Documentaries are not meant to be the boring punchline to a joke. Instead, documentaries are amazing opportunities to learn, experience life from a different perspective, or educate yourself on how the world is currently working. They can be exciting, filled with tension, and give you a sense of wonder about the world. There is so much to be learned from them, and the best documentaries take you in without overwhelming you, igniting your interest in something that you didn’t really know about before. It’s safe to say that the best documentaries can be life-changing.
Therefore, we’ve picked out some of the best and most impactful documentaries you can find. We are certain there will be one for you, and while we tried to avoid super-niche topics, there’s a wealth of options to be had.
The effects of human waste on the environment cannot be understated. There are simply so many of us that it can be hard to calculate. Imagine how much waste you go through in a single day. Now multiply that by billions. Even as vast as our planet is, all of that has to go somewhere. And often that’s our oceans.
A Plastic Ocean tells us about the waste, especially the plastic waste, that goes into our seas. The documentary, which sought to prove what was happening to the world plastics over all our oceans, talks specifically about how once plastics enter, they break up into finer pieces. Yet those finer pieces aren’t safe and can affect marine life from the smallest organisms all the way up the food chain. Marine ecosystems are so much more sensitive than we may think, and they affect our lives, too.
This documentary will give you a new perspective on waste, plastic, our seafood and eating habits, and how much damage the human race can truly cause to the planet. It might not always be an easy watch, but it's an important one and may spur you to action.
A Plastic Ocean was released in 2016 and is available on Netflix.
Poverty is a huge issue, and in a perfect world, we would live in a world without it. Yet nonetheless, it persists, and how we tackle the issue tells us a lot about humanity. So how have we been doing so far? What can we say of the organizations that we give our hard-earned money and precious time to? What imagery do we use to describe poverty? And in our efforts (and most specifically the organizations who task themselves with fighting poverty), are they interested more in development or pursuing a self-sustaining or side agenda?
Poverty, Inc. seeks to ask and try to answer those questions. It exposes some of the dynamics in play and showcases how much of what is done is not always done for the benefit of the impoverished. Instead, makes us wonder if our giving is done for our benefit instead of others, whether we are making ourselves the protagonists of someone else’s story. It questions the standing structure of belief on the subject, and its messages are still being felt to this day.
Poverty, Inc. is a fact and figure-driven documentary. It doesn’t care so much about whether you care about poverty or try too hard to make you care about the issue the way other films or media might. It simply wants to showcase the problem, examine what’s going on, and let you conclude where your contributions and hopes should go. And we think that’s what makes it stand out so much.
Poverty, Inc. was released in 2014 and is available on Netflix.
Few documentaries can truly claim to have changed a person’s life in a real and physical sense, but The Thin Blue Line can make that claim proudly. The Thin Blue Line is about Randall Dale Adam’s trial and conviction, and more specifically about the many inconsistencies and problems therein. It actually led to the overturning of Adam’s conviction. It is an interesting investigation regardless and leads us to some discoveries that today we would find astonishing.
The Thin Blue Line is about a crime, but more important about a miscarriage of justice and the justice system in a larger sense. It is an older film, and perhaps not as relevant to the debates raging about the justice system in the last few years, but it provides an excellent look at people, their views on law enforcement, and what can go wrong if we are not careful.
And as a work of film in itself, it is innovative and pushed the boundaries of what a documentary itself was at the time. It was more than just a look into the past; it was something affecting change now and that by its content could only seek to do so. And while some rights issues and questions were surrounding the film after its release, none of these things change what an audience can take away from it.
The Thin Blue Line was released in 1988 and is available on Sling TV and Amazon Prime Video.
When was the last time you explored a completely different lifestyle? What can be said about the things you have and how often you use them? Do you feel as though your life is overburdened? If these are questions you ask yourself or speak to you, Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things is for you. A meditation on compulsory consumption and how it might affect people, the documentary is for people who simply feel cluttered in one way or another.
Directed by Matt D’Avella (who now has a successful YouTube channel partially dedicated to minimalism), the documentary explores how some people are living happier lives with less. Whether it is people living in tiny homes or someone living with less than 100 possessions, it is it certainly isn’t for everyone, but it can give you some ideas on how you live your life and what needs to go. Remember that it’s not about living with nothing. Instead, think about it in terms of removing the clutter from your life and giving more space and attention to the things that matter most.
Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things was released in 2015 and is available on Netflix.
One of the more famous documentaries of the last few decades and one of the most famous works from Morgan Spurlock Supersize Me is a work of self-experimentation and film experimentation. It is partially eye-opening, partially disgusting, and a critique of American food culture that does not need to try too hard.
Showcasing the health effects of fast food and overconsumption alike, Supersize me consists of following a 30-day period where Spurlock himself ate nothing but McDonald's. It did not do well for Spurlock’s health in any regard, and the full results are to be seen for yourselves.
If you find Supersize Me fascinating, Spurlock also created a TV series with much of the same concept called 30 Days, with other experiments involving either Spurlock or another volunteer.
