Documentary Watch 2019: From Honeyland to Neverland

I’m a firm believer in the documentary as the most compelling modern storytelling device. In post-truth America, they have never served a more valuable purpose. Their popularity and sharp incline of a great number of significant works in production show that high-quality documentarian work has come at the right time to meet its audience. With higher resolution equipment casting startling, life-like images, we are closer to our real-life subjects than ever before. Some say the movies are hurting. To believe this of narrative films is perfectly fine and potentially evidence-based. But it is also to ignore the movement of the moment — documentaries are here and they are flourishing beautifully. There is not always space within the year to devote to every great expose on important subjects or to create even an articulate and encompassing image of the work being done in the field. A yearly feature to highlight all the best work must suffice.

Honeyland

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Honeyland. Dir. Tamara Kotevska & Ljubomir Stefanov.

Some of the year’s best images, the ones that have really stuck with me, are from this unassuming and truly buzz-worthy documentary about bee honey and the last woman beekeeper in Europe. The visuals are so startling, always finding the perfect shot, whether of beautiful mountain town vistas or the perfectly captured simple beauty of the job at hand. Honeyland gets its people. It tells their story with vivid and remarkable empathy. It always finds the right framing and technique. Somehow, the year’s best and most concentrated cinematography has stuck itself to the genre often thought most aesthetically grounded and shot off-the-cuff. We don’t feel so much as we are living with the subject, although we really do, but as if we’ve really visited this town and lived through the production. There is a great dramatic center, as the last woman beekeeper fights industry to protect all she knows, a final way of life. By inventing a narrative and filming something true, Honeyland creates a stunning allegory that feels wholly honest.

Apollo 11

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Apollo 11. Dir. Todd Douglas Miller.

Matt Morton went to work on the Apollo 11 score. Utilizing era-specific synths, he created giant room-sized instruments that could capture the largeness and profundity of space. Set next to many never-before-seen clips of mankind’s greatest achievement, it becomes awesome and new again. We know how everything goes and Apollo 11 remains perhaps the most exhilarating theater experience of the year. It is a hard time for the country. This is the one event we can all agree about. The one time of the year we should feel really great about being Americans. This is what all that means, the great potential of a country, of a species, blown up to the scale of the largest screens. Given the 50th anniversary, we have rekindled our great national interest in the space movie. Apollo 11 is the ultimate space documentary. What could be a greater achievement for a movie than allowing a country to dream again, even for one fleeting moment?

Leaving Neverland

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Leaving Neverland. Dir. Dan Reed.

Leaving Neverland has dramatically shifted the conversation about Michael Jackson. While allegations were wearing away with time, it collects the personal testimonies of men who once thought they would never grow old on the Neverland Ranch. The only thing they have kept from their childhood are the haunting memories of what happened there. Due largely to the efforts of this multi-part HBO special, the conversation has been irreversibly changed. It’s filled with moments that would convince the King of Pop’s most ardent fans of his wrongdoing. The one that perhaps cut deepest was how one man held onto a promise ring, an inappropriate symbol of ownership and trust that was gifted to him as a young boy. The startling detail of the sexual encounters has etched a permanent idea in the memory of the late star. Whatever your outcome after watching the documentary series, it proved one thing: something terrible happened to these men and they were most certainly groomed (proving certain mental abuse), if not all sexually assaulted, full stop. Now, as a staff, we collectively stand by your right to continue listening to troubling songs like “P.Y.T.” — the music remains ours once it has released, and he is too dead to benefit.

Horror Noire

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Horror Noire. Dir. Xavier Burgin.

Horror Noire collects all the greatest names in the cinema of black horror and pieces together a lovingly made documentary, a history of representation spotlighting the greatest entries. Bring a notebook, because this is a steady curriculum of necessary horror history that provides much to watch. It’s truly the best thing that Shudder has contributed to. Next October when you get the monthly subscription, make sure this beautiful documentary is on your watchlist. It is as rewarding and inclusive as they come.

Hail Satan?

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Hail Satan. Dir. Penny Lane.

Hail Satan? paints the modern satanist as fun-loving jokers with political agendas broadly concerned with inclusion. Once a religion of self-advocacy, it has morphed into a more organized group (with the irony that entails, among their beliefs). This documentary is pleasantly multi-faceted. It truly gets it. It’s emphatically a great document of an organized religious movement. If you get it, you will love this film. If you do not get it, you soon will, and will love this film. A funny and engaging must-watch shedding important light on a misunderstood group. Hail Satan.

Wrestle

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Wrestle. Dir. Suzzanah Hubert & Lauren Belfer.

