Best documentaries: The 10 must-watch documentaries of all time (Updated in September 2018)
Best Documentaries of All Time - Our whittled down list of the top 10 documentaries and docu-series that you can catch on your favorite streaming platforms this year
Best documentaries: Yes, TV shows and movies are an easy, time-tested and relaxing way of killing time. But there's only so much fictionalized, dramatized takes of oft-covered events you can partake before you raise your hands in exasperation, begging for more consequential content. And before you go searching for it elsewhere, we got your back!
There are hundreds of impeccably crafted and meticulously put-together documentaries and docu-series out there that will take you neck-deep into some of the world's most intriguing stories. But because no one with a life has the time for all of them, we've cut the best documentaries list down to 10 that will almost certainly leave you begging for more:
10. The Rape of Recy Taylor (2018)
Directed and produced by Nancy Buirski, 'The Rape of Recy Taylor' looks into the events that defined Recy Taylor as one of the leading voices of the African-American community and her fight for justice that served as a precursor to the Civil Rights Movement in the US. Taylor's story was brought back into national attention when Oprah honored her during her 2018 Golden Globe Awards acceptance speech, paying tribute to her work and contribution to the cause of equality, just a few days after she passed away.
'The Rape of Recy Taylor' highlights the events of September 3, 1944, when 24-year-old Recy was raped by six white men in Alabama, and her fight for justice that followed. Taylor would then lock horns with the American justice system after an all-white, all-male grand jury refused to convict the men of the crimes despite the presence of overwhelming evidence against them; her fight was soon joined by thousands of fellow African-Americans across the country.
An emotionally packed rollercoaster described as "a stirring infuriating marvel" by rogerebert.com, this is one documentary that has earned its place in the must watch category.
Watch on: Starz
9. Aileen: The Life and Death of a Serial Killer (2003)
Made by English documentary film director Nick Broomfield as a follow up to his 1992 film 'Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer,' the sequel focuses on Wuornos' declining mental state and the questionable judgment to follow through with her execution despite her clearly being of unsound mind. Wuornos had murdered seven men in Florida between 1989 and 1990 by shooting them at point-blank range, claiming she had done so in self-defense after the victims had attempted to rape her while she was working as a prostitute. She was convicted and sentenced to death for six of the murders and was executed by lethal injection in October 2002.
Broomfield's second documentary partly stemmed from a series of interviews he had with Wuornos just one day before her execution. In these interviews, she claimed she was sane and that she would kill again if she was spared before turning on Broomfield and accusing him and society of 'sabotaging' her, thus portraying her fragile mental state. The film concludes with footage of a prison spokesman reading Wuornos' final statement at a press conference after her execution: "I'm sailing with the Rock, and I'll be back. Like Independence Day with Jesus, June 6, like the movie, big mothership and all. I'll be back."
Broomfield does brilliantly in tackling such a heavy subject matter, bringing into question the legitimacy of the findings of the psychiatrists that ruled her to be sane and the efficacy of the American justice system.
8. The Staircase (2018)
Directed by the highly-acclaimed Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, who won an Oscar for his 2001 crime documentary 'Murder on a Sunday Morning,' 'The Staircase' ('Soupçons') follows the story of crime novelist Michael Peterson, who was accused of murdering his wife Kathleen Peterson in December 2001 after he called to report her death to the police. The show derives its name from the fact that she was found lying in a pool of blood at the bottom of the staircase in their North Carolina home.
Robert DeNiro called it one of his most anticipated shows of the year, with Netflix even ordering a further three new episodes for the critically acclaimed docuseries for its streaming platform. 'The Staircase' remains one of the most comprehensively put together series in existence, thanks in no small part to the fact that Lestrade was granted unprecedented access to Peterson and his defense team as they worked to prove his innocence following his initial indictment. Close to 17 years later, Peterson's guilt/innocence remains a point of contention, though one way or the other, the documentary will force you to pick a side.
7. Making a Murderer
Described by critics as "a spellbinding slow burn that effectively utilizes the documentary format to tell a twisty mystery," the first season of 'Making a Murderer' was filmed over the course of ten years and explored the story of Steven Avery. Avery was wrongfully convicted of sexual assault and attempted murder in 1985 and served 18 years of his 32-year-sentence before he was fully exonerated by DNA evidence in 2003. The series lulls viewers into a false sense of security and happiness, tempting them with the promise of a happy ending before delivering the sucker punch.
Avery, who filed a $36 million civil suit against Manitowoc County, Wisconsin for his false imprisonment, is then arrested on charges of murdering Teresa Halbach, a local photographer. He is convicted of the crime in 2007 and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Quite the twist. After the success of season 1, Netflix announced that it was filming a second season that explored the aftermath of Avery's conviction and the numerous appeals that have since been lodged by his defense lawyers.
6. Wormwood (2017)
'Wormwood' is a six-part docudrama miniseries based one of the most infamous and controversial U.S government programs on record — Project MKUltra. The biological warfare program came to be popularly known as the 'CIA Mind Control Program' and involved experiments intended to identify and develop drugs and procedures to be used in interrogations to weaken individuals and to coerce them into confessions through mind control. The experiments inadvertently led to the popularization of LSD, which had a significant bearing on the counterculture and flower power movements in the late 60s and 70s, as well as a plethora of other domino effects and first came to public attention in 1975.
