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Documentaries

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Five Documentaries That Surprised Us

Why you should care

Because now you have your next few nerdy Friday nights lined up.

Watching documentaries used to feel like eating your vegetables or doing your chores. Now it can feel like being scolded for not having done those things. Nonfiction movies have gotten very good at telling us what’s wrong with the world and what to think about it — everyone’s corrupt, nothing should come as a surprise anymore — and yet, amid the din of know-it-all narration, you can still find voices speaking up for the old-fashioned wow factor of sheer wonderment or the valor of rewarding human curiosity. Consider these:

Muscle Shoals

The last couple of years have produced some terrific behind-the-music docs (see also: Sound City, 20 Feet From Stardom). This one, from director Greg “Freddy” Camalier, hangs around at FAME Studios, the storied Alabama music-making hub responsible for some of the greatest vintage R&B our world has known. So is there something in the water or what? Well, there’s the dark-twist-filled story of the guy who ran the place. And more: a minor but not insignificant challenge to everything you thought you knew about the rhythm section for those classic Aretha Franklin cuts. Muscle Shoals inadvertently provides inspiration for deep-feeling, helplessly dorky white dudes everywhere.

"Muscle Shoals"

Available on Netflix, Amazon, iTunes and Google play.

Nostalgia for the Light

The reveal here is so big it’s almost too big to comprehend. Almost. At 10,000 feet above sea level, the Atacama Desert may be the driest place on Earth, but it’s also a fertile refuge for astronomy — and a dumping ground for the bodies of political prisoners “disappeared” by the Chilean army in 1973. Director Patricio Guzmán went exploring there in 2010, and returned with a poetic meditation on history, human memory and even, yes, the meaning of life. To this viewer’s eye, Nostalgia for the Light is one of the most dazzling and devastating nonfiction films ever made. It has the nerve and the humility to show us what we’re really made of.

"Nostalgia for the Light"

Available on Amazon and iTunes.

Sherman’s March

Ross McElwee’s singular and hugely charming 1986 breakthrough still stands — gently, politely— as a benchmark of first-person filmmaking. Sherman’s March started out as a high-minded effort to retrace the Civil War general’s infamous warpath, but McElwee, reeling from a breakup, got diverted by his own anxieties about bachelorhood in a gone-mad world. The surprise is that a movie so unassuming and self-consciously adrift can become profound precisely because it’s so unassuming and self-consciously adrift. What ties it all together — here and in McElwee’s similarly great later films — is the writer/director’s inquisitive humor and low-key Southern charm.

Sherman's March"

Available on Netflix and iTunes.

Stories We Tell

In 2012 the Canadian actor-director Sarah Polley gathered her extended family for a collective remembrance of her late mother, also an actor, and exposed — or, rather, explored — some longstanding family secrets. It’s no spoiler to say that the title of Polley’s first-person memoir puzzler couldn’t be more apt. Oscar snub notwithstanding, Stories We Tell is a great showcase for its maker’s gifts; like McElwee, Polley is playfully humane, alert to the right balance of candor and showmanship. It’s also very touchingly a movie that only she could make: clever, compassionate and personal to the point of seeming almost magically universal.

"Stories We Tell"

Available streaming on Netflix and Amazon.

Tim’s Vermeer

The big surprise to be had from this absorbing inquisition isn’t the fact that a man who’s not a painter managed to replicate a Dutch masterpiece using only reasoned speculation, 17th-century technology and hundreds of days of tireless labor. The surprise is that awe and understanding aren’t mutually exclusive. And it took a pair of magicians to reveal this to us. Filmmakers Penn & Teller understood going in that it would take nothing away from Vermeer’s The Music Lesson to try and resolve the mystery of how he created it (or, more broadly, how painting achieved photorealistic detail long before photography was invented). Tim’s Vermeer is a penetrating work of investigation — without an unproductive gotcha attitude — and a celebration of timeless creative ingenuity.

"Tim's Vermeer"

Available on Amazon, iTunes and Google play.

Jonathan Kiefer writes about movies for the likes of OZY, SF Weekly and the Village Voice. He also makes movies. But he doesn’t make monkeys — he just trains ’em. Follow him on Twitter @kieferama.

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