10/18/2009 04:00 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Divine Inspirations: Our Finest Arts Documentaries

Even for a jaded movie hound like myself, it’s been a revelation to experience both the quality and range of feature-length documentaries now available for home viewing. At their best, these kinds of films provide an immediacy and intimacy that narrative films rarely match.

 I’ve always been partial to documentaries relating to the arts (big surprise!). Happily, there is no shortage of excellent titles that celebrate human creativity -- examining those directors, actors, painters, musicians, and dancers whose efforts infuse our lives with drama, color and meaning. Here are ten personal favorites spanning over fifty years.

 Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Mystery of Picasso (1956) endures as a riveting, stunningly original achievement. Here the movie screen becomes the canvas on which the artist paints, and Picasso creates art before our very eyes which will only exist on film (all pieces were destroyed after shooting). It is a breathtaking visual experiment that pays off.  At intervals between the painting sequences, we also get to observe the interplay between artist and director, which supplies a tantalizing flavor of Picasso the man.

 You don’t have to love jazz to appreciate Bert Stern’s Jazz On A Summer’s Day (1958).  The setting is the Newport Jazz Festival in the distant balmy summer of 1958. On hand are jazz legends Louis Armstrong, Thelonious Monk, and Gerry Mulligan, not to mention gospel singer Mahalia Jackson and a youthful Chuck Berry. The vibrancy of the color photography makes it all look like it was shot last week. Jazz is a priceless filmed document of our country’s musical heritage.

 Homage To Chagall: The Colours of Love (1977) is a more demanding but no less rewarding study of the artist Marc Chagall. A poet and mystic as well as painter, haunting shots of his work are juxtaposed with readings of the artist’s own words by actors James Mason and Joseph Wiseman. What emerges is a profound portrait of a bona-fide genius, whose goal was to portray the many shades and facets of love.

 The spiritual force that is gospel music jumps off the screen in Say Amen, Somebody (1982). Part history of the movement, part here-and-now experience of gospel’s healing power, Amen is full of upstanding people for whom church on Sunday is not an obligation, but a kind of joyful rejuvenation. See this movie, and share the joy.

 Foreign movie fans should appreciate the beguiling Marcello Mastroianni: I Remember (1997). Here, in the twilight of his life, the famous actor looks back on a long, eventful career with humility and humor. With a running time slightly over three hours, Mastroianni’s still potent charm makes the film seem half as long. His unaffected warmth and love of his craft shine through his stories, shattering the vain romantic hero stereotype he so loathed. For an endearing portrait of a consummate leading man, look no further.

 Next, there’s Dancemaker (1999), a penetrating profile of choreographer Paul Taylor’s modern dance company. The film vividly conveys the blissful torture of the modern dance world: the enormous physical exertions involved and their debilitating long-term effects; the cut-throat competition and absence of financial rewards and security, all borne happily for the exhilaration of performance and the chance to work with an acknowledged master. Taylor himself is at once a brutal task-master, insecure about his work, and overall, a somewhat lonely human being, owing to a solitary early life in foster care. A pure love of the dance is the unifying, invigorating force for him and his company, and we are the beneficiaries.

 Chuck Jones: Extremes and In-Betweens-A Life In Animation (2000) presents a jaunty profile of legendary Warner Bros. animator-director Chuck Jones. In candid interviews with Jones and others, such as Simpsons creator Matt Groening, we trace Jones's process and see how he created the definitive versions of Daffy Duck, Bugs Bunny, and Porky Pig, through a unique combination of experimental drafting techniques and impeccable comedic precision. Peering inside the head of this pioneering animator and revisiting sequences from some of his most famous shorts is just half the fun of watching this warm and amusing documentary. The rest comes from listening to what latter-day animators and comedians like Robin Williams and Whoopi Goldberg have to say about his influence on their own work, and hearing Leonard Maltin articulate what made Jones's cartoons funnier and more brilliant than anyone else's. Great fun.

This So-Called Disaster (2003) provides an astonishingly intimate glimpse into the intense rehearsals leading up to the 2000 San Francisco production of The Late Henry Moss, a play written and directed by Sam Shepard, based partly on the author's recollections of his own alcoholic father. From initial readings to opening night, we follow the stellar cast, including Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, Woody Harrelson, and Cheech Marin, through a remarkable process of preparation. Moss is a dark, demanding piece, so the rehearsals director Michael Almereyda respectfully captures in Disaster are draining for all concerned. What transfixed this fly on the wall was how directors and actors adopt their own language in rehearsing a play -- one virtually unintelligible to the layman, but to trained professionals, a pure dialect pinpointing emotion and motivation.

The daunting perils and pressures facing the film director are revealed in Lost In La Mancha (2003), which follows Terry Gilliam’s ill-fated attempt to shoot the definitive version of the Don Quixote tale. The lesson here is vital but simple: on a film production, even the combined elements of talent, inspiration, and hard work will fall short if fate and lousy luck conspire to intervene. Watching Lost builds an almost lurid fascination, like watching an accident happen in slow motion. (It should also make anyone think twice about a career in film directing.)

 World-famous artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude are best known for “The Gates,” a sprawling public-art project where bright-orange girders were erected in mid-winter Central Park. But these impassioned visionaries have been hard at work on large-scale artmaking for over 30 years. 5 Films About Christo and Jean Claude (2004) brings together a series of documentaries by renowned filmmakers Albert and David Maysles , depicting  the creative process and fraught logistics behind works like “Valley Curtain” and “Umbrellas,” as well as the impact of their unique collaborations on observers, locals, and the art world. These remarkable short films highlight the transformative aesthetic and magical allure of such grandiose “wrapping” projects as “Islands,” in which the artists turned a Florida island chain into a mass of floating pink water lilies. Jeanne-Claude and Christo, real-life spouses who truly “complete” each other, also emerge as visionaries dedicated to realizing art’s potential to change the way we view landscape as well as architectural monuments.

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