Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This month: The A.V. Club atones for its sins of omission, recommending the best movies of the year that we didn’t review.
Documentaries about outsider artists have become a cottage industry of late, but Finding Vivian Maier tells a story so strange that it genuinely merits feature-length exploration. Maier, who died in 2009 at the age of 83, was unknown until a Chicago historian named John Maloof (who co-directed this film) began exploring boxes of her possessions that he’d purchased at an auction a couple of years earlier. Among them were tens of thousands of photographs, including hundreds of rolls of film that had never even been developed. Most of the black-and-white images are candid street scenes from the 1950s and 1960s, reminiscent of the work being done around that same time by such famous names as Robert Frank and Weegee. This treasure trove was plenty significant in itself, but Maier’s other possessions revealed a degree of eccentricity that ultimately led Maloof to interview several families for whom Maier had spent years working as a nanny, and also sent him to France in search of clues to her origins. Each time it seems as if the film must have exhausted all possible twists and turns in this woman’s solitary but well-documented life, another revelation follows.
When Finding Vivian Maier came out theatrically last March, some critics cynically noted that Maloof, who owns the majority of Maier’s photographs, has a strong financial interest in promoting her as a great artist who flew under the radar during her lifetime. That’s undoubtedly true, but it only matters if he’s manufacturing the more outré aspects of her biography for profit. (People can judge the quality of her work for themselves; there’s plenty of it in the movie.) Apart from some nebulous speculation about childhood sexual abuse, that doesn’t appear to be the case here. The real missed opportunity lies in Maloof’s failure to recognize the degree to which his own obsessive personality reflects Maier’s—he mentions it in passing a couple of times, as a sort of joke, but a director prepared to really tackle that creepy congruence might have fashioned a masterpiece. Instead, this is just a riveting portrait of a remarkable woman who’d probably be mortified if she knew how much fascination she now inspires.
Availability: Finding Vivian Maier is available on DVD, which can be obtained from Netflix or your local video store/library, or to rent or purchase from the major digital services.