It doesn’t matter what the subject is. A good documentary will suck you in. And if you happen to have even a passing interest in the matter on screen, all the better. With the intrigue of the best drama, the revelations of the best comedy, the uplift of the best human-interest news story, documentaries hit all the notes.
We’ve rounded up 20 documentaries that we think are absolutely worth the ninety minutes or twenty hours you’ll spend watching them. The subject matters fall into broad categories — music, sports, science, culture — but the docs themselves take a laser focus on the topic at hand, bringing you deep inside something, warts and all, in a way you just haven’t seen. Like I said, the subject doesn’t matter, the skill with which it’s presented does. And these 20 must-watch documentaries draw on some serious story-telling capabilities.
Apollo 11 (2019)
“I promise to let you know if I stop breathing.”
In the 1960s, over the course of eight years, 400,000 people worked to launch three men into space, land two of them on the moon, and then bring everyone back home again. During launch, the Saturn V rocket burned 20 metric tons of fuel per second and relied on a guidance computer with 74kb of memory. Using only archival footage (some of it never-before released), Apollo 11 manages to recreate the excitement, wonder, and suspense of one of the most remarkable achievements in human history.
The Last Dance (2020)
“I don’t have a gambling problem, I have a competitiveness problem.”
If you think basketball in the 1990s, you think of the domination of the Chicago Bulls. You think Phil Jackson, Dennis Rodman, and Scottie Pippen. But you especially think of Michael Jordan. After winning five NBA Championships, the Bulls were ready to do it again. Drawing from 500 hours of documentary footage from the ‘97 to ‘98 season, The Last Dance is a 10-part joint-effort between ESPN and Netflix that covers the the final season of the Bulls dynasty, with enough sweat, turmoil, and glory to make even non-sports fans hopelessly fascinated.
“You know, yesterday, you had one brother. Today, you have fifty.”
In what was supposed to be a regular Tuesday, three filmmakers were following, like they had for weeks, a rookie firefighter at the FDNY. And then the North Tower of the World Trade Center was struck by a terrorist-hijacked commercial airliner. In the Firehouse, in the lobby of the first tower, and on the streets of Ground Zero, the three filmmakers captured the horror and chaos, as well as the immeasurable bravery of the firefighters’ response during the most devastating and deadly terrorist attack on American soil.
“No Mercy! No Mercy!”
Foosball. If you only know it as the chunky table you sometimes see in bars with the handles and the little guys with flippers for legs, then you haven’t seen someone play who really knows what they’re doing. Taking a deep dive into the history (so very big in the 70s) of the sport and the current top players, Foosballers is fascinating, inspiring, and will in no uncertain terms make the sport’s current return to popularity totally understandable, if not inevitable.
When We Were Kings (1996)
“I’m young, I’m handsome, I’m fast, I’m pretty, and can’t possibly be beat. “
Ask any boxing fan — or anyone who saw the fight — to describe how the Rumble in the Jungle went down, and they probably can. Muhammed Ali on the ropes, George Foreman’s powerful blows getting weaker as he tires. It was a fight to remember. And that’s just the stuff that went on in the ring. Combining footage from the lead-up to the 1974 heavyweight championship with commentary from people like Spike Lee and Norman Mailer, When We Were Kings brings international and civil politics together with the captivating personality of Ali himself. One of the best boxing docs—and one of the best sport docs—ever.
Beastie Boys Story (2020)
“Now here’s a little story I got to tell, about three bad brothers you know so well.”
Remember the first time you caught “Sabotage” on MTV? The energy, the force, the humor, the overall coolness? You watched it with a slightly agape smile of wonder. If that in any way rings true, watching Beastie Boys Story is a way to get back to that feeling. Filmed as a live event with Mike D and Ad-Rock sharing stories with Spike Jonze directing and playing archival footage, it’s full of that same energy, force, and humor. A fitting history for one of the greatest musical acts ever.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (2018)
“Love is the root of everything.”
Though it was made a couple years ago, this is the movie we need right now. To show how kindness, empathy, and a curiosity to understand one another came together to make something enduring and good. Even if you never watched Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, you know Mr. Rogers. And Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is glowing in its reassurance that the man was exactly as kind and humane as you hoped he was. And he likes us just the way we are.
King In The Wilderness (2018)
“He was imperfect. He was conflicted. But his love was unchallengeable.”
When someone rises to the level of a MLK, when a person’s work is as important and indelible as the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, the memory of the man himself can get subsumed by the mythology that rises up around him. This beautiful and necessary look at the formative leader of the civil rights struggle takes into account the whole man — the doubts and conflicts as well as the passion and talent. Covering the last year and a half of his life, King in the Wilderness is a look at a man who gave everything of himself to a still-critical dream.
Minding The Gap (2018)
“We have to fully grow up, and it’s going to suck.”
No, it’s not about riding the London Underground. It’s about riding skateboards. But Minding the Gap is about way more than that. Filmed over the course of a decade, it’s the story of three friends trying to figure out how to navigate that tricky divide between being a kid and figuring out how to become an adult in a time/place/circumstance that doesn’t bother to help or even show you the way. It’s personal, touching, and a necessary look at what it’s like to come up in the late 2010s.
