‘The Staircase’ and Errol Morris Criterion Discs 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 March 24, 2015:

1. The Staircase

[Now streaming on SundanceNow Doc Club] — Perfectly timed following (and likely because of) HBO’s The Jinx and a coincidental joke on this week’s episode of Girls, Jean-Xavier de Lestrade’s true-crime masterpiece miniseries is now available to stream as part of a curation also including his follow-up, The Staircase II: The Last Chance, and his Oscar-winning true-crime doc Murder on a Sunday. The first episode of The Staircase is being offered free, which is genius because you won’t be able to watch just the one. Here’s what I wrote of the miniseries at Cinematical in a list of the best docs of the previous decade: “[The six-hour miniseries] follows the murder trial of Michael Peterson from his indictment to his… The story is so full of twists and surprises, usually timed in the editing to be made cliff hangers, that no Hollywood scripted legal thriller could ever compete with it. And the length of the film allows for more intimacy and investment by the viewer than does a feature-length doc. I can’t imagine watching it non-successively on television, as it’s the cinematic equivalent of a page-turner.” Also check out Dan Schindel’s post comparing The Staircase to Gone Girl. (★★★★★)

Also available on DVD.

2. The Thin Blue Line — Director Approved Edition

[Now on DVD and Blu-ray via the Criterion Collection] — Errol Morris’s best film is also a fitting watch or re-watch following the success of The Jinx (see Landon Palmer’s essay linking the two). And there’s no better way to watch it at home than with a Criterion Blu-ray disc featuring a new digital HD restoration. It’s one of my top 10 docs of all time, and it’s also one of the favorites of celebrity guest contributors Michael McKean and Scott Derrickson. Here’s what I wrote for my best-of at Sight & Sound: “In theory it’s unnecessary to so literally point out the uncertainty of ‘truth’ as viewed from different perspectives. We should be looking at all documentaries with consideration of the other sides and points of view. Morris’s execution of the concept here, however, is exquisite. He doesn’t leave much up to the imagination but makes it up to us with sensational ‘reenactments’, maybe the most constructive use of the device ever.” (★★★★★)

Bonus features and specifics:

  • New high-definition digital restoration, supervised by director Errol Morris and producer Mark Lipson, with 2.0 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on the Blu-ray
  • New interview with Morris
  • New interview with Joshua Oppenheimer, director of The Act of Killing
  • NBC report from 1989 covering Randall Adams’s release from prison
  • Essay by film scholar Charles Musser

Also available on Netflix Watch Instantly, iTunes and SundanceNow Doc Club.

3. Gates of Heaven / Vernon, Florida — Director Approved Edition Collector’s Set

[Now Together on DVD and Blu-ray via The Criterion Collection] — It’s a great week in general for Morris fans, as these two early docs by the filmmaker also arrive with special new Criterion discs.

Here’s part of what Dan Schindel wrote on Gates of Heaven in a list of the best docs on death and dying: “Funnily enough, the only notable doc about a cemetery is not about a human burial ground. Famously, Werner Herzog pledged that he would eat his shoe if Errol Morris was able to successfully complete this film. Morris did so, and Herzog ate his shoe (in another movie, by Les Blank, because Herzog is awesome). That Morris made a compelling movie about pet cemeteries with his very first feature set the tone for the rest of his career. Right away, he excelled at extracting odd profundity from normal but quirky individuals.” (★★★★★)

And here’s a bit I wrote on the background of Vernon, Florida in an intro to a post I wrote about doc subjects who don’t want to be doc subjects: “At the start of his career, Errol Morris set out to make a film about people from the same town who had cut off their own limbs and reported the amputations as accidental in order to collect insurance money. He received a death threat and eventually recognized that a documentary about these people would involve a lot of doors slamming in his face and camera — in other words, it’d be a failure. So he didn’t make that film (or a fiction version he’d later begun). He made another documentary about other people from that same place — the location being the title, Vernon, Florida — but not one on the subjects who didn’t want to be documentary subjects.” (★★★★)

Bonus features and specifics:

  • New 2K digital restorations of both films, supervised by director Errol Morris, with uncompressed monaural soundtracks on the Blu-rays
  • Two new interviews with Morris
  • Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe (1980), a 20-minute film by Les Blank featuring Herzog fulfilling a bet intended to inspire Morris to complete his first feature
  • Footage of Herzog professing his admiration for Gates of Heaven at the 1980 Telluride Film Festival
  • Essay by critic Eric Hynes

Gates of Heaven is also available on Amazon Instant Video and SundanceNow Doc Club.

