Albert Maysles Tribute and ‘Approaching the Elephant’ Top This Week’s Nonfics Home Picks

National Film Board of Canada

Most people don’t get to see documentaries until they arrive on a home video platform of some kind, whether it’s DVD, Blu-ray, VOD, iTunes, TV, Netflix streaming, etc. Join us every Tuesday for a look at what documentaries and reality programming is recommended by myself and other contributors to the site. As always, if you know of something we missed or should be aware of, drop us an email or a note down below.

Here are our ordered picks for March 17, 2015:

1. Albert Maysles Memorial Tribute

[Airing on TCM on March 23rd] — Turner Classic Movies doesn’t air documentaries often, but they have featured the works of the Maysles Brothers in the past. In fact, Grey Gardens coincidentally ran the weekend following the death of Albert Maysles earlier this month. Now, as TCM typically does when someone of cinematic importance dies, they’re hosting a memorial marathon of some of his most famous films. The night begins with Grey Gardens, followed by Salesman, Gimme Shelter and the lesser known Meet Marlon Brando. Below is Fandor’s video essay on the one you’re less likely to have seen (that goes for yours truly, too). (★★★★★)

2. Approaching the Elephant

[Now Available on iTunes] — Currently my favorite documentary release of this year, and likely to stay that way, Amanda Rose Wilder’s film of a free school feels like something from the early Maysles era and is now a timeless piece of his legacy — it’s not surprising to learn after seeing it that Wilder had worked for Maysles. I still need to write something on the doc worthy of its brilliance, but for now here’s an excerpt from Daniel Walber’s review: “Something of a revelation in black and white, digital direct cinema. This isn’t the sort of politically minded essay film that we might expect, given the current crisis in the American education system. Wilder’s style has more in common with Frederick Wiseman‘s High School than it does Waiting for Superman. Its raw materials are conversation and expression rather than expert testimony or facts and figures. Wilder takes a great deal from the old playbook of Robert Drew and his associates, capturing a sequence of events with an eye on both local detail and the importance of character. Unlike Wiseman’s epic landscapes of entire institutions, she uses observational methods to shepherd the audience through a chronicle of increasingly unique events.” (★★★★)

3. The Iron Ministry and the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab Collection

[Now Streaming Free on Nonfics] — The latest programmed event at Doc Alliance is called “Explorers with Film Cameras” and specifically focuses on the work of Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab and the filmmakers associated with that institution. Presented free through the end of the month are the films Leviathan, Manakamana, People’s Park, Yumen, Sweetgrass and my personal favorite, Foreign Parts, plus the latest from director J.P. Sniadecki, The Iron Ministry, which isn’t technically a part of the HSEL. And we’re fortunate enough to host some of these films right here on the site.

Here’s Daniel Walber on that one from the 2014 New York Film Festival: “The Iron Ministry was shot entirely on the passenger trains of China, crisscrossing the world’s most populous nation over the course of three years. It begins with an extended, visceral sequence from beneath a train, a darkened frame accompanied by the infernal noise of the iron horse throttling forward. Even as Sniadecki moves up to meet and interact with the many passengers, the mechanics of the beast are always present. Preoccupied by shared spaces and discussions between travelers, occasionally quite political, this is an open portrait of a society very much on the move. The train has always been a major metaphor for change, but here there is an especially interesting sense of ambiguity. The railway can be read as a positive manifestation of a new China and its growing middle class. Yet as the system is upgraded, so too are its rules and restrictions. At one point Sniadecki is forbidden to film. The danger of hurtling to modernity is always present, rattling along the ever-lengthening tracks.” (★★★★)

