The 20 Best Documentaries on Amazon Prime

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The 20 Best Documentaries on Amazon Prime

Amazon lists “over 4,000” videos labeled “Documentary” available to watch for free with a Prime membership, a number whose weight you can feel down to your bones attempting to get some sort of usefulness out of Prime’s browsing function. Our #1 documentary selection was buried on page 20 of Amazon Prime documentaries, and we had to scroll 34 pages deep to find one of last year’s best docs, Time. Many of our favorite docs that used to be free for Prime members are now part of additional subscriptions like Doc Club, Sundance Now and Topic. Still, we were happy to find plenty of worthwhile documentaries from directors like Jonathan Demme, Sarah Polley, Jim Jarmusch and Alex Gibney. And if you’re reading this in 2021, you’ve still got a chance to see Standing in the Shadows of Motown and Grizzly Man, which are leaving Amazon Prime at the end of December.

Here are the 20 best documentaries streaming on Amazon Prime Video:

1. Stop Making Sense

stop-making-sense.jpg Year: 1984
Director: Jonathan Demme
Genre: Documentary, Musical
Rating: NR
Runtime: 99 minutes

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Lester Bangs once wrote an essay about “Heaven,” the Talking Heads song that in so many ways epitomizes and holds aloft Jonathan Demme’s concert film. In it, Bangs fixated on one of David Byrne’s iconic lines: “Heaven is a place where nothing ever really happens.” Heaven, he explained, is—to Byrne’s coke-addled mind—a way of life where all of the stimuli of modern society couldn’t reach him. Couldn’t affect him. Couldn’t whip him up into a frenzy. This, according to both Bangs and Byrne, is truly Nirvana. Stop Making Sense happened over two nights at the Pantages Theater in 1983, and the second song on the setlist is “Heaven,” set against a bare stage on the cusp of a drastic remodel. From there, the set, as well as the band, builds itself—instruments and writhing bodies and elaborately weird backdrops are added, one upon another, until the stage is absolutely seething with life. And so, not only was Stop Making Sense a document of a legendary band at the height of their powers, but it even today seems like an unheralded synergy of movement and sound, of image and artist—so much so that the band allows us to watch as they destroy, and then re-do, their own idea of Heaven. —Dom Sinacola


2. Stories We Tell

stories-we-tell.jpg Year: 2013
Director: Sarah Polley
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 108 minutes

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With Stories We Tell, actress-turned-director Sarah Polley has proven herself a consummate filmmaker, transforming an incredible (and incredibly) personal story into a playful yet profound investigation of the nature of storytelling itself. The central mystery to her documentary—that the man she grew up believing to be her dad is not her biological father—is public knowledge at this point, easily revealed in the film’s trailer and associated marketing. Yet Polley conceals and reveals information—starting with her relationships to her interview subjects—in such an effortless way as to constantly surprise, even shock, her audience without leaning into revelations for the sake of them. The result is a film that scrutinizes the ultimate purpose of truth—only to come up with a gorgeously rendered shrug. —Annlee Ellingson


3. Time

time.jpg Year: 2020
Director: Garrett Bradley
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 81 minutes

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Hope and despair constitute the vacillating emotions of Garrett Bradley’s Time, a lyrical look at Sibil “Fox” Rich’s efforts to free her husband from the Louisiana prison where he serves 60 years for a botched bank robbery, as his sons grow up without a father in the home (Fox herself served a few years for aiding in the crime). Her dogged attempts to break through to an uncaring bureaucracy are crushing in and of themselves, but the mannered composure with which she takes denial after denial builds a remarkable portrait of strength and resolution. One could ask how much Time grapples with the legitimate wrongdoing of the Rich parents, but Bradley does not give much credence to the question, because to do so would legitimize the system that, in doling out sentences so severe, ignores the humanity of the perpetrators in the first place. Sibil’s understanding of the morality of her and her husband’s situation is obvious, but also somewhat outside of the purview of Time, which is, for the better, much more concerned with the personal dynamic of the central relationship: how one sustains love and life when divided by an uncompromising and punishing system. The answer, in the case of the Riches, is Sibil’s home-made video diaries from a miniDV camera over the years, patched together with a score that gives the entire film the feel of a swelling epic—the intensely personal elevated to mythical proportions. Time truly builds to an ultimate moment of catharsis, an already deeply human moment filled with the additional powers of cinematic grace. —Daniel Christian


4. Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father

dear-zachary.jpg
Year: 2008
Director: Kurt Kuenne
Rating: 18+
Runtime: 93 minutes

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Kurt Kuenne was childhood friends with a man named Andrew Bagby, who, in late 2001, was murdered by ex-girlfriend Shirley Turner. Relieved he’d finally put an end to a turbulent relationship, he had no idea Turner was pregnant. So she killed him, then fled to Newfoundland, where she gave birth to Bagby’s son, Zachary. This is how Dear Zachary begins: a visual testament to both Andrew Bagby’s life, as well as the enduring hearts of his parents, who, as Kuenne chronicles, moved to Newfoundland after their son’s murder to begin proceedings to gain custody of Zachary. Kuenne only meant the film to be a gift, a love letter to his friend postmarked to Zachary, to allow the baby to one day get to know his father via the many, many people who loved him most. Told in interviews, photos, phone calls, seemingly every piece of detritus from one man’s life, Kuenne’s eulogy is an achingly sad portrait of someone who, in only 28 years, deeply affected the lives of so many people around him. And then Dear Zachary transforms into something profoundly else. It begins to take on the visual language and tone of an infuriating true-crime account, painstakingly detailing the process by which Bagby’s parents gained custody and then—just as they were beginning to find some semblance of consolation—faced their worst nightmares. The film at times becomes exquisitely painful, but Kuenne has a natural gift for tension and pacing that neither exploits the material nor drags the audience through melodramatic mud. In retrospect, Dear Zachary’s expositional approach may seem a bit cloying, but that’s only because Kuenne is willing to tell a story with all the disconsolate surprise of the tragedy itself. You’re gonna bawl your guts out. —Dom Sinacola


5. Human Flow”

human-flow-movie-poster.jpg Year: 2017
Director: Ai Weiwei
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 160 minutes

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Human Flow isn’t about its creator, Ai Weiwei, but one of its key moments, occurring about a half an hour before its end, is pure Ai. On their tour of hotspots in our burgeoning global refugee crisis, the director and his crew stop at the U.S./Mexico border to capture footage and talk with locals living on the line of delineation separating the two countries. As the crew films, they are at one point interrupted by the arrival of an American yokel riding a four-wheeler. Whether he’s official or just some self-styled border patrolling vigilante is unclear, though his intent to intimidate the filmmakers is crystalline. Ai Weiwei, having spent the better part of the film’s two-hour running time demonstrating his unfailing grace alongside his bottomless compassion, scarcely reacts. He doesn’t even budge. Ai is not a man you can easily cow. If you’ve read about his trials in China, or watched Alison Klayman’s excellent 2012 documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, then you know this well enough. But watching his mettle in action in Human Flow inspires a different reaction than it does in Never Sorry. Rather than admire his boldness, we’re invited to search out that boldness in ourselves. The problem that Human Flow documents is massive and gaining in scope, chronicled first as a trickle, then a stream, then a torrent, now a deluge—soon a tsunami. The crisis of our refugees all over the world isn’t a problem one fixes merely by, for instance, banging away at a keyboard or saying pretty things in public spaces. Instead, the problem requires action, and Human Flow, generously taken at face value, is a tribute to those in the trenches: relief workers, volunteers, doctors, academics and lawmakers fighting to give refugees fleeing disease, famine and violence unimaginable to many of us the respect and protection they deserve. In turn, the film asks the audience to what lengths they would go to safeguard innocent people from harm, to give them opportunities to make their lives better. Ai has no vanity; he does not position himself as the hero. Through his devotion to his subjects, Human Flow reminds us how much work it is to help the helpless. The tragic conclusion is that we’re not doing enough. —Andy Crump


