9 Best Movies to Watch by David Letterman

Staff & contributors
After his first serious role in The Truman Show in 1998, Jim Carrey got a shot at playing his idol, the late comedian and performance artist Andy Kaufmann, in Man on the Moon in 1999. When he got the role, a role of a lifetime, Carrey decided to honor Kaufmann's legacy by transforming into him (and his alter ego Tony Clifton) and, in true method-acting fashion, never to leave character. Jim & Andy is the result of 100 hours of behind-the-scenes footage shot at the Man on the Moon set, which was withheld for 20 years over fears of Universal Studios that people would think Carrey was an a**hole. While Carrey was a complete and utter imposition to the film's director, Miloš Forman, and everybody else on set, including Danny DeVito, his transformation (or obsession) was a unique, transformative experience for Carrey, who had been sick of fame and acting before he took on this gig. Whether you buy into this view or see it as a vanity piece of a complete maniac, this is one of the most unique and insane documentaries on Netflix. A mind-blowing portrayal of a complex mind.

Genre: Comedy, Documentary

Actor: Andy Dick, Andy Kaufman, Bob Zmuda, Carol Kane, Chris Smith, Courtney Love, Danny DeVito, David Letterman, Elton John, George Shapiro, Hugh Hefner, Jerry Lawler, Jim Carrey, Jon Lovitz, Judd Hirsch, Michael Stipe, Milos Forman, Paul Giamatti, Peter Bonerz, Randall Carver

Director: Chris Smith

Rating: TV-MA

I love when a misunderstood woman reclaims her narrative with her own words, and that’s exactly what Pamela: A Love Story is too, a tell-all documentary told by Pamela Anderson herself.

The documentary bares it all—the scandalous sex tape, Anderson’s troubled past, the disgusting misogyny that continues to tarnish her career. She even touches on the Hulu miniseries made about her demise (which Netflix must feel so smug about). But this isn’t a pity party. Just the opposite, the documentary is a testament to resilience. “My life is not a woe-is-me story,” Anderson says at one point, and truly, this is an inspiring and humanizing story about a woman taking charge of her own life. An absolute must-see.

Genre: Documentary

Actor: Barry Anderson, Brandon Thomas Lee, David Hasselhoff, David Hogan, David Letterman, Douglas Schwartz, Jimmy Kimmel, Julian Assange, Kelly Slater, Michael Berk, Pamela Anderson, Ruby Wax, Tommy Lee, Tony Curtis, Vivienne Westwood

Director: Ryan White

Rating: TV-MA

This charming documentary about one of the most brilliant, groundbreaking comedians alive strikes a delicate balance between accessible and deeply appreciative, making it both a great gateway for those yet to be uninitiated into the Albert Brooks fan club and a satisfying retrospective for us confirmed devotees. It’s directed and fronted by Rob Reiner, celebrated director himself and one of Albert Brooks’ oldest friends, and the choice is perfect: his rapport with Brooks is warm and easy, extracting real sincerity from the famously deadpan comedian-writer-actor-director.

Defending My Life features plenty of talking heads gushing about Brooks’ dazzling multi-hyphenate talents (among them Steven Spielberg and Sharon Stone), a standard convention for documentaries of this kind. But what elevates this into a portrait worthy of its subject are the scenes from a dinner shared by Brooks and Reiner, during which the former opens up about his childhood, reflects on his career, and divulges the autobiographical elements that informed his work. Their tete-a-tete flows with all the unforced rhythm of conversation between good friends; Reiner’s presence coaxes illuminating insight from Brooks, which makes watching the documentary feel as close to pulling up a seat at their table as you’d hope for. The 90 minutes just fly by.

Genre: Documentary

Actor: Alana Haim, Albert Brooks, Anthony Jeselnik, Ben Stiller, Brian Williams, Chris Rock, Conan O'Brien, David Letterman, James L. Brooks, Jon Stewart, Jonah Hill, Judd Apatow, Larry David, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Nikki Glaser, Rob Reiner, Robert De Niro, Sarah Silverman, Sharon Stone, Steven Spielberg, Tiffany Haddish, Wanda Sykes

Director: Rob Reiner

Rating: PG-13

There’s a scene early in the documentary when present-day Michael J. Fox, who famously suffers from Parkinson’s Disease, swaggers along a street and greets a fan, only to stumble at that very moment and have people surround him with concern. Instead of giving into their pity or pretending nothing happened, he cooly tells the fan, “It was so nice meeting you, you knocked me off of my feet!” 

