When the documentary is documenting other movies

Leon Vitali in the documentary “Filmworker.”
Leon Vitali in the documentary “Filmworker.”(Kino Lorber)

Everyone agrees that 2018 was a standout year for documentaries. Many of the most popular fell into what have become standard subcategories within nonfiction film: biography (“RBG,” about Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?,” about television’s Fred Rogers); politics (“Fahrenheit 11/9,” “Death of a Nation”); musical performance (“Burn the Stage: The Movie”)”; nature (“Pandas”).

Another subcategory flourished, too: documentaries about the movies. Some were completely about the movies, like “Searching for Ingmar Bergman” and “Hal,” about director Hal Ashby. Others touched on the movies in passing (Cecil Beaton, the subject of “Love, Cecil,” did the costumes and sets for “My Fair Lady”). That’s OK: Unexpected movie magic can be even better than the expected kind.


Here are a dozen documentaries from last year that did some documenting of the movies.

Filmworker The title refers to Leon Vitali, who spent nearly a quarter century as Stanley Kubrick’s most dedicated — and put-upon — associate. Tony Zierra’s documentary shows Vitali playing a role that was equal parts right-hand man and participant in folie à deux.

Hal Hal Ashby directed some of the more memorable movies of the 1970s: “Harold and Maude,” “Shampoo,” “Coming Home,” “Being There.” Amy Scott’s documentary is the story of the man who filmed those stories.

Searching for Ingmar Bergman Last year was the great Swedish filmmaker’s centenary. Margarethe von Trotta’s tribute includes film clips, visits to the settings of some of Bergman’s most memorable films, and interviews with family members and fellow directors.

The Great Buster: A Celebration Writer-director Peter Bogdanovich and a wide range of admirers genuflect before the genius of Buster Keaton, cinema’s Great Stone Face. How wide a range? Both Quentin Tarantino and Dick Van Dyke are among those interviewed.

They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead Morgan Neville made “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” Somehow he also found the time to document Orson Welles making, but not finishing, what would have been his final film, “The Other Side of the Wind.”


Shirkers A true one-of-a-kind: Sandi Tan wrote, directed, and stars in this movie about a movie that started filming in Singapore in 1992 and never got finished. When the footage turns up a quarter century later, “Shirkers,” a fiction film then, becomes a documentary now.

Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story Yes, she was a Golden Age screen goddess, the star of “Algiers” and “Samson and Delilah” (she played Delilah). As writer-director Alexandra Dean shows, Lamarr was also, yes, an inspired inventor.

Tea with the Dames That’s “dames” as in female equivalent of a British knighthood. The four in question are four of the best actresses in the world: Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Eileen Atkins, and Joan Plowright. Roger Michell’s documentary shows that they’re four of the best talkers, too.

Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood For several decades, Scotty Bowers was Tinseltown’s go-to guy for having a good time (that’s a euphemism). Enough famous clients are cited in Matt Tyrnauer’s documentary that a viewer may never watch TCM the same way again.

Love, Cecil Cecil Beaton, the subject of Lisa Immordino Vreeland’s film, was best known as a photographer, painter, and diarist. But his 13 movie credits, as costume and set designer, brought him no fewer than three Oscars (one for “Gigi” and two for “My Fair Lady”).


Whitney Yes, Whitney Houston was best known, by far, as a singer. But Kevin Macdonald’s documentary doesn’t overlook her film career. “Sparkle,” “The Bishop’s Wife,” and “Waiting to Exhale” likely don’t ring a bell. But for anyone around in 1992, “The Bodyguard” does.

Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami Like Houston, she’s far better known as a singer. But what would mid-’80s movies have been without her tangling with the title character in “Conan the Destroyer” and James Bond in “A View to a Kill”? Let’s just say that the subject of Sophie Fiennes’s film never needed any bodyguard.

Mark Feeney can be reached at