Entertainment

The 26 Best Documentaries of 2019

Truth is better than fiction.

best documentaries of the year
'Apollo 11' | Neon
'Apollo 11' | Neon

As streaming services pour billions of dollars into original content to satisfy their subscribers' insatiable lust for new movies and shows, documentaries -- like nearly every genre -- have flourished. Rarely hits at the box office, nonfiction narratives are particularly well-suited to on-demand viewing, offering those who spend hours binge-watching lighter fare the rare opportunity to feel like they're learning something as they sit on the couch. 

Of course, quantity never equals quality, and 2019 had its fair share of duds in the documentary category. We're not going to focus on them, because that would be a dumb list! Instead, below you'll find the best documentaries of the year (including docuseries, the form that may have benefited more than any other from the streaming revolution). You'll find streaming hits, obscure treasures, and theatrical releases, but they all share one common trait: They'll help you better understand the world, for better or for worse. 

Want to watch EVEN MORE documentaries? Check out the best of 2016, 2017, and 2018Want more recommendations like this? Good: Check out our picks for the Best Movies of 2019 and the Best TV Shows of 2019.

conversations with a killer the ted bundy tapes
Netflix

26. Conversations With a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes

Release date: January 24
Director: Joel Berlinger (Paradise Lost trilogy)
Why it's a great doc: Joel Berlinger's iconic work on the Paradise Lost trilogy centered on the myriad miscarriages of justice in the case of the West Memphis 3, who were convicted of murdering three boys in the mid-'90s, and while his Netflix docuseries focuses on a man whose guilt is never in question, Berlinger still manages to work in sly critiques of the justice system. Bundy may have been a ruthless serial killer, but somehow law enforcement failed to catch him, allowed him to escape TWICE, and wound up convicting him in Florida thanks to some flimsy evidence and a showboating prosecutor. The tapes referenced in the title come from a journalist who interviewed a cagey Bundy on death row, but are ultimately secondary to the treasure trove of archival footage Berlinger intersperses throughout a relatively conventional docuseries peppered with talking heads -- one of whom survived a Bundy attack, and is one of the more revelatory figures in the doc. The convicted man eventually opens up a bit when he begins referring to his crimes in the third person, but, like most serial killers, he's impossible to relate to, and you wind up learning little about what makes him tick. Still, it's a fascinating story told over a fast-paced four episodes, and it does a far better job of developing a full picture of the killer's paradoxical charms and wit than Berlinger's companion piece starring Zac Efron, which has faced criticism for romanticizing Bundy
Where to watch it: Netflix (Watch the trailer.)

jawline documentary
Hulu

25. Jawline

Release date: August 23
Director: Liza Mandelup
Why it's a great doc: Teens are mysterious creatures, made more so in the current social media climate. Liza Mandelup's documentary Jawline looks at this culture through the prism of one budding star: a boy in Tennessee named Austyn Tester, who has made something of a name for himself on apps like YouNow and Musical.ly. Austyn is a fascinating figure around which to center a piece on this subject: He's not, according to Mandelup's sources, one of the most popular kids on these platforms, but he still has enough of a following to see a way out of his tiny town and home filled with cats. Mandelup parallels his journey with the saga of Mikey Barone and Bryce Hall, two of Austyn's peers in the industry. They operate from an LA mansion alongside their manager, 21-year-old Michael Weist, who believes he is a mastermind in viral success. The film is brightly lit, beautifully shot, and thoroughly depressing, exposing a glistening world that targets teen girls' insecurities. 
Where to watch it: Hulu (Watch the trailer.)

i love you now die
HBO

24. I Love You, Now Die: The Commonwealth Vs. Michelle Carter

Release date: July 9
Director: Erin Lee Carr (Mommy Dead and Dearest)
Why it's a great doc: Broken up into two parts -- the prosecution and the defense -- this HBO documentary walks through the highly publicized trial of Michelle Carter, on trial for encouraging her long-distance boyfriend over text messages to kill himself in 2014. Carter was an easy villain: She represented everything that society hates and fears about teenage girls, a "manipulative" and "crazy" petite, blonde white girl with cartoonishly expressive drawn-on eyebrows. While I Love You, Now Die acknowledges as much, it also upends the assumptions a casual follower of the case might have harbored. Carter had met her boyfriend, Conrad Roy, only a handful of times over their two-year relationship that existed primary over text messages and Gchats; Roy was incredibly depressed, and Carter, prescribed SSRIs herself, was a horribly lonely person convinced she was helping Roy by badgering him to take his own life. The binary presentation leaves a few gaps that could have been plugged up, but at its core, I Love You, Now Die -- Carr's second documentary released via HBO this year (for the first, see: At the Heart of Gold) -- is a thoroughly modern and messy story about teenagers, technology, mental health, and our justice system that's ill-prepared to juggle it all.
Where to watch: HBO GO and HBO Now (Watch the trailer.)