Vernon, Florida is also available on iTunes and SundanceNow Doc Club.

4. Actress

[Now on DVD via Cinema Guild] — This entry previously appeared in an earlier Home Picks. Robert Greene‘s latest documentary, on actress Brandy Burre, is such a complex work that I spouted more than 1100 words on it recently, finally, and none of it can really be excerpted for the purposes of this list. So, read that, be aware that it featured in my picks for most memorable nonfiction scenes of last year, that it ranked 4th in our poll of the best films of 2014 and that it was #6 on this site’s list of the best of the year. Here’s Dan Schindel’s bit on the film from that post: “Several critic groups have cited Actress subject Brandy Burre in their ‘best actress’ year-end polling. It’s an exceedingly unusual move that makes total sense if you see the film. In one scene, Burre, in the middle of a soliloquy for the camera, pauses and repeats a line several times. The movie explores how much of life is performance by layering purposeful artifice into everything that happens within it. Whereas most docs incorporate some fakery (reenactments of events, actions performed for the camera rather than naturally), they usually attempt to conceal it. Actress does the opposite, stylizing itself shamelessly. The result is one of the most beautifully shot and edited docs of recent memory and one of the most thought-provoking as well.” (★★★★)

Bonus features:

· Audio commentary with Robert Greene and Brandy Burre
· Actress (Cut), a short film made of never-before-seen footage
· Teaser Trailer
· Theatrical Trailer
· Booklet featuring essay by film critic Eric Hynes

Also available on iTunes, Google Play, Vudu and YouTube.

5. Life Itself

[Now Streaming on Netflix Watch Instantly] — This entry previously appeared in an earlier Home Picks. Steve James‘s film of and about Roger Ebert is my #1 documentary of last year, as you can see on our posting of our annual poll results (on which it’s #3), and this site’s #7 best doc of the year. Here’s part of what I wrote on that latter list: “As a film it’s a masterpiece of biographical adaptation (it’s based on Ebert’s memoir of the same name) and documentary portraiture […] a work that aligns the making of a film about a life to reviewing a movie (or other artform) in a fair and balanced way, enough that a documentary subject or scrutinized artist (such as Martin Scorsese, who executive produced and appears in the film) respects the product even when it’s negative. Above the meta themes, though, is also the most emotional story on film this year. Never mind your subjective feelings about Ebert, you can’t not be choked up about his death by the end, for the sake of the heartbreak it causes his loved ones on screen, particularly his wife, Chaz Ebert.” (★★★★★)

Also available on DVD, iTunes, Google Play, Vudu and YouTube.

6. Digging My Own Grave: The Films of Caveh Zahedi Box Set

[Now Available via Factory 25] — This very special collector’s set includes 6 DVDs containing 36 Caveh Zahedi films, most of them documentaries, plus a signed 120-page book and a 7" record. I haven’t seen everything included, but I’m still sure it’s an essential item. Here’s part of what I wrote previously at Movies.com about the unnecessarily controversial The Sheik and I: “It’s a satirical semi-documentary filmed in and slightly mocking of Sharjah, one of the United Arab Emirates, as well the culture and religion of the region. It’s a movie you could associate with the works of Mads Brugger, Larry Charles (sometimes with Sacha Baron Cohen), Morgan Spurlock and maybe Jafar Panahi […] the film is not really aimed at Sharjah, Islam or any of the politics or rituals of either, in spite of what it apparently could look like to someone who isn’t paying attention. It’s a film directed at the ignorance of the West, and this includes the very self-aware, very self-reflexive Zahedi, who had never even heard of the place before being asked by the emirate’s arts council to make a film for the Sharjah Biennial.” (★★★★)

More details:

With 36 films, including: A Little Stiff, I Don’t Hate Las Vegas Anymore, In The Bathtub Of The World, Tripping With Caveh, I Am A Sex Addict and The Sheik And I

Writings by Bill Brown, Arnold Barkus,Greg Watkins, Thomas Logoreci, Alison Bechdel, Amanda Field, Richard Clark, Britta Sjorgren, Matthew L. Weiss, Jay Duplass,lena Dunham, Akira Lippitt, Don Lennon, Josh Safdie, Jay Rosenblatt, And Caveh Zahedi

