Sometimes real life can provide more shocking, funny, compelling and fascinating stories than any screenwriter could ever come up with. That’s why I’ve been a big fan of documentaries for a long time now, having watched literally hundreds in just the last few years. From those that explore heavy tragic events and important social messages to lighter looks at musicians or artists, I am always on the look out for a great documentary that can inform, educate and entertain about a subject that you may not even have knowledge and/or interest in.
Below is the first of three parts in my guide to some of the best documentaries around, neatly sorted into various categories. Now this is by no means a definitive list as there are obviously many I still have to see but these are just the docs I’ve seen that I wish to recommend to you. Where possible I’ve included Netflix availability for each of the films.
War & Terrorism
Standard Operating Procedure (2008)
Errol Morris turns his shrewd sights onto the war on terror and explores the infamous incidents of abuse and mistreatment of prisoners at the former Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad at the hands of U.S. officers, outed by a series of shocking and disturbing photos that were taken.
Hearts and Minds (1974)
Unforgettably powerful and hugely influential doc about the Vietnam war, using a mix of interviews and archival footage to explore the differing attitudes towards America’s involvement as well as how the war affected people on both sides of the conflict.
Hell and Back Again (2011)
Compelling, Oscar-nominated look at the life of Marine Sgt. Nathan Harris who was seriously wounded during his term in Afghanistan and examines the difficulties of his reintegration into small town society while dealing with the physical and psychological trauma that he went through. Available on Netflix USA
The Invisible War (2012)
Harrowing, deeply troubling Oscar-nominated documentary by Kirby Dick that explores the epidemic of rape within the U.S. military, the way in which it seems to be covered up from the inside and the affects it has on the victims in day-to-day life. Available on Netflix USA.
Named after one of the soldiers, this powerful and astute documentary gets us right up-close-and-personal with a platoon in the most dangerous valley in Afghanistan over the course of a year, showing both their actions in combat and their camaraderie in the moments between. A follow-up, Korengal, was also made. Available on Netflix USA.
Taxi to the Dark Side (2010)
Oscar-winning documentary from director Alex Gibney which focuses on the killing of an Afghani taxi driver who was detained and eventually beaten to death by American soldiers and uses that to also examine American’s policy on torture and popularization of the interrogation method in movies and TV shows.
Tim’s Vermeer (2014)
Inventor Tim Jenison attempts to find out, using optic techniques, how the 17th century painter Johannes Vermeer created his masterworks all those years ago. Magicians Penn & Teller take a seemingly esoteric subject and makes it fascinating and insightful for the uninitiated. Available on Netflix Canada.
My Kid Could Paint That (2007)
This stranger than fiction documentary looks at the career of child prodigy painter Marla Olmstead who seemed to be able to paint amazing abstract art beyond her years and explores the subjectivity of art while looking at the controversy over whether she actually painted them on her own without help from her parents.
Cutie and the Boxer (2013)
This Oscar nominated doc explores the 40-plus year marriage of painter Ushio Shinohara, who punches paint onto the canvas while wearing giant boxing gloves, and his wife Noriko, whose technique involves delicate hand-drawn sketches. A quirky, fascinating and entertaining look at a chaotic, long-standing relationship. Available on Netflix.
Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (2012)
This penetrating, at times maddening doc chronicles the controversial career of Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei as he tries to put on a series of exhibitions while contending with strict crackdowns by and clashes with the Chinese government. A more overtly political follow-up, Ai Weiwei: The Fake Case, was also made. Available on Netflix USA.
Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010)
The world’s most infamous graffiti artist, Banksy, stars and features in this art doc/thriller. French documentarian, shop owner and would-be street artist Thierry Guetta sets out to track down and befriend the highly secretive Banksy who eventually turns the camera back on the French eccentric to film his career trajectory. A curious, compelling doc about ego and the subjectivity art that goes to some unexpected places. Available on Netflix USA.
Comedian, talk show host and atheist Bill Maher takes a swipe at all things religion as he travels the world to interview people of various belief systems in this entertaining, if rather one-sided, documentary which is a real discussion-starter whatever your religious views may be. Available on Netflix.
Deliver Us From Evil (2006)
Powerfully forthright and upsetting documentary about Father Oliver O’Grady, a parish priest who was moved around the US in the 1970s in attempt by the Catholic Church to cover up his abuse of children. This is a deeply shocking, often extremely tough to stomach experience but absolutely essential viewing.
Jesus Camp (2006)
This troubling and thought-provoking doc follows three children as they attend a camp that gives them daily doses of evangelical Christianity. An alarming exploration of religious indoctrination while crucially never denigrating the idea of faith itself. Available on Netflix.
Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God (2012)
This one is similar to the aforementioned Deliver Us From Evil but focuses on the apparent abuse of power by the U.S. Catholic Church through the stories of four deaf men hoping to expose the priests who sexually abused them when they were children. It deals with its difficult subject matter with a great level of empathy and intelligence and while it’s rightfully never what you would call an easy watch, it’s a truly important one. Available on Netflix.
