RANKED! Our 20 Favorite Documentaries of the Last 20 Years
Netflix and chill has gotten sexy smart. The past 20 years have brought about a golden age in documentaries that’s shone a light on just about everything under the sun and taken us on journeys we never knew existed. Somewhere along the way, we realized learning stuff is a huge turn-on. Plan your next date night around one of these can’t-go-wrong documentaries and get ready to have a cultural lovefest.
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20. 'Valley Uprising' (2014)
This fun romp through the upper Sierras chronicles the rise of rock climbing on the now legendary walls of Yosemite Valley. Like a comprehensive family tree of who's who and what's what in the world of modern climbing, the film paints a portrait of the free-spirited, individualistic men and women who dared to scale giants. Plus, the soundtrack rocks.
19. 'Beware Mr. Baker' (2012)
A love song to legendary timekeeper Ginger Baker quickly turns into a cautionary tale of the spirit sinking into darkness. Made completely DYI, a green filmmaker tracks down his idol (of Cream fame) in Africa and begins to live with him, slowly pulling the details of his manic life out of the oft-belligerent drummer. The sheer potency of Baker's strange magnetism, as well as the great archival footage and powerful soundtrack, lift this untold story up to the high watermark of musical biographies.
18. 'Cameraperson' (2016)
Cameraperson is a satisfying, visually rich documentary about documentaries and the people who make them. Kirsten Johnson is the exceptional camerawomen behind such docs as Citizenfour and Pray The Devil Back To Hell. Gathering footage from her life's work, Johnson's visual autobiography not only weaves together the stories that make up her own life (and the lives of her subjects) but celebrates the indomitable spirit of a woman with a camera searching for truths in a heretofore male narrative.
17. 'Jim and Andy: The Great Beyond' (2017)
Whether there's a joke in this tale of acting gone mad or not, it feels like the joke is on us. After rising to the top of the Hollywood food chain in one meteoric year, Jim Carrey had his first box-office flop with the Andy Kaufman biopic, Man On The Moon. Now, nearly 20 years later, this behind-the-scenes look at Carrey's process during filming casts a penetrating look at the sulphuric genius of the former slapstick comedian, as well as the need everyone feels to escape into their heroes from time to time. Both hilarious and terrifying, this doc will leave you with a deeply satisfied (albeit twisted) grin.
16. 'The Wolfpack' (2015)
Perhaps one of the most bizarre and idiosyncratic films on the list, The Wolfpack is at once a love letter to movies and a peek behind the closed doors of but one apartment building in NYC and the bizarre lives locked within. This modest, DIY documentary will unexpectedly take you through a range of emotions (including Stockholm syndrome) and linger with you for days like a strange, unfathomable smell.
15. 'Searching For Sugar Man' (2012)
It's alway satisfying to watch a documentary about a world-famous musician, but how about a total unknown? The music of an obscure American songsmith became the soundtrack to the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, but no one had ever actually seen the guy, who was presumed dead. Filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul attempts to track down the unwitting man behind the movement in this soaring testament to the power of a good tune and the meaning of music beyond the charts.
14. 'At Berkeley' (2013)
Frederick Wiseman may be the most prolific documentary filmmaker in the world (he's made 42) and his robust examination of the inner life of a public university is one of his best works to date. By treating the legendary school as a living organism, where each part is integral and interdependent, Wiseman shows democratic equality at it's finest. Paralleling society at large, he makes the case for removing the toxic influence of capitalist ideologies from the institutional organisms that thrive without them.
13. 'Waltz With Bashir' (2008)
With so many documentaries coming out every year, Waltz With Bashir is one you're not likely to forget. Using vivid and surreal animations, the story of an Israeli soldier venturing back into his mind to recover memories of what happened during the Sabra massacre of the Lebanon War gives a glimpse into the dangers of doing nothing in the face of evil, as well as the coping mechanisms we use to live with the mistakes we've made.
12. 'Capturing the Friedmans' (2003)
How a documentary about children's birthday party entertainment turned into an unsettling look at child sex abuse is stranger than fiction. Using a profound collection of home movies, news clips, and fresh interviews, Andrew Jalecki's debut film is an uncompromising, honest portrait that will strike a nerve before it steadily unnerves you.