6. Dior and I

dior-and-i.jpg Year: 2015
Director: Fr?d?ric Tcheng
Rating: R
Runtime: 90 minutes

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In 1956, French designer Christian Dior wrote a memoir detailing his life and the first 10 years of his iconic fashion house. The luxury brand lost its founder just a year later when Dior passed away at the age of 52. Subsequently, the House Of Dior has had six creative directors, including the legendary Yves Saint Laurent. Dior and I chronicles the beleaguered process of latest leader, Belgian designer Raf Simons, as he struggles to both prove himself in the long shadow of everything to come before, and debut his first Dior collection. When Simons was selected to take over in 2012, he was a relative unknown. A former menswear designer for Jil Sander, he favors a minimalist approach to clothing, making him far from the most obvious choice for the role of visionary behind the historically lavish fashion house. Director Fr?d?ric Tcheng—who, in previously working on Valentino: The Last Emperor and co-directing Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has To Travel, has seemingly emerged fully formed as the ideal person to capture the mood and character of this designer at a pivotal point in his career—used a small crew to follow Simons for his first three months on the job, intimately embedded with a stranger, an amateur in the world of Haute Couture. Dior and I expertly observes all aspects of Simons’ stressful transition, especially in the minutiae of being both an artist and a manager. Throughout the film, Simons is never far from his right-hand man, Pieter Mulier, and at times the pair slip into “good cop/bad cop” roles when dealing with the staff. This makes sense, because it allows Simons to remain somewhat insulated from any internal criticism as he continues to tweak the collection under duress, though his staff can’t help but have to compensate for the difficulty that insulation places on their own roles. Yet, Tcheng infuses this rapid tale of the modern fashion process—accompanied by a pulsating electronic soundtrack from artists like The Knife, The xx and Aphex Twin—with voiceover narration reading passages from Dior’s memoir. In this deft blending of past, present and future, Tcheng affirms that Mr. Simons has the utmost concern for protecting the legacy he’s inherited. Having shot over 250 hours of footage, Simons edited down his story to a succinct 89 minutes to emphasize the intensity of his behind-the-scenes look: This is what it takes to pull off a big reveal, to survive in an environment subconsciously bent on proving him wrong. —Matt Shiverdecker


7. City of Ghosts

city-of-ghosts.jpg Year: 2017
Director: Matthew Heineman
Rating: R
Runtime: 92 minutes

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There need not be a documentary about the Syrian catastrophe to rally the world around its cause—just as, in Matthew Heineman’s previous film, Cartel Land, there was no need to vilify the world of Mexican cartels or the DEA or the paramilitaristic nationalists patrolling our Southern borders to confirm that murder and drug trafficking are bad. The threats are known and the stakes understood, at least conceptually. And yet, by offering dedicated, deeply intimate portraits of the people caught up in these crises, Heineman complicates them beyond all repair, placing himself in undoubtedly death-defying situations to offer a perspective whose only bias is instinctual. So it is with City of Ghosts, in which he follows members of Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, a group committed to using citizen-based journalism to expose the otherwise covered-up atrocities committed by ISIS and the Assad regime in Syria. In hiding, in Turkey and Germany and at an event for journalists in the U.S.—in exile—these men, who Heineman characterizes as a very young and even more reluctant resistance, tell of both the increasingly sophisticated multimedia methods of ISIS and their hopes for feeling safe enough to settle and start a family with equal trepidation about what they’ve conditioned themselves to never believe: That perhaps they’ll never be safe. Heineman could have easily bore witness to the atrocities himself, watching these men as they watch, over and over, videos of their loved ones executed by ISIS, a piquant punishment for their crimes of resistance. There is much to be said about the responsibility of seeing in our world today, after all. Instead, while City of Ghosts shares plenty of horrifying images, the director more often that not shields the audience from the graphic details, choosing to focus his up-close camera work on the faces of these men as they take on the responsibility of bearing witness, steeling themselves for a potential lifetime of horror in which everything they know and love will be taken from them. By the time Heineman joins these men as they receive the 2015 International Press Freedom Award for their work, the clapping, beaming journalists in the audience practically indict themselves, unable to see how these Syrian men want to be doing anything but what they feel they must, reinforcing the notion that what seems to count as international reportage anymore is the exact kind of lack of nuance that Heineman so beautifully, empathetically wants to call out. —Dom Sinacola