For the Bible Tells Me So (2007)
Daniel G. Karslake’s film explores homosexuality and how the perceived hatred of it in many parts of the world might actually stem from a fundamental misreading and misinterpretation of holy scripture. We specifically follow five separate families, each with a gay or lesbian child, who talk about their own experiences with prejudice and struggles for acceptance. Available on Netflix.
This fascinating Canadian-made doc explores the hotly debated discussion that rages on about the existence and exact nature of hell. It features talking heads style interviews with theologians and others as they posit whether hell exists or not and, if so, who exactly would end up there. Available on Netflix USA.
Hell House (2001)
Another disturbing look at how damaging religion can be in the wrong hands as it looks at the trend of people setting up Halloween-set evangelical “hell houses,” a grisly series of walk-through displays that are supposed to demonstrate the consequences of “sins” like abortion, homosexuality and drug use.
Stories We Tell (2012)
Sarah Polley makes her documentary debut in stunning fashion with this achingly personal look at her life, specifically the influence of her mother, as she gathers together family and friends to tell their side of the story. A beautifully made exploration of identity and the nature of storytelling. Available on Netflix.
Life Itself (2014)
An intimate, moving and all-encompassing look at the life of the late-great film critic Roger Ebert, from his early life to his first days as a film critic to his tragic illness and eventual death. A powerful, loving portrait of a man who lived and loved the movies.
Bobby Fischer Against the World (2011)
This explores the life of Bobby Fischer, the late Grandmaster and World Chess Champion considered by many to be the greatest chess player who ever lived. It’s notable for featuring previously never-before-seen footage from the 1972 World Chess Championship. But even if you’re not a chess fan, this is still fascinating exploration of an eccentric genius who, despite his talent and success, had his fair share of personal demons. Available on Netflix.
This intimate, visually striking documentary explores the life of Jean Marc Calvet, a French painter now living in Nicaragua who, in his former life, battled severe drug addiction and was involved with dangerous criminals. It also chronicles his search for his now-grown son whom he had, to his regret, left behind years prior.
This delightfully offbeat and singular doc explores the life of Mark Hogancamp who was brutally attacked by five men outside a bar, leaving him with permanent brain damaged. It then looks at the fantasy world he creates for himself in the form a 1/6th scale size WWII-era Belgian town in his back garden which he populates with dolls and action figures.
Music & Musicians
Searching for Sugar Man (2012)
This part-musical love letter, part-investigative thriller follows two South Africans who set out to discover what happened to the mysterious, thought-dead ‘70s folk singer Sixto Rodriguez who, despite success in his native country, was virtually unknown elsewhere. It will make you want to search out his music afterwards. Available on Netflix Canada.
Even if you’re not particularly a fan of Bob Marley or his genre, this extremely thorough doc by Kevin Macdonald will have you glued to the screen throughout its lengthy two and half hour runtime, thanks to a deft mix of archive footage, rare photographs and interviews with Marley’s family and friends. Available on Netflix USA.
Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap (2012)
Ice-T takes you on a journey through the world of rap, interviewing some of the biggest names in the game including Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre, Kanye West, Eminem and many more. If you think rap music is all the same, this will give you a new appreciation of the work and talent that goes into creating it. Available on Netflix USA.
The Swell Season (2011)
When the music drama Once was released back in 2007, the world fell in love with duo Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová and they eventually won an Oscar for their original song “Falling Slowly.” This gentle yet astute film looks at their eponymous musical partnership and the possible fracturing of their real life relationship. Available on Netflix Canada.
Indie Game: The Movie (2014)
We all know the famous game series like Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto, but what about the little guy without the backing of the big companies? This looks at various independent games designers as they attempt to get their games made and noticed in the ever-growing, ever-crowded video game market. Available on Netflix.
The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2007)
Before he went on to make feature comedies like Horrible Bosses and Identity Thief, director Seth Gordon made this quirky, charming and bizarrely involving documentary about Billy Mitchell, the 25-year-long record holder for the high score in Donkey Kong and Steve Weibe, an unemployed teacher who sets out to beat his score.
Video Games: The Movie (2014)
This chronicles the rise in popularity of video games, from the early days of Pong and Pacman to the multi-billion dollar industry it is today, using snazzy timeline graphics and interviews with everyone from the godfathers of the industry to famous faces like Zach Braff. It’s not going to tell any hardcore gamers out there anything they don’t already know but it’s a nice nostalgia trip and an effective intro for those who wouldn’t know a joystick from a TV remote. Available on Netflix.
Second Skin (2008)
An eye-opening look at the way computer games – particularly Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games (or MMORPGs) – have not only risen in popularity but in some cases taken over people’s entire lives, including the very way they see, socialize and interact with the outside world.
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That’s it for part one. Look out for parts two and three over the next few weeks!