Documentaries That Will Change Your Life
These investigative films examine crime, celebrity, the justice system, and more—and in some cases have sparked real-world change.
Here’s a good thing about queuing up a solid documentary film: You’re getting all those feelings a good ol’ narrative film gives you (whether you want to clear out your tear ducts or laugh until your belly hurts, your call), while, you know, learning something. But not like, in that gross school way. As long as you’re able to find something you’ll enjoy.
You could zip over to Yosemite National Park in Free Solo, and learn every crack, crevice, and dangerous spot in the imposing El Capitan summit. Or queue up the Oscar-winning O. J.: Made in America, learning every detail of the O.J. Simpson case, both in the courtroom and all of the seismic social moments that happened outside of it. Maybe you just want to study up on your music history, which is where Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck or The Last Waltz could come in. Whatever area of expertise you’re looking to fill out, we’ve got you. Here are the best documentary films of all time.
Hoop Dreams (1994)
This Oscar-nominated feature from Steve James follows two boys in Chicago (William Gates and Arthur Agee) over the course of eight years of their lives. Gates and Agee are recruited from their inner-city high schools to attend the suburban St. Joseph High School in Westchester, Illinois, and play in its renowned basketball program. Hoop Dreams depicts the culture shock Gates and Agee experienced in the predominantly white high school, to which the two boys commuted 90 minutes every day. A modern masterpiece of documentary filmmaking, the film stirred controversy when it was shut out of the Best Documentary category at the Academy Awards—its sole Oscar nomination was for Best Film Editing.
The Up Series (1964-2012)
In 1964, Michael Apted profiled 14 children for his Granada Television special 7 Up, viewing the group as representative of England at large across the country’s socio-economic system. Every seven years, Apted returned to his subjects (those that chose to participate, anyway) to see how life changed for each one—and how their dreams, fears, and philosophies evolved with time. The Up Series now includes eight films (56 Up was released in 2012), and Apted has stated his intentions to continue the project. It remains a fascinating study of how class plays a major role in British culture, but also how the human experience is one that is ultimately universal, despite the specifics that we encounter as individuals.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
If there’s one documentary on this list that will have you involuntarily balling your eyes out, it’s Won’t You Be My Neighbor? The documentary profiles late children’s television star Fred Rogers, whose show, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood impacted millions of young (and old!) lives.
The Last Waltz
Back in the ’70s, Martin Scorsese captured Canadian rock group The Band’s final show. The performance included appearances from Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, and Joni Mitchell, making for an all-timer of a concert film.
If watching a documentary that features subjects who legitimately go by Big Edie and Little Edie, doesn’t interest you, then we’re not sure what will. Grey Gardens is regarded as an all-time greatest documentary for good reason—following the two Edies as they live shuttered lives in a run-down New York mansion.
Paris is Burning
What was once a required viewing for most Intro to Gender and Sexuality courses is now required for … well, everyone. After all, a vast majority of today’s pop culture as we know it has been co-opted from ballroom culture. Jenny Livingston offers a cinematic immersion into New York’s underground ballroom scene of the 1980s. As fascinating as it is moving, the film offers deep insight into the lives and realities these performers lead inside and outside of the competitive space.
If you like when your documentaries make you sweat, then hey, Free Solo will have you heading for the shower afterward. The film documents rock climber Alex Honnold’s ascent to the top of the treacherous El Capitan in Yosemite National Park… without ropes, harnesses, any of that pesky protective stuff. So yeah! Watching Free Solo equates to about an hour in a sauna.
When We Were Kings
Some sports buffs might argue this, but When We Were Kings is to Muhammad Ali as The Last Dance is to Michael Jordan. That is: If you need a reminder of the boxing legend’s greatness (both as an activist and an athlete), look no further than the day-by-day account of his trip to Kinshasa, Zaire for the “Rumble in the Jungle” with George Foreman.
Filmmaker Ava DuVernay provides an in-depth analysis of the ways in which the United States prison system has functioned as a vehicle of institutionalized racism and inequality. 13th aggregates footage alongside moving interviews from a long list of brilliant academics, activists, politicians, and men and women who have experienced incarceration.
The Work (2017)
Within the confines of the infamous Folsom Prison, level-four convicts—prisoners assigned to maximum security—meet for an intensive three-day group therapy session that serves as part of their rehabilitation. It’s there that arguably most intense moments of their stay takes place, when the convicts reach deep inside themselves to revisit their past traumas and vulnerabilities that have played a role in their violent behavior. The Work follows three outsiders who join the retreat, slowly revealing their own therapy progress as their expectations about both the convicts with whom they interact—and their own notions of masculinity—are completely shattered. It is at times heartbreaking, terrifying, and incredibly urgent.
