34 Best Documentary Films Movies to Watch

Staff & contributors

, 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

Though the drag scene is alive and well today, Paris is Burning is an important reminder that it didn’t always used to be that way. Over the course of seven years, Director Jennie Livingston leads us underneath the crime-ridden streets of 80s New York, where a glittery drag subculture is flourishing, despite all odds. Leading the community are the so-called mothers, the best performers and most fashionable of them all, tasked with inspiring and caring for newcomers. Nevermind that they’re shunned by society and suffocated (sometimes literally) by hateful homophobes and racists; when there is a ball, all that matters is that they strut, dance, and put on the best damn show of their lives. What they do is art, and Livingston makes sure to exalt the craft and pride that goes into it. At the same time, intimate interviews with iconic queens like Pepper LaBeija and Willi Ninja reveal the heartbreaking nature of the community. Most, if not all, have endured some form of abuse, and many risk their lives to earn a decent living. But again, Livingston refuses to reduce them to pure tragedy; she gets them to share their wonderfully big dreams, then gets us to hope along with them that they might just come true.

Genre: Documentary

Actor: Dorian Corey, Kim Pendavis, Octavia St. Laurent, Pepper LaBeija, Sol Williams Pendavis, Venus Xtravaganza, Willi Ninja

Director: Jennie Livingston

Rating: R

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

This Oscar winning documentary is no standard film. Even by being beautifully crafted and having an amazing soundtrack--soundtracks are important--it does not miss its core story for a second. A delivery so good and so crisp that it will make you go "the sons of b" and "those motherf" more times than Joey from Friends got laid in 1999. On a more serious note, Inside Job is a great and complete technical overview of the financial meltdown. I know the word "technical" scared you there, but it shouldn't! The movie is simple, uses charts and colors for all of us who once thought figures and formulas were too complicated to understand -- it even makes you go, "hey, this is not so difficult to understand. Them motherf.' The movie is also very exciting: no spoilers but all I can say is that there are b*s trippin in there.

Genre: Crime, Documentary

Actor: Andri Snær Magnason, Ann Curry, Barack Obama, Barney Frank, Christine Lagarde, Daniel Alpert, David McCormick, Eliot Spitzer, George Soros, George W. Bush, Gillian Tett, Gylfi Zoega, Jonathan Alpert, Matt Damon, Scott Talbott, Sigridur Benediktsdottir, William Ackman

Director: Charles Ferguson

Rating: PG-13

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!

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., Paul Weiss, Ray Charles, Robert F. Kennedy, Samuel L. Jackson, Sidney Poitier

Director: Raoul Peck

Rating: PG-13

In 2005, Palestinian olive farmer Emad Burnat bought a camera to document the birth of his new son, Jibreel. But what was intended as an act of celebration quickly grew into something else, as Burnat inadvertently became a documentarian of the oppression his West Bank village faced when a wall was erected through it and Palestinian farmland illegally appropriated by Israeli settlers. As we come to witness, this reluctant pivot is just another example of everyday life in Bil’in being forcibly reoriented by the occupation, as Burnat captures the daily struggles of life in the village and charts the innocence-shattering effect the occupation has on young Jibreel’s burgeoning consciousness. 

Over his footage of encroaching illegal settlements, the arrests of Palestinian children in the middle of the night, the point-blank shootings of blindfolded and handcuffed peaceful protestors — plus tender snapshots of nature and joyful events in the village — Burnat delivers a poetic, reflective narration that miraculously ties these horrible and hopeful images together. It's this intimacy of perspective that makes 5 Broken Cameras profoundly harrowing and unexpectedly transcendent — a personal document of oppression that is also a testament to the miraculous persistence of the human spirit, the resilience of life and the urge to seek beauty even under truly awful circumstances.

Genre: Crime, Documentary, Drama, War

Actor: Emad Burnat, Mohammed Burnat, Soraya Burnat

Director: Emad Burnat, Guy Davidi

Rating: NR

Whether graffiti is art or not is the question guiding this fascinating documentary about the spray can-wielding artists of ‘80s New York. Wherever you come down in the debate — though this presents compelling arguments that graffiti is a medium worthy of critical attention — you’ll undoubtedly come away with a reverence for the kids who went hard with the paint on NYC’s walls and subway cars. Candid interviews with these young pioneers (whose cultural contributions are now less in contention) reveal that they’re not simply rebelling for rebellion’s sake: they’re largely motivated by a desire to make their mark on their beloved city — to stand out and have their work seen by the millions riding the subway every day.

The doc largely embeds itself with the artists, but it also interviews the “other side”: then-mayor Ed Koch and police officers, who were ramping up their aggressive “war on graffiti” campaign during filming. It’s clear that these interviewees have little interest in understanding what drives the kids to create their murals — a lack of curiosity that Style Wars blessedly counters. Not just a thoughtful contribution to its period and a fascinating time capsule, but also a thought-provoking reminder that art is art, whether it's made outside of the system or not.

