Joe Nolan and I have been talking about our shared love for documentary film for as long as we've been friends. A lot of our favorites also happen to be about art — no big surprise there. We compared notes and came up with a definitive list of our favorite art documentaries. Here are our top picks, in no particular order:
Style Wars This 1983 doc is an immersive portrait of a culture that had previously been only underground. It's strength — aside from the obvious brilliance of the subject matter — is that directors Tony Silver and Henry Chalfant treat it not as a youth movement, or an inner city movement, but a fully formed culture filled with heroes, villains (Ed Koch is hilarious), dance, music, dialog (Skeme's mother is brilliant) and, of course, strong visual components. For real connoisseurs, check out the double-disc reissue with "Where are they now?"-style interviews with the artists. LH Waste Land This documentary begins as a profile of artist Vik Muniz before director Lucy Walker hijacks the artist's subjects as her own. Waste Land gives a voice to a group of Brazilians who work and live in the world's largest landfill, located in Rio de Janeiro. Walker's Academy Award-nominated documentary doesn't say that art can change the world, but it shows us how it can change people, and reveals that those thus inspired can be capable of nearly anything. (Watch Waste Land at The Frist for free later this month. More information here.) JN Gerhard Richter Painting Richter is one of the most significant painters of the modern era, and this documentary gives you a fly-on-the-wall/voyeur's perspective of his process. No superfluous dialog or forced storylines, just beautiful work and the tension of feeling, as Richter admittedly does, that it may all be ruined with a single stroke of the artist's squeegee. It never is. (Read my full review here.) LH Black White + Gray: A Portrait of Sam Wagstaff and Robert Mapplethorpe A superb companion to singer/songwriter Patti Smith's amazing memoir Just Kids, Black White + Gray documents the life and career of photographer Robert Mapplethorpe's lover, patron and mentor Sam Wagstaff. Including illuminating comments from Smith, the film shines a light on the all-but-forgotten Wagstaff, who was a visionary curator as well as a groundbreaking collector of photography. JN The Universe of Keith Haring This movie is bigger than its subject. While there is much to discover here about Keith Haring and his graffiti-inspired work, this documentary is better than most culture bios at capturing an artist's creative milieu — in this case, the New York art scene during the 1980s. The film highlights Haring's work ethic and the therapeutic, sociopolitical and spiritual concerns that he championed in his art — aspects not always considered in some of the less-than-flattering criticism that Haring's work has been subjected to since his death in 1990. A current retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum of Art heralds Haring's return to prominence, and makes this documentary required viewing. JN Marwencol Oh, Marwencol. I can't imagine that there's anyone who wouldn't enjoy this film. There are so many levels in it to appreciate — it's about art, war, alcoholism, memory, loss, sexuality, death. I almost feel like any amount of story I divulge would take away from the experience of watching it, so if you're already planning on seeing it, stop reading now. If you're still on the fence, here's the nutshell version: Mark Hogancamp was nearly beaten to death in a bar fight, suffered brain damage and memory loss, and as a kind of self-imposed therapy he has created a fictional universe with dolls in his backyard. It will blow your mind. LH Picasso and Braque Go to the Movies The discussion about the influence of photography on painting — and vice versa — has been raging since the 19th century, but the dialogue between cinema and painting hasn't been quite so thoroughly explored. This fascinating and entertaining film examines the impact of moving pictures on the development of modern painting, focusing on the breakthrough cubist aesthetics of the film's titular artists. JN Crumb R. Crumb is weird, but I'm pretty sure he comes about it honestly. The most memorable scenes in the 1994 Terry Zwigoff film are the ones with Crumb's younger brother, Maxon, who slowly ingests a "purification cloth" swallow by swallow in an attempt to cleanse his digestive system, and talks about his history of molesting Chinese women while brother Robert sits beside him, laughing along. LH Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis The most important artist you've never heard of, Jack Smith's lifelong body of work influenced everyone from Andy Warhol to David Lynch, Laurie Anderson, John Waters and Robert Wilson. A pioneer of trashy, campy film-making, Smith is also considered the architect of contemporary performance art. Seek this one out if only to see scenes from Smith's gorgeous, hallucinatory films like Flaming Creatures — the movie that defined drag culture as we know it today. JN In the Realms of the Unreal Henry Darger's work is fantastic, but the real curiosity here is the story of Darger himself. He was a janitor whose art was discovered after his death in 1973. The 15,143-page fantasy manuscript was entitled The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinnian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion. The film has its flaws — it was filmmaker Jessica Yu's feature-length debut, and would probably have benefited from a less sentimental approach. Bonus points for the fantastic animation and casting Dakota Fanning as narrator. LH William Eggleston In the Real World Michael Almereyda is one of my favorite filmmakers, and one of my favorite art critics. The writer/director's take on William Eggleston is as spontaneous and eccentric as the Memphis photographer's process, which takes center stage here. An impressionistic profile more than a straight bio-doc, Real World is a conversation between two artists, and it's a good one. JN Exit Through the Gift Shop This film is about Thierry Guetta, aka Mr. Brainwash. It's also a behind-the-scenes look at some of the biggest names in street art — Banksy and Shepard Fairey — and it celebrates their work while also mocking it for being so ubiquitous that its built-in audience is easily led astray. The controversy over whether the whole thing is a hoax — Banksy is an infamous trickster and the success of Brainwash seems a little too unbelievable — only adds to its fascination. LH FLicKeR This documentary tells the story of the development of the dreamachine, a kinetic sculpture that creates stroboscopic light effects capable of inducing hallucinations in the viewer. If you're not hip to this device, that's probably all the info you'd need to want to know more, but the real magic here is in the film's profile of the sculpture's creator — the writer, painter and Willliam S. Burroughs collaborator Brion Gysin. Easily one of my favorite painters, Burroughs described Gysin as “ ... the only man I ever respected.” Watch FLicKeR to find out why. JN Here is Always Somewhere Else A biographical documentary about Dutch/Californian artist Bas Jan Ader, this film's sweeping arc also provides an overview of contemporary art film-making as it puts Ader's work in context. Ader is probably my favorite video artist, and his own documentation of his neck-risking stunt performances (rolling off the roof of a house, riding his bike off a trail and into a deep canal) are must-sees for newbies. This movie is measured and thoughtful, and feels haunted by the ghost of the artist who disappeared during a performance in 1975 — an attempt to cross the Atlantic in a tiny boat. JN
Think we missed one? Have your own favorites? Let us know!