The Netflix series goes into details on the life of bacteriologist and biological warfare scientist Frank Olson, a CIA employee who worked at Camp Detrick in Maryland and who, after being secretly dosed with LSD by his supervisor, plunged to his death from the window of a 13th-story New York City hotel room. The details of his death remain fuzzy to this day, with some writing it off as an accident, while others claiming it was murder.
Directed by prominent documentary filmmaker Error Morris, 'Wormwood' is harrowing, thrilling, and devastating in equal measure.
5. Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2011)
Sukiyabashi Jiro is an unassuming 10-seat sushi restaurant in a subway station in Ginza, Chūō, Tokyo that is owned by chef and sushi master Jiro Ono. But the tiny restaurant is, in fact, the recipient of three Michelin Stars, and is considered to be the world's most premier destination for sushi and which hosted former US President Barack Obama along with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe in 2013.
David Gelb's 2011 documentary 'Jiro Dreams of Sushi' sees the filmmaker dive into Ono's constant strive for perfection in his work and his eldest son Yoshikazu's struggle to live up to his father's legacy. The documentary also takes a brief detour to look into the life of Oro's younger son, Takashi, who left Sukiyabashi Jiro to open a mirror image of his father's restaurant in Roppongi Hills. A critical consensus of the film aptly reads, "Beautiful, thoughtful, and engrossing."
If you find yourself with that instinctive urge to try out the sushi for yourself, Jiro serves a tasting menu of roughly 20 courses for around $281, though long wait times for reservations are to be expected.
4. Amy (2015)
On 23 July 2011, Amy Winehouse joined the infamous 27 Club alongside the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, Jim Morrison, and Brian Jones when she passed away of alcohol poisoning at her London residence. The British singer had broken all kinds of records in her all-too-brief career and was acclaimed for her deep, expressive contralto vocals and eclectic mix of musical genres including soul, R&B, and jazz. In 2015, 'Senna' filmmaker Asif Kapadia chronicled Winehouse's life in a documentary, 'Amy,' with resounding success.
'Amy' covered the singer's life and her struggle with substance abuse and alcoholism, and was released to become the highest-grossing British documentary of all-time. It went on to receive 33 nominations and won a total of 30 prestigious film awards, earning plaudits for its honest take on Winehouse's rapid rise and devastating fall, as well as its artful storytelling. Though a little over three years old now, her story remains as tragic as ever, and 'Amy' does as beautiful a job as any in explaining it.
3. Flint Town (2018)
The city of Flint, Michigan, hit national and international headlines in 2014 when the extent of its water crisis became apparent — insufficient water treatment and lead leached from lead water pipes into drinking water had left 100,000 residents exposed and helpless. Netflix's eight-part docu-series looks into the crisis while also focusing on the conflicted thoughts and emotions of the men and men sworn to serve and protect the city that, to this day, still struggles with poverty, crime, and a woefully-funded and financially strapped public service sector.
The series covers a period from November 2015 to early 2017, a similar time frame to that of the controversial 2016 presidential elections, and tells the plight of the city's police department, who in that short period, went down from a force of 300 per 100,000 98 per 100,000 residents. Boasting of a powerful narrative and some heart-wrenching personal accounts, 'Flint Town' poignantly exposes the systemic failures that resulted in one of the state's worst crises.
2. Bobby Kennedy For President (2018)
'Bobby Kennedy For President' sheds a light on the greatest president America never had — Robert F. Kennedy. Initially appointed as the Attorney General of the United States under brother John, Bobby would go on to represent the hope of a fractured nation at a time when the Vietnam War was still claiming American lives thousands of miles away. However, just like his brother, his life would be tragically cut short when a Palestinian assassin managed to empty his .22-caliber revolver into him in 1968.
The powerful Netflix documentary saw a global release on April 27 and utilizes never-before-seen archival footage to guide you through the turbulent 60s from Kennedy's POV. Boasting of numerous interviews from RFK confidantes, staffers, and acquaintances, it lays bare what America gained and lost in the life, vision, politics, and hope of a man who dared to dream.
1. Wild Wild Country (2018)
'Wild Wild Country' premiered in March with little fanfare but soon became a massive hit on the streaming platform. The documentary series explores the life and times of controversial Indian mystic and new religious movement leader Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, better known as Osho, and that of his one-time personal assistant and close confidante Ma Anand Sheela. After facing resistance in India, the pair, as well as his thousands-strong community of followers, relocated to the rural outreaches of Wasco County, Oregon, and set up the locality of Rajneeshpuram.
But when they begin facing resistance from community members in the area, tensions escalate, culminating in a foiled assassination plot, a massive wiretapping scheme, and what is still the largest bioterrorist attack in the country's history. 'Wild Wild Country' has been unanimously praised by critics for its unique and mesmerizing take on one of the forgotten chapters of US history, and for offering the perspectives of the very citizens who fought against Osho's hordes of followers. It's definitely worth your time.