‘Shoah’ and ‘Portrait of Jason’ Top This Week’s Nonfics Home Picks


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 November 11, 2014:

1. Shoah

[Now Streaming at SundanceNow’s Doc Club] — Considered by many to be the greatest documentary ever made, Claude Lanzmann’s more-than-nine-hours-long film (the running times at SundanceNow make it seem more like 11½, though I’ve never heard of it being that long) is also the crowning achievement of Holocaust docs. Mostly consisting of interviews, it’s filled with testimonials from different perspectives, survivor and former SS officer alike, about the Chelmno, Auschwitz and Treblinka concentration camps and also the Warsaw Ghetto. As far as I know, this is the first time it’s been available online digitally, which means it’s finally easy enough for everyone to watch in its entirety. You have no excuses, and this is one of those films you have to see before you die. So get on it. ( (★★★★★)

Also available on DVD and Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection

2. Portrait of Jason

[New to DVD and Blu-ray via Milestone Films] — Part of Milestone’s restored re-release of Shirley Clarke films, this 1967 doc is by far her most notable. Subject Jason Holliday is considered by many to be one of the most memorable nonfiction film characters of all time (I was reprimanded for not including him in my list of such acclaim before ever having seen it). To be perfectly honest, I don’t love it as much as everyone else does, so that’s why I’m going to quote from a column at Film.com by our own Daniel Walber: “Portrait of Jason is foundational in the grandest of terms. Like that opening verse of The Gospel of John, Jason Holiday’s testament feels like The Word, an origin moment for independent queer storytelling in cinema. And, like the first verses of Genesis, this brilliantly simple documentary feels like a series of creation acts. Jason’s honesty, defiant yet vulnerable, introduces just about every major theme that LGBT filmmakers have worked with ever since. To finish off this indulgent introduction with Whitman, Clarke’s revelatory documentary ‘contains multitudes.’” (★★★★★)

DVD and Blu-ray extras include: features on the restoration, interviews with Clarke, deleted scenes in color, audio outtakes, a Jason Holliday comedy album and Clarke’s 1967 short Butterfly.

Also new to DVD and Blu-ray this week is Clarke’s 1985 doc Ornette: Made in America, which we haven’t seen but are sure is worth checking out.

3. Burden of Dreams

[Now Streaming on Fandor] — As part of a new, limited deal with Hulu and Criterion, Les Blank’s 1982 classic about the making of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo is now available to stream for Fandor subscribers, and it’s the only doc in that partnership. It’s also a great time to revisit or introduce yourself to Blank’s most famous film, the only one so far in the collection, ahead of Criterion’s highly anticipated five-disc box set arriving later this month. Burden of Dreams is one of the early instances where Herzog the personality arose as a major supplement to his identity as a filmmaker (he had previously appeared in two other Blank docs, less seen than this). It also shows us one of the craziest set-piece stunts anyone, not just Herzog has ever attempted, and it would have been a real shame had nobody been there documenting it. (★★★★)

4. On the Bowery

[Now Streaming on Fandor] — This 1956 “docufiction” masterpiece by Lionel Rogosin was recently recommended on this site by actor Michael McKean, who called it a “semi-documentary (but genuine) film that puts you right in the middle of the end of the road.” I also included it on my list of the best docs about New York City. Here’s what I wrote there: “An honest to goodness time machine. More than most documentaries, this one feels like I’m stepping into the past and sitting right beside the guys at the bar in the Bowery. It’s the crisp black and white cinematography and the genuine roughness of the subject’s faces. The funny thing is that On the Bowery is docufiction, meaning it’s mostly staged and plotted while still being a fairly accurate neorealist portrait of legitimately poor souls living on Skid Row. If all “fiction” was so immersive and true, I’d have a site called Fics instead.” (★★★★★)

Also available on DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Instant Video, iTunes and Vudu.

