Of all the crazy conspiracy theories about the coronavirus, surely the loopiest was one woman’s suggestion that reality TV show “The Masked Singer” was commissioned in order to get the public used to the idea of wearing masks.
Then again, the day is young and it’s probably only a matter of time before somebody ties the pandemic to the glut of streaming services “coincidentally” launching for the viewing pleasure of the millions obeying stay-at-home orders.
One thing I can say for certain is that COVID-19 is going to adversely impact the number of scripted shows appearing over the next year (or years). Already, programs that had previously been recommissioned – the likes of ABC’s “Stumptown,” and Netflix’s “The Society” and “I Am Not Okay with This” – have had their second seasons canceled due to coronavirus complications of the planning kind.
But as George Soros never said, one person’s misfortune is another’s fortune, and documentaries are making the most of their unexpected prominence in 2020. Indeed, if I were to compile my favorite films and shows of the year, I’d guess that over half would end up being documentaries.
Before I discuss six new documentaries, let me remind you of just some of the must-sees from recent months: “The Vow,” “Challenger: The Final Flight,” “Love Fraud,” “Boys State,” “John Lewis: Good Trouble,” “Bully. Coward. Victim. The Story of Roy Cohn,” “Athlete A” and “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark.” To name but eight.
It’s a golden age, and it’s heartening to see this borne out by the number of documentaries appearing on Netflix’s “Top 10 in Israel” list at any given time. For instance, “My Octopus Teacher,” “The Playbook” and “American Murder: The Family Next Door” were among the site’s most watched at various times last week.
Alas, an irrational fear of cephalopods means I will never, ever watch “My Octopus Teacher”: I have a problem with any alien-looking life-form – which also explains why I’ve never warmed to Boris Johnson. Luckily, there are plenty of other new offerings to choose from. Here are six of the best…
- Damn! Even the brilliant ‘Fargo’ has fallen victim to the curse of 2020
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- How does a Russian troll farm work? This new HBO documentary reveals all
‘A Perfect Crime’ (Netflix)
If the name Detlev Rohwedder means as much to you as “SARS-CoV-2” did at the start of the year, you’re in for a treat here. This four-part series – the original German title was the less generic “Rohwedder: Unity, Murder and Freedom” – is a fascinating look at the unsolved murder of the above-mentioned German, an arch-capitalist who the West German government gave the thankless task of dismantling East Germany’s 15,000 state-owned companies following reunification in October 1990. As a TV show host put it to him at the time: “You’re one of the most hated West Germans in all of East Germany. One stroke of your pen causes thousands of job cuts.”
Rohwedder was shot to death at his Dusseldorf home on April 1, 1991, by a sniper operating some 60 meters (nearly 200 feet) away. The documentary fingers three possible suspects: the far-far-left Red Army Faction, which initially claimed responsibility for the killing; disgruntled ex-members of the Stasi, the reviled East German secret police force that had suffered a reversal of fortune following reunification; and professional assassins hired by persons unknown to prevent embarrassing political secrets from emerging.
The whodunit element is engrossing enough, but what makes “A Perfect Crime” really special is its footage of East Germany before and after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The desperation and anger of its citizens is palpable: unemployed women talking of committing suicide and taking their children with them; chilling calls from elderly women to “exterminate” and “eradicate” those at Rohwedder’s Treuhand agency who were making over 750,000 East Germans redundant. Then there are the drab housing blocks and crumbling factories providing the bleakest of backdrops to life in the failed communist state.
It’s the human touches that really stay with you, though, like the former RAF member living in East Germany who comments pithily on life post-reunification: “Who needs 50, 60 different types of yogurt? Before, we had one with strawberry flavor and one without. And that sufficed.” Let’s hope for her sake that Froyo never makes it to Leipzig.
‘Dick Johnson is Dead’ (Netflix)
For a film about death, “Dick Johnson is Dead” sure is one hell of a life-affirming experience. Director Kirsten Johnson’s documentary sees her trying to come to terms with her father’s ailing condition by staging his death in various comic ways while the titular 86-year-old goes along for the ride.
