James “The Amazing” Randi is the focus of this engrossing documentary. It follows his long life as a magician-turned-hoax debunker, including his long-standing feud with Uri Gellar, he of the psychically bent spoons. Although I knew of Randi’s offer of a reward to anyone able to prove psychic ability, I did not know of all of the hoaxes he himself pulled off in order to expose frauds. This is an endearing and personal look at the man who has made a life out of exposing liars. - Jodi Clager
This heart-breaking documentary looks at the murder trial of Delbert Ward, an uneducated farmer near Syracuse, New York. Delbert lived in a dilapidated house with his brothers William, Lyman, and Roscoe. One morning, the brothers found William dead in bed, setting off a chain of events that led to Delbert’s arrest, coercion into confessing, allegations of incest, and a community paying attention to brothers they had previously ignored. - JC
A fly on the wall documentary made with a minimal presence from the filmmaker, The Overnighters follows the strain on a small town in North Dakota following a sudden gold rush for labor in the shale oil industry. The film features a tight narrative that mostly focuses on the put-upon pastor trying to live his faith, while coming into direct conflict with a town that would rather he not practice what he preach. It’s a tough watch at times and it paints a pretty dire picture of what poverty and desperation look like in the modern American working class. Despite that, it’s a very engaging story with a truly astonishing twist to wrap it all up. - Riley Jess
Joshua Zeman and Barbara Brancaccio set off to document the roots of a New York urban legend known as Cropsey. Instead of finding one specific incident that may have led to the creation of Cropsey, the filmmakers uncover missing children and prove again that the idea of a boogeyman is just as powerful as the existence of one. - JC
How Did This Get Made has Cannon Films to thank for a large chunk of their podcast subjects. Menaham Golan and Yoram Globus were Israeli cousins who found infamy with their low-budget movies in the 1980s. Their films and studio were a study in sheer ballsiness and delusion. From Over the Top to Superman IV: Quest for Peace, the cousins mass-produced hundreds of terrible movies that likely paved the way for studios like Asylum. - JC
Another documentary I found via Kristy and HDTGM, Lost Soul is a surreal and intriguing look at how a studio can destroy an artist’s vision. New Line Cinema took an epic, grotesque, balls-to-the-walls film adaptation of H.G. Wells’ novel of the same name and turned it into one of the greatest turds in film history. This documentary beautifully captures all of the insanity (Skip, the Warlock) and backstabbing that can go on when making a movie. - JC
H.R. Giger received his first human skull at six years old. Thus begins the story of a man who would bring us some of the most iconic art of our time. - JC
I like to guess the voice actors in any given animation I’m watching at the time. It’s one of my favorite pastimes, because I usually get to pump my fists in victory and taunt my husband. Not that he plays along.
John DiMaggio (voice of Bender Bending Unit Rodriguez, Jake the Dog, The Joker, etc x a million) narrates this look at the voice actors behind our favorite animated characters. The doc is fascinating in the reveal of how many characters are voiced by the same actor and oddly surreal to look at the same face behind the voices. Watching different voices come out of one person’s mouth is mesmerizing and I cannot recommend this documentary enough. - JC
Twinsters — In their early 20s, a French fashion student in Paris recognizes an actress in Los Angeles as looking identical to her. The two connect through social media and discover that they are, in fact, twins. The two bond quickly and both end up trying to find their biological mother together and discover more about where they came from. Twinsters is a really sweet documentary, and the twins — Samantha Futerman and Anais Border — could not be more lovely people (Futerman, in fact, was featured in the bumpers for the 2016 SXSW film festival). If you are a twin or have twins, it’s can’t miss. For everyone else, it’s a thoughtful, endearing and entertaining doc.
Undefeated What elevates directors T.J. Martin and Daniel Lindsay’s documentary Undefeated above the pack is that it’s not about winning. Having a winning season in football isn’t what coach Bill Courtney cares about for his Manassas Tigers team - he wants them to succeed in life. He knows he can’t save everyone, he knows that winning a football championship won’t make the lives of these poor Tennessee boys any better. He just wants to make them feel like winners.
Exit Through the Gift Shop — As the the NY Times noted: “Ultimately, wondering whether “Exit Through the Gift Shop” is real or not may be moot. It certainly asks real questions: about the value of authenticity, financially and aesthetically; about what it means to be a superstar in a subculture built on shunning the mainstream; about how sensibly that culture judges, and monetizes, talent.” And I think that’s exactly right. If Exit is a legitimately true documentary, it’s an entertaining ride. If it’s one big put-on, it’s even better for the questions it forces us to ask about art and culture.
The Thin Blue Line — The films of Errol Morris are like no other documentaries being produced today. Slow, obtuse, profound, and lacking a real sense of narrative cogency, they somehow transcend their own subject matter. Whether as seemingly insignificant as pet cemeteries (Gates of Heaven) or as relevant as global politicking (The Fog of War), Morris presents us with as little as possible - still images, plain sequences of dialogue - and calmly invokes the unimaginable. The Thin Blue Line, a film which focuses on the murder of a Dallas police officer in 1976, purports to be about the miscarriage of justice, but somehow becomes a damning statement on the human condition. Constructed of interviews with officers, lawyers, and witnesses, the film recounts a pointless violent act which implicitly demands justice. But beyond a moral axe to grand, Morris finds his subject no more important than the metaphor he finds in it (which is to say, very). Through the dissembling of the officers and prosecutor intent on laying blame, the poppycock of moralizing witnesses, and the even-keeled sociopathy of the man who probably committed the crime, Morris shows us how muddled the search for truth can be, how our willful creation of false fictions blur the answers we find in black and white.
Restrepo — Heatherington and Junger follow the platoon from deployment. So we get to see the boys in the shit, fooling around, and getting fired on. It’s horrible and hilarious, touching on so many levels. These guys are soldiers. These are boys, these are men with families who risk getting killed every day, these are swinging-dick meatheads who make gay jokes and hoot and holler as they blast away with artillery. These guys wrestle and throw dance parties. They blow a guy apart with heavy machine guns and high-five each other when they destroy him. These guys cry hysterically when they find the body of a fallen friend. They fight on, because as he lays there bleeding, Taliban rebels are still gunning down on them. They don’t win, they don’t save the world. Those that survived go home. And leave OP Restrepo to the next batch of grunts.
Make Believe — The lives of these six contestants are tidily weaved together to give us a strong sense of each of these individual’s lives before Make Believe turns its focus on the competition at the center of the film, hewing close to the Spellbound template. But the whimsical indie doc formula, which intercuts a few talking-head interviews from leaders in the art like Lance Burton and Neil Patrick Harris(!), makes the film no less enchanting. Tweel takes an affectionate look at the gaggle of dorks, pulling out of each the idea that magic can transform their lives, and at least for a few minutes while they’re up on stage, afford them a level of super-stardom in their community and, for an hour and a half at least, in movie theaters. Make Believe is sweet and rousing documentary, a celebration of both magic and the kids who devote their time to it.
For more movie and television recommendations from Amazon and Netflix, check out our streaming guide.