Documentaries have a bad reputation, and that changes now. What some perceive as a boring genre is actually a home to some of the most inspiring, angering, joyful, and heartbreaking filmmaking. From grief to murder to fashion, the documentary genre has it all.
James Marsh’s 2008 documentary profiles French tightrope walker Philippe Petit, who famously walked between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in 1974. It is based on Petit’s book, To Reach The Clouds, and features interviews and footage of the stunt — as well as a look into the behind-the-scenes prep work that was done beforehand. Watching Petit retell the story behind his stunt and wax poetic about the way he needed to do something grand to feel personally satisfied with his craft is nothing short of inspiring.
Watch this if you want to feel: tiny, awestruck, creatively inspired
For fans of: Hugo, Amélie
2Exit Through The Gift Shop: A Banksy Film
The prolific and enigmatic street artist Banksy directed this 2010 documentary about Thierry Guetta, a street art-obsessed French immigrant living in Los Angeles. Rhys Ifans narrates the piece, and Banksy’s hidden identity is maintained through pixelation and voice-altering post-production. The film is an exciting look at its subject, but more so at the way Banksy sees the world and captures it.
Watch this if you want to feel: joyous, intrigued, mystified
For fans of: Trainspotting, Requiem For A Dream
*Trigger Warning* This 2015 documentary about the violent gang rape of a 23-year-old medical student in Dehli, India, is horrifying and heartbreaking. Filmmaker Leslee Udwin captures the horrible attack which killed Jyoti Singh, while also demonstrating the important legal and societal changes that came out of the violence.
Watch this if you want to feel: heartbroken, angry, ready to create change
For fans of: Elle, Half The Sky, He Named Me Malala
4The Thin Blue Line
Errol Morris’ 1988 true crime documentary explores the case of Randall Dale Adams, who was convicted and sentenced to death for shooting a teenager in 1976. The twist: Adams didn’t do it. The documentary explores the story of what really happened and the legal misconduct that shaped the trial. Considered one of the greatest documentaries ever made by many critics, the film features a score by Phillip Glass and will have you on the edge of your seat from start to finish.
Watch this if you want to feel: creeped out, thrilled, analytical
For fans of: The Serial podcast, Law & Order, Catch Me If You Can
5Dior et Moi
Belgian designer Raf Simons is profiled in this 2015 documentary by Frédéric Tcheng. The film follows the designer and his team as they create his first collection for French fashion house Christian Dior. Not only do you get an inside look at one of the most luxurious labels in fashion, you are pulled into the lives of the seamstresses and highly skilled teams who turn ideas into realities. Fashion documentaries are the best.
Watch this if you want to feel: visually stimulated, focused, impressed
For fans of: The Devil Wears Prada, The September Issue
6Finding Vivian Maier
John Maloof and Charlie Siskel direct this documentary about a mysterious nanny who took over 150,000 photographs of street life in Chicago, New York City, and Los Angeles during the ’50s and ’60s. When Maloof stumbled on a box of photographic negatives at an auction, he had no idea he would be revealing Vivian Maier’s previously unseen work to the world. Her hobby became her posthumous legacy, and the documentary is a testament to the importance of creating art even if no one is looking at it.
Watch this if you want to feel: nostalgic, emotional, excited
For fans of: Memento, The Virgin Suicides
Director Ava Duvernay’s critically-acclaimed documentary exposes the United States’ prison-industrial complex, which disproportionately affects black Americans. Her documentary investigates the ways in which the ideas of slavery have been perpetuated over time through subtle systems, mass-incarceration, and the war on drugs. The film is a foundational piece of the puzzle for conversations about race in America, and it is essential viewing for all Americans.
Watch this if you want to feel: frustrated, enlightened, empowered
For fans of: Moonlight, Selma
8Paris Is Burning
Jennie Livingston’s 1991 documentary about New York City’s late-’80s ball culture truly captures a moment in history. The film focuses on black, Latinx, gay, and transgender communities in the city, and the elaborately structured pageant-style competitions that united, and divided, those involved. The film also elegantly explores the issues faced by many in these communities: racism, poverty, homophobia, and the AIDS epidemic.
Watch this if you want to feel: melancholy, happy, mesmerized
For fans of: RENT, RuPaul’s Drag Race
Filmmaker Rodney Ascher explores Stanley Kubrick’s most notorious film, The Shining, in this fan-driven analysis of its many meanings. The film, based on Stephen King’s novel of the same name, is analyzed by critics and enthusiasts who believe that deeper meanings may be present beneath the surface-level plot. Ascher’s documentary provides an awesome dive into the brains of film fans, and is completely relatable to anyone who has ever been obsessed with a movie.
Watch this if you want to feel: conspiratorial, confused, amused
For fans of: The Shining, The X-Files
10Notes On Blindness
In 1983, just before the birth of his son, writer John Hull began to lose his sight. He tracked all of the changes he experienced on tape recordings and in writings, and this 2016 documentary bravely and boldly compiles and shares Hull’s experience with the world. Through interviews and the original recordings, we are pulled directly into the mind of a man who is losing his sight in adulthood.
Watch this if you want to feel: pensive, spiritual, reflective
For fans of: Mr. Holland’s Opus, A Patch of Blue
Rod Blackhurst and Brian McGinn direct this documentary about the infamous Amanda Knox, who was convicted and imprisoned for murdering her roommate while studying abroad in Italy. The documentary chronicles the story from start to finish, with footage and interviews with Knox in the present day. The film is inconclusive, and although Knox was acquitted after four years in an Italian prison, speculation still surrounds the case and its events.
Watch this if you want to feel: suspicious, intrigued, shocked
For fans of: Law & Order, American Crime Story: The People vs. OJ Simpson
12Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father
Ken Kuenne directed and produced this 2008 documentary after his close friend, Andrew Bagby, was shot by his ex-girlfriend. After the murder, she fled to Canada with Bagby’s unborn son, and the family attempted to have her convicted of murder. The film is primarily a love letter to Zachary, Bagby’s son, but it is also a close look at the lives of young friends and the deep, painful aftermath of loss.
Watch this if you want to feel: devastated, nostalgic, moved
For fans of: Rabbit Hole, Never Let Me Go, Atonement
13Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer
This 2013 documentary follows the three members of Russian feminist art collective, Pussy Riot, after they were arrested and faced with seven years in prison following a satirical performance in a cathedral in Moscow. The film provides an insightful look into Putin’s Russia, and the country’s feminist movement. It’s a girl-power documentary, but also a tragic one that exposes Russia’s government-encouraged misogyny.
Watch this if you want to feel: empowered, angry, inspired