PRESS PLAY: DOCUMENTARIES WE LOVE

It’s fall, which means that ‘Netflix and chill’ just got a whole lot more real. Darker days and colder nights are the perfect excuse for staying in and watching endless amounts of shows and films. But, choices do need to be made, and with so many options at the moment it can get very overwhelming, very quickly. So we’re rounded up some of our favorite documentaries to help you make an educated decision about what to watch next time you find yourself faced with the eternal question: Do I watch that crappy, 62%-rating-on-Rotten-Tomatoes-film, or the true story of something or someone remarkable?

Read on to avoid the YouTube abyss and rest easy knowing that you’ve spent your day or night, or day and night for the really hard core, well.  

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The 100 Years Show (2015)

“I waited 98 years for the impulse to come. Nobody cared about what I did.” –Carmen Herrera

Imagine working in an industry for over sixty years before your work gets the recognition it deserves. Sounds like the perfect fodder for a Hollywood script, right? Well, as it so happens it’s actually the story of artist Carmen Herrera, an artist whose contemporary painting only found fame late in her career. The 100 Years Show, follows Herrera as she approaches her 100th birthday, giving us a glimpse of not only her extraordinary, modern paintings but the very modern woman behind them.

And if the documentary leaves you wanting more, you’re in luck! We interviewed Herrera for Issue One of Us of America, which you can still buy here.

If you like: art, pioneers, sassy, vibrant older women

 

Searching for Sugar Man (2012)

“Bob Dylan was mild compared to this guy.” – Clarence Avant

A testament to the power of music, Searching for Sugar Man is a truly remarkable story about the mystery surrounding a musician named Rodriguez. Discovered in a bar in Detroit, Michigan, the talented but down-and-out singer was set to become the next Bob Dylan. That is, until he disappeared without a trace. With a killer soundtrack, and a stranger than fiction story that spans not only decades but continents, Sugar Man is a modern classic.

If you like: mystery, music, second chances


 

Hoop Dreams (1994)

“If I don't make it, don't you forget about me." – William Gates

In America, it is said that if you work hard your dreams can come true. This is the premise of Hoop Dreams, a story of two talented African American boys from Chicago who get a basketball scholarship to go to a prestigious, predominantly white high school. Shot over the course of five years, Hoop Dreams is not simply about the game of basketball but the game of life in America– on how many families must ‘play’ hard in order to inch one step closer to achieving their dreams.

If you like: basketball (obviously), underdog stories, the American Dream

 

Grey Gardens (1975)

“I better check on mother [...] She’s a lot of fun. I hope she doesn’t die.”– Little Edie

You may have seen the HBO version, but the original Grey Gardens is definitely the best. The documentary captures two aging, reclusive women who live together in a decaying mansion in East Hampton, New York. The women in question are mother and daughter (“Big” and “Little” Edie Bouvier) and their relationship is compelling viewing. From the cats and raccoons, to their diet of boiled corn, canned liver pate, and ice cream, to the fact that the filmmakers and crew had to wear flea collars when entering the house, Grey Gardens is truly a bizarrely heartwarming and heartbreaking film. Oh, and the women also happen to be related to former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.

If you like: cats, history, mother-daughter drama

 

Paris is Burning (1990)

"We’re not going to be shady, just fierce.”- Junior LaBeija

You better work! Think throwing “shade” and “vogueing” is from the Internet-age? Well, clearly you need to see Paris is Burning. The legendary documentary about New York’s drag scene, specifically ball culture*, is the OG when it comes to the art of making an entrance. Bringing the underground ‘voguing’ ball scene subculture to audiences across America, and the world, Paris is Burning chronicles the life of a community of queer people of color and trans people in late ‘80s NYC. Against the backdrop of New York’s AIDS epidemic, the film highlights the importance of the ball– as a stage for self-creation and re-creation– for the LGBT community. It may be flamboyant, but for all its glitz and sequined costumes, this film has some serious heart.

*An underground LGBT subculture in which people "walk" (i.e., compete) for trophies and prizes at events known as balls.

If you like: catwalks, OTT personalities, fashion, and RuPaul’s Drag Race

 

Queen of Versailles (2014)

“Everyone wants to be rich. If they can’t be rich, the next best thing is to feel rich. And if they don’t want to feel rich, then they’re probably...dead.” – David Siegel

Imagine that you’re in the midst of building your dream home and then disaster hits – the country falls into a deep recession. Now, imagine that the house is a mansion being modelled after Versailles (seriously) which is being built by an extremely wealthy family in Florida. That’s the story that unfolds in Queen of Versailles, when the Siegel’s are forced to halt construction on one of the largest and most expensive single-family houses in America.

Queen of Versailles is a tale of greed, rampant materialism, and a meditation on the cost of happiness in the pursuit of the American Dream. As the Siegel’s try to face their new reality, it quickly becomes apparent that the grass isn't always greener on the other side, even if the house is bigger.

If you like: grand designs, family dramas, the American Dream gone wrong

 

Words: Emily Freedman