Inside the mind of a movie lover: popular Netflix documentaries

Photo+Editor+Annabella+Ferraiuolo+writes+about+the+shocking+reality+and+mystery+of+Netflix%27s+true+crime+documentary+Night+Stalker.

Courtesy Netflix

Photo Editor Annabella Ferraiuolo writes about the shocking reality and mystery of Netflix’s true crime documentary Night Stalker.

Annabella Ferraiuolo, Photo Editor

Documentaries seem to be taking off lately. Netflix in particular has produced and hosted numerous documentaries over the past few years, and I can’t keep up. It seems every week there’s a new documentary coming out. So, I decided to take a look at some of the newest documentaries hitting Netflix these past couple of months. 

Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal (2021)

This documentary unfolds the extent and effect of the college admissions scandal, referred to by the FBI as Operation Varsity Blues. This documentary is told through interviews and reenacted phone conversations between mastermind Rick Singer and his rich clients about how he can work their children into some of America’s top universities.

I thought it would be kind of boring. Lori Laughlin made headlines around the world a couple years ago when the scandal originally began to crack open. Lori Laughlin was caught when she got her daughters onto USC’s crew team by using fake information and photoshopped images. However, I needed something to make me feel better about being rejected from UCLA and USC. Not only did it make me absolutely hate the whole college admissions process, but it was one of the most interesting documentaries I’ve seen. I had always felt disadvantaged: my family didn’t even want to pay for me to take the SAT, but the film made me understand that I am not crazy for thinking I am disadvantaged by being from a family that doesn’t have a half million to get me “a side door” into Stanford, Harvard or even Yale.

There is something sickening yet fascinating about seeing the truth behind being a wealthy person in America. Lies and bribes dominate the motivation of the wealthy and it is astounding to see this all brought to light. I think this documentary is important for people of all social classes to watch. Honestly, it made me feel like an idiot for thinking I’d ever get into UCLA. I never had any fancy college coaching or advising that many wealthy students are getting. On the other hand, it showed me how stupid the ranking of colleges is and how prestige is placed to a school simply because of the wealth. For those in upper classes, I think this documentary shows how they do have a leg up over other students just for having money. It is up to them to do the right thing and go to a school they can get into based on their academics, rather than using a backdoor into an Ivy.

Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel (2021)

This docu-series chronicles the disappearance, death and conspiracies of Elisa Lam, who visited the Cecil Hotel and never left. Ever since, the Cecil Hotel has become notorious for being riddled with death and other strange and violent accounts. The hotel is also situated in the Skid Row district of Los Angeles, an area that was originally meant to contain the homeless population but has gotten out of hand and has become one of the most dangerous places in America.

It’s a good documentary, but I have one issue with it: it made me very suspicious. The story seemed biased and in favor of the hotel and their staff, who clearly pushed to say that this hotel on Skid Row could never be a bad place even though numerous people died there. They seem to be saying something along the lines of “Fun fact: the Night Stalker stayed there after murdering people, but it’s safe! Come give us business!” There seemed to be some sort of cover-up going on that doesn’t sit well with me.

Some parts did feel a little repetitive, but I felt the documentary did a good job of informing people about the Cecil Hotel. It is so bizarre for a place to have so much death in its history. I would love a season two: maybe some more information on previous crimes that had occurred there, or maybe a deep dive into why the hotel manager was being so suspicious? I thought it was entertaining, and it informed me on something I had no idea existed. However, I’m still waiting for something more.

My Octopus Teacher (2020)

This one came out back in September of 2020. However I felt it was important to include, as it was recently nominated for an Oscar. The documentary follows Craig Foster, a burnt-out director and cinematographer, who decides to spend his time acquainting himself with nature. Specifically, he decides to scuba dive into a kelp forest off the coast of South Africa every day. During this time, he befriends an octopus and is welcomed into an entirely new world.

