The Best Biographical Documentaries on Netflix

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The Best Biographical Documentaries on Netflix

Netflix is particularly savvy at burying all its categorical key words; “biographical documentaries” isn’t exactly a phrase or sub-genre that comes to mind immediately when browsing for something to stream. See also: “biographical music & concert documentaries” or “gritty biographical documentaries” or “German biographical documentaries,” and so on. Which is why Paste is here to pick through all the algorithms to find the best of what that esoteric signifier has to offer.

Here are the best biographical documentaries currently streaming on Netflix:

missing-picture-movie-poster.jpg 35. The Missing Picture
Year: 2015
Director: Rithy Panh
The task of chronicling the unimaginable is handled with great care in The Missing Picture, an affecting documentary about the brutality of Cambodian strongman Pol Pot’s reign. Filmmaker Rithy Panh, who lived through the horrors as a boy, has shaped a compelling story with the help of an intriguing gambit that, while not always successful, forces us to see atrocity in a fresh light. The Missing Picture, which won the Un Certain Regard prize at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, gets its name from the notion that Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime sought to bolster its image through propaganda films that soft-pedaled its barbaric treatment of its citizens. Panh wants to restore the full picture of a dark era that began in 1975, and he’s chosen to do that by depicting his family’s imprisonment in labor camps through miniature dioramas populated by hand-carved clay figures. These scenes are then juxtaposed with actual propaganda films or recovered footage from the period. Though the dioramas are striking in their simplicity and the figurines’ melancholy faces convey endless amounts of misery, this representation of starvation and execution is so lovingly and delicately rendered that it can disconnect us from the misery, creating a safe distance that seems antithetical to Panh’s intentions. Still, the strategy largely works as the dioramas thrust us into a surreal other world suffused with sadness. These scenes’ hushed solemnity—complemented by Panh’s confessional, diary-like voiceover remembrances—draws us in, rather than pushing us away from the horrors we hear recounted. But those silent clay faces also prove to be a powerful representation of voices muzzled by a repressive regime. Stoic and hard, they become tiny memorials for the people Panh still cannot forget 40 years later. —Tim Grierson


fear-13.jpg 34. The Fear of 13
Year: 2015
Director: David Sington
Sington’s The Fear of 13 has a unique vision often not associated with (though probably well suited for) true crime, applying a stark, poetic narrative style to a fairly run-of-the-mill criminal justice story. Death row inmate Nick Yarris sits in a dark room, like in a black box theater, and recounts his story. The film relies almost entirely on Yarris’s charisma and gift for storytelling—developed during the years he spent educating himself in prison—with just the occasional visual or sonic flourish. It’s a risky strategy, but it pays off: The delights of The Fear of 13 lie in Yarris’s elegantly rendered anecdotes in which death row inmates sing in the dark, a bathroom break provides an opportunity for a nail-biting escape and how there’s palpable joy in learning new words like “triskaidekaphobia.” Though Sington leaves the viewer context-less for most of his film—Is Yarris telling the truth? Is he really on death row? Is he guilty or not?—he answers all in due time, but not before taking viewers on a pleasure of a ride. —Maura McAndrew


wendy-whelan-poster.jpg 33. Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan
Release Date: May 24, 2017
Directors: Adam Schlesinger, Linda Saffire
Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan isn’t a “dance movie,” per se. Except during the last 10 minutes (and even then, in what looks like a truncated form), there aren’t really any sustained ballet sequences in which to marvel at the former New York City Ballet principal dancer’s legendary physicality. It’s doubtful that neophytes will come away from Adam Schlesinger and Linda Saffire’s documentary with a deeper appreciation of the art form. Instead, this is a portrait of an artist at a professional and personal crossroads, as Whelan faces the potential death of the creative livelihood that has sustained her for so many decades, one that has given her life joy and meaning. Whelan’s process of trying to rediscover herself after a personal setback would not have been half as involving as it is if she hadn’t been so generous with the access she granted the filmmakers. She isn’t afraid to lay bare her vulnerabilities for the camera, and Schlesinger and Saffire are able to capture their subject in occasional private moments that make their subject seem poignantly human. It’s that intimacy that makes Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan an artist documentary that will play movingly—inspiringly, even—for those who aren’t already fans. —Kenji Fujishima


holy-hell-movie-poster.jpg 32. Holy Hell
Year: 2014
Director: Will Allen
A documentary equal parts memoir and exposé, Holy Hell focuses on the Buddhafield, a mysterious spiritual group—aka cult—that blossomed in West Hollywood and later in Austin, Texas, in the 1980s and ’90s. The film begins with director Will Allen’s story: A young film-school graduate in 1985 finds himself lost among the yuppies of the Reagan era. In voiceover that accompanies family pictures, home movies and archival film clips of Buddhafield members alternating between states of agony and ecstasy, he says, “This is what happened to me on my 22-year search for the truth.” But as Allen and many of his fellow members learn throughout their respective journeys, the truth is often elusive. Allen served as the Buddhafield’s de facto in-house videographer, capturing the group’s activities over the course of two decades. His inner-circle standing provides access to its leader Michel, the Teacher, a South American transplant and ballet-loving guru who prefers going shirtless and wearing Ray-Bans and Speedos to the long-flowing robes favored by other cult leaders. In crafting his first feature, Allen intersperses insider footage with more recent interviews with former members. What begins as a video memoir evolves into a much larger portrait of betrayal, grief and healing. While Allen inserts his presence on occasion, mostly through voiceover and brief film segments, he lets his fellow Buddhafield members do much of the talking and criticizing of their former guru. It’s a wise choice to not put himself at the center of his own documentary, but this avoidance of the spotlight also indirectly reveals that the filmmaker’s own psyche hasn’t fully recovered from two decades under Michel’s spell. —Christine N. Ziemba


