Wormwood (2017) – Errol Morris’s six-part Netflix miniseries is about a recently declassified Cold War-era CIA experiment known as Project MK Ultra. Along with comprehensive interviews from those involved, ‘Wormwood” features hallucinatory reenactments from well-known Hollywood actors including Peter Sarsgaard, Molly Parker, and Tim Blake Nelson.
Tabloid (2010) – “Tabloid” digs into a strange case that made headlines in the late 1970s; one involving international travel, kidnapping, and Mormonism. Morris does a fantastic job accentuating the incendiary nature of tabloid journalism while trying to settle upon some semblance of truth.
The Unknown Known (2013) – Morris sought out controversial former U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld for this compelling documentary. While known in recent decades for his role in the post-9/11 U.S. war in Iraq under President George W. Bush, Rumsfeld first served as Secretary of Defense under President Gerald Ford from 1975 to 1977, going on to work as an advisor to four U.S. presidents in total.
Standard Operating Procedure (2008) – “Standard Operating Procedure” uses the photographs of torture and abuse taken by U.S. military police at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison in 2003 as an entry point into a larger examination of what images mean and how they are used in the retelling of history.
The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara (2003) – Morris aims his attention at former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara with this documentary feature. Regarded as the chief architect of the Vietnam War, McNamara is a divisive figure with a complicated legacy. Morris relies on 20 hours of Interrotron interview footage and archival materials to tell his story.
Cheer – This six-part docuseries follows the nationally ranked 40-member Navarro College Cheer Team from Corsicana, TX, as they prepare to compete in the National Cheerleading Championship held annually in Daytona, Florida. Why does this series have a cult following? Because Coach Monica Aldama is tough AF, the stories of the cheerleaders on the team will make cry, and — most stressful of all — there are only 20 spots available on the mat.
Night on Earth – In this six-part nature docuseries narrated by “The Handmaid’s Tale” actress Samira Wiley, cameras that are extra sensitive to moonlight document the behavior of nocturnal creatures after the sun sets.
Nisman: The Prosecutor, the President, and the Spy – This six-part docuseries investigates the suspicious death of Alberto Nisman, an Argentinian lawyer who accused that country’s president of corruption after investigating a 1994 car bombing of a Jewish center that killed 85 people in Buenos Aires.
Watch “Nisman: The Prosecutor, the President, and the Spy” on Netflix.
Pandemic: How to Prevent an Outbreak – This stunningly prescient six-part docuseries introduces the scientists taking on influenza and details their efforts in stopping the next global outbreak — while also fighting underfunding in research and health care, anti-vaxxers, misinformation, and political red tape.
Watch “Pandemic: How to Prevent an Outbreak” on Netflix.
Sex, Explained – Various topics around the subject of sex are explored in this five-part docuseries produced by Vox. Topics include sexual fantasies, attraction, birth control, fertility, and childbirth.
Walk With Me – “Walk With Me” is a 2017 film that profiles a Zen Buddhist community in southwest France led by master Thich Nhat Hanh. Zen Buddhism is a tradition that grew out of Chinese Chan Buddhism. It’s a method for breaking the normal state of the questioning intellectual mind, and allows one to come to a nonverbal realization about the state of things as they are.
Hannah: Buddhism’s Untold Journey – This 2014 film tells the story of Hannah Nydahl and her quest to bring Tibetan Buddhism to the West starting in the 1960s. She later traveled to Nepal to become one of the first two western students to a great Lama in Tibet.
The Tibetan Book of the Dead: A Way Of Life – Released in 1997 and featuring the Dalai Lama, Leonard Cohen, and Ram Dass, “The Tibetan Book Of The Dead: A Way Of Life” takes viewers on a journey through the ancient book “The Tibetan Book Of Living And Dying,” also known as “The Tibetan Book Of The Dead.” The book explains the journey that the soul of every sentient being goes through between life and death and rebirth.
The Dhamma Brothers – 2007 film “The Dhamma Brothers” details the prison meditation program at Donaldson Correctional Facility outside of Bessemer, Alabama. The film focuses on four men who had been convicted of murder and includes interviews with them about the changes they’ve noticed in their psyche after engaging in consistent Vipassana meditation.
Samsara – “Samsara” actually isn’t a documentary so much as it’s a nonverbal guided meditation. Filmed over five years in 25 countries and released in 2011, “Samsara” explores the wonders of our world from the mundane to the miraculous, looking into the unfathomable reaches of humanity’s spirituality and the human experience.
1. The Hottest August– When you think of climate change documentaries, chances are you picture Al Gore giving a PowerPoint presentation, or else scientists talking about rising sea levels in alarmist tones. Director Brett Story takes a radically different approach, engaging with “normal” New Yorkers (each more eccentric than the last, actually) and editing their thoughts about the issues that concern them most in such a way that subtly reveals the disconnect between the looming crisis and their daily behavior.
