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9 Must-See Documentaries About the Art of the Con

9 Must-See Documentaries About the Art of the Con

[Editor’s Note: This post is presented in partnership with Time Warner Cable Movies On Demand in support of Indie Film Month. Today’s pick “Art and Craft” is available now On Demand.]

“Art and Craft,” Dir. Sam Cullman, Mark Becker, Jennifer Grausman (2014)

This documentary is just as quirky, if not more quirky than the title suggests. “Art and Craft” tells the story of how Matthew Leininger, the registrar at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art, managed to expose one Mark Landis as an art forger. After having been conned by Landis’ donation to the OCMA, Leininger took it upon himself to investigate Landis further, which led him to discover that identical donations had been made to other art institutions around the country. Although the two men exist in opposition to one another, they share in their obsessiveness; Landis with the indirect recognition he receives each time he manages to get another place to put up “his work” and Leininger with his investigation of Landis. The film, which premiered at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival in New York, was co-directed by three very accomplished documentary directors: Sam Cullman, Jennifer Grausman and Mark Becker. Cullman most notably co-directed the 2011 Academy Award-nominated documentary “If a Tree Falls,” while Grausman and Becker previously co-directed the Emmy-nominated documentary “Pressure Cooker.”

“The Art of the Steal,” Dir. Dan Argott (2009) 

When art collector Albert C. Barnes passed away in 1951, his will specifically stipulated that his extensive collection was not to be moved from its home at The Barnes Foundation in suburban Philadelphia. Despite his request that the location serve primarily as a school of art, art criticism and appreciation, the foundation also functioned as a museum, with a collection estimated to be worth at least $25 billion. The theft, as it were, occurred when a group consisting of Philadelphia aristocrats and politicians arranged for the breaking of Barnes’ will to move the collection (which, with 181 Renoirs, 69 Cézannes, 60 Matisses, 44 Picassos, and 14 Modiglianis, is generally considered to be the world’s best collection of post-Impressionist art) into the city of Philadelphia as a major tourist attraction. Filmmaker Dan Argott focused the film on the brutal excavation and elimination of Barnes’ wishes, opting to use graphics to present each argument, rather than turning to talking heads for their opinions. The choice earned Argott a few criticisms, however the film offers painstaking detail that other documentaries of the art world may omit.

“Casino Jack and the United States of Money,” Dir. Alex Gibney (2010)

Although the film centers on former lobbyist and con man Jack Abramoff, the main subject of the film is, in fact, American governmental officials at-large. By meticulously tracing the rise-and-fall of Abramoff, Gibney demonstrates, on more than one occasion, how the success of Abramoff’s cons hinge not just on a combination of charisma and a flagrant moral compass, but rather the individual political and financial desires of various government officials. In essence, as the chief enabler of Abramoff’s cons, the film suggests that government officials are perhaps the real perpetrators, given that they could have seemingly put a stop to the cons (in a perfect world at least) by keeping their desire in check.

“Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room,” Dir. Alex Gibney (2005)

Based on Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind’s book of the same name, Alex Gibney’s documentary not only provides an empirical investigation into the creative accounting practices employed by the Enron Corporation in order to make the company appear profitable, but also, and perhaps more importantly, the film includes a detailed portrait of corporate hubris. Consider “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room” the nonfiction counterpart, or preface for that matter, to Martin Scorsese’s 2013 film, “The Wolf of Wall Street,” which centers on former stockbroker Jordan Belfort, who, much like the Enron Corporation, ran a con of his own in the form of a penny stock scam. Scorsese’s depictions of excess in “The Wolf of Wall Street,” as it turns out, don’t appear to be that far from the truth when viewed side-by-side with Gibney’s investigation into the lives of Enron’s top executives and the hyper-masculine corporate culture that they advocated to their employees.

“Exit Through the Gift Shop,” Dir. Banksy (2010)

If you watch “Exit Through the Gift Shop” hoping to learn more about its director, Banksy, the ever elusive British street artist who’s built his reputation on stunts and keeping his identity a secret, you’ll no doubt be disappointed. For most of its running time, the documentary actually follows Thierry Guetta, a Frenchman living in Los Angeles who videotapes everything and quickly develops a fascination for the city’s street art scene. When Bansky decides to take control of Guetta’s wealth of material to fashion a documentary, Guetta morphs into a street artist himself (he goes on to name himself Mr. Brainwash). The film poses more questions than it answers. Does Guetta exist at all? Was he in cahoots with Bansky the whole time? Is Guetta Bansky himself? We’ll probably never know, but at least we have this insanely entertaining documentary to tease us.

“An Honest Liar,” Dir. Justin Weinstein and Tyler Measom (2014)

World famous magician and escape artist James Randi appeared on “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson” 32 times. After establishing himself in the magic world as ‘The Amazing Randi,” he then turned his skills on what he considered the enemy, and set forth to debunk faith healers, psychics and religious con-artists. He even created his own sham guru just to prove his own point. What none knew, however, was that Randi was a con-artist himself, not in his profession, however, but in his orientation. Randi came out of the closet at the age of 81, and met the love of his life. As Justin Weinstein and Tyler Measom’s film proves, however, nothing is as what it seems, as Randi turns from the breaker of deception, to the deceiver, to the deceived himself. 

“The Imposter,” Dir. Bart Layton (2012)

The Bart Layton-directed film was one of the most buzzed about documentaries to premiere at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, because it posed more questions than it answered. The film centers on a 1997 case in which a French man living in Spain impersonated Nicholas Barclay, a missing adolescent from San Antonio, Texas by convincing the boy’s family that he was the kid. If that sounds too crazy to believe, you’d be wrong. The joy in watching “The Imposter” comes from the mysteries that continue to creep into the tale, right up until the end credits.

“Maxed Out: Hard Times, Easy Credit and the Era of Predatory Lenders,” Dir. James Scurlock (2006)

“Maxed Out” is the kind of documentary that will make you think twice before signing up for another credit card. The sad thing being that many of the credit card companies newest recruits don’t know what they’re getting into when they sign their life away for a free t-shirt on a college campus. The doc focuses on the predatory lending practices of many credit card companies, who purposefully market to those who are more likely to have financial difficulty. Then, when their customer hasn’t repaid, they sell the debt to collections agencies, who then harass their debtors in shameful (and often illegal) manners. One such scene in James Scurlock’s film juxtaposes two debt collectors high-fiving over a debtor they’ve “broken” with a tearful mother whose son has killed himself because of excessive debt and harassment from the same companies.

“My Kid Could Paint That,” Dir. Amir-Bar Lev (2007)

Amir Bar-Lev’s breakthrough documentary questions whether four-year-old Marla Olmstead, who’s sold more than $300,000 worth of paintings, is really a child prodigy. At first, her work captured the imagination of the world, however, the media began to question the authenticity of Marla’s work. The film scrutinizes society’s obsession with child prodigies, explores the complex debate over what makes something art, questions the media’s creation and subsequent destruction of heroes and even examines the ethics of documentary storytelling.

Indiewire has partnered with Time Warner Cable Movies On Demand for January’s Indie Film Month. Enjoy exceptionally creative and uniquely entertaining new Indie releases (“Boyhood,” “The Skeleton Twins,” “Song One,” and more) all month long on Time Warner Cable Movies On Demand. Go HERE daily for movie reviews, interviews, and exclusive footage of the suggested TWC movie of the day and catch the best Indie titles on TWC Movies On Demand.

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