tabloid-doc.jpg 31. Tabloid
Year: 2010
Director: Errol Morris 
Like Amanda Knox, Errol Morris’s Tabloid concerns the media’s fascination with stories of women, sex and violence—except Tabloid’s subject, Joyce McKinney, who was arrested in 1977 for kidnapping and raping a Mormon missionary, makes it so much harder than Knox does to advocate for her innocence. Is she a sweet, innocent woman? Is she a lunatic, a criminal mastermind? Is she all of this? Morris can’t seem to decide: The absurd story is told through interviews with co-conspirators, reporters and other relevant voices, but none is as captivating as the interviews with McKinney, who comes across as articulate, funny and ultimately believable…though one can’t ignore the feeling of being had. Morris’s films are often about the search for truth, but Tabloid upends that formula by presenting a Rashomon-style tale in which truth seems to be elastic, nebulous. Tabloid, then, is not so much a critique of tabloid media as it is its own form of tabloid, presenting a gleeful whirlwind of fact and fiction that’s entertaining despite—or because of—our reservations. —Maura McAndrew


tab-hunter-confidential-poster.jpg 30. Tab Hunter Confidential
Year: 2015
Director: Jeffrey Schwarz
The name Tab Hunter may be lost on the majority of today’s generation, but the 1950s matinee idol was among the most well-known American film icons of his era, and an all-American teen heartthrob at a time when being openly gay just wasn’t an option. Tab Hunter Confidential is a candid look at its namesake, and his struggle in both the spotlight and in the closet. Interviews, commentary and archival footage reveal the story behind how the celeb and sex symbol kept his true identity a secret for so long—and the resulting backlash after he was outed during an unexpected police raid. Film from some of Hunter’s earliest projects showcase the good looks that shot the actor to national fame, and in turn how drastically that bright spotlight amplified the pressure and fear. Through the documentary’s illuminating conversations with Hunter, industry members, other gay stars and those who knew him well, viewers get a clear understanding of his pop cultural impact and his role in paving the way for other actors like him. But even more so, the film is a strong illustration of how one man challenged a society’s assumptions about masculinity and desirability. —Abbey White


team-foxcatcher.jpg 29. Team Foxcatcher
Year: 2016
Director: John Greenhalgh
Netflix released this original documentary just two years after Bennett Miller’s film on the same subject, but where Miller’s film stretched the truth into melodrama, Team Foxcatcher plays it straight. Working closely with Dave Schultz’s widow, Greenhalgh recounts the events leading up to Schultz’s murder at the hands of eccentric millionaire John du Pont. Even for the rare viewer unaware of the story’s tragic ending, Team Foxcatcher offers plenty of insight. In revealing home video footage and interviews with Schultz’s fellow wrestlers and friends, the film depicts life at the Foxcatcher estate, where champion wrestlers lived and trained together under du Pont’s financial support, a generosity fueled by a desperate desire for love and belonging. What begins as an athletes’ utopia becomes a strained, dysfunctional family: As du Pont’s paranoia grows, the wrestlers—concerned with their careers and livelihoods—do their best to placate him. Because in the end, Team Foxcatcher’s greatest asset is its heart—even in the face of bizarre and tragic events, the love this large, makeshift family has for each other (du Pont included) is incredibly moving. —Maura McAndrew


sun-mu-movie-poster.jpg 28. I Am Sun Mu
Year: 2015
Director: Adam Sjöberg
A former North Korean propagandist and subsequent defector, artist Sun Mu is known for his satirical political pop art that openly criticize the repressive Kim Jong-un. By inverting the propaganda he once painted for the regime, he smears the “Supreme Leader” with new versions that now inspires hope in place of repression and heartbreak. Living and working under a pseudonym meaning “no boundaries,” he continues to face extreme danger as a defector. As perhaps one of the most exhilarating art documentaries you’ll ever watch, I am Sun Mu chronicles the journey the undercover artist takes as he hosts his first solo exhibition in China and faces the many conceivable dangers that come with being a defector—all for the sake of exposing the truth. —Brent Taalur Ramsey


iverson.jpg 27. Iverson
Year: 2014
Director: Zatella Beatty
For some of us, a great sports documentary is the kind of film that makes you forget you’re not that interested in sports—or better yet, the kind of film that makes you wonder why you’re not that into sports. Iverson starts out as a portrait of a young black man nearly lost to a criminal justice system that seemed determined to derail his life. Allen Iverson would go on to survive this attempt on his life and become one of the greatest basketball players of all time, as well as a representative of the dangers of respectability politics, which seep into all American organizations, including the NBA. Iverson invites you to sit with the complexities of fame, especially for black men and women who are expected to represent much more than their individual selves, and it also demands that—even if you don’t fall in love with the great Allen Iverson by the end, you have to respect his game. —Shannon M. Houston