4. Disorder (Xianshi Shi Guoqu Weilai)

[Now on DVD from Icarus Films] — This entry previously appeared in an earlier Home Picks. This 2009 documentary by Huang Weikai is one of the essentials of the New Chinese Documentary Film Movement (Lixin Fan agrees). And one of the shorter ones, for anyone looking for a gateway in. Here’s an excerpt of a review by our friend Kenji Fujishima, who does it better service than I can while calling it an “anti-city-symphony” thematically detailing “a trickle-down systematic breakdown of law and order” and comparing it to more recent docs Leviathan and Life in a Day: “Among the most formally innovative and visionary works of cinematic nonfiction to come along in recent years. […] All of this is depicted through unabashedly rough black-and-white footage which merely adds to the sense of gritty hyper-reality; ‘stranger than fiction’ has rarely been made so visceral. And there are moments in Disorder that transcend mere documentation, most memorably in a poetic image of a cat chasing after a mouse in a garbage heap, arguably the most brutally beautiful image of its kind since the children playing with scorpions in Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch. Huang orchestrates all of this into a 59-minute barrage of scenes and images that take the pulse of a society teetering on the edge of a moral abyss; it never quite falls into said abyss, but there’s no reason not to think, as the film cuts to black and the sounds of a noisy crowd remain as the credits roll, that it won’t do so in the fullness of time.” (★★★★)

Also available on Amazon Instant Video.

5. Puppet

[Now Streaming at SundanceNow’s Doc Club] — The latest curation by Thom Powers at the SundanceNow Doc Club is entitled “Masters of Their Craft,” and I think David Soll’s Puppet is the most underseen gems among them and so most deserving of being the Home Pick from the bunch. Of course, I also recommend the others, including Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Beauty is Embarrassing, First Position, Pina, Far Out Isn’t Far Enough, Eames: The Architect and the Painter and Drew: The Man Behind the Poster (which I still haven’t watched yet). This is such a good program, and available altogether with tons of other films for a low price.

As for Puppet, here’s my capsule review at Cinematical from the first DOC NYC in 2010: “By far my favorite entry in the Metropolis competition is this film about the art of puppetry — a little of its history and discussions of its current attempt at a major renaissance and the critical obstacles against such — as well as a specific look at the making of a 2009 puppet theater production titled ‘Disfarmer.’ If you are or have ever been a fan of Jim Henson, Being John Malkovich, the Coen brothers, Julie Taymor’s The Lion King, Paul Giamatti or really any kind of puppets made for children or adults, you must see this documentary. It’s a whole lot more moving and enlightening than it sounds. (★★★★)

6. Lady Valor: The Kristin Beck Story

[Now Streaming on Netflix Watch Instantly] — Part of this entry previously appeared in another edition of Nonfics Home Picks. Here’s what I wrote in my list of the best docs of the 2014 SXSW Film Festival: “This could be the best depiction of transgender yet, or at least the most accessible and comprehensible look at a transgender person — who funny enough admits she’s not 100% sure herself of what it means. Kristin Beck is a Navy SEAL who recently came out and began the process of becoming a woman, and because of her position of national note and because that job is so defined by its macho reputation, her story is especially interesting — and maybe especially controversial — to many Americans. Beck, even though a poster person for transgender, mostly wants to be accepted as just a human being. Directors Mark Herzog and Sandrine Orabona depict her as a wonderful one at that.” (★★★★)

Also available on DVD, iTunes and Vudu.

7. The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst

[Now Available on HBO Go] — Now that all six episodes have aired and delivered far more than expected, I have to feature it as a Home Pick once again. If you haven’t already gotten into it and were spoiled by the news it apparently broke, don’t let deter you. It’s still a fascinating miniseries filled with strange characters and challenging ethics and an unbelievable ending that still must be watched and heard for yourself.

Here’s part of what I wrote in a previous Home Picks, reworked: “I’ve been asking for a serialized documentary series on television for months, and HBO finally delivered the goods with a six-part murder mystery that many are likening to the podcast Serial (I could concur, but I’m a rare bird in not liking Serial). I am hooked, intrigued and fascinated by the story of Robert Durst, heir to a powerful New York City real estate fortune who has been assumed for more than 30 years to have killed his missing wife, whose body was never found. Director Andrew Jarecki (Capturing the Friedmans) revisits the story that inspired his 2010 drama All Good Things, having been approached by Durst after he saw the movie, and it’s a complex weaving of the old case and a more recent murder Durst was convicted of in Texas. While the promise of some sort of closure in the disappearance and possible murder of the wife is one reason to watch, I’m mostly in it for the interview with Durst, as his character is the real puzzle.” (★★★★)

Also available on HBO On Demand.

