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], 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]). 

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 [], 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], 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 [], 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,])

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,])

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 [], 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])

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)


(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 [], 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 [], 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)


(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 [], 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)


(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)


(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)

Columnist Molly Ivins Celebrated in “Raise Hell” Doc Slated for December 3 from Magnolia

Magnolia Home Entertainment has announced the upcoming release of Raise Hell: The Life and Times of Molly Ivins (DVD: $26.98), slated for December 3. Director Janice Engel’s documentary tells the story of Pulitzer Prize-nominated newspaper columnist and political commentator Molly Ivins (1944-2007), a media firebrand who took on the “Good Old Boy” corruption wherever she found it. The film chronicles Ivins’s rise from byline in a small southern newspaper to her name printed in The New York Times, following along as she becomes a true Texas iconoclast: an outspoken woman who drank beer and owned a gun, but remained true to her liberal values in a red state. Bonus features include additional clips.

Alexander Street Press Sponsors a Scholarship for Future Media Librarians

Alexander Street Press will collaborate with the Film and Media Roundtable (FMRT) of the American Library Association (ALA) and the Association of Moving Image Archivists (AMIA) in sponsoring a scholarship for future media librarians. The deg farrelly Memorial/Alexander Street Press AMIA/FMRT Media Librarian Scholarship is to be given once a year to a Master’s degree candidate in Library Science in an ALA Accredited School who intends to work professionally as a media librarian in an academic institution.

The scholarship honors the legacy of deg farrelly, librarian emeritus at Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona. He was a pioneering media librarian who worked for four decades “to strengthen the usefulness and legitimacy of film and video as a tool in teaching and research across all disciplines.” farrelly’s commitment to media librarianship, and the preservation of and access to media materials, is a commitment shared by both AMIA and FMRT.

Upon deg’s passing in 2018, past chair of FMRT, Brian Boling proposed developing a scholarship in his honor to Dennis Doros, head of Milestone Films and current president of AMIA. Past chair of FMRT and current Scholarship Committee chair, Michele McKenzie worked closely with Doros, AMIA Managing Director Laura Rooney and ALA’s FMRT liaison, Danielle Ponton, to craft the co sponsored scholarship.

“My dear friend deg farrelly (never capitalized!) was one of a kind,” Doros remembered. “Passionate, brilliant, feisty — he knew that audiovisual education was vital to the intellectual and emotional growth of students. He was dedicated to bringing in the best learning materials from around the world. It was frequently a difficult and arduous task, but he had the boundless energy and dedication to obtain them. deg was concerned near the end of his life that the job of media librarian was nearing extinction. I am thrilled that the deg farrelly Memorial/Alexander Street Press AMIA/FMRT Media Librarian Scholarship will ensure that MLIS students will have the opportunity and training to carry on in his (giant) footsteps.”

The $2000 scholarship is distributed in two parts – a $1,000 Education Grant (to be used solely for tuition and or books) administered by ALA/FMRT and another $1,000 Cash Award (to be used for other education related expenses (i.e. books, workshops, conference fees, etc.), administered by AMIA.

“deg was a founding and long-standing member of the Alexander Street video advisory board,” said David Parker, Alexander Street Press senior director of product management. “Always provocative and insightful, deg supported the evolution of our business from the content we licensed and published to the access models we provide for library consumption. But deg was so much more. He provided a light-hearted but intimate friendship to all who knew him and always helped each of us to be our better selves. Supporting this scholarship in deg’s name is but a small remembrance and a token of our appreciation for deg’s contribution to Alexander Street and video librarianship.”

The recipients of the award will be selected by FMRT and AMIA members of the Scholarship Committee from those who apply on the ALA Scholarships/Awards website. (

“Our brother, deg farrelly, has always been fascinated by media in all its forms. I remember watching old movies after school every day with deg,” said his sister Deirdre (Dee) Farrelly. “His entire professional library career was obtaining, recovering, and saving media and media equipment. deg felt deeply about this with serious concerns about what others considered outdated to be kept for the future. He was a man well ahead of others and a specialist in this field of library media.

“We’ve always known how creative, intelligent, and committed deg was. He would be so honored to have a scholarship in his name, especially one that would be used to continue his mission.”

The award will be announced at the FMRT Gala at the 2020 ALA Annual Conference to be held in Chicago.