floyd-norman-movie-poster.jpg 26. Floyd Norman: An Animated Life
Year: 2016
Directors: Erik Sharkey, Michael Fiore
In 1956, Floyd Norman made history as the first African-American animator to be hired by Disney; half a century later, he’s played a major role in creating some of their most classic films, including Sleeping Beauty and 101 Dalmatians. (He was even handpicked to work on The Jungle Book by Walt Disney himself.) Now 81 years old, he continues to impact the art of animation as a mentor and an artist. Though he officially retired when he was 65, in 2000, he refuses to leave his “home” and has worked (unpaid) from his cubicle at Disney Publishing on a freelance basis for the past 17 years. Floyd Norman: An Animated Life is an enchanting mix of original animated sequences, interviews and archive footage, providing an intimate look into Norman’s unique and trailblazing career. —Brent Taalur Ramsey


jim-andy.jpg 25. Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond
Year: 2017
Director: Chris Smith
The porous boundaries between storytellers and their stories are the linchpin of Netflix’s Chris Smith-directed, Spike Jonze-produced Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond, a fragmentary, yet compelling, look at the extreme lengths to which Jim Carrey went to portray his idol, singular entertainer Andy Kaufman, in the late Milos Forman’s 1999 biopic Man on the Moon. The film’s narrative hook is immediate: Jim & Andy draws from hours of behind-the-scenes footage that Universal had mothballed so viewers wouldn’t think Carrey, then one of Hollywood’s biggest and brightest stars, was “an asshole.” As we see some 18 years later, Carrey embodied Kaufman both on camera and off, his method acting antics begging meaningful questions about what drives performers to give themselves over to fantasy as well as how warped reality can get with such immersion. Jim & Andy is as moving as it is thought-provoking, a reminder that often in art there is no great joy without great pain. —Scott Russell


marsha-p.jpg 24. The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson
Year: 2017
Director: David France
Director David France’s documentary portrait of “the Rosa Parks of the LGBT movement” has come under fire from trans filmmaker Reina Gossett, who accuses France of purloining the idea for the film from a grant application she submitted to secure funding for her own film about the pioneering trans activist. Still, in bringing wider attention to Johnson’s life and work, the film is a worthwhile reminder that trans women of color were and remain queer revolutionaries—and that they were and remain disproportionately likely to be murdered, often in cases that are never solved. Following trans activist Victoria Cruz as she tries to find the truth behind Johnson’s 1992 death—which the police swiftly ruled a suicide despite indications of foul play—France blends true crime and the biopic into an illuminating treatment of a true American heroine. —Matt Brennan


shirkers-movie-poster.jpg 23. Shirkers
Year: 2018
Director: Sandi Tan
Making sense of one’s past can be both a lifelong undertaking and a thorny proposition. In Shirkers, novelist Sandi Tan accomplishes that trickiest of endeavors, directing a documentary about herself that isn’t cloying or cringe-worthy. Quite the contrary, her movie is refreshingly candid and self-critical: She may be the star of the show, but she has a story to tell and the right perspective to frame it properly. Tan narrates the documentary as a memory piece, recounting her childhood in Singapore with her best friend Jasmine, where they were the two cool kids in their pretty square school, dreaming of being filmmakers and leaving their mark. To further that ambition, they collaborated with another friend, Sophia, on a surreal road movie called Shirkers, which would be directed by Tan’s mentor, an older teacher named Georges who carried himself as someone who knew his way around a movie camera. In her late teens and perhaps smitten with this man who showed her such attention—the documentary is cagey on the subject—Tan was intoxicated by the rush of making a film that she wrote and would be the star of. So how come we’ve never seen it? The documentary traces the strange, mysterious journey of the project, which was waylaid by Georges sneaking off with the reels of film with a vague promise of finishing the work. That never happened, and 20 years later Tan decides to open those old wounds, connecting with her old friends and trying to determine what became of Georges. Scenes from the unfinished film appear in Shirkers, tipping the audience off to the fact that there will be a happy-ish resolution to Tan’s quest. But the documentary ends up being less about tracking down the film canisters than being an exploration of nostalgia, friendship and the allure of mentors. Tan is lively, self-effacing company throughout—her voice has just the right sardonic tinge—but her visits with Jasmine and Sophia are particularly lovely and illuminating, suggesting how lifelong pals can see us in ways that we cannot. —Tim Grierson


20-feet-from-stardom.jpg 22. 20 Feet From Stardom
Year: 2013
Director: Morgan Neville
“Da Doo Ron Ron.” Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say.” Joe Cocker’s “Feelin’ Alright.” Lynyrd Skynrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama.” The Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter.” Strip these classic anthems of their backup vocals, and they’re just not the same. In 20 Feet from Stardom, music documentarian Morgan Neville introduces talented women like Darlene Love, Merry Clayton and Lisa Fischer, who, for one reason or another, lived mostly out of the spotlight. As Bruce Springsteen says in the movie’s opening interview, “That walk to the front [of the stage] is complicated.” 20 Feet from Stardom is a thorough document on the craft of backup singing, revealing the special skill set required to achieve a perfect blend of voices and the spiritual high that can sometimes result; the difference between backup singers and eye candy (looking at you, Ike Turner); and the recording of “Sweet Home Alabama” amid the Civil Rights Movement. And it’s all set to a soundtrack of some of the best tunes to come out of the second half of the 20th century. —Annlee Ellingson


