The return of the documentary in this era has been nothing short of a cinematic renaissance. Long after the golden age of ‘cinema verite” seemed to have drawn its last breath, and the initial rise of the 1970s, the often banality of Reality TV seems to have inspired a whole new generation of documentarians to rise up and ask in one voice: “How can we use this for good?”
The notoriety of Michael Moore was certainly a factor in the emergence of this nouvelle vogue. As is the continued critical embrace of the medium, with the documentary genre consistently producing an abundance of critical darlings year after year.
HBO’s triumph earlier this year with the smash hit true crime series The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst cemented the rise of the major network documentary. As facts and figures continue to confirm the documentary as a marketable asset, the critic is left with only one question- “Why?”
Surely it cannot simply be a matter of cheap production costs? Heaven forbid. Where is the romance in that? No, indeed. Perhaps, there is an even more pragmatic catalyst behind this movement- Netflix.
Netflix has not just revolutionised the way we watch tv, but it has also fostered a culture in which documentaries are now a firm fixture in the average household’s “night in”. Could it be that from so homely an association can spring a cinematic revolution? Perhaps. For now, let us simply revel in and enjoy the fact that most of the masterpieces of a great genre are so readily available to the public.
From murder to Muppets, from death to drummers, here are some of the best documentaries that you can view today on Netflix.
15. Tabloid (2010) (Watch on Netflix)
Though she lies in distinctly dubious company, it could be argued that Joyce McKinney is as tragic a protagonist as any that exists within this list of documentary subjects. As with all great documentaries, we are presented with a true story as fanciful as any concocted by a writer of fiction. Further to this, veteran documentarian Errol Morris keeps the twists and turns coming in abundance right to the very end of the film; essential for any classic true crime tale.
Here, believe it or believe it not, we have the tale of a former beauty queen (McKinney) who, with the aid of several complicit men, kidnapped and repeatedly raped a young Mormon missionary, whom McKinney claimed was her soulmate. Also, it may be worth mentioning that McKinney is also credited as being the first British tabloid star, and an indirect pioneer of the cloning process in animals. Yes, this is quite the tall tale to tell.
Morris, as is the case with most of his work, leaves the moral judgement up to the viewer. In addition, in this case McKinney provides such a psychologically unreliable witness that many events she described are left subject to interpretation as to whether or not they happened at all.
This, too is familiar territory for a classic documentary. Yet, it is telling that Joyce McKinney has filed a lawsuit against Morris. McKinney was told that the documentary’s primary focus was the tabloid culture, yet her delusional sense of romance and morality is very much the focus here.
14. Blackfish (2013) (Watch on Netflix)
Ever wonder what causes a whale’s dorsal fin to buckle? You may not have, but that shouldn’t suggest that the answer will not enrage you when you learn it.
A documentary damning the Sea World corporation’s careless treatment of their principal attractions- killer whales- this film may be the only serial killer related film in which the serial killer is the good guy. the story initially revolves around Tilikum, an ageing Sea World whale, now retired from duty, who is known to have killed three people, two of them Sea World employees, in his time in residence at various parks.
The startling tales of each murder are dealt with efficiently, but are designed to open up a wider discussion as to the morality of Sea World’s treatment of whales, one which Gabriella Cowperthwaite’s documentary vehemently decries, and in some detail at that.
True, you may never look upon Sea World as a wholesome institution again. The medical facts are there, whales are not living to their life expectancy, they are showing signs of physical deformity, and the company responsible at least appears from the outside to be distorting the facts. Yet, the accounts of the murders are the most startling.
An attendant screaming “I don’t want to die”, an event recalled by two tearful witnesses speaks volumes, as does the mysterious death of a homeless drifter who snuck in after hours. Finally, comes the account of the killing of Dawn Brancheau, as told by her coworkers who witnessed the event. Some claim freak occurrence, other claim an error on Dawn’s own part. Yet, the documentary paints a vivid picture of animal abuse, and a cautionary tale of man evoking the wrath of nature.
13. Stories We Tell (2012) (Watch on Netflix)
Every family has a great storyteller. In the case of Oscar Winning actor/director Sarah Polley’s family, there appears to be nothing but. In this charming slice of Polley’s family life, we have a documentary which aims to expose the raconteur in all of us. The story is simple, even mundane. The history of the Polley family, of which Sarah is the youngest of her generation of children.
Specifically, the film concerns the dubious nature of Sarah’s paternal lineage. It is suggested in the film that Sarah is the result of an affair between her Mother Diane Polley and film producer Harry Gulkin. Part stylized recreation and part documentary testimony, this film playfully toys with the idea of nostalgia and memory, as the various exuberant family members present what is often contradictory information.
Unreliable narrators or not, the family are refreshingly upbeat about the possibility of Sarah being of Sarah’s illegitimate lineage. Incredibly, even Sarah’s father Michael seems at peace with the notion of his daughter not being biologically his.
A bohemian family? Yes. But their memories and homely report will nonetheless remind most of viewers of their own relatives. The film does a superb job of using Super 8 footage to harken back to what seems a golden age of innocence and youth. Nostalgia is a very contagious element, it beckons us to become nostalgic ourselves.
The film earnestly presents this family without any glamour, and is not afraid to tell its story in an authentically mundane, conversational way. This is far more effective than one might think. Just wait until you hear the film’s last line.
12. Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey (2011) (Watch on Netflix)
Slight on paper, monumentally moving on paper, Constance A. Mark’s 2011 documentary of the journey of one of the world’s most beloved puppeteers is certainly heartwarming, and managed to overcome its potentially saccharine subject matter to become critically labelled as essential viewing.
Firstly, there is the obvious appeal. Elmo is as heartwarming as popular culture gets. Just witnessing children in the presence of Kevin Clash as he embodies Elmo is enough to bring the tears to even the most cynical of eyes. Better still, this is sturdy biopic that documents the Henson company’s remarkable rise, and how puppeteering was pioneered and brought from obscurity to the public consciousness.
Oddly though, the documentary is also a compelling insight into creative perfectionism. Even wonder how much training a puppeteer needs in order to appear in the Muppets? No? Well, the answer is a great deal. Kevin Clash tours the world training puppeteers in the ingenue phase of their careers, and you would not believe the level of craft entailed in making these characters seem sentient, and even oddly human.
To bring a sock to life and convey human emotion is something Clash obsesses over, and he demands the very same of his students. In the end, long before the embrace of smiling kids, these craftspeople work hard to follow a dream that is entirely their own.
11. Pumping Iron (1977) (Watch on Netflix)
Many have seen Pumping Iron’s most famous clip, even if without knowledge of its origin. A baby faced Arnold Schwarzenegger, prior to film superstardom, comparing the gratification of bodybuilding to that of an orgasm. It is easy to be lost in the ludicrous nature of this clip, momentarily hypnotized by the Germanic accent as applied to the verb “coming”, and to quickly discard it as a strange curio. However, the film itself is quite a joy for those who care to seek out the documentary as a whole.
Far from an innocent glimpse of an early Schwarzenegger, this is an incite into merciless competitive instinct. Schwarzenegger proclaims himself to be a “sculptor”, an effortless perfectionist and an artist using his body as a canvas. The incites we receive into the lives of the men competing for the titles of both the Mr Olympia and Mr. Universe bodybuilding crowns are brief, yet just compelling enough to make the men’s struggle attainable to an audience.
Yet, the film’s primary focus lies with the rivalry between Arnold Schwarzenegger and Lou Ferrigno for the title of Mr Olympia. Yes, The Terminator squares off against The Hulk.
The film is said to be partially scripted, yet the scenes that feel most candid are the most effective. A sensational scene features Schwarzenegger and Ferrigno sunbathing with fellow bodybuilders, subtly trying to gain both verbal and psychological advantage over each other in lieu of the upcoming contest. It is remarkable how transparent they are in their mutual disdain, the anger building on their respective faces.
More outrageous still is the sequence in the changing room before the final competition, in which Schwarzenegger tells a clearly nervous Ferrigno to be quiet, merely to increase his frustration and anxiety. Yet, when all is said and done, the two ride off into the sunset on the back of a bus, in a ending hilariously reminiscent of that of The Graduate. All in all, this is an influential but highly unusual documentary gem.
10. Cropsey (2009) (Watch on Netflix)
A film that carries with it a strange powers, a bedtime horror story to keep one awake many a night, Cropsey is the story of an urban legend come to life. The film opens with various Staten Islanders sharing their recollections of the urban legend of Cropsey, an escaped mental patient who lured children into the woods.
The telling varies according to the teller, as all good legends should. Yet, the subject of the film develops into a far more literal nightmare realm, the disappearance of a series of mentally disabled children over the course of a decade in the State Island area, not far from one of America’s most vile closed sanitariums, Willowbrook state School.
The details of the case are revealed by the documentary with an assured sense of structure, even if the film’s execution is perhaps a little uninspired. But it is the sense of the collective guilt that hangs over a community that is truly chilling. Firstly, there are the volunteers, though enlisted to search for the missing children. Their torment at having bodies still missing is effectively hammered home, this was a community loss, not simply a private one.
The documentary establishes an effective sense of lost innocence with the neighbourly New York burrough, their ethos of family values forever tainted. Worse still, the notion that these murders are a kind of faustian punishment for allowing the human rights violence that was Willowbrook State School exist in the first place. The geraldo Rivera archive footage of the school is more chilling than any horror film. You may just begin to believe in karma, in its very darkest incarnations.
Viewer discretion advised.
9. Mission to Lars (2012) (Watch on Netflix)
As simple as the title or poster might suggest, yet as profound as any film on this list, this is the story of Tom Spicer and a meeting he had sought his whole life. The quixotic dream hatched by his siblings Will and Kate- to arrange a meeting between Tom and his idol from childhood, Metallica drummer lars Ulrich.
Though well intentioned, the obstacles are clear from the beginning. Tom’s own fragile constitution is negatively affected by changes to his environment (as evidenced in a tragic concert sequence). Furthermore, Metallica is a band constantly inundated with fan requests of various kinds.
Nevertheless, the gang set out on their journey like buddies on a road trip, guerilla filmmaking equipment in tow.
It is the journey that gives the ending its weight. Tom struggles with so much, and most of the film drags us into a rather hopeless place. Yet, the kindness of people is forever the driving force. It is as though Tom brings out the best in all those around him infectiously.
Even when many of Will and kate’s decisions are missteps, and their own rapport is comprised, Tom remains the focus point for both them and us. This is a remarkable example of what documentarians can achieve with no budget whatsoever, and minimal equipment. As such, it can stand as a one film film school for the budding guerilla documentarian.
Still not convinced? Just think, this is a film which made Lemmy cry.