The past five years have been a boon for the documentary industry. While many continue to escape reality with narrative content, footage and the ability democratization of camera equipment have opened the floodgates. Simply documenting our lives has become more comfortable than ever, and this genre of filmmaking is better than ever before. The new documentary “Spaceship Earth” indeed continues the trend of unusual ideas yielding fascinating subject matter. Examining the hope that the BioSphere 2 project created, but its ultimate downfall, documentarian Matt Wolf, explores the complicated and entertaining story. The unusual yet very fun “Spaceship Earth” got us thinking about what other great documentaries we want to check out on streaming. Let’s check out some of the very best documentaries available right now.
10. Waking Sleeping Beauty (Walt Disney Pictures)
dir. Don Hahn
Go inside the Disney Renaissance and the Shakespearean drama that revitalized a global brand. The story of the Disney Animation department during their most creatively fruitful period also provides a stunning history lesson. With most of the key players going on record, you will understand the teams that changed Disney’s culture from within. Many shaped the entertainment industry as we know it. “Waking Sleeping Beauty” remains an underseen gem and a celebration of the films that changed animation forever.
CURRENTLY STREAMING ON: Disney+.
9. The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (New Line Cinema)
dir. Seth Gordon
Monomania and greed can take us to some strange places. None may be more unusual than the battle for the World Record Score in Donkey Kong. Part sports film, part crime document, “The King of Kong” hilariously sets up the stakes but never makes fun of the people it follows. Instead, you feel the weight of two titans trying to own their piece of history, and the lengths we are willing to go to create a legacy.
CURRENTLY STREAMING ON: STARZ
8. Stop Making Sense (Palm Pictures)
dir. Jonathan Demme
An arthouse sensation, “Stop Making Sense,” remains a nearly perfect film in its construction. In contrast, the film focuses on the artistic Talking Heads, and by proxy David Byrne, Demme keys into the uniqueness of artistic expression. While “Stop Making Sense” functions as a concert film, the pacing and cinematography remain sublime. Byrne takes on an ethereal quality on celluloid. This concert inspired decades of obsession with his artistic endeavors. For fans of New Wave Punk music or merely great concert documentaries, Demme’s film remains a classic.
CURRENTLY STREAMING ON: The Criterion Channel and Amazon Prime.
7. 13th (Netflix)
dir. Ava DuVernay
A methodical and academic breakdown of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, Ava DuVernay proves herself as one of the most versatile directors alive. Bringing together members from both sides of the aisle, the political direction of the law is supplemented showcases how both parties have exploited its loopholes. Rather than saying Democrats or Republicans are the root cause, “13th” lays criminal justice issues at the feet of both parties. This is not a fight for one party, but a fight for justice.
CURRENTLY STREAMING ON: Netflix.
6. Faces Places (ARTE France Cinéma)
dir. Agnes Varga and JR
Arguably the last great film by the legendary Agnes Varga, the story of friendship and art remains endlessly enjoyable. It can be rare to boil down art to pure science, yet Varga does just that. As she travels the countryside with JR, a French Street Artist, and photographer, it’s clear that the portrait of the french country is deeply personal. For anyone looking to understand the influence of Varga, or simply use this as a kicking off point, “Faces Places” is a great place to start.
CURRENTLY STREAMING ON: Kanopy.
5. When We Were Kings (PolyGram Filmed Entertainment)
dir. Leon Gast
While “The Last Dance” has reignited debates about the greatest athletes of all time, Muhammad Ali remains the transformative titan of sports and politics. The documentary chronicles the iconic “Rumble in the Jungle,” which reminded Ali and fellow boxer George Forman about their role in global politics. With unprecedented access, the celebration of black culture from around the world highlighted a movement. While Ali and Forman brought the people together, the conflux of culture, sports, and politics left impressions that lasted for decades.
CURRENTLY STREAMING ON: HBO, Cinemax, Max Go.
4. Cameraperson (Fork Films, Big Mouth Productions)
dir. Kirsten Johnson
You cannot define life by the art someone creates. However, when your job is to capture life in motion, you might find yourself with an unbiased lens to examine your choices. For Kirsten Johnson, her career as a documentary cinematographer allowed her to travel the world. But at what point does your job end and your home life begin? While the stories she tells are epic, Johnson’s contextualization of her documentary footage reminds us of the subjectivity of film and the place it holds within each of our hearts.
CURRENTLY STREAMING ON: The Criterion Channel.
3. Grizzly Man (Discovery Docs)
dir. Werner Herzog
Few directors have the versatility of Werner Herzog. While Herzog made his name in narrative features, he has never let the genre stop him from telling an interesting story. When the tale of Timothy Treadwell came to Herzog, it clearly struck a chord. Herzog’s documentation of unfounded hubris, the natural world, and the dangerous consequences the spring from when they collide. Herzog inserts himself into the narrative as a storyteller, trying to understand the mindset that allowed Treadwell to believe he would be safe. Simultaneously showing restraint to respect Treadwell’s family, but also using his story as a cautionary tale, Herzog crafts one of his masterpieces.
CURRENTLY STREAMING ON: Amazon Prime.
2. Hoop Dreams (Fine Line Features)
dir. Steve James
Perhaps the most significant basketball film ever made, “Hoop Dreams,” remains an iconic portrait of heartbreak. Following two teens growing up to play basketball, James found a way to tell a story about America and inequality within a system that uses children for financial gain—examining the fallacy of sports as a way out of poverty, “Hoop Dreams” tugs at your heartstrings. This film remains the definitive and most personal examination of economic inequality in America.
CURRENTLY STREAMING ON: HBO and Kanopy.
1. The Act of Killing (Spring Films)
dir. Joshua Oppenheimer
One of the most disturbing films of the past decade, “The Act of Killing,” remains a devasting document. Oppenheimer’s examination of the Indonesian Genocide would have been chilling enough. However, the graphic descriptions and then genre-infused recreations of the murders create a surreal experience. Utilizing film in its most creative capacity, Oppenheimer captures the horror and heartbreak of an understudied genocide.
CURRENTLY STREAMING ON: Amazon Prime.
What are some of your favorite documentaries currently available on a streaming service? Let us know in the comments below!