By Angel Uriel Perales
The last 15 years have seen an explosion and proliferation of the documentary film medium. Perhaps because of the relative ease of digital editing or perhaps because film festivals and film critics are finally giving documentaries their artistic due, the golden age of documentaries has blossomed and matured. What has also helped is that many universities have upgraded their film studies departments from history and criticism to actual production and have been training more budding documentary filmmakers. Furthermore, some production companies such as HBO Pictures, BBC, Discovery Channel, History Channel, PBS, and A&E have developed their own documentary film departments.
Excellent series such as “Life After People” (History Channel) and “The First 48” (AETV) have created episodic documentary gems in their own right. Both NOVA and COSMOS have returned as new documentary series and both are narrated by Neil deGrasse Tyson.
The following is an alphabetical list of 200 “must see” documentary films which every cinephile should watch. Some documentaries have won Academy Awards. Some documentaries, such as “Until the Light Take Us,” are relative unknown and hard to find. Some are short and barely an hour long. Some, such as “Secret of the Wild Child,” are episodes from television programs. And yet others are series in their own right and over 14 hours long.
The films are listed alphabetically by title, director, with a very brief synopsis.
1. 20 Feet From Stardom by Morgan Neville. The work of back up singers.
2. 4 Little Girls by Spike Lee. The 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama.
3. A Brief History of Time by Errol Morris. Life and work of Stephen Hawking.
4. The Act of Killing by Joshua Oppenheimer. The Indonesian killings of 1965-66.
5. Aileen: The Life and Death of a Serial Killer by Nick Broomfield. Crimes of Aileen Wuornos.
6. American Dream by Barbara Kopple. Exposé on Hormel Foods and labor abuse.
7. An Inconvenient Truth by Davis Guggenheim. Global Warming Crisis narrated by Al Gore.
8. Anima Mundi by Godfrey Reggio. Wildlife cinematography.
9. Anne Frank Remembered by Jon Blair. Life of Anne Frank.
10. Antonio Gaudi by Hiroshi Teshigahara. Life and work of Antonio Gaudi.
11. The Aristocrats by Penn Jillette and Paul Provenza. History of stand-up comedy.
12. Balseros by Carles Bosch. Cuban refugees during El Periodo Especial.
13. Baraka by Ron Fricke. 70mm travelogue.
14. Baseball by Ken Burns. History of baseball.
15. Battle for Haditha by Nick Broomfield. Haditha killings during the Iraqi war.
16. Before Stonewall by Greta Schiller. History of the gay rights movement.
17. The Bell Witch Legend by Zac Adams. Legend of the Bell Witch.
18. Bettie Page Reveals All by Mark Mori. Life of Bettie Page.
19. Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me by Olivia Mori. Music of the band, Big Star.
20. Biggie and Tupac by Nick Broomfield. Rivalry between Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls.
21. Blackfish by Gabriella Cowperthwaite. Abuse of captive killer whales.
22. Bobby Fischer Against the World by Liz Garbus. Life of Bobby Fischer.
23. Bowling for Columbine by Michael Moore. Gun culture and the links to the 1999 Columbine high school gun massacre.
24. The Brandon Teena Story by Susan Muska. Life and murder of Brandon Teena.
25. The Bridge by Eric Steel. Suicides on the Golden Gate Bridge during 2004.
26. Brooklyn Bridge by Ken Burns. History of the Brooklyn Bridge.
27. Buena Vista Social Club by Wim Wenders. Development of Cuban music.
28. Bukowski: Born Into This by John Dullagham. Life of Charles Bukowski.
29. Bush’s Brain by Joseph Mealey and Michael Shoob. Political ascension of Karl Rove.
30. Capitalism: A Love Story by Michael Moore. The 2008 financial crisis.
31. Captivated: The Trials of Pamela Smart by Jeremiah Zagar. Media sensationalism of the Pamela Smart case.
32. Capturing the Friedmans by Andrew Jarecki. Investigation of Arnold and Jesse Friedman for child molestation.
33. Catfish by Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost. A twisted cyber-romance.
34. Cave of Forgotten Dreams by Werner Herzog. Chauvet Cave pre-historical cave drawings in France.
35. The Celluloid Closet by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman. History of gay cinema.
36. The Central Park Five by Ken Burns. The Central Park Jogger Murder case.
37. Chicken Ranch by Nick Broomfield. The Chicken Ranch brothel in Nevada.
38. The Civil War by Ken Burns. Complete history of the Civil War.
39. Collision: Christopher Hitchens vs. Douglas Wilson by Darren Doane. Series of debates between Christopher Hitchens and Douglas Wilson.
40. Common Threads: Stories From the Quilt by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman. Profiles of people who died of AIDS.
