The Best Documentaries + What I’ve Watched Lately
Documentaries are powerful. You get a real glimpse into someone's history, a decision that changed everything, or capture the raw essence of a feeling. It's also a great way to uncover the truth. I'm a big fan of historical entertainment. It helps me understand an event or person.
I'm sharing the best documentaries that I've seen, plus the movies that I've watched lately that I recommend. Sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction and these documentaries are some of the most incredible. Giving us a deeper look at the truth and keeping us on our toes.
I'm ordering these from favorites on down to least favorites, but all of these are worth watching.
Something is certainly in the water in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Since the 1960s this small town has cranked out some of the biggest hits the world has come to know. Artists such as The Rolling Stones, Aretha Franklin, George Michael, Wilson Pickett, Willie Nelson, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Joe Cocker, Levon Helm, Paul Simon, Bob Seger, Rod Stewart, and Cat Stevens have recorded here with the “Swampers” studio band. You might recognize the name, Lynyrd Skynrd's hit “Sweet Home Alabama” recites “Now Muscle Shoals has got the Swampers.” What makes this small town so magical for music? The documentary seeks to find out.
Cults are fascinating to me, but this one takes the cake. This series on Netflix plays out like a movie and I sometimes forgot I was even watching a documentary. Indian Guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (Osho) and his one-time personal assistant Ma Anand Sheela, move their community of followers to a little town in Oregon. Essentially, the Rajneeshpuram overtake the town and we get an inside look of the crazy, yet brilliant minds of the people who subjugate themselves to living in these strange conditions and the lengths they will go to keep their cult in tact.
Two cult documentaries in a row? Yes, it's that good. Most of us are familiar with the disaster that happened in the 90s with David Koresh and his followers who perished in a fire when the FBI tried to take down his cult. The documentary series is told expertly from two sides: one of the people who survived the fire and who was in the cult, and the lead FBI negotiator who was on the ground. We get wild look at the rocker cult leader and how things went so horribly wrong. So, not technically a documentary but close enough for me.
Music is so incredibly important to our history and our culture. I admit, I haven't been the biggest country music fan. But this documentary changed my mind completely. Ken Burns is one of the greatest documentarians of all time and the way he includes stories from the artists, explains the roots, and shares how this music shaped America is fascinating. I learned so much, not only about the music, but how it's evolved and influenced so many other genres over time. Whether you're a country music fan or not, this is worth the watch.
5. Hoop Dreams
This is an older film that follows the story of two African American high school students in Chicago as they pursue their dream of becoming professional basketball players. They face tremendous obligations, both at home and at school, and we get to see what takes place over the span of five years. You'll immediately connect with the players and root for them every step of the way.
No one was more shocked than Amy Winehouse herself of her fame. The jazz singer has a voice unlike any other, but with drug problems, a manipulative father, and a proclivity for staying with the wrong guy, she spiraled. It's a sad story but one that helps to show what it must be like to be famous and the chaos that comes with it.
Before “Making a Murderer” there was the Thin Blue Line. It follows Randall Dale Adams, who at 26 was arrested, convicted, and sentenced to the death penalty for the 1976 murder of a police officer in Dallas, Texas. A crime Adams did not commit. In a radical display of injustice we get to see what went wrong. This documentary actually helped to overturn the case of Adams!
8. Sour Grapes
Are you a wine aficionado? Well, no one can beat Rudy Kurniawan. Filmmakers Jerry Rothwell and Reuben Atlas are documenting the rare (and expensive) wine auction and Kurniawan is a wine expert who happens to have what seems an unending supply of the much sought after Domaine Ponsot Clos Saint-Denis from the years 1945, 1949 and 1966. But it was all a rouse! This is such a fun, and interesting documentary and proves that we can all be duped.
9. Tiger King
One day we will look back on 2020 and remember that we cut our own hair in quarantine and were addicted to the documentary series, Tiger King. And we'll all agree that Carole Baskin fed her late husband to the tigers. This instantly became a Netflix hit, following Joe Exotic and his cronies at their zoo along with interviews with other big cat owners. But when Joe goes to jail over a murder-for-hire plot against Baskin, we are left wondering if it was a set-up.
The American justice system is good, but it's not perfect. Steven Avery goes to jail for 18 years, for a crime he didn't commit. But just two years later Avery is charged with murder by the same police force that wrongfully convicted him the first time. The documentary is controversial, but makes a strong case in Avery's favor. It leads us to ask a lot of questions and discussions on a case that we are all still watching.
11. The War
There's really only one war that can be called “The War” and that's WWII. This seven-part series looks at a few different towns in America and sees the impact the war had on each. Life was so incredibly difficult, sad, scary, but people's resilience as told through their interviews, moving images and videos, helps to paint a picture of what life must have been like in America. A good reminder to not take a single thing for granted, especially freedom. Also great is Ken Burns' “Vietnam War” on Netflix, while “The War” is on Amazon. You can also get Ken Burns on PBS.
Religion is fascinating to me. Especially Scientology because it's just so out there. This documentary seeks to take a closer look at the inner-workings of their beliefs with interviews of former believers, many very high ranking, and trying to understand how people can get swooped up in this unbelievable “religion.”
13. Last Chance U
This Netflix TV series is one of my favorites of all time. The series follows a Junior College football coach, along with it's players, many who dream of playing in the NFL. Most have been kicked out of their D-1 schools for bad grades, smoking weed, or other issues. There are 4 seasons but I recommend watching 3 & 4. You will be rooting for the team, but in particular the players, the whole time. FYI, this is the same producers as the popular “Cheer” on Netflix.
I love a good festival, and this one seemed to have all the right ingredients: a secluded island, top acts, luxury villas. Except… they didn't have anything together aside from the marketing. What really went wrong with this disaster fest and social media flop?
15. The Cove
This is tough to watch, but important. Near a cove in Taijii, Japan there is major dolphin abuse happening. I've never donated so quickly to a cause before. If you care about animals this film will make you want to get up and act.
Taking place in Tokyo, sushi master Jiro Ono perfects the art of making sushi at his Michelin star restaurant. People put their names on a waiting list a month in advance to eat at this restaurant. If you're into good, this is a culinary work of art, and you can see the pains it takes to put your art into your work.
A lighthearted, good old fashioned look at how some of our favorite movies get made. See how cult classic movies like Die Hard, Home Alone, and Ghost Busters came to be. There are some pretty crazy antics and interesting insider information such as, John Candy filmed his part in Home Alone in a single day and the scene in Die Hard where John McClane jumps into an elevator shaft and falls was an accident they caught on film. It's not the best production but it's a fun behind the scenes look at how movies get made.
Ken Burns can do no wrong. Along with his daughter Sarah Burns and her husband David McMahon, they seek to see what really happened in the case of a woman raped in Central Park in New York. This movie is tough and tragic but necessary to take a look at legal incompetence and what can happen when innocent lives are destroyed.
Like many my age, I grew up with Mr. Rogers and his neighborhood. There was something so wonderful about him, that he became a fixture in so many children's homes across America. His compassion towards others is astounding and the film does a good job of showing how he brought his message to the world.
A Florida billionaire couple begins to construct a monstrosity of a mansion inspired by Versailles. The movie first focuses on the development of their 90,000 square foot (yes really) home, but the 2008 financial crisis looms in the background. The couple doesn't come from money and it's interesting to watch what they focus on as important in their lives.
21. Super Size Me
Morgan Spurlock decides the best way to explore the fast food industry is by eating it…. every single day for a month. He consumes McDonald's for breakfast, lunch, and dinner and his health takes a dramatic toll. This is an important look at the notion you are what you eat. I think this documentary inspired many more food docs.
22. Man on Wire
A week before his 24th birthday, Frenchman Phillipe Petit decided to walk the wire between the World Trade Centers in New York. Suspended 1,000 feet in the air Petit attempted a harrowing stunt. The documentary follows his training and subsequent arrest.
23. The Dust Bowl
Believe it or not, it's another Ken Burns Documentary. If the 1930s weren't bad enough: economic depression and on the eve of WWII, dust storms tore through the Great Plains of Oklahoma, Texas, Colorado, Kansas, and New Mexico. We get an idea of what can happen if we don't take care of our land and how it just might turn against us.
This is a docu-drama that is worth the watch. Yes, it's a little cheesy but it's uber informative and helps paint a picture of what life was like in the 1800s. Produced by Robert Redford you'll learn some of the coolest stories about real life legends like Billy the Kid, Jesse James, Sitting Bull, and Wyatt Earp.
Enron is well known for it's very public bankruptcy and the film helps to unearth the elaborate scheme the company laid out to be profitable.
26. Gimme Shelter
The Rolling Stones will forever go down in history as one of the biggest bands, especially in the 60s and 70s. The film follows the 1969 tour of the Rolling Stones, making the Sticky Fingers album in Muscle Shoals (hey! make sure you watch that first!), and on the Altamont Speedway outside of San Francisco. It was meant to be a Woodstock-esque free concert, however chaos and tragedy ensues.
Jane Goodall, the world renown primatologist and anthropologist, goes up against the male dominated scientific consensus at the time with her chimpanzee research. She helped to revolutionize our understanding of animals.
28. Maiden Trip
A young Dutch teen travels around the world alone by boat!
So there you have it, 28 of my favorite documentaries of all time. I'll continue to update this list as I watch more that I love.
Here are some movies lately I've seen that I also liked!
Knives Out – Definitely the bet movie I've seen in a while. It's funny, a murder mystery, and feels like a throwback to an older style movie – which I loved. Throw in a stellar cast and great writing and I couldn't have asked for more. Renown murder mystery author is dead and detective Benoit Blanc (played by Daniel Craig) is on the case. Is it someone in the dysfunctional family? The help? Or an accident? There's an undercurrent throughout that shows how privileged can sometimes lead people astray they I really liked.
Death of Stalin – If you liked JoJo Rabbit (which I did) then you might like this dark comedy about what happened after communist leader Stalin dies. The story is true, which is scary, but they somehow make it funny. Not quite as good as JoJo Rabbit (that portrayal of Hitler was something else) but this movie does a good job of entertaining. Available on Netflix.
It's a Disaster – It's couples brunch! Oh, and it's also the end of the world as a bomb goes off nearby releasing poisonous gas into the air. Another dark comedy with exquisite writing. I love the minute look at life's details. Funny and interesting, especially in the middle of a pandemic.
Never Have I Ever – This quirky high school Netflix series is the best teen comedy I've seen in a while (sorry Outer Banks). Created by Mindy Kaling and Lang Fisher it tells the story of a young Indian girl raised in America dealing with the recent death of her father and the trials and tribulations of high school. The cast is extremely diverse but in a respectful way that seeks to share about different cultures. It's extremely well written and acted and worth the watch.
Narcos – This isn't a documentary, but the Netflix series is based on the true story of the drug trade in Columbia, and the newest season is Mexico. It's so good, and I'm constantly on the edge of my seat. I can't even believe this is real, and ongoing.
Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping – Andy Samberg is funny and he's perfect in the role of Conner4Real, the biggest name in music whose newest album is flopping. Will he go back to his roots or keep stepping on toes? This was hilarious and dumb, but worth the watch.
Dead to Me – Far as good as Season 1, Season 2 of Dead to Me isn't quite as believable. But still, good writing and entertaining.
If you're more interested in books check out my most recent book review here!
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