But if you can't make it to the fest, you can still see some great documentaries from your couch via Netflix's streaming service, a great place to find both well-known and relatively obscure documentary films. Here are five picks for creating your own living room film festival.
Co-directed by photographer Edward Burtynsky and filmmaker Jennifer Baichwal—guest curator of this year's Thematic Program at Full Frame—Watermark is an ambitious and beautiful exploration of our species' complicated relationship with water. The high-definition imagery is breathtaking and the filmmakers rely mostly on ambient sound, from the thunderous roar of the surf to the giggles of California girls on the beach. This isn't an alarmist eco-doc—though there are plenty of worrisome details regarding our stewardship of the planet. Instead, it's an avant-garde art film writ insanely large, with carefully composed images and wildly creative photographic techniques.
Ostensibly a documentary film, Exit Through the Gift Shop is a deliciously confusing artifact from renowned British artist Banksy. Technically the director of the film, Banksy also started out as the subject—this was to be a film about street artists and culture jammers. But then the intended director, a French store owner named Thierry Guetta, became an art star himself, so Banksy turned the camera around and documented the new artist's overnight ascent. Exit pretty much defies synopsis, and if you're familiar with Banksy's art, you will appreciate how deliberate all the confusion is. Media subversion is his M.O. Ultimately, Exit is a funny and fascinating tour of the guerrilla art world.
I have a giant soft spot for music documentaries. I could watch old Behind the Music the episodes all day. (Actually, I have. The one on Heart is really good.) Featured at Full Frame in 2013 and theatrically released a few months later, Muscle Shoals documents the musical heritage of two storied Alabama recording studios. Aretha Franklin made her first hit R&B records at the legendary Fame Studios, and the competing Muscle Shoals Sound Studio hosted a rolling party for several decades with the likes of The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Little Richard, Paul Simon, Jimmy Cliff, Willie Nelson and Lynyrd Skynyrd. Legend holds that the genre known as Southern Rock was invented in Muscle Shoals, more or less by accident, when Wilson Pickett and Duane Allman split a joint and started jamming.
A fascinating and funny peek behind the scenes of stand-up comedy, this 2005 film follows four comics—Zach Galifianakis, Patton Oswalt, Brian Posehn and Maria Bamford—as they play a series of small indie rock venues across the country. It's an effective blend of concert film and road movie as director Michael Blieden documents the comics on and off the tour bus, riffing on whatever comes into their very funny heads. Galifianakis' career was just about to go supernova when they filmed this tour, and the film reveals a genuinely eccentric comic genius in his natural habitat. Oswalt and Bamford deliver some great sets, too. Posehn is … hmm, "acquired taste" is probably the polite term. The film was one of the first to be funded and produced by Netflix. Also recommended: American: The Bill Hicks Story.
Finally, if you're in the market for a long-term binge-watching commitment, Netflix has no fewer than nine massive series online from documentary rock star Ken Burns. I'm a giant baseball nerd and have been chipping away at Burns' 20-hour opus on the National Pastime for a couple of years now. The Netflix version also includes Burns' 2010 update to the series, The Tenth Inning, which covers the 15 or so years between the 1994 players' strike and the winding down of the Steroid Era. Burns is the heavyweight champion of long-form documentaries that dig deep into America's collective archival materials. Also recommended: The National Parks: America's Best Idea, a surprisingly engaging exploration of a particular slice of U.S. history.
Other recommended releases this week, now available on digital and/or disc:
The very thorough archivists at the Criterion Collection have just released new editions of four classic documentaries: Steve James' Hoop Dreams and Errol Morris' films Gates of Heaven and Vernon, Florida, together in one set, plus the essential The Thin Blue Line. All films are available in DVD or Blu-ray editions, with the Criterion assemblage of rich bonus materials.
The documentary Happy Valley—which screened at Full Frame last year—digs into the Penn State scandal. Director Amir Bar-Lev is a Full Frame regular and curated the 2013 Thematic Program.
If you like your documentaries au natural, the 3D IMAX pic Island of Lemurs: Madagascar has been scaled down for the small screen, with narration by Morgan Freeman. Naturally.
Chris Rock's latest joint Top Five—Rock writes and directs—is now available.
People make fun of Jason Statham movies, but for my dollar he's our best action movie star since Steve McQueen. Statham's latest, Wild Card, was written by William Goldman, based on his novel Heat.
One of last year's best films, The Imitation Game stars Benedict Cumberbatch in the incredible true story of how mathematician Alan Turing more or less won World War 2 for us.