14 Best Social & Cultural Docs Movies to Watch

Staff & contributors

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 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

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

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

Even if you’re a huge Broadway fan, you’ve probably never heard of the “industrial musical." While it no longer exists in practice, in the 1970s industrial musicals were shows that corporations commissioned for some of the biggest Broadway names to produce. The script would be based on the company’s offerings and history, and privately performed by real Broadway actors to audiences made up exclusively of company and factory staff.

Now, a documentary about industrial shows doesn’t scream “entertaining,” but to describe Bathtubs Over Broadway in such a manner would be selling it way short. It’s really about Steve Young, a comedy writer for David Letterman, and how his life changed when he found his first industrial musical LP when leafing through a crate of old records for a Late Night segment he was working on.

Ultimately, what makes this such an enjoyable watch is the protagonist’s enduring passion over what at first appears to be nothing but a niche obsession. But with time, as he connects with other collectors and the people who were involved in the original industrial musical productions, his passion breeds community and lifelong bonds. Even if you’re no fan of Broadway, this makes for a great pop culture documentary and an unexpectedly touching story of human connection.

Genre: Comedy, Documentary, Drama, Music

Actor: Chita Rivera, David Letterman, Florence Henderson, Jello Biafra, Martin Short, Melody Rogers, Sheldon Harnick, Steve Young, Susan Stroman

Director: Dava Whisenant

Rating: PG-13

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