41. The Cove by Louie Psihoyos. Dolphin hunting practices in Japan.
42. Cropsey by Barbara Brancaccio and Joshua Zeman. Staten Island child disappearances.
43. Crumb by Terry Zwigoff. Life of Robert Crumb.
44. Cutie and the Boxer by Zachary Heinzerling. Life of Ushio Shinohara.
45. The Dancing Outlaw by Jacob Young. Life of Jesco White.
46. Darwin’s Nightmare by Hubert Sauper. Fishing industry of Lake Victoria, Tanzania.
47. The Decline of Western Civilization by Penelope Spheeris. Los Angeles punk scene 1979-80.
48. Deliver Us From Evil by Amy Berg. Life of pedophile priest Father Oliver O’Grady.
49. The Devil and Daniel Johnston by Jeff Feuerzeig. Life of Daniel Johnston.
50. Dogtown and Z-boys by Stacy Peralta. The 1970’s Zephyr skateboarding team.
51. The Dust Bowl by Ken Burns. History of the Great Depression.
52. Encounters at the End of the World by Werner Herzog. People who choose to work in Antarctica.
53. Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room by Alex Gibney. Exposé on the crimes of the Enron Corporation.
54. The Eyes of Tammy Faye by Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato. Life of Tammy Faye Bakker Messner.
55. Eyes on the Prize produced by Henry Hampton. History of the Civil Rights Movement.
56. F For Fake by Orson Welles. The art forgeries of Elmyr de Hory.
57. Fahrenheit 9/11 by Michael Moore. Aftermath of 9/11 and the “War on Terror.”
58. The Farm: Angola, USA by Liz Garbus. Life in Angola maximum security prison.
59. The Fog of War by Errol Morris. Interviews with Robert S. McNamara.
60. Food, Inc. by Robert Kenner. Exposé on corporate farming.
61. Free Pussy Riot: The Movie by Natasha Fissiak. Incarceration of Pussy Riot members.
62. Gates of Heaven by Errol Morris. Profile of a pet cemetery.
63. George Harrison: Living in the Material World by Martin Scorsese. Life of George Harrison.
64. Ghosts by Nick Broomfield. The 2004 Morecambe Bay cockling disaster.
65. Ghosts of Abu Ghraib by Rory Kennedy. Prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib.
66. God Loves Uganda by Roger Ross Williams. US exported homophobia in Uganda.
67. The God Who Wasn’t There by Brian Flemming. Questions the historicity of Jesus.
68. Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson by Alex Gibney. Life of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson.
69. Grey Gardens by The Maysles Brothers. Life of Edith and Evie Bouvier Beale.
70. Grizzly Man by Werner Herzog. Death of Timothy Treadwell and Amy Huguenard.
71. Harlan County, U.S.A. by Barbara Kopple. Infamous coal miner strike in Harlan County, Kentucky.
72. Hated: GG Allin & The Murder Junkies by Todd Phillips. Life of GG Allin.
73. Hearts and Minds by Peter Davis. The Vietnam War.
74. Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse by Eleanor Coppola. The making of the film Apocalypse Now.
75. Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam by Nick Broomfield. Life of Heidi Fleiss.
76. Hitler’s Children by Chanock Zeevi. Descendants of top Nazi officials.
77. Hoop Dreams by Steve James. Follows NBA high school recruits.
78. Hotel Terminus: The Life and Times of Klaus Barbie by Marcel Ophus. Life of Klaus Barbie.
79. How to Survive a Plague by David France. History of ACT UP and TAG and the early days of AIDS.
80. Hype! by Doug Pray. History of Grunge and the Seattle music scene.
81. If God is Willing and da Creek Don’t Rise by Spike Lee. Aftermath of the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
82. Imagine: John Lennon by Andrew Solt. Life of John Lennon.
83. The Importance of Being Morrissey by Ricky Kelehar. Music of Morrissey.
84. In the Realms of the Unreal by Jessica Yu. Life and outsider Art of Henry Darger.
85. Incident at Oglala by Michael Apted. Siege of the Pine Ridge Reservation.
86. Inside Deep Throat by Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato. Legacy of the pornographic film, Deep Throat.
87. Inside Job by Charles Ferguson. Chronicles the 2008 financial meltdown.
88. The Interrupters by Steve James. Violence “interrupters” working in Chicago.
89. Into the Abyss by Werner Herzog. Crimes of teenager Michael Perry.
90. The Invisible War by Kirby Dick. Sexual harassment and assault in the military.
91. Janis by Howard Alk. Life of Janis Joplin.
92. Jazz by Ken Burns. History of Jazz.
93. JCVD by Mabrouk el Mechri. Life of Jean-Claude Van Damme.
94. Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child by Tamra Davis. Life of Jean-Michel Basquiat.
95. Jesus Camp by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady. Enforced Christian indoctrination of children.