8. Gleason

gleason.jpg Year: 2016
Director: Clay Tweel
Rating: R
Runtime: 111 minutes

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The best preparation for watching Gleason is to disabuse yourself of its inspirational marketing. You might think about Wiki-researching the film’s star, Steve Gleason, the former New Orleans Saints defensive back who wrote himself into legend in 2006 with a single blocked punt, but why bother? The film does an exemplary job familiarizing the uninitiated with Gleason’s career accomplishments and personality within its first 20 minutes before shifting toward 2011, the year he was diagnosed with ALS. Gird yourself for an emotional shellacking, for all the good that’ll do. It would be wrong to say that Gleason isn’t, in its own way, inspiring, or celebratory, or encouraging, or any number of positive adjectives that convey “triumph.” As the film moves forward, moment by moment, through Gleason’s struggles with ALS, there are heartening, tender and on occasion very funny beats that make Gleason, his wife, Michel Varisco, their friends, their family and the production crew look equally as relentless as his condition. For every push the disease makes in ravaging Gleason’s body, they push back. It helps that Gleason finds purpose by recording video diaries for his and Michel’s unborn son, his way of sharing as much of himself with the child as possible while he’s physically able to. But when you commit to having your life with ALS captured on camera, you commit to being seen at your lowest points, and at points lower than that. Gleason never shies away from reality, and that’s a big component of what makes it great. It’s an even bigger component of what makes the experience of watching the movie so soul-shattering, and by extension is the precise reason why queuing up the film with the phrase “inspirational sports doc” in your head will set you up for a sucker punch. Primarily, Gleason is not an inspiring film. It is a harrowing one. It is a two-hour chronicle of how terminal illness consumes its victims and overwhelms their loved ones, a portrait of what it is like to be helpless, in visceral terms, to your own mortality, and what it is like to watch the person you care about most in the entire world die slowly while you can only stand and watch. You cannot focus on the good in Steve’s life without also giving the bad due consideration. For every victory, there is a setback, every instance of joy, an instance of despair, every “Who dat?” chant, a scene of wrenching intimacy between Michel and Steve that we shouldn’t be seeing. That we’re seeing it at all is a rare, sobering gift. —Andy Crump


9. Long Strange Trip

long-strange-trip.jpg Year: 2017
Director: Amir Bar-Lev
Rating: 18+
Runtime: 302 minutes

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Long Strange Trip, Amir Bar-Lev’s Grateful Dead documentary, certainly lives up to its title in one respect: It is almost four hours long. (It screened in theaters in its entirety with an intermission, but is presented as a six-episode miniseries on Amazon Prime.) And yet, for a band as shrouded in myth as the Grateful Dead, such a grand treatment seems entirely fitting. Their path—from a scrappy San Francisco group with a penchant for experimental drug use and anti-authoritarianism, to disciplined recording artists, to a purely live act, to a global best-selling phenomenon with a massive cult following—is the kind of all-over-the-place, winding road that can’t be compressed into a mere two hours. As such, Long Strange Trip is packed with incident in its expansive length, and for the most part, the pace never flags. Even better, the insights and perspectives keep on coming at a breezy clip, with Bar-Lev featuring a dizzying array of interviews of current living band members; many of the backstage hands and groupies around them; a record executive or two; and even a couple of self-proclaimed “Deadheads.” All of this will be catnip to fans already predisposed to devouring anything Dead-related. Thankfully, Long Strange Trip offers plenty for those on the outside looking in as well. Not only does the film provide an exhaustive account of the band’s rise and fall, but it also clearly articulates their importance in music history, their singular character as a performing entity and even the distinctive nature of their fandom. The film’s most noteworthy achievement, though, lies in just how well it achieves the grand scope for which it aims. Bar-Lev not only proposes the Grateful Dead as an embodiment of the American ideal of absolute freedom—for better and for worse—but, by sheer force of its epic length and attention to multitudinous biographical and human detail, Long Strange Trip makes that thesis seem absolutely convincing. One may well come away from Long Strange Trip believing that the Grateful Dead is, if not necessarily the greatest band ever, at least the most profoundly American of them all. —Kenji Fujishima


