Best Design Documentaries

August 21, 2014
The 11 Best Art Documentaries

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Sometimes you take a look at your Netflix queue and think there's nothing decent on the service. That's not entirely true! Netflix has certainly lost its library of mainstream Hollywood films over the past few years. But for the designer in search of inspiration—or anyone with a love of visual culture—Netflix is still loaded with some superb films and documentaries. Here are 22 to get you started.

Call it two thirds of director Gary Hustwit's Design Trilogy. Objectified fetishizes the obsession behind industrial design. And Urbanized tours the world of urban planning. (Helvetica, arguably his most renowned film, is currently not available on Netflix Instant). Hustwit has a particular talent for digging into the granular thought processes of modern day designers without ever dumbing down their soundbites. [Watch here and here]

Vignelli Associates is considered one of the greatest cross-disciplinary design firms in history—best known for producing the iconic, once-polarizing Vignelli NYC Subway Map. Lella and Massimo Vignelli were the husband and wife team behind it. Design Is One profiles their creative relationship, which spanned decades, before Vignelli's death in 2014. [Watch here]

We all know the Gucci brand, but this film takes us right inside Italy’s famed fashion label, following ex-creative director Frida Giannini for 18 months. The film will come to Netflix February 1, even though Giannini was just canned.

If you boiled down every western you’ve ever seen into one archetype of gunslinging—then you put that story into the hands of one of the greatest cinematographers in history (Tonino Delli Colli, The Good, The Bad, The Ugly and Life Is Beautiful)—you’d get Once Upon a Time In The West, a rare gem in Netflix’s ever-dwindling options for truly excellent streamable films. [Watch here]

Some documentaries feature a lot of talking heads. Others, a tightly scripted story. Leviathan has no desire for narration. It puts you inside the bowels of a commercial fishing boat, drowning the camera in a dramatic abyss where Moby Dick meets Fight Club, with blood, chains, and horrific storms. The decidedly non-linear structure and use of portable cameras attached to people, animals, and objects offer up visual perspectives that few other documentaries have been able to achieve.[Watch here]

What’s it like to make a hit video game with a staff of one or two people, taking meetings with Microsoft execs before going back to 12 hours of pixel painting? This very watchable documentary profiles two teams of designers while they created Super Meat Boy and Fez, a couple of the biggest critical and financial indie hits of the past decade, in a high-stakes race to make both deadlines and ends meet. [Watch here]

"It’s one snap, two snaps, or he ignores you, which is death." That’s Vogue editor Anna Wintour describing the on-the-street fashion photographer Bill Cunningham, who has been contributing to the New York Times Style section for decades. This documentary explores his work, and life, with some irresistible soundbites from celebrities he has photographed. [Watch here]

Ushio Shinohara is a neo-Dada artist who paints by punching his pigments. Noriko is his wife. This documentary—which won Zachary Heinzerling the 2013 Sundance Film Festival award for best director— explores the quirks and sacrifices of their 40-year marriage. [Watch here]

Not the easiest documentary to watch, Detropia is a portrait of Detroit's decay, seen through the eyes of three of its residents and told without narration. [Watch here]

Ai Weiwei is China’s most prominent artist-activist, known for openly challenging the Chinese government (and even being imprisoned for it). The documentary takes you inside his studio, work, and philosophies. [Watch here]

Kung fu is the most beautiful of the martial arts, and The Grandmaster, by acclaimed Hong Kong action auteur Wong Kar-wai, captures it with a poetically noir brutality—even if critics have panned the story itself. [Watch here]

If you haven’t heard about this "documentary" about graffiti artist Banksy, we’d rather not spill the beans by getting too much into it. Come for the street art. Stay (or leave) for the conspiracy theories. [Watch here]

The state of healthcare is a complicated mess, especially for the uninsured. The Waiting Room takes you behind the doors of an ER in Oakland, California, following the patients and doctors who attempt to balance their resources and mitigate tragedies within the bureaucratic structure that could greatly benefit from an industry-wide redesign. [Watch here]

Yes it was filmed in 1927. Yes that means it’s silent. But Metropolis is still an amazing piece of architectural sci-fi, set in a dystopian future in which just about everything has gone to crap except for the unbelievable set budgets. It’s hard to believe that the film was made before the advent of computer-generated imagery. Director Fritz Lang relied on tricks like mirrors and miniatures to pull off the film's special effects. If you can’t take the pace of the movie’s narrative, we won’t judge. Just load it up in the background for a bit of visual splendor. [Watch here]

Chances are, you have seen this documentary, or been told by everyone you know to see it. For good reason. It’s a portrait that honors, not just of one of the greatest sushi chefs alive, but the whole idea of mastering a craft itself. [Watch here]

Is there a side effect to urbanism beyond crime or air quality? What if the shining lights of our cities—so-called "light pollution"—were true danger unto itself? The City Dark argues that it is, and that civilization, alongside most terrestrial life on our planet, has relied on the night sky full of stars for billions of years—a night sky that we have since washed out in manmade light. [Watch here]

What does psychosis look like? Danish director Lars von Trier explores the inner mind of a young bride in the film Melancholia, through cinematography of a galactic scope. Lightning shoots from fingertips, and worlds literally collide. The end of the world has never felt so dramatic. [Watch here]

Dance. Choreography. Performance. They’ve never been better explored or more gorgeously shot than in Pina, a profile of Pina Bausch's Tanztheater Wuppertal dance company filmed shortly before she died. [Watch here]

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