Documentaries were once thought of as dry and stodgy, made mostly for academic purposes. In other words, they were considered boring.
Today that outlook has changed considerably. Thanks to Michael Moore's Roger & Me (1989), Morgan Spurlock's Super Size Me (2004), and many other innovative films, documentaries are much more appreciated now and recognized for their unconventional approach to daring subject matter. Some of the best docs are infused with the filmmaker's personality and use comedy to get their message across.
For this edition of what to stream on Netflix this weekend, we'll be rounding up irreverent docs with a comedic edge. And while Super Size Me is actually available for streaming right now, we'll be giving you five other options to choose from.
We begin with My Scientology Movie, Louis Theroux's infiltration into the inner sanctum of the pseudo-religious organization started by the late sci-fi writer L. Ron Hubbard and which boasts Tom Cruise as their poster boy. Theroux, who knows when to be funny and when to be serious, digs into the allegations of blackmail and violence that have circulated in the media for years.
From life as a cult member to life under a dictator, our next pick, Dennis Rodman's Big Bang in PyongYang, is a rare look inside totalitarian North Korea, the site of a bizarre, one-of-a-kind meeting between an outlandish ex-basketball star and a missile-happy supreme commander that has to be seen to be believed.
Next is Man vs Snake: The Long and Twisted Tale of Nibbler, an entertaining look back at '80s video game marathons when kids battled each other over who could get the top score. This film full of controversy and competition features cool animation and a few familiar faces from The King of Kong (2007).
We then go from a video game that no one's hardly ever heard of to a heavy metal band known only by the most hardcore headbangers. Anvil: The Story of Anvil chronicles the ups-but-mostly-downs of veteran rockers plagued by bad management and even worse luck.
Finally, Vernon, Florida from acclaimed documentarian Errol Morris is a slice-of-life little charmer of a movie that by won't be for everybody. But for those who appreciate listening to neighborhood kooks and other distinguished individuals, this one should be right up your alley.
Warning: May Contain Spoilers
My Scientology Movie (2015)
Starring: Louis Theroux
Director: John Dower
Genre: Documentary, Comedy, Religion
Whether interviewing porn stars, prisoners, or Nazis, Louis Theroux has never been one to back down from a challenge. But when he decided to make a documentary about Scientology he was risking going head-to-head with an all-powerful cult that wouldn't back down. And, sure enough, it doesn't take long for him to start noticing mysterious cars and unidentified people tracking his every move.
My Scientology Movie is an intriguing documentary that often feels like real-life film noir as Theroux maneuvers around Los Angeles trying to get answers. He tries his best to wrap his head around the allure of Scientology and why followers remain loyal to the sect. He stages recreations of alleged events with the help of ex-members and hired actors. The results are compelling.
Still, the film never loses its sense of humor. For those who saw Alex Gibney's Going Clear: Scientology & the Prison of Belief (2015), Theroux's take may not be as chilling but his film benefits from the documentarian's often flippant attitude. Theroux has a knack for putting himself in the middle of the action but not making it entirely about him. His refusal to be intimidated also makes for a riveting viewing experience.
Dennis Rodman's Big Bang in PyongYang (2015)
Starring: Dennis Rodman, Kim Jong Un
Director: Colin Offland
Genre: Documentary, Politics, Sports
Dennis Rodman is one of the last people you'd expect to become an international diplomat. The flamboyant former basketball star is not exactly beholden to authority. So it was quite the surprise when he announced his plans to travel to totalitarian North Korea as a guest of leader Kim Jong Un in 2013. The news, of course, was quite controversial. Rodman didn't do himself any favors by returning to North Korea to organize an exhibition basketball game for the despot's birthday around the same time the ruler had executed his uncle Jang Song-thaek for treason.
The provocative scenario was, of course, perfect for a documentary. As expected, the filmmakers were restricted on what they could shoot by the North Korean government, but what they did get is as surreal as you'd imagine.