5. Altman

[Now Streaming on Netflix Watch Instantly] — Epix, the cable channel, is impressing me lately with its documentaries about filmmakers. First Milius, now this profile on the work of Robert Altman by Ron Mann (Grass; Comic Book Confidential). Here’s an excerpt from something I wrote on the doc for Film School Rejects last week: “Mostly it’s Altman by Altman, with the filmmaker himself telling his own story through various interviews and speaking appearances. […] We get a biographical sense of the man in terms of what he did and didn’t do, seeing home movie footage of long-distance location shoots while hearing about how he always tried to film far away from the clutches of the suits in Hollywood (in his early days, probably coincidentally, it was the other way around, with him directing unfavored TV episodes and movies while execs were out of town). The focus on the works, separately and as a whole, is more often little production anecdotes from Altman himself or [wife and narrator Kathryn] Reed, with the former in one scene telling a crowd that his films aren’t necessarily part of a thematic agenda other than they’re reflective of his interests. […]a genuinely enthralling and satisfying tribute, but still just fluff, catering to fans of the subject matter and not necessarily beyond that.” (★★★★)

6. Lady Valor

[New to DVD via Wolfe Video] — 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 Wolfe Video On Demand, Vimeo On Demand and Amazon Instant Video.

7. The Average of the Average

[New to Doc Alliance Films] — Part of this week’s Doc Alliance free-streaming event, which is tied to CPH:DOX, and one of three in this curation by the great Danish documentarian Michael Madsen. The others are Celestial Night: A Film on Visibility and To Damascus: A Film on Interpretation, which he made with Jeppe Debois Baandrup and Morten Kjems Juhl. It’s also worth pointing out that Madsen’s best, Into Eternity, is airing all this week on Al Jazeera America, as you can see in the TV guide section below. (★★★★)

I can’t find a trailer for The Average of the Average, so here’s one for Into Eternity:

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

Alchemy: Beyond the Emerald Tablet

Art 21: Art in the Twenty-First Century — Season 7

Atlantis: The Lost World

Be Astonished

The Beatles: Uncut — The Long and Winding Road box set

Bon Jovi: In Their Own Words

Ghost and Demon Children of the Damned

I Am Ali [Also on Blu-ray]

I Promise: The Lynne Young Story

Ice Warriors: USA Sled Hockey

Lady Valor [Nonfics rating: ★★★★]

Le Temps Derobe

Liberty: Heroes of the American Revolution

Ornette: Made in America [Also on Blu-ray]

Pink Floyd: 50 Years of the Dark Side box set

Pink Floyd: 1971

Portrait of Jason [Nonfics rating: ★★★★★] [Also on Blu-ray]

Privileged Species

We Could Be King

New to Netflix Watch Instantly:

Advanced Style

Altman [Nonfics rating: ★★★★]

JFK: A President Betrayed

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

New to iTunes/Amazon Instant/VOD:

35 Acres — Vimeo On Demand

1989 The Movie — Vimeo On Demand

Access to the Danger Zone — Amazon

Amazonia — Vimeo On Demand

American Mustang — Vimeo On Demand

Amor Cronico — Vimeo On Demand

The Average of the Average — Doc Alliance

Bamberg: A City Built on Beer — Vimeo On Demand

Beyond the Edge — iTunes

Black Roots — Fandor

Black Sun — Vimeo On Demand

The Booker — Vimeo On Demand

Border City Music Project — Vimeo On Demand

Bridgend — Amazon, Vimeo On Demand

Burden of Dreams [Nonfics rating: ★★★★★] — Fandor

Celestial Night: A Film On Visibility — Doc Alliance

Comic Book Confidential — Vimeo On Demand

Deepsea Challenge — iTunes

The D.L.F.A.: Wisconsin Rock Climbing in the 1970s and 80s — Vimeo On Demand

The Doors: Feast of Friends — iTunes

Drug Lord: The Legend of Shorty — Amazon

The Global Warming War — Vimeo On Demand

Grandma Lo-fi: The Basement Tapes of Sigrídur Níelsdóttir — Vimeo On Demand

The Green Girl — Amazon

Hannibal: The Father of Strategy — Amazon

Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats & Rhymes — Vimeo On Demand