our planet netflix
Netflix

23. Our Planet

Release date: April 5
Director: Multiple
Why it's a great doc: The team behind BBC's influential and popular Planet Earth series took their talents (including narrator David Attenborough) to Netflix, and the resulting series is just as stunning as any of the previous installments. Placing more emphasis on the devastating effects of climate change than its Planet Earth companions, Our Planet travels the globe to capture heartbreaking moments like a massive glacier calving and desperate walruses flinging themselves off cliffs to their deaths. The one knock against it as a documentary is that it doesn't depart from its predecessors' style in any meaningful way, down to some sequences that are mere variations on scenes previously depicted -- but when the message is this grave, and the natural world still so underexplored, Our Planet can get away with delivering familiar work with a slightly different tone. 
Where to watch it: Netflix (Watch the trailer.)

diego maradona documentary
HBO

22. Diego Maradona 

Release date: October 1
Director: Asif Kapadia (Senna, Amy)
Why it's a great doc: Oscar-winning documentarian Kapadia's work tends to focus on tragic genius, a theme that continues in his examination of perhaps the greatest soccer player ever to live. Maradona's sublime left foot was matched only by his penchant for cocaine, partying, and eating, which somehow didn't totally destroy his career but has contributed to a string of high-profile failures in his post-playing days. Unlike Kapadia's previous subjects -- Formula 1 driver Ayrton Senna and singer Amy Winehouse -- Maradona is still alive and kicking, part of the reason the story is largely restricted to the number 10's trophy-winning days at Napoli, where he fell into a life dominated by addiction and organized crime. That limited scope is slightly to the film's detriment, but the inclusion of previously unreleased (and in some cases, newly discovered) footage makes Maradona an achievement in documentary filmmaking that fits perfectly in the trajectory of Kapadia's work.  
Where to watch it: HBO Go and HBO Now (Watch the trailer.)

at the heart of gold documentary
HBO

21. At the Heart of Gold: Inside the USA Gymnastics Scandal

Release date: May 3
Director: Erin Lee Carr
Why it's a great doc: The harrowing, tragic, and infuriating story of the sexual abuse scandal that rocked the USA Gymnastics national team and Michigan State University lasted so long and affected so many people that it's virtually impossible to capture the full scope of it in a feature-length film. Dr. Larry Nassar is formally accused of assaulting at least 250 people during his time as an athletic trainer for both the women's national team and at Michigan State, though it's possible the true number will never be known. Carr finds a wide range of victims willing to share their story on film, which helps illuminate the depths of Nassar's manipulation, his brazenness, and the myriad institutional authorities who failed to protect children despite warnings and official complaints about this highly regarded trainer's behavior.  
Where to watch it: HBO Go and HBO Now (Watch the trailer.)

leaving neverland documentary
HBO

20. Leaving Neverland

Release date: March 3
Director: Dan Reed
Why it's a great doc: This new HBO original documentary is a disturbing and explosive one, focusing on the stories of two men who say Michael Jackson sexually abused them for years when they were children. By shifting focus away from the King of Pop and onto the alleged victims (Jackson was never convicted of assault or abuse during his lifetime), documentarian Dan Reed shows the immense star power Jackson wielded to influence not just the boys, but their entire families. Both victims describe their abuse in clinical detail, which makes for a queasy watch, but a worthwhile one as pop culture continues its long reckoning with the heroes it elevates and celebrates.
Where to watch it: HBO Go and HBO NOW (Watch the trailer.)