100-years-show-movie-poster.jpg 21. The 100 Years Show
Year: 2015
Director: Alison Klayman
Now one of the oldest contemporary artists living and working today, Carmen Herrera is, without a doubt, an absolute legend, though you might not know her name. As a Cuban-American painter, she was a pioneer in the abstract-minimalism movement in the ‘40s and ‘50s but was often overlooked (as many great artists were during that time) because of her race, gender or nationality. Because of that, she didn’t reach international and artist success until very late in life, and I’d like to think this documentary is a well-deserved celebration of Herrera’s radiant and revolutionary vision—and it couldn’t have come at a better time. Filmed shortly before her 100th birthday, this film follows Herrera as she reflects on her life-long career and goes about her daily life—a strict schedule of sketching and painting. The 100 Years Show is the ultimate introduction to Herrera’s pioneering fusion of geometric minimalism and striking simplicity, and the woman behind the vision. —Brent Taalur Ramsey


ai-weiwei-never.jpg 20. Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry
Director: Alison Klayman
Year: 2012
Filmmaker Alison Klayman gained an astonishing level of access to the celebrated Chinese artist-activist Ai Weiwei in the years following the opening of Beijing’s Bird’s Nest Stadium in 2008. No sooner was the stadium completed, however, than Ai—a design consultant on the stadium—became both the Games’ and the building’s most vociferous critic, calling them symbols of state propaganda. The criticism immediately made Ai a persona non grata in the eyes of the Chinese state but, to the free world, he was an exciting and shockingly frank artist from a place in sore need of one. Ai’s 2008 brush with state authorities was only the beginning of his escalating agitation with China’s government—something that Klayman compellingly illuminates in her debut documentary, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry. Her portrait of the artist as a witty sociopolitical critic chronicles the challenges of finding justice and transparency in a repressive state. Indeed, the price for Ai’s agitation led to the demolition of his Shanghai studio and his own three-month detention in 2011. Through interviews with Ai, his relatives and art-world colleagues and curators, we get as fully rounded a picture as possible of an artist who—by virtue of his personality and his political realities—maintains a wry, restrained poise. In her aims to paint a picture of a courageous artist, a revolutionary worshipped by his admirers and Twitter followers, Klayman risks turning her documentary into a publicity machine for its subject. Still, Ai Weiwei is too commanding and fascinating a figure to ignore, and Never Sorry is an excellent showcase for why he matters to the world. Whether he’s photographing himself shattering a Neolithic Chinese vase or stenciling the Coca-Cola logo on an ancient urn, Ai’s artwork always manages to provoke, forcing us to consider the individual’s place at the intersection of history and the future, commerce and heritage, the machinery of the state and the creative ingenuity of a single citizen. —Jay Antani


good-american-movie-poster.jpg 19. A Good American
Year: 2015
Director: Friedrich Moser
Rarely have the inner workings of metadata seemed so riveting as in Austrian filmmaker Friedrich Moser’s portrait of Bill Binney, the former tech director of the NSA. The master code breaker and cryptologist behind the ThinThread program, he was essentially a math geek who delighted in making the infinite finite, mapping all of the relationships of all the people in the world in a program proven to predict catastrophic manmade events over several decades. Binney’s ability to find structure in behaviors is tracked back to the Bay of Pigs, though metadata in particular is discussed as a product of the digital age; he explains how the sheer explosion of information buried analysts of the time with “meaningless data” before Binney, et al. reframed the problem. At the forefront of his worries are the unintended consequences of misinformation and misinterpretation, along with—as ThinThread included—privacy protections in response to the “arrogance of power” that accompanies trillions of touchpoints. Presented with the slick production and suspenseful dramatizations of a spy thriller, A Good American contextualizes analytics from the first attacks on the World Trade Center in 1993 to Sept. 11, which—tragically—did not benefit from Binney and Co.’s creation: It’d been scrapped by the government three weeks prior. The Imitation Game, this is not. “Everything is human behavior,” Binney says matter-of-factly. “When you see the pattern and break, that’s exhilarating.” A Good American is at its most compelling in the words of its brilliant whistleblower, who believes in the humanity of numbers, and their ability to provide a greater understanding of how people operate. —Amanda Schurr


cutie-boxer.jpg 18. Cutie and the Boxer
Year: 2013
Director: Zachary Heinzerling
Great artists are often forgiven for flaws in their personal lives, but such forgiveness usually hinges on success. Cutie and the Boxer, Zachary Heinzerling’s fascinating documentary about Ushio Shinohara and his wife, Noriko, studies the life of a man who is entering his 80s, but still dreams like he’s 20. Ultimately, the audience must decide whether he’s an important mind or a bum. Ushio, who spear-headed the Neo Dadaist movement in the ’60s, is best known for his “boxing paintings,” created by punching the canvas with paint-soaked boxing gloves. He also makes grotesque cardboard sculptures of motorcycles. While he’s noteworthy, his work doesn’t inspire many people to pull out their checkbooks. The documentary follows the passions and struggles of the couple as they live in their small New York City apartment with little income to support their lives and endeavors. Noriko emerges as the heart of the movie, as she recalls her life while writing a graphic novel about her rocky marriage. Heinzerling combines Noriko’s drawings with contemporary footage to create a story that isn’t only a tale of creative minds, but an honest love story. —Jeremy Mathews


