List: 10 Great Documentaries to Watch on Netflix 0 448

Documentaries are one of my favourite kinds of films, whether they’re exploring a subject that I’m already drawn to or introducing me to a topic about which I know nothing. Luckily Netflix has proven a more than decent resource for docs and at this very moment have some fantastic ones available. Here’s a list of 10 such docs well worth your time.

Note: This list refers to the UK region of Netflix.

13th

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Ava DuVernay impressed mightily with her Oscar-winning Martin Luther King Jr. “biopic” Selma a couple of years back. She followed that up with this masterful documentary that looks at the U.S. prison system and its history of systemic, institutional racism. Illuminating facts such as a quarter of the world’s incarcerated criminals are imprisoned within the U.S. is just the tip of the iceberg exposed by this essential doc that looks at everything from the Civil Rights movement to D.W. Griffith’s ever-controversial 1915 film The Birth of a Nation to the state of discrimination in today’s society and beyond. It informs you with statistics and figures but never feels like a lecture, shining a spotlight on conversations that more than ever need to be had.

Cartel Land

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A great non-fiction companion piece to Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario, this Oscar-winning doc from director Matthew Heineman explores the murky world of Mexican drug cartels and the vigilante groups dedicated to fighting them however they can. The inherent false equivalence of the approach niggles away as an issue, particularly as you think back over it, but it’s undoubtedly harrowing and vividly showcased viewing in the moment, particularly when you see how people put themselves in such dangerous situations in order to get the footage crucial to giving us a picture of a drug war that shows no signs of ending or offering up any easy answers.

The Hard Stop

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The compelling British documentary explores the case of Mark Duggan, a 29-year-old black man and father of six who, back in 2011, was shot and killed by armed police in Tottenham after stopping him by the side of the road using the controversial eponymous police tactic. Purportedly because he was wielding a gun despite evidence to the contrary. Documentarian George Amponsah’s hard-hitting and uncompromising film explores everything from the ensuing headline controversy, the riots that it sparked and the damaged lives of Mark’s best friends, Marcus and Kurtis, who try to battle against ongoing discrimination in getting on with their own lives as well as continuing to fight for justice for what happened to their friend. Amponsah displays a keen eye for human emotion and a shrewd way of re-illuminating a story that, since the tragedy occurred, has faded from a lot of people’s memories.

The Fear of 13

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There have been many documentaries about life on death row but few I’ve seen have resonated quite so powerfully on a gut-punch and profound level. David Sington’s stylishly done and piercing film explores the story of Nick Yarris, a man who spent more than two decades on Death Row on DNA evidence that, as would later show, was flimsy at best. It’s a tremendously up-close-and-personal film, with Yarris himself writ large on-screen as he tells his incredible story, full of jaw-dropping twists and turns, in fascinating detail. The eerie opening sequence is particularly potent, as Nick describes the punishing psychological effect of the enforced deafening silence on the Death Row block.

Jesus Camp

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Religion is always a hot button topic and it particularly scorches in this unflinching and oftentimes shocking documentary from directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady. It takes us on a journey into the “Kids on Fire” summer camp for that teaches (or indoctrinates, depending on your viewpoint) children into becoming evangelical Christians. Crucially the documentary never takes the angle that the very idea that faith itself is a bad thing but taps into how the means by which religious information disseminated particularly to young kids can be as damaging (if not more so) than the so-called immoral behaviour to which it’s trying so desperately to prevent them from succumbing.

The Queen of Versailles

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This stranger than fiction documentary follows the lives of David Siegel, the billionaire owner of timeshare Westgate Resorts in Florida, and his former beauty queen wife Jackie who embark on a mission to build Versailles, a lavish house that would be the biggest privately owned, single family home in America. But it’s about more than just showcasing the extravagant life of a super rich family; it explores the effect the U.S. economic crash (David’s business was directly tied into what caused the financial crisis) has on the family – a twist of fate thrust upon director Lauren Greenfield that turns the film into a far more complex prospect – how they need to readjust their lavish lifestyle while trying to keep up appearances as they come crashing down from the heights their wealth affords them. The colourful characters that populate the film, particularly the flamboyant woman of the title, keep things entertaining as we navigate their riches-to-rags story.

Into the Inferno

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This Netflix-produced documentary by the incomparable Werner Herzog would fit perfectly into a group with his other natural world docs like Cave of Forgotten Dreams and Encounters at the End of the World – it actually takes its cue from the latter as it’s where Herzog first met the volcanologist and co-director, Clive Oppenheimer, during a crucial scene. It’s an educational film but lent a purely cinematic quality, flavoured with Herzog’s signature style of fascinating insight, endearing genuine curiosity and unashamed obsession with the mystical nature of the natural world. It gives us a frighteningly up-close-and-personal look one of earth’s most ferocious natural features and the reiterates the idea that Mother Nature really doesn’t mess around.

Life Itself

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Roger Ebert is probably the most famous and influential American film critic of all. He sadly passed away back in 2013 and this love letter of a documentary does an amazing job of showcasing what made him so special. It gives us a lifelong view of his time here on earth; his upbringing, him making headway into the world of film journalism at the Chicago Sun Times (where he would remain for the entirety of his career), his often tumultuous friendship with fellow At the Movies critic Gene Siskel, his marriage to loving faithful and loving Chaz and how he persevered with his writing despite his devastating throat cancer diagnosis that would ultimately claim his life. It’s a documentary that bowled me over when I first saw it, for its deep sense of empathy and sense of reverence for a man I, like many, held up as a hero. It’s essential viewing for those who felt the same about him or even those who have even a passing interest in film criticism as an art form.

