The proliferation of documentaries on streaming services makes it difficult to choose what to watch. Each month, we’ll choose three nonfiction films — classics, overlooked recent docs and more — that will reward your time.
‘Sans Soleil’ (1983)
The French film essayist Chris Marker (1921-2012) likely left his biggest pop-cultural footprint with “La Jetée,” a half-hour short whose time-travel conceit inspired Terry Gilliam’s “12 Monkeys.” “But “Sans Soleil,” Marker’s unclassifiable 1983 feature, neither fiction nor nonfiction, shows that raw documentary materials can be rendered into something as disorienting and chronologically malleable as fantasy. (Marker credits himself with “conception and editing,” but not direction.) The film belongs on a list of movies that ought to be seen and debated even if you don’t comprehend them. Not that comprehension is the point. “Sans Soleil” is not only unrooted in time but also in place, as a quotation from T.S. Eliot’s poem “Ash-Wednesday” signals at the outset. The title is given in Russian, English and French. The confounding narration in the English-language version consists of the actress Alexandra Stewart reading letters from a nonexistent cinematographer named Sandor Krasna, whose images we appear to be watching.
The film begins with a shot of three children in Iceland. Soon, it travels to Cape Verde and Guinea-Bissau, among other locales; it is fascinated, most of all, with Japan, particularly its surreal and futuristic aspects, its television screens and its video games. Pac-Man is held up as “the most perfect graphic metaphor of man’s fate.” Familiar Marker totems — pictures of cats and owls — are rendered into electronically tweaked images. A clip dated as February 1980, before the coup in Guinea-Bissau that November, can only be properly understood by moving forward in time, the narration insists.
Stewart describes Krasna’s having taken a trip to the San Francisco area and visiting the locations from “Vertigo,” including the tree cross-section that Kim Novak’s Madeleine touches, saying, “Here I was born, and here I died.” Less considered, the voice-over suggests, citing another film that quotes that scene from “Vertigo,” is the area to the side of the sequoia trunk, beyond what can be touched. What’s there, in the cosmology of “Sans Soleil,” exists outside of time.
‘De Palma’ (2016)
“De Palma” opens with “Vertigo” — more specifically, with Brian De Palma’s recollection of seeing it the year it was released, 1958, at Radio City Music Hall. To him, it’s a film about what a director does: conjuring romantic illusions.
Brian De Palma has always been one of Hitchcock’s most direct imitators, and in the documentary “De Palma,” the filmmakers Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow pay tribute to him with the cinematic equivalent of Hitch’s famous conversations with François Truffaut. They are apprentices learning from a master, and helping remind viewers of what an influential figure De Palma has been. He came up at the same time as his friends Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas. “What we did in our generation will never be duplicated,” De Palma says. “We were able to get into the studio system and use all that stuff in order to make some pretty incredible movies, before the businessmen took over again.”
De Palma always divided critics; detractors variously saw him as derivative or as wasting his ingenious visual style on subpar material. In the documentary, a candid, detailed De Palma, going film by film through his career, could disabuse anyone of the notion that he isn’t brilliant at his job. There are films where he felt everything clicked, like “Dressed to Kill” (1980) and “The Untouchables” (1987). He remembers watching “Carlito’s Way” (1993) and thinking, “I can’t make a better picture than this.” There are other times when things didn’t come off as he thinks they should have. His widely panned adaptation of “The Bonfire of the Vanities” (1990) needed the toughness of “The Magnificent Ambersons” or “Sweet Smell of Success,” he says. It’s a relief, for those of us who find “Raising Cain” (1992) confusing, to hear De Palma talk about how he rearranged it in the editing process. “It has a particular oddness to it,” he says, “’cause it’s not put together the way it was conceived.”
He laments current trends like the previsualization of action sequences, because using computers to plan things out is inevitably going to lead to visual clichés. The special-effects work on “Mission to Mars” didn’t suit him. “You do one of those shots the first day and you’re seeing it every week, as they add one incremental thing to it,” he says. “That goes on for a year, basically,” adding that he was always amazed at filmmakers like Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis who had the patience for that endless repetition.
Is he a Hitchcock imitator? He suggests, in a way, that Hitchcock wasn’t enough of an influence on others, and that the visual storytelling vocabulary Hitchcock developed might die out. “I’ve never found too many people that followed after the Hitchcock school except for me,” De Palma says.
‘Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie’ (2023)
Another disarmingly candid documentary, “Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie” finds the “Back to the Future” actor (who had the main role in De Palma’s “Casualties of War”) reflecting on his career and on his life with Parkinson’s disease, a diagnosis that he revealed to the public in 1998. The director Davis Guggenheim (“An Inconvenient Truth”) takes full advantage of the fact that he’s working with someone who has spent a lot of time on camera. Certainly, Fox seems comfortable as an interview subject in the present day, answering questions with good humor and self-effacement. But Guggenheim also uses film clips of Fox to create a sort of visual archive of his life, so that whatever Fox is speaking about can be accompanied by footage of his younger self. The overall effect makes it feel like Fox had always been making his documentary about his life.
Guggenheim uses the verve of “Back to the Future” (and Alan Silvestri’s score) to help conjure the frenzy that engulfed Fox’s life at the time it was made, when the actor was shuttling between the sets of that film and the sitcom “Family Ties.” “Bright Lights, Big City” (1988), in which Fox’s wife, Tracy Pollan, appeared, helps tell the story of their courtship. And when Fox talks about his early years of acting with Parkinson’s symptoms, and trying to time his medication so that he would peak at just the right moments, Guggenheim includes clips from “For Love or Money” (1993) and “Life With Mikey” (1993), which illustrate one of Fox’s hiding strategies: putting an object in his hand to mask its trembling.
While “Still” shows Fox poking fun at himself, as in a clip from “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” it is a serious movie when it ought to be. It doesn’t shy away from showing the struggles that Fox faces with injuries, for instance. “Gravity is real, even if you’re only falling from my height,” he says with a laugh, after a makeup artist has been shown working to conceal bruising on his face. Yet in spite of that, “Still” finds a way to be an optimistic film. A time machine in its own way — one very different from “Sans Soleil” — it brims with the wit and charisma that made Fox a star in the first place.