11. 'The Fog of War' (2003)
Why was a corporate whiz kid appointed as the Secretary of Defense that led America into the unjustified war with Vietnam? How has corporate greed played into every war since then? Told from the perspective of the late Robert McNamara, former Secretary of Defense for JKF and Nixon, this confessional is an illumination of the impetus behind modern warfare, a frank warning to the public, and a got-to-get-this-shit-off-my-chest-before-I-die catharsis.
10. 'Weiner' (2016)
In the age of social media and leaders like Trump, Weiner takes an unabashed look at the foibles of man and the ways our lack of critical thinking will ultimately lead to our downfall. In the wake of his "Penis-gate" scandal, mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner grants camera crews unprecedented access to his rebound campaign, where things quickly implode. This documentary captures the timeless mistakes of ego, while remaining completely in the here and now.
9. 'Bowling For Columbine' (2002)
Michael Moore has made a living dissecting the underbelly of American life, and Bowling For Columbine, made in the wake of the tragic school shooting shouts down the barrel of our country's gun crisis. In the light of our current climate of mass shootings, the documentary reads as eerily prescient, depicting the events of Columbine as a giant stone dropped into the waters of American society that have done nothing but ripple outward since.
8. 'Grizzly Man' (2005)
An intimate look at a man living among the grizzly bears of Alaska and the tragic consequences of anthropomorphizing beasts of the wild, Werner Herzog's curation and expansion of Timothy Treadwell's actual footage is a fascinating tale of the grim realities of nature and the brutality of love.
7. 'Man On Wire' (2008)
Watching a man cross a thin cable between two skyscrapers, at first, seems like it would only take a few minutes. But distilling the indomitable spirit of humans, the oblique obsession of a daredevil, and the detailed plotting of an extravagant crime deserves every second of your attention. Phillipe Petit and his crew of burglars make an interesting cast, but it's the setting of the Twin Towers in all their glory that makes this documentary an especially tall drink to savor.
6. 'Leviathan' (2012)
If you like your fish fresh, Leviathan delivers the rawest look at commercial fishing and life on the high seas that you could ever hope to swallow. Taking cinema vérité to new depths, the filmmakers capture the experience in such staggering purity that you'll need to jump in the shower afterward just to wash the fish guts from your hair.
5. 'Citizenfour' (2014)
The story of the biggest whistleblower in modern history is documented in this important film about the insidious meddling of the State in the affairs of its people. Terrifying and essential, Citizenfour picks up Edward Snowden the moment he leaks a minefield of classified documents that prove the sinister scope of U.S. governmental spy networks that spread across the world, including at home. The revelation and fallout are told with a low-level, ubiquitous fear, begging the questions of how far the long arm of American imperialism should reach, and what exactly makes an American hero in the 21st century?
4. 'Exit Through the Gift Shop' (2010)
Documentary or artful prank? The lines blur in this hilarious and entertaining documentary from provocative artist, Banksy, about the nature of art in the modern world. Highlighting the vapid commercialization of the art world and the easy manipulation of public perception to fuel trends, the story tells the rise of copycat artist, Mr. Brainwash, whose obsession with Banksy and the world of street art leads him to the glittering galleries of Hollywood. But on whose coattails?
3. '13th' (2016)
Ava DuVernay's look at mass incarceration in America and the systemic origins of racism in criminal policy is a profound punch in the face. America leads the world in incarcerated people (with over 2 million) and 13th unpacks some of the major reasons why. It's an eye-opening look at a human crisis that most of us have locked away somewhere out of sight.
2. 'The Act of Killing' (2012)
Joshua Oppenheimer's first film to expose the mass executions of purported Communists in Indonesia takes a no-holds-barred approach to lay bare the stark horrors of genocide. With an unblinking eye turned on the perpetrators who celebrate these murders, this hard-to-watch documentary reveals dark truths about the human psyche in a surrealistic study.
1. 'Free Solo' (2018)
Hands down, the most visceral, edge-of-your-seat, sweaty-palm-inducing documentary ever captured on film, Free Solo follows legendary climber Alex Honnold as he attempts the first-ever free solo ascent of the grandest rock on earth: El Capitan. Tracking the physical preparation, the romantic struggles, and psychological trials of attempting this death-defying climb, Honnold carries us on his shoulders as he expertly endeavors the impossible. Watch it on the biggest screen you can find.