All the mainstream movie websites have posted their lists of the most anticipated films of 2019. Few, if any, include a single documentary among their picks. That’s neither a surprise nor an offense. Documentaries, unlike tentpole studio films, are typically not known about far enough in advance. Their release dates aren’t long-established anyway.
Still, we’re aware of some features and series arriving in the next 12 months, many of them Sundance premieres and others officially slated for theatrical or TV debuts. I can’t guarantee all of those listed and ranked will definitely be out in the US by the end of 2019, but I tried my best. Perhaps I can add to or make other updates as the year goes on.
These titles are all brand new and as yet unseen, by the way. There are a ton of docs that debuted at film festivals last year and earlier that may finally receive official distribution and release in 2019, but I’m not including those since they’ve been seen (some of them by us). Everything here is something of a mystery, albeit a mystery we can deduce will be great.
I don’t really want to watch a documentary about Harvey Weinstein. I am curious about how it’ll play in the mogul’s former playground of Sundance, but otherwise, I’m just not interested in giving him the spotlight, even if the real focus will, hopefully, be on the women he’s affected and former colleagues tearing him down. Yet it’s hard to resist a doc produced by Simon Chinn (Man on Wire, Project Nim, Searching for Sugar Man, The Imposter).
24. Ask Dr. Ruth
In the spirit of last year’s box office hit RBG, here’s another biographical doc about a subject named Ruth — sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer — who is an icon of feminism (even if she doesn’t label herself one). The film, directed by Ryan White (The Case Against 8, The Keepers) premieres at Sundance ahead of its theatrical release and arrival on Hulu, which is now a notable platform for doc originals.
23. Love, Antosha
Anton Yelchin was one of my favorite young actors, and his accidental death in 2016 at the age of 27 still makes me sad. Now he’s being given the posthumous biographical doc treatment with this Sundance premiere. Stolen Seas editor Garret Price makes his directorial debut here, while Drake Doremus, who directed Yelchin in Like Crazy, produces.
22. The Edge of Democracy
Petra Costa made one of the most beautifully poetic autobiographical documentaries of the decade with 2012’s Elena. Now she’s focusing on a less personal story, albeit one that’s a big deal in her native Brazil: the impeachments of Presidents Dilma Rousseff and Lula da Silva. I’m only slightly familiar with their stories, so I’m looking forward to learning more, especially from Costa’s interviews with both subjects, and foresee this as a possible political doc gem.
Another one of the big tabloid sensations of the 1990s gets the limited docuseries treatment with this Amazon Studios original about Lorena Bobbitt, who made headlines in 1993 when she cut off her husband John’s penis. The story of abuse still has relevance today, and having Jordan Peele as a producer doesn’t hurt. The four-part Lorena screens at Sundance in late January then debuts in full on Amazon Prime on February 15th.
20. MEMORY: The Origins of ‘Alien’
Director Alexandre O. Philippe is earning a reputation for making must-see docs on filmmaking and the film industry, starting with The People vs. George Lucas and recently cemented with the acclaimed Psycho-focused feature 78/52: Hitchcock’s Shower Scene. Now he turns his attention on the background of Ridley Scott’s sci-fi horror classic Alien for a self-described film essay, which will premiere at Sundance.
Disneynature docs may be kind of cheesy with their anthropomorphizing storytelling, but damn if they don’t look amazing. This time, directors Alastair Fothergill (Earth, Chimpanzee) and Jeff Wilson bring us to Antarctica for a feature about penguins. Yes, we’ve seen a similar film before but this march focuses on Adélie penguins rather than the emperor species. Disney will release this one theatrically in the usual Earth Day vicinity on April 17th.
18. One Child Nation
Nanfu Wang‘s Hooligan Sparrow somehow didn’t make our list of the best documentaries of 2016, but it’s definitely become (partly via Netflix) one of the more memorable of the last few years. I continue to be excited about her as a filmmaker, and so this personal and political film about China’s one-child policy and its effects on the nation has a lot of potential despite the core subject matter being covered extensively before.