netflix fyre documentary
Netflix

19. Fyre

Release date: January 18
Director:Chris Smith (American Movie)
Why it's a great doc: The superior of the two Fyre Festival documentaries released earlier this year, Fyre is a fiendishly paced, carefully constructed procedural about the work project from hell. Early on we meet Billy McFarlane, a goober selling a fantasy of exclusivity and proximity to celebrity, and his entrepreneurial partner Ja Rule, a rapper selling a lifestyle of wealth and non-stop partying. Together they have a vision: a music festival in the Bahamas that promises all the FOMO-inducing opulence of a well-curated Instagram feed. Compared to Hulu's more think-piece-ey take on the material, Fyre puts you on the ground, walks you through each spectacularly dumb decision, and has the more memorable interviews. (Yes, we're talking about the highly meme-able Andy King.) Even if the Netflix version is perhaps the more ethically dubious of the two documentaries, one could argue that meta-layer of behind-the-scenes turmoil also adds to the experience: You start to feel like the scam will never end.
Where to watch it: Netflix (Watch the trailer.)

for the birds documentary
Dogwoof

18. For the Birds

Release date: May 31
Director: Richard Miron
Why it's a great doc:For the Birds will baffle and frustrate and gut you in ways that are difficult to parse after the first viewing. The documentary looks at five years in the life of an upstate New Yorker named Kathy Murphy, whose acquisition and insistence on keeping 200 chicken, turkeys, ducks, and geese at (and inside) her home causes several conflicts with local authorities and animal welfare groups. What begins as a portrait of mental illness eventually explores Kathy's evolving relationship with her husband as both their lives change dramatically in the face of outside interference. It's certainly not a clean film in any sense of the word, having begun as Miron's side project while he was working with an animal welfare group; the quality of the early footage, especially, doesn't exactly evoke Werner Herzog. Still, that rawness is appropriate for the subject. Equal parts heartbreaking and inspiring, For the Birds will stick with you long after its final shot gazes into the sky.  
Where to watch it: Netflix (Watch the trailer.)

aquarela movie
Sony Pictures Classics

17. Aquarela

Release date: August 16
Director: Viktor Kossakovsky (¡Vivan las Antípodas!)
Why it's a great doc: On paper, Aquarela sounds like a galaxy-brain film experiment. A trilingual documentary about water set to doom metal shot a 96 frames-per-second -- double the frame rate of Peter Jackson's The Hobbit -- sets off all sorts of alarms. But in a dark theater, Aquarela is unlike any other movie -- fiction or documentary -- we've ever seen. For the subtitle-averse, the trilingualism doesn't really come into play; the film is mostly word-free, letting the main character, the water, "speak" for itself. Russian director Victor Kossakovsky, who's responsible for 2011's mind-bending, similarly mute nature doc ¡Vivan las Antípodas!, miraculously captures water in a swath of evocative emotional forms: "breathing" as tides ebb and flow, "screaming" as it thrashes in a nasty storm, "gurgling" as ice slowly melts. The movie is broken into five or so distinct scenes, from Russians skidding over Siberia's semi-frozen Lake Baikal in cars (ending in disaster), to extended underwater shots of icebergs and massive waves cracking and twisting in a frame rate that makes an everyday affair seem Martian. An impressionist doc that's not really interested in plot, Aquarela still manages to impart a central takeaway: The planet is undergoing some massive changes as climate change gets worse and worse, and the planet's water has things to say about it. We recommend taking whatever illicit substances you've got and heading to see this in theaters.
Where to watch it: Rent on Amazon, iTunes, YouTube, VOD (Watch the trailer.)

country music documentary
PBS

16. Country Music

Release date: September 15
Director: Ken Burns (The Civil War, Jazz, The Vietnam War)
Why it's a great doc: Ken Burns' latest project plays as something of a palate cleanser after 2017's harrowing The Vietnam War. Like Burns' Jazz, Country Music delves into the history of another of America's homegrown musical styles, though its limited scope and mostly rosy outlook at times leave the docuseries feeling slightly undercooked. In tracing the development of American country from the Carter family and Jimmie Rogers through Garth Brooks and the Judds, Country Music relies on the usual Burns tricks: Talking-head interviews, still photography, original recordings, and archival footage tell a story that largely runs through Nashville, but connects to all forms of American music that span the entire continent. While it mimics its subject in encouraging nostalgia for the past while ignoring some of the troubling political and racial causes with which country stars and fans have aligned themselves (see: George Wallace), it nevertheless is an essential watch that reveals the complex roots of America's favorite music genre. 
Where to watch it: PBS Passport (Watch the trailer.)