10. Gimme Danger

gimme-danger-210.jpg Year: 2016
Director: Jim Jarmusch
Rating: R
Runtime: 108 minutes

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Jim Jarmusch opens Gimme Danger, his documentary about the legendary punk rock band The Stooges, on a downbeat note: not with Iggy Pop’s and/or the band’s beginnings, but with the point at which they initially separated, not too long after the release of their third album, Raw Power, in 1973. It’s an unexpectedly daring way to start a movie about the band Jarmusch considers “the greatest rock band ever,” as he willingly admits in an early title card—an opening that suggests a refreshingly honest approach to even a band he reveres. This initial impression is buttressed by Jarmusch’s decision to identify Iggy Pop not by his more famous nom de guerre, but by his real name, James Osterberg, thereby implicitly lifting the veil on the famously anarchic stage personality, bringing him back into the human realm. Alas, Jarmusch’s innovations with the genre end there. Gimme Danger proves to be more or less a straightforward rock documentary from then on, tracing the rise, fall and subsequent revival of The Stooges over the decades. Talking heads predominate, with band members Iggy Pop; drummer Scott Asheton in archival interview footage (he died in 2014); his brother Ron Asheton—who was the Stooges’ guitarist on their first two albums, The Stooges and Fun House—also in archival footage (he died in 2009); and James Williamson, the guitarist on Raw Power, all contributing. At least there’s Iggy Pop, who may no longer be the fireball he was on stage, but who recalls his own life with refreshing forthrightness and august reflection. Perhaps Jarmusch’s relative aesthetic plainness could be said to echo its subjects: Iggy, the Ashetons, Williamson and the rest all exude an air of former bad boys looking back on their halcyon days nostalgically but without sentimentality. —Kenji Fujishima


11. Pumping Iron

pumping-iron-cover.jpg Year: 1977
Directors: Robert Fiore, George Butler
Rating: PG
Runtime: 85 minutes

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Behold arrogance anthropomorphized: A 28-year-old Arnold Schwarzenegger, competing for his sixth Mr. Olympia title, effortlessly waxes poetic about his overall excellence, his litanies regarding the similarities between orgasming and lifting weights merely fodder between bouts of pumping the titular iron and/or flirting with women he can roll up into his biceps like little flesh burritos. He is both the epitome of the human form and almost tragically inhuman, so corporeally perfect that his physique seems unattainable, his status as a weightlifting wunderkind one of a kind. And yet, in the other corner, a young, nervous Lou Ferrigno primes his equally large body to usurp Arnold’s title, but without the magnanimous bluster and dick-wagging swagger the soon-to-be Hollywood icon makes no attempt to hide. Schwarzenegger understands that weightlifting is a mind game (like in any sport), buttressed best by a healthy sense of vanity and privilege, and directors Fiore and Butler mine Arnold’s past enough to divine where he inherited such self-absorption. Contrast this attitude against Ferrigno’s almost morbid shyness, and Pumping Iron becomes a fascinating glimpse at the kind of sociopathy required of living gods. —Dom Sinacola