Alexander Street Press/Proquest Contact

David Parker
Senior Director- Product Management
Alexander Street Press

Oscar-Winning “Roma,” Drag-Ball Doc “Paris Is Burning,” and More on Criterion Collection February 2020 Slate

The Criterion Collection’s February 2020 slate kicks off February 11 with Alfonso Cuarón’s Oscar-winning 2018 black-and-white Spanish and Mixtec-language film Roma (DVD: 2 discs, $29.95; Blu-ray: $39.95), a recreation of the early-1970s Mexico City of the director’s childhood that depicts a period in the life of a middle-class family through the experiences of the indigenous domestic worker (Yalitza Aparicio) who keeps the household running. Coming February 18 is the Blu-ray debut of filmmaker Hiroshi Teshigahara’s 1984 Japanese-language documentary Antonio Gaudi (Blu-ray: $39.95), a hypnotic tribute to the titular visionary Catalan architect with a tour of Gaudí’s truly spectacular architecture, including his massive, still-unfinished masterpiece, the Sagrada Família basilica in Barcelona. Also arriving February 18 is a 4K restoration of the 1968 Italian-language drama Teorema (DVD: $29.95, Blu-ray: $39.95), a provocative and poetic treatise on sexuality, faith, and the bourgeois family from enfant terrible Pier Paolo Pasolini, starring Terence Stamp as the mysterious stranger who seduces the members of a wealthy Milanese family. Slated for February 25 is the Blu-ray debut of director Jennie Livingston’s wildly influential 1990 landmark documentary Paris Is Burning (DVD: 2 discs, $29.95; Blu-ray: $39.95), an extraordinary celebration of 1980s Harlem’s vibrant drag-ball culture that was shot over seven years and offers an intimate portrait of rival fashion “houses,” from fierce contests for trophies to house mothers offering sustenance in a world rampant with homophobia, transphobia, racism, AIDS, and poverty. Also coming February 25 is Three Fantastic Journeys by Karel Zeman (DVD: 3 discs, $79.95; Blu-ray: 3 discs, $99.95), which collects a trio of the renowned special-effects Czechoslovak fabulist’s most enchanting films in new 4K restorations: the prehistory boys’ adventure Journey to the Beginning of Time (1955), Jules Verne’s sourced doomsday escapade Invention for Destruction (1958), and the 18thcentury tall tale adaptation The Fabulous Baron Munchausen (1962).

“The Character Tree” Positive Development Free Online Lessons for Elementary Students Newly Launched by Apperson, Inc.

To support schools in providing character education as part of their work to teach the whole child, Apperson, Inc, has announced the launch of The Character Tree, a new character development online resource for first and second grade students that provides appealing online video lessons to teach children about positive character traits. The Character Tree uses engaging discussions, real-life examples from history, role modeling, and hands-on materials to emphasize positive character traits such as kindness, bravery, hope, leadership, gratitude, and perseverance. The subscription, which is free for the 2019-20 school year, provides access to 32 videos featuring puppets asking and answering questions, as well as discussions about historic figures such as Rosa Parks and Jane Goodall. The lessons are standards-aligned and each comes with a teacher’s guide and printable resources for students. Teachers and parents can sign up for free access to The Character Tree for the 2019-2020 school year by visiting:, and for more info and to subscribe or view video samples, visit

Investigative “Corporate Coup d’Etat” Doc Coming November 12 from First Run

First Run Features has announced the upcoming release of Corporate Coup d’Etat (DVD: $24.95), slated for November 12. Filmmaker Fred Peabody’s investigative documentary examines the detrimental effects of greedy corporations on democracy in the United States, exposing how big businesses and billionaires have taken control of the American political process, and in doing so have brought economic hardship and ruin to vast swaths of the country. Combining insights from political thinkers and journalists with the experiences of citizens in the “sacrifice zones” of Camden, NJ and Youngstown, OH, where factory closures and outsourcing have created a grim landscape of desolation and human suffering, the provocative and revealing Corporate Coup d’Etat shows how our democracy first began selling its soul to big corporations, which opened the door for lobbyists and business-friendly politicians to take control in Washington and undermine the will of the people.