fantastic fungi documentary
Area 23a

15. Fantastic Fungi

Release date: October 11 
Director: Louis Schwartzberg (Wings of Life, Moving Art series)
Why it's a great doc: Mushrooms are something special. They pop up out of nowhere and disappear again within days. Their root systems allow trees to communicate with each other and share nutrients. Some of them are poisonous, some of them are delicious, and some of them give people visions of God. Fantastic Fungi, which partially follows mycologist rockstar Paul Stamets' passionate journey into the world of mycelial networks, reintroduces us to the organisms we see every day, not as simply food or fun drugs, but as fabulously ancient creatures of immense, alien intelligence that exist in a world we've only been able to scratch the surface of.
Where to watch it: In theaters (Watch the trailer.)

the proposal documentary
Jill Magid/Oscilloscope Laboratories

14. The Proposal

Release date: May 24
Director: Jill Magid
Why it's a great doc: Artist Jill Magid has worked for years on a project about the legendary Mexican architect Luis Barragán, whose professional archives have been locked away in the basement of the Swiss company Vitra for decades, unavailable to the public. Magid's "proposal" is multifaceted and revolves around an exchange between the artist and Federica Zanco, who's been in charge of the Barragan Foundation and rigidly controls access to the archives and the use of Barragán's name (which the foundation copyrighted sans accent). The shots are exacting, precise as Barragán's creations, and the exchanges between Federica and Magid offer an oblique view of what drives the extremely wealthy to wield control over spaces and objects that should be available to everyone. The film is methodically paced, but the lengths to which Magid goes -- including acts that, for some, pushed the limits of good taste -- to convince Federica to agree to her proposal will keep you on the edge of your seat.
Where to watch it: Rent on Amazon, Vudu (Watch the trailer.)

one child nation documentary
Amazon Studios

13. One Child Nation

Release date: August 9
Directors: Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang
Why it's a great doc: There isn't much hope to be found in Nanfu Wang's first-person interrogation of China's one-child policy, the intensely strict "family planning" mandate in place from 1979 to 2015, and its reverberations are still felt both in China and in western countries today. Much of the information Wang relays isn't entirely new -- if you've read about the policy, you know that China committed serious human rights violations in enacting it -- but the firsthand accounts she elicits from her aunt, who gave her daughter to a trafficker when she was 20 days old; a village midwife, who blankly admits to inducing and aborting tens of thousands of babies and killing many newborns; and even her mother, who would have put her second child in a basket out on the street if it had ended up a baby girl; all offer intimate perspectives on just how handcuffed and indoctrinated everyone was under the restrictive law. (Very few people admit to thinking the one-child policy was a bad thing in sit-down interviews.) It's a sweeping indictment of the Chinese propaganda machine, of the uniquely complicated mass acquiescence under the system, and, of course, of the profound human rights atrocities committed in compliance with a policy that hasn't exactly helped the country in the long-term. One Child Nation is a bleak, but necessary, documentary about the very real human fallout of a destructive social experiment that happened in our lifetime.
Where to watch it: Amazon Prime (Watch the trailer.)

sea of shadows
National Geographic

12. Sea of Shadows

Release date: July 12
Director: Richard Ladkani (The Ivory Game, The Devil's Miner)
Why it's a great doc: Every few years spawns a jarring activist documentary spelling out the previously underreported ecological destruction of a species (see: Blackfish, Virunga, The Cove). Sea of Shadows is the latest of these, homing in on the rapid extinction of the Vaquita, the world's smallest whale that only exists in Mexico's Sea of Cortez. As an unintended consequence of the illegal nets used for poaching totoaba, an ugly fish that's been called the "cocaine of the sea" for the astronomical price its swim bladders go for in the Chinese black market, the Vaquita's population has suffered, dipping down to less than two dozen (and likely even fewer now). Executive produced by Leonardo DiCaprio and directed and shot by environmental filmmaker Richard Ladkani, the suspenseful, high-stakes doc traces the many efforts to save the Vaquita, expose the dangerous ring of totoaba cartels, and trace the networks that keep poachers active. Ladkani effortlessly makes a worldly and complex issue feel close to home, emboldening viewers to step up for the cause, as the best of these kinds of documentaries do. It helps that Vaquita are extremely cute.
Where to watch it: Rent on Amazon, Vudu (Watch the trailer.)