12. Author: The JT LeRoy Story

author.jpg Year: 2016
Director: Jeff Feuerzeig
Rating: R
Runtime: 111 minutes

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The story of literary wunderkind JT LeRoy is a fascinating one: The abused teen burst on the scene with a fictionalized novel of his horrific childhood and quickly became a darling of artists everywhere. Famously too shy to read his own works in public, he had actors and musicians including Lou Reed do the readings for him. Embraced by celebs from Tom Waits to Winona Ryder and Courtney Love, JT eventually began making appearances (always hiding behind sunglasses) along with his manager, 40-something Laura Albert. A movie was made about his life by Asia Argento and everything was looking up … until a New York Magazine exposé revealed the truth: There was no JT LeRoy. Albert had invented him. This is the first film in which Albert tells her side of the story. She says she always felt more comfortable writing with a male persona and that she never intended her alter ego as a “hoax.” Having her sister-in-law portray JT in public, however, was a move that both escalated and unraveled the fictional persona. The documentary by Jeff Feuerzeig raises some interesting questions about fame and celebrity.


13. The Kill Team

the-kill-team.jpg Year: 2014
Director: Daniel Krauss
Rating: R
Runtime: 97 minutes

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The Kill Team, winner of the Best Documentary Feature at the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival, focuses on one of the more incendiary stories of the Afghan War theater, in which members of an American unit were accused of deliberately targeting and killing innocent civilians, all for simply the thrill of the kill. Directed by Daniel Krauss, Oscar-nominated for his short The Death of Kevin Carter, the film unfolds chiefly through the perspective of Adam Winfield and his parents, Christopher and Emma. When, in early 2010, 21-year-old Winfield heard about and witnessed members of his platoon murdering innocent civilians—planting so-called “drop weapons” on the corpses to make it appear as though they were terrorists—he reached out to his father by instant message, unnerved by these heinous war crimes. Left on his own and with threats against his life by the commanding officer, Staff Sergeant Calvin Gibbs (who was at the center of these actions), Winfield would find himself drawn into a moral abyss, eventually forced, in May of that year, to make a split-second decision. When the platoon’s actions were later discovered, Winfield was among five charged with premeditated murder in a military court. (Six more would be charged with participating in a cover-up.) The Kill Team is certainly bracing in its forthrightness. With extraordinary access to the key individuals involved in the case—including the candid confessions of two other members of the so-called “Kill Team,” Jeremy Warlock and Andrew Holmes—Krauss’ briskly paced film takes a thought-provoking look at one of the types of stories of war that is so frequently forgotten once the first wave of stateside civilian outrage dissipates after a couple of news cycles. —Brent Simon


14. Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room

Enron.jpg Year: 2005
Director: Alex Gibney
Rating: R
Runtime: 109 minutes

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In a cautionary tale of corporate greed, negligence and diffusion of responsibility, the leaders of Enron defrauded employees and investors out of millions, encouraging others to stay aboard a sinking ship while they were quietly bailing themselves out. Among the highlights of Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room is Alex Gibney’s montage that cross-cuts footage of Stanley Milgram’s 1961 social experiment with images of the chaos caused by Enron in the 2000 California energy crisis, narrated by phone calls between ruthlessly jovial Enron traders, all set to Los Straightjackets’ “California Sun.” The unexpected wit and verve with which this documentary tells its infuriating tale is what sets it apart. —Emily Riemer


15. One Child Nation

one-child-nation.jpg Year: 2019
Directors: Nanfu Wang, Lynn Zhang
Rating: R
Runtime: 89 minutes

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The idea of the perfect family unit, its presence on television or in advertisements or in books, is a kind of propaganda. Everyone knows this, knows that idea embeds itself into political and cultural consciousnesses, knows that propaganda becomes an integral part of the identity, of the very notion of “family.” In Nanfu Wang and Lynn Zhang’s blistering One Child Nation, Wang digs deep into her past, comprised of the artifacts of propaganda that allowed the “One-Child Policy” in China to flourish. The film strikes a balance between investigative journalism and memoir, interrogating both the cultural texts that propagated the policy’s importance—its “benefits”—as well as the people in her life who were complicit in its consequences. It’s a documentary that cuts close to the bone, its rawness never undermining its commitment to challenging the institutions that allowed such a destructive policy to operate. As Wang questions her own connection to family and policy, the film unearths how politics can so easily shape family life itself. —Kyle Turner