sugar-man.jpg 17. Searching for Sugar Man
Year: 2012
Director: Malik Bendjelloul
“The Story of the Forgotten Genius” is such a well-worn formula for music documentaries that it was already being parodied more than three decades ago in This is Spinal Tap. In Searching for Sugar Man, as Swedish director Malik Bendjelloul begins to tell the story of Rodriguez—the Dylanesque folk rocker who released two apparently brilliant albums in the early 1970s, then disappeared—it appears he’s traveling a familiar road. But that road takes a sharp left turn when we learn that bootleg recordings catapulted Rodriguez to stratospheric heights of fame in apartheid-era South Africa. (When a record-store owner is asked if Rodriguez was as big as the Rolling Stones, he matter-of-factly replies “Oh, much bigger than that.”). In fact, his uncensored depictions of sex and drugs were so thrilling to South African musicians that he became the patron saint of the Afrikaner punk movement, which in turn laid the groundwork for the organized anti-apartheid movement that eventually brought the regime down. It’s just a shame that Rodriguez never lived to see it—he burned himself to death onstage in the middle of a show. Or overdosed in prison. Or shot himself alone in his apartment. Or… could he still be alive? Bendjelloul’s film manages to create an aura of mystery and suspense around a search that actually unfolded 14 years ago—a “detective documentary” set in the very recent past. —Michael Dunaway


miss-sharon-jones-poster.jpg 16. Miss Sharon Jones!
Year: 2016
Director: Barbara Kopple
In 2013, Sharon Jones was diagnosed with Stage 2 pancreatic cancer—in itself a depressing development, but not without a lot of optimism attached to the prognosis. Except for a by-the-book opening segment, in which director Barbara Kopple seems to grind through all of her blandest tendencies to make room for the grist of what’s important, the film filters Jones’s life and career through her illness. We meet Jones’s band, the Dap-Kings, through that lens, getting to know each musician in light of how their friend’s illness has unfortunately affected their livelihoods. They have mortgages and alimony to pay, children to support, a record label to run. That all of this, already precariously balanced due to the nature of the music-making business, is so dependent on Jones’s health becomes a shadow hanging over every interview. When band practices are occupied by 10+ people sitting patiently in a room waiting for Jones to get back into her groove or helping the singer remember the lyrics to her songs, Kopple’s film is heartbreaking, walking that tragic line between hopelessness and optimism, encapsulating so clearly what it’s like to be close to someone who’s so sick. But the real thrill of Miss Sharon Jones! is in its concert footage, Kopple letting Jones’s performances, old and new, suffice as the best testament to the singer’s power and—unbeknonwst to anyone at the time, though the thought must have crossed their minds incessantly—the most immediate eulogy we’ve got. If you ever had the chance to behold her on stage, then you know how exhilarating she can be. If you hadn’t? Despite recent tragedy, Kopple has some seriously life-affirming stuff you need to see. —Dom Sinacola


chasing-trane-poster.jpg 15. Chasing Trane
Year: 2016
Director: John Scheinfeld
Those old and new to John Coltrane will find something to appreciate in this vivid, albeit effusive, tribute to the jazz legend. Family members, former bandmates and famous fans (Kamasi Washington, Wynton Marsalis, John Densmore, Bill Clinton) recount the genius of the sax player’s compositions and evolution of his talents, from his Charlie Parker-mimicking early work to his later, freeform experimentation. Devotees shouldn’t expect much of a deep dive here on any level; via home movies, archival footage and personal diaries read by Denzel Washington, the film takes a linear, survey-style approach to his North Carolina childhood and drug-addled twenties, two marriages, and quick succumbing to liver cancer in 1967 at only 40. Filmmaker John Scheinfeld dips in and out of the music—too much so, it turns out, and with too little insight into the specifics of his gifts. Still, the overarching salvation Trane found in music resonates with such joy. The sequence about his civil rights opus “Alabama,” which took its phrasing cues from the cadence of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., is a stirring illumination of his creative process. As Coltrane’s notes unfold atop King’s words, music and speech flow into and out of each other in a still urgent, impassioned release. Elsewhere, the doc looks at the transformative power of Coltrane’s faith, his relationships and his legacy with iconic works such as “My Favorite Things” and “A Love Supreme.” Midway through the film Dr. Cornel West describes Coltrane as a thermostat, not a thermometer, of the times, an instrument personified that adapted rather than just measured. In its best moments, Chasing Trane succeeds in that as well. —Amanda Schurr


finding-vivian-maier-poster.jpg 14. Finding Vivian Maier
Year: 2013
Directors: John Maloof, Charlie Siskel
When Vivian Maier died at the age of 83 in the spring of 2009, those who had known the woman remembered her as a nanny with a humorously stiff gait and a penchant for taking photographs. But after Maier’s death, her narrative has been radically rewritten, her striking street photography celebrated in exhibitions from Los Angeles to London. That such a private, peculiar woman could retroactively be recognized as one of the best photographers of the last 50 years is a testament to the untold great art being made under our collective nose. It’s an enticing story, and it’s breezily told in Finding Vivian Maier, a documentary that examines her path to the posthumous spotlight. Directed by John Maloof and Charlie Siskel, the film begins with Maloof explaining how he purchased a box of old negatives in 2007 for a book project but never ended up using them. Years later, he became obsessed with the photos—arresting, unassuming street scenes from the 1950s and ’60s in Chicago and New York—and was curious who had taken them. His journey led him to a woman named Vivian Maier, who made her living principally as a caretaker of young children. Finding Vivian Maier interviews the now-grown kids she nannied, as well as their parents and others who were friends of the reclusive woman. Finding Vivian Maier is in a tradition that includes Stone Reader and Searching for Sugar Man: documentaries whose makers are trying to track down forgotten or obscure artists whose work has deeply impacted them. So what we have here is a detective story, with Maloof and Siskel looking for clues into Maier’s personality and thought process. (For instance, she shot more than 100,000 photographs but never had them developed. Could she not afford it, or did she not want her work seen by the public? What drove her to so obsessively chronicle her world but never enjoy the fruits of her labor?) Maier may not have been pleased that the world now knows about her, but Finding Vivian Maier persuasively argues that photography is the better for it. Her work is haunting—the mystery and complexity of her life even more so. —Tim Grierson


