Unless you subscribe to their DVD plan, Netflix doesn’t offer a lot of classic films. However, when it comes to documentaries of interest to those who love the golden age of movies, it’s a different story. I’ve found several interesting flicks on the service, some of them even produced by Netflix. My favorites:
Rashida Jones offers a loving, but honest portrait of her father in this intimate documentary about legendary composer, producer, musician and band leader Quincy Jones. With a beautifully arranged mix of archival and current footage, she explores his brilliance and flaws in equal measure, admirably giving proper attention to the women who put their lives on hold so that Jones could shine. Film fans will enjoy the brief, but interesting segment about the composer's film scores.
Faces Places (2017)
Influential French New Wave filmmaker Agnès Varda and the street artist JR are a charming pair on their essentially light-hearted journey through the French countryside. They travel in a customized van fitted with a special printer which makes oversized prints of the photos they take of people they meet on their travels. They plaster these pictures in public places, giving ordinary citizens a taste of fame and even more importantly, the feeling that they are worthy of attention. As interesting as the people they meet is the relationship between the two artists, who are divided by generations and emotional maturity, but share a deep compassion for and curiosity about humanity.
Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story (2017)
When I saw this emotionally rich film about the actress and inventor Hedy Lamarr for the first time on public television, I regretted not recording it, as I immediately wanted to watch it again. It explores both her Hollywood career and the passion for inventing that inspired her to create signal hopping technology, which would eventually be used to secure cell phone communication. It is a simultaneously thrilling and frustrating story, buoyed by Lamarr’s brilliance and wisdom, but ultimately tragic because she never fully got her due for what she accomplished during her lifetime.
Five Came Back (2017)
This three-part documentary is based on Mark Harris’ book of the same name about the films Hollywood directors John Huston, Frank Capra, John Ford, William Wyler, and George Stevens made on the frontlines of World War II. Directors Steven Spielberg, Guillermo del Toro, Francis Ford Coppola, Paul Greengrass, and Lawrence Kasdan talk about this diverse group of filmmakers, essentially the best of Hollywood at the time, and how they threw themselves into danger to document war. Several of the films the directors made are also available on the service, including: Nazi Concentration Camps (1945), Undercover: How to Operate Behind Enemy Lines (1943), The Battle of Midway (1942), San Pietro (1945), and Why We Fight: The Battle of Russia (1943).
Tab Hunter Confidential (2015)
I love the positive, loving tone of this tribute to actor, singer, and teen heartthrob Tab Hunter. The star has weathered a brutal industry with grace, an especially remarkable thing as he had the added burden of living as a homosexual when it could end a career. Hunter himself gets lots of screentime. He remains a mesmerizing presence.
Leon Vitali was once an actor with a thriving career which promised to ascend to great heights. Then he met Stanley Kubrick while working on Barry Lyndon (1975) and decided to give it all up to work for the director in any capacity he could. His enduring devotion, and the way he was in thrall to this demanding filmmaker, are the subject of this fascinating, if occasionally unsettling documentary. It can be hard to watch Vitali suffer for the art of another, putting stress on his relationships, health, and finances, because as a society, we are taught to aspire to great things for ourselves. However, the film taps into the passion that Vitali felt for his work, demonstrating how his efforts were instrumental to the vision Kubrick brought to the screen and how in the end, he thought it worth sacrificing his own spotlight.