16. Fahrenheit 11/9

fahrenheit-119-poster.jpg Year: 2018
Director: Michael Moore
Rating: 18+
Runtime: 127 minutes

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Watching Fahrenheit 11/9 is like walking into an intervention only to find out that the meeting is about you. It’s not unreasonable, with Michael Moore at the helm, to expect another liberal circlejerk that exposes our president for the racist, misogynist, criminal, traitor, etc. he is. The past three years have been chock full of “epic takedowns” of #45 in the form of op-eds, TV talking heads and documentary material, offering Americans and the rest of the sensible world a placebo to make them feel self-satisfied and moderately sane. Do we really need our smug thoughts about the terrifying direction in which the country is going pumped back into our heads like an ouroboros of ideology? What Moore offers instead is a stern finger pointed at us, all of us. Our inactivity against and complicity in the slow-moving moral corrosion of our political system resulted in Donald Trump. Fahrenheit 11/9 is a painful but necessary sit-down with the American people to tell us that we all fucked up, that we need to get to work if there’s any hope to save this experiment called democracy. Moore’s film is surprisingly light on bashing He Who Should Not Be Named. What could he say that we don’t already know? All we get out of him is a brief moment where he calls the current POTUS a “malignant narcissist.” That’s more than enough. This is no conspiratorial doc demonstrating how Russia put him in power, either. What it is about is how we remain silent as the world dies around us—sometimes literally, as in the case of the Flint water crisis. In turn, this is the most engaging and emotionally effective Moore doc since Bowling for Columbine. Partly this has to do with the clear immediacy he demonstrates in letting us know that the liberal promise of America is on life support, sparking an urgent fire in his wit and editing that’s missing from his more recent work, but mostly the success of the film is, instead of indicting the rich and powerful, he connects with his audience personally. Everyone can share some of the blame, and should carry some of the burden if there is any hope for course correction. —Oktay Ege Kozak


17. Jesus Camp

jesus-camp.jpg Year: 2006
Directors: Heidi Ewing, Rachel Grady
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 84 minutes

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This hard-to-watch film follows three children who attend a charismatic Christian summer camp called Kids On Fire in North Dakota. The kids speak in tongues, believe global warming is a political conspiracy, and bless a cardboard cutout of George W. Bush. There’s no need for a narrator or editorial opinion—the footage says it all. It’s no surprise that the camp closed after the film’s release. —Kate Kiefer


18. No No: A Dockumentary

45-Netflix-Docs_2015-no-no.jpg Year: 2014
Director: Jeffrey Radice
Rating: 16+
Runtime: 100 minutes

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If you’ve ever heard of Dock Ellis, then you know the story: in 1970, pitching professional ball for the Pittsburgh Pirates, he threw a no hitter (a “no no”) while high on LSD. It’s a great story, especially told from Dock’s point of view—replete with crucial tidbits about how the catcher wore tape on his fingers so that the tripping Dock could see the signals, or how the level of Dock’s intoxication wasn’t exactly a rarity—but that story is only one page in the much broader account of Dock Ellis’s iconic tenure on this earth. A true-blue weirdo with an admirable proclivity to give practically zero fucks (not to mention becoming, in retrospect, an unheralded civil rights firebrand), Dock was a man of both radical shallowness and progressive steadfastness—one of addiction, salvation, dedication and devotion. And the story went: In 1970, pitching professional ball for the Pittsburgh Pirates, Dock Ellis threw a no hitter while high on LSD—it was a sad reminder of how far out of control his life had swerved.—Dom Sinacola


