169 Best Instructive Movies to Watch

Staff & contributors

One of cinema’s greatest powers is to educate. If you want to plunge into the center of lives, industries and systems you might otherwise never know about, here are the top instructive movies and shows to stream now.

, 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

, 2017

Director Bryan Fogel, who you might know as the guy behind Jewtopia, initially set out to chronicle his exploration of doping to win an amateur cycling race. He starts off by reaching out to experts to help him with obtaining and administering said drugs, one of which points him towards Russian scientist Grigory Rodchenkov, the director of Russia's national anti-doping laboratory. Rodchenkov eagerly agrees to help him out.

Little did he know that his Russian acquaintance would transform Fogel film from a self-experiment documentary into a true-crime political thriller, when the scientist admits to being involved in a state-sponsored doping scheme of epic proportions on camera. Putin is obviously not amused.

Aside from all the madness that unfolds in this Netflix production, it's Rodchenkov's likeable and eccentric personality that makes the story more relatable and human as well as giving you a rare glimpse into the upper echelons of a country like Russia. As the plot thickens, one can't help but think that Fogel too is in over his head. Rightly award-winning, this is gripping stuff even if you're not into sports!

Genre: Documentary, Mystery

Actor: Bryan Fogel, Dan Cogan, Don Catlin, Grigory Rodchenkov, Jacques Rogge, Nikita Kamaev, Richard Pound, Sebastian Coe, Thomas Bach, Victor Webster

Director: Bryan Fogel

Rating: TV-MA

The first movie to be nominated for both the Documentary and Foreign-Language Oscar categories and the most awarded film of the 2019 Sundance Festival, Honeyland quietly accompanies the last wild beekeepers in Europe over three years. It portrays the lonely and primordial life of Muratova, which is centered around harvesting honey according to the rules of her ancient ancestors and caring for her ailing mother.

Originally planned as an environmental documentary, this film evolved into something completely different, as it often goes with immersive documentaries, when the Macedonian directors Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov met beekeeper Hatidže. The film takes another sudden turn when Muratova's life is upended by a nomadic family settling next door, threatening her tradition, her way of life, and her natural environment.

This unbelievable cinematic journey is a feast for the eyes thanks to the amazing work done by cinematographer Samir Ljuma. However, despite the awe-inspiring imagery, Honeyland never imposes on its subject, creating an incredible intimacy with Hatidže's life and her natural environment. Breathtaking!

Genre: Documentary

Actor: Hatidze Muratova, Hatidzhe Muratova, Hussein Sam, Nazife Muratova

Director: Ljubomir Stefanov, Tamara Kotevska

Rating: Unrated

After his first serious role in The Truman Show in 1998, Jim Carrey got a shot at playing his idol, the late comedian and performance artist Andy Kaufmann, in Man on the Moon in 1999. When he got the role, a role of a lifetime, Carrey decided to honor Kaufmann's legacy by transforming into him (and his alter ego Tony Clifton) and, in true method-acting fashion, never to leave character. Jim & Andy is the result of 100 hours of behind-the-scenes footage shot at the Man on the Moon set, which was withheld for 20 years over fears of Universal Studios that people would think Carrey was an a**hole. While Carrey was a complete and utter imposition to the film's director, Miloš Forman, and everybody else on set, including Danny DeVito, his transformation (or obsession) was a unique, transformative experience for Carrey, who had been sick of fame and acting before he took on this gig. Whether you buy into this view or see it as a vanity piece of a complete maniac, this is one of the most unique and insane documentaries on Netflix. A mind-blowing portrayal of a complex mind.

Genre: Comedy, Documentary

Actor: Andy Dick, Andy Kaufman, Bob Zmuda, Carol Kane, Chris Smith, Courtney Love, Danny DeVito, David Letterman, Elton John, George Shapiro, Hugh Hefner, Jerry Lawler, Jim Carrey, Jon Lovitz, Judd Hirsch, Michael Stipe, Milos Forman, Paul Giamatti, Peter Bonerz, Randall Carver

Director: Chris Smith

Rating: TV-MA

Living in the Material World tells the story of one of the most influential musicians of recent history, the “quiet Beatle” George Harrison. It is, in turn, told through the eyes of one of the most prominent filmmakers of recent history, the always amazing Martin Scorsese. Famous for his feature films, Scorsese has been a champion of documentary films and an avid maker of them. Drawing on archive footage, home movies, and many newly recorded interviews, including with Paul and Ringo, Eric Clapton, Phil Spector, and Terry Gilliam, he tells the complete story – and this is to be taken quite literally – of an indeed quiet, torn, and searching human being as well as an immensely talented, inspiring, and spiritual artist. This heart-felt and intimate 3.5-hour documentary is an awe-inspiring exploration of Harrison's time with The Beatles as well as his subsequent solo career as a musician and as a philanthropist. In case you had your mind made up on who's your favorite Beatle, Scorsese might make you rethink.