96. Jim Brown: All American by Spike Lee. Life of Jim Brown.
97. Jodorowsky’s Dune by Frank Pavich. Alejandro Jodorowsky’s failed production of Dune.
98. Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten by Julien Temple. Life of Joe Strummer.
99. Jonestown: Life and Death of Peoples Temple by Stanley Nelson. Cult mass suicide in Jonestown, Guyana.
100. Just Another Missing Kid by John Zaritsky. Disappearance of Eric Wilson.
101. Keep the River to Your Right: A Modern Cannibal Tale by David and Laurie Shapiro. Life of Tobias Schneebaum.
102. Kevorkian by Mathew Galkin. Life of Dr. Jack Kevorkian.
103. The Kid Stays in the Picture by Nanette Burstein. Life of Robert Evans.
104. The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters by Seth Gordon. Breaking the donkey kong video game record.
105. Kobe Doin’ Work by Spike Lee. 2007-08 Los Angeles Lakers season.
106. Koko, A Talking Gorilla by Barbet Schroeder. Koko learns simian sign language.
107. Kon-Tiki by Thor Heyerdahl. The Kon-Tiki Pacific Ocean expedition.
108. Korengal by Sebastian Junger. Afghani war in the Korengal Valley.
109. Koyaanisqatsi by Godfrey Reggio. Travelogue with American landscapes.
110. Kurt & Courtney by Nick Broomfield. Life and death of Kurt Cobain.
111. The Last 48 Hours of Kurt Cobain by John Dower. Life and death of Kurt Cobain.
112. The Last Waltz by Martin Scorsese. Final concert of The Band.
113. Led Zeppelin: The Song Remains the Same by Peter Clifton. Led Zeppelin concert filmed at Madison Square Gardens.
114. Lenny Bruce: Swear to Tell the Truth by Robert B. Weide. Life of Lenny Bruce.
115. Lost in La Mancha by Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe. Terry Gilliam’s disastrous production of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote.
116. Man on Wire by James Marsh. Historic tightrope walk between The Twin Towers.
117. The Man Who Bought Mustique by Joseph Bullman. Life of Lord Glenconner.
118. Manson by Robert Hendrickson. Manson Family murder rampage.
119. March of the Penguins by Luc Jacquet. Migration of Emperor penguins.
120. Mark Twain by Ken Burns. Life of Mark Twain.
121. Mayor of Sunset Strip by George Hickenlooper. Life of Rodney Bingenheimer.
122. Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God by Alex Gibney. Pedophilia in the Catholic church.
123. Mondo Hollywood by Robert Carl Cohen. 60’s psychedelic counterculture in Los Angeles.
124. Mondo New York by Harvey Keith. Underground culture in 1970’s New York City.
125. Mondo Topless by Russ Meyer. Life of San Francisco strippers in 1966.
126. The Most Hated Family in America by Louis Theroux. The Phelps Family & The Westboro Baptist Church.
127. Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. by Errol Morris. Life of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr.
128. Nanook of the North by Robert J. Flaherty. Culture of the Inuit peoples.
129. Naqoyqatsi by Godfrey Reggio. Symphonic imagery focusing on technology.
130. No Direction Home by Martin Scorsese. Life of Bob Dylan.
131. One Day in September by Kevin MacDonald. 1972 Olympic Games massacre of Jewish athletes by terrorists.
132. Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism by Robert Greenwald. History of the Fox News Network.
133. Outrage by Kirby Dick. Hypocrisy of closeted gay politicians who support anti-gay legislation.
134. Pablo’s Hippos by Antonio Von Hildebrand. Pablo Escobar’s pet hippopotamuses and exotic zoo.
135. The Panama Deception by Barbara Trent. 1989 US invasion of Panama.
136. Paradise Lost by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky. The case of the “West Memphis Three.”
137. Paris is Burning by Jennie Livingston. Drag queen culture of New York City.
138. Party Monster by Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato. Crimes of Michael Alig and the Party Kids “scene.”
139. POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold by Morgan Spurlock. Meta-documentary about product placement in films.
140. Porn Star: The Legend of Ron Jeremy by Scott J. Gill. Life of Ron Jeremy.
141. Powaqqatsi by Godfrey Reggio. Travelogue focusing on world wide poverty.
142. Prohibition by Ken Burns. History of prohibition and the roaring 20’s.
143. The Queen of Versailles by Lauren Greenfield. Life of Jackie Siegel.
144. Radio Bikini by Robert Stone. Nuclear testing on the Bikini Atoll.
145. Reefer Madness by Louis Gasnier. Government anti-drug propaganda film.
146. Religulous by Larry Charles. Bill Maher exposes religion.
147. Restrepo by Sebastian Junger. Hardships of 2nd Platoon, B Company during the Afghani War.
148. Roger & Me by Michael Moore. Economic decline of Flint, Michigan.
149. Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired by Marina Zenovich. Life of Roman Polanski.
