Great Documentaries on HBO Max
Every streaming service has its share of great documentaries. Some, albeit too few, even have classic documentaries made before the 21st century. But HBO Max has an exceptional catalog of nonfiction films that goes back nearly a century with essential titles representing milestones in the history of the documentary mode. I’m listing only five examples below but also highlight some others within each entry to show that these are just the beginning of what you can watch in your pursuit of becoming more learned in the art of documentary cinema.
Nanook of the North (1922)
Contrary to popular belief, this is neither the first documentary film nor even the first documentary feature ever made. But it has significance for its creation, release, and success as a work of cinematic nonfiction, both for what it truly depicts as a kind of reality — at least as far as cultural history and late-captured ethnography goes — as well as for what it fudges in terms of genuine actuality to show a more entertaining story. Along with the horror-doc hybrid Haxan, this silent look at the life of an Inuk man in the Arctic, much of it staged and already outdated at the time, is also among the oldest non-Chaplin-led offerings on HBO Max.
In the late 1950s, innovations in portable cameras and sound equipment allowed documentary filmmakers to immerse themselves in the action and chronicle events as they happened. Robert Drew was one of the leaders in this new accommodation and accomplishment in what American documentarians called Direct Cinema, and one of his first, definitely his most famous work is this film following John F. Kennedy during the 1960 Wisconsin presidential primary. Drew’s 1963 Kennedy doc Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment is an even better film, but Primary is the most influential for political documentary, leading to such later classics as The War Room and recent favorites like The Final Year, both of which are also on HBO Max. And if you want more Direct Cinema docs on HBO Max, check out the Maysles brothers’ Salesman and Grey Gardens (also its “sequel,” The Beales of Grey Gardens) and Barbara Kopple’s Harlan County USA.
Dont Look Back (1967)
D.A. Pennebaker, who actually worked with Robert Drew on a number of films, including Primary, which he edited, and Crisis, and who would later go on to make The War Room (with wife Chris Hegedus), was also a pioneer of music documentaries and concert films as we know them today. Dont Look Back [sic] iconically follows Bob Dylan during his 1965 tour in the UK, presenting some stage performance but mostly candid behind the scenes incidents and dealings with the press. Dylan is definitely the star of the doc, but his manager, Albert Grossman, is one of the great scene-stealing characters in nonfiction cinema. After Dont Look Back, move onto Pennebaker’s music festival concert film Monterey Pop and the Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin’s Gimme Shelter.
F for Fake (1974)
When it comes to film essays, Orson Welles’ F for Fake is probably the most accessible and entertaining. Some wouldn’t even call it a film essay, especially given how that subgenre and documentary as a whole look today. Welles is no Chris Marker or Agnes Varda. He’s much more of a showman as he hosts an exploration of the life of art forger Elmyr de Hory, the deceptive hoax of Clifford Irving’s infamous Howard Hughes autobiography, Welles’ own trickery with his famous War of the Worlds radio broadcast, and a story involving Pablo Picasso and Welles’ partner Oja Kodar that turns out to be all made up. It ends with the statement that “art is a lie that makes us see the truth.” Everyone should see this film before watching any modern docs, so they’re prepared for the elastic and ecstatic truth of nonfiction cinema.
Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (1996)
True crime documentaries are a dime a dozen these days, but they have some notable progenitors, such as Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line, Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s Brother’s Keeper, and Berlinger and Sinofsky’s original Paradise Lost film. This documentary has everything from an unbelievable murder, some wrongly accused scapegoats, courtroom drama, shady side characters, themes that are so indicative of the times, and an inconclusive ending (at least outside of the trial at hand) allowing for all kinds of theories and involvement from the audience. In fact, the film sparked a movement to free the young men known as the “West Memphis Three,” and eventually after two more Paradise Lost docs (both on HBO Max as Paradise Lost “episodes”) and another film, it worked. Considering HBO continued making tons of true crime docs and series after this one, you’ve got plenty to watch after this, including Mommy Dead and Dearest and The Jinx.
— Christopher Campbell
Great ’90s Movies on HBO Max
Irma Vep (1996)
Olivier Assayas’s Irma Vep is about a remake of Louis Feuillade’s 1915 Les Vampires by a fictional auteur who doesn’t know how to remake it. You watch a toxic set environment slowly devolve into madness all the while having absolutely no idea what this movie is going to look like or if it’s even coming together. Rumors spread through the crew, Maggie Cheung (who is playing herself cast as the lead in the film) stacks on a meta-narrative that ends up extending far beyond herself and into the realm of another remake happening within the remake. It’s all delightfully and enigmatically confusing but no less alluring for it. The cinematography is magnificent and varied, Cheung gives a Wong Kar-Wai-tier performance, and the ending is one for the history books.
Breaking the Waves (1996)
If you’ve never had your heart ripped out of your chest, still pumping, and curb-stomped into a bloody pulp, you’ve probably never seen a Lars von Trier movie. Dogville, Dancer in the Dark, Melancholia, and Antichrist – to name a few – are responsible for some of the most punishing narratives ever committed to celluloid. But there’s something about Breaking the Waves that edges out the others. Maybe it’s the blind desperation of Emily Watson’s magnificent performance, or the late Robby Müller’s breathtaking cinematography, or the surreal Scottish oceanside, or those trippy ’70s-pop-laden chapter cards that cut in between the devastation, or the pure brutalization of innocence that leaves us catatonic, or that final shot, one of the only hopeful – if we can call it that – moments in von Trier’s infamous career. Do yourself a favor and go in knowing as little as possible.
4 Little Girls (1997)
Spike Lee’s seminal documentary paints a social, political, cultural, and economic portrait of the 1963 Ku Klux Klan bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, in which four little girls – Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Carol Denis McNair – were murdered and many more were injured. The eye-opening moment broke the country and shook the people, specifically white people, into a new level of awareness around the threat that Black people in America faced on a daily basis. Lee’s account is canon, a heart-wrenching, infuriating, and galvanizing look at America’s embedded racism. It is an essential historical text told from the margins. Lee’s way of assuring we, as Americans, never forget where we came from.
It’s tempting to just list the cast of Paul Thomas Anderson’s follow-up to the seemingly-impossible-to-follow-up Boogie Nights, but I’ll just name a handful: Tom Cruise, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Julianne Moore, John C. Reilly, Jason Robards — okay, you get the point. It’s stacked. And it happens to be an absolute masterpiece, one that, in its three-hour-and-nine-minute runtime, amounts to a simple truth: shit happens. It might be PTA.’s best. It might be Tom Cruise’s best. It might be several others’ best, too. The reality is, everyone brought their A-game for Magnolia, and twenty-one years later, we haven’t stopped talking about it. Among other things, it’s a glorious continuation of Robert Altman’s mosaic storytelling style for a new generation of storytellers.
The War Room (1993)
The War Room is the kind of film you have a hard time believing exists once you realize what it is: an unfettered peek behind the curtain into Bill Clinton’s 1992 Presidential campaign. From the iconic husband-wife documentary duo, (the late) D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus, comes a cinema verité treasure trove of political characters behind one of the most scandalizing presidential races in history. Campaign leaders James Carville and (a very young) George Stephanopoulos seem more like characters written for the screen than they do real people – a testament to the charisma one must have to thrive at the top of American politics. It’s as entertaining as it is troubling, much like the current state of politics in America.
— Luke Hicks
Related Topics: HBO Max