The other day I wrote about why I love documentaries so much. So here are six good ones currently available from redbox. (And later I’ll tell you about six more I’ve seen in theaters this summer.)
Super Size Me‘s Morgan Spurlock’s documentary-making method is find a subject that concerns him, come up with a clever gimmick, and then immerse himself in it until he’s in over his head. In this case the subject is product placement in films and TV and marketing in general; the gimmick is to make a documentary about product placement and sponsorships that is, itself, entirely funded by such things; and yes, soon Spurlock is in over his head, to the extent that the marketing of the film itself becomes part of the story. (As well as even more effective marketing thanks to the stunt.) Spurlock spends his time wrangling sponsors and then jumping through their hoops, but he also talks to filmmakers about the effect on film creativity, and consumer and media experts and academics about the effects of increasingly nonstop marketing messages on our lives. While the subject matter isn’t necessarily alarming or arresting, the result is humorously eye-opening as always.
I gotta say, I don’t love Raymond. But how you feel about the hit sitcom Everyone Loves Raymond won’t affect your enjoyment of this charming documentary that follows Raymond co-creator and showrunner Phil Rosenthal to Moscow as he tries to help Russian TV develop their own version of Raymond. Rosenthal overplays the neurotic creative-type-out-of-water angle, but the film really shines when it presents the cultural differences that pop up when adapting an American family comedy for Russian audiences. It’s not just a matter of getting new joke references, but of encountering an entirely unfamiliar attitude toward humor and entertainment. And as in any documentary, it’s the real people who delight and fascinate, including a grim Russian executive in charge of comedy programming, a car driver with a surprisingly poignant military background, and a fashionista costume designer who cringes at the notion of TV characters wearing “normal” clothes.
A well-crafted, engrossing “mystery” documentary about our new lives (and lies) online, Catfish deftly sifts through layers of reality—a theme further underscored by questions about the authenticity of the film itself. Directed by New York filmmakers Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, Catfish follows Ariel’s brother Nev as he’s drawn into an emotionally complicated online relationship with a family in Michigan he’s never met. There’ve been issues about how much of Catfish is real: Some suggest the brothers’ initial contact with the family may be genuine, but the filmmakers always suspected things were not what they seemed and concocted parts of the documentary to make things more dramatic and mysterious. Either way, the gripping Catfish underscores that the Internet and Facebook didn’t create human duplicity, deception, and desperate self-delusion. Like so many things, they just made them that much easier to indulge.
The 2011 Oscar winner for Best Documentary is, like many advocacy documentaries, aimed at enraging the viewer. Director Charles Ferguson (who previously tackled American involvement in Iraq in 2007′s No End in Sight) takes on the financial crisis of 2008, pointing his camera (and finger) both at the staggeringly shady (to put it mildly) financial practices that led the world economy to the brink and at the players and institutions that were directly responsible and yet have skated free of any sort of punishment or accountability. Through it all Ferguson (with Matt Damon narrating) makes the nightmare quagmire of subprime mortgage derivatives and way-too-cozy connections between bankers and governments understandable and engaging. Global finances are dauntingly complicated, but however you feel about Ferguson’s outrage and placing of blame, everyone needs to grasp what happened and why. Inside Job is a good place to start.
Filmmaker Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth, It Might Get Loud) takes on a huge load of issues in this, his examination of why the American public education system is broken and how it might be fixed. Like most any documentary,Waiting for “Superman” is sometimes melodramatic and emotionally manipulative, deftly mixing in various families’ personal tales alongside the opinions of educational experts. But that doesn’t make its points about the crisis any less powerful, urgent or angering–in fact Davis’ greatest (and most heartbreaking) achievement is to clearly lay out the infuriatingly basic problems in our schools as well as the equally basic (and infuriating) roadblocks preventing them being solved. As a former high school teacher I’m aware Waiting for “Superman” may oversimplify some issues to give its call to action more punch, but I’m also aware of how badly that call is needed.
When I wrote about documentaries overall, I didn’t have room to include a fourth category: Portraits of lives and endeavors that may be ordinary or extraordinary, but either way prove enriching and inspiring. Restrepo is photojournalist Tim Hetherington and author Sebastian Junger’s video documentation of their year spent with a U.S. Army platoon in the Korengal valley of Afghanistan in 2007-8. The film is not political, it takes no stance on whether or not those soldiers should be there. Instead Restrepo is an unbelievably up-close and raw glimpse at what life is like on the front lines of Afghanistan, in one of the “deadliest places on earth”–told from the point of view of the men out there face to face with the enemy as well as the villagers whose hearts and minds are at stake. (A sad postscript: Co-director Hetherington was killed in combat this past April while covering the Libyan civil war.)