The Look of Silence

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Alongside its predecessor The Act of Killing, this documentary from Joshua Oppenheimer is one of the toughest and most harrowing docs I’ve ever seen as it further explores the sickening genocide that took place in Indonesia back in 1965-66 at the hands of so-called “death squads” who deemed the victims as Communists that needed be wiped out. Where the previous film took a more expansive and unusual approach – getting the killers themselves, years later, to reenact the crimes – this one zeroes in on one of the families affected by the devastating event. We see how a man named Adi plucks up tremendous courage to not only speak out about what happened to his brother, Ramli, but confront those who took his life, many of whom are still in positions of power. It’s never what you would call an easy watch but an essential one that makes sure you never forget its difficult subject matter.

Precinct Seven Five

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This gripping and impressively detailed documentary from director Tiller Russell explores the murky and dangerous world of police corruption, particularly focusing on the case of Michael Dowd, a once-bright young New York City cop who in the ’80s morphed into one of the most corrupt in the department’s history, heading a ruthless criminal network that stole money and drugs while patrolling the city he swore to protect and serve. The film sidesteps cliches of cop corruption so often explored in fiction and non-fiction storytelling alike by painting an enthralling portrait of the individuals surrounding Dowd, each with their own angles to tell. It presents its fascinating documentary recounting with both panache and gritty authenticity.

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I'm a freelance film reviewer and blogger with over 10 years of experience writing for various different reputable online and print publications. In addition to my running, editing and writing for Thoughts On Film, I am also the film critic for The National, the newspaper that supports an independent Scotland, covering the weekly film releases, film festivals and film-related features. I have a passion for all types of cinema, and have a particular love for foreign language film, especially South Korean and Japanese cinema. Favourite films include The Big Lebowski, Pulp Fiction and 2001: A Space Odyssey.

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Movie Review: Goodbye Christopher Robin 0 370

This review was previously published at The National.

The world of celebrated children’s author A. A. Milne and the creation of his beloved Winnie the Pooh stories are chronicled in this frightfully polite biopic from director Simon Curtis (My Week with Marilyn) that flirts with dipping its toes into darker waters but steadfastly clings to safe tropes and always with its top button firmly fastened.

We start off in 1941 where we find an ageing Milne (Domhnall Gleeson in questionable make-up and greyed hair) and his wife Daphne (Margot Robbie) living on their secluded East Sussex farm. They receive a telegram informing them that their son, C.R. Milne, is missing presumed dead after heading off to fight in World War Two.

We then jump back in time to Milne on the front lines of the First World War. He returns from the fighting a changed man; suffering from PTSD (popped balloons evoking sudden gunfire et al.), becoming increasingly sick of just making people laugh with his West End plays and the general hustle-bustle that comes with big city life.

He convinces his reluctant wife to move to the country for some peace and quiet and where his infant son, Christopher Robin (played by Will Tilston at the younger age, Alex Lawther as he gets older), can go on the childhood adventures he deserves with the support of loving nanny Olive (Kelly Macdonald).

Settling into the kind of serene life he craves, he is inspired to create Winnie the Pooh and the rest of his soon-to-be-beloved friends inspired by the stuffed animals with which his young son has become so enamoured. Unfortunately for Christopher – referred to by everyone as “Billy Moon” – his father uses his real name in the stories, turning him into one of the most famous boys in the nation.

Despite the obvious attraction of it exploring the world famous Pooh stories, it’s a film much more interested in the effect it has on a fractured family clinging on to peacefulness, not least the unwanted attention thrust upon a young boy who simply isn’t equipped to handle it and how his parents carry on oblivious.

If anything it takes a curiously bleak outlook on what these stories mean to the world once they’ve been put out there, conveying a somewhat confusing message for a film that ultimately wants us to celebrate these stories as immortally cherished tales; that the Winnie the Pooh embraced immediately by the public and has now stood the test of time for almost a century is in some way missing the point of what it truly means to the author and a son who, inadvertently or not, was used as a tool of innocence to sell the idea of an idyllic childhood in Milne’s Hundred Acre Wood.

It’s bolstered by almost uniformly moving performances; Gleeson plays Milne with a kind of damaged empathy that makes you feel like you get to know the author beyond the public persona. Macdonald is oftentimes heart-breaking as Christopher’s devoted caregiver and Tilston walks away with the film as the adorably sweet-natured young Christopher. It’s only with Robbie that the film makes a misstep; she’s miscast as Milne’s wife and never stepping out of the shadow of cold motherly cliché.

In spite of its darker leanings, the film remains too buttoned up to properly wrestle with those themes in any sort of lasting way, far too polite to ever dive head first into the murky waters into which the drama intermittently peers.

Wrapped in Ben Smithard’s handsomely old-fashioned cinematography and soaked in Carter Burwell’s perpetually swelling score, it’s an aesthetically and emotionally appealing but nevertheless fairly vanilla period biopic best suited to being enjoyed on a rainy Sunday afternoon with tea and biscuits.

6.5 out of 10

Editorial: New Look and Aim Going Forward 0 291

First off I must apologize to any returning readers and, if you’re a new reader, this will function as a bit of an FYI. You probably noticed that the site hadn’t been updated in many months. I won’t bore you with the details but suffice it to say that I got caught up with other things and, through my own fault, let the site lack.

However, I aim to change that now. I will be posting new content on as regular a basis as I can, with a particular focus on opinion features, essays and lists, as well the usual reviews. You will also undoubtedly have noticed that the site has had a bit of a dramatic overhaul! I just thought it was time for a change and I hope you like how it’s turned out.

Anyway enough of my blathering! I hope any returning readers find a renewed interest in my site and for any new readers I really do appreciate you taking the time to read my site and hope you find enough worth in my opinions to bring you back again.