At the time of her death in December, Big and A League of Their Own director Penny Marshall was working on her first documentary. The film, which she’d been toiling on for many years, is about Dennis Rodman, the controversial sports icon whom she’d befriended and who trusted only her to tell his life story. Rodman is far from being finished, but producers are hopeful that the feature could still be edited in time for a planned September release.
As fascinating as I was with Ultrasuede: In Search of Halston, directed by eventual reality TV star Whitney Smith, the time has come for a proper profile on the fashion designer known simply as Halston. This one is directed by Frédéric Tcheng, who helmed Dior and I and Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel and co-edited Valentino: The Last Emperor. He clearly knows the fashion world. The CNN Films co-production will premiere at Sundance.
15. Salvatore Ferragamo: The Shoemaker of Dreams
Here’s another fashion-focused doc, this one from a bigger name who is less known for his (nonetheless significant) ties to that world: Luca Guadagnino. The Call Me By Your Name and Suspiria helmer has worked on docs before, but this could be his first major nonfiction feature. The film is expected to debut in Italy (at the Venice Film Festival?) in the fall.
Any film unpacking the debacle of 2017’s Fyre Festival would be worth a watch, but this one is directed by Chris Smith, known for helming such varied classics and doc essentials as American Movie, Home Movie, The Yes Men, Collapse, and Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond. The Netflix Original, which starts streaming January 18th, is sure to be his most-watched yet.
Get your exclusive first look at FYRE — a revealing new doc about the insanity and rapid unraveling of Fyre Festival: the greatest party that never happened. Premieres January 18. #NetflixNewsWeek pic.twitter.com/B4iaR3UJwM
— See What's Next (@seewhatsnext) December 10, 2018
13. Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool
If I’m going to watch a conventional biographical documentary about Miles Davis, Stanley Nelson (The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution) is the best director for it. Especially since I figure the film will offer a lot of black history context, as Nelson is best known as being the black historian documentarian, as opposed to just being a common music doc. The feature debuts at Sundance and likely airs on PBS sometime this year.
12. Cold Case Hammarskjöld
I have some issues with Mads Brügger‘s filmmaking ethics at times, but that doesn’t stop me from being fascinated by his work. The director of such docs as The Red Chapel and The Ambassador is far from conventional in his first-person undercover expose style, and I can’t wait to see what he does with the conspiracy involving the death of the eponymous 1960s UN Secretary-General. As usual for Brügger, this film has been selected for Sundance this year.
11. Framing John DeLorean
The infamous creator of the iconic DeLorean DMC-12 has quite the legacy (ever heard of Back to the Future?), and he was already the subject of a documentary at the height of his success from none other than D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus. But this one from the team of Don Argott and Sheena M. Joyce (The Art of the Steal, Batman & Bill, Believer) promises something very different, with reenactments starring Alec Baldwin as the titular carmaker alongside Morena Baccarin, Josh Charles, and Jason Jones.
I’ve never been a fan of Frank Zappa, so I don’t know much about him. Here’s hoping that actor-turned-filmmaker Alex Winter (Deep Web, The Panama Papers), who has so far focused on tech and journalism subject matter in his documentary work, either turns me on to the iconoclastic music legend or at least gets me to appreciate his work.
9. The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley
This Sundance-premiering HBO film by prolific documentarian Alex Gibney looks to be another substantial effort from the Oscar-winning director of Taxi to the Dark Side. Like his best films, most notably Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, The Inventor looks at the downfall of a corrupt corporation, this time the health tech giant Theranos.
8. Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love
Nick Broomfield has made a few music docs over the years, some with similar titles featuring two names joined by an ampersand. There’s his breakout feature Kurt & Courtney and then Biggie & Tupac. Now he explores the relationship between singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen and his muse, Marianne Ihlen, the namesake for the classic song “So Long, Marianne.” Broomfield doesn’t really make films like those controversial tabloid-heavy ’90s music docs, so I’m curious what this Sundance selection will look like.