While the film came out nearly two decades ago, we don’t think too much has changed and the messages remain the same. It will make you look at your eating habits in a new light, or keep you sticking with your healthy diet all the more convincing.
Supersize Me was released in 2004 and is available on a wide change of platforms for free, including Amazon Prime Video, YouTube, and Tubi.
A groundbreaking study and a film project which has rarely if ever been replicated, The Up series of documentaries is a study of a group of 14 seven-year-old children in England starting in 1964. The children were chosen from a range of backgrounds, to see how their class would affect their life outcomes. In the first episode, the children were asked about their hopes and dreams for the future.
And since the first film, every seven years there has been a follow-up with a new title. For example, when the participants were 21 the film was titled 21 Up. This has gone on for 9 total episodes to the documentary series now, the most recent being 63 Up in 2019. Unfortunately, the director of nearly all the films, Michael Apted, passed away recently, so it may stand as the last one unless someone else takes up the torch.
Being able to track a life over stages such as that is an extraordinary journey to watch. Life is an extraordinary thing, and seeing a nearly complete one (however abridged) through the film is an opportunity not to be missed.
The Up series of films were released from 1964 to 2019 and is available on Amazon Prime Video for rent.
Walking on a tightrope between two towers without a parachute or any type of safety harness seems like a perfectly rational thing to do, right? One of those things that you just do spur of the moment on a Sunday? Probably not. Yet in Man on Wire, someone does precisely that, and the documentary explores Phillippe Petit’s walk between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in 1974. It is also heavily based on Petit’s book To Reach the Clouds, which chronicles the event from his perspective.
It is thrilling, sometimes painful to watch from second-hand stress, and is put together brilliantly. With a solid structure featuring footage from the preparations, recreations, and more, there is little you will not know about this daring stunt by the time you’re done watching the film.
The documentary received several awards for its efforts, and critics praised the suspense that fills the whole film, even though you likely know the end result. It’s a film that’s harder to make today and harder to find an event for, and the bravery on display might inspire you to try something new for yourself (though hopefully less dangerous).
Man on Wire was released in 2008 and is available on Tubi, Amazon Prime Video, Philo, Crackle, and Sling TV.
An important, if at times heartbreaking, look into AIDS and its early history, How to Survive a Plague is mostly about the early years of the AIDS epidemic and how some activists sought to combat the disease and make the government act on the issue. Specifically, it follows the efforts of ACT UP and TAG and uses footage and materials from their archives (and what could simply generally be found) to weave together an often tragic documentary.
The documentary is extraordinarily well put together, using archival footage well. It’s obvious the creators did not simply throw in what they found, instead of scouring everything available for what was most relevant. It does not hold back punches at those who did nothing during those vital early years, and at the same time talks heavily about drugs and treatments that might have helped but were not released at the speed they could have or released at all.
Whether you are close to this issue or not, How to Survive a Plague is a clear call to action to make a change for a better world. How you interpret it is up to you, but there is bravery on display from the activists and their persistence is inspiring.
How to Survive a Plague was released in 2012 and is available on SlingTV and Amazon Prime Video.
A documentary about generational change, as well as the work that can go into being the best in the world at something, Jiro Dreams of Sushi, is about Jiro Ono, well-considered to be the best sushi chef in the world. The film takes a look at the 85-year-old’s (at the time) efforts at making sushi, at once looking into the process and the life of the man.
Jiro Dreams of Sushi is not about glamour by any means. The restaurant itself is located in a subway station and only seats ten, yet requires a reservation that is by no means easy to come by. The three-star Michelin Guide restaurant is a small institution, and the film brings you into a world that’s minuscule and intensely focused. Yet the documentary is just as much about Jiro Ono’s relationship with his son (and heir) as anything else, and one wonder’s what will happen when Jiro Ono’s work is finished. It is a wonderful reflection on life and quiet passion that can give you cause for thinking about your own choices.
For those wondering, it is also incredibly well-made, using a soundtrack heavily featuring Phillip Glass (well-suited to the subject) and good editing to make you focus.
Jiro Dreams of Sushi was released in 2011 and is available on Sling TV, Amazon Prime Video, and FuboTV.
In what might be the darkest documentary on this list, yet also one of the most important, The Act of Killing is a piece about those who participated in the mass killings in Indonesia in 1965-1966 and where they are today, as well as how they feel about their actions.
You may need to be in the right mood to get the most out of this, and you might want to break watching it into chunks if it is too affecting, but The Act of Killing is one of those documentaries you need to watch. If a good documentary provides you with a new perspective, how often would you get this one?
Yet interestingly, and to great effect, Oppenheimer invites those involved in the killings to express themselves on camera, involving reenactments in the styles of their favorite movie genres. It is all a deeper look into their psychologies and the events of the time. Widely considered a masterpiece, you may want to look away, but you shouldn’t. It’s one of those rare pieces that give you a greater understanding of the world around you and how it got to be where it is today.
The Act of Killing was released in 2012 and is available on Pluto TV, Tubi, Hulu, and Sling TV.
