Nate Berg is a freelance reporter and a former staff writer for CityLab. He lives in Los Angeles.
Profiles of cities, their people and their dramas.
Not every great film is available for instant viewing on Netflix, but many very good ones are. Here are 11 new and new-ish documentaries now streaming that offer interesting, frustrating and downright sad stories about cities.
The Pruitt-Igoe Myth
2011, 83 minutes
Directed by Chad Freidrichs
A rich history of the life and legacy of the Pruitt-Igoe housing complex in St. Louis, an urban renewal project that suffered from neglect, vandalism and crime and was eventually torn down (see Mark Byrnes's review of the film here). Despite Pruitt-Igoe being held up as an example of failed public housing and modernist architecture, the film explores misconceptions about the project and the feelings of the people who lived there.
The Big Uneasy
2010, 97 minutes
Directed by Harry Shearer
This documentary follows the two lead investigators behind studies showing that the flooding in post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans were caused by human errors in infrastructure design, and one whistleblower within the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers seeking to expose the widespread design flaws that led to the disastrous flooding.
Bill Cunningham New York
2010, 84 minutes
Directed by Richard Press
A film about octogenarian and New York Times fashion photographer Bill Cunningham, who rides his bike around New York City taking pictures of clothes and the people – both ordinary and extraordinary – who wear them. A unique look at the changing fashions of one of the world's centers of culture.
The Parking Lot Movie
2010, 70 minutes
Directed by Meghan Eckman
Focusing on a single parking lot in Charlottesville, Virginia, over the course of two years, this film explores the lives of the attendants working there. This documentary adds depth to what might otherwise be overlooked as an uninteresting element of the urban environment.
2010, 99 minutes
Directed by Lucy Walker and Karen Harley
A look at the lives of the Brazilian garbage pickers who collect recyclables and other valuable materials from the recently closed Jardim Gramacho landfill in Rio de Janeiro. Artist Vik Muniz collaborates with the garbage pickers to create massive portraits constructed out of refuse from the dump.
The Art of the Steal
2009, 101 minutes
Directed by Don Argott
The tale of the impressive collection of post-impressionist paintings owned by Dr. Albert Barnes, and how, despite explicit instructions in his will against it, the collection was eventually moved from its semi-private suburban location into a brand new museum (recently opened) in downtown Philadelphia.
2008, 79 minutes
Directed by Scott Hamilton Kennedy
The story of a 14-acre urban farm in South Central Los Angeles, the low-income families who farmed it for 12 years, and the struggle they faced when real estate developers decide to redevelop the land.
Trouble the Water
2008, 95 minutes
Directed by Carl Deal and Tia Lessin
Including footage shot by the subjects of the film during the flooding after Hurricane Katrina, this documentary looks at one family's experiences in post-disaster New Orleans. Touching on the political and bureaucratic controversies at the time, the film portrays the complexity of dealing with the situation through the eyes of those most affected by it.
2007, 79 minutes
Directed by Guy Maddin
In this unconventional and entertaining film, director Guy Maddin explores the culture of his hometown. It's partially a history of the city but more of an analysis of his own experience growing up and living in Winnipeg. Maddin even sublet his childhood home for a month, and with actors to portray his family, dramatized parts of his early life in the city.
2006, 85 minutes
Directed by Gary Burns and Jim Brown
An amusing and sometimes depressing look at the suburbs – from the cul-de-sac to the big box shopping center to the French-named subdivision. Familiar critiques aside, this film also explores the reality of why so many people choose to live there.
2000, 81 minutes
Directed by Marc Singer
A look at the lives and environment of the homeless people who live in abandoned New York City railroad tunnels.