This brief moment tells you all you need to know about the ‘80s icon—Fox refuses to be a victim. Still is his brilliant and admirable attempt at telling his well-known story on his own terms. It covers everything from his childhood and early work in Hollywood to his life-changing roles in Family Ties, Teen Wolf, and most memorably, Back to the Future. It also sheds light on Fox's life as a husband, father, and Parkinson's sufferer. Director Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth) does a genius job of using faceless reenactments and cuts from films and TV shows to accompany Fox’s narration, which pumps the film with a dynamism that matches Fox’s resilient spirit. 

Urgent, clever, and exciting, Still is one of the rare celebrity biographies that serves a higher purpose than just recounting a famous person's life. Anyone who understands the importance of constantly moving and evolving will appreciate this film's existence. 

Genre: Documentary

Actor: Angela Galanopoulos, Annabelle Fox, Chad Sayn, Christopher Lloyd, Crispin Glover, David Letterman, Donna Lysell, Eric Stoltz, Gary David Goldberg, Gene Siskel, Hannah Galway, Jason Calder, Jay Leno, Johnny Carson, Justine Bateman, Larry David, Liam Raymond Dib, Meredith Baxter, Michael J. Fox, Michael McDonald, Muhammad Ali, Rick Pearce, Robert Zemeckis, Roger Ebert, Shayn Walker, Siobhan Murphy, Steven Spielberg, Thomas F. Wilson, Tracy Pollan, Woody Harrelson

Director: Davis Guggenheim

Even if you’re a huge Broadway fan, you’ve probably never heard of the “industrial musical." While it no longer exists in practice, in the 1970s industrial musicals were shows that corporations commissioned for some of the biggest Broadway names to produce. The script would be based on the company’s offerings and history, and privately performed by real Broadway actors to audiences made up exclusively of company and factory staff.

Now, a documentary about industrial shows doesn’t scream “entertaining,” but to describe Bathtubs Over Broadway in such a manner would be selling it way short. It’s really about Steve Young, a comedy writer for David Letterman, and how his life changed when he found his first industrial musical LP when leafing through a crate of old records for a Late Night segment he was working on.

Ultimately, what makes this such an enjoyable watch is the protagonist’s enduring passion over what at first appears to be nothing but a niche obsession. But with time, as he connects with other collectors and the people who were involved in the original industrial musical productions, his passion breeds community and lifelong bonds. Even if you’re no fan of Broadway, this makes for a great pop culture documentary and an unexpectedly touching story of human connection.

Genre: Comedy, Documentary, Drama, Music

Actor: Chita Rivera, David Letterman, Don Bolles, Florence Henderson, Jello Biafra, Martin Short, Melody Rogers, Sheldon Harnick, Steve Young, Susan Stroman

Director: Dava Whisenant

Rating: PG-13

If you grew up watching Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, you may find yourself now humming along: It’s a beautiful day in this neighborhood, a beautiful day for a neighbor, would you be mine? Could you be mine? 

If you did not grow up watching this iconic children’s television program, you may still be familiar with its host, the late Fred Rogers. Rogers was an advocate for empathy and extending kindness toward people of all races, religions, and ages. He never talked down to the neighbors who paid him visits on the show, which aired from 1968 to 2001, even while tackling heavier subjects like grief, divorce, and loneliness.

Morgan Neville’s Won’t You Be My Neighbor best captures Rogers’ ability to build communities and make you, the viewer, feel less alone. Through interviews and archival footage, a clear portrait emerges of Rogers’ legacy and singular force of goodwill. Both the documentary and Fred Rogers’ spirit serve as reminders that each of us are worthy of love, exactly as we are.

Genre: Documentary, Drama

Actor: Al Gore, Ayden Soria, Betty Aberlin, Bill Clinton, Bill Isler, Brian Kilmeade, Christa McAuliffe, David Bianculli, David Letterman, David Newell, Eddie Murphy, Eleanor Way, François Clemmons, Fred Rogers, George Wirth, Hedda Sharapan, Hillary Clinton, Jim Rogers, Joanne Rogers, Joe Negri, Johnny Carson, Josie Carey, Junlei Li, Koko, Lorin Hollander, Lynden Liu, Lyndon B. Johnson, Major Hawbaker Manask, Margaret Whitmer, Max King, McColm Cephas Jr., McColm Kona Cephas Jr., Nick Tallo, Robert F. Kennedy, Susan Stamberg, Tom Junod, Tom Snyder, Yo-Yo Ma

Director: Morgan Neville

There is a lot to appreciate and learn from this work, which is a streamlined history of queer standup with so many enlightening stories. There is a LOT of standup footage and commentary from different eras, and different flavors between them evoking crass, feel-good, and revolutionary — which is reason enough to dive in. It’s got a self-assured tone to it, thanks to all the unapologetic and quick-witted figures telling their story and choosing to make it one of inspiration. In a word, it’s an informative celebration of queer standup comics, of tapping into empowered selves on and off-stage, reminding us that activism is always within reach.