One of the most famous nature documentaries ever made and still one of the best, March of the Penguins is about a massive migration of emperor penguins to their breeding ground to raise chicks. However, the breeding ground by winter is more than 100 kilometers away from the open water, meaning an arduous journey for food that must be made several times. And since chicks take months to grow large enough to fend for themselves, it is a rough period for any penguin old enough to reproduce and make the journey.
Narrated by Morgan Freeman (and we can now hardly think of anyone else doing it), March of the Penguins tells a story that might not be easy to piece together for ourselves. It isn’t always gentle to watch, and the piece, while beautiful, does still showcase how uncaring nature can be. Starvation is an issue, and many penguins and chicks do not make it. Some mother penguins whose chicks were wiped out might steal chicks from other nests. Nonetheless, the filmmaking is beautiful and showcases the Antarctic in a way that few had ever seen before then.
March of the Penguins was released in 2005 and is available for rent on YouTube, Google Play, Apple TV, Amazon Prime Video, and Vudu.
Not moving too far away from the penguins, Encounters at the End of the World is another piece by Werner Herzog that looks more into the people and places in Antarctica. A place not nearly as explored as it should be, Herzog seeks out places that are worth looking at and talks to people who choose to spend parts of their life at the end of the world. With a team of two (including himself) and seven weeks to film, it is a testament to the vision and effort that Encounters at the End of the World accomplishes as much as it does.
Featuring some amazing visuals of a landscape that only Herzog could capture to its full potential, it is at once beautiful and haunting, being a place that humans have barely touched. By the end of the film, you may conclude that humans should not touch this landscape. It will give you a perspective that your own environment is only a sample of what is out there, and that exploration is possible if you are willing to be daring.
Encounters at the End of the World was released in 2007 and is available for rent from YouTube, Amazon Prime Video, and Apple TV.
A documentary of a man’s obsession as much as it is anything else, Grizzly Man is a documentary from Wener Herzog (and any of his films could qualify for this list) that is an exploration of bear enthusiast Timothy Treadwell, though enthusiast might be an understatement. His death and the death of Amie Huguenard from his beloved bears teach a valuable lesson just like the headline. Yet Herzog wanted to go deeper, and so he looked through the footage Treadwell had of his travels and interactions, as well as made interviews of park rangers and experts who could give his actions more context.
Chances are you’ve already heard about the film’s subjects’ grizzly end, but the documentary takes a view of nature that is anything but sentimental. It is a warning to nature enthusiasts, a look at a man obsessed and deluded by his love for animals, and a great piece of filmmaking. Whether you will enjoy it is a difficult question, but it may change your view of the world around you.
Grizzly Man was released in 2005 and is available for free on YouTube, Pluto TV, and Tubi.
You might have heard of religious summer camps or religious camps with certain considerations, but the one featured in Jesus Camp has to be one of the more interesting ones, and in some ways, one of the most terrifying ones (depending on your outlook) featured on film. There is a sense of uneasiness felt by some while watching it even if it wasn’t intended by the filmmakers. In fact, the documentary purposefully takes a non-partial stance and just showcases what is going on and how people feel. And for this subject matter, which is prone to so much contention, that is the best choice they could have made.
It features an Evangelical Christian summer camp in which children spend their summer and learn more about and practice their faith. It follows the camp, its workings, and some children who attend the camp. It provides as complete a picture as possible and features interviews with leaders of the community.
Things may or may not have changed in the country since Jesus Camp was made, but it is an interesting look at religious organizations and enterprises all the same. It is certainly not a full reflection, but it offers a look at the parts and practices most people wouldn’t even consider.
Jesus Camp was released in 2006 and is available for free on YouTube, Tubi, and Vudu.
A documentary about two African-American high school students hoping to become professional basketball players, Hoop Dreams (directed by Steve James) is about that but also about so much more. It uses high school basketball and the dreams of these kids to point out issues regarding race, class, and education in American society. It portrays a Chicago unlike that which you’d see in the movies and balances hope, determination, and the reality of the challenges the students face. To compete in an ultra-competitive market, kids need to ensure rigorous practice schedules, long commutes, and more. It makes you wonder if it's worth it.
Hoop Dreams might break your heart, and it should. And while the film is not modern and the stars would be retired from professional sports even if they made it, Hoop Dreams still has something to say about how we look at sports, our values, and the American Dream. It is more than just a film about basketball. It is a film about life in this country at the time. Something like that is always worth watching when it is well-made.
Hoop Dreams was released in 1994 and is available on HBO Max, Hulu, Showtime, Amazon Prime Video, Sling TV, and fuboTV.
Before we finish, here are a few more things you may want to keep in mind about these documentaries:
Have you seen a few things you’re interested in? Any documentaries you just have to watch tonight? We certainly hope so, and we hope that they make you think more deeply about the world around you and maybe change your mind about a few things. You might not feel your life has changed immediately, but if an interest has been sparked, then so much can happen in the future. May you have a great time watching and may you get the inspiration you are looking for.