The Appalachia-adjacent communities wrestle with hope as young men place all of their future prospects on the mat. What happens to men raised by women when all they have is the sport? What happens when that ends? For my take, the underrated documentary of 2019. From these student-athletes, we get a vivid picture of life in rural Alabama. It is the story of young men who put their livelihood and futures in the hands of their coach, and their coach’s resiliency against the odds. It’s inspiring, and like all great sports stories, is a testament to humanity and our capacity for empathy.

Lynch: A History

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Lynch: A History. Dir. David Shields.

Marshawn Lynch is my all-time favorite American Football player. Imagine my excitement the last week as he has rejoined the Seattle Seahawks for a playoff run. Win or lose, we get to see one of our city’s great athletes and civil rights advocates don our city’s laundry for one more round. That means the world to me. This documentary is also exceptionally good for a collection of highlights and interviews that spell out a way for athletes to stage a silent protest. Lynch changed the game for silent protest in sports and paved the way for a generation of civilly engaged protests in interviews. I caught the film at this year’s SIFF and greatly admired its perspective. Go Seahawks.

The Most Dangerous Year

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The Most Dangerous Year. Dir. Vlada Knowlton.

2016 was the most dangerous year for transgender individuals in our country’s history. As suggested by the Human Rights Campaign, in that year, there was a rising tide of endangering anti-trans belief spreading throughout the country. There was a series of head-on-backward legislation specifically targeting transgender groups. It is a passionate and hot button issue locally, as you can imagine Seattle vocally concerned with all human rights and any aggression against them. With great gratitude, we must acknowledge local director Vlada Knowlton for creating this brilliant portrait of the issues of the day. It is hard enough to see the country turn against their own. When it happens to your kids there is nothing more beautiful than a parent standing up for those rights. Such a great documentary. The Most Dangerous Year profoundly moved me. I hope everyone who needs to see it gets to.

Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound

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Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound. Dir. Midge Costin.

The greatest reason I watch films is for their audiovisual feedback. I love a narrative too, but otherwise, I would be just as well-off reading a book. Making Waves presents a broad overview of the art of sound design. It formally rounds out the history of movements, showcasing multiple styles of abstraction and reality in design. If you’re new to sound design and want a primer on all the jobs and a most useful history lesson on how these things come together, Making Waves is just the ticket. Several moments still filled me with awe and great appreciation. If it has a large problem, it’s that it is a fairly entry-level. I didn’t personally gain new info but appreciated the reminder course on the history of how sound has been constructed at the movies.

American Factory

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American Factory. Dir. Julia Reichert & Steven Bognar.

American Factory captures a fascinating division between Chinese and American working relations. When a General Motors factory closes in post-industrial Ohio, it puts an entire town out of work. It takes Chinese money to reopen a factory, now geared toward auto-glass. Directors Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar have gained unprecedented access to the inner-workings of the new operation. What begins with hope and optimism, as jobs are restored, and an economy resettles, eventually falls prey to extreme differences in working cultures. The doc follows both the American and Chinese perspectives of the factory work, an all-access ticket into what is happening inside our post-industrial towns. Most amusing of all is when the Americans wish to unionize, while the Chinese are strictly devoted to the status quo. It reveals so much about both cultures and how good intentions only get us so far in business.

Ghost Fleet

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Ghost Fleet. Dir. Shannon Service & Jeffry Waldon.

Slavery is alive and profitable in Thailand’s illegal fishing industry. Unsuspecting men, living normal lives, are drugged and wake up on fishing boats full of slaves. These boats are incredibly hard to trace, largely ignored in the Indonesian ocean, and supply a sizable amount of the region’s outgoing fish product. It’s a truly terrifying prospect and hard to stomach that it exists today, that people consume fish caught by slaves. Ghost Fleet is a startling work of activism. It traces the mission of Nobel Prize winning Patima Tungpuchayakul and her group of Thai abolitionists who have traveled by boat and rescued thousands of escaped slaves that have relocated to small islands.

Cold Case Hammarskjöld

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Cold Case Hammarskjöld. Dir. Mads Brügger.

Do as little reading as you can about Cold Case Hammarskjöld. Stop, and put it on now, if you must see it. It’s a real ride. Plausible or not, it probes the subject deeply and comes up with alarming conclusions. The outcomes are truly worth the effort. Whether or not the director is right about this, the important and useful thing is that someone is asking these questions in the first place. What begins as an investigation of an unsolved plane crash goes careening off the rails in ways that are at worst truly captivating. Truth or fiction, Cold Case Hammarskjöld takes large risks, and serves up a grand if unbelievable reward for sticking with it.

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