Genre: Documentary, Music

Actor: Astrid Kirchherr, Billy Preston, Bob Dylan, Brian Epstein, Cynthia Lennon, Dhani Harrison, Dick Cavett, Eric Clapton, Eric Idle, George Harrison, George Martin, Jackie Stewart, Jane Birkin, Jeff Lynne, Jim Keltner, Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon, Julian Lennon, Klaus Voormann, Linda McCartney, Louise Harrison, Mick Jagger, Neil Aspinall, Olivia Harrison, Pattie Boyd, Paul McCartney, Peter Harrison, Phil Spector, Ravi Shankar, Ray Cooper, Ringo Starr, Roy Orbison, Terry Gilliam, Tom Petty, Yoko Ono

Director: Martin Scorsese

Rating: Not Rated

Told in urgent fashion with first-hand accounts from cyber professionals from around the globe, Zero Days is a fascinating and alarming documentary about the Stuxnet computer virus. Originally codenamed “Olympic Games” by the people that fathered the worm, Stuxnet is a virus in the true sense of the word. It not only maliciously feeds off the host, but it also replicates itself as soon as it is implanted, which is exactly what it did when it was used by the US and Israeli secret services to sabotage centrifuges inside Iran's Natanz nuclear plant—making them spin out of control. All this is brilliantly unpacked by renowned documentary maker Alex Gibney (Going Clear, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room), who manages not only to detail the complexities of advanced coding in a remarkably evocative manner, but also to send out a well-researched alarm call about the future of war. Ultimately, the message here is that cyber warfare is very much part of our new shared reality. This film deserves to be seen by anyone who is even remotely concerned about global security in the 21st century.

Genre: Documentary

Actor: Allison Cohn, Barack Obama, Benjamin Netanyahu, David Sanger, Emad Kiyaei, Eric Chien, Eugene Kaspersky, George W. Bush, Hillary Clinton, Joanne Tucker, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Mikhail Gorbachev, Ronald Reagan, Sergey Ulasen, Tadashi Mitsui, Vitaly Kamluk, Yossi Melman

Director: Alex Gibney

Rating: PG-13

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

Co-directed and narrated by legendary German director Wim Wenders in collaboration with Salgado's son, Juliano, this unique film tells Sebastião Salgado's life story from his childhood in Northern Brazil, his early career as an economist, and how he shifted towards photography to become a world-renowned photojournalist. Shot in stunning black and white by Juliano Salgado and Hugo Barbier, The Salt of the Earth is a mesmerizing exhibition of one man's lifelong dedication to capture the suffering of humanity and of nature. Most famously, the nightmarish images of the teeming workers of Serra Pelada, a Brazilian mountain gold mine. While creating these images raises some ethical questions that Salgado was confronted with throughout his career, it is an utterly enthralling experience, upsetting at times in its frank display of war, death, and devastation. Ultimately, however, Salgado's elegance and kindness pull us back in and what we see is truth, awareness, and beauty.

Genre: Documentary

Actor: Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, Lélia Wanick Salgado, Régis Muller, Sebastião Salgado, Wim Wenders

Director: Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, Wim Wenders

Rating: PG-13

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

Between 1967-1975, a group of Swedish filmmakers traveled to America to document the Black Power movement. The resulting archival footage of Black activists and intellectuals, including Bobby Seale, Huey P. Newton, Eldridge Cleaver, and the amazing Angela Davis, was hidden in an archive until it was unearthed and woven together by Göran Olsson, a Swedish director. Angela Davis also supplies some contemporary voice commentary alongside many others, such as Erykah Badu, Harry Belafonte, and The Roots drummer and rap culture's No. 1 record keeper Questlove, who also co-scored the film. This adds to the mixtape feel of the film as does the raw and unfiltered piecing together of the historic footage, giving the viewer an authentic impression of the movement and the struggles of the time. Being Swedish, the filmmakers dared to go where American mainstream TV might have never gone.

Genre: Documentary, History

Actor: Angela Davis, Bobby Seale, Erykah Badu, Harry Belafonte, John Forte, Kathleen Cleaver, Melvin Van Peebles, Sonia Sánchez, Stokely Carmichael, Talib Kweli

Director: Göran Olsson

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

While billed as a “ramen western”, Tampopo satirizes plenty of other American genres, including, but not limited to: 1) the inspirational sports film, with Tampopo’s diligent training, 2) the erotic, arthouse drama through its egg yolk kiss, 3) the witty, social comedy pointing out the absurd in dinnertime tables, and 4) the melodramatic mafia romance with its room-serviced hotel getaway. But the film doesn’t buckle under the weight of carrying all these genres– instead, the customer vignettes are all delicately plated to balance out the hearty journey of a store owner learning about ramen and the bemused, yet cohesive contemplation about food. Tampopo is one of a kind.

Genre: Comedy

Actor: Akio Tanaka, Chōei Takahashi, Fukumi Kuroda, Gō Awazu, Hideji Ōtaki, Hisashi Igawa, Hitoshi Takagi, Hyōe Enoki, Isao Hashizume, Izumi Hara, Ken Watanabe, Kenso Kato, Kinzō Sakura, Kōji Yakusho, Mariko Okada, Masahiko Tsugawa, Naritoshi Hayashi, Nobuko Miyamoto, Nobuo Nakamura, Rikiya Yasuoka, Ryutaro Otomo, Toshimune Kato, Toshiya Fujita, Tsutomu Yamazaki, Yoriko Dōguchi, Yoshi Katō, Zenpaku Kato

Director: Jūzō Itami

Rating: NR

Andy Goldsworthy is a British sculptor, photographer, and environmentalist, whose art is specific to the natural locations he creates them in and made only from the natural materials he finds in them. This is putting it very technically: Goldsworthy is a solitary wanderer, absorbed in the moment, unworried about what comes after him. Using often only his bare hands, he creates fleeting works of art that often looks like nature itself could have created them. The opening has him calmly forming a spiral out of icicles using the heat of his hands to fuse the pieces together. As painstaking as this process is, his art is not meant to live forever. Once completed, it is handed over to the rivers and tides to do with it as they please. Directed, shot, and edited by Thomas Riedelsheimer, a German filmmaker, Rivers and Tides takes an in-depth look at Goldsworthy's ideas and craft, everywhere from upstate New York to his home village in Scotland. A calming and inspiring journey.

Genre: Documentary

Actor: Andy Goldsworthy, Anna Goldsworthy, Holly Goldsworthy

Director: Thomas Riedelsheimer

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