Apollo 11: First Steps Edition (2019)
This year's biggest hit documentary, a smash Sundance Festival prizewinner, tells the story of the first moon landing on July 20, 1969, through newly discovered archival footage and 11,000-plus hours of audio — no talking heads, just the real events. If you see it in an IMAX theater, it's the next best thing to being there. But the next next best thing is to watch it July 20 on CNN, streaming (Amazon, YouTube, Google Play, Vudu), or on disk.
First Man (2018)
Full of bone-jangling action scenes and awe-inspiring moon walks few outer-space movies have ever matched, this biopic about Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong's trip to the moon is also the most soulful, woeful film you ever saw, because its hero (played brilliantly by Ryan Gosling) and angry wife (Claire Foy) were haunted by their toddler daughter's death from cancer, and he was an extraordinarily sensitive, undemonstrative man. Let's hope his fellow astronaut Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) wasn't really as big (and entertaining) a showboating jerk as he is in this film.
Apollo 13 (1995)
If you want to feel terror and exhilaration, Ron Howard’s masterpiece about the near-fatal NASA mission to the moon starring Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon, Bill Paxton and Ed Harris is the one for you. The movie that made the phrase “Houston, we’ve got a problem” famous is so good because the astronauts (and Houston ground control) had to MacGyver ingenious solutions fast to stay alive.
The Right Stuff (1983)
The best rah-rah patriotic film about the space program, based on Tom Wolfe’s best book, established daredevil test pilot Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepard in full Gary Cooper form) as a pop star, and pioneer astronaut John Glenn (Ed Harris at his peak) as the world’s most noble Boy Scout turned folk hero. The Band’s Levon Helm narrates the story as if it were the tallest all-American tale ever, which it was.
From the Earth to the Moon (1998)
HBO celebrates the 50th anniversary of the moon landing by re-releasing (on HBO and disk) its epic, Tom Hanks- and Ron Howard-helmed, 12-hour documentary about NASA’s entire Apollo program triumph, remastered and with new CGI effects. It cost $65 million and looks it. You don’t have to binge the whole thing — each episode is like its own movie.
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In the Shadow of the Moon (2007)
Though it’s not as flashy and star-powered as the more celebrated moon-shot flicks, critic Gary Arnold called this British doc “the most stirring and satisfying feature of 2007.” It’s got historic footage and interviews with 10 astronauts from Apollo missions 1968-73. It earned an Oscar nomination, a top Sundance Festival award and the AARP Movies for Grownups Award for best documentary.
Alfonso Cuarón’s seven-Oscar-winning epic starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney is the most viscerally thrilling, heartstring-fiddling outer-space movie ever made.
For All Mankind (1989)
The first major documentary based on NASA footage, by genius journalist Al Reinert, also got an Oscar nomination and two top Sundance Festival awards. Reinert went on to cowrite Howard’s Apollo 13 and From the Earth to the Moon, and even helped launch the film Gravity.
David Bowie’s son Duncan Jones’ psychologically charged film about a moon-gas miner (Sam Rockwell) who starts to go loony from loneliness isn’t quite as good as his dad’s tune “Space Oddity” — the story kind of unravels — but Rockwell is first-rate.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Sure, Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Arthur C. Clarke’s sci-fi saga is a fantasy, but its spectacular details, by ex-NASA designer Harry Lange, were so realistic the U.S. government required its script to undergo a security clearance. Lange later designed the Star Wars trilogy. 2001 is still a trip worth taking.