I Am Santa Claus — Amazon, Vimeo On Demand

Indestructible — Amazon

Mary Pickford: The Muse of the Movies — Vimeo On Demand

Nagasaki and Hiroshima: A Tale of Two Cities — Vimeo On Demand

Navy SEALS: Their Untold Story — Amazon

North Paws: A Dogumentary — Vimeo On Demand

NOW: In the Wings on a World Stage — Vimeo On Demand

Occupy: The Movie — Vimeo On Demand

On the Bowery [Nonfics rating: ★★★★★] — Fandor

The Harder They Fall — Vimeo On Demand

The Power of Thought — Amazon

Pretty Faces: The Story of a Skier Girl — Vimeo On Demand

The Price of Pleasure — Vimeo On Demand

Pumping Iron [Nonfics rating: ★★★★] — iTunes

Shoah [Nonfics rating: ★★★★★] — SundanceNow Doc Club

Statistics of Copenhagen — Doc Alliance

Street Soccer: New York — Vimeo On Demand

The Taste of Freedom — Vimeo On Demand

Tibet Tibet — Vimeo On Demand

Tickets — Vimeo On Demand

To Damascus: A Film On Interpretation — Doc Alliance

Walking the Camino: Six Ways to Santiago — Amazon, Vimeo On Demand

Who Killed Alex Spourdalakis? — Vimeo On Demand

Why We Ride — Vimeo On Demand

Must-See Nonfiction TV:

(All Times Eastern)

Wednesday — 11/12

1:00am: Last Days Here [Showtime 2 West]

4:05am: Doc of the Dead [Epix Drive-In]

7:00am: The Gatekeepers [Starz Cinema]

8:25am: Private Violence [HBO Signature East]

9:50am: Stories We Tell [Epix East]

11:25am: Private Violence [HBO Signature West]

12:50pm: Stories We Tell [Epix West]

3:00pm: Into Eternity [Al Jazeera America]

3:45pm: Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired [HBO 2 East]

5:50pm: Standing in the Shadows of Motown [Starz in Black]

6:45pm: Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired [HBO 2 West]

8:00pm: The Hip Hop Project [Aspire]

10:00pm: Top Chef: Boston [Bravo]

10:00pm: The Hip Hop Project [Aspire]

Thursday — 11/13

8:40am: Standing in the Shadows of Motown [Starz in Black]

8:45am: Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown [HBO Signature East]

11:45am: Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown [HBO Signature West]

6:00pm: Food, Inc. [Pivot]

6:00pm: Mad Hot Ballroom [The Movie Channel Extra]

9:00pm: Mad Hot Ballroom [The Movie Channel Extra]

Friday — 11/14

12:00am: Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown [HBO Signature East]

2:00am: King Corn [Fusion]

3:00am: Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown [HBO Signature West]

8:45am: Mistaken For Strangers [Showtime Showcase East]

9:40am: Cool It — SD [Epix 2]

11:45am: Mistaken For Strangers [Showtime Showcase West]

6:45am: Mistaken For Strangers [Showtime Showcase East]

3:00pm: Into Eternity [Al Jazeera America]

7:00pm: King Corn [Fusion]

9:45am: Mistaken For Strangers [Showtime Showcase West]

Saturday — 11/15

5:20am: Milius — SD [Epix 2]

5:30am: Mad Hot Ball Room [The Movie Channel East]

8:30am: Mad Hot Ball Room [The Movie Channel West]

9:45am: Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown [HBO East and HBO Latino East]

12:45pm: Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown [HBO West]

5:00pm: The Hip Hop Project [Aspire]

Sunday — 11/16

3:55am: Paul Williams Still Alive [Showtime Showcase East]

5:00am: Justin Bieber: Never Say Never — SD [Epix 2]

6:55am: Paul Williams Still Alive [Showtime Showcase West]

7:00am: King Corn [Fusion]

1:00pm: King Corn [Fusion]

4:30pm: Beware of Mr. Baker [Showtime Next]

9:30pm: Richard Pryor: Omit the Logic [Showtime Showcase East]

Monday — 11/17

12:30am: Richard Pryor: Omit the Logic [Showtime Showcase West]

4:00am: Into Eternity

11:00am: Mad Hot Ballroom [The Movie Channel East]

11:00am: Soul Power [Encore Black]

2:00pm: Mad Hot Ballroom [The Movie Channel West]

3:00pm: Private Violence [HBO Signature East]

6:00pm: Sicko [Pivot]

6:00pm: Private Violence [HBO Signature West]

11:00pm: Sicko [Pivot]

Tuesday — 11/18

4:00am: Private Violence [HBO Signature East]

7:00am: Private Violence [HBO Signature West]

2:45pm: Mistaken for Strangers [Showtime 2 East]

5:45pm: Mistaken for Strangers [Showtime 2 West]

(Editor in Chief)

Christopher Campbell is the founding editor of Nonfics.