Genre: Comedy, Documentary

Actor: Alec Mapa, Bill Clinton, Billy Eichner, Bob the Drag Queen, Bruce Vilanch, Carol Burnett, Cher, Conan O'Brien, Dave Holmes, David Letterman, Diane Sawyer, Eddie Izzard, Eddie Murphy, Ellen DeGeneres, Fortune Feimster, Gina Yashere, Guy Branum, Hannah Gadsby, James Adomian, Joel Kim Booster, Judy Gold, Lily Tomlin, Lucille Ball, Madonna, Mae Martin, Margaret Cho, Marsha Warfield, Matteo Lane, Patti Harrison, Richard Pryor, River Butcher, Ronald Reagan, Rosie O'Donnell, Sandra Bernhard, Scott Thompson, Sonny Bono, Susan Stryker, Tig Notaro, Todd Glass, Trixie Mattel, Wanda Sykes

Director: Page Hurwitz

Rating: R

, 2020

Frank Zappa's creative scope could barely be defined -  a mix of rock, composition, design, and in his early days even filmmaking.  This documentary does its best to summarize the un-summarizable, starting with Zappa's last time playing guitar and going back to early details like an infatuation with explosives as a kid. 

Zappa's overwhelmingly full life is focused on the documentary in the study of his incredible work ethic and unique creative philosophy. Far from the drugged hippie perception he was often met with, Zappa was hard-working, business-aware, and didn't take drugs.

The manifestations of his exceptional intellect and unique character are abundant in a film that will please his fans and send anyone new to him into a deep Wikipedia rabbit hole.

Genre: Documentary, Music

Actor: Adam Curry, Adrian Belew, Ahmet Zappa, Al Gore, Alice Cooper, Arsenio Hall, Arthur Barrow, Aynsley Dunbar, Bill Wyman, Brian Jones, Bruce Bickford, Bruce Fowler, Bunk Gardner, Charles Manson, Chester Thompson, David Bowie, David Dondorf, David Harrington, David Letterman, David Raksin, Diva Zappa, Don Van Vliet, Dweezil Zappa, Edgard Varèse, Euclid James 'Motorhead' Sherwood, Frank Zappa, Gail Zappa, George Duke, Howard Kaylan, Ian Underwood, Jean-Luc Ponty, Jerry D. Good, Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Carl Black, Joe Travers, John Belushi, John Lennon, Kathleen Sullivan, Kent Nagano, Lonnie Lardner, Mark Volman, Mick Jagger, Mike Keneally, Miss Mercy, Moon Unit Zappa, Nancy Davis Reagan, Nancy Reagan, Napoleon Murphy Brock, Pamela Des Barres, Patrice Zappa, Patrick O'Hearn, Peter Wolf, Pierre Boulez, Ralph Humphrey, Ray White, Ringo Starr, Ronald Reagan, Rose Zappa, Ruth Underwood, Scott Thunes, Steve Vai, Ted Koppel, Terry Bozzio, Tipper Gore, Tom Fowler, Tommy Mars, Václav Havel, Vinnie Colaiuta, Yoko Ono

Director: Alex Winter

Rating: Not Rated

Arguably Werner Herzog's most renowned film, Grizzly Man is a thought-provoking documentary about Tim Treadwell, a man who, as the title suggests, lived among bears. While he remained only known for how his story ended, by one of the bears turning on him, Grizzly Man is the exploration of the man's complex mind, unlimited energy and love for nature. It could be because of the subject matter or because of Herzog's mesmerizing monotone narration, and maybe it is because of both - but Grizzly Man becomes a supremely beautiful look at psychology and how it collides nature. Also like most of Herzog's other work it's a hunt for the peculiar, so expect many funny, absurd, and charming moments.

Genre: Documentary

Actor: Amie Huguenard, Carol Dexter, David Letterman, Franc G. Fallico, Jewel Palovak, Larry Van Daele, Marc Gaede, Marnie Gaede, Sam Egli, Timothy Treadwell, Val Dexter, Warren Queeney, Werner Herzog, Willy Fulton

Director: Werner Herzog

Rating: R