91 Best Biographical Documentaries Movies to Watch

Staff & contributors

It’s a testament to Agnès Varda’s remarkable ability to glean so much raw beauty and truth from the world that this autobiographical documentary is such a rewarding watch, even for people unfamiliar with her. The Beaches finds the pioneering director in reflective mode as she looks back at her work and life, but her artistic impulses are by no means stagnant: she approaches the past with the same — if not more of the — generous candor and youthful spirit that colored her career.

It’s also a testament to Varda’s inimitable artistic touch that she turns a usually-bleak subject — mortality — into something this life-affirming. The Beaches was made when she was 81, aware of her own ticking clock and still nursing the decades-long loss of so many loved ones (chiefly, husband Jacques Demy). Just as her grief-stricken reflections don’t overwhelm the film with sadness, the whimsical impulses she indulges here — like constructing a beach on the street in front of her office — don’t blunt the sharpness of her candor. The overall effect is bittersweet and profoundly inspiring: as with the mirrors she places in front of the tide in the film's first scene, she’s showing us it’s possible to face the inescapable with a twinkle in your eye.

Genre: Documentary, Drama

Actor: Agnès Varda, Gérard Depardieu, Harrison Ford, Jane Birkin, Mathieu Demy, Robert De Niro, Rosalie Varda

Director: Agnès Varda

, 2010

If you're not a fan of F1 racing, you might not know who Ayrton Senna is. If you are, there is no way you don't know. However, this 2010 British-French documentary packs so much thrill and emotion, you don't have to be a racing enthusiast to be engrossed by it.

So, who is Ayrton Senna? At a time when F1 cars were +1000HP fire-breathing monsters and the grid was stacked with world champions, the Brazilian racing driver rose above the rest to take 3 world championships and win the fabled Monaco Grand Prix a record 6 times. At the age of 34, a devastating car crash took his life.

Director Asif Kapadia develops a compelling, emotional, and exhilarating portrait of F1 racing and the man that was Ayrton Senna. He is still considered by many to be one the best and most exciting racing drivers to have ever stepped into an F1 car. The documentary too, is a thrilling pursuit: moving, psychological intriguing and absolutely nerve-wracking!

Genre: Documentary, History

Actor: Adriane Galisteu, Alain Prost, Arnaldo Jabor, Ayrton Senna, Bernie Ecclestone, Frank Williams, Gerhard Berger, Jackie Stewart, Milton da Silva, Neide Senna, Nelson Piquet, Nigel Mansell, Ron Dennis, Sid Watkins, Viviane Senna, Xuxa, Xuxa Meneghel

Director: Asif Kapadia

Rating: PG-13

American folk singer Sixto Diaz Rodriguez recorded two albums in Detroit in the 1970s, which he played live across the city, but never to critical acclaim or commercial success. Disappointed, he soon quit his musical career, bought a run-down house in the Motor City, and lived a simple life working in construction. So far, this sounds like the biography of many musicians that never quite made it, talented or otherwise.

However, a strange thing happened. By the mid-1970s, his albums were getting significant airplay in countries like Australia, Zimbabwe, and Apartheid-era South Africa, where he was soon considered a musical voice on par with the Beatles. While living a reclusive life in Detroit, Michigan, he unwittingly became a star on the other side of the globe. This engaged and visually appealing documentary by the late Swedish director Malik Bendjelloul tells his story and spells out a fascinating footnote of global music history.

Genre: Documentary, Music

Actor: Clarence Avant, Craig Bartholomew Strydom, Dan DiMaggio, Dennis Coffey, Eva Rodriguez, Malik Bendjelloul, Mike Theodore, Regan Rodriguez, Rodriguez, Sandra Rodriguez-Kennedy, Sixto Rodriguez, Stephen 'Sugar' Segerman, Stephen 'Sugar' Segerman, Stephen Segerman, Steve Rowland, Steve Segerman

Director: Malik Bendjelloul

Rating: PG-13

Simply titled The Imposter, this film by English documentary maker Bart Layton tells an unbelievable tale. Any plot summary doing this film justice has to err on the side of brevity, which is why it will be only one line long: this is the story of Frederic Bourdin, a serial imposter nicknamed “The Chameleon”, who at one time claimed to be the missing son of a family from Texas. The film is so well-shot that it is hard to tell fact from fiction at times and it will force you to remind yourself that this is in fact real life. Expect twists and turns at every corner and brilliant storytelling from real people. If Christopher Nolan created a 48-hour story, it would pale in comparison to this film.

