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The Best Documentaries of 2019

January 2, 2020

By John Corrado

The calendars have already turned over to 2020, but 2019 would not be complete without my annual countdowns of the best movies and documentaries of the previous year. Per tradition, I have once again broken up these lists, because I want to pay tribute to as many of these films as possible. My list of the best narrative films of 2019 will be coming tomorrow, but first here’s my countdown of the ten best documentaries of last year, followed by a selection of honourable mentions.

There were a lot of great non-fiction works released in 2019, so narrowing down this list and deciding on the final order was especially hard this time around, and a few of my honourable mentions could have easily made the actual list. What I have finally settled on is a diverse cross-section of social, political and human interest films, including two made up of archival footage (Amazing Grace and Apollo 11) and one real life conspiracy thriller (Cold Case Hammarskjöld). I unfortunately haven’t seen Leaving Neverland, so if you’re wondering why I haven’t included it here, that’s why.

#10: The Cave

Following up his Oscar-nominated 2017 documentary Last Men in Aleppo, director Feras Fayyad returns to his war-torn country of Syria in The Cave, introducing us to a team of female doctors who work in an underground hospital, accessible through tunnels that were dug by rebels under the bombed out city of Ghouta. Led by the quietly heroic Dr. Amani, they tirelessly work treating victims of bombings and airstrikes while also dealing with rampant sexism, such as a shocking moment early on when a male patient won’t accept the fact that they have run out of prescriptions and blames it on the fact that the hospital has a female supervisor. Fayyad goes to great lengths to ensure that the film is incredibly well shot, and at times it has the look and feel of a narrative feature.

This is one of the many things that makes The Cave, which picked up the Grolsch People’s Choice Award for Documentary at TIFF, stand out as a superior piece of non-fiction filmmaking. The film finds great humanity in the little moments that it captures so well, such as when several doctors genially complain about the meal of rice that has been prepared for them out of meagre rations while still eating spoonfuls of it, or when we observe the surgeon listening to classical music concerts on his phone while operating on patients. A scene in which Dr. Amani treats a young girl while asking her what she wants to do when she grows up is remarkably moving. This is a harrowing and powerful portrait of those doing the best they can to save lives young and old, with strong women leading the charge.

#9: Amazing Grace

Shot over two nights in 1972, Amazing Grace documents the recording of the late Aretha Franklin’s classic gospel album of the same name, which was recorded in front of a live audience at a Baptist church in Los Angeles under the guidance of the late director Sydney Pollack. The release of this film has been held up for various reasons ranging from sound problems to legal troubles, leading to the footage sitting dormant for over forty years. So the fact that it has finally been completed and released now, in the wake of the death of both its director and subject no less, is worth celebrating. This is a great time capsule of a film, that provides an incredible snapshot of Aretha Franklin at the height of her powers.

#8: Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love

This lovely documentary chronicles the over fifty year friendship between Canadian singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen and the Norwegian woman Marianne Ihlen, who died within three months of each other in 2016. The two never got married or had children together, but they shared a deep bond, with Ihlen becoming Cohen’s muse and inspiring at least two of his songs. Directed by Nick Broomfield, himself a contemporary of the two, there is a sense of poetry to Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love that I found captivating and rather moving. As I wrote in my review, “it’s ultimately a story that is as poignant and twinged with sadness as one of Cohen’s songs.”

#7: nîpawistamâsowin: We Will Stand Up

Colton Boushie was a young man from the Red Pheasent Cree Nation in Saskatchewan who was shot to death by a white farmer in 2016, who was subsequently acquitted by an all-white jury. The story made headlines throughout Canada, and director Tasha Hubbard uses it to explore how our country’s justice system is still stacked against Indigenous peoples in her powerful documentary nîpawistamâsowin: We Will Stand Up. The film features moving interviews with members of Boushie’s family, following them as they seek justice for Colton’s death, and builds towards a remarkable conversation near the end with Hubbard’s white adoptive father that shows the complexity of different perspectives. This is one of the most important Canadian films of last year.

