107 Best Social & Cultural Documentaries Movies to Watch

Staff & contributors

Get ready to cry your eyes out, scream in anger, but also rejoice at the powerful love that exists in our world. We will not spoiler the premise of this documentary and urge you not to do so yourself. Instead, we recommend watching it and prepare to be changed forever. Call it true crime if you will, but this documentary is much more. Hailed as one of the most important documentaries of the 2000s, it is a testament to friendship and love, a real-life thriller, and a political denouncement all in one.

Genre: Crime, Documentary

Actor: Andrew Bagby, Bob Bagby, David Bagby, Dr. Andrew Bagby, Dr. Shirley Turner, Heather Arnold, John Barnard, Jon Atkinson, Kathleen Bagby, Kurt Kuenne, Pat Bagby, Paul Barnard, Zachary Andrew Turner

Director: Kurt Kuenne

Rating: Not Rated

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

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

Orlando von Einsiedel's epic documentary is at once a stunning natural film, an intimate human drama, and an intense political thriller slash investigative report. The titular Virunga National Park, a UNESCO world heritage site in Eastern Congo, serves as the magnifying glass through which we witness the natural, human, and political crisis of this embattled and volatile region. There are poachers killing endangered gorillas, the bloody business of Big Oil companies, government forces fighting a myriad of militias, and, lastly, the three individuals struggling to protect Virunga and its mountain gorillas from death and destruction. The result is a snap-crackle-pop-type situation, like sitting on a powder keg. The film captures all this superbly with great editing, compelling real-life material, and gripping action. Virunga's intensity can rival a well-made fictional thriller any day of the week.

Genre: Documentary, War

Actor: André Bauma, Emmanuel de Merode, Mélanie Gouby, Orlando von Einsiedel, Rodrigue Mugaruka Katembo

Director: Orlando von Einsiedel

Rating: Not Rated

Joshua Oppenheimer's daring feat is a documentary unlike anything ever done. Despite it being one of the most difficult things to watch for any human being (or because of it), The Act of Killing received praise across the board, including an Academy Award nomination. Without Oppenheimer's efforts, you might have never heard of the unspeakable events that happened when, in 1965-66, Suharto overthrew the then-president of Indonesia and a gangster-led death squad killed almost a million people. Did they pay for their crimes? Quite the contrary: said gangsters went on becoming political mainstays in modern-day Indonesia, are still now heralded as heroes, and admit to all these crimes with a smile and not a hint of regret. The gruesome twist of this documentary is that Oppenheimer asks them to re-enact the killings in surreal, sadistic snuff movies inspired by the murderer's favorite action movies. You are forced to stand idly by as they re-create brutal mass murder and joke about raping a 14-year-old. However, somewhere amidst this terrifying farce, the killers, too, have fleeting moments of realization that what they're doing is wrong. If you make it through this in one piece, try watching its more victim-focused follow-up The Look of Silence. Bone-chilling but very powerful stuff.

Genre: Documentary

Actor: Adi Zulkadry, Anwar Congo, Haji Anif, Herman Koto, Ibrahim Sinik, Safit Pardede, Syamsul Arifin

Director: Christine Cynn, Joshua Oppenheimer

Rating: Not Rated

The Sanskrit word Samsara refers to the wheel of life and roughly translates to “continuous flow”. And, indeed, Samsara takes us on an entrancing journey, chronicling the never-ending cycle of birth, life, death, and re-birth that life, big and small, goes through—at least according to the religions that were born on the Indian continent. Shot on 70mm film and utilizing computerized camera movements as well as time-lapse photography, this film by American director Ron Fricke delivers absolutely breath-taking visuals. Whether it's awe-inspiring vastness or the close-up of a human face, its narration-less narrative integrates every aspect of human and natural life regardless of scale or location. The scope of this effort is truly awe-inspiring and the clarity of it has to be seen to be believed. An unusual and magical film!

Genre: Documentary

Actor: Balinese Tari Legong Dancers, Hiroshi Ishiguro, Ni Made Megahadi Pratiwi, Olivier De Sagazan, Puti Sri Candra Dewi, Putu Dinda Pratika

Director: Ron Fricke

Rating: PG-13

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 2009, Departures surprised everybody by winning the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, instead of everyone's favourite, Ari Folman's Waltz of Bashir. This is even more surprising since this Japanese comedy almost never saw the light of day because many distributors refused to release it at first for its humorous treatment of a very human, but weirdly taboo subject: what happens when you die. Daigo Kobayashi (played by former boyband member Masahiro Motoki) just bought an expensive cello when he learns that his Tokyo-based symphony orchestra is going bankrupt. Daigo and his wife Mika, played by Ryôko Hirosue, decide to move back to his hometown, where he applies for an opening at what he thinks is a travel agency, hence the departures. You might have guessed by now that what he was applying for was, in fact, the job of an undertaker—a profession considered unclean in Japan. It's one of those rare movies that will make you laugh, to making you cry, and laugh again. It's dead-on!

