The 10 Best Smart Documentaries to Watch Now

Updated June 26, 2024 • Staff

There's a big difference between documentaries that present interesting information and documentaries that present things in an interesting way. The former can serve as great introductions to subjects you might not have known about before. But the latter can change the very way you look at the world through their analysis of specific issues, events, and people. Here at agoodmovietowatch, we'd like to make that distinction clear, by recommending 10 documentaries that are smart in the way they talk about a variety of topics—ensuring that, even if you're not entirely knowledgeable about these things beforehand, you'll find yourself connected to them in much deeper ways afterward.

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10.

Lakota Nation vs. United States (2022)

Using the documentary form with supreme clarity and righteous fury, Lakota Nation vs. United States distills hundreds of years of American history into two powerful, consistently engaging hours of film. The information presented in this movie has always been available to the public, but directors Jesse Short Bull and Laura Tomaselli do an excellent job at allowing these historical accounts and more recent headlines to cumulatively take on a truly emotional—almost spiritual—resonance. The enormity of the losses that Native Americans have endured physically, culturally, and economically is genuinely horrifying, and every new obstacle that the Oceti Sakowin peoples face feels heavy with the struggle of all of their ancestors before them.

Short Bull and Tomaselli stick to a generally conventional structure, but are able to weave together together personal stories and factual legal arguments through archival footage, majestic shots of the frontier, and the poetry of Lakota poet Layli Long Soldier. The whole film, then, begins to take on more of a lyrical quality—as if every tragic moment has permanently become part of the tapestry of Native life, impossible to forget and always driving efforts for reparation forward. Still the Native struggle continues, but with much more hope than despair.

Our staff rating: 8.2/10
Genre: Documentary, History
Actor: Candi Brings Plenty, Krystal Two Bulls, Layli Long Soldier, Nick Tilsen, Phyllis Young
Director: Jesse Short Bull, Laura Tomaselli

Free Watching Options:

Watch Lakota Nation vs. United States (2022) on Hulu for free
9.

On the Record (2020)

This searing allegation of sexual abuse against Def Jam Recordings' Russell Simmons unfolds with the intelligence and tenacity of a world-class prosecution. But more importantly, On the Record remembers to fight for a justice that's restorative, too—paying proper tribute to Drew Dixon and many other equally creative and talented women behind the scenes in the American hip hop industry. With every new argument it introduces, this documentary encourages us not only to be open to new information, but to rewire our very way of thinking about race, intersectional feminism, and the music business. It may be a bit of a cliché, but On the Record really does leave you smarter than when you started, with a heightened awareness of how the present moment is inseparable from our history.

Our staff rating: 8.3/10
Genre: Documentary, Drama
Actor: Shanita Hubbard
Director: Amy Ziering, Kirby Dick
8.

Disclosure (2020)

Disclosure is a patient and articulate study of the ways movies have physically conditioned us to respond to certain expressions of queerness with fear, disgust, or laughter. But it also serves as a reminder that trans bodies have been represented on screen for as long as movies have existed—making it all the more unacceptable that we still often only see reductive and harmful stereotypes of trans people over 100 years since the birth of cinema. However, Disclosure is far from a "takedown" designed to make viewers feel bad. At the end of it all this remains a celebration film's power to dignify perspectives we rarely get to see through, and it's one of the nerdiest and most passionate trips through film history you could hope to have.