Legendary director Wim Wenders offers a moving portrait of his friend Pina Bausch, an internationally acclaimed dancer and choreographer who died unexpectedly in the early days of the production of Wenders’s documentary. The members of Bausch’s company, Tanztheater Wuppertal, became Wenders’s collaborators, offering their own memories and perspectives of their mentor and leader. Shot in gorgeous 3D, Pina is unlike any dance performance you’ve ever seen: Rather than watching the movement from the audience, the camera glides in and out of the set pieces to place you firmly within the action. The result is not just a fascinating biographical document of a creative genius, but also a beautiful celebration of the human body and the art that it can usher forth.
The Act of Killing (2012)
Between 1965 and 1966, an anti-communist purge took place in Indonesia, a mass killing that historians have estimated a total of 400,000 to 3,000,000 victims. Half a century later, director Joshua Oppenheimer (along with Christine Cynn and an anonymous Indonesian filmmaker) crafted The Act of Killing, a compelling and brutal look at former members of the death squads—now revered for creating the society in which they now live. In a manner that highlights the banality of their work (and their cultural attitudes toward it), the former death squad members recreate their work in lavish ways in the style of cinematic genres—westerns, musicals, gangster films, etc.
Amy Winehouse had a voice that sealed her destiny as a music icon at a young age, but her fate became more twisted than anyone could have ever expected. This heart-wrenching biopic destigmatizes Winehouse’s infamous “party girl” record, providing a second look into the once-in-a-generation talent’s personal life and career, as well as a retrospective into how the world lost her.
Three Identical Strangers
This famed reunion of triplets separated at birth takes a disheartening twist when the three begin to seek out the conditions of their separation as infants. A true tour de force of the ability of documentary to capture the shocking circumstances that could only be crafted by life itself.
If you’re yearning to enter a world separate from your own, look no further than Honeyland, a documentary that transports you to the Balkan Mountains alongside Hatidže Muratova, one of the last Macedonians to practice ancient beekeeping. Shot over the course of three years, the film discovers an interesting foil to the analog woman in a young family that moves in nearby. However, even if the film lacked this central plot, the gorgeous cinematography and landscapes in themselves make this a pleasure to watch.
The Central Park Five (2013)
In April 1989, 28-year-old Trisha Meili was brutally assaulted and raped as she was jogging in New York City’s Central Park. That same night, five young men—four black, one Hispanic—were arrested for suspected gang activity in the park; after hours of interrogations and coerced confessions, the teenage boys were charged with assault, robbery, rape, sexual abuse, and the attempted murder of Meili. What ensued was a media firestorm, in which racism within the confines of the courtroom—and on the front pages of the city’s tabloids—led to the boys’ conviction. Ken Burns’s documentary, co-directed with his daughter Sarah Burns and David McMahon, looks back at one of the most notorious criminal cases in recent memory a decade after another man confessed to committing the crime and the Central Park Five’s convictions were vacated.
Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened (2016)
Lonny Price’s dreams came true when he landed one of the lead roles in a brand-new Stephen Sondheim musical, directed by the composer’s frequent collaborator Hal Prince. When Price and his fellow cast members (many teenage actors making their Broadway debuts, including future Seinfeld star Jason Alexander) opened Merrily We Roll Along in 1981, they expected it to the first in a long line of career successes. The show, however, was a flop, and a massive disappointment for Sondheim’s fans—and the show’s cast. Years later, Price caught up with his fellow cast members to look back at the start of their careers in this touching examination of how life is full of peaks and valleys—and how we learn the most about ourselves in the face of major setbacks.
I Am Not Your Negro (2016)
Raoul Peck’s Oscar-nominated documentary is part film essay, part biopic, with Samuel L. Jackson narrating the words of acclaimed novelist and social critic James Baldwin. Using Baldwin’s unpublished manuscript Remember This House, I Am Not Your Negro tells the story of American identity through Baldwin’s eyes, looking at the lives and deaths of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. alongside Hollywood-produced images delivered to the American public on screens across the nation. While Baldwin’s heroes (and peers) sought to change the way black identity was seen at large, Baldwin felt he was fighting a losing battle against a culture that valued white supremacy.
