30 Inspirational Documentaries to Watch Now

Updated May 26, 2024 • Staff

Looking for a burst of inspiration get your new year (or any new phase of your life) started on the right foot? Fiction may provide a great, symbolic escape, but sometimes what you really need is to see real people doing the extraordinary or facing insurmountable odds and still having something beautiful to say about it. So don't listen to any naysayers who might dismiss documentaries as boring; some of the greatest stories of human perseverance and wonder come from these little-known nonfiction accounts. Here, we've gathered 30 of the best of these true stories that might just help you realize what you're capable of.

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30.

Film, The Living Record of Our Memory (2023)

It's impossible not to be moved by this passionate love letter to the medium of film and its singular abilities to witness, commemorate, connect, educate, and, yes, entertain. The Living Record is more than that, though: it’s also an urgent clarion call for better support of the infrastructure and people who preserve and restore the celluloid reels that contain so much of our history.

In two hours, it packs in a lot — perhaps even too much, because there is so much fascinating material here that it’s almost overwhelming to take it in all at once. The doc draws on a sweeping line-up of contributors who collectively illuminate every facet of the need for preservation and restoration, from archivists to filmmakers like Jonas Mekas, Ken Loach, and Costa-Gavras. Its scope is just as commendably exhaustive, featuring nuanced discussions of the dangers politics poses to preservation efforts, as well as the particular need for archives in formerly colonized countries to prevent “cultural amnesia.” Despite all the challenges it highlights, its tone isn’t hopeless, as the film draws strength from the tireless efforts of archivists and cinematic saviors like Martin Scorsese. It’s impossible to watch this and not come away affirmed or converted into similarly passionate champions of preservation.

Our staff rating: 7.9/10
Genre: Documentary, Drama
Actor: Ben Mankiewicz, Costa-Gavras, Fernando Trueba, Jonas Mekas, Ken Loach, Laure Adler, Margaret Bodde, Martin Scorsese, Patricio Guzman, Ridley Scott, Vittorio Storaro, Wim Wenders
Director: Inés Toharia Terán
29.

Albert Brooks: Defending My Life (2023)

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.

Our staff rating: 7.9/10
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
28.

A Secret Love (2020)

Even when it necessarily tackles the difficulties that are part and parcel of same-sex love in the 20th century, there’s something pleasant about the way A Secret Love is told. The documentary puts Terry and Pat’s love above all else, so even though we hear about how they had to tear the bottom pages of their letters to avoid getting caught, or how they had to split from close family members after coming out, things never feel too heavy or dire because at the end of the day, they’re still together, their decades-old companionship a beautiful example of how love wins. And aside from giving us an intimate look at this rare win for elderly closeted couples, A Secret Love serves as an insightful portrait of elderly life. Terry and Pat, with their perseverance and unyielding support, make aging look beautiful rather than scary. 

Our staff rating: 7.9/10
Genre: Documentary
Actor: Chris Bolan, Diana Bolan, Jack Xagas, John Byrd, Kim Donahue, Marge Summit, Pat Henschel, Tammy Donahue, Terry Donahue, Yvonne Zipter
Director: Chris Bolan
Rating: N/A
27.

The Saint of Second Chances (2023)

You don’t need to know a lot about baseball to appreciate The Saint of Second Chances. It has enough going on to keep you hooked from start to end, beginning with Jeff Daniels’ inimitable voice as the narrator and Charlie Day’s inspired casting as the younger Veeck, all the way down to the Veecks’ fascinating ties with American sports history and Mike’s inspiring and heartwarming second-chance philosophy. It all gets a bit too much at times, as if the filmmakers themselves were overwhelmed with their abundant material and creative decisions, but it’s executed with so much care and love that it seems as if this is the only way it could’ve come out: a wonderful mess. 

Our staff rating: 8/10
Genre: Documentary
Actor: Agnes Albright, Bill Veeck, Charley Rossman, Charlie Day, Dan Barreiro, Darryl Strawberry, Don Wardlow, Gary Private, Howard M. Lockie, Ila Borders, Jeff Daniels, Joel Spence, Kalup Allen, Lamar Johnson, Lee Adams, Max Kassidy, Oscar Jordan, Stewart Skelton, Tom Billett, Tony LaRussa
Director: Jeff Malmberg, Morgan Neville
Rating: PG-13
26.

The Resurrection of Jake The Snake (2015)

This journey is as much about Jake Roberts overcoming his addiction and damaged self-outlook, as it is about the heroic, life-changing efforts that DDP made to get him there. DDP's brand of aggressive wholesomeness and belief in Roberts is palpable, and the rawness of the presentation only accentuates how real this friendship is, and how urgent DDP's mission is—he will do this himself because no one else can. The documentary is inspiring with its vulnerability alone, as the underlying story is of men renouncing toxic behaviors that keep them looped into destructive habits. It doesn't waste time with fluff minutes or details, just straight to your heart from start to finish.

Our staff rating: 8/10
Genre: Documentary
Actor: Adam Copeland, Aurelian Smith Jr., Chris Jericho, Cody Hall, Dustin Runnels, Gene Okerlund, Jim Duggan, Jim Ross, Page Falkinburg Jr., Scott Hall, Steve Austin, Ted DiBiase Sr.
Director: Steve Yu

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25.

