The director Ava DuVernay follows up her acclaimed film Selma with a searing documentary that looks at the mass incarceration of minorities following the passage of the 13th amendment. As the documentary points out, it’s not just ingrained cultural racism that results in the widespread incarceration of African-Americans and other minorities. There’s a financial incentive as well, and it’s good business to lock people up. 13th systematically goes through the decades following the passage of the 13th amendment to show how black people were targeted by the media, by the government, and by businesses to create a new form of slavery. It is a movie that will infuriate you, depress you, and hopefully spur you to action against a system that has done egregious harm to our fellow citizens.
2- Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness
Each installment of the seven-episode docuseries Tiger King is crazier than the last, to the point that you may find yourself saying multiple times, “Well surely things can’t possibly get any weirder than this.” You’d be 100% wrong. Tiger King follows the exploits of Joe Exotic, a flamboyant and extremely confident owner of a private big cat zoo in Oklahoma. The story of Joe Exotic is stranger than fiction, involving lies, guns, a bid for the U.S. presidency, and a murder-for-hire plot. This is a thing that must be seen to be believed.
3- Crip Camp
The first Netflix documentary to hail from executive producers Michelle and Barack Obama was the Oscar-winning American Factory, and their second effort Crip Camp is just as great if not better. The film shines a light on the individuals who spent most of their adult lives fighting for basic human rights, with many having attended a camp for disabled tends called Camp Jened in the 1970s. Incredible archival footage from this camp opens the film, but we then follow the various people we’ve met as they spend the next few decades embroiled in activism to pass legislation to make the world accessible for those with disabilities. It’s a fight that never should have had to be fought in the first place, and it’s both inspiring and infuriating to see how tirelessly these individuals had to push and push and push to affect even the tiniest bit of change.
4- Miss Americana
The Taylor Swift Netflix documentary Miss Americana is far from your typical music doc. It isn’t even really all that focused on Swift’s music so much as it is on Swift as a person. More specifically, it’s a film about Swift’s long journey to figuring out how not to care what people think about her, and how that manifests in her feminist awakening and decision to publicly express her political opinion—which we see occur in real-time. Some will ding the film for being too manicured, and in truth it’s impossible to tell just how heavy a hand Swift had in the tailoring of the documentary re: her self image. But the film’s true moments of insight are hard to ignore, and it’s fascinating to watch Swift come to terms with who she is as a human being while also being one of the most famous people on the planet.
5- American Factory
Do you want to feel good about the state of the American industry and the treatment of its skilled labor force? Then skip this flick. American Factory is the award-winning look at a defunct General Motors plant in Dayton, Ohio which is given a new lease on life when a Chinese billionaire invests in it as a new American glass-making facility for his company, Fuyao. If you’ve ever worked on a factory floor or been part of either side of the picket line, you know how this story goes.
This documentary is the first title under the Higher Ground banner, a production company formed by President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama and distributed by Netflix. But it’s first a production of Participant Media, which screened the documentary at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival where it won the Best Documentary award and got the attention of Netflix and the Obamas. And just in case their involvement sways you one way or the other, try to check that bias at the door; American Factory tells of the plight of the skilled labor force, be they American or Chinese, as easy victims of the rich and powerful, be they American or Chinese. And it’s also the story of the American Dream, and whether that’s a fact or a fallacy.
There’s also a stinger at the end lamenting the ultimate decline of the human workforce due to automation, yet it’s worth remembering that the machines themselves are simply tools that improve the production pipeline; it’s still a human being, and often a bean-counting, bottom-liner who stands to make a few more points on their stock portfolio, who makes the call to replace flesh-and-blood workers at the end of the day.
6- The Great Hack
The 2019 Netflix documentary The Great Hack takes a deep dive into the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal, and how, despite Facebook’s denials, the social media giant used personal data harvested by its users. Through interviews with investigative journalists and Cambridge Analytica whistleblower Brittany Kaiser, the film offers a shocking deep-dive of how data has become the most valuable resource on the planet, and how data is used to target users with ads and fake “viral videos” and news stories to swing major elections. One of the most disturbing documentaries of 2019.
7- Power of Grayskull: The Definitive History Of He-man and the Masters of the Universe.
Tells you exactly what is waiting for you right there in the title. From filmmakers Lobb (Turtle Power, and the upcoming Conan the Barbarian and The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance documentaries) and McCallum (Nintendo Quest) comes a deep dive into all things He-Man. From the chaotic creation of the musclebound hero as a Mattel toy franchise dreamed up as a competitor to Kenner, to the low points of the brand in the late 80s and 90s, and the modern resurgence of the property thanks to a dedicated fanbase and savvy creative decisions, this documentary is a one-stop shop for all things MotU.
