I love documentary films. Recently a few friends have asked for recommendations for documentaries to watch. The good news is I have a list of 40 fascinating documentaries; the bad news is that list is from 2012! It’s still a good list if you haven’t seen all the films on it, but I’ve seen a lot more great documentaries since then. (Definitely more than the additional 5 documentaries I recommended in 2014.) It was clearly time to make another list!
Below are 40 more fascinating documentaries that haven’t shown up on my other lists. I’m sure there are others I’ve watched and loved but forgot about, but I hope there is something here that catches your interest. I’ve tried to break them into categories, although some of these movies could fit in more than one group.
Biographies (and One Autobiography)
- Double Dare – The story of the real life stunt women behind the original Wonder Woman TV series and Xena: Warrior Princess and what happened when their paths crossed.
- Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon – You probably don’t know who Shep Gordon is, but he is a close friend of everyone from Alice Cooper to Emeril Lagasse to Mike Myers.
- Bright Lights – This charming and intimate look at the relationship between mother and daughter Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher will make you love them even more.
- Stories We Tell – Filmmaker Sara Polley tells her own story through highly candid interviews with her family.
- What Happened, Miss Simone? – The complex life of a complex singer
- Finding Vivian Maier – A Chicago nanny left over 100,000 photographs, but much about her remains a mystery.
- I Am Not Your Negro – Historical clips and James Baldwin’s own words are used to carry forward Baldwin’s powerful messages.
- OJ: Made in America – This 8-hour opus covers OJ Simpson’s entire life, not just his murder trial.
- The Kid Stays in the Picture – Creative animation techniques enhance this story of Hollywood producer and studio head Robert Evans.
- The Internet’s Own Boy – The tragic tale of technology prodigy and activist Aaron Swartz
- Citizenfour – The story behind Edward Snowden’s massive leak of NSA secrets
- Cobain: Montage of Heck – The life and death of Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain
- Tower – The story of the University of Texas Tower shooting presented with striking animation and eye witness interviews.
- The Witness – A woman was stabbed with an estimated 38 witnesses, none of whom came to her aid. Why didn’t they help her?
- The Keepers – A group of amateur sleuths have spent decades trying to find out the truth about the murder of a young nun.
- Wormwood – Director Errol Morris tells the story of a CIA agent who fell (?) or jumped (?) or was pushed (?!) out of a window. The film combines interviews, historical film, collage, and historical recreation with Peter Sarsgaard in the role of agent Frank Olson.
- The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst – This mini series about a real estate mogul who is a suspect in multiple unsolved crimes leads to a bizarre ending.
- Mommy Dead and Dearest – Is it ever justifiable for a daughter to kill her own mother?
- Making a Murderer – A man who was released from jail after being exonerated for a murder he didn’t commit becomes a murder suspect all over again
- The Wrecking Crew – One prolific group of session musicians backed Elvis, Sinatra, The Beach Boys, and more
- 20 Feet from Stardom – The stories of the incredibly talent back up singers behind the biggest stars
- One More Time with Feeling – An intimate look at Nick Cave’s creative process, darkened by tragedy
- Strike a Pose – A where-are-they-now about the dancers on Madonna’s Blonde Ambition Tour who became famous/infamous because of the movie Truth or Dare
- All Things Must Pass: The Rise and Fall of Tower Records – A history and celebration of the Tower Records chain of stores
- Gimme Danger – The story of punk band The Stooges and their lead singer Iggy Pop
- Obit – A personal look at the people who bring life to the dead as writers of obituaries for the New York Times.
- Very Semi-Serious – Get to know the frantic and frustrating process of submitting cartoons for The New Yorker.
Fashion and Costuming
- Women He’s Undressed – The fun and glamorous world of Oscar-winning costume designer Orry-Kelly
- The First Monday in May – A behind the scenes look at the preparations for a major fashion exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Cults and Religion
- Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief – The film version of the Scientology tell-all book
- Holy Hell – An inside look at a Hollywood cult and it’s charismatic teacher
- Hitchcock/Truffaut – The story behind an extended interview between two film directors and it’s influence on many directors since
- Jodorowsky’s Dune – A story of a bizarre and ambitious adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune that was, sadly, never made
- Jim and Andy: The Great Beyond – It’s about Jim Carrey. It’s about Andy Kaufman. It’s about Tony Clifton. It’s about the three of them converging in one body.
Bizarre and Miscellaneous
- Tickled – The bizarre world of competitive tickling (Yes, you read that right) is even more bizarre than you might think.
- Chuck Norris vs. Communism – How the black market for Western VHS tapes inspired people in 1980s Romania and made one woman’s voice the soundtrack for revolution.
- Plague and Pleasures on the Salton Sea – John Waters narrates a tour of the quirky remains of a former tourist hub.
- California Typewriter – A love story about manual typewriters from some famous and not-so-famous folks. I was so inspired I had to get a manual typewriter.
- Team Foxcatcher – The true story of John du Pont his bizarre life while supporting the USA Olympic Wrestling Team, and how a friendship with du Pont sealed the fate of wrestler Dave Schultz.
- Best of Enemies: Buckley vs. Vidal – The clash between William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal seems charming compared to modern conservative vs. liberal debates.