19. Val

val.jpg Year: 2021
Directors: Leo Scott, Ting Poo
Rating: R
Runtime: 108 minutes

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Despite knowing that actor Val Kilmer underwent two tracheostomies after being diagnosed with and beating throat cancer in the late 2010s, the voice box mechanism now implanted in his neck altering his voice to a raspy garble, one might think the actor was somehow effortlessly narrating his own documentary. Kilmer’s 26-year-old son, Jack, sounds eerily like his father once did. And though Kilmer’s difficult-to-parse robotic croak still proliferates Leo Scott and Ting Poo’s documentary (he admits he sounds much worse than he feels), it’s Jack’s voice which acts as the guiding narration throughout—a living, breathing bridge between his father’s past, present and even future; a reminder of what once was and what will never be, and what possibilities still exist in spite of both. Less a documentary, Val is a subjective self-portrait of a prolific actor, and a revealing, often frustrating look at the way he views himself and his life’s work. Though directed and edited by Scott and Poo (joined by Tyler Pharo in the edit), it’s hard to view Val as anything but wholly representative of and handled by the subject himself. Kilmer as star, producer, writer and cinematographer. Along with his son’s narration and the handwritten notes Kilmer etches onto shots, the documentary is almost entirely stitched together by footage that Kilmer’s been amassing since he was a boy growing up in the Chatsworth neighborhood of Los Angeles. Kilmer has two brothers, Mark and Wesley, while his father, Eugene, was an industrialist and real estate developer. His mother, Gladys, was a spiritualist and immensely influential on Kilmer’s lifelong faith in Christian Science—a topic close to Kilmer’s heart and only one of which is interestingly glossed over here. From a young age, Kilmer had a passion for acting and for being both in front of and behind the camera, relaying that he was actually the first person he knew to own a video camera at all. A natural clown and gifted performer, Kilmer revelled as much in an audience’s attention as he did in stepping away from the spotlight and allowing himself to be the spectator. Kilmer’s archival footage—home movies, including short films with his brothers and school plays; behind-the-scenes looks at major films; audition tapes; film ideas—reveal an endlessly curious artist transfixed by the space that he occupies. Kilmer’s dedication to documenting his life is less emblematic of egomania than of the pure desire to record as much of his placement within the world as he can, and of the other people and artists whom he is privileged to experience gravitating towards his orbit. As can be said of its real-life subject, Val is moving, inspiring, funny and fractured. It’s a look at the man and an expansion of the myth, revealing just as much as it continues to obscure. —Brianna Zigler


20. Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thomspon

gonzo.jpg Year: 2008
Director: Alex Gibney
Rating: R
Runtime: 119 minutes

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My favorite thing about Alex Gibney’s entertaining documentary, Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thomspon, is that it makes me want to read what Thompson wrote. True to its name, the film trains its fair but reverent lens on the man’s exploits and writings, in roughly equal measure. Johnny Depp reads his words engagingly in this documentary, but they’re better on the page where even his account of a 1972 presidential election, which dwells on historical footnotes and also-rans, crackles with wit. To modern eyes, that account is also startlingly relevant, which may have inspired the film. Gonzo feels like a contemporary lament for the void left by Thompson’s suicide in 2006, an audible wish that the man had found a way to rekindle the passion instead of calling it quits. The movie begins with a prescient essay Thompson wrote on September 11, 2001. “We are going to punish somebody for this attack,” he wrote, “but just who or what will be blown to smithereens for it is hard to say.” The film then pops back to Thompson’s heyday of the ’60s and ’70s when he was infiltrating the Hell’s Angels, running for mayor of Aspen, Colo. on the Freak Power ticket, and covering a presidential election for Rolling Stone. His adventures became the stuff of legend and formed the spine of his written work. In Gonzo, Gibney recreates bits of Thompson’s history with reenactments that look like home movies. They’re fake, but sometimes they’re married to real audio recordings, creating a sort of confusion that was also a hallmark of Thompson’s work. He managed to get some great interviews with people who Thompson supported, skewered, or supported then skewered: Jimmy Carter, Pat Buchanan, George McGovern. Thompson’s truth-telling about the ’72 election sprang from an idealism that could bear both hope and despondency as its fruits. Thompson’s erratic, drug-addled demeanor may have obscured that singular talent, and while Gonzo is honest about his excesses and failures, it’s also an important protector of his deserved legacy because it shows respect for his work.

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