New to DVD [and/or Blu-ray]:

Abraham: Father of Faith and Works (Footprints of God)

Actress [Nonfics rating: ★★★★; Nonfics review]

Ben Franklin’s Bones (Secrets of the Dead)

Big Bang Machine (Nova)

Bob Ross: The Joy of Painting — Spring Collection

Bob Ross: The Joy of Painting — Summer Collection

Breaking Free: The Shale Rock Revolution

Brothers in Exile (ESPN 30 for 30)

The Day the Series Stopped (ESPN 30 for 30)

Disorder [Nonfics rating: ★★★★]

Electric Light Orchestra: Out of the Blue — Live at Wembley

The Forgotten Plague (American Experience)

Homefront Heroines: The WAVES of World War II

Jim Gaffigan: Mr. Universe

The Legend of Mick Dodge Season 3

Otay Mountain Wilderness

Penguin Post Office (Nature)

Playing for the Mob (ESPN 30 for 30)

Victory at Sea: The Feature Film [Restored Version]

When Sharks Attack

New to Netflix Watch Instantly:

The Comedians of Comedy: The Movi

K2: Siren of the Himalayas

Lady Valor: The Kristen Beck Story [Nonfics rating: ★★★★; Nonfics review]


New to iTunes/Amazon Instant/VOD/etc.:

American Harmony — Fandor

Bite Size — Vimeo On Demand

Boneshop of the Heart — Fandor

Breaking Free: The Shale Rock Revolution — Amazon

Cabin Fever Season 1 — Amazon

Closure — Amazon

Da Sean Caddy Show Documentary — Amazon

Extreme Shark Fishing — Amazon

Fast N’ Loud Demolition Theater Season 2

Forbidden History Season 1

Foreign Parts [Nonfics rating: ★★★★] — Doc Alliance

Get the Picture — Fandor

H.G. Wells and the War of the Worlds: A Documentary — Amazon

The Iron Ministry [Nonfics rating: ★★★★] — Doc Alliance

Isadora Duncan: Movement from the Soul — Amazon

Jerseyboy Hero -Amazon

The Jinx [Nonfics rating: ★★★★] — Amazon Prime

Judgment in Hungary — Vimeo On Demand

Kids of Survival: The Art and Life of Tim Rollins + K.O.S.

Leviathan [Nonfics rating: ★★★★] — Doc Alliance

Manakamana [Nonfics rating: ★★★; Nonfics review] — Doc Alliance

Massacred for Gold — Fandor

Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour — Vimeo On Demand

Moonwalkers: The Men of Apollo — Amazon Prime

No New Kinda Story: The Real Story of Tooth & Nail Records — Amazon

On the Road to Christ — Amazon

Origins and Influence — Fandor

Pearl Jam: Single Video Theory — Amazon

People’s Park — Doc Alliance

Process and Production — Fandor

Prostitution Pornography U.S.A. — Amazon

Remote Area Medical [Nonfics rating: ★★★★; Nonfics review] — Vimeo On Demand

Snapped Season 14 — Amazon

Somewhere Else Tomorrow — Amazon

Sweetgrass [Nonfics rating: ★★★★] — Doc Alliance

The Teacher’s Country — Fandor

A Time Less Golden — Fandor

Tony Bennett: Duets — The Making of an American Classic — Amazon

Two Worlds Intertwined — Fandor

Weaving with Spanish Threads: An Immigrants Tale

Wicked Tuna Season 4 — Amazon

A Year in Champagne — Amazon

Must-See Nonfiction TV:

(All Times Eastern)

Wednesday — 03/18

12:00am: The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst — Part 6 [HBO and HBO Latino]

1:00am: The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst — Part 6 [HBO 2 West]

3:00am: The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst — Part 6 [HBO West and HBO Latino West]

3:30am: West of Memphis [Starz Cinema]

5:00am: Hollywood Without Makeup [TCM]

10:00am: Finding Vivian Maier [Showtime Showcase]

1:00pm: Finding Vivian Maier [Showtime Showcase West]

4:00pm: Bully [Pivot]

4:00pm: The Dark Matter of Love [Al Jazeera America]

6:40pm: Bears [Starz Kids & Family]

9:45pm: 12 O’Clock Boys [Showtime Next]

10:15pm: The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst — Part 6 [HBO 2]

10:35pm: That Gal … Who Was in That Thing [Showtime Showcase]

Thursday — 03/19

12:00am: Inside Job [Pivot]

1:15am: The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst — Part 6 [HBO 2 West]

1:35am: That Gal … Who Was in That Thing [Showtime Showcase West]