2. Honeyland– Nestled in the Balkan mountains, a beekeeper sustains an existence that feels tied to something ancient and holy. Filmmakers Ljubo Stefanov and Tamara Kotevska, immerse us in a way of life that’s really a way of being. The disruption of the beekeeper’s habitual serenity by a more contemporary tremor — in the form of a honey-gathering interloper who practices something akin to mass production — speaks to a spirit the whole world is losing.
3. Apollo 11– An astonishing time capsule featuring footage few us even realized existed, Todd Douglas Miller’s mind-blowing documentary takes audiences inside the 1969 moon landing. Though the event was filmed extensively at the time, it took half a century for someone to put it all together, using masterful editing and vertebrae-rattling sound design to bear witness to this awesome technological feat.
4. Carmine Street Guitars – Rick Kelly makes hand-crafted guitars out of blocks of old New York wood in a crowded shop in Greenwich Village. But the guitars have a magical sound, and Ron Mann’s film is a piece of analog alchemy that celebrates the fading of a certain kind of New York bohemia.
5. American Factory – Directors Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar have been in the right place at the right time before. Their Oscar-nominated 2009 short film “The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant” captured the end of an era, as General Motors shuttered an auto manufacturing plant outside Detroit. Less than a decade later, they found themselves returning to the same site to bear witness to a bold new experiment, as Chinese glass company Fuyao moved in, offering locals new jobs under very different terms.
Empire of Dreams: The Story Of The Star Wars Trilogy (2004) – Created for the DVD release of the “Star Wars” trilogy in 2004, you aren’t going to find a more expansive making-of documentary on George Lucas’s original saga than “Empire of Dreams.” Clocking in at two-and-a-half hours, the film interviews virtually every cast and crew member involved in the making of “Star Wars,” “The Empire Strikes Back,” and “Return of the Jedi.”
Free Solo (2018) – “Free Solo” follows rock climber Alex Honnold as he sets out to free climb El Capitan, Yosemite National Park’s 3,000-foot rock formation. Free climbing, for the uninitiated, is climbing without any harness or safety line. Basically, it’s the scariest activity human beings can engage in that doesn’t involve space travel and/or uncaged lions. The film won the Academy Award for Best Documentary in 2018, and it’s easy to see why when you watch it.
African Cats(2011) – Narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, this Disneynature documentary follows two families of big cats living in the Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya. One, a family of cheetahs being raised by a single mother, have a brutal ongoing conflict with roving hyenas. The other, a pride of lions, have a seriously dramatic power struggle involving an exiled lion trying to seize control.
Waking Sleeping Beauty (2009) – If you have any interest whatsoever in the Disney renaissance of the late 1980s and early 1990s, you absolutely have to watch “Waking Sleeping Beauty.” It’s a surprisingly candid look at the studio’s revitalization thanks to the release of Disney classics, “The Little Mermaid,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “Aladdin,” and “The Lion King.”
Assembling a Universe (2014) – This short Marvel Studios documentary aired as a special on ABC in 2014, before “Avengers: Age of Ultron” had even come out, so it’s a little dated. But the doc gives fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe a look at the founding of Marvel Studios. When viewed together with Marvel’s 2019 doc “Expanding the Universe,” you get a good overview on how the MCU has grown over the past half decade, and where it’s going next. Both can be watched in under an hour.
The Birth of Gully Rap: Inside India’s Underground Hip-Hop Scene (2019) – This VICE documentary chronicles the rise of rap music across Mumbai and how DIVINE and Naezy popularized their unique brand of gully rap.
Bombay 70 (2015) – Naezy was Mumbai’s breakthrough rap sensation a few years ago. This documentary about the early years of his career shows how his life in an impoverished neighborhood fueled his passion for hip-hop, even though his family was not able to understand it at first.
SlumGods of Dharavi (2014) – In Dharavi, one of the largest slums in India, the SlumGods movement initiates youngsters into hip-hop culture with a hope that they don’t get swayed by untoward influences. This Guardian documentary explores the hopes and dreams of B-Boy Vikram and his mentor B-Boy Akku.
A New Wave in India Hip-Hop: Azadi Records (2019) – VICE Raps is an international docuseries that touches upon unique stories in hip-hop from across the world. This episode is about Delhi-based Azadi Records, an independent hip-hop record label with a roster of artists like Prabh Deep, Seedhe Maut, Swadesi, Siri, Ahmer, Rak, and Tienas.
A Hip-Hop Uprising in Mumbai’s Nalasopara (2018) – This Scroll.in documentary explores the hip-hop scene in the Mumbai suburb of Nalasopara, with a focus on the formation of Bombay Lokal. The members of the group explain how the suburb became an unexpected hub for hip-hop.
Sez On The Beat: The Producer Behind Indian Hip-Hop’s Breakout Hits (2018) – As part of the Indian Express Online series, Portraits, this documentary about then-Azadi Records artist Sez On The Beat follows the life of beat producer Sajeel Kapoor from Delhi. As part of the Azadi Records roster, Sez has produced beats and songs for some of the best rappers from across the country, including Prabh Deep, Seedhe Maut, Tienas, and Kashmiri rapper Ahmer.