hail satan? documentary
Magnolia Pictures

11. Hail Satan?

Release date: April 17
Director: Penny Lane (Our Nixon)
Why it's a great doc: While Satan has been around for a long time, The Temple of Satan, the primary focus of this sly documentary, was founded in 2013 by Malcolm Jerry and Lucien Greaves. The spokesperson for the group, Greaves speaks with authority and humor about the organization's larger political, social, and theological goals, which center around religious freedom and the separation of church and state. (Justifiably, The Temple of Satan does not like when governments install the Ten Commandments in State Capitals.) Though they wear black and often enjoy heavy metal, these aren't the Satanists of the Satanic Panic in the '80s, which gets a CliffNotes treatment here, or the robe-wearing fanatics from horror films. Using archival material of Sunday school cartoons and news programs, Lane gives the viewer a crash course on Satanism's place in history while also emphasizing the activist nature of modern Satanists. Despite some repetitive interviews, Hail Satan works as a funny, thoughtful primer on a group that trolls with the best intentions. 
Where to watch it: Hulu; rent on Amazon, iTunes, YouTube, etc. (Watch the trailer.)

the biggest little farm
Neon

10. The Biggest Little Farm

Release date: May 10
Director: John Chester
Why it's a great doc: The Biggest Little Farm sure has the look and feel of an Oscar winner for Best Documentary feature (Unfortunately, it got snubbed). In telling the decade-long story of John and Molly Chester's quest to turn 200 acres of fallow land outside Los Angeles into a biodynamic farm that works in harmony with nature, the film hits all the emotional sweet spots winning documentaries in recent years have hit. It's inspirational without veering into sentimentality; it depicts genuine hardship; it doesn't pull punches when it comes to the harsh realities of nature. Watching the Chesters transform an arid patch of land into a thriving farm not only highlights the environmental destruction humans have wrought, but also offers a viable solution that's well within our control. 
Where to watch it: Hulu; rent on YouTube, Google Play, etc. (Watch the trailer.)

cold case hammarskjold
Magnolia Pictures

9. Cold Case Hammarskjöld

Release date: August 16
Director: Mads Brügger
Why it's a great doc: The 1961 plane crash death of Swedish United Nations Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld serves as both a launch pad and red herring for the investigatory work of Mads Brügger in this endlessly intriguing documentary. As in Nick Broomfield's films, the Danish director displays an eagerness to inject himself into the narrative, and he's willing to indulge conspiracy theories and potentially unreliable interview subjects along the way. Brügger casts himself as more of a goofball than Broomfield, a sly trick that belies the seriousness of his investigation while allowing him to get close to figures who might otherwise be a bit more standoffish. What begins as a reexamination of a death that certainly doesn't seem to be an accident quickly snowballs into a twisting drama about the brutal lengths to which interested parties were willing to go in order to maintain a policy of white supremacy as Africa decolonized in the years following World War II (a subject Broomfield has also explored). 
Where to watch it: Hulu; rent on Amazon, iTunes, YouTube, etc. (Watch the trailer.

aretha franklin amazing grace documentary
Neon

8. Amazing Grace

Release date: April 5
Director: None credited (produced by Alan Elliott and originally shot by Sydney Pollack)
Why it's a great doc: The long road Amazing Grace took from its filming in 1972 to its wide release this year explains a lot about why its subject -- the Queen of Soul herself, Aretha Franklin -- fought so hard to keep the visual account of her legendary 1972 gospel performance in Los Angeles from seeing the light of day. She was promised a documentary with the cultural impact of Woodstock, and instead Pollock and his crew botched the recording so badly that they failed to sync the sound, making a release impossible for decades. Thankfully, producer Alan Elliott stuck with the project, utilizing digital technology to correct the sound issues and working with the Franklin estate to ensure the finished film made it into the world. The result is a viscerally emotional depiction of 29-year-old Franklin and the Southern California Gospel Choir spending two nights sending an audience at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church into rapturous ecstasy. Throughout the performance, however, it's difficult to shake the degree to which Franklin is absent from it. She's singing, obviously, but the cameras return again and again to the men who surround her: the Reverend James Cleveland, Franklin's father, and charismatic choir director Alexander Hamilton. In the end, Franklin's singing is powerful enough to drown them all out.  
Where to watch it: Hulu; rent on Amazon, YouTube, Vudu, etc. (Watch the trailer.)

