and country with Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris.

9. Western Stars. Okay, it’s just an annotated Bruce Springsteen concert show that has Springsteen wandering open ranges posing for B-roll as he reflects on his new songs and the character he portrays in them — suitably, an aging cowboy actor struggling to keep going. But Springsteen’s latest album combines country-rock lyrics with lush orchestral backing for a beautiful effect. “Love is one of the only miracles God has given us daily proof of on earth,” Springsteen says, explaining the impetus for his symphonic turn. “Love is there to better us but you must work for its blessings. Love and the creative light it burns is a small, sweet sign of God’s divinity within us.”

8. Scandalous: The True Story of the National Enquirer. At its peak, the National Enquirer, which was founded with a Mob loan, was one of the most widely read newspapers in the history of the United States, earning many scoops by being one of the few American media outlets willing to deploy Fleet Street tactics, including paying for sources. A documentary about its history (enlivened by interviews with such outside observers as Carl Bernstein and Maggie Haberman) lays out how the Enquirer’s prowess eventually led to its undoing, as sensationalism became the primary fuel of the news and all barriers between celebrity and politics collapsed. Late scenes do a superb job detailing the catch-and-kill policies that helped to hide unfavorable information about Donald Trump.

7. Honeyland. I hear what you’re saying: “In God’s name, not another doc about Macedonia bee-keeping!” Still, this is the best one you’ll ever see, a reminder that right there in Europe there are people living in almost unimaginable destitution. Ljubomir Stefanov and Tamara Kotevska’s documentary follows the life of Hatidze Muratova, a middle-aged woman who lives in a hut without electricity or running water with her aged mother. Hatidze makes a living by cultivating honeycombs which she keeps hidden behind rocks in the hills nearby, selling jars of honey at a market for a few euros each. When a family of travelers moves in next to her home, their patriarch decides everything she is doing is wrong and impatiently upends the established order in pursuit of short-term gains, using brutal and calamitous methods.

6. Meeting Gorbachev (on Hulu). It took the disarming interviewing technique of Werner Herzog to bring out who the last president of the Soviet Union really was. A reformer? Yes, but in spite of himself. Gorbachev regrets how far he let things go and admits in this film he should have had Boris Yeltsin arrested and thereby stopped the democratic movement in Russia. Gorbachev was no saint. “More democracy, that was our first and foremost goal,” he says in this frank portrait. “I also wanted more socialism.” Alas, Gorbachev became the latest to learn that when you have one, you lose the other.

5. Pavarotti. Ron Howard’s salute to a complicated man with enormous energy and equally sizable appetites will please those who would hope the man himself had as much life force as the outsized characters he portrayed in opera. Pavarotti’s career launched while the Beatles were still playing in Hamburg yet peaked in popularity when the Spice Girls (with whom he recorded) were hot, then lasted many years thereafter. Let it not be overlooked, however, that the late tenor’s primary regret was not being a better husband and father.

4. One Child Nation (Amazon Prime Video). Referring to the “one-child policy of China” is a bit like referring to “Dislike of Jews in 1940s Germany.” It was a holocaust, a state-driven mass-murder program. Forced sterilizations of crying women were the least of it. During the four decades during which China limited families to one child each, there were forced abortions and kidnappings on an enormous scale, but perhaps the most nauseating details are the ones told in matter-of-fact style by members of Chinese-American director Nanfu Wang’s own family. If the first child born was a girl, in order to preserve your chances of having a boy you might simply dump the baby by whatever means you could devise, leaving her in a market or simply tossing her down a riverbank. Untold millions of lives ended this way; the state’s monstrous directives stained every village in the land.

3. The Cold Blue (HBO). Back when leading Hollywood personalities felt it was their patriotic duty to put themselves in harm’s way for their country, the director William Wyler (who would go on to make The Best Years of Our Lives and Ben-Hur) was among those who went off to make movies as part of the propaganda effort. Wyler went up in B-17s to film bomber missions over Europe, and his cinematographer died on one run. Wyler himself suffered permanent hearing damage in one ear. Taking Wyler’s footage and supplementing it with more context, director Erik Nelson creates a harrowing vision of life lived high up in the clouds, with a bullseye on your face. The story of what these boys did for us can’t be told loudly enough or often enough.

2. Apollo 11 (on Hulu). Walter Cronkite is heard calling it “Man’s greatest adventure.” And how. Issued before the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, this captivating assembly of vintage footage makes it 1969 again, putting us right there with the thousands of onlookers on the beach, the rows of technicians sweating out the operations, and the incomprehensibly brave men — Michael Collins, Buzz Aldrin, and Neil Armstrong — who strapped themselves into a rocket and dared to slip the bonds of Earth.

1. They Shall Not Grow Old (HBO). Peter Jackson is a longstanding World War I buff whose grandfather served on the Western Front, and in his wealth he has accumulated vintage tanks and other weapons and equipment. He and his digital wizards redirected some of the vast technical knowledge they acquired while making fantasies to an exciting new use: meticulous restoration of black-and-white World War I footage that was frustratingly damaged and incomplete in innumerable ways. Sidestepping historical and political questions, Jackson asks and comprehensively answers the question “What was it like in the trenches?” Narrated by the veterans themselves, whose interviews were recorded many years after the war, Jackson’s monumental film creates a picture of World War I like no other. It’s one of the most riveting documentaries ever made.

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