7” vinyl record with songs By Will Oldham and Don Lennon

7. Evolution of a Criminal

[Now Streaming on Netflix Watch Instantly] — This entry previously appeared in an earlier Home Picks. I fell in love with this at the New Orleans Film Festival last year, and the fondness is surprising and partly unexplainable for me because it commits so many crimes of documentary (the laws broken are those in my head, of course). Director Darius Clark Monroe is a talking head in his own film, he employs fairly unnecessary reenactments, and about two thirds through he reveals that in a big way the doc is actually about the making of the doc. Added up, all these elements become one of the freshest takes on the personal doc genre.

Dan Schindel also ranked this film one of best of the Los Angeles Film Festival last year. Here’s what he wrote then: “This movie takes the Sarah Polley approach to personal investigation, only instead of tangled family history, Darius Monroe explores how and why he robbed a bank 10 years before. Without ever excusing his actions, he tries to make sense for himself, the people he talks to and the audience how he, a model student, was set on a path towards becoming ‘the bad guy.’ Almost everyone Monroe talks to appears at least slightly dazed at the nature of the project, but they talk to him nonetheless, and the result is a can’t-look-away dialectic.” (★★★★)

Also available on iTunes, Google Play, Vudu and YouTube.

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

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

Adventure Yellowstone: The World’s Most Popular National Park [Blu-ray]

Aliens and UFOs: Forbidden Origins

Battle Castle

Clean Spirit

Digging My Own Grave: The Films of Caveh Zahedi Box Set

Gates of Heaven [Nonfics rating: ★★★★★] [Also on Blu-ray]

A Good Job: Stories of the FDNY [Nonfics rating: ★★★; FSR review]

Gunned Down (Frontline)

I Am a Sex Addict

I Don’t Hate Las Vegas Anymore

In the Bathtub of the World

John Ford: Dreaming the Quiet Man [Also on Blu-ray]

Kabbalah Me

Let’s Roll

A Little Stiff

Miley Cyrus: Bangerz Tour [Also on Blu-ray]

A MusiCares Tribute to Paul McCartney [Also on Blu-ray]

Paranormal Portals: Haunted Hotels, Inns and Grills

Path Appears

A Second Chance: The Janelle Morrison Story

The Sheik and I [Nonfics rating: ★★★★]

Sin Fronteras

Sinkholes: Buried Alive (Nova)

Sukkah City

Sunken Ship Rescue (Nova)

The Thin Blue Line [Nonfics rating: ★★★★★; Nonfics review] [Also on Blu-ray]

Tripping with Caveh

Vernon, Florida [Nonfics rating: ★★★★] [Also on Blu-ray]

West Encounters East

Wild Encounters East

New to Netflix Watch Instantly:

Above All Else

American Revolutionary: Grace Lee Boggs [Nonfics rating: ★★; Nonfics review]

Before You Know It

Evolution of a Criminal [Nonfics rating: ★★★★; Nonfics review]

The Green Prince [Nonfics rating: ★★★]

Life Itself [Nonfics rating: ★★★★★; Nonfics review]

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

Antarctica: A Year on Ice — Amazon, iTunes

As Long as There’s Breath — Doc Alliance

Bite Size — Amazon, iTunes

The Days and the Hours — Fandor

Demolition — Doc Alliance

Empire of the Moon — Fandor

A Good Job: Stories of the FDNY [Nonfics rating: ★★★; FSR review] — Amazon

An Intent to Enrich the Bare Mechanistic World — Doc Alliance

Kale and Kale — Doc Alliance

Monsoon-Reflections — Doc Alliance

Open Secret — Amazon, iTunes

Reiki: The Power of Touch & The Art of the Healing Hand — A Day at the Spa Collection — Amazon

Riding the Tiger — Fandor

Single Stream — Doc Alliance

Songhua — Doc Alliance

Still Life — Doc Alliance

Sweetgrass — Doc Alliance

Terrace of the Sea — Doc Alliance

Untitled — Doc Alliance

Wrong Place, Wrong Time — Fandor

The Yellow Bank — Doc Alliance

Yumen — Doc Alliance

(Editor in Chief)

Christopher Campbell is the founding editor of Nonfics.