apollo 11 documentary
Neon

7. Apollo 11

Release date: March 8
Director: Todd Douglas Miller
Why it's a great doc: Plenty of films have tried to capture the experience of space travel, from sci-fi movies (see: Alien, also the subject of a 2019 documentary) to historical dramas (like last year's First Man). Apollo 11 may not have any visual effects, but it still may make you gulp in wonder. Compiled from never-before-seen footage provided by NASA, the documentary charts the first flight of the moon from launch to touchdown through primary sources alone. Miller adds little 21st-century embellishment, aside from simple graphics that help to explicate the stages of the mission. Otherwise, everything we see or hear was available in 1969, with dialogue culled from 11,000 hours of recordings. The result is an awe-inspiring testament to the miraculousness of the event, buoyed by the crystal-clear 65 millimeter large-format images, recently unearthed by NASA staffers and digitized under Miller's supervision. But the moments that make Apollo 11 are the ones that come back down to Earth -- metaphorically speaking, that is. In digging through thousands of hours of audio, Miller found moments in which American heroes aren't deities, but just regular humans, with heart rates that escalate and silly jokes to spare. Buzz Aldrin making a crack about making sure he doesn't lock the module door behind him as he descends onto the moon? Classic. 
Where to watch it: Hulu; rent on Amazon, iTunes, YouTube, etc. (Watch the trailer.)

the brink steve bannon
Magnolia Pictures International

6. The Brink

Release date: March 29
Director: Alison Klayman (Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry)
Why it's a great doc: If you've paid even passing attention to American politics in the past three years, you know who Steve Bannon is. The former chair of Breitbart News, the head of Donald Trump's 2016 campaign, and Chief Strategist in the Trump White House has long been known as the spiritual leader of the alt-right, an ideologue who pushes racist, xenophobic, and anti-Semitic views in the name of so-called "nationalism." The Brink's genius lies in its ability to humanize Bannon while further exposing the depth of his prejudice and the hollowness of his political agenda as he jets around the world trying to build a coalition of like-minded political figures. Klayman's access to Bannon, though it's crucially restricted at key moments, makes for a fascinating study not just of politics in action, but the limits of self-awareness. Whatever your preconceived notions of Bannon may be, The Brink is essential viewing if you're trying to get a handle on the true aims of nationalist populism throughout the Western world -- and who isn't trying to get a handle on it? 
Where to watch it: Hulu; rent on Amazon, iTunes, YouTube, VOD (Watch the trailer.)

untitled amazing johnathan documentary
Hulu

5. The Amazing Johnathan Documentary

Release date: August 16
Director: Ben Berman
Why it's a great doc: Charming and antagonistic, comedic magician John "The Amazing Johnathan" Szeles, who began performing in the '80s and eventually became a Las Vegas headliner with his brazenly confrontational act, makes for an ideal documentary subject. He's a showman with an understanding of the dramatic -- the movie centers around a "farewell tour" he embarks on following a bleak medical diagnosis -- but he also has the self-loathing streak of many successful stand-up comedians and he's not afraid to turn his anger against his wife, his fans, or, most essentially here, his director. In a series of absurd twists that recall David Farrier's nail-biter Tickled and Nathan Fiedler's gonzo reporting project Finding Frances, Untitled Amazing Jonathan Documentary transforms from a showbiz bio into a clever, often shocking variation on a reliably absorbing type of documentary: the meta non-fiction film about the tricky responsibility a director has to his or her subject. Given his background as a director and editor for projects from Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim, it's not surprising that Berman is willing and able to sit in uncomfortable moments. What's refreshing is that he digs deeper into himself and his subject as the film progresses, breaking down his own intentions and motivations as his project threatens to implode from within. He's not simply content to let the audience squirm. 
Where to watch it: Hulu (Watch the trailer.)

the kingmaker
Showtime

4. The Kingmaker

Release date: November 8
Director: Lauren Greenfield (Generation Wealth, The Queen of Versailles, Thin)
Why it's a great doc: Lauren Greenfield is an expert at documenting modern wealth, empathizing with the super-rich in intimate interviews only to zoom out and contextualize their true, often insidious place within society. In Generation Wealth, it was obscenely wealthy people around the world versus capitalism at large; in Queen of Versailles, it was Florida billionaires positioned against the 2008 recession and housing crisis. Her latest film, The Kingmaker, reveals the massive, corrupt influence wielded by the Philippines' former First Lady Imelda Marcos among Filipino politics and the world at-large, highlighting the lead-up to the 2016 presidential election (that the Marcos family almost definitely bankrolled) that instated the authoritarian Rodrigo Duterte. We first see Imelda handing out stacks of money to citizens from the window of her car; she boasts about being friends with people like Muammar Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein. With many more of these revelatory insights, The Kingmaker is a bombshell of a documentary that weighs heavily on the current geopolitical climate.
Where to watch it: Coming to Showtime Feb. 28 (Watch the trailer.)

the infiltrators documentary
Courtesy of the Sundance Institute

3. The Infiltrators

Release date: TBD
Director: Alex Rivera and Cristina Ibarra
Why it's a great doc: Half tense prison-break thriller and half earnest political documentary, The Infiltrators is a hybrid of dramatic and non-fiction storytelling that's difficult to describe and even harder to shake. In 2012, an activist group of undocumented immigrants made a daring attempt to free detainees at the Broward Transitional Center in Florida by purposefully having two of their members give themselves for deportation up at the center. Once inside, they would coordinate to apply political pressure from the outside and secure releases for the immigrants being held captive. While many documentaries use reenactments, this project blends the "real" and the "fake" in a gripping, novel way by having actors play the parts "inside" the jail and relying on documentary footage for all the story "outside" the facility. It's tempting to ask why not simply make a traditional narrative feature, but the filmmakers ultimately justify the complexity of the set-up with thematically rich moments that zero in on the performative demands of political action and public protest. The movie puts you behind the walls, exposing the truth by crafting an elaborate lie.
Where to watch it: TBD

american factory documentary
Netflix

2. American Factory

Release date: August 21
Director: Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar
Why it's a great doc: When the Chinese company Fuyao Glass opened a new factory in Dayton, Ohio, there was so much hope in the air. Billionaire Chairman Cao Dewang arrived at his new facility with the intention of writing a bold new chapter in the expansion of global capitalism, delivering prosperity to a struggling area while getting rich in the process. That was the plan, at least. Over the course of two hours, American Factory follows the slow depletion of that hope as the corporate culture of the Chinese managements butts heads with the customs, attitudes, and economic priorities of the American workforce. Directors Reichert and Bognar put their cameras everywhere: terse board meetings, raucous union organizing sessions, casual break-room conversations, and, in one revealing sequence, a business trip to a Fuyao factory in China. Despite sounding tremendously bleak, American Factory has more humor and humanity than your average magazine article about the challenges facing Middle America. For a movie about the complexities of mechanical manufacturing, it feels refreshingly handmade.
Where to watch it: Netflix (Watch the trailer.)

honeyland
Neon

1. Honeyland

Release date: July 26
Directors: Tamara Kotevska and Ljubo Stefanov
Why it's a great doc: Honeyland offers such a straightforward allegory in its 90 minutes that it almost seems contrived, a fictionalized narrative designed to accommodate whatever message a viewer wants to read into it. In fact, Kotevska and Stefanov spent three years in rural Macedonia compiling footage of Hatidze Muratova, a keeper of wild bees, and her conflict with encroaching nomadic neighbors who threaten her entire way of life when they move into town. Some have found this narrative structure frustrating, but the editing work that went into creating the story's allure only enhances the filmmakers' documentary work. Natural beauty contrasts with crude modernism as Hatidze first embraces the family of nine who bring livestock and chaos with their RV, until their own beekeeping ambitions threaten the careful balance with which Hatidze practices her craft. Whether you see it as a metaphor for climate change, war, the perils of modernism, familial love, or something else entirely, Honeyland never veers into sentimentality yet still wrings the raw, unfiltered human emotion out of its subjects.   
Where to watch it: Hulu; rent on Amazon, iTunes, YouTube, VOD (Watch the trailer.)

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