Grab Some Snacks: Here Are Six Must-See, Lesser-Known Documentaries
I love documentaries. Not in the way that people say that and are lying, either. I actually got a Netflix account (in truth, I got my dad a Netflix account as a gift, he never used it, so I took it for myself, and that it the Netflix account I'm still using now, ten years later) because my local video store didn't have enough documentaries to satiate my need for non-fiction entertainment. There are certain docs that I talk about all the time (I don't think we can be considered more than mere acquaintances if I haven't discussed The Staircase with you), and some that I think most everyone is at least familiar with by name (Grey Gardens, The Thin Blue Line, Touching The Void, Paris Is Buring, I COULD GO ON), but I thought I'd share some documentaries that might be overlooked, but shouldn't be. All of these docs are available to stream on Netflix, and if you've scrolled past them and never thought twice about viewing them, now's your chance - think twice! They're all fantastic and worthy of your time, and I'm going to tell you why. https://youtu.be/s9ZWaS_FjNU
An Honest Liar
May I make a small suggestion, Netflix? Change the cover art for this documentary. It makes An Honest Liar look like something utterly different from what it is. I remember reading the synopsis and thinking, "That's something I'd be interested in," but seeing this as the cover image...
... Made me go, "YEESH. Hard pass." I didn't know anything about The Amazing Randi before watching An Honest Liar (although, oddly, I was familiar with all the acts he most famously debunked), so the image used to promote the film was pretty important. The guy in the image Netflix is currently using is completely unappealing to me, but the actual James Randi? The 4'10" homosexual octogenarian illusionist that the film is all about? He's fascinating. James Randi made a decades long career out of debunking claims of "real" psychics, telepaths, and the like - most notably Uri Geller. This alone would be an interesting story, but The Amazing Randi, a man who has dedicated his life to exposing the lies of others, has had a pretty big lie at the center of his life for decades.
I never took a dance class as a kid - I never even saw a ballet until I was in my 20s - but I love dance documentaries. Quick sidenote: I was torn between recommending First Position and Jig, which focuses on Irish step dancing. Both are about youth dance competitions, but Jig has enormous wigs and sadly, isn't available to stream on Netflix. If you get a chance, though, watch it. First Position focuses on six young ballet dancers who are competing in the Youth America Grand Prix, which is one of the top tier ballet competitions. This is how you get scholarships and contracts, and the pressure is immense. There's a great cross section of kids, from those who are ready to devote their entire lives to ballet, to those who could probably take it or leave it. There are incredibly supportive parents (the mom who canibalizes her daughter's costumes, dyes them, then reassembles them because ballet is crazy racist and only makes one "flesh" tone will quickly become your favorite)(ALSO: If you are a ballet dancer of color and are looking for a product to dye your shoes check out Kinetic Essentials) and those who are, shall we say, pushing their kids into something their kids seem completely uninterested in (too harsh?). You don't even need the element of the competition to make this a compelling story, but then, at the end, there's the big competition! Who will get a contract? Who will quit ballet forever?!
There are so many conspiracy theories surrounding Stanley Kubrick's The Shining. You thought there was only the one about how it revealed that Kubrick helped fake the moon landing? You thought WRONG! It's about the Holocaust too! And minotaurs! In fact, I tried to find a clip of the woman saying, "That's a minotaur!" to include, because it's my favorite, but no one's put it on YouTube, so you'll have to settle for this one. Anyway, Room 237 is a series of interviews with people who have elaborate conspiracy theories revolving around The Shining. If you haven't seen The Shining in many years, or you've seen it but found it super scary, or have never seen it because you don't like being scared, don't fret - this documentary isn't scary. They never show the people they're interviewing, only play the audio of their interview while showing what they're talking about onscreen, so you'll see some scary scenes, but it's while someone is talking about a completely bonkers idea, so it makes that elevator full of blood seem just plain goofy. After I saw Room 237 I wanted to talk about it with everyone, because every theory had the effect of making me at first think, "Yeah, sure, I can see your point," but then, as the interviewee kept talking, I realized, "Nope. You're really reaching there, bud. In fact, you might be a total loon." Except that minotaur part. That was 100% accurate.
Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father
Do you like crying? Because this film is more than a double hanky doc. Go buy a king size sheet set, cut it into as many hankies as you can fashion, and then maybe you'll be ready to tackle this one. I'll give you a brief synopsis, where I'm basically going to reiterate what is said in the above trailer, but I recommend going into this film with as little information as you can. You can totally watch the trailer and read the Netflix blurb, but don't like, go to Wikipedia or anything. Or do! Maybe my threats of a deluge of tears frightened you! You can make your own decisions! Anyway! This film is a true passion project, as the filmmaker was childhood best friends with Andrew, the titular father. Andrew was murdered by his on-again, off-again girlfriend, who then announced that she was pregnant with Andrew's child. During her entire pregnancy Andrew's parents were trying to get her extradited to the United States (where she murdered Andrew) from Canada (where she was from). Andrew's parents eventually moved to Newfoundland to dedicate themselves not only to making sure their son's killer was charged, but also to ensure that she could not have custody of their grandson. And then things get MORE EMOTIONAL.
Here are some fun facts from the past: 1) Generally, Ryan Reynolds wasn't really considered hot shit, and 2) Ryan Reynolds and Scarlett Johansson used to be married... to each other! Even before those bygone days, an orca whale (soon to be named Luna, so let's just start calling him that now) became separated from his pod and decided to start hanging around Vancouver Island, all alone. Except little Luna wasn't alone - he quickly started making friends with all the humans he could get close to, and because he was so gentle and friendly, everyone wanted to pet him and play the Free Willy soundtrack while dancing next to him. Luna quickly became the subject of a heated debate between the citizens of Vancouver Island, conservancy groups, and the Mowachaht/Muchalaht First Nations, who believed Luna to be a reincarnation of their former chief. The battle over Luna's fate took place during the early aughts and was documented by two filmmakers, who turned their footage into a Canadian documentary called Saving Luna. That particular film was then re-cut and altered to have third-person narration (provided by Ryan Reynolds), and released in the US as The Whale (Executive produced by RyRen and ScarJo). If you want a more family friendly Blackfish (you know, where the whale is a total cuddle monster instead of a murder monster) that still send the message that "wild animals aren't for snugglin'!" then this is a great pick.
The Institute is a documentary chronicling a three-year long game/art project/social experiment in San Francisco. People would be recruited organically: Fliers would be put up throughout the city, directing people to an office. From there, the experience would begin. There was an elaborate narrative involving a missing woman, a cult-like organization that kept me wondering aloud, "Is this based on the Hanso Foundation/Dharma Initiative?" and stunts throughout the city. They even have a convention! After the project ends, feelings from participants are mixed: Some people feel that their lives have been truly changed by this experience, while others are bitter and feel they were duped. I only watched the documentary, years after these events occurred, but I can say I was still thinking about it for days afterward.