What I Saw Last Year: Best Documentaries 2019

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I wrote on seven of these titles last August (“Random Notes on Recent Films: Documentaries!“). You can read about them there. The films are indicated by a double- asterisk ** in the list below.

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American Factory (Steven Bognar & Julia Reichert, directors)  Winner of the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, American Factory can be streamed on Netflix. It’s excellent, and extremely timely.

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 Apollo 11 (Todd Douglas Miller, director & editor)  This stunning film about the first manned trip to the moon was assembled entirely from archival footage and audio, much of which had not been previously available. It’s an amazing feat of organization and editing. It’s quite exhilerating. — Apollo 11 can be streamed from Amazon Prime.

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Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché (Pamela B. Green, director & co-writer)  This is an absolute must-see for anyone interested in film history and pioneering women. Alice Guy-Blaché was a French filmmaker born in 1873. She was there at the very beginnings of cinema. Per her Wikipedia entry, she was the first female film director, and one of the first filmmakers to make a narrative fiction film. From 1896 to 1906 Alice Guy-Blaché was probably the only female filmmaker in the world. She moved to the United States where she co-founded Solax Studios in Flushing, New York. In 1912 Solax built a new studio on Fort Lee, New Jersey. Before Hollywood, this was the center of filmmaking in this country. Also in 1912, she made A Fool and His Money, probably the first motion picture with an all African-American cast. Alice Guy-Blaché had an amazing life and historically important career. Pamela Greeen’s documentary reflects an enormous amount of detective work and commitment. — Be Natural can be seen on Amazon Prime.

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Bitter Bread (Abbas Fahdel, director/producer/cinematographer/editor)  When this film was shown at the New York Film Festival last fall, this was the description on their website: “Among the countless Syrian citizens who have fled their country, about one-and-a-half-million have relocated to neighboring Lebanon. In this patient, heart-rending portrait, Iraqi-born filmmaker Abbas Fahdel, director of the epic Homeland (Iraq Year Zero), settles in with a community of refugees living in a tent camp in Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley, most of them children. Hopeful to earn a meager wage as they work under the supervision of a Lebanese shawish, who owns the plot of land they’re essentially renting, the adults try to keep their families together amidst flooding and destructive seasonal weather, all the while listening to the radio for news from back home. Fahdel burrows in with his subjects in close quarters, alighting on the various human dramas that occur throughout the camp, including the frustrations of a young man waiting to bring in his fiancée from back home. Most importantly, Fahdel, working as director, producer, cinematographer, and editor, simply lets these desperate yet resilient people—so often treated as statistics—speak for themselves.”

I was unfamiliar with Abbas Fahdel until seeing his narrative feature Yara last February, which I loved. He was at that screening for a Q&A. I subsequently connected with him on Facebook (of course), and was looking forward to seeing Bitter Bread, which did not disappoint. Fahdel is a deeply humanist filmmaker. — Unfortunately, I’ve been unable to find any streaming sources for this powerful film.

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Carmine Street Guitars (Ron Mann, director)  This film is as relaxed and easy going as Rick Kelly, the master guitar-maker and owner of the Greenwich Village shop that bears the title of this fascinating documentary. Rick makes custom guitars using repurposed wood from old buildings in the city, the “bones of the city,” as he puts it. It’s a thing of beauty to watch him work. Carmine Street is only a few blocks from Film Forum, where I attended an afternoon showing, so I decided to find the shop, which I did. It was a weird feeling walking into Carmine Street Guitars shortly after seeing it on film, and then meeting Rick Kelly and Cindy Hulej, his apprentice. — Carmine Street Guitars is not yet available for streaming, though it can be purchased on DVD.

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The Cave (Feras Fayyad)  This film was nominated for the Best Feature Documentary Academy Award, as was For Sama, which has a similar setting. Both are set in make-shift hospitals in Syria, where doctors work under difficult conditions, such as frequent bombardments. The Cave is excellent, but I give the edge to For Sama, in which the filmmaker herself is telling the story, which feels more personal and more immediate to me. But something The Cave shares with For Sama is that the most tragic victims are children. And how everyone struggles to survive despite malnutrition, no food and no medicine. — The Cave can be seen on Amazon Prime.

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The following three films are all of a piece, with Echo in the Canyon at the head of the class. They complement each other nicely and would make a great triple-feature.

 Echo in the Canyon (Andrew Slater, director) ** Available on Amazon Prime.

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David Crosby: Remember My Name (A.J. Eaton, director) ** Not yet available for streaming.

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Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice (Rob Epstein & Jeffrey Friedman, directors) ** Available on Amazon Prime.

