As recently as last year, Netflix Instant was the place to watch the best and most recent documentaries, but it is my understanding that the company is not putting as much money into the rights for docs, focusing instead on where its profitability is better served: television series. There have been a great number of exceptional documentaries this year — here’s the short list for Oscar qualifiers, plus a rundown of a few significant snubs — but of the Oscar contenders, only one — Buck — is thus far available on Netflix Instant. Hopefully, that will turn around at the beginning of 2012.
Until then, here are 5 Outstanding Recently (2011) released documentaries on Netflix Instant, and one inexplicably popular one that’s not actually very good.
The 5 Outstanding Documentaries
Page One: Inside the New York Times: It’s through the lens of the Media Desk, and correspondent David Car in particular, that the film looks at some of the larger issues facing the paper these days. The documentary touches on a lot of interesting ideas. In the wake of the April 2010 Wikileaks release of the Collateral Murder video, the film looks at this idea of Old media versus new Media through the lens of the Pentagon Papers versus this Wikileaks release, also touching upon Wikileaks’ blurring of the line between activism and journalism. Later on, the film looks at the idea of the media itself creating a story (in this particular case, NBC’s choice to focus on the “last” Army truck rolling out of Iraq as a true declaration of the war’s end, despite no such statement from the Administration or the Pentagon). It similarly looks at why true journalism — the kind where a reporter gets to really embed himself into an issue, spending months researching it before publishing any articles — is an important societal tool that is lacking in the new world of blogs and the Huffington Post. — Seth Freilich
Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop: Rodman Flender’s documentary, Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop offers an unexpectedly intimate look into the behind-the-scenes goings-on of last year’s “Legally Prohibited from Being on Television Tour.” What’s most unexpected about the documentary is not the nature of O’Brien’s psychological break-down in the aftermath of “The Tonight Show” debacle, although there’s a lot of unspoken insight into that in Flender’s documentary — O’Brien’s gaunt, washed-out appearance in the days after that episode, and his periodic bouts of catatonia, moments in which you can almost feel the anger and disappointment churning away in his stomach. What’s most surprising about a documentary commissioned by the subject himself, however, is exactly how often Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop depicts the talk-show host as a dick. He’s passive-aggressive with his writers, frequently a jerk to his assistant, an asshole to his handlers, and often visibly frustrated with his fans. What’s even more surprising is how easy it is to sympathize with O’Brien, to understand how he can be a dick at times, yet remain as genuinely likable as he is. — Dustin Rowles
Pearl Jam Twenty: How much Twenty might mean to you depends entirely on how much Pearl Jam does: it’s a well-done but not groundbreaking music documentary; there’s no new insights; and Crowe doesn’t add anything to the music documentary subgenre. But there is a lot of Pearl Jam music, a thorough inspection of Eddie Vedder’s emotional vulnerabilities and how it colors his lyrics, and in interesting look at how both Stone and Jeff — the heart and soul of Pearl Jam — view the band. They all seem like really good people who have managed to keep an level head, who have impressively navigated their success, and who are immensely comfortable with where they exist on the music spectrum today. It’s great goddamn music, too (except for Binaural, which was kind of crap) and as a means to document nostalgia, you could hardly ask for better. — Dustin Rowles
Best Worst Movie (available on Netflix Instant in December): Watching Troll 2 is an experience like no other. It’s regarded as one of the worst films ever made, and there’s no way to make it through without drinking. The acting, directing, and writing could not even remotely be considered mediocre, and for a while it was ranked No. 1 on IMDb’s Bottom 100. Directed by Italian filmmaker Claudio Fragrasso from a script he wrote with Rossella Drudi, the film is an all-out assault on logic, taste and basic comprehension. The plot, such as it is, involves a family of four who engage in some kind of house exchange with a family from a little town called Nilbog that turns out to be populated by goblins disguised as people. It’s that kind of movie. But all that is exactly what also makes the movie so much fun to watch. As so often happens, what was reviled by one generation came to be loved by another … The resulting documentary is a fantastic and sweet-natured look at the people who love the film and the people who made it. — Daniel Carlson
Buck: The documentary ultimately deals with responsibility and second chances. Many of the animals Buck deals with are wilder than their owners would like, but Buck’s the first to remind people that they can’t hold it against the horse for what the animal has gone through. He later says it would never even occur to him to be angry with a horse, even when he’s trying to reform it. It’s easy to see that Buck wants to give these animals the break he never got, but Meehl never forces that issue or comes across as falsely manipulative. Like Buck, she just wants to speak honestly. The result is a warm, winning film that uses animals to tell a fully human story. — Daniel Carlson, The Houston Press)
The Inexplicably Popular One
Life in a Day: The Tony and Ridley Scott crowd-source project, Life in a Day, is a documentary rife with so many possibilities that it seems almost inevitable that the filmmakers would’ve stumbled upon something that might have resonated. And yet, they do not. Documentarians typically have tens to hundreds of hours to sift through to fashion fascinating and compelling narratives. Here, Kevin MacDonald (The Last King of Scotland) had more than 4,400 hours of footage and yet couldn’t find enough to sustain a single 95-minute film. — Dustin Rowles