Genre: Crime, Documentary, Mystery

Actor: Adam O'Brian, Adam O' Brian, Adam O'Brian, Alan Teichman, Anna Ruben, Carey Gibson, Cathy Dresbach, Charlie Parker, Frederic Bourdin, Ivan Villanueva, Ken Appledorn, María Jesús Hoyos, Mary Twala, Nicholas Barclay

Director: Bart Layton

Rating: R

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

Living in the Material World tells the story of one of the most influential musicians of recent history, the “quiet Beatle” George Harrison. It is, in turn, told through the eyes of one of the most prominent filmmakers of recent history, the always amazing Martin Scorsese. Famous for his feature films, Scorsese has been a champion of documentary films and an avid maker of them. Drawing on archive footage, home movies, and many newly recorded interviews, including with Paul and Ringo, Eric Clapton, Phil Spector, and Terry Gilliam, he tells the complete story – and this is to be taken quite literally – of an indeed quiet, torn, and searching human being as well as an immensely talented, inspiring, and spiritual artist. This heart-felt and intimate 3.5-hour documentary is an awe-inspiring exploration of Harrison's time with The Beatles as well as his subsequent solo career as a musician and as a philanthropist. In case you had your mind made up on who's your favorite Beatle, Scorsese might make you rethink.

Genre: Documentary, Music

Actor: Astrid Kirchherr, Billy Preston, Bob Dylan, Brian Epstein, Cynthia Lennon, Dhani Harrison, Dick Cavett, Eric Clapton, Eric Idle, George Harrison, George Martin, Jackie Stewart, Jane Birkin, Jeff Lynne, Jim Keltner, Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon, Julian Lennon, Klaus Voormann, Linda McCartney, Louise Harrison, Mick Jagger, Olivia Harrison, Pattie Boyd, Paul McCartney, Peter Harrison, Phil Spector, Ravi Shankar, Ray Cooper, Ringo Starr, Roy Orbison, Terry Gilliam, Tom Petty, Yoko Ono

Director: Martin Scorsese

Rating: Not Rated

If you don't know much about him or high fashion, don't fret because this intelligent and informative film by Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui will chaperone you into this world with ease. Simply titled McQueen, this documentary is a poignant portrait of the British fashion icon that goes to great lengths to do him justice. With a reputation for shock tactics and controversy, McQueen grew from humble beginnings in a British council flat with three sisters into a world-famous enfant terrible of the 1990s for his quote unquote unwearable fashion and extravagant shows. Music fans might recognise his designs from Bjork's album Homogenic or the music video to her song Alarm Call. Despite the documentary's scope and depth, this is the type of film that leaves you wanting more and you might find yourself browsing through Wikipedia and YouTube for another hour to stay in the vibe. Alexander McQueen died of suicide in 2010.

Genre: Documentary

Actor: Alexander McQueen, André Leon Talley, Bernard Arnault, Charlie Rose, Detmar Blow |, Grace Jones, Ian Bonhôte, Isabella Blow, Janet Jackson, Jodie Kidd, Joseph Bennett, Kate Moss, Magdalena Frackowiak, Naomi Campbell, Peter Ettedgui

Director: Ian Bonhôte, Peter Ettedgui

Rating: R

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.

Genre: Documentary

Actor: André, Banksy, Debora Guetta, Mr. Brainwash, Rhys Ifans, Shepard Fairey, Space Invader, Thierry Guetta

Director: Banksy

Rating: R

In All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, documentarist Laura Poitras (Citizenfour, My Country, My Country) lends her empathetic and incisive lens to a subject so passionate and imaginative, she ends up collaborating with Poitras to co-create the documentary about her life. The subject is Nan Goldin, one of the most influential photographers of the late 20th century. 

The documentary captures Goldin’s work as a queer artist and anti-opioids activist, intertwining both aspects to tell a nuanced and incredibly important story about freedom, identity, and self-expression. This incredibly complex, encompassing, and vibrant feature won the top award at the Venice Film Festival, besting 19 other films from around the world.