3:20am: Citizenfour [HBO 2]

6:20am: Citizenfour [HBO 2 West]

8:30am: Bears [Starz Kids & Family]

9:10am: Winged Migration [Starz Cinema]

2:30pm: Bears [Starz Kids & Family]

5:00pm: Inside Job [Pivot]

6:35pm: That Gal … Who Was in That Thing [Showtime 2]

8:25pm: Winged Migration [Starz Cinema]

9:00pm: The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst — Part 6 [HBO]

9:35pm: That Gal … Who Was in That Thing [Showtime 2 West]

Friday — 03/20

12:00am: The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst — Part 6 [HBO West]

3:05am: The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst — Part 6 [HBO and HBO Latino]

6:05am: The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst — Part 6 [HBO West and HBO Latino West]

7:40am: Tyson [Starz in Black]

10:00am: That Gal … Who Was in That Thing [Showtime]

1:00pm: That Gal … Who Was in That Thing [Showtime West]

6:10pm: Tyson [Starz in Black]

Saturday — 03/21

12:30am: The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst — Part 6 [HBO and HBO Latino]

3:30am: The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst — Part 6 [HBO West and HBO Latino West]

3:45am: Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One [TCM]

6:30am: A Place at the Table [Pivot]

8:30am: Food, Inc. [Pivot]

3:00pm: The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst — Part 1 [HBO 2]

3:45pm: The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst — Part 2 [HBO 2]

4:00pm: The Dark Matter of Love [Al Jazeera America]

4:30pm: The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst — Part 3 [HBO 2]

5:00pm: Best of Walt Disney’s True-Life Adventures [BYU-TV]

5:15pm: The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst — Part 4 [HBO 2]

6:00pm: The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst — Part 1 [HBO 2 West]

6:10pm: The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst — Part 5 [HBO 2]

6:45pm: The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst — Part 2 [HBO 2 West]

6:35pm: That Gal … Who Was in That Thing [Showtime Showcase]

7:00pm: The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst — Part 6 [HBO 2]

7:30pm: The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst — Part 3 [HBO 2 West]

8:15pm: The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst — Part 4 [HBO 2 West]

9:00pm: Best of Walt Disney’s True-Life Adventures [BYU-TV]

9:10pm: The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst — Part 5 [HBO 2 West]

9:35pm: That Gal … Who Was in That Thing [Showtime Showcase West]

10:00pm: The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst — Part 6 [HBO 2 West]

Sunday — 03/22

4:00am: Finding Vivian Maier [Showtime Women]

9:00am: That Gal … Who Was in That Thing [Showtime]

11:35am: Bears [Starz Kids & Family]

12:00pm: That Gal … Who Was in That Thing [Showtime West]

5:00pm: Last Call at the Oasis [Pivot]

6:20pm: Every Little Step [MoviePlex]

8:00pm: Bears [Starz Kids & Family]

Monday — 03/23

4:00am: The Dark Matter of Love [Al Jazeera America]

5:25am: Bears [Starz Kids & Family]

5:25am: Banksy Does New York [HBO and HBO Latino]

8:00am: Every Little Step [MoviePlex]

8:25am: Banksy Does New York [HBO West and HBO Latino West]

9:35am: Private Violence [HBO 2]

10:25am: Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest [Starz Cinema]

12:35pm: Private Violence [HBO 2 West]

1:00pm: Finding Vivian Maier [Showtime]

4:00pm: Finding Vivian Maier [Showtime West]

4:30pm: Cool It [Epix 2]

7:00pm: Last Call at the Oasis [Pivot]

8:00pm: Grey Gardens [TCM]

9:00pm: Pearl Jam Twenty [Palladia]

10:00pm: Salesman [TCM]

11:45pm: Gimme Shelter [TCM]

Tuesday — 03/24

12:00am: Pearl Jam Twenty [Palladia]

1:30am: Paris Is Burning [The Movie Channel Extra]

4:30am: Paris Is Burning [The Movie Channel Extra West]

11:00am: Last Call at the Oasis [Pivot]

3:55pm: Beware of Mr. Baker [Showtime Next]

4:00pm: That Gal … Who Was in That Thing [Showtime]

7:00pm: That Gal … Who Was in That Thing [Showtime West]

(Editor in Chief)

Christopher Campbell is the founding editor of Nonfics.