150. The Rough South of Harry Crews by Gary Hawkins. The life and writings of Harry Crews.
151. The Rough South of Larry Brown by Gary Hawkins. The life and writings of Larry Brown.
152. Sarah Palin: You Betcha! by Nick Broomfield. Featuring Sarah Palin.
153. Searching for Sugar Man by Malik Benjelloul. Life of Sixto Rodriguez and his surprising popularity in South Africa.
154. Secret of the Wild Child by Linda Garmen. The strange life of Jeannie, a feral child.
155. Sherman’s March by Ross McElwee. Quirky Southern culture.
156. Shoah by Claude Lanzmann. The Holocaust.
157. Sicko by Michael Moore. Exposé on the US health care system.
158. Silverlake Life: The View from Here by Peter Friedman. Poignant tale of two lovers dying of AIDS.
159. Smash His Camera by Leon Gast. Life of paparazzi Ron Galella and his obsession with Jackie Kennedy Onassis.
160. Spellbound by Jeffrey Blitz. 1999 National Spelling Bee.
161. Standard Operating Procedure by Errol Morris. Torture at Abu Ghraib prison.
162. Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures by Jan Harlan. Films of Stanley Kubrick.
163. Submission: Part 1 by Theo Van Gogh. Abuse of Islamic women.
164. Super Size Me by Morgan Spurlock. Exposé on the fast food industry.
165. Swimming to Cambodia by Jonathan Demme. Brilliant Spalding Gray live performance.
166. Tabloid by Errol Morris. Sexual crimes of Joyce McKinney.
167. The Ten-Year Lunch by Aviva Slesin. The Algonquin Round Table writers.
168. Theremin: An electronic Odyssey by Steven M. Martin. Invention of the theremin.
169. The Thin Blue Line by Errol Morris. Exoneration of Randall Adams.
170. The Times of Harvey Milk by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman. Assassination of Harvey Milk.
171. Touching the Void by Kevin MacDonald. Attempt to climb Siula Grande.
172. Trekkies by Roger Nygard. Fans of Star Trek.
173. Triumph of the Will by Leni Riefenstahl. Infamous Nazi propaganda film.
174. Tupac: Resurrection by Lauren Lazin. Life and death of Tupac Shakur.
175. Twist of Faith by Kirby Dick. Catholic church sexual abuse.
176. Two Towns of Jasper by Marco Williams. Murder of James Byrd, Jr.
177. The U.S. vs. John Lennon by John Scheinfeld. Life of John Lennon.
178. The Unknown Known by Errol Morris. Politics of Donald Rumsfeld.
179. Until the Light Takes Us by Aaron Aites. Bloody history of Norwegian black metal.
180. Valentine Road by Marta Cunningham. Murder of Larry King.
181. Vernon, Florida by Errol Morris. Eccentricity of the town of Vernon, Florida.
182. Waco: The Rules of Engagement by William Gazecki. Branch Davidian standoff in Waco, Texas.
183. The War Game by Peter Watkins. Predictions of life in England following a nuclear holocaust.
184. The War Room by Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker. 1992 Bill Clinton Presidential campaign.
185. We Were Here by David Weissman. History of AIDS in San Francisco.
186. West of Memphis by Amy Berg. Chronicle of the “West Memphis Three” murder case.
187. The West by Ken Burns. Life in the Old West.
188. Wheel of Time by Werner Herzog. Tibetan Buddhism.
189. When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Parts by Spike Lee. Aftermath of hurricane Katrina.
190. When We Were Kings by Leon Gast. The “Rumble in the Jungle” fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman.
191. Which Way Home by Rebecca Cammisa. Plight of undocumented immigrant children traveling to the US.
192. The White Diamond by Werner Herzog. History of Aviation as told by Graham Dorrington.
193. Who is Harry Nilsson (And Why is Everybody Talking About Him?) by John Scheinfeld. Life of Harry Nilsson.
194. Who Killed the Electric Car? by Chris Paine. History of the battery electric car.
195. The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia by Julien Nitzberg. The life of Jesco White and his entire family in West Virginia.
196. Wild Man Blues by Barbara Kopple. Woody Allen’s European jazz tour of 1996.
197. Woodstock by Michael Wadleigh. 1969 Woodstock Music Festival.
198. Wounded Knee by Stanley Nelson. Siege of the Pine Ridge Indian reservation.
199. Yo soy Boricua, Pa’Que Tu Lo Sepas by Liz Garbus. History of New York’s annual Puerto Rican Day Parade.
200. You’re Going to Miss Me by Keven McAlester. Life of Roky Erickson.