Documentary films are geared to take us inside a topic or story and give us an insight we may not have otherwise seen or known about. Topics range from broad like a world event to incredibly specific like interesting person. Documentaries are typically low-budget movies made by real people who pour their heart and soul into the picture to make sure their message gets out to the masses. I’ve become quite the documentary junkie myself and thought it cool to put together a big list of the best documentaries I’ve ever seen.
1. Dear Zachary
Director Kurt Kuenne’s close friend Andrew Bagby was murdered by Shirley Jane Turner after Bagby ended their tumultuous relationship. Shortly after she was arrested, she announced she was pregnant with Bagby’s child, a boy she named Zachary. Kuenne decided to interview numerous relatives, friends, and associates of Andrew Bagby and incorporate their loving remembrances into a film that would serve as a cinematic scrapbook for the son who never knew him. As the documentary unfolds, the extremely strange events that occur make this film the most surprising and gut-wrenching stories of all time.
2. Paradise Lost
This documentary comes in at number 2 as a 3 part series. The Paradise Lost films follows the 3 boys accused of a triple homicide of 3 little boy scouts in West Memphis, Arkansas. The bizarre court case relies more on the stereotypes of the 3 accusers than hard evidence. However, the admission of guilt by Jessie Misskelley, a very simple-minded teenager, after over 12 hours of interrogation proves to be too much to overcome for the defense. The 3 films chronicle the 20+ year battle of the West Memphis Three to try and prove their innocence.
3. Hoop Dreams
Director Steve James signature documentary Hoop Dreams follows the high school careers of William Gates and Arthur Agee. 2 inner-city Chicago teenagers as they chase their basketball dreams of following in the footsteps of their heroes like Michael Jordan.
4. The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters
A heart-warming documentary that follows high school science teacher Steve Wiebe as he sets out to break the world record for high score on the classic video game Donkey Kong. To achieve his goal though, he must dethrone reigning champion and king of all that is retro-gaming Billy Mitchell and his minions of nerds that don’t want to see their leader ousted from the leaderboard.
5. The Devil and Daniel Johnston
This film tells the story of Daniel Johnston, one of the greatest songwriters you’ve never heard of. A creative childhood, quick rise to fame and unimaginable collapse.
6. The Imposter
The Imposter takes stolen identity to a whole new level. This documentary focuses on a young Frenchman who claims to be the long lost son of a Texas family whose been missing for the past 3 years. This unbelievable story proves how easy it may be to take advantage of a grieving family and what they will believe in order to get back those who they’ve lost. The film also shows what type of person and all the creative lies it takes to try and pull off something so ridiculous to many.
7. The Staircase
A perfect documentary series covering the murder trail of Kathlenn Peterson. On trail, author and husband Michael Peterson who claims his wife was not pushed, but slipped on their narrow staircase after a few glasses of wine
8. Every Fucking Day of My Life
An unbelievably shocking movie about the years of abuse one man handed out to his family which lead to his eventual death by his own wife and son.
9. Exit Through the Gift Shop
A great behind the scenes look at the underground world of graffiti by the greatest graffiti artist of them all, Banksy. The film focuses on Thierry Guetta aka Mr. Brainwash and his early obsession filming their masked artists who later turns into an artist of his own.
10. Capturing the Friedmans
Before Jerry Sandusky there were the Friedmans. This film focuses on the 1980s investigation of Arnold and Jesse Friedman for child molestation and the family struggles that ensued.
A first hand look at the war in Afghanistan. The film follows one platoon in the deadily valley of the war zone. For those of us who haven’t experienced what its like or think that Saving Private Ryan is the closest thing you’ll see to what war is really about must watch this.
12. Into the Abyss
Documentary filmmaker Werner Herzog tackles the human effects of the death penalty in his film about death row inmates Michael Perry and Jason Burkett who were convicted of a triple homicide in Conroe, Texs. Herzog relives the crime while interviewing the convicted, friends and family members along with former death row guards and the effects the death penalty has had on all of them.
Before Steve James was filmmaker (Hoop Dreams) he was an Advocate Big Brother to to a boy named Stevie Fielding, a troubled young man from Pomona, Illinois. This documentary is his attempt to reconnect with Stevie. James quickly learns that Stevie has been charged with a serious crime and while they try and rekindle their friendship, James also paints a portray of why Stevie still faces his own demons and why he continues down a path of self-destruction through interview with those closest to Stevie.
14. Jesus Camp
Jesus Camp is an eye-opening documentary about a religious summer camp for children where they practice and preach the word of the Lord. Seeing the way these kids talk and act are what we’ve grown accustom to by extreme Evangelist Christians and what makes this film so captivating yet disturbing to so many.
15. Grizzly Man
Director Werner Herzog (Into the Abyss) profiles Timothy Treadwell, a grizzly bear activist who believes the bears are his friends and will do anything to protect them. With over 100 hours of footage at his disposal, Herzog displays the unbelievable relationship Treadwell has with these animals, but what makes so different than these giant animals is what makes this documentary so devastating.
