Split Decision: 2019 Documentaries
Welcome back to Split Decision! Each week, we pose a question to our staff of knowledgable and passionate film geeks and share the responses! We may never know if it is legal to park in the center of Broad Street, but we’ll answer movie questions all day long. Chime in on Twitter, Facebook, or in the comments below!
This week’s question:
One Child Nation and Jay Myself are two highly praised documentaries opening in Philadelphia this Friday. They follow on the heels of Love, Antosha, Cold Case Hammersköld, and Honeyland that all opened last week. I want to document the best non-fiction film you've seen so far this year.
It's been another great year for non-fiction film. It is hard to choose just one film. I absolutely loved the music docs, Echo in the Canyon and the forthcoming Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice. But I also found At the Heart of the Game, about Larry Nasser's victims, and Roll, Red, Roll, about the Steubenville, OH rape case, to be absolutely chilling. Maiden had me smiling from ear to ear the entire time. But I think the documentary that most resonated with me so far this year has been Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am, a wonderful portrait of a writer I admire. It shows the power of words and the importance of reading, publishing, and speaking truth to power. Sadly, this film has extra poignancy after her recent passing.
Love, Antosha is definitely my favorite non-fiction film of the year. You can read my cinema76 review here, but I'll add that I love the format of this documentary. Combining home video footage, diary entries read by Nicolas Cage, interviews with his parents and childhood friends, and interviews with his various costars from throughout his career, director Garret Price delivers an all-encompassing eulogy of the late Anton Yelchin. He paints a very three-dimensional picture of a young artist using that artists own words and the words of those that knew and loved him most. It feels extremely personal and in doing so avoids feeling like some sort of fluff piece that I suppose something like this might sound like. I highly recommend checking out this beautiful and ultimately life-affirming movie.
I already wrote about Apollo 11, which I believe to be the best made documentary this year, but for pure emotional gusto, I'll go with Maiden (it's also well-made too!). You can read my review of it, but in short, I had no idea about this story of the first all-women led sailing team competing in the Whitbread Round the World Race, and by the end of the film, I wanted to sail a freaking boat. I'm extremely adverse to in-your-face "girl-power" movies (the exception being Spice World, obviously) because I think there are much better ways to convey women's empowerment, but this doc just hit me in all the right places. It helps that the story's central figure, Tracy Edwards, is a complicated protagonist, and the film doesn't shy away from her rougher edges. The archival footage of the race is great, and really helps to put you in that hellish yet exhilarating experience. I maybe got a little teary-eyed. We've come along way, baby.
My favorite non-fiction film, maybe favorite film, of 2019 has been Leaving Neverland, but I wrote about that before. In the interest of not repeating myself, my pick here is Where in the Hell is the Lavender House? It's partly fiction disguised as documentary, as a film crew tries to film an elusive subject and runs out of money and hope along the way. In this way, Lavender House is its own Lost in La Mancha, and it's fun but (intentionally) not super revelatory.
The rest of the movie is a dive into the world of Longmont Potion Castle, the anonymous king of surreal phone work. And that is amazing. LPC has built a cult through truly bizarre prank calls where he aggravates everybody from record store employees to Alex Trebek. There aren't a lot of punchlines, but there are a lot of moments where, say, Sidney Poitier has to explain he didn't order a couple thousand millipedes delivered to his door. LPC remains anonymous throughout Lavender House, but hearing about his beginnings in the San Diego underground, the various ways people found his stuff, and how he does what he does, is fascinating. In the best scene, we watch him link chain store help desk clerks together for what feels like ten minutes, confusing everybody. I was worried the movie would cut away at some of Longmont Potion Castle's magic, but the magic was only enhanced.
I also recently wrote about Apollo 11 in conjunction with other films for the 50th anniversary of the NASA mission, but I’m going to do it again. As a lifelong space race geek, this documentary stunned me with the quality of the footage within. And while I don’t mind voiceover or talking heads sometimes, it’s always much more impressive and cinematic when the raw footage is just edited together in a way that tells the story. There’s something here for everyone, I think, from inspiration to awe at what was accomplished by this country when it was decided to be done.