“I like the idea of the documentary as a portrait. There’s no chronological beginning, middle, and end structure. You build something in the editing room that’s shaped by getting to know the person and dig deeper, unpeeling the layers of them as you get to know them”, filmmaker, Spike Jonze rightly sums up. While movies are people’s ticket to freedom from the mundane realities of life, a documentary is exactly the opposite, where we are drawn closer to the life of others. It is through these documentaries that we learn about real people and their real experiences. Often, these films teach us to value the gifts of life and nature. These movies help us learn irreplaceable values such as empathy, compassion, respect, integrity and love. There are instances where documentaries inspire us to evolve, achieve our dreams, and become better human beings. Amongst several such films, here are 40 best documentaries of all time that will change the way you look at life.
Having Hollywood star Joaquin Phoenix as a narrator is indeed a pleasant surprise in this documentary which is about the relationship between animals and humans. Earthlings teaches us values that we were born with but left behind somewhere in the course of our lives.
Whale attacks aren’t recurrent because these giant sea creatures are ruthless. Most often it is the human’s fault because he thinks owns the earth and that creatures are meant to be kept in captivity. This documentary shows us what we have being doing wrong all this while.
3. The Cove
“You think you own whatever land you land on, the Earth is just a dead thing you can claim…”-Pocahontas. The Cove breaks this delusion of ours and reveals the ugly truth behind Japan’s age-old practice of killing dolphins that are on the verge of extinction.
4. Hoop Dreams
Hoop Dreams follows the story of two young basketball players, Arthur Agee and William Gates, who pursue the big dream of competing at the NBA. Seemingly simple, this film deals with issues such as America’s socioeconomic crisis, dissected against the backdrop of these two passionate dreamers.
5. Last Train Home
The economic and political situation in China has always been a subject of debate. Last Train Home follows the evolution of China into a global leader through the story of a young couple who are returning home for the Chinese New Year.
6. 4 Little Girls
Civil rights movements are always supposed to be welfare-oriented, but 4 Little Girls shows us how even a well-meaning riot can wreak havoc in the lives of millions of innocent people. This documentary shows how four children lose their lives when a church in Alabama is bombed.
7. 56 Up
The reason why ‘56 Up’ wins our hearts is the fact that it attempts to show ordinary across a whole lifetime. The entire ‘Up’ series is brilliant, as it chronicles the same real life people once every seven years.
War has always been heart-breaking, and the scenario is no different in Afghanistan’s Korangal Valley. Directed by Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington, Restrepo deals with the time the duo spent in Afghanistan with a regiment of the American Army who were stationed there.
9. Chasing Ice
Simple, but showing us the beauty and subsequent degeneration of the arctic circle owing to global warming, Jeff Orlowski’s Chasing Ice follows the life of photographer James Balog during one of his projects.
10. Waiting For Superman
For all parents and educationists, Waiting for “Superman”, directed by Davis Guggenheim, reveals all the flaws in America’s public education system.
11. Taxi To The Dark Side
This is a film that teaches us the ruthlessness of religious prejudices, and how authoritative figures use it to an almost sadistic measure. ‘Taxi to the Dark Side,’ deals with the plight of an innocent Afghan taxi driver in the US, who is unfairly interrogated by authorities at Guantanamo Bay, and tagged ‘a terrorist’.
Undefeated is an inspirational story that talks about a high school football team that lack funds and backing but is rescued by a new coach who believes in them.
13. The Act Of Killing
Eulogizing genocide is taken to a whole new level in ‘The Act of Killing’. You will no doubt be shifting uncomfortably in your seat while watching this brilliant documentary which shows us that several members of the Indonesian death squad of the 1960s are still holding positions of power in the government. Be ready to convulse as you watch how these mass-killings are mimicked in Hollywood style.
14. The Thin Blue Line
The Thin Blue Line documents the life of Randall Adams, a convict who is wrongly implicated and is ready to face the Death Row. Granted, you might need to piece the different elements of the movie yourself. However it was honest enough to eventually acquit the innocent man who was sentenced to death and reopen a ghastly murder case.
15. Super Size Me
For all those food junkies out there, Super Size Me is a documentary you undoubtedly need to watch. Despite knowing how detrimental fast food can be to our health, the industry continues to make a booming profit. This film by Morgan Spurlock, who lives on McDonald’s food for a period of 30 days, will make you cringe the next time someone talks about ordering that burger.
Shoah relives the horror of the Nazi regime, where filmmaker Claude Lanzmann slices and dices the historic holocaust. This is done through accounts recounted by survivors, eye-witnesses and former Nazis, making it more engrossing than any other archival footages.
17. Forks Over Knives
If you’ve been following an unhealthy diet, you might be prone to several diseases like diabetes and cancer, which are almost impossible to cure. ‘Forks over Knives’ show us how a few fundamental changes to our meals can do wonders.
18. Deliver Us From Evil
‘Deliver Us From Evil’ teaches us how certain actions can never be justified using religion as an excuse. The film that received a 100% rating from ‘Rotten Tomatoes’ recounts the unforgivable deeds of a former Catholic priest, Oliver O’Grady. O’Grady, during his time as a man of God sexually abused and raped almost 25 children. His actions have been discussed in interviews taken with the offender himself, as well as psychologists, priests and lawyers.
19. Into The Abyss
Into the Abyss, directed by Werner Herzog, asks us to introspect over the issue of capital punishment and sentences of imprisonment for life. This documentary was highly successful at the Toronto film festival and was given a theatrical release.
20. The Art Of Steal
“He who is greedy is always in want”-Horace. The Art of Steal is one such documentary that focuses on this deadly sin, against the backdrop of a group of people who will go to any length to acquire a few invaluable works of art.
21. In The Shadow Of The Moon
In the Shadow of the Moon, presents to us accounts provided by the men who walked on the moon, themselves. This documentary is sure to remind you how all-encompassing our universe is.
22. Waltz With Bashir
Animated by Israeli filmmaker, Ari Folman, Waltz with Bashir reminds us time and again how futile wars are. The message against violence, which is conveyed in the form of a warning, is brilliantly told.
23. Planet Earth
Of course, this documentary talks about the beauty of our world. However, the fact that the entire film is narrated by the legendary Sir David Attenborough steals the show.
24. Into The Universe With Stephen Hawking
Finally, here’s a documentary on this list that deals with those amazing scientific inventions. What better way to explore our universe than to take a sneak peek into the brilliant mind of Stephen Hawking?
25. May I Be Frank?
Another gem in the bag for food-lovers, Frank decides to turn vegan and renounce meat, as a detox measure in this film. For the benefits of such a measure, you have to watch May I Be Frank?
26. Food Fight
If you want to know what all the hype is with packaged food, and why junk costs less than healthier options, ‘Food Fight’ is the movie you need to check out.
Andrew McAuley was the first person to travel from Tasmania to New Zealand in his kayak, all alone, risking his life in order to achieve this extraordinary feat. Solo presents us with archived footage of this awe-inspiring journey.
28. A Film Unfinished
What makes this documentary more exciting is the fact that it shows us a movie produced by the Nazis, which remained incomplete. Though it doesn’t have an ending, it is still an extensive account of the Warsaw Ghetto.
29. Touching The Void
This documentary is adapted from a book of the same name. Events from the life of two trekkers, who lost track of each other while climbing the treacherous Andes Mountains, are re-enacted in this film, and it also features interviews taken with both of them.
30. The Hellstrom Chronicle
This is a documentary in the sci-fi, horror genre, which talks about war between insects and humans. Though you might be scared of certain insects after watching ‘The Hellstrom Chronicle’, you will also learn the essential lesson—unity can achieve wonders, no matter how small you are.
31. March Of The Penguins
This is quite a famous documentary that every nature lover should watch. ‘March of the Penguins’ depicts the strong motherly instincts of emperor penguins that are highly protective of their babies, especially during the incubation period. This endearing film is sure to bring a few tears to your eyes.
32. Jiro Dreams Of Sushi
For all the aspiring chefs in the world, Jiro shows you the true essence of dedication and passion. ‘Jiro Dreams of Sushi’ recounts the story of the best sushi chef in the world, where, we are made aware of the relationship he shares with his son and the struggles he went through to achieve his dream. Jiro started off with a humble restaurant several years back, but the same now is the proud recipient of three Michelin stars.
33. Grizzly Man
If ‘Grizzly Man’ doesn’t break your heart, nothing will. This documentary chronicles the life of Timothy Treadwell, world famous environmentalist, who lived amongst grizzly bears for several years, studied them, fell in love with them, and eventually was killed by one of them.
This film deals with an issue that haunts every student and their parents. Bullying is a very common occurrence that has the ability to shatter the victim’s confidence. Hold your breath as this documentary shows you how two students take their own lives as a result of bullying.
Another galvanizing documentary, Blindsight follows a group of young, blind boys from Tibet, who were abandoned by their families because of their impairment. These boys, however, took it up as a challenge, and climbed the north side of Mount Everest to prove to the world that they were indomitable.
This exceptional documentary dispels all preconceived notions you might have about the capabilities of the disabled. ‘Murderball’ shows what a team of paraplegic rugby players can achieve through conviction and hard work.
37. Bigger Stronger Faster
Obsessed with gaining a physique like the Hulk? ‘Bigger Stronger Faster’ reveals the darker side of bodybuilding practices and the consequences that follow the abuse of steroids and other enhancing drugs.
Stranded depicts the trauma of the 16 survivors of the Andes plane crash that took place in 1972. They narrate their versions of the accident, and how their lives have changed since then.
39. Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet
Highly motivating, Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet, tell us how disability does not have the power to take away the essence of life. It revolves around a budding teenage musician who couldn’t make it big in the industry owing to a condition named Lou Gehrig’s disease. He is now restricted to his wheelchair and can no longer talk. However, he hasn’t forgotten to smile amidst adversities, and still continues to make beautiful music.
Marley documents the life of Rastafarian singer Bob Marley. The story of this complicated but gifted musician is truly inspiring for all music-lovers.