11 Best Political Documentaries Movies to Watch

Staff & contributors
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?

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

In this powerful documentary, Brazilian filmmaker Petra Costa intertwines her own family history with the democratic journey of her home country. As she says herself, Costa and her country's democracy are of the same age. This is not the only reason why she was uniquely positioned to make a film like this: her parents were left-wing activists in the 1970s, who went to jail for their beliefs, while her grandparents were part of the ruling class have made Brazil's strong-man politics and right-wing backlash possible. Her mother was held at the same prison that ex-president Dilma Rousseff (2011-2016) was sent to. Costa tells the story of Rousseff's demise as well as that of Luiz Inácio da Silva (2003-2011) aka Lula, whose future remains up in the air. The Edge of Democracy is thus a gripping and urgent warning that democracy in the world's sixth most populous country is under attack. In content and form, Costa is obviously opinionated, but she makes a strong point.

Genre: Documentary

Actor: Aécio Neves, Barack Obama, Dilma Rousseff, Eduardo Cunha, Elena Andrade, Jair Bolsonaro, Jean Wyllys, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Marisa Letícia Lula da Silva, Michel Temer, Nelson Mandela, Paulo Maluf, Petra Costa, Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom, Sérgio Moro

Director: Petra Costa

Rating: TV-14

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

This story of a filmmaker who stayed in Aleppo, Syria during the war, got married then had a child called Sama, is a mix of difficult and inspiring.

There are stories of unsurmountable loss, as the filmmaker’s husband is one of the 30 remaining doctors in Aleppo (a city of almost 5 million), and she films many of the victims that come to his hospital. But while this is happening, there are also uplifting stories of resilience and rare but profound moments of laughter and joy.

We’re growing too sensitized to violence in Syria, and this movie, possibly the most intimate account of the war, can stir back a much-needed awareness of the injustices that take place.

When things get really bad in the documentary, it’s hard not to wonder where the humanity is in all of this. You quickly realize that it’s right there, behind the camera, in Sama and her mother’s will to live.

Genre: Documentary, War

Actor: Hamza Al-Khateab, Sama Al-Khateab, Waad Al-Kateab, Waad Al-Khateab

Director: Edward Watts, Waad Al-Kateab, Waad Al-Khateab

Rating: TV-PG

Another fantastic documentary from 2012, this one tells the remarkable story of the 1992 Lithuanian Olympic Men’s Basketball team that received scant attention in the shadow of the renowned U.S. “Dream Team” of NBA superstars (Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, etc.). The Lithuanians’ story is all the more fascinating in that it comes immediately on the heels of their country’s freedom from Communist rule. With little hope of participating in the Barcelona games, they received the most unlikely last-minute assistance from the Grateful Dead, of all sources. A really great true-life story, told with an exuberance and a verve not often expected from non-fiction filmmaking. I challenge anyone watch this one and walk away uninspired.

Genre: Documentary, History

Actor: Arvydas Sabonis, Bill Walton, Chris Mullin, David Remnick, Greg Speirs, Jim Lampley, Mickey Hart, Rimas Kurtinaitis, Sarunas Marciulionis

Director: Marius A. Markevicius, Marius Markevicius

Rating: Not Rated, Unrated

Following a group of journalists uncovering an entire architecture of institutional corruption in Romania, Collective makes for an inspiring watch—not just because these people are pursuing a story outside their usual wheelhouse, but because their enemy really is so much greater than they can handle. Yet they continue chipping away, never once backing down from speaking truth to power. Director Alexander Nanau understandably might not have much access to the government's side, but he still manages to portray them as an ever-present, omnipotent invisible force, giving the film a thick atmosphere of dread and paranoia. But still, in the face of such overwhelming odds, the best thing to do is refuse to be scared into silence.

Genre: Documentary

Actor: Tedy Ursuleanu

Director: Alexander Nanau

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

The House I Live In is a truly exceptional documentary, directed and narrated by Eugene Jarecki, focused on America’s long-standing “War on Drugs”. Jarecki travels America to interview various individuals and families on both sides of the law, examining many personal experiences related to drug offenses, unjust legal policies and excessive incarceration. He further provides a fascinating historical account of the political and socioeconomic developments that brought about the formation of many depressed communities overrun by drug trade, as well as the interrelated political, legal and private-interest infrastructures that continue to both depend upon and profit from drug-related sentencing. An utterly stunning film that every American should see to truly understand all of the elements at play in the ongoing prohibition against drugs in America.

Genre: Documentary

Actor: Barack Obama, Betty Chism, Bill Clinton, David Simon, Dennis Whidbee, Eugene Jarecki, George H. W. Bush, Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, John McCain, Lyndon B. Johnson, Mark W. Bennett, Martin Luther King, Martin Luther King Jr., Michelle Alexander, Nancy Davis Reagan, Nancy Reagan, Nannie Jeter, Nelson Rockefeller, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Rudolph Giuliani

Director: Eugene Jarecki

Rating: Not Rated

On par with the best documentaries of the 21st Century thus far, “Requiem for the American Dream” is an essential viewing for the discerning viewer in search of a more complete understanding of how American society has evolved to such a dramatic point of polarization, and how both politics and big business have played a role in this process. In his introductory remarks to the film, celebrated intellectual and linguistics professor Noam Chomsky expounds: “Inequality has highly negative consequences on society as a whole, because the very fact of inequality has a corrosive, harmful effect on democracy.” Chomsky spells out his perspective regarding the modern political machine and the downfall of democracy, with a keen eye to the historical decisions and influences that have sabotaged the “common good” and shaped America’s current political, financial and social landscape.

Genre: Documentary

Actor: Noam Chomsky

Director: Jared P. Scott, Kelly Nyks, Peter D. Hutchison

Rating: Not Rated