From Sondheim to Cropsey: 11 documentaries you should be watching
For fans of documentaries, the past year has been a bacchanal. We’ve been blessed with an abundance of flicks that document odd or sensational pockets of life lately, from Holy Hell on CNN (hold my calls), to Netflix’s Making a Murderer (hold my calls forever), to OJ: Made in America, the excellent five part ESPN series (never call).
Aside from mindless cooking shows, there’s little I’d rather watch. Documentaries are perfect for when you want to be heady and talk about life with someone. They’re also extremely effective for when, say, you’re depressed, on your third log of snicker doodle dough and really need some perspective about the world.
Since it’s time for our annual Fall Movie Preview, in which movie critic Steve Persall gives top picks for movies to catch in theaters this season, it was only fair to provide a truthy counterpart. Herewith, bingeworthy documentary suggestions from someone who has spent plenty of time on the couch with the dough tube. These are mostly available on Netflix, HBO streaming services, Amazon, iTunes or in some cases, direct from the movie websites.
The Paradise Lost series (1996-2011)
The gold standard. These three HBO movies tell the story of the West Memphis Three, outcast teenage boys accused of murdering children in their small Arkansas town. You’ve likely read about news developments in this case brought about by the movies. Either way, watch from start to finish. It can be hard to convince perkier friends that this level of activity is a fun undertaking. I once loaned my DVDs to someone for a year, only to have them returned, unwatched. “Thanks,” she said, sheepishly.
Based on the book by Michael Pollan, this Netflix series explores the origins of food and cooking. It’s split into four parts — Fire, Water, Air and Earth. An early scene of an aboriginal woman killing and eating a monitor lizard really gets things going. The movies helped me understand food, particularly bread, in a way I had not before. And I’ll never look at chocolate the same.
Speaking of eats and drinks, Somm takes competitive wine knowledge to an Olympic level. It follows four wine nerds as they try to pass the Master Sommelier exam, which, of course, is really hard to pass. When one contender describes a wine as having notes of “fresh tennis balls” and “fresh new rubber hose,” you’ll feel like you know more about wine than you thought. There’s a follow up called Somm: Into the Bottle that I haven’t watched yet.
A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness (2015)
This searing, short film tells of a young woman who survived an attempted honor killing by her uncle and father in Pakistan, and the subsequent pressure from the community to forgive them. It won an Academy Award in 2016. I watched it after reading about the recent murder of Pakistani social media star Qandeel Baloch.
This moody mystery has a trifecta — a love triangle, murder and catfishing, the practice of pretending you’re someone else on the internet. The tagline: “Everybody lies online.” The true story is so unbelievable, it became fodder for a Lifetime version directed by Courtney Cox.
See? They don’t all have to be dark and twisted! Find out what makes people around the world happy in this fascinating exploration. The happiest people aren’t the richest, don’t have it all together on paper. They have something called “flow,” which you’ll want to learn about, for your own good.
The Queen of Versailles (2012)
Speaking of having it all, follow Jackie and David Siegel, owners of a Florida timeshare company, as they build a home lovingly called Versailles so you know it’s modest. Meanwhile, the economy of the United States heads down the toilet amid the Great Recession. Pop that corn!
Six by Sondheim (2013)
A delicious nugget for fans of theater. Learn about the life of lyricist and composer Stephen Sondheim in this HBO movie directed by his frequent collaborator, James Lapine. It’s swaddled between delightful musical numbers featuring some faves. Audra McDonald! America Ferrera! Darren Criss! Once you hear Sondheim talk, you’ll more fully understand his penchant for exhaustive wordplay.
Alright, time to get back to creepy. This is an excellent choice to fire up at your forthcoming Halloween party. It explores an urban legend, missing children on Staten Island and a real-life boogeyman, complete with trips to an abandoned mental institution at night.
Whores’ Glory (2011)
One of the most unsettling and interesting documentaries I’ve seen. There’s no narrator, no forced point of view. It’s a plain and unflinching look at prostitution at Thailand, Bangladesh and Mexico and the economic and social systems in which they operate. Warning: it is graphic.
I Think We’re Alone Now (2008)
I can’t explain it. But when a cousin and a friend came to visit for spring break a few years ago, we stayed in one night. We got into pajamas, poured some wine and turned on this movie about two people who have an unhealthy obsession with the 80’s pop singer Tiffany. And you know what? We still have no regrets.