Yet this gimmick, in which stuntmen stand in for the octogenarian as he meets his demise in a series of increasingly gory ways, is actually the least interesting component of the film. At heart, this is a touching depiction of the beautiful relationship between a father and daughter, and the mechanism one woman creates that will allow her to let go of a loved one – a rather radical solution, admittedly, including a tearjerking fake funeral at Dick Johnson’s Seventh-Day Adventist church.
The inciting incident is Johnson Sr.’s deteriorating mental state, which has forced him to retire as a psychologist in Seattle and move in with Kirsten and her young kids in New York. Adding to the pain for his devoted daughter is the fact that they lost his wife/her mother a decade ago after she suffered a similar fate.
What’s wonderful here is that while Dick’s memory may be fading due to Alzheimer’s, a chuckle is never far from his lips and he bears his staged deaths with remarkable fortitude.
Looking like Jack Lemon with a chocolate fudge cake addiction, Johnson Sr. really is a delightful screen presence – making it all the more painful as we see him slipping away or struggling with a dementia test we know a certain U.S. president would have aced.
When her dad asks her why she opted for a career as a documentarian, Kirsten inadvertently captures what’s so brilliant about her own film: “Real life is often much more fascinating than what you can make up.”
‘Siempre, Luis’ (HBO)
Lin-Manuel Miranda, the genius behind “Hamilton,” is a charismatic fellow, so it should come as no surprise that his father, Luis, is cut from the same cloth.
This straightforward yet enjoyable documentary by John James profiles Miranda Sr. as he attempts to bring his son’s Broadway phenomenon to their native Puerto Rico in January 2019. It’s all part of the family’s fundraising efforts for the U.S. territory that was decimated by Hurricane Maria in September 2017.
Much like the title character himself, “Siempre, Luis” (“Always, Luis”) is very single-minded. It makes no apologies for singing the praises of this Puerto Rican activist who moved to New York in the 1970s, where he soon became the go-to political campaigner for Democrats seeking to lock up the city’s Hispanic vote.
The first third of the film offers a fascinating look at Luis Miranda’s electoral efforts on behalf of the likes of Mayor Ed Koch in the ’80s, an energized senatorial no-hoper called Charles Schumer in the ’90s and Hillary Clinton’s Senate race in 2000.
His son notes the relentless nature of both his father and Alexander Hamilton, and that’s clear throughout – even though Miranda Sr. is recovering from heart surgery and is meant to be easing up as he approaches retirement age.
For fans of “Hamilton” and Lin-Manuel (who never met a camera he didn’t want to animatedly chat to), there’s plenty to enjoy here. There are times, though, when James’ film teeters on the edge of hagiography. For instance, it would have been more interesting if a few dissenting voices were also interviewed – like the Puerto Ricans protesting Miranda’s efforts to bring the show to the island, particularly the woman who storms the stage during a press conference and calls him bourgeois.
Sometimes, as even Alexander Hamilton might tell you, it’s good to have more than one person tell your story.
‘The Social Dilemma’ (Netflix)
This look at the corrosive effects of social media may not be the best documentary of the year, but it’s definitely one of the most important.
Jeff Orlowski’s film has been slammed by Facebook as “distorted” and sensationalist – which sounds an awful lot like an arsonist complaining about all that smoke in the atmosphere, and should give you every incentive you need to watch it.
From the very first caption – Sophocles’ quote that nothing vast enters into the life of mortals without a curse – it’s apparent that “The Social Dilemma” is here to sound the alarm about Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram et al, not to offer a fair and balanced look at social media.
There’s a certain irony in being lectured about the perils of algorithms pushing content at you while you’re watching Netflix (and if you like this, why not try “The Great Hack”?). But you’re just going to have to suck that up and watch as a procession of goateed Jeremiahs warn you of how Facebook and Co. are destroying the very fabric of society.
