20 documentaries that will change your life
Moviegoers are suckers for a true story, which is why documentary films are so endearing and fascinating. While we often respond to narrative features with glee, hope, fear, and excitement, nothing can top a good documentary—which can also shake us to our core while expanding our worldview through experiences that are unknown or foreign.
These 20 documentaries are powerful, shocking, heartbreaking, and intense, and each will resonate with viewers open to learning more about the world.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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, USA (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.
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.