Video Librarian 2019 Best Documentaries

The following list, selected and compiled by Video Librarian staff, honors the best new documentaries reviewed in the magazine and online during 2019. Unless otherwise noted, titles are available from most distributors.

California Typewriter

(Gravitas Ventures, 104 min., DVD: $19.99, Blu-ray: $24.99)

Filmmaker Doug Nichol’s stylish paean to typewriters features commentary from aficionados including author David McCullough and actor Tom Hanks. (VL Online-12/18)

Catwalk: Tales from the Cat Show Circuit

(Gravitas Ventures, 75 min., DVD: $16.99, Blu-ray: $12.99)

Canadian filmmakers Michael McNamara and Aaron Hancox serve up an entertaining cat-watching documentary that follows a series of regional competitive cat shows while also profiling attendant personalities—human and feline. (VL-9/19)

Chasing the Moon

(PBS, 3 discs, 390 min., DVD: $34.99 [$64.99 w/PPR from www.teacher.shop.pbs.org], Blu-ray: $39.99 [$64.99 w/PPR])

Coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing, filmmaker Robert Stone’s three-part PBS-aired American Experience documentary series recreates the epic race to mount a manned mission to the Moon and return the astronauts safely to Earth. (VL-11/19)

Chef Flynn

(Kino Lorber, 82 min., DVD: $29.99 [$349 w/PPR from kinolorberedu.com]). 

Cameron Yates’s fascinating collage-like portrait centers on young culinary wunderkind Flynn McGarry, who was creating pop-up restaurants in L.A. and New York City by the age of 14. (VL-5/19)

The Cleaners

(Film Platform [www.filmplatform.net], 95 min., DVD: $295)

Addressing the proliferation of false, inflammatory, and pornographic material in social media postings, this disturbing documentary by filmmakers Moritz Riesewieck and Hans Block looks at the titular “cleaners”—workers (often from poor backgrounds) who make split-second decisions on what can and cannot be posted on the web. (VL-5/19)

Country Music

(PBS, 8 discs, 960 min., DVD: $99.99 [$250 w/PPR from www.teacher.shop.pbs.org], Blu-ray: $129.99)

Filmmaker Ken Burns delivers another epic chronicle of American culture, combining archival photos/footage, talking-head interviews, narration by Peter Coyote, and lots of music, to trace the history of country music. (VL-11/19)

Crime + Punishment

(Good Docs [http://www.gooddocs.net], 112 min., DVD: $129: public libraries; $349: colleges & universities)

A controversy surrounding the misuse of the NYC police force to increase city revenues is the subject of filmmaker Stephen Maing’s unsettling documentary, which focuses on quota policing and how it has led to systemic racism in practice. (VL-9/19)

The Devil We Know

(Atlas, 88 min., DVD: $14.99 [w/PPR:$95: public libraries; $395: colleges and universities from Tugg, http://edu.tugg.com])

In this harrowing documentary, filmmaker Stephanie Soechtig presents a case study of harm involving a toxic chemical used in making Teflon products and subsequent corporate malfeasance by DuPont in withholding knowledge from the public. (VL-9/19)

Free Solo

(National Geographic, 100 min., DVD: $19.98)

Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi’s Academy Award winning documentary focuses on daredevil Alex Honnold and his quest to scale Yosemite National Park’s famous 3,200-foot granite wall—known as El Capitan—without a rope or any other safety equipment. (VL-5/19)

Hot to Trot

(First Run Features, 88 min., DVD: $24.95)

Director Gail Freedman’s open-hearted ballroom dance documentary follows two same-sex dance partner couples who are preparing for the 2014 Gay Games. (VL-5/19)

I Am Evidence

(Passion River, 85 min., $24.99 [w/PPR: DVD: $95: public libraries; $395: colleges and universities from Tugg, http://edu.tugg.com])

Filmmakers Trish Adlesic and Geeta Gandbhir’s documentary addresses a tragic scandal involving cases of sexual assault, noting that thousands of completed rape kits have been stockpiled for years across America with no further action taken. (VL-1/19)

The If Project

(Collective Eye [www.collectiveeye.org], 88 min., DVD: $50 [$125 w/PPR]: public libraries; $295 w/PPR: colleges & universities)

Filmmaker Kathlyn Horan’s documentary focuses on a writing program for prisoners at the Washington Corrections Center for Women—co-founded by Seattle police officer Kim Bogucki and third-time offender and former cop hater Renata Abramson—that is intended to slow or even stop cycles of dysfunction and lawlessness. (VL-5/19)

The Kleptocrats

(Passion River, 82 min., DVD: $24.99 [$299 w/PPR from edu.passionriver.com])

