The stakes are higher in documentaries because the people are real. The stories in documentaries can take surprising turns because reality is not bound by conventional narrative structure. Endings may be abrupt or inconclusive.
Of course, just turning a camera on an interesting story does not guarantee an interesting documentary. How the filmmaker chooses to tell that story can add or detract significantly.
Below are 40 of my favorite documentaries. They include serious subjects and silly subjects. Some will make you laugh. Some will make you cry. A few may make you angry. Most will make you think.
I’m not asserting that these are the 40 best documentaries ever made or even the 40 best documentaries I’ve ever seen. I tried to skew my recommendations toward lesser known films, which is why there is nothing by Errol Morris, Werner Herzog, Morgan Spurlock or Michael Moore on this list.
The links are to IMDB pages since those are permanent, but many of these are available to stream right now. Update your Netflix queue at will.
- Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey. I actually find Elmo a bit annoying, but the beautiful story of his puppeteer won my heart. All artists should have parents as understanding and supportive as his.
- Miss Representation. I thought I understood impact of how women are depicted in the media, but this opened my eyes even wider (and got a Metric song stuck in my head).
- Waste Land. Art literally changes people’s lives in this story about a Brazilian artist who returns to his homeland to do a project featuring garbage pickers from the world’s largest landfill.
- Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles. Mysterious plaques show up in the streets of major cities, but no one knows why they are there, how they got there or who put them there. This is a must watch for anyone who wanted Exit Through the Gift Shop to be real.
- Czech Dream. Two filmmakers expose consumerist culture in Czechoslovakia by launching an aggressive marketing campaign for a store that doesn’t exist.
- Crazy Love. A man throws acid in a woman’s face, and she marries him. A brutally honest look at the psychology of love and abuse.
- Man on Wire. A man walking on a wire between the World Trade Center towers is not even as interesting as how he got there.
- The Cove. The central story is about dolphin slaughter in Japan, but Flipper’s former trainer will make you rethink how we “appreciate” dolphins at tourist attractions as well.
- Young @ Heart. A choir director encourages his senior citizens to sing rock, pop and soul tunes with surprising results. You’ll never think of Coldplay’s “Fix You” the same way again.
- This Film is Not Yet Rated is an investigation of the power of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and the mysterious and seemingly nonsensical way that film ratings are assigned. The result is not only significant for what it reveals about film ratings but also for what it says about American culture’s acceptance of depictions of violence in contrast to its aversion to depictions of nudity and sex.
- The Art of the Steal. The story of the intense and often shameful battle for control of The Barnes Collection, an unparalleled collection of post-impressionist art in Philadelphia.
- 49 Up. Michael Apted filmed a group of seven year old British children in 1964 and has filmed them every seven years since. 56 Up is the most recent installation of The Up Series, but it hasn’t been widely released yet.
- The September Issue. This is the real life Devil Wears Prada.
- Bill Cunningham New York. This veteran fashion photographer for the New York Times dresses and lives far more humbly than the fashion icons who admire him. His wacky neighbor is an added bonus.
- Wordplay. A story about people who love crossword puzzles: those who create them, those who attempt them and those who solve them at competitions. If you know and admire the name Will Shortz you will probably love this.
- Spellbound. Another word nerd classic, this film follows kids competing in the U.S. National Spelling Bee.
- Helvetica. A look at typography and design aesthetics that goes beyond the titular font.
- The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters. A surprisingly compelling look at hardcore arcade game players competing to hold the ultimate high score.
- Special When Lit. This is not as well produced a film as King of Kong, but it’s about pinball. I love pinball. Watch this if you do too.
- The Rock-afire Explosion. Some people don’t reminisce about arcades for the games. This film tells the story of obsessive fans of the Rock-afire Explosion, an animatronic band that entertained patrons Showbiz Pizza until the early 1990s.
- Between the Folds. Origami is art. Origami is math. Origami is a lot more than paper cranes. You won’t believe what some people can do with a piece of paper.
- The Bridge. Filmmaker Eric Steel set up two cameras aimed at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge for one year and caught 23 jumpers on film. That controversial footage frames an intense exploration of suicide that includes interviews with victims’ families and friends.
- White Light/Black Rain: The Destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Survivors of the 1945 atomic bomb attacks on Japan recount the bombings and their aftereffects.
- Waltz with Bashir. In this animated documentary, filmmaker Ari Folman interviews veterans of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in an attempt to piece together his own fragmented memories of the conflict.
- Capturing the Friedmans. Members of a seemingly normal family are accused of horrible crimes.
- Marjoe. Marjoe Gortner’s parents pushed him to be an evangelist around the age of 5. As he grew up he used his charisma to preach the bible and defraud people of money.
- Jonestown: The Life and Death of the People’s Temple. A startling look inside Jim Jones’s Peoples Temple and the events that led to a mass suicide of 900 people.
- Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired. This is a perfect of an example of a story too bizarre to be fiction. Roman Polanski’s life is a mix of outstanding artistic achievement, devastating personal tragedy and appalling criminal notoriety.
- I Am Trying to Break Your Heart. A film intended to chronicle the creative process of the band Wilco turned into a melodrama as conflicts arose with Reprise records during the development of Wilco’s masterpiece album “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.”
- Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse. This is the story of Francis Ford Coppola’s obsessive drive to make Apocalypse Now whatever the monetary and psychological costs to all involved.
- Winnebago Man. A “where is he now” of the man who became an inadvertent Internet sensation when old outtakes of him swearing in a Winnebago sales video went viral.
- Best Worst Movie. Even if you haven’t seen Troll 2 (as I haven’t) the story of how this film was created, panned and ultimately embraced as a cult classic is an interesting look at surprise fame. (It also makes me wonder if my one tiny film credit will ever resurface in a similar manner.)
- The Business of Being Born. I found this look at labor and delivery practices to be enlightening, although it focuses on the extremes of traditional hospital obstetrics versus home births while largely ignoring other options such as hospital midwifery.
- Babies. This film follows the first year of life of babies in Mongolia, Namibia, Japan and the United States without any spoken commentary (unless you watch the bonus features, which I also recommend).
- Mad Hot Ballroom. Elementary school students learn ballroom dance to largely charming results.
- Rize. Learn about the socially significant origins of Krumping, and see some unbelievable dance moves.
- March of the Penguins. Yes, it has meme-worthy narration by Morgan Freeman, but more importantly it is a beautiful story of struggle, love and the circle of life.
- American: The Bill Hicks Story. My husband who was a fan of comedian Bill Hicks didn’t enjoy this, but I who was unfamiliar with his work found this tale of a small town boy who voraciously pursues his dream to be riveting. I also appreciated the photo-animation technique.
- Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work. Joan Rivers’ incredibly candid account of her career and her life. This is an astonishingly serious look at a woman who is now largely seen as a punchline to jokes instead of someone who tells them.
- The Aristocrats. A hundred comedians tell (or at least talk about) the same dirty joke. This gimmick provides an interesting comparison of the comedic styles of many top comics.
How many of these have you seen? Which ones would you like to see? What else would you recommend?
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