To me, a good documentary is one that can reveal a world I know nothing about. A great documentary is one that can harness that exposure to create a cultural rhetoric that is somehow relevant to my life. I know that sounds preachy, but for a successful doc to work it really have aim big. So whether you are new to the documentary genre or a seasoned veteran, here are five docs on Netflix Streaming you need to watch.
Some deem the “Save the Whales” movement outdated, mundane, and irrelevant—and I don’t blame them. What started as a genuine movement to end the killing and capture of endangered mammals has now turned into a community of first-world anarchists posting on Facebook and starring in reality television (see Whale Wars… or rather, don’t). As a result, the focus is no longer on stopping the brutality brought upon the animals—and believe me, it’s fucking brutal—but on these pseudo-do-gooders who bring nothing to the equation.
Fortunately, there still are filmmakers and activists committed to this grassroots cause. Blackfish is the breakout documentary by Gabriela Cowperthwaite. It chronicles the life of Tilikum, a killer whale that has spent his entire life in captivity. Tilikum spends his days at SeaWorld in Orlando, Florida. He is mainly used as a male breeder, so that SeaWorld can keep its quota of born-in-captivity killer whales in tiptop shape. The story is fascinating. The blatant cover-up of whale attacks on their trainers, the barbaric treatment of the orcas, and the realization that these mammals aren’t that different emotionally from humans all makes for a very chilling film.
Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2011)
To find the best sushi in Japan you’ll have to go to an unlikely place. 85-year-old sushi chef Jiro Ono owns a 10-seat restaurant in a subway station in Japan. He is also a recipient of one of the most coveted awards in food, a Michelin Guide 3-star rating. To put this in perspective, no chef who exclusively serves sushi has ever received the honor, with the exception of Jiro.
The story is fascinating: sushi acts as the framework for a narrative that revolves around perseverance and hard work. Jiro is in his restaurant before the sun rises and does not leave until the sun sets. If you would like to be an apprentice of Jiro, an honor only awarded to a select few, you must be willing to dedicate 10 years of your life to him and his teachings.
The story also focuses on Jiro’s two sons. Yoshikazu, the older of his two sons, must work under his father’s supervision, even though he is well into his fifties. His younger son, however, is free to start his own restaurant without the pressures of being the first-born. If you're still scratching your head as to how a movie about making sushi could keep you occupied for an hour and a half, just go ahead and give it a watch. You’ll see.
War is hell. I don’t even feel worthy of typing the words because I've been fortunate enough to never experience it first-hand. This still doesn’t change that explicit fact. War is hell.
Restrepo opens with one of the most shocking scenes I’ve ever seen in a theatre. A camera shows the inside of a military Humvee convoy making its way down a dirt road. Shots of the serene, snowcapped mountains are quickly interrupted by a deafening blast. After that it’s dirt, smoke, gunfire, and military orders being shouted faster than you can comprehend.
The doc is a devastatingly authentic look at a platoon of infantry soldiers assigned to one of the most deadly outposts in Afghanistan, The Korangal Valley. The movie hits so many visceral notes and only gives a mere glimpse into the day-to-day operations of war. Reporters Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger were embedded with the platoon for their entire stay at the operating base, documenting everything along the way. They were able to capture footage that most people could never dream of, and both were just as dedicated to their jobs as the soldiers they were stationed with. I credit them for their incredibly unprejudiced approach to the piece. The doc is not a recruiting video for the military, nor is it a political statement of the U.S. involvement in the Middle East. Restrepo is a first-hand account of war like you’ve never seen.
The Imposter (2012)
A 13-year-old boy vanishes one night in Texas. Three years later he reappears in Spain, his look has changed and he has picked up an accent, but his family have no doubt that it is him. Short of giving away the entire movie, that’s about all I can give you. It’s certainly worth a watch. A very puzzling piece about the lies we tell others, and ones we tell ourselves, all in an attempt to stay happy.
Room 237 (2012)
I can remember it so vividly, watching The Shining for the first time. I was 15 years old and, at the time, really had no clue what I was getting myself in to. All I remember is seeing Jack Nicholson walking into room 237, discovering the decaying body in the bathtub and then slowly making his way out. I can stomach the scene much better these days, but that feeling of watching it for the first time will always stay with me.
Room 237 takes an in-depth look at Shining-obsessed fans who have created their own odd theories about the deeper meanings of the pictures. Filmmaking was everything but absolute for someone like Kubrick—The Shining has clues and hints that have stumped enthusiasts for years.
I don’t think Room 237 makes any profound assertions about the film, but it is really fascinating to hear these people’s theories.
Check out our other Netflix Instant picks here.