16. The Best Worst Movie
This amazingly fun doc about the cult classic Troll 2. A movie known for being so bad its good, Troll 2 has grown such a following that its still played in theaters across the country to huge crowds with Q&A sessions with the stars afterwards. This behind the scenes look at the movie profiles most of the actors, director and what really made this mistake of a movie becomes such a big success.
17. The Thin Blue Line
Errol Morris’s unique documentary re-enacts the events between Randall Adams and David Harris on the infamous night in Dallas, Texas on which they were accused of murder. Morris successfully argues that the use of questionable evidence, conflicting stories a desperate need for a quick resolve led to a man being wrongfully accused for a crime he did not commit.
18. No Crossover: The Trail of Allen Iverson
Steve James (Hoop Dreams) once again focuses on basketball, this time with a much more prominent athlete, Allen Iverson. This 30 for 30 documentary doesn’t focus on his NBA career, but an incident that happened to Iverson in high school. A fight at a local bowling alley between Iverson and his friends and a group of white teenagers almost put his professional dreams in question. James, a Hampton native and where the incident occured, knows that segregation still exists and through first-hand experience and interviews investigates if Iverson’s punishment was just in nature.
19. Client 9
An in-depth look at former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer. His quick rise to fame as New York’s Attorney General prosecuting the crimes of some of America’s largest financial institutions. After he was elected Governor it only seemed like a matter or time until he took a stab at running for President until the New York Times revealed that Spitzer had been seeing prostitutes and as quickly has he had risen to fame he fell from grace.
20. God Grew Tired of Us
God Grew Tired of Us explores the undying spirit of three ‘Lost Boys’ of left their war-ridden home in the Sudan and prevailed against insurmountable odds and moved to America. While they are excited to begin their new fulfilling lives, they also stay committed to those they left behind.
21. The Central Park Five
Beloved documentary filmmaker Ken Burns relives the tale of five teenagers who were used as scapegoats for a crime late one night in Central Park back in 1989. A woman was brutally attacked and raped and the media coined it ‘the crime of the century’ and while the boys were in the park that night, it wasn’t until years after being in prison that the real truth was revealed.
Comedian and late night host Bill Maher explores the state of a variety of today’s world religions. His views are all from an atheistic point of view, yet his rude, crude humor brings us all back to reality no matter what religious views we have decided to follow.
There isn’t a competition for kids that more adults are mesmerized more by than the National Spelling Bee competition. This behind the scenes look with some of the most interesting children in the field proves what type of pressure some of this kids are under and the utmost dedication it takes to be known as one of the best spellers in the world.
In 1984, Ben Wilson was one of the top high school basketball prospects in the country. Dominating the city of Chicago with his length, ball skills and sweet jumper, it wasn’t till his unfortunate death, gunned down only blocks away from his school, that people in the Chicagoland area came together to grieve and found a renewed activism against gang violence.
25. The U
The Univeristy of Miami’s football team in the 1980s was one of the most dominate teams college football has ever seen. Their prolonged success over that time, with the slew of astounding athletes from some of the roughest neighborhoods in Florida, was a big part of the cultural and racial shift going on during that time complete with a hip-hop attitude and branded swagger.
26. We Live in Public
We Live in Public profiles the high and low times of Internet pioneer Josh Harris. Harris was part of the dot-com boom of the 90s, founder the website pseudo.com, an early Internet television network and became an established multimillionaire very quickly. Yet Harris used his early success to fund his passion not his business. His strange art projects were early adaptions of the reality TV we’ve grown to love, but his God complex was too much for the world the handle at the time.
27. The Cove
The Cove is a documentary by a group of activists who expose the inhumane practice of dolphin hunting in Japan. The winner of the 2010 Academy Award for Best Documentary is a call to action and eye opener to halt the mass killing of dolphins, change fishing practices and to educate on the public risk of mercury poisoning in their meat.
28. Dark Days
We sympathize with the homeless we see, but Dark Days sheds light on the homeless people in New York that live under the city in an abandoned railway system.
29. Monster Camp
The majority of people around the country were introduced to the world of LARPING (live action role playing) from the movie Role Models (Paul Rudd, Seann William Scott). However, years before that movie made its nationwide release, the documentary Monster Camp examined the fantasy life of larpers. This group from the Seattle Chapter of NERO exit the real world for 48 hours straight and transform their surroundings into a Dungeons and Dragons or World of Warcraft type fantasy world where they finally feel like they can be themselves.
30. This Film Has Not Yet Been Rated
We are all familiar with the movie ratings system; G, PG, PG-13, etc. Yet, we never think of how these ratings are established. No know really knows. The secret organization that gives movie ratings has no rules or regulations and can make or break a movie on the rating alone. Filmmaker Kirby Dick takes it upon himself to dig deeper into the film board and expose the people who are in charge in order to get the answers he’s been looking for.
Part 2 (31-60) coming soon. I haven’t seen every documentary in the world, so I apologize if your favorite isn’t on this list. I will do my best to continue to update this list the more I watch. Please, if you have a suggestion please leave it in the comments and I’ll do my best to watch it and add it where I feel appropriate.