Our staff rating: 8.3/10
Genre: Documentary
Actor: Ajita Wilson, Alexandra Billings, Alexandra Grey, Angelica Ross, Anne Heywood, Arsenio Hall, Barbra Streisand, Bianca Leigh, Blanche Sweet, Brian Michael Smith, Caitlyn Jenner, Candis Cayne, Candy Darling, Carmen Carrera, Cathy Moriarty, Chaz Bono, Chloe Sevigny, Chris Sarandon, Christine Jorgensen, Crystal LaBeija, D'Lo, Dana Wynter, Daniel Sea, Daniela Sea, Daniela Vega, David E. Harrison, Divine, Dorian Corey, Dustin Hoffman, Eddie Redmayne, Edith Storey, Elliot Fletcher, Eric Gurry, Esme Percy, Ethel Lloyd, Flip Wilson, Gary Collins, Georges Du Fresne, Glenn Close, Hailie Sahar, Harry Langdon, Henry B. Walthall, Hilary Swank, Holly Woodlawn, Jack Doroshow, Jackie Curtis, James Garner, Jamie Clayton, Janet McTeer, Jared Leto, Jaye Davidson, Jazzmun, Jean Harlow, Jeffrey Tambor, Jen Richards, Jessica Crockett, Jim Carrey, Joan Rivers, John Gavin, John Lazar, John Lithgow, John Lone, Julie Andrews, Junior LaBeija, Katie Couric, Kim Kardashian, Lady Chablis, Laverne Cox, Leo Sheng, Lesley Ann Warren, Lilly Wachowski, Mandy Patinkin, Marquise Vilson, Mary Badham, Matthew McConaughey, Mercedes Ruehl, Michael Blodgett, Michael D. Cohen, Michaela Jaé Rodriguez, Milton Berle, Mya Taylor, Nick Adams, Octavia St. Laurent, Oprah Winfrey, Paris Dupree, Pepper LaBeija, Peter Scolari, Phil Donahue, Rain Valdez, Raúl Juliá, Ray Charles, Robert Preston, Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle, Roscoe Arbuckle, Sandra Caldwell, Sean Young, Ser Anzoategui, Stephen Rea, Susan Stryker, Sylvia Rivera, T.C. Jones, Tim Moore, Tom Hanks, Trace Lysette, Veronica Redd, Vivian Vance, Wendy Williams, William Hurt, Yance Ford, Zackary Drucker
Director: Sam Feder
Rating: R
7.

Fire of Love (2022)

Fire of Love is a documentary that follows Maurice and Katia Krafft, a scientist couple who’ve dedicated their entire professional lives to studying (and marveling at) volcanoes. The two met at university and have been inseparable ever since, chasing explosions around the world until their death at the Mount Unzen eruption in 1991. 

The fiery passion the title refers to is as much about Maurice and Katia as it is about their dedication to volcanoes. Like any love story, it tracks how they were first wonderstruck by the formation and how that awe shaped their lives and led them to each other, as well as how they came to discover hard truths about it and dealt with the heartbreak that soon followed. 

Combining the breathtaking footage the couple left behind with lovely writing and artful animation, director Sara Dosa creates a moving documentary about passion, adventure, and the world itself. 

Our staff rating: 8.4/10
Genre: Documentary, Drama
Actor: Alka Balbir, Guillaume Tremblay, Katia Krafft, Maurice Krafft, Miranda July
Director: Sara Dosa
Rating: PG

Free Watching Options:

Watch Fire of Love (2022) on Hulu for free
6.

Taylor Mac’s 24-Decade History of Popular Music (2023)

A 100-minute highlight reel of the audacious 24-hour performance staged by artist Taylor Mac in 2016, this concert film succeeds not only in capturing the show's eclectic mix of songs, drag costumes, and interactive audience segments, but in capturing the emotional atmosphere conjured up in that Brooklyn warehouse. The very premise of the performance is ripe for analysis: a history of America starting from 1776, progressing one decade every hour, represented by selections of popular music of the time—which Mac questions at every turn, reinterpreting and reclaiming them for a contemporary queer audience. It begins as a creatively educational exercise, but gradually becomes more and more personal, until the audience is fully involved in the performances themselves.

Even the 24-hour format transcends its gimmick. That the show becomes an endurance test is deliberate, with bonds forming in real time and the exhaustion of this ever-changing drag performance conveying the weight of all this history on the most vulnerable and misrepresented sectors—who've already endured continuous losses decade after decade. And still there is cause for celebration, and genuine warmth among the people slowly becoming more vulnerable with each other over 24 hours. It's a beautiful, intelligent, frequently funny, and ultimately moving experience in a class all its own.

Our staff rating: 8.5/10
Genre: Documentary, Music
Actor: Anastasia Durasova, Heather Christian, Machine Dazzle Flower, Matt Ray, Niegel Smith, Taylor Mac
Director: Jeffrey Friedman, Rob Epstein
Rating: PG-13
5.

