I’ve always found that the very best documentaries have to do with the creation of art, whether it’s regarding the making of a film (“Lost in La Mancha,” “Hearts of Darkness”), or as we see in the best documentary from last year, “Tim’s Vermeer,” the attempt to duplicate a painting of a master artist. The film follows inventor Tim Jenison as he tries to discover how renowned painter Johannes Vermeer was able to create such photo-realistic works like “The Girl with a Pearl Earring” or “The Music Lesson.” His journey leads him to believe that Vermeer must have used a setup in which a lens and mirrors would help the artist to see every detail of what they were trying to paint right above the canvas. After successfully using this method to make other paintings, Tim hopes to use it to recreate “The Music Lesson,” but first he must recreate the room in the painting in exact detail. Only when that’s complete can he finally begin the painstaking process of attempting his reproduction. If successful, Tim could very well help to fill in a large part of art history that has baffled historians for centuries.
“Tim’s Vermeer” comes to us from perhaps the most unexpected filmmaking team of Penn and Teller. That’s right, the pair known for their magic and comedy hijinks have put together this incredibly thoughtful film that delves into a fascinating mystery. That’s really the best way to describe the film, as a mystery in which the main character is trying to figure out not “whodunit,” but rather “how he done it.” It’s mesmerizing to see the lengths Tim will go to, from his development of the method and his early attempts to the recreation of the room and the painting of the reproduction itself, in order to try and solve the question. Along the way, more and more evidence builds up in favor of Tim’s method. Besides the simple fact that the method does recreate the painting, it also leads Tim to discover the smallest of flaws in the original that he himself almost created as well. How else does one explain such an occurrence if not by use of the same method? Watching Tim work on the painting is particularly spellbinding as he adds in every little detail, including intricate designs on a mantle and a multitude of stiches contained in a carpet. In fact, I can easily say that this film is more engaging than any action film I’ve seen of late, which is quite a remarkable achievement. “Tim’s Vermeer” may be a brief journey at 75 minutes, but it’s one that you are not likely to forget about anytime soon.
“Tim’s Vermeer” is presented in a 1.78:1, 1080p High Definition transfer of outstanding quality for a documentary. The picture remains perfectly clear throughout the entire runtime without a single hint of fuzziness. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio is a little low, a problem that many Blu-rays have nowadays, but after turning it up more than normal, you still get a great experience. Overall, the studio has done a fine job here, leaving little room for complaint.
Commentary with Teller, Tim Jenison, Penn Jillette, and Farley Ziegler: Normally, when there are several people involved in a commentary track, the result ends up being disastrous as everyone tries to talk at once. Luckily, this track is one of the few exceptions. All four participants allow each other to talk one at a time, and each of them has interesting info to divulge about the film, making this a track very much worth listening to.
Deleted, Extended, and Alternate Scenes: All added up, this amounts to about 160 minutes of footage, with only a small portion of it making it into the film. Much of it is fascinating to watch, including an alternate opening, further discussions between Tim and art enthusiast Martin Mull, and more of Tim’s diary during the creation of his Vermeer replica. It’s definitely worth the time to watch if you’re looking to go deeper into the film.
Toronto International Film Festival Q&A: A 20-minute Q&A from TIFF that goes more in-depth about the film. Like with the other extras, it’s certainly worth checking out.
“Tim’s Vermeer” was not only the best documentary of last year, it was also one of the best films of the year period. It takes the viewer on an extraordinary journey into one of the biggest mysteries of the art world and holds them spellbound as Tim Jenison carries out his ambitious experiment. Whether you’re a big fan of art or not, this is a fascinating and enthralling film that should not be missed.
Available on Blu-ray and DVD starting tomorrow.
Recent Blu-ray/DVD releases: RoboCop (2014), Alexander: The Ultimate Cut, Ravenous, Son of God, The Rodgers & Hammerstein Collection, Stalingrad, The Monuments Men, Pompeii, 3 Days to Kill, Grand Piano, Her, Orange is the New Black: Season One, I, Frankenstein, Final Exam, Evilspeak, Star Trek: Enterprise - Season Four, The Legend of Hercules, Dead Shadows, Sorcerer, Copperhead, The Wolf of Wall Street, The Best of Bogart Collection, Beneath, American Hustle
Follow me on Twitter @BeckFilmCritic.