43-Netflix-Docs_2015-miss-simone.jpg 13. What Happened, Miss Simone?
Year: 2015
Director: Liz Garbus
Liz Garbus’s What Happened, Miss Simone? probably errs too far towards a thesis that Nina Simone’s mental health was the cause of her genius, rather than a factor that complicated it. But what saves the film, and what makes it engaging, is that I’m not sure Garbus wholly believes that thesis, because many moments in the film betray it. So even though there are times where Garbus elides aspects of Simone’s life and career to represent her decline as inevitable and linear (and even though she problematically chooses to use interviews with Simone’s abusive ex-husband to narrate Simone’s life), the parts of the film where Simone is allowed to speak for herself—from her diary, from interviews, while performing onstage—are utterly compelling. They portray an artist in the late-1960s at the height of her powers and skill, in complete control of her piano and her voice, and brashly embracing radical politics and Black Power in a way that most contemporary popular musicians were far too scared to do. Sure they also portray an artist who was clearly struggling with fame, responsibility, politics, anger, and self-worth—but, especially in performance, the sheer scope of Simone’s technical skill and artistic sensibilities often escape the imposed rise-and-fall narrative. Even footage from late in Simone’s career provides evidence of her insane musical skill: her reinterpretation of early hit “My Baby Just Cares for Me” over a piano arrangement that sounds like one of Bach’s Inventions is astounding in about 30 different ways at once. Though I can only recommend this film with the caveat that it feels overly storyboarded to exploit a tired old idea of the tortured artist in order to answer its titular question—as in, “Q. What happened?; A. The very qualities that made her great also haunted her”—the concert footage alone makes this documentary worth digging into. —Mark Abraham


sunshine-superman-cover.jpg 12. Sunshine Superman
Year: 2015
Director: Marah Strauch
Sunshine Superman can be a problematic film to love. A thorough, intimate and often beautiful documentary about Carl Boenish and the BASE jumping movement that practically sprang single-mindedly from the endless font of his surreal enthusiasm, Sunshine Superman still can’t grasp the full splendor at the hearts of both the person and the extreme sport that serve as the film’s most plangent concern. And that isn’t necessarily the film’s fault—there is only so much excitement that can be conveyed regarding the freezing of a full-body rush into a small, albeit panoramic and easily gorgeous, picture—but it is something the film can’t get over. First-time filmmaker Marah Strauch spent years crafting something of a perfect eulogy to Carl Boenish—and her dedication to investigating his outsized life is palpable. It’s no real spoiler he dies, because although you don’t discover the details of Carl’s fate until the film’s final 20-minute stretch, his absence is heavy. His ghost is present everywhere else, though—in home recordings, in reel to reel recordings and even in answering machine messages, Boenish’s ebullient voice lives on righteously throughout the film. The way in which Strauch is able to weave the choicest moments from Boenish’s recordings into a larger narrative that neither betrays the freedom of what he was doing nor feels too formless speaks to a film that seems well-crafted beyond its years, despite the ghost that haunts it. —Dom Sinacola


amy-poster.jpg 11. Amy
Year: 2015
Director: Asif Kapadia
Director Asif Kapadia wisely puts his subject front-and-center; friends, family members and music industry associates are all interviewed for the film, but nearly all of them are presented as voiceovers rather than talking heads. Even when others are speaking, it’s impossible to take your eyes off Winehouse in Amy. He has a way of making her reality feel cinematic, lingering in slow motion as she looks back at the paparazzi and rolls her eyes after rushing into a car amid a flurry of camera flashes. When she wins the Grammy for Record of the Year and gazes up at a screen broadcasting the ceremony, the way her eyes light up will make you briefly think you’re not watching a documentary, but rather an awards-season biopic with some actress in a beehive wig trying to earn her Oscar. Then you’ll pity anyone dumb enough to try to top Amy with something scripted—there’s nothing like the real thing. —Bonnie Stiernberg


called-morgan-poster.jpg 10. I Called Him Morgan
Year: 2016
Director: Kasper Collin
I Called Him Morgan is the story of two troubled people, one of whom killed the other. Documentarian Kasper Collin—who previously made My Name Is Albert Ayler, also about a jazz musician—looks at the difficult, abbreviated life of trumpeter Lee Morgan, who was shot dead in the winter of 1972 in New York. It’s not a mystery who pulled the trigger—it was his common-law wife, Helen, who was more than 10 years his senior—but I Called Him Morgan isn’t about solving a crime, rather, it’s about connecting the dots regarding why the crime happened. Throughout the film, you feel the slow, grim pull of inevitable tragedy set against a lush visual palette. (Oscar-nominated Arrival cinematographer Bradford Young is one of I Called Him Morgan’s credited cameramen.) Talking heads’ tales are crosscut with dreamy images—snowy nights in New York, a hypnotically colorful fish tank—that always feel pertinent to what’s being discussed. And then there are the interview subjects and the milieu. Jazz musicians such as Wayne Shorter and Charli Persip talk about their friend with specificity and insight, and Lee Morgan’s music—as well as the music he played in other people’s bands—fills the soundtrack. The film will be heaven for jazz aficionados, but those who don’t know the difference between bebop and hard bop won’t feel lost. Collin understands that his film is about people, not art, but his deft storytelling—and the endless sadness that comes from his tale—flexes its own nimbleness and beauty. —Tim Grierson