Maidentrip (2013)

In 2010, Dutch 15-year old Laura Dekker set out on a mission to be the youngest person to sail solo around the world. Maidentrip is the beautiful and inspiring documentary film that tells her story as she took on this behemoth task.

The film lets you experience this adventure of a lifetime along with Laura, share at first in her loneliness at sea, and later in her desire to be left alone when surrounded by people. Documenting her thoughts and feelings during this voyage, Laura reveals herself to be wise beyond her years. Yet despite the magnitude of the task Laura has taken in, her teenager self still glows clearly with its distinct child-like quality - simply wanting to do what makes her happy - sailing and seeing the world. The sheer honesty in Laura's narrative is what makes this story so extraordinary. You will accompany the young skipper against all odds as she follows her dream and in the process, lose and once again find her identity and sense of belonging. Maidentrip will leave you with an itch - an itch to travel, but more importantly, an itch to follow your dreams.

Our staff rating: 8.1/10
Genre: Adventure, Documentary
Actor: Laura Dekker
Director: Jillian Schlesinger
Rating: Not Rated, Unrated
24.

This Much I Know to Be True (2022)

Whether or not you're a fan of Nick Cave's contemplative, idiosyncratic style of music, This Much I Know to Be True still works on a purely experiential level. There's confusion, then a rush of euphoria, then an overwhelming sense of peace when listening to Cave's (and musical collaborator Warren Ellis's) cryptic lyrics and delicate compositions—shot with breathtaking use of studio lights by director Andrew Dominik and cinematographer Robbie Ryan.

And things only get more emotional when you consider how far Cave has come, that these performances are happening several rough years from the untimely death of his son. And suddenly even all the unrelated B-roll footage included in the film—of Cave talking about his sculptures, talking to Ellis, answering profound fan emails—takes on a greater urgency. This sounds like music for mourning, but in its own way it's music for celebration, too, and gratitude despite everything.

Our staff rating: 8.1/10
Genre: Documentary, Drama, Music
Actor: Andrew Dominik, Earl Cave, Marianne Faithfull, Nick Cave, Warren Ellis
Director: Andrew Dominik
23.

So Late So Soon (2020)

“Youth is a state of mind,” a poet once said — but, young in spirit though they are, the elderly artist couple at the center of this fly-on-the-wall documentary must confront the harsh reality that aging isn’t something the body can avoid. Jackie and Don Seiden — a yin-and-yang pair who describe themselves as “a mouse and a crocodile” — still argue and make up with all the fierce vitality of a couple half their age. They haven’t yet lapsed into living life through the rear-view mirror: both still actively make art, Don his sketches and Jackie her slideshows and found-object arrangements. They live in a creaking yet beautiful home, decorated exclusively in pastel colors; as Don puts it, they’ve “made a life that’s really unusual […] a life only [they] could’ve made.”

As his health issues — and the weakening of her ability to care for them — threaten the end of that 50-year-long chapter in their lives, the couple confront mortality and find it brings them holding ever tighter to one another. Their abiding mutual affection makes this documentary a moving portrait of enduring love, while their fiery intellectual verve gives it a sharp honesty that prevents it from ever lapsing into sentimentality.

Our staff rating: 8.1/10
Genre: Documentary, Drama
Director: Daniel Hymanson
22.

Uppity: The Willy T. Ribbs Story (2020)

“They called me uppity. Uppity n*****. And I loved it”. That’s how this excellent documentary, about the first professional black racing driver Willy T. Ribbs, starts. It summarizes the strong personality of a champion who excelled in tracks that were filled with confederate flags.

The documentary explains the details of the difficulties that Ribbs went through in the 70s and 80s, but also the people who supported him and recognized his talent. It’s by no way a sad movie, on the contrary, even when Ribbs is talking about people spitting wherever he walks or about the death threats escalating, his unharmed determination is at the center of the story.

This is an inspiring documentary about a character who never got his worth in the history books. I was full of shivers by the first half-hour mark.

Our staff rating: 8.2/10
Genre: Documentary
Actor: Adam Carolla, Al Unser Jr., Bernie Ecclestone, Bobby Unser, Chase Austin, David Hobbs, Doug Boles, Geraldine Ribbs, Ian Brown, Nate Adams, Paul Newman, Phillip Ribbs, Willy T. Ribbs
Director: Adam Carolla, Nate Adams
Rating: Not Rated
21.

Fifi Howls from Happiness (2014)

This incredible documentary is about the elusive Iranian artist Bahman Mohassess, whose work has the uniqueness of a Picasso or a Salvador Dalí.

But unlike his European counterparts, most of Mohassess’ work has been destroyed. Some in the aftermath of the Islamic Revolution in Iran but most, interestingly, by the artist himself.

After the revolution, he went into exile. For 40 years his whereabouts remained unknown — until an Iranian filmmaker based in Paris tracked him in a hotel in Rome.

Very early in the film, director Mitra Farahani points out that Mohassess died half an hour after one of their filming sessions.

The urgency of their conversations, the genius of Mohassess and his relationship to his art, and the uniqueness of the untold story of his life, all make this more than just another documentary. It’s a work of immeasurable historic value.

Our staff rating: 8.2/10
Genre: Documentary
Director: Mitra Farahani
Rating: Unrated

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