It’s an extremely compelling case, made by former high-tech employees who have seen the coding error of their ways and are now imploring us all to log off. The data on female teenage suicides in the past decade is particularly startling, as are the instances of Snapchat dysmorphia when users turn to surgery to look more like their filtered selves.
True, I could have done without the painfully earnest dramatized recreations of middle-class American kids getting hooked on social media. But if that’s the price to pay for my 16-year-old daughter watching this film too, I’ll happily bear it.
The only question now is whether I should tweet about it.
‘Song Exploder’ (Netflix)
Talking of Lin-Manuel Miranda, he also shows up on “Song Exploder,” a four-part series hosted by Hrishikesh Hirway in which songwriters dissect one of their own songs.
It’s basically a visual version of the popular podcast Hirway has hosted since 2014, interviewing close to 200 artists within that time.
Selena Gomez was the most recent podcast star – and she’s exactly the kind of high-profile name you’d have expected Netflix to lead with here. Instead, the visual version kicks off with Alicia Keys’ somewhat underwhelming “3 Hour Drive.” I’d never heard of the song before (it’s off her recently released album, “Alicia”). More worryingly, I couldn’t remember anything about the song three minutes after hearing it, so I wouldn’t exactly describe it as an earworm. I had the same problem with the episode on Ty Dolla $ign’s “LA,” but luckily the other two episodes were excellent. (You may think the exact opposite if you’re under the age of 30.)
Miranda discusses the Aaron Burr showstopper “Wait for It” from “Hamilton” with such enthusiasm, it’s impossible not to be swept along. But the episode that really highlights what this series should be aiming for is when all four members of R.E.M. discuss the band’s 1991 classic “Losing My Religion.”
Key word there: “classic.” More of these in the future, please.
Guitarist (or, in this case, mandolinist) Peter Buck acknowledges the main riff’s debt to Ryuichi Sakamoto’s “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence,” while Michael Stipe reveals that the original lyric was “That’s me in the kitchen, losing my religion.” And a special shout-out to Hirway for getting the notoriously evasive Stipe to reveal anything about anything, even if he never gets too personal.
‘Wild Card: The Downfall of a Radio Loudmouth’ (HBO)
As this HBO Sports documentary started, I was convinced it wasn’t going to be for me. After all, I’ve never heard of WFAN shock jock Craig Carton (or WFAN, for that matter). And while his longtime broadcasting partner Boomer Esiason calls him “a cross between a Martian and Don Rickles,” the rest of us might opt for “asshat with a microphone.”
An early appearance by former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie didn’t exactly raise my hopes, but then the documentary revealed itself to be a powerful look at addiction, denial and what happens when you unsuccessfully try to keep your childhood demons at bay.
Everything you need to know about the doc is contained in that lengthy title: This is your classic tale of a successful man, earning over $2 million a year, who mistakenly believes he has the Midas touch and starts branching out into business areas about which he’s knows precisely zilch.
Even worse, the easy money he’s winning playing blackjack convinces Carton he’s also a gambling God. It’s not long before he’s losing $2 million in just 24 hours and his addiction is forcing him to get up in the middle of the night for sorties to Atlantic City prior to his 6 A.M. breakfast slot – a secret he’s keeping hidden from family, friends and colleagues.
There are some amazing stories here as Carton offers up an honest appraisal of his decline and fall, detailing how he went from the king of New York radio to learning how to crochet at a state penitentiary. As “Dick Johnson” director Kirsten Johnson could have told him, you can’t make this stuff up.
“A Perfect Crime,” “Dick Johnson is Dead,” “The Social Dilemma” and “Song Exploder” are out now on Netflix. “Siempre, Luis” is on Cellcom tv, Yes VOD and Sting TV from Wednesday and Yes Docu on Oct. 27 at 10 P.M. It also airs on HBO in America on Tuesday. “Wild Card: The Downfall of a Radio Loudmouth” is on Cellcom tv, Yes VOD and Sting TV from Thursday, and on HBO in America on Wednesday.