The word “documentary” may take you back to middle school, when earnest teachers would show the latest PBS or NatGeo program about a subject that couldn't keep you awake. But that was then, and this is now.
“Documentary” is no longer synonymous with “watch this because it's good for you.” The genre regularly tackles topics such as true crime, celebrity tragedies, sports figures, and, yeah, cute animals (and some not-so-cute ones, too). Some super-nerdy stuff as well, but these also have loyal followings.
A popular online film forum member recently admitted to having “this weird urge to watch documentaries,” and asked fellow cinephiles for suggestions. Most of them had docs they were dying to share with others. Here are 15 titles you should clear your schedule for in the next week or two.
1- Grizzly Man (2005)
This gripping film shows the story behind Timothy Treadwell, a man who believed he could live among and even communicate with grizzly bears in Alaska. Director Werner Herzog (Aguirre: the Wrath of God, Heart of Glass, Fitzcarraldo) mixed footage from and interviews with Treadwell with talks with bear experts who actually lived in Alaska.
2- Man on Wire (2008)
Don't watch this one if you're afraid of heights: Man on Wire is the story of a 1974 high-wire walk between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. Philippe Petit was arrested after his stunt, which took almost an hour. Director James Marsh staged it along the lines of a caper film, with footage of the prep work required for the daring feat.
Among other honors, Man on Wire won a Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, the BAFTA for Outstanding British Film, and the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.
3- Hoop Dreams (1984)
Steve James follows two black teenagers in Chicago recruited by a predominantly white high school, commuting 90 minutes each way to learn from a coach who once worked with Hall of Fame player Isiah Thomas. The two young men must deal with academic and family pressures while working toward their dream of playing in the NBA.
4- Searching for Sugar Man (2012)
This fascinating film concerns two Cape Town residents who, in the 1990s, wanted to find out whether Detroit-born musician Sixto Rodriguez had died and, if not, where he was. Why on earth would they care? Because for some reason, his music was trendy in South Africa, even though he never achieved fame in his own country.
Searching for Sugar Man won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature and the BAFTA for Best Documentary Feature.
5- Helvetica (2007)
An entire documentary about…a typeface? Yep. While the doc covers typography and graphic design in general, it really drills down on the Helvetica font, which was introduced in 1957. The film uses examples throughout the film to show how Helvetica has infiltrated pop culture and urban settings. One fan noted that the film highlights cultural shifts in the past seven decades, especially as regards advertising.
6- Grey Gardens (1975)
This sad and wince-inducing story of a once-rich mother and daughter living in squalor was named one of the 100 greatest documentary films of all time by PBS. They were the aunt and first cousin of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis. This connection makes their situation all the more perplexing.
Documentarians Albert and David Maysles encouraged the women to tell their stories, which has fascinated people for decades.
7- Amy (2015)
The life and sadly early death of singer-songwriter Amy Winehouse is the topic of this British documentary. It shows how her substance abuse issues began before she became famous, ultimately leading to her demise. The film goes beyond the headlines to provide an in-depth look at the human being behind the glamorous persona.
8- Paris Is Burning (1990)
It took Jennie Livingston six years to craft this painful, moving look at New York's ball culture and the gay and transgender communities who moved within it. Livingston explains the intricacies of a ball competition called “Paris is Burning,” primarily by letting the competitors define it.
As they deal with familial ostracism, discrimination, and danger, they work to create beauty, meaning, and a sense of family in their lives. Paris is Burning was chosen by the U.S. National Film Registry as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
9- My Octopus Teacher (2020)
This Netflix Original documentary does a deep dive (ahem) into the world of octopi that live in an underwater kelp forest off South Africa. Free diver Craig Foster spent almost a year filming his experiences as he learns how one friendly octopus eats, sleeps, and survives in an underwater kelp forest.
Content warning: If the end of Charlotte's Web was too much for you, know that this documentary has a similarly (un)happy ending. My Octopus Teacher won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.
10- Secrets of The Surface: The Mathematical Vision of Maryam Mirzakhani (2020)
Maryam Mirzakhani, an Iranian immigrant to the U.S., was the first woman to win the prestigious Fields Medal, akin to the Nobel Prize in mathematics honors. Her colleagues describe her math as “deeply beautiful,” and some believe that patterns and motifs in Iranian art helped her view mathematics in a new and different way. The documentary explains her contributions to the field in ways ordinary (non-genius) people can understand.
11- Buena Vista Social Club (1999)
German director Wim Wenders (Wings of Desire, Tokyo-Ga, and Paris, Texas, among others) based his documentary on an ensemble group of elderly Cuban musicians who perform in Amsterdam and New York. In addition to all the great music, the film includes interviews with the performers.
According to The New York Times, “the concert scenes find the stage awash in such intense joy, camaraderie and nationalist pride that you become convinced that making music is a key to longevity and spiritual well-being.”
12- March of the Penguins (2005)
This feature-length documentary shows a year in the life of Antarctic emperor penguins. The “march” refers to the annual inland trek that the birds make to their breeding grounds. It's a rough life for a penguin, and it was no cakewalk for the filmmakers, either: It's cold out there! March of the Penguins won an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.
13- Muscle Shoals (2013)
A slew of musicians (including Aretha Franklin, in her final appearance) show up in this documentary about the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio and FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. To name a few more: Bono, Percy Sledge, Jimmy Cliff, Mick Jagger, Etta James, Clarence Carter, and Wilson Pickett.
According to Rolling Stone, the artists' recollections are some of the best parts of the documentary as they describe the “funky, soulful, propulsive kind of groove” that arose from the Muscle Shoals influence.
14- The Imposter (2012)
The Imposter follows the 1997 case of a French scammer who claimed to be an American child who vanished a few years before. Although he was seven years older than the missing kid and had black hair and brown eyes instead of blond hair and blue eyes, he convinced his “family” to take him in. The New York Times called the documentary a “tragedy” that's leavened with “unexpected flares of humor.”
15- Nothing Compares (2022)
Set between 1987 and 1993, Nothing Compares follows the complex life of the late singer Sinead O'Connor. It's a contemporary feminist take on the singer's often controversial public persona, beginning with her abusive upbringing and the bewildering glare of the spotlight she faced when barely out of her teens.
According to a review on RogerEbert.com, the director and writers “want us to think about the way O'Connor's influence is reflected in today's outspoken female performers, a legacy they consider more significant than the Prince song about lost love.”
Donna Freedman spent 18 years in newspapers before quitting to go freelance. She created the Smart Spending blog for MSN Money, and her work has appeared on many top personal finance websites. Her writing has won regional and national awards. Now she lives and writes the frugal life in Anchorage, Alaska.