Sam Hobkinson and Havana Marking’s documentary shines a spotlight on one of the most astonishing political scandals to impact Asian politics: the connection between a Malaysian banker (and money launderer), Malaysia’s prime minister, and the Martin Scorsese film The Wolf of Wall Street. (VL-9/19)

Learning to See: The World of Insects

(MVD/FilmRise, 69 min., DVD: $19.95, Blu-ray: $24.95)

Filmmaker Jake Oelman’s documentary focuses on his father, American psychiatrist Robert Oelman, who left the U.S. in the early 1990s and moved to Colombia, where he explored the rainforests in Colombia, Peru, and Ecuador, discovering and photographing obscure insect species. (VL-3/19)

Life in the Doghouse

(MVD/FilmRise, 84 min., DVD: $19.95, Blu-ray: $24.95)

Director Ron Davis’s documentary goes behind the scenes of a unique dog shelter and adoption center operated by South Carolina horse trainers/equestrians and couple Danny Robertshaw and Ron Danta. (VL-7/19)

Maiden

(Sony, 97 min., DVD: $25.99, Blu-ray: $31.99)

Filmmaker Alex Holmes’s exciting documentary mixes archival footage with insightful interviews and wry social commentary featuring Tracy Edwards and other members of the first-ever all-female crew to enter the grueling nine-month open sea Whitbread Round the World race. (VL-11/19)

Mike Wallace Is Here

(Magnolia, 91 min., DVD: $26.99)

Director Avi Belkin’s documentary profile of iconic 60 Minutes correspondent Mike Wallace (1918-2012) combines hard-hitting interview clips and insightful commentary from those who knew the influential newsman. (VL-11/19)

Of Love & Law

(Frameline [www.frameline.org], 94 min., in Japanese w/English subtitles, DVD: $20: individuals & public libraries; $295: colleges & universities w/PPR)

Filmmaker Hikaru Toda’s documentary focuses on Osaka law firm partners and gay couple Masafumi Yoshida and Kazuyuki Minami, highlighting complexities within Japanese society by following the men’s interesting client lineup. (VL Online-11/19)

The Rest I Make Up

(Women Make Movies [http://www.wmm.com], 79 min., DVD: $89: public libraries; $395: colleges & universities)

Filmed over a span of approximately 10 years by filmmaker Michelle Memran, this documentary offers an endearing snapshot of Pulitzer Prize finalist and Obie Award-winning Cuban-American playwright María Irene Fornés. (VL-3/19)

Screwball

(Greenwich Entertainment, 105 min., DVD: $24.99)

Director Billy Corben’s documentary takes a sardonic look at a Miami-based doping scandal and the suspicious “anti-aging clinic” run by dodgy “doctor” Anthony Bosch that served as a pipeline for performance-enhancing steroids for both high-school and professional athletes. (VL-9/19)

This Is Home: A Refugee Story

(Bullfrog [www.bullfrogfilms.com], 91 min., DVD: $350)

Filmmaker Alexandra Shiva’s documentary centers on four Syrian refugee families who are resettled in Baltimore by the International Rescue Committee but face an eight-month timeline to become economically self-sufficient—a ticking clock that creates anxiety for the newcomers. (VL-1/19)

Tickled

(Magnolia, 91 min., DVD: $19.99)

This procedural-style documentary from New Zealand-based narrator and director David Farrier and co-director Dylan Reeve reveals an unusual dark underbelly to a story about a “competitive endurance tickling” contest that involves flights to Los Angeles, four-night hotel stays, and $1,500 in cash for participants. (VL-9/19)

Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am

(Magnolia, 120 min., DVD: $26.99)

Pulitzer and Nobel Prize winning author Toni Morrison (1931-2019) is paid tribute to in filmmaker Timothy Greenfield-Sanders’s documentary, which features commentary from Angela Davis, Oprah Winfrey, Walter Mosley, and Fran Lebowitz. (VL-11/19)

That Way Madness Lies…

(First Run Features, 101 min., DVD: $24.95)

Filmmaker Sandra Luckow offers a unique look into mental illness and how schizophrenia shakes apart family life, focusing on her own brother, a self-employed machinist who developed an atypical delusional disorder while entering middle age. (VL-9/19)

Wildland

(MVD/FilmRise, 77 min., DVD: $19.95, Blu-ray: $24.95)

The worsening wildfire season in the U.S. is at the center of this powerful documentary that profiles subjects with checkered pasts—including prison time and drug addiction—who join a firefighting training program that was also completed by filmmakers Alex Jablonski and Kahlil Hudson. (VL-7/19)