#6: On the President’s Orders

Rodrigo Duterte promised to clean up the streets when he was elected president of the Philippines in 2016, which included giving the militarized police department permission to shoot people on site if they were found to be in possession of drugs. This bloody crusade against drug dealers and users ravaged poor communities and led to over three thousand deaths in its first year alone, and directors James Jones and Olivier Sarbill capture what Duterte’s literal “War on Drugs” looked like on the ground in their searing and extremely well shot documentary On the President’s Orders. At a compact 72 minutes long, this is a shocking and powerful film that unfolds like a real life thriller.

#5: Apollo 11

Assembled entirely out of archival material that has held up extremely well, including a wealth of newly discovered 65mm footage, Apollo 11 makes the 1969 moon landing feel up close and personal for those of us who weren’t alive at the time to watch it live on TV. Directed by Todd Douglas Miller, who also took on the gargantuan task of editing the film, assembling countless hours of footage together into a linear narrative, Apollo 11 is a remarkable achievement from a technical standpoint, and a documentary that often feels surprisingly cinematic.

#4: Coppers

Alan Zweig is one of Canada’s best documentary filmmakers, and Coppers is arguably his finest work yet. It’s a work of remarkable empathy, forcing us to watch and listen for roughly eighty minutes as former police officers in Ontario talk about their experiences in the force and struggles with PTSD, all done in Zweig’s signature style of having his subjects talk directly to the camera with him as a very active interviewer behind it. This is a challenging film that isn’t always easy or comfortable to watch, but it’s also necessary, essential, and moving viewing.

#3: Honeyland

The last of the wild bee keepers in Macedonia, Haditze Muratova lives in a hut in the Balkan mountains with her elderly mother, and spends her time tending to a colony of wild bees. But her way of life, and harmonious relationship with the bees who supply her with honey, is threatened when a new family moves onto the property next to her, and starts trying to mass produce honey. Directed by Ljubomir Stefanov and Tamara Kotevska, Honeyland is a beautifully shot and remarkably captured portrait of a dying way of life, and a fascinating glimpse into a corner of the world rarely, if ever, seen on screen.

#2: American Factory

Directors Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert capture what happens when an auto manufacturing plant in Dayton, Ohio gets taken over by a Chinese company in their gripping vérité documentary American Factory, which powerfully documents a phenomenon that is happening all across America. The workers are suddenly being paid much less per hour, workplace injuries go up, and the employees aren’t allowed to unionize. The result is an incredible, almost real-time snapshot of the American working class getting overtaken by the corporate greed of foreign interests. It’s also interesting that this film was backed by Barack and Michelle Obama through their company Higher Ground Productions, because it explores a lot of the same problems and Rust Belt discontent that ironically went on to help get Trump elected.

#1: Cold Case Hammarskjöld

I love documentaries that show how truth is often stranger than fiction, and Cold Case Hammarskjöld is a great example of one. It all begins with the question of whether or not the 1961 plane crash that killed United Nations Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld, who was openly pushing for decolonization of the African continent at the time, was accidental or intentional. Mads Brügger, a Danish journalist and filmmaker, sets out to answer this question, and what begins as a wild goose chase built around an old conspiracy theory takes him to much more sinister places, which are documented with brilliant fervor in this by turns quirky, shocking, wildly entertaining, and ultimately disturbing film.

I saw Cold Case Hammarskjöld at a late night screening right in the middle of Hot Docs. It was my fourth film that day. And yet, I was completely gripped throughout every moment of this 128 minute film and my attention never flagged once, which is a true testament to how engaging this film is. It’s a wild, bizarre, conspiracy-fuelled ride that is filled with “holy shit” moments, and watching it unfold was one of the best experiences I had in a theatre last year. For that I’m calling it the best documentary of 2019.

Honourable Mentions: Ask Dr. Ruth, Carmine Street Guitars, The Edge of Democracy, For Sama, Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind, Killing Patient Zero, Maiden, Midnight Family, One Child Nation, Prey, Seahorse, The Seer and the Unseen, There Are No Fakes, Western Stars, Who Let the Dogs Out.

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