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Top Three Documentaries Worth Streaming

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The proliferation of documentaries on streaming services makes it difficult to choose what to watch. Each month, we’ll choose three nonfiction films — classics, overlooked recent docs and more — that will reward your time.

‘A Married Couple’ (1970)
Stream it on the Criterion Channel.

Before PBS broke ground in the concept of reality television with “An American Family” in 1973, Canada gave the world “A Married Couple,” the director Allan King’s portrait of Billy and Antoinette Edwards, a husband and wife in Toronto who committed their squabbles to celluloid. King practiced his version of the noninvolvement school of documentary making, a style that is often imprecisely lumped under the labels “cinéma vérité” and “direct cinema.” (There was even a bit of a documentary exchange program at the time: William Brayne, the cinematographer on King’s “Warrendale” and “Come on Children,” shot some of Frederick Wiseman’s contemporaneous films, including “Law and Order,” “Hospital” and “Juvenile Court.”)

Reviewing “A Married Couple” in The New York Times, Vincent Canby complained of the “unreality” the camera introduced in the couple’s behavior. The film, he wrote, while acknowledging that factor, “proceeds to pass off this conscious performance as some kind of meta-truth that is neither fact nor fiction.” But the performative aspect of the film is part of what makes it so fascinating. Are Antoinette and Billy, unselfconscious about sharing intimate details and even appearing unclothed with the camera rolling, natural exhibitionists, or is the existence of a movie changing their relationship? Are their endless arguments — about money, their sex life, the car (oh, that car) — the whole story, or has editing painted them in a particular light? (The number of uninterrupted takes suggests otherwise.) Their dog, Merton, and young son, Bogart, come off like bystanders at a natural disaster. Even the pair’s efforts at reaching a détente turn into new fights. When Billy, an ad man, superciliously pitches a new program of “emotional cleanliness” for the two of them, the conversation quickly shifts to Antoinette’s (justified, from what we see) complaints about Billy’s efforts to mold her.

Yet King also captures them in more complicated moments of intimacy. Not much later in the film, Antoinette cries as she and Billy listen to “The Magic Flute,” and the camera pulls back on their embrace, only to zoom in again as they whisper inaudibly to each other. King then dissolves from this scene of skintight affection to show them in separate bedrooms. The emotional volatility has been likened to that in John Cassavetes’s films, and Billy and Antoinette’s exchanges have a similar absurdist quality. “What we don’t know is whether we really hate one another or not,” Billy says near the end, in a diagnosis of their marriage. And as Antoinette picks at his chest hair and he strokes her nose, “A Married Couple” hints at a connection that a camera can’t see.

‘Capturing the Friedmans’ (2003)
Stream it on Max.

Another milestone in the history of dysfunctional families on film, Andrew Jarecki’s investigative documentary turned 20 this year, and it holds up — which is another way of saying that it’s difficult to watch it without wearing a Hazmat suit. While “Capturing the Friedmans” belongs, superficially, to the legal genre (Jarecki went on to make the miniseries “The Jinx,” about Robert Durst, the real-estate scion who was convicted of murder after offering something vaguely like a confession while mic’d for the movie), the copious home video footage that the Friedmans shot of themselves vaults it into its own category.

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