Docs to Watch: Journeys With Jacques Cousteau and the Sparks Brothers

This week’s highlights also include new releases about the recent presidential election in Zimbabwe and a fight over Christmas decorations

docs to watch
Photos: Louverture Films / Greenwich Entertainment; The Cousteau Society; Focus Features

Our Docs to Watch list moves around the globe to highlight stories of environmental conservation in the oceans, election corruption in Zimbabwe, and the turf war over Christmas decorations in Idaho. ‘Tis the season to be docu-merry!

President 2021 Documentary
Louverture Films / Greenwich Entertainment
(in select theaters, December 17)

The 2018 presidential election in Zimbabwe is the subject of Danish director Camilla Nielsson’s new movie, a follow-up to 2014’s “Democrats,” which focused on Robert Mugabe’s brutal rule. Mugabe was ousted in 2017 and died in 2019, and “President” embeds with populist young candidate Nelson Chamisa. A docu-thriller with terrifying implications about election integrity, the film navigates though Chamisa’s hopeful but dangerous fight to give voice to Zimbabwe’s future. [TRAILER]
Becoming Cousteau
The Cousteau Society

“Becoming Cousteau”
(Disney+, streaming now)

He died in 1997 at the age of 87, but the work of ocean explorer and documentarian Jacques Cousteau still ripples into our world. Expert filmmaker Liz Garbus (a two-time Oscar nominee for “The Farm: Angola, USA” and “What Happened, Miss Simone?”) uses lush, unearthed footage to tell a deeper, more apropos story – that of a man whose views evolved from exploitation to conservation, providing a blueprint for change today. [INTERVIEW]
stranger than fiction
Twas the Fight Before Christmas
“Twas the Fight Before Christmas”
(AppleTV+, streaming now)

If you’ve already re-watched Chevy Chase as Clark Griswold this holiday season, consider checking out the strange-but-true story of Jeremy Morris. He’s a lawyer and Griswoldian family man in Idaho whose desire for a Christmas carnival in his front yard, replete with live camels, provokes the ire of his neighbors. The situation descends into insults, intimidations, and the threat of a lawsuits that, Morris says, should jingle all the way to the Supreme Court. [TRAILER]
Focus Features
“The Sparks Brothers”
(Netflix, streaming now)

Director Edgar Wright (“Shaun of the Dead,” “Last Night in Soho”) takes on the twisty, fascinating 50-year career of Ron and Russell Mael and their band Sparks. In his intoxicating first documentary, Wright shows affection to the brothers and their many admirers (including Beck, Björk, Mike Myers and “Weird Al” Yankovic, among others) while also flavoring the film with a dozen animated sequences and moments of meta-doc joy. [REVIEW]

“How To with John Wilson”
(HBO Max, airing weekly)

In 2020, New York City director John Wilson’s first-person series was a sleeper hit on HBO, with comic-neurotic 25-minutes episodes about how to make small talk or split a check. The second season once again features Wilson’s eccentric, impressionistic take on new topics, such as finding a car spot and appreciating wine. The episodes air weekly though Dec. 31, an appropriate way to finish out an odd and dislocating year. [TRAILER]

“Misha and the Wolves”
(Netflix, streaming now)
In 1997, Misha Defonseca’s best-selling memoir told the tale of how she escaped the Holocaust by living among a pack of wolves. But as this gripping doc shows, some stories are too good to be true. [TRAILER]

(available on streaming services)
The economic ladder within China is illustrated by director Jessica Kingdon via an incredible montage of sound and images, including inside a sex doll factory. [INTERVIEW]

“Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It”
(available on streaming services)
The legendary actress, who just celebrated her 90th birthday and is currently onscreen in the new “West Side Story,” is portrayed in this in-depth doc about her life and career. [REVIEW]