Genre: Drama

Actor: Justin Lukach, Kazuko Yoshiyuki, Kimiko Yo, Maisie Williams, Masahiro Motoki, Nina Dobrev, Ryoko Hirosue, Ryosuke Otani, Sanae Miyata, Scott Wilson, Takashi Sasano, Taro Ishida, Tatsuo Yamada, Tetta Sugimoto, Tōru Minegishi, Tsutomu Yamazaki, Tyler Hoechlin, Yukari Tachibana

Director: Yōjirō Takita

Rating: PG-13

Orcas killing people? Saving whales? There was indeed a time when these issues were frontpage news and that might be the reason why this sounds like a 90s cliché to you. You might agree that this issue should be staunchly dealt with once you've watched Gabriela Cowperthwaite's 2013 documentary. Orcas still being held captive by marine parks like SeaWorld to perform stunts and to parade around swimming pools to entertain ticket-buying families. Blackfish is the story of one of them in particular: a bull Orca named Tilikum, who has killed several people as a result of their immoral imprisonment. Similar incidents tend to be covered up by the parks' operators and management. They are, however, attributable to the fact that the animals are quiet simply driven mad by the unnatural conditions they are subjected to. They are not born as killers, they are turned into them. First-hand accounts by former whale trainers and experts deliver fascinating truths about Tilikum and the species as whole, elaborating on their remarkable intelligence and social behaviors. For those unaware of this, this passionate documentary makes for a chilling watch.

Genre: Documentary, Drama

Actor: Anderson Cooper, Carol Ray, Dean Gomersall, Gabriela Cowperthwaite, James Earl Jones, John Hargrove, John Jett, John Sillick, Mark Simmons, Mercedes Martinez, Nadien Kallen, Samantha Berg, Tamarie Tollison, Thomas Tobin, Tilikum, Whoopi Goldberg

Director: Gabriela Cowperthwaite

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

Director: Raoul Peck

Rating: PG-13

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

Though it’s without a plot, Faya Dayi nonetheless weaves a stunning, expansive narrative about khat and the people who farm it and chew its leaves for their hallucinogenic effect. The documentary seems to take place in the same hazy dreamlike stupor that khat-chewers chase: shot in luminous black and white, the film is set to a reflective rhythm that floats from folklore to contemporary stories of romantic heartbreak, migration, and oppression.

Largely featuring members of Ethiopia's Oromo community — a marginalized ethnic group — including the farmers and workers involved in khat production, Faya Dayi is a portrait of economic hardship, emotional pain, and transcendent escape that hits straight in the chest for all the rawness and yearning it depicts. (As disembodied voice-overs put it, “people chew to get away” to the khat-induced “empty and lonely hideout where no one can ever visit you, your own dark and lonely world.”) Full of textures and images that evoke all of the senses, this is virtually a 5D movie, a hypnotic out-of-body experience that floats an astonishing expanse of ideas into your head — no talky explanations needed.

Genre: Documentary

Actor: Biniam Yonas, Destu Ibrahim Mumade, Hashim Abdi, Mohammed Arif, Urji Abrahim Mumade

Director: Jessica Beshir

This bittersweet little documentary about a Parisian newsstand will change the way you look at a kiosk forever: they’ll no longer seem like transitory stops on the way to somewhere, but a destination themselves. Director Alexandra Pianelli, whose family has run this particular newsstand for four generations, shoots from inside the tiny cabin, from where she and her mother dispense newspapers, magazines, directions, and friendly conversation with anyone who stops by.

Anyone who’s seen Agnès Varda’s Daguerréotypes — her fond portrait of the traditional shopkeepers of Rue Daguerre, the street she lived on — will recognize the same warmth and humane curiosity in The Kiosk, which documents a quickly fading way of life and the community that clings to it. As Pianelli movingly shows us, the kiosk is an invaluable fixture in the lives of an assortment of locals: regular customers (particularly elderly ones, who perhaps visit more for the company than the magazines), a big-hearted homeless man, and fellow vendors like Islam, a Bangladeshi asylum-seeker and fruit-seller who uses the kiosk to hide his merchandise so that French police don’t confiscate it. The decline of printed material that the film documents isn’t just a threat to the family business, then, but the very concept of a truly joined-up society itself.

Genre: Documentary

Actor: Aliénor de Nervaux, Damien Fourmeau, Gérard Jacq, Marcel Cierniak, Marie-Laurence Fay

Director: Alexandra Pianelli

Despite the amusing specificity of its title, this lovely documentary from director Les Blank is really for all of us. Through the example of gap teeth — a physical feature many of the participants here report being made to feel self-conscious about — the film makes a rallying call to embrace ourselves and all of our physical “flaws.”

A big part of what makes this film so heartening is that so many of the women featured here (including model Lauren Hutton) have come out on the other side of loathing their gap teeth, giving us a tangible example of what it looks like to love yourself in spite of other people’s opinions about your body. What’s more, even within a limited runtime, Blank finds space to devote to exploring other aspects of the featured women’s lives — their art, professions, religious practices — and thereby quietly expands the film’s focus from physical beauty and onto the myriad beauties of life itself. It’s an ironic pleasure that Gap-Toothed Women ultimately refuses to define its subjects by the very feature described in its title, and instead gives us this life-affirming shot of wisdom for the ages.

Genre: Documentary

Actor: Lauren Hutton, Lauren Moore, Sandra Day O'Connor

Director: Les Blank

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