7. The Great Hack
Oscar-nominated filmmakers Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer (The Square) have re-teamed for a documentary on the Cambridge Analytica and Facebook user data breach, and I can’t wait to finally understand that whole scandal (Do You Trust This Computer? recently offered a minor explanation) when the film debuts at Sundance. I already find Noujaim and Amer’s take on this story curious due to the former’s underrated film Control Room, which deals with the media, and because The Square highlights a revolution in which Facebook had a positive role, much different from their reputation following the Cambridge Analytica revelations.
5 & 6. Muhammad Ali and What’s My Name: Muhammad Ali
Not just one, but two new Muhammad Ali documentaries are coming in 2019. And that’s on top of the great films — including When We Were Kings and The Trials of Muhammad Ali — we’ve gotten in the past. The first, simply titled Muhammad Ali, is a biographical PBS doc from none other than Ken Burns. The second, What’s My Name: Muhammad Ali, is and HBO production helmed by Hollywood director Antoine Fuqua (in addition to such movies as Training Day and The Equalizer, he made the doc Lightning in a Bottle), and somehow already received an Emmy nomination for Best Narrator (Liev Schreiber) back in 2017. The two will likely be very different but I anticipate both being very good.
4. Hail Satan?
Penny Lane has become one of the documentary community’s favorite filmmakers, both personally and professionally. Her films, whether feature or short, aren’t necessarily always the best (I was lukewarm on Our Nixon; Nuts! is fantastic) yet she’s hard to pin down as a director given the variety of her subject matter and form. And that makes her an exciting talent to anticipate from film to film. She’s full of surprises, and her latest feature is at least already gaining attention for its focus on controversial religious group The Satanic Temple. Which has been promoting the film sight unseen on their Facebook page. Following its Sundance premiere, Magnolia will put Hail Satan? in theaters in the Spring.
3. Midnight Traveler
I had the honor of seeing some remarkable footage of this documentary during an overwhelming presentation given at the 2017 Camden International Film Festival. Not only did it win the post-production services awarded through the “Points North Pitch,” but the Ford Foundation gave it a special grant on the spot. The feature (pictured above) premieres at Sundance and follows filmmaker Hassan Fazili as he flees Afghanistan with his family after becoming a target of the Taliban because of his previous documentary work. The first-person refugee story had much of the Camden crowd in tears with a montage of clips, so I’m prepared for this to be one of the most emotionally powerful docs of the year.
A new documentary from Werner Herzog. Again in collaboration with Clive Oppenheimer (Into the Inferno). About meteors and comets and their influence on ancient religions and other cultural and physical impacts they’ve had on Earth. Obviously, this is going to be awesome. The fact that Herzog is applying his ecstatic truth to space the same year he’s set to co-star in a Star Wars TV series makes it even more interesting. Fireball will be Herzog’s second documentary this year (at least) given that his 2018 festival debut, Meeting Gorbachev, is now slated for theatrical release in early 2019.
1. 63 Up
Every seven years, we get another installment of the Up series from director Michael Apted. Every seven years, it’s my most anticipated documentary. This time, I’m particularly anxious to see how Apted treats the first death of one of its subjects, who’ve been followed since the age of 7. Also, Apted keeps teasing that this might be the last one, given that he’s approaching his eighties. Meanwhile, there’s a little thing called Brexit dominating the news in the UK these past few years and I’m sure that will provide some context for John, Suzy, Tony, Symon, Jackie, Neil, and the rest. Typically, the Up films arrive in the US a year after their UK television premiere, which could happen in May if similar to the release of 56 Up in 2012/2013. Here’s hoping that we can get it over here sooner this time, preferably simultaneously. Here’s the trailer for the previous installment: