Documentaries - once touted as stiff and obligatory watching in the halls of high schools - have risen in recent years to the top of our must-watch lists. What makes a film fit into the best documentary category? Simple. A documentarian's ability to create earth-shattering, mind-blowing films that change the way we look at and see the world. For some, these films act as powerful forces of change that cause immediate and long-term effects on the world.
Below, some of the best documentary films ever made.
Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened (2019)
Netflix's 2019 documentary Fyre, directed by Chris Smith, is an American documentary which documents Billy McFarland's Fyre Festival which ripped off customers who had bought into a social media-fuelled dream of partying with supermodels in the Bahamas. Instead of the sold dream, ticket-holders encountered no accommodation, empty beaches, and a transportation crisis. McFarland left behind a trail of unpaid debts, notably to the residents of Great Exuma itself, and ended up in jail for wire fraud. "It's the perfect melding of groundwork-laying, commentary, comedy, tragedy and long-form cine-journalism," David Fear wrote for Rolling Stone.
Leaving Neverland (2019)
HBO's groundbreaking documentary directed and produced by British filmmaker Dan Reed focuses on two men, Wade Robson and James Safechuck, who allege they were sexually abused as children by music icon Michael Jackson. The docuseries sent shockwaves around the world and is being hailed as one of the most riveting (and confronting) documentaries ever made. While the documentary has caused contention, it has created a much-needed conversation on sexual abuse, and in particular grooming.
Jane is a biopic on British primatologist, ethologist, and anthropologist Jane Goodall, drawing from over 100 hours of archival footage. It captures the story of Goodall, who with no formal qualifications, travelled to Tanzania to conduct research on chimpanzees and ultimately challenged the male-dominated field of science and people’s understanding of wildlife. "At its best, 'Jane' lets the footage speak for itself, as when we watch the organically developing drama unfold when chimpanzees tentatively approach Goodall and her camp to eat bananas," Pat Padua wrote for the Washington Post. Available on Netflix.
Icarus is a 2017 American documentary film by Bryan Fogel, which chronicles Fogel's exploration of the option of doping to win an amateur cycling race and happening upon a major international doping scandal when he asks for the help of Grigory Rodchenkov, the head of the Russian anti-doping laboratory. "This is a tense thriller rather than a docu shot with handy cams. The execution makes it one of the best films of the year. Before the execution comes the content – and it has the stuff to blow you away," Mihir Fadnavis wrote for Firstpost.
Planet Earth (2006-2016)
Possibly one of the only programs on earth that needs no introduction. Sir David Attenborough took the world through an exploration of the wild and beautiful parts of our planet in a documentary series released in 2006. Attenborough released the second instalment, Planet Earth II, in 2016. Both are available on Netflix.
The Last Man On The Moon (2014)
When Apollo astronaut Eugene Cernan stepped off the moon in 1972 he left his footprints and his daughter's initials in the lunar dust. Forty years later he shared his epic, but deeply personal story. Cernan's burning ambition carried him to the spectacular and hazardous environment of space and to the moon. But there was a heavy price to pay for the fame and privilege that followed. As his wife famously remarked, "If you think going to the moon is hard, try staying at home." This documentary combines rare archive material, compelling visual effects and unprecedented access to present an iconic historical character on the big screen.
The 2013 documentary directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, is regarded as one of history's greatest documentaries for the powerful change it drove. The documentary takes a harrowing look at the controversial captivity of animals, particularly focusing on Tilikum, an orca held by SeaWorld who was responsible for the deaths of three individuals. Just three years after the release of Blackfish SeaWorld changed its corporate policies and business practices regarding its captive killer whales. These, and other reverberating influences throughout society, have been coined, 'the Blackfish effect'. The film is available on Stan.
20 Feet From Stardom (2013)
20 Feet from Stardom is a 2013 American documentary film directed by filmmaker Morgan Neville and was produced by Gil Friesen, a music industry executive whose curiosity to know more about the lives of background singers inspired the making of the film. A long-overdue spotlight is put on the hit-making contributions of longtime backup singers like Darlene Love and Merry Clayton.
The Act of Killing (2012)
Joshua Oppenheimer's psychedelic film exposes the mid-1960s horrifying mass executions of accused communists in Indonesia and those who are celebrated in their country for perpetrating the crime. “The gusto with which [the documentary’s central figure Anwar] Congo and his compatriots take to the project is jarring; this is grisly history as told by the victors,” Jonah Weiner wrote in The New Yorker.
The Central Park Five (2012)
Filmmakers Ken Burns, Sarah Burns and David McMahon examined the 1989 case of five teenagers who were wrongfully convicted of raping a jogger in Central Park. After they had spent from six to thirteen years in prison, a serial rapist confessed to the crime. The film is a captivating look at the American justice system and the racial inequality that ran rampant. "A notorious crime—the rape of a jogger in Central Park in 1989—is revisited in this painful, angry, scrupulously reported story of race, injustice and media frenzy," critic A. O. Scott wrote in The New York Times. The case has also been revisited in Netflix's Central Park Five series
Jiro Dreams Of Sushi (2011)
Jiro Dreams of Sushi is a 2011 Japanese-language American documentary film directed by David Gelb. The film follows Jiro Ono, an 85-year-old sushi master and owner of Sukiyabashi Jiro, a Michelin three-star restaurant. The film also profiles Jiro's two sons, both of whom are also sushi chefs. The younger son, Takashi, left Sukiyabashi Jiro to open a mirror image of his father's restaurant in Roppongi Hills. The 50-year-old elder son, Yoshikazu, obliged to succeed his father, still works for Jiro and is faced with the prospect of one day taking over the flagship restaurant.
Man On Wire (2008)
Using actual footage from a real-life event seamlessly mingled with new re-enactments, filmmaker James Marsh masterfully recreates high-wire daredevil Philippe Petit's 1974 stunt: performing acrobatics on a thin wire strung between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. The film won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. William Thomas wrote for Empire, "Recounting the simple story of a complicated character, this scales giddy emotional heights, revealing a portrait of a man teetering on the brink, in more ways than one."
Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (1996)
Paradise Lost is a 1996 American true crime documentary film directed, produced and edited by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky about the trials of the West Memphis Three, three teenage boys accused of the May 1993 murders and sexual mutilation of three prepubescent boys as a part of an alleged satanic ritual in West Memphis, Arkansas. It was followed by two sequels, also made by Berlinger and Sinofsky, which followed the evolution of the case through the years: Paradise Lost 2: Revelations in 2000, and Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory in 2011.
Hoop Dreams (1994)
Steve James' documentary Hoop Dreams follows two African-American high school students in Chicago and their dream of becoming professional basketball players. Originally intended to be a 30-minute short film it eventually led to five years of filming and 250 hours of footage. It premiered at the 1994 Sundance Film Festival where it won the Audience Award for Best Documentary. Hoop Dreams is the only documentary film to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Film Editing.
The Thin Blue Line (1988)
Created by renowned documentary filmmaker Errol Morris, The Thin Blue Line is a film that successfully argued that a man was wrongly convicted for murder by a corrupt justice system in Dallas County, Texas. The documentary shows the audience the evidence gathered by the police, who were under extreme pressure to clear the case.
Stop Making Sense (1984)
Stop Making Sense is a 1984 American concert film featuring a live performance by Talking Heads. Directed by Jonathan Demme, it was shot over the course of four nights at Hollywood's Pantages Theater in December 1983, as the group was touring to promote their new album Speaking in Tongues. The film is the first made entirely using digital audio techniques. The film has been hailed as "one of the greatest rock movies ever made", and Pauline Kael of The New Yorker described it as "close to perfection".