In just about 95 minutes, this lengthy chat with creatives behind the scenes of the brand, spanning from the early 80s to today, tells the untold tale of how one of the most iconic creations came to be. It’s fascinating enough for general audiences to see how the sausage is made in industries as varied and yet interconnected as toys, comics, cartoons, live-action movies, and more, yet it’s definitely made for the diehard He-Man and She-Ra fans out there. And if you’re a collector, watching the doc might not be enough for you; luckily you can add the newly released home video to your MotU collection starting September 3rd!
8- Knock Down the House
While some may be quick to dismiss this documentary because its main figure is liberal political Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, Rachel Lears’ film isn’t really concerned with the right-left divide. Instead, it’s about insurgent, grassroots politicians fighting the entrenched establishment power. Although Ocasio-Cortez’ story over-arches the whole film, Lears also takes time to follow other female politicians who are seeking to win their primary battles. The film is at its best when it shows the gritty, unglamorous work of campaigning and building a movement. If you’re fed up with business-as-usual politicians who have forgotten their constituents, Knock Down the House provides an inspiring rally cry.
9- Abducted in Pain Sight
The words “bonkers”, “crazy”, and “wild” might come to mind while watching the true crime documentary Abducted in Plain Sight, but they would all be negated by the disturbing story that unfolds in Skye Borgman’s film. The narrative follows the Broberg family, whose daughter Jan was abducted not once but twice by their neighbor Robert ‘B’ Berchtold. The details of those abductions certainly fall into the realm of stranger-than-fiction, but the methods of Berchtold are that of a true monster and predator who ripped the Broberg family apart simply so he could get at Jan. Yes, the details of the story are jaw-dropping, but the overall narrative is far more unnerving.
10- Five came back
The three-episode docuseries Five Came Back is an adaptation of author Mark Harris’ non-fiction book of the same name, which looks at World War II though the eyes of five filmmakers who helped the war effort in different ways: John Ford, William Wyler, John Huston, Frank Capra, and George Stevens. These iconic Hollywood directors were enlisted to make various documentaries during the war to rally support, train troops, and document horrific experiences. The docuseries—narrated by Meryl Streep and featuring interviews with folks like Steven Spielbergand Guillermo del Toro—takes a look at their careers before the war, the kinds of films they made for the government during the war, and how their work was forever changed by their experiences. It’s a must-see for WWII buffs, and not only is it masterfully structured, but Netflix has also made available 13 of the documentaries discussed in the film to watch after it’s over.
11- They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead
When Netflix finally released the long lost Orson Welles film The Other Side of the Wind in November 2018, they simultaneously dropped a documentary about the making of the notorious film. The result, They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, is utterly fascinating as it not only chronicles the decades-long journey of working on, shooting, reshooting, editing, reshooting, re-editing, etc. of The Other Side of the Wind, but it also gives insight into Welles’ career in the shadow of Citizen Kane. If you’re somewhat unfamiliar with Welles’ work outside that masterpiece, The Other Side of the Wind is a must-watch, as it explains why and how he kind of faded in his later years. But beyond that, the making of The Other Side of the Wind is simply insane.
12- Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes
Notorious serial killer Ted Bundy was unique in that he ultimately didn’t confess to his crimes—which include the murder of at least 30 women—until days before his execution. So the four-part docuseries Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes pulls from an interview series in which Bundy agreed to speak in the third person, analyzing the kind of person who may have committed the crimes attributed to him. The tapes themselves honestly don’t provide too much insight, but Berlinger’s documentary does. He interviews only those who interacted with Bundy in person and chronicles the killer’s life and crimes, juxtaposing them with the lies Bundy often told about himself and his upbringing. It’s an engrossing watch that gives ample voice to Bundy’s victims while also explaining how Bundy was able to elude authorities for so long.
13- Audrie & Daisy
Audrie & Daisy is a tough watch, but also a necessary one—especially in 2018. The documentary chronicles the stories of two high school students who were sexually assaulted. Audrie, 15, was subjected to such intense cyberbullying after the incident that she committed suicide. Daisy, 14 at the time of her assault, hears about Audrie’s story and tries to reach out, only to discover she’s already gone. The film tracks the events of both traumatic events while also chronicling how the institutions meant to protect citizens failed both of these victims. And while this is an intensely emotional film, the courage of Daisy’s story instills hope, and Cohen and Shenk conclude the film by focusing on the efforts being made to stop assault before it begins.
14- Formula One
If you think you’re not a fan of Formula 1 racing, prepare to change your beliefs. The excellent docuseries Formula 1: Drive to Survive takes an entire season of Formula 1 racing and condenses it into its best moments and storytlines with each episode approaching a riveting angle divorced simply from who’s the best team or who’s winning in the standings. Instead, the filmmakers find a unique angle in every episode whether it’s a team’s two drivers who don’t get along, a driver who is struggling with a series of crashes, a manager who doesn’t know how to get the best performance out of his team, and more. This is then paired with some really incredible footage that emphasizes the speed and agility of these magnificent vehicles. If you’ve looked at Formula 1 and just see a bunch of cars going around a track countless times, Drive to Survive shows there’s so much more happening under the hood.