Although the film plays up the WTF factor, the cameras did capture a key moment in which it's clear that Rodman, who appears to be clueless about North Korean politics and is suffering from alcoholism, genuinely believes that he's been given a unique opportunity to make a difference in the world. It's a moment that feels equally sad, ludicrous and exploitative. And like the rest of the film it's hard to look away.
Man vs Snake: The Long and Twisted Tale of Nibbler (2015)
Starring: Tim McVey, Dwayne Richard, Enrico Zanetti
Director: Tim Kinzy, Andrew Seklir
Genre: Documentary, Sports
When you compare today's technically sophisticated world of esports with the video game competitions of the 1980s, it's no contest. Savvy teams playing games featuring life-like computer graphics while thousands of spectators cheer them on blows away a single player playing an ancient coin-operated stand-up machine in a noisy arcade for two straight days (with high scores published in magazines a month later).
Yet this nerdy and sincere tribute to the first person to score a billion points on a video game—and the people who tried to beat the record—is surprisingly engaging. What's also surprising is that the record wasn't set on Pac-Man, Donkey Kong or some other popular title. Nope. The record was set on Nibbler, an obscure game not even most diehard gamers know about.
The object of Nibbler is to control a snake slithering through a maze. Players must avoid having the snake eat its own tail. The game can get mind-numbingly tedious quite quickly. So a decent amount of suspense is built up waiting to see if players can survive nearly 40 torturous hours of playing the game. It's the super competitive nature of the gamers that holds our attention throughout the film.
Anvil: The Story of Anvil (2008)
Starring: Steve "Lips" Kudlow, Robb Reiner
Director: Sacha Gervasi
Genre: Documentary, Music, Comedy
Anvil: The Story of Anvil begins with back-in-the-day footage of the Canadian heavy metal band rocking a festival while a who's who of thrash metal elite, including members of Metallica, Slayer and Anthrax, openly praise the group. Since Anvil is far from a household name and they look almost like a parody of an '80s metal band, no one will blame you if you stop and Google to see if these guys are real or not.
Further fueling the feeling that you're watching a mockumentary is the series of disasters the band goes through on their latest tour. It's almost as if this is some sort of This Is Spinal Tap for the '00s. (It doesn't help either that Anvil's drummer is named Robb Reiner, ironically enough.)
After a while, though, you discover that 1) the band is indeed real, and 2) the director is actually taking the piss by slipping in allusions to Spinal Tap whenever he can, like when the band visits Stonehenge or when we see a shot of an amp getting turned to 11 in the studio. All this makes for a fun ol' time. And even if you don't dig heavy metal, you got to admit it's cool seeing hard-rockin' 50-year-olds shredding stages and never giving up on dreams they've pursued for over 30 years.
Vernon, Florida (1981)
Starring: Albert Bitterling, Roscoe Collins, George Harris
Director: Errol Morris
Damn near every week there's a crazy incident on the news and 9 times out of 10 it takes place in Florida. The stories can run the gamut from a dude trying to trade a gator for beer to face-eating zombies on the loose. We can only speculate on why this is the case. But an early documentary by Errol Morris might hold some clues.
This hour-long pit stop in a sleepy town in the Sunshine State is really nothing more than a collage of interviews with random folks (mostly senior citizens) talking about themselves. Their stories never get too deep: an avid hunter breaks down the nuances of turkey gobbles and a farmer boasts about being a worm expert. It's amusing, but not exactly weird, until you learn that Morris had originally showed up in Vernon to interview members of what had become known as the Nub Club. Apparently, so many people had purposefully blown away their limbs in order to cash in on insurance money that "by the mid '60s, at least 50 of Vernon's 700 residents had joined the Nub Club by way of farming accidents, garage mishaps, hunting incidents, and so on."
Alas, locals didn't take too kindly to an out-of-towner snooping around and Morris wasn't able to do his documentary about willful amputees. Instead we got this film that reminds us that Florida has always been one hell of a strange place.