May 31, 2023

The proliferation of documentaries on streaming services makes it difficult to choose what to watch. Each month, we pick three non-fiction movies — classics, overlooked recents, and more — that will reward your time.

Stream it on Tubi. Rent it on Amazon and Apple TV.

Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky are best known for their “Paradise Lost” trilogy, a landmark documentary filmmaking that followed the saga of the West Memphis Three as it unfolded over nearly two decades. But their breakthrough was the earlier ‘Brother’s Keeper’, a strange and terrifying documentary that, like the ‘Paradise Lost’ films, revolves around what appears to be a miscarriage of justice.

After William Ward, a farmer in central New York, died in 1990 at the age of 64, his brother Delbert was charged with murder. William had lived with Delbert and their other brothers, Roscoe and Lyman, on a farm that was almost non-existent, devoid of basic amenities. Berlinger and Sinofsky first learned from the Maysles brothers, who developed the direct-cinema style, and there’s a hint of the Maysles’ “Grey Gardens” in how “Brother’s Keeper” introduces viewers to the Wards and their private , rotten world . The Wards’ neighbors in Munnsville, New York, some of whom have known them for decades, widely refer to them as “the boys,” even though the brothers are well into their gray years. From what we learn, the Ward boys can barely read, let alone understand how Delbert could have been forced to confess to a murder that may not have been a murder at all.

Did Delbert suffocate his brother, as the prosecutor claims? On the witness stand, a showboating coroner admits he can’t even say for sure that William’s death was a homicide. Delbert says William, who was in poor health, died alone – “went natural”, as Roscoe puts it. And even if William had died at his brother’s hand, would it have been a mercy killing, the sort of thing that siblings who had lived at a distance from society – and who were impossibly close, even side by side slept for warmth – perhaps used to do for an animal in pain? Several voices in the film suggest that. “Brother’s Keeper” is part story about a family bond so hermetic and close-knit that it’s almost inscrutable to outsiders. But it’s also a story of how the Wards’ neighbors, recognizing their eccentricity and gentleness, defended Delbert.

Stream it on the Criterion Channel.

Beloved director Agnès Varda, who died in 2019 at the age of 90, divided her career between fiction and non-fiction. There is no better introduction to her kind of essay film than ‘The Gleaners and I’, a road movie in which Varda, experimenting with then-new, small digital cameras, tours France to observe various modern forms of ‘playing’ – the tradition of collecting after a harvest, and a practice immortalized in the painting of Jean-François Millet.

Varda meets people who collect potatoes that have been thrown back in fields because they were too big. Some of its subjects live in poverty and collect discarded subsistence products. Others, both urban and rural, have their own motivations for collecting. An artist searches for raw materials. A man saves his food from the trash out of ethical and environmental concerns about waste. The hazy legalities of collecting—apparently OK at certain times, within certain radiuses, and in certain quantities, though the shellfish collectors disagree on how much they are allowed to take—becomes something of a running gag, and Varda brings lawyers to the screen in full force. courtroom attire to explain the rules. And, of course, Varda herself is the film’s main gleaner: there is, as she says, “no law regulating this kind of gleaning – of images, impressions, emotions.”

Like all of Varda’s documentaries, “The Gleaners and I” effortlessly wanders off when something in particular catches the filmmaker’s attention, like when, while learning about gleaning in vineyards, she meets a vintner descended from Étienne-Jules Marey, the inventor of the prototype. cinematic technique of chronophotography. One of the items Varda collects over the course of the film is a clock with no hands – and she’s fine with that apparent lack. “You don’t see time go by,” she says.

Stream it on HBO Max. Rent it on Amazon, Apple TV, Google Play and Vudu.

Although it was directed by Laura Poitras, who won an Oscar for the Edward Snowden documentary “Citizenfour,” “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” is a rare instance where it’s tempting to credit the subject of a documentary as a co-writer .

That’s partly because the subject is an artist herself. ‘All the Beauty’ is a portrait of the photographer and activist Nan Goldin, whose work, like the evolving visual diary ‘The Ballad of Sexual Dependency’, is already to some extent autobiographical. The fact that Goldin spent decades taking pictures of herself and her friends means that Poitras has an unusually rich source of visual material to draw from (Goldin is prominently credited with “photography and slideshows”), and that’s even more before taking into account Goldin’s performances in gritty, early-’80s New York Indies that also helped set the tone. Through her memories, Goldin introduces viewers to a large group of friends and fellow artists, such as the writer and John Waters actress Cookie Mueller, and David Wojnarowicz, whom she calls the spiritual and political guide to an AIDS-themed exhibition she curated . The National Endowment for the Arts withdrew the sponsorship before reversing itself.

But “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” is not just another recitation of Goldin’s resume. It also chronicles her recent activism to pressure museums to refuse donations from the Sackler family, the owners of Purdue Pharma, following her addiction to the opioid OxyContin. This thread — including a video call in which members of the Sackler family are required to view testimonials from Goldin and other victims of the opioid crisis — sometimes turns “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” into something more akin to a legal thriller than a straightforward biographical doc. But it’s emblematic of the film’s eccentric, personal perspective that Poitras bookends it with the story of Goldin’s sister, Barbara, who died by suicide, and whose life is in some ways held up like a Rosetta stone to Goldin’s art. “If she had found people, if she had been loved, she would have survived,” says Goldin. “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” tells the story of how Goldin found her scene at different times and for different reasons.