Cobain: Montage Of Heck (2015)
“People don’t realize where we really came from.”
Boomers remember where they were the day Kennedy was shot. Gen Xers (and a few elder Millennials) remember when Kurt Cobain died. As the first biopic made in cooperation with Cobain’s family, Montage of Heck draws on home movies, Cobain’s art, even demo tapes of unheard songs to map the troubled genius from birth to death. For anyone who took the loss of Nirvana’s front man personally, it’s a must watch. For anyone looking for an in-depth portrait of an artist as a young man (because he never got to be an old man), it’s similarly compulsory.
Inside Job (2010)
“It’s a Wall Street government.”
Like I said: subject doesn’t matter, a good documentary makes anything interesting. Inside Job takes on an important yet difficult-to-understand topic — the financial crisis of 2008 — and presents it in a way that an average non-accountant can understand. It’s gripping and suspenseful as it explains how convoluted concepts, from deregulation and CDOs, to CEO compensation and securities ratings, brought on the most severe global economic crisis since the Great Depression.
Formula 1: Drive to Survive (2019)
“It’s heart attack after heart attack.”
World travel, fast cars, thrilling victories, crushing defeats, and some of the most epic crashes you’ll ever see (without a whiff of CGI). You don’t have to love Formula 1 racing to love this documentary series on Netflix (though after 20 episodes, you’ll probably develop a fondness) there’s enough off-the-track intrigue and drama to keep things very interesting. And if that’s ever not enough, you can marvel at the brave men behind the wheels of multimillion dollar cars driving very very (very) fast.
Hoop Dreams (1994)
“If I don’t make it, don’t you forget about me.”
Probably one of the best documentaries ever made, Hoop Dreams tells the story of two kids from Chicago who dream of making it to the NBA. Both recruited by a prep school to play basketball, they travel far from their low-income, predominantly Black neighborhoods each day to practice hard while at the same time struggling against the social and economic obstacles that keep kids like them right where they are.
Man on Wire (2008)
“Life should be lived on the edge of life.”
In 1974, when they arrested Philippe Petit after walking across an illegal tightrope strung up between the Twin Towers, all anyone could ask him was “Why?” Why did he do something so insane, illogical, death-defying? His answer: “There is no why.” It’s exactly that sentiment that gives Man on Wire its sense of wonder and beauty. For one hour, a man suspended the mundane, ordinary world with a walk across the air, a thousand feet off the ground.
King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2007)
“Work is for people who can’t play video games.”
The gaming world is not a safe, calm, and polite world. Whether it’s streamers on Twitch playing COD or guys battling for records on classic Donkey Kong arcade cabinets, the competition out there is fierce. King Kong: A Fistful of Quarters pits the cocky defending record holder against an underdog challenger and the resulting hour plus is funny, bizarre, and addictively entertaining.
I Am Bolt (2016)
“Every year I worry: Am I still fast?”
In 2008, Usain Bolt set the world record for fastest 100 meters. And then he ran faster. The holder of eight gold medals and nineteen Guinness World Records, the fastest man in the world also happens to be an all-around nice guy who enjoys life. I Am Bolt is a close-up look at one of the best athletes the world has ever seen in a doc that’s equal parts inspiration and admiration.
The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley (2019)
“The mantra in Silicon Valley is ‘Move fast. Break things.’ ”
On paper, the subject is the rise and fall of a company that made blood-testing machines. But the real subject is the reverence, faith, and adulation — not to mention money — that gets thrown at hot new things in Silicon Valley. When Theranos promised a revolutionary new product to investors and partners, everyone was on board. Except the product didn’t work and the people running Theranos knew it. It’s a deeply fascinating tale, complete with a “villain” that’s equal parts bewitching and crazy-eyes.
Spaceship Earth (2020)
“It was science fiction without the fiction.”
What do you get when you put a rainforest, an ocean, some wetlands and grasslands, plus a farm in a completely enclosed three-acre structure in the middle of Arizona? It was meant to provide everything — from food to the air people breathe — as an experiment to see how living on other planets might work. Chronicling the eight people who shut themselves inside for two years, Spaceship Earth covers not just the science and technology part but the much more unwieldy nature of human behavior and investor relations.
Nitro Circus: The Movie (2012)
“This does not look safe at all.”
Remember when you were a kid and you and your friends dared each other to do increasingly dumber/more dangerous stuff? Imagine if you never stopped. Taking the spirit of Jackass and stirring in professional athletes (who are no more concerned with personal safety than Bam and Steve-O were) Nitro Circus travels around the world performing absolutely insane stunts, each doing their best to earn their Darwin Award.
American Hardcore (2006)
“It was like a comet hitting a planet.”
Fast, loud, angy, unpredictable. Hardcore Punk was a prime outlet for disaffected youth in the 80s. This look back goes deep inside the pit to get a really good look at the sweat and broken noses. With archival footage of underground shows and contemporary interviews with members of Black Flag, Circle Jerks, Minor Threat, Bad Brains, and MDC, American Hardcore gets nostalgic for the salad days of American Punk.
Disclosure: Clicking on these links and making a purchase may earn us a small referral fee, at no extra cost to you. Learn more here.