15- Holly Hell
There are a lot of documentaries about cults, but Holy Hell is certainly one of the most engrossing to tackle this particular subject. The film hails from Will Allen, who documents his personal experience as a member of the Buddhafield cult for 22 years, which was led by a mysterious man who goes by the name Michel. What makes this particular documentary so fascinating is the fact that Allen served as the group’s official videographer, so there’s a bounty of footage from inside the cult that is contextualized with present day interviews from former members. There are many twists and turns to be found as the story unfolds, and it’s no spoiler to say that Michel is discovered to be quite the megalomaniacal leader. But Holy Hell does a great job of exploring why people were so entranced by Michel’s teachings, and how their own personal experiences in society made them more vulnerable and likely to stick around as things got weirder and weirder.
16- Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond
During the making of the 1999 film Man on the Moon, actor Jim Carrey made the decision to go full-method into the character of Andy Kaufman. He asked a couple of Kaufman’s real-life friends to help document the experience, filming Carrey both on and off set during the difficult shoot. But Universal Pictures prevented the footage from ever seeing the light of day, for fear that people would think Carrey was “an asshole.” So Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond unearths this footage for the very first time, and is juxtaposed with an extremely candid interview with Carrey shot in 2017. The result is a fascinating, unflinching chronicle of Carrey’s method acting—which at times was abrasive and infuriating. But the film is also an introspective look at Carrey’s life and career, and what makes him tick. It’s clear that the Man on the Moon experience had a profound effect on Carrey’s life, and forever changed how he saw things. For fans of Carrey’s work, this bizarre piece of documentary filmmaking a must-see.
17- Long Shot
The less you know about Jacob LaMendola’s 40-minute documentary Long Shot the better because its twists and turns are absolutely shocking even if its larger point should be burned into viewers memories by now. Overall, the documentary focuses on Juan Catalan, who was accused of a murder he didn’t commit and the lengths he had to go to in order to prove his innocence. While our justice system likes to tout that the accused are “innocent until proven guilty,” Long Shot shows in its brief runtime that the truth is just the opposite. Despite the flimsy evidence against Catalan, he had to be extraordinarily lucky to prove his innocence and that we have a system that incentivizes detectives and prosecutors simply to close cases rather than find justice. The brilliant thing about Long Shot is that it never has to come right out and say it. The case speaks volumes on its own.
18- The keepers
The “docuseries” format has become somewhat en vogue as of late, with HBO’s The Jinx and Netflix’s Making a Murderer expanding the whodunit nature of an episode of Dateline into a six, seven, or eight-hour comprehensive look at a cold case or some crime with a hook. At first blush, Netflix’s The Keepers looked to be in the same vein of these other watercooler series. The show promised to delve into the mysterious disappearance and murder of a nun, Sister Cathy Cesnik, in 1969, examining the circumstances, the many suspects, and other relevant aspects of the case. It’s soon revealed that Cesnik may have uncovered horrendous sexual abuse that was going on at the all-girls Archbishop Keough High School. Specifically, women came forward with allegations that two priests at the school, most prominently Father Joseph Maskell, had been forcing female students to perform sex acts on him and others. The theory, then, was that Sister Cathy was determined to out and put a stop to the abuse, and was murdered in order to silence her.
Abuse has permanent, devastating effects on the victim, and The Keepers brings this to light in a striking, upsetting, but necessary manner. How can we expect to prevent this kind of abuse in the future if we follow suit and dismiss it as “not our problem” or something best handled quietly? No longer are these victims shamed as liars, or silenced with threats—The Keepers gives them the space to tell their story, and as intriguing as Sister Cathy’s murder mystery is, it’s merely an entry point to an emotional and poignant tale that ultimately paints Sister Cathy as a hero who died trying to do the right thing.
This movie is insane. Icarus began as a project from Bryan Fogel in which the documentary filmmaker wanted to go on a doping regimen for the Haute Route to see if he could elude the race’s intense drug testing. But as Fogel makes contact with a Russian expert in doping, he soon becomes embroiled in the biggest athletic scandal in history, as his “expert” turns out to be the mastermind behind Russia’s doping of the Sochi Olympics. Part dark comedy, part thriller, Icarus is an exciting, fascinating, and truly stranger-than fiction watch.
20- Amanda Knox
Whether you’re already familiar with the Amanda Knox case or only have a vague recollection of the name, the Netflix original documentary Amanda Knox is a deeply fascinating watch. Framed by exclusive interviews with the titular subject herself, as well as those intimately involved in the case, Amanda Knox chronicles the murder of Knox’s roommate and the subsequent investigation, trials, and appeals regarding her apparent involvement. But beyond simply going into detail about the case, the film is also a searing indictment of the media’s inherent misogyny, and how public perception when it comes to women and sex can be skewed tremendously.
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