Documentaries have entered an unprecedented golden age, one that is only going to get better,” wrote leading film trade Deadline in February 2019.
It’s not just that cameras have become better, cheaper, smaller and less invasive, or that people’s lives are more documented than ever before thanks to social media, it’s also that streaming has made documentaries more accessible to audiences - and studios are now paying record amounts for them.
Not long ago, South African Documentary lovers needed to wait for Encounters or Durban International Film Festival to get their annual fix, but now some of the world’s best documentaries are available to stream from the comfort of your couch, anytime.
Luckily for anyone who’s missed out on documentaries crossing over into the mainstream, Showmax has put together a helpful guide to their eight best documentaries of the year so far, which are all available to stream now:
First screened on M-Net in South Africa, Leaving Neverland follows the separate but parallel experiences of two young boys, 10-year-old James Safechuck, and seven-year-old Wade Robson, who were befriended by Michael Jackson. Through gut-wrenching interviews with Safechuck, now 40, and Robson, now 36, as well as their mothers, wives and siblings, the film crafts a portrait of sustained abuse, exploring the complicated feelings that led both men to confront their experiences after each had young sons of their own.
Claim to fame: The two-part documentary has five 2019 Emmy nominations, including Best Documentary and Best Documentary Director (Dan Reed). This is Dan Reed’s first Emmy nomination, although he’s already won four BAFTAs. Leaving Neverland is currently the top ranked documentary on Rotten Tomatoes’ list of the best TV series of 2019 so far, sitting at number 13 with a 98% Critics Rating. As Rotten Tomatoes’ critics consensus says, “Crucial and careful, Leaving Neverland gives empathetic breadth and depth to the complicated afterlife of child sexual abuse as experienced by adult survivors.”
I LOVE YOU, NOW DIE: THE COMMONWEALTH VS. MICHELLE CARTER
In July 2014, 18-year-old Conrad Roy committed suicide in his truck at a parking lot in Fairhaven, Massachusetts; police later discovered a series of text messages in which his girlfriend, 17-year-old Michelle Carter, seemed to encourage him to kill himself. This sparked a controversial case that had the potential to redefine accountability in the digital age. The two-part documentary was first screened on Showmax in South Africa in July 2019, just months after its world premiere at SXSW.
Claim to fame: I Love You, Now Die is currently the second highest ranked documentary on Rotten Tomatoes’ list of the best TV series of 2019 so far, sitting at number 25 with a 96% critics rating. As Rotten Tomatoes’ critics consensus says, “Director Erin Lee Carr expertly blends journalistic edge and empathy in I Love You, Now Die to create a concise, compelling, and refreshingly exploitation-free exploration of a complicated crime.”
SURVIVING R. KELLY
Celebrated as one of the greatest R&B singers of all time, R. Kelly’s genre-defining career has been riddled with rumours of abuse, predatory behaviour, and paedophilia. In Surviving R Kelly, for the first time ever, survivors and people from his inner circle come forward with new allegations about sexual, psychological, and physical abuse. First screened on M-Net in South Africa, the bombshell documentary series features over 50 interviews, including conversations with civil rights activist Tarana Burke, musicians John Legend and Sparkle, talk-show host and former DJ Wendy Williams, ex-wife Andrea Kelly, ex-girlfriend Kitti Jones, brothers Carey and Bruce Kelly, and many others.
Claim to fame: Surviving R. Kelly is a 2019 Emmy nominee for Outstanding Informational Series or Special and is currently the third highest ranked documentary on Rotten Tomatoes’ list of the best TV series of 2019 so far, sitting at number 29 with a 95% critics rating. The six-part series was also named Best Documentary Series or Special at both the Black Reel Awards and the Critics’ Choice Real TV Awards this year.
THE INVENTOR: OUT FOR BLOOD IN SILICON VALLEY
In 2004, Elizabeth Holmes dropped out of Stanford at 19 to start a company that was going to revolutionise healthcare. In 2014, Theranos was valued at $9 billion, making Holmes the youngest self-made female billionaire in the world, touted as ‘the next Steve Jobs’. Just two years later, Theranos was labelled a ‘massive fraud’ by The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, and her company was worthless. Directed by Oscar and Emmy winner Alex Gibney (Taxi To The Dark Side, Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief), this HBO documentary reveals what happened and explores the psychology of deception behind Silicon Valley’s ‘fake it till you make it’ mindset. The Inventor was simultaneously released on both M-Net and Showmax in May 2019, just months after its world premiere at Sundance 2019.
