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7 Documentaries About Cities Streaming Now

More profiles of cities, their residents, and their dramas.

Way back in 2012, CityLab put together a list of some streaming documentaries that offer informative, engaging, and sometimes infuriating glimpses into city life. Many of those are no longer easily streamable online. But to sate your appetite for urban stories, here are some to queue up right now.

2011, 85 minutes
Directed by Gary Hustwit

This film is a crash course in urban design and the challenges and opportunities cities will face as the proportion of the world’s urban population reaches 75 percent by 2050. From bike lanes in Bogota to crime in Cape Town, architects, planners, policymakers, scholars, and activists weigh in. ($3.99 at Amazon) Mimi Kirk

Los Angeles Plays Itself
2003, 170 minutes
Directed by Thom Andersen

Los Angeles may have sent movies across the planet, but Hollywood movies have often showed their home city scant attention. This is the central hinge of Thom Andersen’s brilliant, encylopedic documentary on his adopted hometown. Tracing Los Angeles through its appearances in movies as diverse as the Olivia Newton-John nightclub flop Xanadu and Charles Burnett’s haunting Killer of Sheep, the documentary reveals a city whose constant use as a backdrop has seen it hiding in plain sight for a century. On the way, Andersen picks out some fascinating asides—how, for example, Hollywood has always demonized modernist architecture, and how the 1950s institutional sleaze exposed in the film L.A. Confidential was actually a whole lot worse in real life. ($3.99 at Google Play) Feargus O’Sullivan

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry
2012, 91 minutes
Directed by Alison Klayman

Ai Weiwei’s gestures often read as universal: His Sunflower Seeds, comprising millions of hand-crafted porcelain sculptures installed at the Tate Modern, offers a poetic message about humanity. But his practice is specific to Beijing, where he works as an architect, activist, and provocateur. Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry follows the artist’s projects and tribulations in China, including his census-style tabulation of the names of students killed in shoddy schoolhouses during the May 2008 earthquake in Sichuan. The studio where Ai was imprisoned on house arrest became for a time the center of the contemporary art world; for the duration, Beijing was the focus of his work. (Watch on Netflix)—Kriston Capps

Finding Vivian Maier
2013, 84 minutes
Directed by John Maloof & Charlie Siskel

When a trove of some 100,000 undeveloped negatives was unearthed in a storage facility, Vivian Maier was posthumously vaulted to the canon of iconic street photographers in the tradition of Robert Frank, Lisette Model, and Weegee. Maier worked as a nanny in Chicago; her charges traipsed along with her as she used a Rolleiflex to snap pictures of other families going about their daily business. This Oscar-nominated portrait sketches a picture of Maier as a thoughtful loner attuned to the women and children on the fringes. She captures ladies peering in windows or propping their chins on manicured fingers, and girls playing jump rope, coats swishing around their ankles. Her work, packed away for so long, begs the question about what’s at stake when some of the most keen and penetrating observers of social life are also invisible to it. (Watch on Netflix)Jessica Leigh Hester

Nice Time
1957, 16 minutes
Directed by Claude Goretta and Alain Tanner

This 1957 experimental documentary shot by night in London is an incredible snapshot of a lost city. Showing sailors, movie-goers, hawkers, and sex workers mingling in the streets around Piccadilly Circus, it creates a portrait that shows both suspicion and warmth about its subject matter. Filmed on a shoestring by the young Swiss directors Alain Tanner and Claude Goretta, it seems skeptical about the tawdry delights of movie theaters, amusement arcades, and peep shows offered by London’s West End. Thanks to a soundtrack of popular 1950s songs and a fascination with faces, the film’s overwhelming impression is still one of tenderness and human curiosity. (Watch at British Film Institute, £4.99 monthly subscription) Feargus O’Sullivan

The First Monday in May
2016, 90 minutes
Directed by Andrew Rossi

This sleek documentary trails Vogue editors and harried museum staffers working to install a splashy exhibition—the annual blockbuster show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute—and organize its equally ostentatious fete. The exhibition, China: Through the Looking Glass, drew more than 535,000 visitors. The playful, gossipy film wrestles with cultural appropriation and how mammoth institutions can keep up with changing times. (Watch on Netflix)Jessica Leigh Hester

Of Time and the City
2008, 74 minutes
Directed by Terence Davies

The veteran British director Terence Davies is best known for fictional films (Distant Voices, Still Lives; The House of Mirth), but in this 2008 memoir he uses old newsreel and documentary footage to return to the Liverpool of his 1950s childhood. Portraying a (now largely demolished) working class city in a tone that mixes nostalgia with satire, Davies’s film could be one of the most poetic portrayals of any city to date. It’s certainly the most passionate protest against the damage wrought by Britain’s urban renewal. The film’s elegiac tone might be overbearing, were it not for the perceptive, acid wit of Davies’s own voiceover—perhaps the only young Liverpudlian around in the 1960s who actually hated the Beatles. ($2.99 at Amazon) —Feargus O’Sullivan

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