I personally don’t typically go for nature or science documentaries (especially anything with fish they are really freaky), but when I saw it trending and nominated for an Oscar, I figured I’d try it out. The movie was put together incredibly well. The cinematography is nothing short of astounding. The majority of the movie is shot underwater, there were only a couple clips on land (when Foster is interviewed and tells his story, when he walks to the shore and when he begins doing research). I was expecting super blurry underwater shots that would be pretty rough based on other science documentaries, yet I was blown away by the incredible quality. It was so well-shot and surprisingly well-lit, even though many shots were close to the bottom of the ocean floor. There were a variety of different shot types including close-ups and wide shots, which really pulls the audience into his world.

At some points, I definitely thought “Wow, this guy is a little wacky.” I mean, he did spend a year with an octopus in the ocean. However, after having these thoughts, Foster would immediately slap me in the face with some knowledge and findings he observed and videoed that would throw me for a loop. It was so interesting to see how someone in such an intense career path can do a total 180 and become one with nature essentially; it really is inspiring. I’d recommend this documentary to anyone. Even if you don’t think you will like it, I guarantee it is interesting.

The Last Blockbuster (2020)

This documentary chronicles the ins and outs of the Blockbuster franchise and the one remaining store in the world located in Bend, Oregon. For those that don’t know, Blockbuster was the biggest video rental store in the early 2000s.

In my opinion, the documentary would be amazing if not for the incredibly-fake, autotuned, overly optimistic narrator who pops in at the most random times. It was sort of off-putting and like nails on a chalkboard, compared to the wholesome, loving interviewees reminiscing on the good times they had at Blockbusters. Both actors, the family that owns the store, former workers and the Blockbuster enthusiasts made the movie have a personality. I learned so much between how the business side of stores work and also how something as simple as a store can spawn its own cult following. 

It is a super niche movie for both movie lovers and nostalgics alike. I remember going to a Blockbuster when I was a toddler, and I remember being confused why the store just disappeared. Even though it is a faint memory in my mind, it was so cool to see how the Blockbuster tradition has been kept alive.

Night Stalker: The Hunt For a Serial Killer (2021)

This series follows the search for one of Los Angeles most prolific serial killers: Richard Ramirez, more commonly known as the Night Stalker. Ramirez killed and assaulted numerous victims with no preference for whom he killed, and he left no evidence on the scenes of the crimes except for one shoe print. 

I’ve seen a lot of crime documentaries, but none of them have EVER shaken me to my core like this one. The documentary tells the story as it was solved, meaning you don’t know the outcome. You don’t even know who the killer is until the end. It is told exactly how the detectives that solved the cases experienced it, which builds the suspense and heightens the mood. I don’t want to go into too much detail on this one because not knowing what happens is what makes this series so mind blowing. 

This serial killer is so unique in that there is no victim pattern. He kills at random. It is astounding he was found and that he killed so many people in a short period of time; Even shows like Criminal Minds and Law and Order couldn’t dream this one up. I find it odd that not many other documentaries were made on this, as it is so outrageous of a story. That being said, I feel this series does the story justice and makes you feel as though you are solving the crime along with the detectives. I wouldn’t recommend this series to just anyone. I’m normally not spooked by crime shows and movies, but this one really did a number on me. I mean, if you’re looking for a reason to not sleep tonight, I definitely recommend this chilling docuseries.

Murder Among the Mormons (2021)

Normally, I try to at least get through the first episode of TV shows, but this was one where I could not. The docuseries is supposed to be about the Salt Lake City bombings that resulted from the dealings of original Mormon documents that could drastically change the Mormon religion.

I could not finish the episode because they immediately dive into the topic with no background information. I do not know anything about Mormonism, as do many other people, so it was very confusing. It seems to be rushed, especially considering how they jumped from talking about the creator of Mormonism, Joseph Smith, to talking about some Salamander letter in about 10 minutes. I was so lost and confused that I could not finish the episode and had no desire to continue. If you have a lot of free time on your hands or know a good amount about Mormonism, I encourage you to take a stab at getting through this docu-series’ first episode. If you are like me, spend your time on another title.

Ever since I watched these, I keep seeing more and more documentaries that I normally wouldn’t want to watch being recommended to me on Netflix. Watching these different types of documentaries has broadened my vision, and I’m so eager to watch more. I think everyone can benefit from watching documentaries out of your comfort zone. That being said, I encourage you all to venture out and try one of these titles that I recommended. I promise there will be something interesting there for you.