As 2019 comes to an end, there’s a lot of great films to look back on—but there are plenty more that have gone under the radar. It’s not uncommon for documentaries to be under-seen in comparison to narrative features, especially in a pretty commanding year, but it’s a genre rife with humanity, and requires a masterful and precise approach to filmmaking nonetheless.
These five films explore the complex universality of the human experience through niche desires and subcultures—from Instagram likes to political reform to the Satanic church and a gay porn shop—and are definitely worth your time.
Liza Mandelup’s Jawline
It’s hard to make a film about influencer culture without coming off as dismissive or insulting to an inescapable cultural moment. But Liza Mandelup manages to both be critical of the cringey at best, exploitative at worst industry while still empathizing with the young people too-often caught in the cross-hairs. Jawline follows sixteen-year-old Austyn Tester as he desperately tries to chase the allure of internet fame to forgo his boring life in Tennessee. Mandelup thoroughly examines the plights of being young, online, and in the market for validation: from being encouraged to commodify themselves and their bodies as product to using conventional attractiveness and surface-level scraps of personality as currency. It’s hard to watch Austyn flex to a webcam for affirmation, but the blame is never put on him for wanting it. Instead, Mandelup understands that the horrors of influencer culture come from the systems in place that manufacture these false promises and profit off of young people’s dreams to be seen.
Dava Whisenant’s Bathtubs Over Broadway
Have you ever had a friend with a strange collection or hobby? Or maybe you are that friend yourself? If so, you may find some solace in Steve Young, a former staffer on The Late Show with David Letterman, who has an odd pension for corporate musicals. Young feverently forages through charity shop bins and online forums to find these records—which were highly produced marketing material for popular brands like Xerox and General Motors, among others—and falls into the bathtub of absurdity as a way to subsidize the emotional hardships in his personal life. With Bathtubs Over Broadway, Whisenant puts a new spin on a largely forgotten touchstone and hones in on both the underlying joy and sorrow that comes with the pursuit of obsession.
Rachel Lears’ Knock Down the House
Some of the greatest documentaries serve as a time capsule, memorializing a monumental point in history as it happens. Rachel Lears’ Knock Down the House captures the momentum and energy surrounding the record-number of women who ran for elected office in 2018, but she establishes the film as a pivotal record of history with the groundbreaking election of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Knock Down the House follows AOC’s campaign from the very beginning all the way through to election day, in addition to other candidates across the country. Lears’ film provides an intimate look at the personal and professional sacrifices it takes to run a progressive campaign, as well as highlighting those working towards a serious changing of the guards in our politics.
Penny Lane’s Hail Satan?
At first glance, a deep dive into the Satanic church might not seem all that relatable. But Penny Lane’s Hail Satan? investigates the fringe religion that has been widely snared at, sure, but also that has gained a surprising momentum in feminist and progressive spaces in recent years. Lane breaks down the storied history of the Satanic church and how it has managed to sustain a substantial following in the modern world. Documentaries about ideologies and religion, especially one as controversial as Satanism, are hard to pull off. But Hail Satan? tries to understand the appeal of Satanism and humanizes those characterized as goat mask-wearing weirdos with a tenderness that is not often given to them. The subculture may seem perverse and taboo going in, but by the end you may find yourself rethinking your own perceptions.
Rachel Mason’s Circus of Books
Documentaries are deeply personal, but oftentimes the emotion is only felt on one side of the camera. With Circus of Books, Rachel Mason tears down that wall by crafting a film with unprecedented access into the lives of her subjects—who just so happen to be her own parents. Circus of Books follows the life and death of their unconventional family business—a gay porn and book shop in West Hollywood, Southern California. A story like this could easily be told through an objective and historical way, but the emotional highs and lows in Circus of Books lies in its deep familial ties—underscored by zany anecdotes, home videos and real vulnerability. It’s a film that memorializes a piece of history by contextualizing it through the personalities that made it what it was.
What was your favorite female-directed documentary that was released in 2019? Let us know in the comments!