2019 in Review: Best Documentary Films of the Year

The reason I separate out documentaries into their own Best of the Year list is not because I feel they should be judged differently than feature films, but because I want to put as many great docs in the spotlight as I possibly can, and trying to do that and still limit my main list to 40 or 50 films is an impossibility. I get such a charge from a great documentary, whether it’s on a subject I know a great deal about or if it covers ground I’d never even considered in terms of perspective, information, or fuel for outrage.

Sometimes, the sheer beauty or tragedy of a subject moves us to tears; other times, it’s something quite ugly and worth despising that gets under the skin, takes root, and refuses to let go until we take action (and I do consider sharing a film with others to be an important action). The experience I treasure the most when it comes to documentaries is when a genuinely well-made work that doesn’t just examine a subject, but also allows me to consider a way of thinking that had never occurred to me before.

Image courtesy of Neon

Part of the thrill of being a living, thinking, evolving human being is taking in new things and experiences, and allowing this newness to infect and inspire us with fresh ideas. That’s the standard to which I hold documentaries: don’t just move me or teach me, but change me in some fundamental way. Here are 20 titles I think do just that…

20. Mike Wallace Is Here (Dir: Avi Belkin)

19. Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love (Dir: Nick Broomfield)

18. Aquarela (Dir: Victor Kossakovsky)

17. Cooked: Survival by Zip Code (Dir: Judith Helfand)

16. Bathtubs over Broadway (Dir: Dava Whisenant)

15. Memory: The Origins of Alien (Dir: Alexandre O. Philippe)

14. Love, Antosha (Dir: Garret Price)

13. Raise Hell: The Life and Times of Molly Ivins (Dir: Janice Engel)

12. Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice (Dirs: Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman)

11. Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am (Dir: Timothy Greenfield-Sanders)

10. Varda by Agnes (Dir: Agnes Varda)

9. The Kingmaker (Dir: Lauren Greenfield)

8. Western Stars (Dirs: Bruce Springsteen, Thom Zimny)

7. Amazing Grace (Dirs: Alan Elliott, Sydney Pollack)

6. 63 Up (Dir: Michael Apted)

5. Apollo 11 (Dir: Todd Douglas Miller)

4. Maiden (Dir: Alex Holmes)

3. Honeyland (Dirs: Tamara Kotevska, Ljubomir Stefanov)

2. One Child Nation (Dirs: Nanfu Wang, Zhang Lynn)

Hail Satan?
Image courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

1. Hail Satan? (Dir: Penny Lane)

An audience and critical hit out of 2019’s Sundance Film Festival, director Penny Lane’s latest is a surprisingly nuanced and sly profile of various members of The Satanic Temple, a fairly recent variation on the Church of Satan, whose members aren’t necessarily worshipers of the devil but are staunch defenders of the first amendment and the belief that there should be an absolute separation of church and state. Anytime a politician decides to champion the idea of, for example, a statue of the Ten Commandments in front of a courthouse or other government building, this new breed of highly organized Satanic activists begin pushing for a large statue of Baphomet (a hybrid goat/man embodiment of the Devil) to be placed right alongside it under the banner of religious freedom—an act that usually kills the plans for any religious-themed statue. Lane plays with the history of Satanic Panic in America through the decades, but when she brings it back to today’s Satanists, it becomes clear that these are grassroots anti-authoritarians who want everyone in America playing on as level a playing field as possible. You may feel guilty walking into the film, but you’ll leave feeling inspired, with an understanding that the worst sin you can commit is judging a book by its cover. 

Steve Prokopy
Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.