Hepburn and Grant in “Holiday,” Pedro Almodóvar, Godard, and Two from Sidney Lumet on Criterion Collection’s January 2020 Slate

The Criterion Collection kicks off the New Year on January 7 with George Cukor’s effervescent 1938 romantic comedy Holiday (DVD: 2 discs, $29.95; Blu-ray: $39.95), starring Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant in this second film adaptation of a hit 1928 play by Philip Barry. Slated for January 21 is Jean-Luc Godard’s long-unavailable sophomore feature Le petit soldat (DVD: $29.95, Blu-ray: $39.95), the director’s first collaboration with his iconic muse Anna Karina for a thriller that tackles the use of torture in the Algerian War. Coming January 28 is director Pedro Almodóvar’s beloved 1999 drama All About My Mother (DVD: $29.95, Blu-ray: $39.95), the Spanish auteur’s Oscar-winning ode to maternal love and female fortitude, starring Cecilia Roth as the head of a surrogate family that includes a pregnant and HIV-positive nun (Penélope Cruz), an illustrious star of the stage (Marisa Paredes), and a transgender sex worker (Antonia San Juan). Finally, looks for a celebration of filmmaker Sidney Lumet with a new 4K restoration of his arresting 1964 nuclear-war thriller Fail Safe (DVD: $29.95, Blu-ray: $39.95) on January 28, along with a January 14 release of a Blu-ray edition of his 1960 Tennessee Williams adaptation The Fugitive Kind (Blu-ray: $39.95), starring Marlon Brando and Anna Magnani.

Wim Wenders Epic “Until the End of the World,” “The Story of Temple Drake,” and More on Criterion Collection’s December Slate

The Criterion Collection’s December releases kick off December 3 with a 4K restoration of Ronald Neame’s classic 1960 military drama Tunes of Glory (DVD: $29.95, Blu-ray: $39.95), which is based on the novel by James Kennaway and stars Alec Guinness and John Mills at their finest in a struggle for control of a peacetime Scottish battalion. Also slated for December 3 (and never before available on Blu-ray or DVD) is the 1933 pre-Code melodrama The Story of Temple Drake (DVD: $29.95, Blu-ray: $39.95), starring Miriam Hopkins in an adaptation of William Faulkner’s controversial novel Sanctuary. Coming December 10 is a 4K restoration, 287-minute director’s cut of Wim Wenders’ 1991 German-language magnum opus Until the End of the World (DVD: 3 discs, $29.95; Blu-ray: 2 discs, $39.95), a globe-trotting sci-fi epic featuring a dizzyingly eclectic soundtrack, that follows a woman (Solveig Dommartin) across continents as she pursues a mysterious stranger (William Hurt) in possession of a device that can make the blind see and bring dream images to waking life. Also arriving December 10 is a 2K restoration of Kelly Reichardt’s 2006 breakout feature Old Joy (DVD: $29.95, Blu-ray: $39.95), a microbudget indie film about old friends (Daniel London, Will Oldham) who reunite on a camping trip in the Oregon wilderness.

Francis Ford Coppola’s “Cotton Club” Encore Special Edition Slated for December 10 Release

A brand-new director’s cut of Francis Ford Coppola’s critically acclaimed 1930s period film The Cotton Club Encore is slated for release on DVD and Blu-ray on December 10. Slated to screen at this year’s New York Film Festival on October 5 and be shown in select theaters on October 11, this is a new version of the 1984 film, which features an all-star cast including Richard Gere, Gregory Hines, Diane Lane, Lonette McKee, Bob Hoskins, Laurence Fishburne, and others. In this lavish, 1930s-era drama, Harlem’s legendary Cotton Club becomes a hotbed of passion and violence as the lives and loves of entertainers and gangsters collide. Now, Coppola’s extraordinary film is brought to vivid new life with never-before-seen scenes and musical sequences that deepen and enrich the storylines in a remastered and restored version that represents Coppola’s fully realized vision of the film. Additional scenes include an extended Gregory Hines and Maurice Hines tap performance, Lonette McKee’s brilliant rendition of Ethel Waters’ “Stormy Weather,” and Coppola’s originally envisioned ending.

“Montessori” Documentary Slated for September 10 from First Run Features

First Run Features will release Montessori: Let the Child Be the Guide (DVD: $24.95) on September 10. Inherited from Maria Montessori in 1907, the Montessori Method is a child-centered educational philosophy that celebrates and nurtures each child’s desire to learn, using an approach that values the human spirit and full development: physical, social, emotional, and cognitive. Curious to see how the Method works first hand, filmmaker Alexandre Mourot sets his camera up in the oldest Montessori school in France (with kids from 3 to 6) and the children guide the filmmaker through the whole school year, helping him understand the magic of their autonomy and self-esteem–hopefully, the seeds of a new society of peace and freedom–to which Montessori dedicated her life work.