The thing about film is that everybody’s tastes are wildly different. Some people cried during Hotel Rwanda, while some people cried during Up. Okay, a lot of people cried during Up. It’s different strokes for different folks and a million other cliches. Movies are sometimes like olives, or blue cheese. Opinions run the gamut. At Bro Jackson, film guru Eddie Strait has a recurring piece where he defends “rotten” movies that he’s willing to go to keyboard war for. I’d argue passionately with the many Cloud Atlas haters.
Maybe some of the documentaries I pick are pizza, and others are blue cheese. I lather my salad with crumbles, you might think it smells like sulfur, and tastes like it too. Without further ado, the 10 best documentaries you can watch on Netflix, right now.
10) Unguarded (30for 30) As a sports lover, ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary series has been bliss. Most of them are very good, and almost all of them are worth watching once. But the crown jewel of the series, if pressed to recommend one, is Unguarded, the story of Chris Herren. Herren had offers from some of the best programs in the country out of high school, and began as a diaper dandy at Boston College before positive drug tests derailed his success. Director Jonathan Hock delivers mesmerizing lows, a sturdy hand screening disasters that elicit jaw-dropping empathy. This documentary was nominated for two Emmys, and on an intrinsically human level, might be the most moving thing ESPN has ever produced. Other great 30 for 30s, off the dome: Once Brothers, the Two Escobars, Run Ricky Run.
9) Bowling for Columbine: The controversial filmmaker’s offerings are always going to include sensationalism, bias, and stunts, but in terms of persuasion, Moore has you eating out of his hand. There’s a shocking jolt at the start that uncorks the documentary with a bang, and it keeps rolling from there. The most eloquent person interviewed in this is Marilyn Manson, no surprise for his fans but a shock for those who judge books by covers. Like Maher’s Religulous, this one isn’t meant to have a satisfying conclusion, it’s meant to reframe and spark gun-control discussion.
8) Restrepo: What’s unique about Restrepo is that it’s universally acclaimed, but not a terribly interesting documentary. Instead, the miracle lies within the access. It’s gritty but humanizing, a reason to grow indignant at the conditions of American troops in combat, pawns who press on despite their best interests. This is a meat and potatoes documentary, something you should watch even if it informs more than it entertains.
7) Exit Through the Gift Shop: This is the art house and abstract graffiti movie that wears heavy coats of confusion. Without a doubt the most difficult movie to explain on this list, even if I ladled in spoilers, you would still need a few screenings to start to wrap your head around it. With the backing of anonymous renegade British street artist Banksy and Shepard Fairey (think Obama “Hope” and Andre “Obey”), Thierry Guetta transforms his life to become Mr. Brainwash, the world’s hottest street artist. It’s Duchamp’s Fountain as video, insisting that art is everything, all-encompassing, but taking a not-so-subtle stab at the art world’s hype train. I’ll put it this way: No one knows for certain if this is a documentary or a mockumentary.
6) Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia: This is low-culture voyeurism at its finest. We’re introduced to a legendary band of Appalachian mountain-dwellers, drug-addled tap dancers who play reviled jesters of their community. Johnny Knoxville and other names from the Jackass crew are listed as producers, and it’s easy to see overlap between the high-risk lifestyles profiled in the documentary and in the show. Watching these people life is sad and baffling but amusing, like they’re having too much fun to realize they should be indignant.
5) Religulous: Bill Maher’s condescending asshole shtick is applied to a skewering of organized religion. Maher is so self-righteous and the subject matter so controversial that it’s polarizing, but Maher is an equal opportunity offender, skewering everything from Catholicism to Scientology (and an Amsterdam religion advocating perpetual highness). Roger Ebert gave Religulous three and a half out of four stars, saying “I report faithfully that I laughed frequently. You may very well hate it, but at least you’ve been informed. Perhaps you could enjoy the material about other religions, and tune out when yours is being discussed.” It’s a one-sided vendetta, but boy, is it venomous and on point.
4) Man on Wire: Man on Wire feels like a delightful caper, cheeky but dangerous fun from tightrope walker Phillippe Petit as he sneaks atop the World Trade Center and crosses between towers. The film has a 100 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and is an excellent work of exposition, revealing the hitches and deft pirouettes of Petit as he eludes authorities and figures out an ingenious way to connect the high wire. Nimble in preparation and execution, Petit, and the documentary itself, walks us through living life on the edge.
3) Jiro Dreams of Sushi: As a food, sushi falls squarely into the blue cheese category. It’s a divisive acquired taste. But this documentary is a pleasant, easy to digest look inside Japan’s best-rated sushi place. The owner is an old school person: He loves to work and perfect his craft, his sushi and his restaurant are both minimalist, and he is diligent in attention to detail Jiro’s a strict but good-hearted dictator with a number of quirks. Though they go in depth about the process of making sushi, this isn’t just a film for connoisseurs. It’s an inspiring take on discipline and success, and a look at a master of his field. Bonus points for excellent cinematography. The documentary feels as carefully-crafted as one of Jiro’s creations.
2) Hoop Dreams: If Hoop Dreams was scripted, William Gates and Arthur Agee would have started as big-shots, gotten split up, faced adversity, reunited and came back stronger than ever, before the movie ends in net-tickling euphoria. But what makes this nearly three hour-long saga great is that it isn’t cinema. It’s not Rocky, it’s not Rudy, it’s not Coach Carter. It’s a chronicle of life in the Chicago ghetto and a reminder that, for every young stud that makes it big, many more burn out along the way. Hoop Dreams transcends the game of basketball, an agenda-less dictum that leaves you thinking about race and class in American life.
1) Marwencol: I have a theory that everyone has one spectacularly weird idea inside them, waiting to be brought to light. One project that only they can grasp so passionately. Think Jason Segel’s vampire opera A Taste for Love in Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Beautifully obscure, and he’s the only man who can do it justice. I went to a Robert Olen Butler reading once where he voiced a short story he had written about a man who is transformed into a parrot, and then is taken to live with his former wife and her new beau, forced to watch their unbridled lust while only able to regurgitate a few choice phrases. Beautifully odd.
A severe beating caused irreparable damage to Mark Hogancamp’s brain. Hogancamp copes by creating an intricate and gorgeously rendered world, an epic craft project that’s tended to in painstaking detail. Hogancamp is a character, as well as other people in his life. It’s a gripping peek into the perseverance of man, a pristine lucidity in a world of fog and confusion. It’s so weird, so raw, a mind delicate and damaged. It hurts to see but it’s a joy to watch, a moving contradiction that mirrors the sliver of beauty within Hogancamp’s mind.
Documentaries not on Instant that would have made the cut: Dear Zachary, King of Kong, Searching for Sugar Man, Murderball, the Devil and Daniel Johnston.