Claim to fame: The Inventor is a 2019 Emmy nominee for Best Documentary and is currently at number 11 on the list of the best TV movies of 2019 so far on Rotten Tomatoes, where the critics consensus is that The Inventor is “a comprehensive overview of the scandal that allows viewers to mull over its implications towards the broader Silicon Valley.”
GAME OF THRONES: THE LAST WATCH
For a year, acclaimed British filmmaker Jeanie Finlay was embedded on the set of the hit HBO series Game of Thrones, chronicling the creation of the show’s final season and delving deep into the mud and blood to reveal the tears and triumphs of bringing the fantasy world of Westeros to life in the very real studios, fields and car-parks of Northern Ireland. Made with unprecedented access, Game Of Thrones: The Last Watch is an up-close and personal report from the trenches of production, following the crew and the cast as they contend with extreme weather, punishing deadlines and an ever-excited fandom hungry for spoilers. Game of Thrones – The Last Watch was simultaneously released on both M-Net and Showmax in May 2019, just after the Season 8 finale.
Claim to fame: The Last Watch is a 2019 Emmy nominee for Best Music Composition: Documentary and has a 100% critics rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Mashable went so far as to claim The Last Watch was “a better ending than the Game Of Thrones finale… substantially more emotional and satisfying… A really, really good documentary…”
WHO KILLED GARRETT PHILLIPS?
From Oscar-nominated director Liz Garbus (What Happened, Miss Simone?), Who Killed Garrett Phillips? examines the 2011 murder of 12-year-old Garrett Phillips and subsequent trial of Clarkson University soccer coach Oral ‘Nick’ Hillary, a black man living in the mostly-white town of Potsdam, New York, who was charged with second-degree murder. The engrossing two-part documentary chronicles the five years following the murder, as Garrett’s family and community relentlessly seek justice for Garrett, while Nick, who maintains his innocence, fights to clear his name and take back control of his life while raising five children. Who Killed Garrett Phillips? takes on issues of racial fairness in law enforcement, while trying to uncover the truth behind a young boy’s horrific murder and the vilification of a black man swept up in a dogged quest for justice. Who Killed Garrett Phillips? was released first on Showmax in South Africa in August 2019.
Claim to fame: Who Killed Garrett Phillips? has a 100% critics rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The Daily Beast called it “a stunning and enraging examination of race and the U.S. criminal justice system.”
WHAT'S MY NAME: MUHAMMAD ALI
Directed by Black Reel winner Antoine Fuqua (Training Day), What’s My Name: Muhammad Ali tells the boxing great’s story in his own voice, painting a vivid picture of the man Sports Illustrated declared the greatest athlete of the 20th Century. All Ali’s fights are here, from The Thrilla In Manilla against Joe Frazier to The Rumble In The Jungle against George Foreman - the world’s most-watched live television broadcast at the time - to his fight as a 38-year-old against his former sparring partner Larry Holmes, who wept after beating his idol on a technical knockout. But as thrilling as watching Ali float like a butterfly and sting like a bee is, the real joy of the documentary is listening to him talk: What’s My Name should be written up as not just a great sports documentary, but also a great comedy, with even more quick-witted verbal sparring contests than knockout punches. HBO’s two-part documentary on the three-time heavyweight champion of the world was released first on Showmax in June 2019, just a month after its world premiere at Tribeca Film Festival.
Claim to fame: What’s My Name has a 94% critics rating on Rotten Tomatoes and an 8.5/10 rating on IMDB. As critic Richard Roeper wrote in The Chicago Sun-Times, “The greatness of What’s My Name is that if you’re young and you know very little of Muhammad Ali, this would be the perfect place to start learning about him — but if you remember Ali in his prime and you’re well-versed in his history, it’s still a must-see television event.”
ICE ON FIRE
Produced and narrated by Oscar-winner Leonardo di Caprio, Ice On Fire is an eye-opening documentary focusing on solutions to our escalating environmental crisis. The documentary recommends an immediate, two-pronged response to climate change: both reducing carbon emissions and implementing “drawdown” measures to reduce CO2, like direct air capture, sea farms, urban farms, biochar, marine snow, and bionic leaves. Directed by Leila Conners (The 11th Hour), Ice On Fire was released first on Showmax in South Africa in August 2019, just months after its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival.
Claim to fame: Ice On Fire was nominated for the Golden Eye award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival and has a 90% critics rating on Rotten Tomatoes. As Screen International put it, Ice On Fire “should be essential viewing for anyone who plans to carry on living on the planet...”
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