Genre: Documentary, Music, TV Movie

Actor: Cap, Daze, Dondi, Ed Koch, Eric Haze, Gene Anthony Ray, Irene Cara, Kase 2, Rammellzee

Director: Tony Silver

Undefeated won an Oscar but since it’s a documentary, few sadly paid attention to it. It tells the story of a football team in a poor area in Tennessee. Kids without a bright future, until the new coach arrives. Yes, that sounds like a very old, cliché tale. But keep in mind it is a documentary, and the story it tells is powerful, gripping, and any familiarity quickly becomes irrelevant. Even if you have no interest in American football, or in sports in general, you will love it and more than likely find yourself reaching for the Kleenex at least a few times before the credits roll.

Genre: Documentary

Actor: Bill Courtney, Chavis Daniels, Montrail 'Money' Brown, Montrail 'Money' Brown, O.C. Brown

Director: Daniel Lindsay, T. J. Martin

Rating: PG-13

Asif Kapadia, the genius of biopics who gave us Senna, is back with this documentary on an even bigger sports personality: Argentinian soccer player Diego Armando Maradona. Considered as possibly the best soccer player of all time, Maradona's footage on the pitch is pure wizardry, and you'll feel that way whether you are a soccer fan or not. But that's not the focus of this documentary. What happens outside the pitch is more interesting: from Maradona's modest beginnings to the passionate hatred (and love) that entire countries develop of him. And it doesn't make his story less interesting that during his time in Naples he was affiliated with the mafia.

This is an excellent documentary that distills 500 hours of footage into 2, giving you all you need to know about a character who captured the imagination of a big part of the world for decades. 

Genre: Documentary

Actor: Alberto Bigon, Ciro Ferrara, Claudia Villafane, Corrado Ferlaino, Dalma Maradona, Diego Armando Maradona, Diego Maradona, Gonzalo Bonadeo, Maria Rosa Maradona, Pele

Director: Asif Kapadia

Rating: TV-14, TV-MA

To Kill a Tiger should not be an easy watch. It’s about the gang rape of 13-year-old Kiran, a girl whose small village has shunned and blamed her for “not knowing better,” and who is being forced by community leaders to marry her abuser to “erase the stain” on herself. But instead of leaning on sensationalism, Director Nisha Pahuja tells Kiran’s story with so much care and sensitivity that it feels refreshing and ultimately inspiring to watch. Pahuja hones in on Kiran’s relationship with her father, Ranjit, who stands by her daughter despite the pressure imposed by his community to do otherwise. The filmmakers note that he’s the rare man to pursue justice for his wronged daughter, and we can see through intimate conversations among the villagers, lawmakers, and social workers how brave and novel Kiran and Ranjit’s journey is. To Kill a Tiger is not an easy watch, but under Pahuja’s deft direction, the discomfort feels necessary, and the relationships heart-aching but uplifting.

Genre: Documentary

Director: Nisha Pahuja

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.

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, 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

“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.

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

The question mark in the title represents the central idea of this fascinating documentary: what if worshipping Satan is the only way of ensuring religious freedom for everyone?

That's what a group of young members known as The Satanic Temple believe, led by a determined and well-spoken Harvard graduate. They embark on a journey across the U.S. to challenge corrupt officials and the prevalence of religious biases in government agencies. They always request that their belief system (Satanism) is given the same favorable treatment as Christianity, effectively proving that authorities will really only accept a show of religion if it's one religion: Christianity.

But their intoxicating energy comes with costs: divisions within the organization and growing pains. This documentary perfectly illustrates not only a misunderstood religion (in the documentary it's referred to as "post-religion") but the difficulties of establishing grassroots movements in general.

Genre: Documentary

Actor: Anton LaVey, Bill O'Reilly, Billy Graham, Cecil B. DeMille, Chalice Blythe, Charlton Heston, Chris Hayes, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Geraldo Rivera, Greta Van Susteren, Jex Blackmore, Lucien Greaves, Malcolm Jarry, Mamie Eisenhower, Megyn Kelly, Mike Pence, Nicholas Crowe, Penny Lane, Rick Scott, Sal De Ciccio

Director: Penny Lane

Rating: R

What makes Apollo 11 stand out is its sharp minimalist approach, allowing the archival footage of the mission to the moon to speak for itself. It’s stunning to think that at one point or another we had collectively seen a bulk of the footage in this film, and yet somehow let it lay dormant until the moon landing had been reduced to black and white stills in our collective imaginations. Not only does this film reinvigorate the moon landing with the power that it once held, but it does so in a way that is more thrilling than anything the Marvel CGI wizards could muster. The vibrant score adds a layer of ferocious tension, while the breakneck pace gives the feel of a rollercoaster ride. If there is any fault to find here, it is most definitely with the film’s MAGA style yearning for a time and place that never existed. Spare us the teary-eyed patriotism and the clips of Nixon, a disgraceful criminal, and vile racist, yammering on about the world becoming one. Nevertheless, this is a fantastic example of why most biopics should just be documentaries and why the fanatical fear of spoilers is a tad silly. Spoiler alert: they land on the moon.

Genre: Documentary, Drama, History

Actor: Andy Aldrin, Bill Anders, Bruce McCandless II, Buzz Aldrin, Charlie Duke, Deke Slayton, Gene Kranz, Janet Armstrong, Jim Lovell, John F. Kennedy, Michael Collins, Neil Armstrong, Patricia Mary Finnegan, Todd Douglas Miller, Walter Cronkite

Director: Todd Douglas Miller

Rating: G