I Am Not Your Negro (2017)

In a stunning and vivid (re-) introduction to the Black intellectual, author, and social critic, James Baldwin, this movie digs very deep into the American subconscious and racial history. It tells the story of America by telling the story of “the negro” in America, based on a book Baldwin started to write, which would have studied the famous assassinations of three of Baldwin's friends: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. He wrote about 30 pages before he passed away in 1987. Haitian director and activist Raoul Peck picked up the project and made it into a movie, earning him an Academy Award nomination. Narrated by none other than Samuel L. Jackson, I Am Not Your Negro highlights, at the same time, Baldwin's genius, his unique eloquence, and the beauty of his soul as a human being. It is a sad truth that Baldwin's denouncements feel as relevant today as they did 50 years ago. As such, this movie serves as a sobering reminder of how far America still has to go. A mesmerizing experience!

Our staff rating: 8.9/10
Genre: Documentary
Actor: Bob Dylan, Dick Cavett, H. Rap Brown, Harry Belafonte, James Baldwin, Joey Starr, Malcolm X, Marlon Brando, Martin Luther King, Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers, Paul Weiss, Ray Charles, Robert F. Kennedy, Samuel L. Jackson, Sidney Poitier
Director: Raoul Peck
Rating: PG-13

Free Watching Options:

Watch I Am Not Your Negro (2017) on Hulu for free
4.

Exit Through The Gift Shop (2010)

What happens when Banksy, one of the most famous ambassadors of street art, meets Mr. Brainwash, an egocentric aspiring French artist? Well, one of the funniest, interesting and exciting documentaries ever made about art, commercialism and the apparent gulf between them. But is it really a documentary? This confident and zany film will leave you guessing.

Our staff rating: 9/10
Genre: Documentary
Actor: André, Banksy, Debora Guetta, Mr. Brainwash, Rhys Ifans, Shepard Fairey, Space Invader, Thierry Guetta
Director: Banksy
Rating: R
3.

Zero Days (2016)

Told in urgent fashion with first-hand accounts from cyber professionals from around the globe, Zero Days is a fascinating and alarming documentary about the Stuxnet computer virus. Originally codenamed “Olympic Games” by the people that fathered the worm, Stuxnet is a virus in the true sense of the word. It not only maliciously feeds off the host, but it also replicates itself as soon as it is implanted, which is exactly what it did when it was used by the US and Israeli secret services to sabotage centrifuges inside Iran's Natanz nuclear plant—making them spin out of control. All this is brilliantly unpacked by renowned documentary maker Alex Gibney (Going Clear, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room), who manages not only to detail the complexities of advanced coding in a remarkably evocative manner, but also to send out a well-researched alarm call about the future of war. Ultimately, the message here is that cyber warfare is very much part of our new shared reality. This film deserves to be seen by anyone who is even remotely concerned about global security in the 21st century.

Our staff rating: 9.1/10
Genre: Documentary
Actor: Allison Cohn, Barack Obama, Benjamin Netanyahu, David Sanger, Emad Kiyaei, Eric Chien, Eugene Kaspersky, George W. Bush, Hillary Clinton, Joanne Tucker, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Mikhail Gorbachev, Ronald Reagan, Sergey Ulasen, Tadashi Mitsui, Vitaly Kamluk, Yossi Melman
Director: Alex Gibney
Rating: PG-13
2.

Best of Enemies (2015)

Do today's political talk shows often feel like meek, scripted, and predictable affairs to you? Would you rather have that euphoric feeling you get when watching someone smart and eloquent talk about important ideas? Multiply that by two and you get Best of Enemies. In 1968, ABC covered the Republican National Convention in Miami Beach and the historic Democratic National Convention in Chicago by airing a 10-part series of nationally televised debates between two ideologically opposed and sharp-minded public intellectuals: Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley. The former was an ardent and openly bisexual liberal and progressive. The latter an elitist cultural conservative, whose magazine, National Review, vowed to always support the most far-right candidate viable for office. This confrontational set-up is not only credited with ushering in an era of pundit politics, but also with producing some of the most entertaining intellectual debate ever to be seen on TV. When's the last time you saw anybody unironically being called a “crypto-Nazi” on national television?

Our staff rating: 9.1/10
Genre: Documentary, History
Actor: Christopher Hitchens, Dick Cavett, Gore Vidal, John Lithgow, Kelsey Grammer, Noam Chomsky, William F. Buckley, William F. Buckley Jr.
Director: Morgan Neville, Robert Gordon
Rating: R
1.

Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond – Featuring a Very Special, Contractually Obligated Mention of Tony Clifton (2017)

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.

Our staff rating: 9.2/10
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

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