Genre: Documentary, Drama

Actor: Bernard Herrmann, Cookie Mueller, David Wojnarowicz, Harry Cullen, John Waters, Leonard Bernstein, Nan Goldin, Patrick Radden Keefe

Director: Laura Poitras

Nothing Compares weaves a poignant story about one of the most misunderstood artists of our time, Sinéad O’Connor. The iconoclast first made waves in the '80s with her catchy music, but she quickly reclaimed the reins of her own fame and used her platform to champion marginalized causes, long before pop stars were expected to do so. 

The documentary zeroes in on this part of O’Connor's life: what prompted her to music and how she used it as a tool of activism. The answers are multi-faceted and handled here with extreme grace. Like the many from her generation, O’Connor struggled with religion and abuse, such was the Catholic Church's hold on Ireland at the time time. 

The film contextualizes her once-shocking moments and reveals how they were all grounded on things she cared about. It’s a beautiful piece of work that reassesses and redeems a wronged artist who was ahead of her time.

Genre: Documentary, Drama, Music

Actor: Ariana Grande, Billie Eilish, Bob Dylan, Bob Marley, Chuck D, Gay Byrne, George H. W. Bush, Joe Pesci, John F. Kennedy, John Maybury, Kathleen Hanna, Kurt Cobain, Michael Hutchence, Peaches, Pope John Paul II, Sinéad O'Connor, Skin, Tim Robbins

Director: Kathryn Ferguson

Rating: Not Rated

This is an amazing documentary but be warned, the main character has some weird characteristics.

By coincidence, an art collector stumbles upon an undiscovered collection of sculptures and paintings that can only be described as the work of a genius. There was almost no reference to the artist, but upon research the collector finds that they are by a man called Stanislav Szukalski. He traces him down and finally locates him living anonymously in a California suburb. 

The documentary, Struggle: The Life And Lost Art Of Szukalski, is a collection of tapes from numerous interviews in the 1980s between the collector and Szukalski. He was helped by George DiCaprio, who would later produce this movie with his son Leonardo (!). 

In these interviews it becomes clear that Szukalski is pure genius. The funny thing is that he seemed to be well aware of this fact himself. 

Remember the weird characteristics I mentioned in that first sentence? Here we go. Szukalski’s past is full of a lot of antisemitism, sexism and bigotry. 

The question that lingers is how exactly can this forgotten-genius story be reshaped by the discovery of his twisted opinions. Can the artist be separated from the art? It’s a personal matter for the people who found Szukalski and later made this movie. It might never get as personal for you, but this movie will sure try to provoke an answer.

Genre: Documentary

Actor: Adam Jones, Charles Schneider, Gabriel Bartalos, George DiCaprio, Glenn Bray, James Kagel, Nick Tate, Rebecca Forstadt, Robert Williams, Stanislav Szukalski, Suzanne Williams, Timothy Snyder

Director: Irek Dobrowolski, Ireneusz Dobrowolski

Rating: TV-MA

This surprising documentary follows Jiro, an 85 year old Japanese chef, his Michelin-starred restaurant in the Tokyo underground, and his eager sons. While ostensibly about sushi – and believe me, you’ll learn about sushi and see absolutely gorgeous images of the raw-fish creations – the film’s dramatic impetus is carried by the weight of tradition, the beauty of a labor of love, obsession, and the relationship between father and son. Truly a must-watch.

Genre: Documentary

Actor: Daisuke Nakazama, David Gelb, Hachiro Mizutani, Harutaki Takahashi, Jiro Ono, Masuhiro Yamamoto, Yoshikazu Ono

Director: David Gelb

Rating: PG

The Tragically Hip was a deeply beloved band from Ontario that peaked in the 90s with hits like Grace, Too or Nautical Disaster. The Hip, as their fans refer to them, had just finished recording their latest album in 2015 when the lead singer was diagnosed with a fatal disease. This movie is about them deciding to go on one last tour to say goodbye to their fans and country. Mostly, it’s about the singer, Gord Downie, and how his personality and love for the music shined through his illness. Picture someone who is giving an immaculate performance despite being a few weeks away from death, and a packed stadium of people singing along in tears - this is this movie. It’s truly an incredible story of human ambition, empathy, and the bond that music can create between an artist and a whole nation.

Genre: Documentary, Music

Actor: Bobby Baker, Gord Downie, Gord Sinclair, Jennifer Baichwal, Johnny Fay, Justin Trudeau, Nicholas de Pencier, Paul Langlois, Rob Baker

Director: Jennifer Baichwal, Nicholas de Pencier

Rating: N/A