Three Great Documentaries to Stream

by The Technical Blogs


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.

Stream it on Kanopy. Rent it on Amazon, Apple TV, Fandango at Home, Google Play and Kino Now.

Any politician who makes decisions about sending soldiers to war zones ought to see this tough, moving documentary, which follows several post-9/11 American veterans as they receive treatment for PTSD at a program in Yountville, Calif. Filming lasted from 2008 to 2013. There is a tragic coda to the events onscreen: In 2018, long after the film’s completion, three women who worked at the program were killed after being taken hostage by a former participant.

What we see in the documentary — directed by the French filmmaker Laurent Bécue-Renard — are veterans, all male, working to reacclimate to civilian life and to reconcile themselves to their new fragility. They, and their significant others, recognize that they have changed dramatically from who they were before they deployed. (“You don’t feel as strong as you used to be,” one says. “You feel defective.”) In group therapy sessions, sharing doesn’t come easily to men who have been asked to be stoic professionally. The presence of cameras, however unobtrusive (the direct-cinema pioneer Albert Maysles gets a thanks in the credits), presumably made things even harder. Nor do the vets immediately have trust for one another. More than once, someone storms out of a session.

The patients aren’t identified in any formal way — the closing credits list first names — but we do get to see several stories unfold over time. Some men share horrifying memories from overseas. One recalls kicking in a door and accidentally killing a small girl. Another remembers having to flatten out a corpse in which rigor mortis had set in. Still another recalls smelling his own facial flesh cooking after an explosion. One man grapples frankly with why his marriage, after his return, is now in jeopardy. “I’ve come to realize I have no clue what it’s like to be a woman and marry a man that’s twice your size and that’s lethal and in the military,” he says.

But there are hopeful stories, too — of reconciliations, of new parenthood, of modest breakthroughs in dealing with anger or in redirecting guilt. “Of Men and War” doesn’t impose a tidy narrative arc on the material, which, by its nature, resists easy resolution.

Stream it on Amazon Prime Video.

Hardly an essential backstage showcase but something that any Coen brothers completist will want to take a look at, “Jerry Lee Lewis: Trouble in Mind” is a product of how Ethan Coen spent the early days of the pandemic. It’s his first documentary and his first directorial credit without his brother, Joel. (“Drive-Away Dolls” came later.) But it also isn’t something he shot.

By accounts, T-Bone Burnett had approached Coen and his wife, the editor Tricia Cooke, about making a movie on the rock ’n’ roll legend Jerry Lee Lewis. The two built a documentary out of a trove of archival Lewis performances and interviews. (The project “came to us two or maybe three weeks into the pandemic, when everybody was still afraid to go outside,” Cooke recalled to Rolling Stone.) The result doesn’t claim to be anything more than the editing exercise that the origin story suggests — but Cooke and Coen can really edit. And at 73 minutes, “Trouble in Mind” presents a thorough overview of Lewis’s musical career and takes its bow at just about the maximum time that an audience could reasonably be asked to spend in his presence. How he moved his hands so wildly and still hit the right piano keys is a source of enduring wonder. But he was also a noxious egomaniac who in old interviews makes unapologetic wisecracks about marrying his 13-year-old cousin, which he infamously did.

The ample performance clips often let the songs play through. The numbers include “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” (anyone who didn’t like that song “had to have a problem — with music,” Lewis says); “Lewis Boogie,” which he performs with his cousin Mickey Gilley; and “I’ll Fly Away,” which he sings with Little Richard. (The song is no stranger to Ethan: Allison Krauss and Gillian Welch’s rendition was on the Burnett-produced “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” soundtrack.) Additionally, there’s footage of Lewis at a gospel recording session in Nashville in January 2020. The interviews are, well, something to see, with Lewis extolling his own brilliance again and again and on occasion even coming across like a Coen character. (Returning from the hospital after being treated for a ruptured stomach, he delivers a TV interview holding a comically large cigar.)

Shown at Cannes in May 2022, before Lewis’s death that October, the film had a screening at Film Forum in New York in January and is now, with little fanfare, available to stream.

Stream it on PBS.

Frederick Wiseman’s “Menus-Plaisirs — Les Troisgrois” chronicles the workings of a three-Michelin-star restaurant in Ouches, France. While making it, the director was able to eat his lunch there. It won’t be long into this four-hour film before viewers become intensely jealous of that fact, although they may be grateful not to face the paralyzing indecision of choosing from such a voluminously stocked cheese cart. (The maître fromager’s recitation gets one of the film’s biggest laughs.)

Wiseman, being Wiseman, is interested in much more than simply showing off the cuisine and the cooking process. “Menus-Plaisirs” captures the workings of just about every imaginable aspect of the restaurant, from the arguments over menus to the sourcing of ingredients to preparations for customers who don’t want this or that item in their meals. At this restaurant, being picky frankly seems gauche, but the staff members handle it all with grace.

The ballet of table setting and good service are part of the picture, too, as are the dining experiences of guests who are perhaps overly besotted with their food’s aromas. “Menus-Plaisirs” is also a portrait of the head chef, Michel Troisgrois, and his sons, and the degree to which he is willing to take charge and to delegate. He interacts with guests in French and in English. He chides an employee for improperly prepping brains and directs him to recipe books; when in doubt, he says, consult Auguste Escoffier or the Larousse Gastronomique. He gets into an extended back-and-forth with one of his boys about whether a dish of kidneys, passion fruit and sriracha is missing something. Might it be supplemented with white asparagus al dente? The son thinks the asparagus will dilute too much of the flavor. And nobody, nobody appears to love the flavor of passion fruit as much as Monsieur Troisgrois.

Wiseman closely guards the distribution of his films; most can be streamed on Kanopy, which is available through certain libraries and academic institutions. But “Menus-Plaisirs” will stream for free on PBS until April 20. It’s the pop-up restaurant of Wiseman features.


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