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.
Long before streaming services such as Netflix and Hulu started releasing documentaries, HBO set the genre’s gold standard.
Below are the 15 best HBO Documentaries of all time listed in alphabetical order.
At the Heart of Gold: Inside the USA Gymnastics Scandal (2019) – In 2016, Rachel Denhollander publicly accused USA Gymnastics national team doctor Larry Nassar of sexual misconduct. Her report would empower over 300 women to come forward with their own stories, each one a victim of Nassar’s inappropriate medical “treatments” over a 13 year period. Culling together footage of Nassar, clips from the court hearings, and interviews with the victims, “At the Heart of Gold” is an alarming tale that examines muddled notions of right and wrong, while also providing an empowering precedent for the #Metoo movement a few months after.
Baltimore Rising (2017) – Most of us probably remember what occurred during the Baltimore protests in 2016. But “Baltimore Rising” is something altogether different, capturing the city after 25-year-old black man Freddie Gray died while in police custody. For those who envision the Baltimore riots as if they were an apocalyptic movie scene—the initial scenes will not necessarily disprove this dystopian imagery—”Baltimore Rising” will expose viewers to the greater picture of the aftermath, providing a nuanced perspective of an event that shook the social and political landscape of the country.
Beware the Slenderman (2016) – On May 31, 2014, two twelve-year-old girls took their best friend to the woods and stabbed her 19 times, acting under the delusion that they might appease an internet meme known as Slenderman. Irene Taylor Brodsky’s chilling documentary uses court footage, family and friend interviews, criminal investigation interrogation videos, and deep-dives on internet forums to show the origin of the girls’ beliefs and their budding plans.
Boy Interrupted (2019) – In an emotional collection of personal footage, filmmaker Dana Perry guides us through the life of her bipolar son leading up to his suicide at the age of fifteen. The documentary, titled after the acclaimed novel “Girl, Interrupted,” is a front-row seat to the progression of mental health.
Everything is Copy—Nora Ephron: Scripted & Unscripted (2015) – Some people seem to live a hundred lives, and they are the ones who make the best documentary subjects. “Everything is Copy” details Nora Ephron’s life, career, and relationships, as captured by her eldest son—who interviewed her closest cohorts. The love shown for Ephron by each friend, confidant, and editor is interspersed with interviews of Ephron herself, as well as clips from her films from “Heartburn” to “Harry Met Sally” to “Julie & Julia.”
Untouchable – Hulu documentary “Untouchable” opens some still fresh wounds about the Harvey Weinstein scandal and the #MeToo movement. Ursula Macfarlane’s film about Harvey Weinstein features harrowing interviews with Weinstein accusers Rosanna Arquette, Hope d’Amore, Paz de la Huerta, and others.
Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice – Oscar winners Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman direct this documentary about the career of Linda Ronstadt that includes archival footage that spans 50 years. The film charts the early days of her career in the 1960s through becoming the highest paid female rock and roll performer in the 1970s, all culminating in her retirement in 2011 due to her battle with Parkinson’s disease.
Arrives in theaters on Sept. 6
Where’s My Roy Cohn? – Filmmaker Matt Tyrnauer told TheWrap at the Sundance Film Festival that he chose to make his film about the political mastermind Roy Cohn — best known as Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s chief counsel during the hearings about Communists in government — the day Donald Trump was elected President of the United States. His ruthless influence has since been felt far and wide, not just on politics but on the culture at large, serving as a mentor for Roger Stone, Ronald Reagan, and Trump alike.
Arrives in theaters on Sept. 20.
Midnight Traveler – Afghan filmmaker Hassan Fazili gained intimate access to the story of a family fleeing their home after being targeted by the Taliban. That’s because it was his own family who was on the run. Fazili shot his film across several years on three iPhones, capturing daring moments as they crossed borders and more intimate home movie moments of his family as refugees.
Arrives in theaters on Sept. 18.
The Kingmaker – Director Lauren Greenfield obtained unprecedented access to the former first lady of the Philippines, Imelda Marcos. The documentary explores the disturbing legacy of the Marcos regime and chronicles Imelda’s present-day push to help her son, Bongbong, win the vice presidential nomination.
The Seven Five (2014) – Crooked New York City police officers get a filmed perp walk in this examination of the city’s infamous 75th precinct, which was a hive of corruption in the 1980s. Ringleader Michael Dowd talks about how taking money from drug dealers to offset his salary woes led to an increasingly complex and dangerous web of deceit.
The Central Park Five (2013) – Director Ava DuVernay’s “When They See Us” series on Netflix has brought renewed attention to the Central Park Five case, which saw five minors wrongly convicted of attacking a jogger in New York’s Central Park in 1989. “The Central Park Five” co-directed by Ken Burns, his daughter Sarah Burns, and her husband David McMahon examines the case, from the coerced confessions of the boys to their attempts to clear their names.
Killing for Love (2015) – When married couple Derek and Nancy Haysom are found dead in their Virginia home in 1985, suspicion falls on their daughter, Elizabeth, and Elizabeth’s boyfriend, Jens Söring. Was Jens a co-conspirator or just a pawn in Elizabeth’s game? Watch and find out.
Without Charity (2013) – In 2000, police discover a trio of construction workers murdered at an expensive house in Indiana. As police dig deeper, they uncover Charity Payne, a woman who might have helped a group of robbers break in and commit the murders.
Out of Thin Air (2017) – In 1974, two men in Iceland disappeared. A police investigation led to six men, who were all eventually sent to prison after confessing to the murders. Decades later, new evidence casts doubt on their version of events—and whether they killed anyone at all.
Filmworker (2017) – Leon Vitali had it all in the 1960s and 1970s as a star on the rise, but he gave it all up when he met Stanley Kubrick. A heartfelt and stirring documentary about the right-hand man of one of cinema’s greatest visionaries, director Tony Zierra charts Vitali’s career from its early promise to his tutelage by Kubrick to his eventual role as protector of the legendary director’s legacy after his death.
This Film Is Not Yet Rated (2006) – Since its inception, the Motion Picture Association of America’s Classification and Ratings Administration has been met with the ire and derision of filmmakers, but director Kirby Dick’s “This Film Is Not Yet Rated” was the first full-frontal assault against the organization. The documentary explores the hypocrisy and corruption behind the business of rating movies,
That Guy…Who Was in That Thing (2012) – From directors Ian Roumain and Michael Schwartz, “That Guy…Who Was in That Thing” explores the frustrating phenomenon of actors who are in everything, yet aren’t household names.
Hitchcock/Truffaut (2015) – Taking a simple idea and elevating it to essential cinema, director Kent Jones assembles a diverse group of voices—from Scorsese to Fincher, to Kurosawa, to Linklater—to discuss the famous meeting that took place in 1962 between Alfred Hitchcock and François Truffaut that cast a light on the auteurs’ cinematic process.
Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films (2014) – There are lots of well-respected film studios, but Cannon Films isn’t one of them. And thank the movie gods because, without Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, we wouldn’t have such classics as “Ninja III: The Domination,” “King Solomon’s Mines,” and “Cobra.”