Capturing the Friedmans (2003)
Andrew Jarecki set out to make a light-hearted documentary about birthday party clowns. When he began researching one of his subjects, David Friedman, he discovered a more interesting—and disturbing—story: Friedman’s father and brother, Arnold and Jesse, had been convicted of child sexual abuse in their Long Island hometown. Culling together interviews with the police that investigated the Friedmans and the victims in the case—and combining those conversations with the family’s home videos archives—Capturing the Friedmans offers a compelling look at a family falling apart when secrets and lies bubbled up to the surface.
New Orleans Saint Steve Gleason achieved near-holy status when he blocked a punt in a game against the Atlanta Falcons—the first the team played in their hometown after Hurricane Katrina. Years later, at the age of 34, Gleason was diagnosed with ALS—otherwise known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Direct Clay Tweel followed Gleason and his wife, Michel Rae Varisco, after they learned of Gleason’s diagnosis—and of Varisco’s pregnancy with their son, Rivers. The result is a heartbreaking yet ultimately triumphant film about a man who symbolized for New Orleans refusal to admit defeat—and for his loved ones, the strength to survive in the face of a debilitating illness.
Man on Wire (2012)
In 1974, a week before his 24th birthday, high-wire artist Philippe Petit stunned the typically cynical denizens of New York City when he walked on a wire between the towers of the World Trade Center. Balancing himself over 1,000 feet in the air, Petit made eight passes between the skyscrapers over the course of 45 minutes before his arrest by the NYPD. James Marsh’s Man on Wire uses archival footage of Petit’s training and performance—as well as staged scenes of Petit and his crew setting up the wires, constructed like a heist film—to show the artist as he planned and executed a death-defying stunt. It is also a portrait of the Twin Towers, which loomed large over New York City for nearly 30 years before the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001.
Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck (2015)
At 27, Kurt Cobain was one of the most famous musicians on the planet—a status that he would have rather avoided, and a level of fame that, along with his mental illness and drug addiction, led to his downfall. Two decades after his suicide, Montage of Heck attempts to piece together a portrait of Cobain, one told by the loved ones he left behind (including his Nirvana bandmates), as well as his personal audio recordings and juvenilia. Rather than hold Cobain up as a rock and roll saint and the typical doomed artist, the documentary gives insight into his mental health, his artistic expression, and his infamous relationship with his wife, Courtney Love.
The Overnighters (2014)
Director Jesse Moss examines the residents of Williston, a small town in North Dakota that saw a huge population spike following an oil boom in the midst of the recession. With jobseekers flocking to the town and overwhelming Williston’s housing market, the town’s locals turned against their new neighbors—with the exception of Jay Reinke, a Lutheran pastor who offered up the confines of his church as a sanctuary for the town’s newest residents. The Overnighters looks at what exactly defines a community for those who live on its margins and those who decide on its borders—and shows that one’s good intentions often force a blind eye to the realities of the modern world.
Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2011)
Enter the world of Jiro Ono, the 85-year-old master chef of Tokyo’s Sukiyabashi Jiro, a 10-seat sushi restaurant that has earned three Michelin stars and worldwide acclaim. The documentary focuses on Ono as he continues to perfect his cuisine, a passion that has driven him throughout his career. It also looks toward the future of the Ono legacy, as Jiro’s sons, Yoshikazu and Takashi, followed in their father’s footsteps to become sushi chefs in their own right.
Life, Animated (2016)
Based on Ron Suskind’s book about his son, this Oscar-nominated film depicts Owen Suskind who, after being diagnosed with autism at 3 years old, withdrew into a nearly silent state of being. With Suskind and his wife on the verge of losing hope that their son would have a meaningful life and the ability to connect with others, they discovered he responded intensely to the world of animated films—particularly those produced by Walt Disney—giving him a new chance to understand the confounding world around him.
The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons From the Life of Robert S. McNamara (2003)
This Oscar-winning documentary from Errol Morris is a long interview with former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara concerning his reflections on his political career—particularly his influence on the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War. Similar to his own memoir, In Retrospect, McNamara offers his view of the conflict—and the complicated nature of war in general—to put the Vietnam War in a larger context within 20th century American history.
How to Survive a Plague (2012)
This Oscar-nominated film is a staggering portrait of the early days of the AIDS crisis, a time when those who lived on society’s margins were left to die—largely ignored by the medical establishment and a horrifyingly apathetic government. Director David France, who covered the AIDS crisis as a journalist in the ’80s, sheds light on the efforts made by members of ACT UP, who raised awareness of the disease, humanized the men and women afflicted by it, and ultimately changed the course of history by putting pressure on the government to fund medical research. Their work ultimately led to the discovery of treatments that turned an HIV-positive diagnosis from a death sentence to a chronic—and manageable—illness.