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The Edge of Democracy (Petra Costa, director)  Per press notes for the film: “Filmmaker Petra Costa saw democracy take root in Brazil following years of authoritarian rule under a military dictatorship. Given unprecedented access to working-party leaders Lula de Silva and his protegee Dilma Rousessef, Costa traces the downfall of both democratic leaders that resulted in the impeachment of Rousseff, the imprisonment of de Silva, and the rise of the far right.” This is a totally engaging — and frightening — film that has sharp resonance with the situation in our country and others around the world. — The Edge of Democracy can be streamed on Netflix, and should not be missed.

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For Sama (Waad al-Kateab & Edward Watts, directors) ** This is the best and most important documentary I saw last year. You can stream it on Amazon Prime.

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Jay Myself (Stephen Wilkes, director) ** Available for streaming on Amazon Prime.

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Mike Wallace Is Here (Avi Belkin, director) ** Available for streaming on Amazon Prime.

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Shooting the Mafia (Kim Longinotto, director). I wrote about this extraordinary film last November. That post can be accessed here.

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63 Up – Michael Apted (director)  This is the latest installment of a unique and important series that began with Seven Up in 1964, with a new episode every seven years thereafter. We’ve watched the subjects grow up from age 7 to 63. It’s an extraordinary journey. — 63 Up is not yet available for streaming.

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 They Shall Not Grow Old (Peter Jackson, director)  The Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson has used 100-year-old archival footage of British troops shot during World War I to make this astonishing film. Painstakingly restored, with color added, They Shall Not Grow Old is a trip back to in time presented in way that we’ve not seen before. It’s not just a technical stunt. The overall effect is quite moving, as we hear survivors of that war speak their memories on the soundtrack. It’s quite an achievement. — They Shall Not Grow Old can be purchased on DVD and Blu-ray, but is not yet available for streaming.

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Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am (Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, director) ** Available for streaming on Amazon Prime.

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Varda by Agnès (Agnès Varda, director)  I think the first film of Agnès Varda that I saw was The Gleaners and I (2000). I loved it. She was an important figure in the French New Wave during the 1960s, and continued working until her death last year. She had an insatiable curiosity about everyone she encountered, which is reflected in every film of hers I’ve seen. In 2017, during the annual Rendez-Vous with French Cinema series at Lincoln Center, I attended a press event with several directors who had films in the series. I was early and took a seat in the front row of folding chairs. Before things got started, I noticed a small woman going from person to person in my row and shaking hands. I wondered who this was, and then realized with a start that she looked like Agnès Varda. And it was! She didn’t have a film in the French series, but was in New York for an opening of her art work at a gallery. I guess she just decided to show up at this event. I was really struck that she wanted to shake hands and know who we were. I spoke with her briefly afterwards and said how great it was to see her. “Still alive, you mean,” she said with a smile. It was a great moment for me. Varda by Agnès serves well as a final statement, with clips from her many films, both narrative and documentary, interspersed with footage from various talks she’s given over the years. — Varda by Agnès is not yet available for streaming.

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Where’s My Roy Cohn? (Matt Tyrnauer, director)  Available for streaming on Amazon Prime.

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Bully. Coward. Victim. The Roy Cohn Story (Ivy Meeropol, director)  I actually prefer this to Where’s My Roy Cohn?, though both are important in presenting a profile of this reptilian creature. There’s a kind of nastiness to Matt Tyrnauer’s approach, which I suppose is appropriate to the subject, but I found Ivy Meeropol’s film to be somehow more measured. Which is a little unusual, given that she’s the granddaughter of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were executed as spies for Russia in the 1950s, due in no small part to the efforts of Roy Cohn, a prosecutor on the case. She might have been expected to really go after Cohn, but she lets the footage — and Cohn himself — speak for itself. There’s some overlap of material, but there are also aspects of Cohn’s life and career that are covered in one film and not the other. Together, they present a more complete picture. It’s also true that Cohn, as we see in these films, was a mentor and role model for Donald Trump, which makes perfect sense. — Ivy Meeropol’s film will air at a future date on HBO.

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That’s all for now. Supplemental materials to follow in a day or so. — Ted Hicks

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About Ted Hicks

Iowa farm boy; have lived in NYC for 40 years; worked in motion picture labs, film/video distribution, subtitling, media-awards program; obsessive film-goer all my life.
This entry was posted in Books, Documentaries, Feature films, Film, Film posters, History, Home Video, Non-Fiction, photography, Streaming, TV & Cable. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to What I Saw Last Year: Best Documentaries 2019

  1. David m Gromm says:

    As usual , these are wonderful films that you describe beautifully. Lots to catch up on.

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