Six films worth watching right now

Uplifting documentaries to get you through the winter

Covid got you down? Not looking forward to winter and — if we’re lucky — lots of rain? Or maybe you’re back in the office and miss the good old days of working from home?

If you’re feeling low, we’ve got just the ticket to pick you back up: six movies that have lifted spirits — and changed lives — for decades. Our guide to these movies is longtime San Francisco resident Michael Fox, who has devoted his life to studying and writing about films, especially documentaries, and works as a film journalist and a critic for KQED Arts and Culture.

Fox owes his interest in documentaries to his decision to move to San Francisco. When he arrived in the 1980s, locals were cranking out one innovative documentary after another. These films covered topics as diverse as The Times of Harvey Milk, which tells the story of the gay icon, to Rosie the Riveter, a look at five women who went to work during World War II.

Fox is especially drawn to six documentaries that both tell very dramatic stories and revolutionized the genre. He loves them so much so that he made most of them the focus of a course he taught recently at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute in San Francisco, which offers continuing education and social activities to people over 50. 

The course, The Great Documentaries, looked at films that cover different aspect of modern life and took full advantage of camera techniques and equipment invented in the 1960s.


If you’re feeling jaded, perhaps even disgusted, by politics today, Fox suggests checking out Primary, an hour-long look at the 1960 contest for the Democratic presidential nomination between John Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey. It’s guaranteed to make you nostalgic for the old days because it hammers home how hugely different politics were then — far more retail, personal, and even intimate during a time not shaped — or perhaps poisoned — by cable TV’s talking heads, the Internet, and social media. “Yes, we all know that things were different in the ’60s, but just how different will come as a shock to anyone who watches this film,” said Fox. “When it’s over you’re also likely to ask, ‘Can someone please bring back the good old days?’”


Don’t Look Back gives us an in-depth look at the young Bob Dylan, who we meet during a 1965 tour of the United Kingdom. The world was changing, and few people personified that change more than the pop legend. In a more innocent time, we see him — and Joan Baez — breaking molds, wrestling with (and tormenting) while singing songs that revolutionized popular entertainment.


The end of our 30-year war in Afghanistan makes this an especially good time to watch a 1974 epic about the Vietnam War,Hearts and Minds. The film immediately divests us of any notion that Afghanistan was unique, unprecedented, or even different from the history many of us have lived through. “Most telling to our eyes and ears is footage of politicians and military leaders lying, lying again, and then lying some more while ordinary people — both Vietnamese and American — suffer and die,” explained Fox. “Today’s problems didn’t begin with the invasion of Afghanistan — they go back much farther, at least to the 1950s.”


In the age of so-called fake news, it’s hard to find a more resonant film thanF for Fake by the legendary Orson Wells. This documentary takes every convention ever invented about films and turns them upside down, a trick that will leave you wondering what is fake and what is real. The film focuses on the legendary Clifford Irving, who we first meet through his associate Elmyr de Hory, a notorious — and very proud and outspoken — art forger. Irving then goes on to do de Hory one better by creating a massive forgery of his own, an alleged “biography” of industrial magnate Howard Hughes. Guaranteed to make your head spin.


Next up:Grey Gardens, the legendary 1976 documentary by Albert and David Maysles that gives viewers a sad — and hilariously funny — look at the lives of Eddie Beale senior and her daughter, Eddie Beale junior. In addition to introducing us to two breathtaking odd people and their amazing home, it also raises a bunch of very awkward questions: “Is it appropriate for us to watch what’s going on here, for example,” asked Fox. “What is the exact nature of the odd and poisonous parent-child relationship we see acted out in this film? And how did two once wealthy and socially prominent people get into the situation we see right before us?” 


Harlan County, USAdebuted in the 1970sbuthits home harder than ever in the age of one percenters and ultrawealthy magnates like Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, and Mark Zuckerberg. The film tells the story of a coal miners’ strike, the ordinary people who instigated and led it, and the effort by a powerful corporation to crush it. As in Hearts and Minds, here too we see lots of lies, coming not from military and political leaders but from corporate titans who insist that the health of their workers is their number one concern — while they do everything they can to fight improvements in wages and working conditions.

That’s our quick look at six movies selected by one expert. More information on courses taught by Michael Fox and others is available from San Francisco’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.

The author is a San Francisco resident.

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