O. J.: Made in America (2016)
The 2017 Oscar winner for Best Documentary Feature, Ezra Edelman’s five-part, seven-hour exposé on the life and legacy of O.J. Simpson examines the football star’s rise and fall—and the murder trial that ripped the country apart in the ’90s. Rather than focusing solely on the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman and the subsequent trial, this incredible documentary places the Simpson saga into a larger context—highlighting the ways in which it said more about race and American culture than any other event that took place in the second half of the 20th century.
The Times of Harvey Milk (1984)
Long before Sean Penn won an Oscar for his role in Gus Van Sant’s Milk, director Rob Epstein picked up the same trophy for Best Documentary with his incredible portrait of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors—and the first openly gay elected official in California history. His political career was cut short, however, when he was assassinated alongside San Francisco mayor George Moscone at the hand of their colleague, supervisor Dan White. But Milk’s legacy has endured longer than his brief tenure as a public servant, and his courage and passion for social justice has inspired countless LGBT activists in the four decades since his murder.
Harlan County, U.S.A. (1976)
Acclaimed documentarian Barbara Kopple won her first of two Academy Awards for this incendiary look at the 1973 Brookside Strike formed by coal miners employed by the Eastover Coal Company in southeast Kentucky. The film depicts the complex nature of the American coal mining industry at large (a topic very prevalent in today’s political climate), as well as the at-times violent clashes between the striking miners (and their wives) and the Eastover supporters and scabs—which left at least one striking miner dead.
The Thin Blue Line (1998)
Errol Morris’s best known film is, by his definition, a work of non-fiction rather than a documentary. It follows Randall Dale Adams, who at the age of 26 was arrested, convicted, and sentenced to the death penalty for the 1976 murder of a police officer in Dallas, Texas—a crime Adams did not commit. Reenacting the events leading up to the murder and including interviews with Adams and other players in the case, Morris’s film made a strong case for a miscarriage of justice—so much so that the case was reviewed a year after the film’s release, and Adams’s conviction was overturned.
Sound and Fury (2000)
This Oscar-nominated film follows the Artinians, who across three generations have deaf and hearing members in their extended family. When brothers Peter (who is deaf) and Chris (who is hearing) both had deaf children and considered giving them cochlear implants, they opened up a debate within their family—one that also exists within deaf culture at large. Sound and Fury is a powerful look at how we create communities based on shared experience, abilities, and language, and the importance we place on where we stand within—or outside of—mainstream culture.
Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi is admittedly more of an experimental film than a documentary. While one might have to appreciate the droning style of a Philip Glass composition (a tough thing to love, I’ll concede), the film itself—the first in a trilogy that includes 1988’s Powaqqatsi and 2002’s Naqoyqatsi—is a cult classic. Taking its title from a Hopi word that means “unbalanced life,” Reggio’s film is a juxtaposition of slow-motion and time-lapse images of cities and landscapes across the United States, a manic collection of cinema set to an equally unsettling score from Glass. What one takes from Koyaanisqatsi is personal, and while it may be befuddling, most viewers find it incredibly provocative and mind-blowing.
Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father (2008)
When Andrew Bagby was murdered by his girlfriend Shirley Jane Turner—and Turner announced that she was pregnant with Bagby’s child after his death—filmmaker Kurt Kuenne planned to make a visual scrapbook dedicated to Bagby’s son Zachary so that the boy would know how much his father was loved by his friends and family. A tumultuous custody battle between Turner and Bagby’s parents ensued—leading to a shocking twist in the family saga—so Kuenne decided to release the film publicly, turning it from a collection of home videos into a beautiful and touching portrait to a lost friend, as well as a staggering and heartbreaking true crime documentary.
Bill Cunningham New York (2010)
Bill Cunningham was a notable figure in New York City until his death last year; a Bill Cunningham spotting was almost as exciting as having your picture taken by him. The New York Times columnist, who documented how the city’s residents expressed themselves through fashion in their own particular ways, was a cheerful and outgoing presence in the city—serving less as a fashion photographer and more as a cultural anthropologist. This portrait, filmed when he was 80 years old, follows him through the city on his fashionable journeys and offers a look into the man for whom, as Vogue editor Anna Wintour put it, all of New York dressed.