for-grace-cover.jpg 9. For Grace
Year: 2015
Director: Mark Helenowski, Kevin Pang
Those going into For Grace unfamiliar with chef Curtis Duffy might think it another on-trend slice of foodie porn about the latest culinary rockstar—and they’d be right, kind of. Chicago Tribune dining reporter/filmmaker Kevin Pang and filmmaker Mark Helenowski introduce Duffy as a two-Michelin-starred hotshot who sharpened his knives under Charlie Trotter and Grant Achatz before leaving his latest venture (Avenues) to open labor-of-love restaurant Grace. And that’s where the devastating backstory comes into focus. As the even-keeled, hyper-disciplined Duffy describes a troubled upbringing that involves the murder-suicide of his parents, viewers glimpse the moments that shaped the recently divorced father of two young girls. He frets over $1,000-a-pop dining room chairs, but he frets arguably more about an opening night visit from his middle school home-ec teacher, who took on a motherly role following his own mom’s death. Throughout, Duffy holds himself with a quiet dignity and, yes, grace that resonates on the elegant plates he crafts. So too does his staff, helmed by a GM/business partner who understands how important it is to make each diner feel special—Googling and social media searches of that night’s reservations are par for the course. At now $235 per tasting menu, such a personalized experience should go without saying, but the sincerity and gratitude is obvious. And, of course, the food looks nothing short of exquisite. —Amanda Schurr


george-harrison-scorsese-movie-poster.jpg 8. George Harrison: Living in the Material World
Year: 2011
Director: Martin Scorsese 
Martin Scorsese’s 2011 documentary meticulously recounts George Harrison’s life story, from his birth in 1943 in a war-ravaged Liverpool, to the maelstrom that was the Beatles, to his solo artist years, to his later life until it ended way too soon when he died of cancer (although, as you’ll see when you watch the film, Harrison probably wouldn’t have believed that he died before his time). He was in many ways the most mysterious of the four Beatles, “the quiet one.” No one really had a clue what he was truly about until his amazing triple solo album, All Things Must Pass, was released in 1970. The interviews in the film (Eric Clapton, Terry Gilliam, Ringo Starr, Paul McCartney, Phil Spector, Eric Idle, George Martin, Yoko Ono, Tom Petty, Jackie Stewart and others) are stellar, as is the archival material, with a lot of rare clips that will delight any Beatles or Harrison fan. There are plenty of reveals that will keep the viewer enthralled. The Beatles were only a very small part of Harrison’s story and probably not what he considered the most important part at all. This is clearly evidenced by a 1969 diary entry we are shown where he writes casually that he woke up, rehearsed at Twickenham (the tension-filled Let it Be sessions) “and in the evening did King of Fuh at Trident studio, had chips later.” One of the most important things any documentary about someone can give us is a totally new and unique look at a life—Living in the Material World is all that and more. —Holly Cara Price


35-Netflix-Docs_2015-brothers-keeper.jpg 7. Brother’s Keeper
Year: 1992
Directors: Joe Berlinger, Bruce Sinofsky
There’s an alleged crime at the center of Brother’s Keeper: whether or not Delbert Ward, a 59-year-old farmer from Munnsville, New York, is guilty of murdering his older brother William. But that’s not really what Brother’s Keeper is about. Filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky instead focus on the wide fissure between urban and rural American cultures in the late-1980s and early-1990s, examining the way the three remaining Ward brothers, essentially outcasts in their community prior to William’s death, are increasingly embraced by Munnsville as the media descends upon the town to report on Delbert’s trial. The mystery here is not about whether or not William was murdered; the mystery is what lies at the heart of community bonds and national identity, and how allegiances change as communities grow larger. —Mark Abraham


peter-farm-movie-poster.jpg 6. Peter and the Farm
Year: 2016
Director: Tony Stone
If the success of a character study can be measured purely by the extent to which the character him-/herself draws one’s attention, then Peter and the Farm is surely one of the most successful of recent years. On the surface, beyond his long white beard, there isn’t anything extraordinarily distinctive about Peter Dunning, a solitary farmer who has devoted 35 years of his life to tending his farm in Vermont, and whose lonely existence masks deep psychological scars underneath. Even his traumas are fairly mundane: estrangement from his ex-wives and kids, curdled hippie idealism, a hand accident that ended his artistic dreams. And yet, once you hear Peter speak in his dramatically galvanizing voice, one can’t help but sit up and pay attention to whatever cantankerous, world-weary, brutally candid statements he utters. However you take Peter Dunning, though, there is something admirable to the way Tony Stone and Co. view their subject with a fascination that’s filled with clear-eyed empathy. It’s the kind of unsentimental compassion that animates the best art. —Kenji Fujishima


karl-marx-city-poster.jpg 5. Karl Marx City
Year: 2016
Directors: Petra Epperlein, Michael Tucker
If you didn’t live in East Germany during the decades the Stasi was extending its insidious reach, perhaps your only knowledge of the GDR secret police comes from the 2007 Oscar-winner The Lives of Others. If nothing else, Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker’s Karl Marx City offers a necessary riposte to Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s film—and not just because one talking-heads expert in the film takes devastatingly direct aim at that film’s bogus sentimentalities. Epperlein and Tucker go deeper into elucidating the inner workings of Stasi authoritarian machinery than most films, exposing a whole society driven by paranoia, one where few people felt they could trust even their closest friends. But perhaps the most noteworthy achievement of Karl Marx City lies in the way it manages to use Epperlein’s own personal story—her quest to discover whether her late father was, in fact, a Stasi informant—as a conduit to explore this harrowing period in German history without coming off as merely solipsistic. Here is a sterling example of a deeply intimate story that successfully opens out into broader historical terrain in genuinely eye-opening ways. —Kenji Fujishima


