11 Best Art Documentary Movies to Watch

Staff & contributors

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

“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.

Genre: Documentary, Drama

Director: Daniel Hymanson

This movie narrated by Nicolas Cage is the incredible story of actor Anton Yelchin (Star Trek, Like Crazy): from being born to a Jewish Russian family in Leningrad to moving to the U.S. and ending with his sudden death at age 27. Anton, or Antosha as his loved ones called him, was a gifted kid: he was making his own movies at seven years old, taking highly sophisticated notes on Fellini movies, and picking up playing guitar in a short time. He took photographs that still show in exhibitions around the world. He led an extraordinary life, portrayed here, one that was cut way too short.

Genre: Documentary

Actor: Anthony Hopkins, Anton Yelchin, Anya Taylor-Joy, Ben Foster, Bryce Dallas Howard, Chris Pine, Drake Doremus, Frank Langella, Guillermo del Toro, J.J. Abrams, Jennifer Lawrence, Jodie Foster, Joe Dante, John Cho, Jon Poll, Jon Voight, Kristen Stewart, Martin Landau, Nicolas Cage, Simon Pegg, Sofia Boutella, Willem Dafoe, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana

Director: Garret Price

Rating: R

Widely regarded as one of the finest concert movies of all time, Stop Making Sense depicts musical innovators The Talking Heads at the height of their game. Directed by Jonathan Demme (The Silence of the Lambs, Philadelphia), and starring the eccentric and energetic David Byrne, the show is a marvel of perfectly executed choreography and mid-eighties musicality. Halfway through the set, one might think they've heard all of the hits, but they keep coming and coming. Before Beyonce was Queen, before Bieber was conceived, this film shows what is capable with a camera, a guitar, and some genius.

Genre: Documentary, Music

Actor: Alex Weir, Bernie Worrell, Chris Frantz, David Byrne, Ednah Holt, Jerry Harrison, Lynn Mabry, Steven Scales, Tina Weymouth

Director: Jonathan Demme

Rating: PG

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.

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

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

Vivian Maier was a French-American photographer whose art, like many of the greats, only gained widespread success after her death. Most of her life was spent working as a maid for families in Chicago. Her masterpieces were only introduced to the world when the director of this documentary purchased a box of her negatives. This movie is about him trying to put together the pieces and retrace her life by interviewing the people that knew her. Right from the beginning of this documentary her photos will have you in awe. They gave me chills and made me feel exactly what I needed to feel to understand each photo. Cue Vivian’s unexpected dark side along with really messed up backstory, I was completely absorbed. Interviews, along with Vivian’s own photos and home videos show the complexity and mystery of the artist.

Genre: Documentary

Actor: Daniel Arnaud, John Maloof, Mary Ellen Mark, Phil Donahue, Sarah Matthews-Ludington, Simon Amede, Tim Roth, Vivian Maier

Director: Charlie Siskel, John Maloof

Rating: Not Rated

If you were on the Internet around 2015, you might be familiar with the viral phenomenon that is Wakaliwood, a “slum” neighborhood of Kampala, Uganda from where self-taught director Isaac Nabwana churns out bombastic DIY action comedies. Though they rack up online views in the millions, Isaac’s low-budget films weren’t money-makers due to a lack of proper distribution — something Alan Hofmanis, a Wakaliwood superfan and well-meaning New York-based publicist, wanted to help change.

Once Upon a Time chronicles the ups and somewhat perplexing downs of Isaac and Alan’s partnership, but their murky beef doesn’t detract too much from the documentary’s greatest strength, which is its showcasing of the scrappy spirit shared by Isaac and his volunteer collaborators: the actors who gleefully throw themselves in the mud for him, the “voice jokers” who provide riotous live narration at his screenings, and the props man who can jerry-rig just about anything his scripts call for. As Isaac points out, filmmaking is a business in the rest of the world — in Wakaliwood, it’s a passion. If Once Upon a Time does one thing, it’s faithfully transmit Isaac’s pure love for the craft — and, in doing so, reinvigorate us with the infectious joy that animates all of his movies.

Genre: Documentary, Drama

Actor: Alan Hofmanis, Nabwana IGG, V.J. Emmie

Director: Cathryne Czubek

Producer/Director Beth Kargman has put together a wonderful documentary that follows six young ballet dancers to the Youth America Grand Prix, one of the most important of all ballet competitions worldwide. The prizes at the competition include awards of recognition, scholarships, and work with major dance companies. The dancers are in several age ranges and ethnicities. Michaela and her sister were adopted from Sierra Leone, where there was nothing but death and poverty waiting for them. Michaela has been told that blacks make unsuitable ballet dancers -- bad feet, too muscular, wrong build, etc. Zamora lives in New York, far away from his family, but his father tells him there is nothing for him in Colombia and he has to go after his dream. Rebecca is a cheerleader and a 'normal' kid whose passion is dance, and Aaron doesn't tell other kids he's a dancer. All of them have great talents, obvious from their dance routines at the Grand Prix. First Position is a very inspiring documentary about youngsters from different backgrounds and social status with the dream of dancing professionally, and the sacrifices they have made to achieve their goal. The dancing is heavenly; I only wish there had been more of it.

Genre: Comedy, Documentary, Drama

Actor: Aran Bell, Gaya Bommer Yemini, Joan Sebastian Zamora, Jules Jarvis Fogarty, Michaela Deprince, Miko Fogarty, Rebecca Houseknecht

Director: Bess Kargman

Rating: Not Rated

, 1994

Notorious comic artist Robert (R.) Crumb is definitely the most well-adjusted member of his immediate family. Fairly early in this documentary we are introduced to his two sibling brothers (mom is briefly viewed as well) and it becomes apparent that his childhood was less than rosy. Crumb and his brothers drew mind-blowing comics as an escape from their chaotic childhood, but it was only R. who would turn his talents into a means of permanent escape, while his oldest brother remains at home with his mom and never leaves the house, and his youngest brother is holed up in a seedy residence hotel and spends his days sitting on a bed of nails (I kid you not.) Whether or not you’re a fan of Crumb’s work, this is an amazing documentary about an eccentric individual and the world of underground comics.

Genre: Comedy, Documentary

Actor: Aline Kominsky, Charles Crumb, Robert Crumb, Robert Hughes

Director: Terry Zwigoff

Rating: R

Hipgnosis’s body of work is so rich, brilliant, and recognizable, that it’s hard not to at least sit in awe as they flash by you in this documentary. The accompanying stories behind their creation, sometimes told by Thorgerson and Powell, other times by their musician clients like Jimmy Page and Paul McCartney, are also pleasant and informative enough to paint, in whole, an interesting picture. But apart from the covers themselves, Squaring the Circle doesn’t have much else going for it. The co-founders’ history is too brief and plain to render drama, and their upbringing too upper-class and male to be relatable. A more broad, ambitious goal would’ve been to parallel the history of these artworks with the history of rock music itself, but this niche documentary seems uninterested in explaining itself to outsiders and newcomers. That said, it still serves as a precious account for those familiar with Hipgnosis’ pieces. 

Genre: Documentary, Music

Actor: David Gilmour, Jimmy Page, Nick Mason, Noel Gallagher, Paul McCartney, Peter Gabriel, Robert Plant, Roger Waters

Director: Anton Corbijn