Best of 2019: Documentaries

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Matt Holzman, host of KCRW’s “The Document," has put together a list of his favorite documentaries from the year.

Apollo 11 (some theaters and most streaming services)


Astronaut Buzz Aldrin in “Apollo 11.” Photo courtesy of NEON/CNN FILMS

This spectacularly cinematic retelling of one of mankind's proudest moments features (literally) breathtaking 65mm footage that’s never been seen before. You’ll say "OMG" from the first frame...and it doesn’t let you land back on earth before Armstrong, Collins and Aldrin do. But more than that, this rip-roaring, nail-baiter of a doc is a reminder of what we seem to have lost: A healthy, unifying American spirit, a boundless cache of can-do and eyes lifted toward the stars. See it in IMAX if at all possible!

Hail Satan? (most streaming services)

Preparations for a TST "Grey Faction" protest event featured in “Hail Satan?” Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures 

Don’t let appearances deceive you. The Satan worshippers in this sly, thought-provoking doc aren’t the bad guys. They’re tattooed, pierced freedom fighters for a society open to all, the way the founders intended. You’ll cheer their brilliant, subversive and often hilarious tactics against the holier-than-thous who’d tell you what is godly and what is a “True American.” Man I love it when a super-fun film also hits as hard as this one.

American Factory (Netflix)


Wong He (left) working with Kenny Taylor (center) and Jarred Gibson (right) in the furnace tempering area of the Fuyao factory in Dayton, Ohio from the film "American Factory." Photo credit: Aubrey Keith/Netflix

What can go wrong when a Chinese company reopens a defunct mid-American manufacturing plant? Just about everything. This fascinating, “did he just say that on camera?” culture clash case study seems deeply relevant as American and China battle it out in the superpower sweepstakes. But ultimately this isn’t a film about politics or economics, it’s about people - good, well-intentioned people - who just see the world in wildly different ways.

Honeyland (most streaming services)


“Honeyland” was the most awarded film at this year’s Sundance festival. Credit: Ljubo Stefanov/NEON

A gorgeous poem of film about a woman who lives in a tiny mud shack with her ancient mother and makes a living scouring the roughly beautiful Macedonian countryside collecting wild honey. Conflict comes in the form of unruly, new neighbors, but it’s not really about that. It’s about a journey to another place - physical and metaphysical - that you didn’t know existed and probably couldn’t imagine even if you did.

Maiden (most streaming services)


The crew of Maiden. Courtesy of Tracy Edwards and Sony Pictures Classics

In 1989, an edgy young woman decides to do the impossible: Skipper an entry in the very macho world of ‘round the world yacht racing. There is scoffing, then open hostility, then begrudging admiration for her and her all-female crew. A mixture of amazing archival footage and modern-day interviews with these awesome women, this is a stand-and-up-a-cheer film about remarkable women and a remarkable achievement. Make sure you watch this one with your teenagers.