As a cinephile with an insatiable curiosity, whenever I find myself with a free hour or two, I scan my streaming Netflix queue for a documentary to absorb. Non-fiction films seem to me a better product than most of the rubbish Hollywood churns out for the sake of entertaining the masses. While I’d never consider sitting in front of the TV to be a productive use of one’s time, documentaries at least provide us with food for thought. Here are a few gems you might want to check out the next time you’re feeling blasé:
Brother’s Keeper (1992)
This acclaimed documentary from filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky explores the odd world of the four elderly Ward brothers — illiterate farmers who have lived their entire lives in a dilapidated two-room shack. When William Ward dies in the bed he shared with his brother Delbert, the police become suspicious and arrest Delbert for murder, penetrating the isolated world that left “the boys” forgotten eccentrics for many years.
Capturing the Friedmans (2003)
A family in crisis is “captured” through home video in this searing documentary about the Friedmans, an upper-middle-class family who found their world turned upside down when father and son were charged with child molestation in 1987. The media inundated the airwaves with coverage of the alleged crime, but some of the best footage — seen here publicly for the first time — was shot by the Friedman family members themselves.
Cocaine Cowboys (2006)
This penetrating documentary from director Billy Corben pulls out all the stops to explore the many dimensions of Miami’s cocaine-trafficking boom of the 1980s, as told by the smugglers, cops and average citizens who were there. The film is an unflinching study of Miami’s most notorious and lethal vice — from how the drug was moved and its financial impact on the city to the havoc and violence that followed in its wake.
In an avant-garde soliloquy, investigative journalist Michael Ruppert details his unnerving theories about the inexorable link between energy depletion and the collapse of the economic system that supports the entire industrial world. Helmed by filmmaker Chris Smith (American Movie), Ruppert’s monologue explains how the lies and political propaganda fed to Americans by big business will eventually lead to human extinction.
Touching the Void (2003)
Mixing interviews with dramatic re-enactments of the event, this gripping docudrama retells the mountaineering trek gone awry of Simon Yates (Nicholas Aaron) and Joe Simpson (Brendan Mackey), who falls and breaks his leg while climbing in the Andes. Yates, who’s tethered to him, attempts to lower him to safety but fails, forcing him to make a pivotal decision that may or may not save both of their lives. The question is, was it the right one?