pumping-iron-cover.jpg 4. Pumping Iron
Year: 1977
Directors: Robert Fiore, George Butler
Behold arrogance anthropomorphized: A 28-year-old Arnold Schwarzenegger, competing for his sixth Mr. Olympia title, effortlessly waxes poetic about his overall excellence, his litanies regarding the similarities between orgasming and lifting weights merely fodder between bouts of pumping the titular iron and/or flirting with women he can roll up into his biceps like little flesh burritos. He is both the epitome of the human form and almost tragically inhuman, so corporeally perfect that his physique seems unattainable, his status as a weightlifting wunderkind one of a kind. And yet, in the other corner, a young, nervous Lou Ferrigno primes his equally large body to usurp Arnold’s title, but without the magnanimous bluster and dick-wagging swagger the soon-to-be Hollywood icon makes no attempt to hide. Schwarzenegger understands that weightlifting is a mind game (like in any sport), buttressed best by a healthy sense of vanity and privilege, and directors Fiore and Butler mine Arnold’s past enough to divine where he inherited such self-absorption. Contrast this attitude against Ferrigno’s almost morbid shyness, and Pumping Iron becomes a fascinating glimpse at the kind of sociopathy required of living gods. —Dom Sinacola


24-Netflix-Docs_2015-biggie-tupac.jpg 3. Biggie & Tupac
Year: 2002
Director: Nick Broomfield
From its very first moments, Biggie & Tupac—a sort of truther’s glimpse into the murders of rappers Notorious BIG and 2Pac—is an exceptionally strange film. Director and narrator Nick Broomfield speaks in a clipped cadence, as if English isn’t his first language, and Earth isn’t his home planet. That he is somehow able to waddle his way into the most exclusive (and sometimes terrifying) situations is nearly incomprehensible, until one realizes that, to some extent, all his weirdness probably makes him seem so non-threatening that the folks who spill deeply incriminating confessions probably never figure his footage will ever see the light of day. And yet, Biggie & Tupac is endlessly compelling, far from an actually competent procedural but still ringing with enough sincerity that, buried beneath Broomfield’s weirdness and his very dubious journalistic intentions, there must be something true he’s tapping into. I’ve heard Broomfield referred to, among other epithets, as a “bottom-feeding creep,” and it’s not a stretch to see how his methods and results could be construed as the work of such. Yet, the access the man gets … when it comes to documentary film, do the ends justify the means? Because: the last 10 minutes of the film alone are worth the journey, in which an interview with Suge Knight (whom the film pretty clearly portrays as the orchestrator of both murders) reveals unnerving opinions on socioeconomic and racial realities. —Dom Sinacola


sonita-movie-poster.jpg 2. Sonita
Year: 2015
Director: Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami
Sonita is a documentary of projected moments: a mother buried under lifetimes of religious oppression picking up the phone to soon after hang up on a daughter finally digging herself free; an Iranian teenage girl accepting that she is little more than a commodity to be sold for a reasonable price, collapsing in tears under the weight of futility; a documentarian who can’t help but intervene in the life of her subject, even though she knows to do so would be to breach the duty that gives her purpose. In 18-year-old Afghani refugee Sonita—an aspiring rapper who finds that everything she loves is against the law in her new Tehranian home—everyone discovers inspiration to do more, to be more, to hope for more than their lives have ever ostensibly allowed. But when Sonita turns the camera on its filmmaker, detailing Maghami’s decision to spend the money required to keep Sonita in Iran when her family decides to return to war-torn Afghanistan, the film becomes so much more than a portrait: Like The Look of Silence, Sonita emerges as a testament to the responsibility of seeing. In a world like ours, there is no longer any such thing as an impartial observer. —Dom Sinacola


little-dieter-needs-fly.jpg 1. Little Dieter Needs to Fly
Year: 1998
Director: Werner Herzog 
The story of former fighter pilot Dieter Dengler, told in his own words, is one that, while pretty unbelievable, best illustrates the mastery manipulation of the man helping tell it. Werner Herzog makes no apologies for the way he so often bends truth to more snugly serve the grandeur he finds in the subjects he chooses for his documentaries—but he’s never been interested in unadulterated truth anyway. Instead, he’s in the documentary game for the exultation of truth, conveying it in such a way as to focus on the overpowering emotions at its core. And so, in Little Dieter Needs to Fly, Herzog takes Dengler back to Southeast Asia, where, in the early days of the Vietnam War, he was shot down and taken prisoner, tortured and starved—but then, somewhere within him, found the will to escape. Dengler leads us step by step through this harrowing experience, accompanied by locals who Herzog hired to help Dengler “reenact” the events, and in a sense help him remember. That Herzog later went on to make a narrative feature based on Dengler’s story isn’t at all surprising—Rescue Dawn, starring Christian Bale in the lead role, walks a fine line between harsh reality and patriotic melodrama. Because, as Herzog told Paste more than eight years ago: “Rescue Dawn is not a war movie. It’s a film about the test and trial of men … And survival.” It doesn’t necessarily matter how Dengler escaped, but that he was able to at all. Whatever you want to call it, it was that titular “need” that propelled him onward—and that’s the truth Herzog wants to discover. —Dom Sinacola

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