NOTE: This list has been updated in a more recent post, HERE – UPDATED: FILMS FOR WRITERS ON NETFLIX
What follows in the original post from December of 2012.
A common complaint about streaming Netflix movies is that they have so much crap. It’s true, there are a lot of horrible movies out there to watch, and Netflix seems to be that low spot where they all settle.
Still, there is a wealth of documentaries of interest to literary students and writers. These are films that don’t have wide distribution. I bet some of these movies never even went to DVD, but are nonetheless commendable, in my humble estimation.
If you toss $7.99 a month to Netflix for streaming video, and you aspire to write, these might appeal to you, too. I’m not going to point you to feature films like Freedom Writers or Finding Forester that made the rounds in the theaters. Those are wonderful, motivational movies in their own right, but they are also well known. I’m going to flag the obscure, buried and virtually unknown – surfaced for your viewing pleasure.
Tales From the Script – Dozens of acclaimed Hollywood screenwriters discuss their successes and failures, share amusing anecdotes and insider insights. It’s brilliant and a glimpse into a world I never see.
Hardcover Mysteries – In this series, best-selling authors discuss the real-life cases that inspired their best-selling novels. I particularly enjoyed the episode with David Baldacci, but the whole series is well done. Due to the subject matter, it’s also dark, so go into it with an open mind.
The Beat Hotel – Return to 1957 Paris, where a rundown hotel attracted American Beat expats such as Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Gregory Corso and Brion Gysin. The interviews with residents are priceless. I loved the part about Burroughs using the cut-up technique. Priceless.
Bukowski: Born To This – This intimate portrait of writer Charles Bukowski reveals a tortured man who survived years of abuse to produce some of the most influential prose of his generation. I admit that I had not read Bukowski until after I saw this documentary. After reading him, I feel immense empathy.
Harlan Ellison: Dreams With Sharp Teeth – Ellison has produced over 75 books and more than 1,700 classics of fiction and non-fiction, banged-out on one of his Olympia manual typewriters. Ellison calls it as he sees it. A consummate New Yorker, and a brilliant SF author.
With Great Power… The Stan Lee Story – This documentary explores the life of Stan Lee from his Depression-era upbringing through the Marvel age of comics. A tribute to an icon of the comic industry.
Mark Twain – Exploring the life and work of writer and humorist Mark Twain, this documentary draws from a wealth of material that includes archival photographs. I dig Twain, and Tom Sawyer was one of my favorite books from high school, so this documentary was fine, but a bit textbook and academic.
In Search of Shakespeare – Shakespeare’s adventures during the 16th century and his inspiration for his work are performed in part here by the Royal Shakespeare Company. A little light for a true reader, I thought this was a good primer on Shakespeare and his more popular works. It’s a slow-pitch, 4 episode series.
Woody Allen – A Documentary – Iconic director-writer-comedian Woody Allen granted unprecedented access for this profile of his award-winning career and controversial personal life. If you are a fan of his quirky style, this is for you. I like some of his movies.
The Gospel According to Philip K. Dick – Legendary sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick is the fascinating subject of a documentary that plumbs the dark corners of the tortured writer’s life. This dragged on at times, but I am such a fan of PKD’s work that I hung in there.
Helvetica – This unique documentary introduces us to the history of Helvetica, the most popular font in the world. More about art and design than writing, I still thought it was interesting.
Merton: A Film Biography – The work of writer-philosopher Thomas Merton has had a lasting impact on society, inspiring debate over still-relevant social and religious concerns. Made in 1984, this film is dated but has merit, following the American Trappist Monk and his influence within the Catholic culture.
CNBC Titans: Hugh Hefner – Hugh Hefner has become one of the most famous entrepreneurs and advocates of free speech in our time. Love what he does or hate it, Hef has furthered free speech in America more than any other person in our lifetimes.
James Elroy’s Feast of Death – Best-selling author James Ellroy takes viewers on a dark journey through the grisly underworld of American murder in this documentary. It’s a disturbing and long look at disturbing things I don’t want to look at for this long because they are disturbing.
Biography: Charles Dickens – Charles Dickens was forced to leave school at a young age and work to support his family. His bleak memories are evident in many of his works.
Lemon – Three-time felon, one-time Tony Award winner Lemon Andersen is a poet whose deeply personal art reflects his rough upbringing.
Note: All of these were available as of the writing of this article (December, 2012). Netflix sometimes removes movies for an unknown reason, so if the flick isn’t there, I’m sorry. Try to find it somewhere else, because I really do think they are worth seeing.