Documentaries can also be a powerful force of change whether giving a voice to the voiceless or holding those powerful to account. Take Super Size Me, for example, where six weeks after it's release prompted McDonald's to announce it was eliminating the Super Size option from their menu.
Below, look at the top 30 best documentaries to watch.
30. Taxi to the Dark Side (2007)
Director Alex Gibney's 2007 documentary takes a powerful look into the harrowing details of the US' use of torture and interrogation during the Afghanistan War.
29. Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck (2015)
An authorised look at the Nirvana lead singer and iconic ’90s rock music star Kurt Cobain from his early days to his rising stardom and drug fueled downfall. Inspired to dispel the myths that surround the late Cobain, director Brett Morgen was given unrestricted access to Cobain’s journals, art, personal footage and never-before-heard cassette tapes.
28. The September Issue (2009)
A rare look into the inner workings of Vogue and the making of the 2007 September issue, a whopping 800-page magazine that sold 13 million copies. Available on iTunes.
27. The Overnighters (2014)
The documentary follows Jay Reinke, a Lutheran pastor in a North Dakota town who provides a sanctuary through his church to the town's recent overflow of migrants.
26. Bright Lights (2016)
The documentary is a touching and intimate portrait of actress Debbie Reynolds and her daughter Carrie Fisher. A few weeks before the premiere, both the mother and daughter died within days of each other making this film all the more poignant.
25. McQueen (2018)
A candid look at the life and career of fashion designer Lee Alexander McQueen from his early days at Saville Row, to launching his own line and subsequently his tragic death.
24. The Work (2017)
One of the top documentaries to come out of 2017, it chronicles an unconventional program at Folsom Prison where a group of volunteers participate in a four-day intensive group therapy with a group of California’s most hardened convicts.
23. Gleason (2016)
A moving portrait of former New Orleans Saints football player Steve Gleason who, at the age of 34, was diagnosed with Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a rare incurable neurodegenerative condition. Shortly after his diagnosis, he and his wife find out they were expecting their first child.
22. Bill Cunningham: New York (2010)
The documentary tells the story of the late New York Times photographer Bill Cunningham who for more than forty years documented what New Yorkers wore on the city’s streets. The original street style photographer, known for his signature blue jacket and cheerful demeanour, was a respected fixture in the fashion industry. As Anna Wintour said, “We all get dressed for Bill”.
21. The Fog Of War: Eleven Lessons From The Life of Robert S. McNamara (2003)
An interview with Robert S. McNamara, the former U.S. Secretary of Defense, wherein he reflects on his political career. The Oscar-winning documentary by Errol Morris tells the story of America through McNamara’s eyes, particularly his influence on the US’ involvement in the Vietnam War.
20. Amy (2015)
With rare footage captured by her friends and family and personal testimonials, the Oscar and BAFTA-winning documentary shows an intimate look at the life and career of British singer-songwriter Amy Winehouse from her rising stardom to her downward spiral.
19. Exit Through The Gift Shop (2010)
An amusing look at an eccentric French shopkeeper turned documentary maker who set out to find and befriend anonymous street artist Banksy, only to have the artist turn the camera back on its owner.
18. Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (2015)
The HBO documentary takes a look inside the controversial Church of Scientology and its founder, science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard. Based on Pulitzer Prize winner Lawrence Wright’s book and directed by Oscar-winner Alex Gibney, it includes personal testimony from eight former Scientologists who reveal shocking revelations including the religion’s systematic history of abuse and betrayal by Church officials.
17. In The Shadow Of The Moon (2007)
The space documentary brings together the crew members of NASA's Apollo missions to tell their remarkable story alongside re-mastered original film footage. Available on docplay.com
16. Pina (2011)
Directed by Wim Wenders, the immersive 3D dance documentary shows the Tanztheater Wuppertal perform contemporary dance choreographer Pina Bausch’s best known work.
15. Super Size Me (2004)
A shocking look at the fast food industry and their role in the obesity epidemic and poor health, the documentary follows Morgan Spurlock as he embarks on a one-month diet of only McDonald's food.
14. Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father (2008)
Kurt Kuenne decided to honour his murdered friend, Andrew Bagby, who was killed by his girlfriend Shirley Jane Turner, with a video scrapbook. But it becomes a true-crime documentary when it is revealed that Turner is pregnant with Bagby's son.
13. White Helmets (2016)
A powerful, short documentary on the White Helmets, a group of Syrian Civil Defence volunteers who risk their lives to rescue victims from daily airstrikes in Syria. It took home the Oscar for Best Documentary Short in 2017 as well as two Nobel peace prize nominations.
12. The Act Of Killing (2012)
Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary focuses on the death squad leaders involved in the mid-1960’s massacre of communists and ethnic Chinese people in Indonesia where nearly half/as many as a million people died.
11. How To Survive A Plague (2012)
David France’s Oscar-nominated documentary takes us back to the early years of the AIDS crisis and the grassroots movement of activists. Despite being largely ignored by the US government and medical establishment, two coalitions ACT UP and Treatment Action Group (TAG) pushed for action to combat the epidemic to turn it from a death sentence into a manageable condition.
10. Jane (2017)
A biographical documentary on British primatologist, ethologist, and anthropologist Jane Goodall drawing from over 100 hours of never-before-seen footage. It captures the story of how Goodall with no formal qualifications travelled to Tanzania to conduct research on chimpanzees and ultimately challenged the male-dominated field of science and people’s understanding of wildlife.
9. Three Identical Strangers (2018)
The critically acclaimed documentary tells the surreal story of three young men who, in 1980, meet each other and discover they’re triplets separated at birth. After the reunion, they become media sensations but it led to questions being raised ultimately revealing a secret with radical repercussions and an examination on the nature vs. nurture debate.
8. Jiro Dreams Of Sushi (2011)
This food documentary profiles acclaimed chef Jiro Ono who is the founder and owner of Sukiyabashi Jiro, a 10-seat, 3-star Michelin sushi restaurant located in a Tokyo subway station.
7. Waste Land (2010)
It follows renowned New York artist Vik Muniz as he travels to his native Brazil and the world’s largest dump in Jardim Gramacho. Muniz photographs a group of scavengers whose remarkable human spirit against impoverished circumstances is nothing short of inspirational and shows the transformative power of art.
6. The Central Park Five (2013)
Ken Burns tells the story of five African-American and Latino teenagers who were wrongly convicted of raping a white woman in New York’s Central Park in 1989. The Peabody Award-winning story of injustice, once called “the crime of the century”, looks at the sensational media coverage of the case and the racial tensions that underpinned New York in the late 1980s.
5. Blackfish (2013)
Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, the 2013 documentary is a succinct example of a documentary bringing about powerful change. The animal documentary takes a harrowing look at the controversial captivity of animal particularly focusing on Tilikum, an orca held by SeaWorld and responsible for the deaths of three individuals.
4. Planet Earth (2006)
One of the greatest nature documentary series, Sir David Attenborough transports us the incredible diversity and wonders of the natural world. Available on Netflix.
3. Man On Wire (2008)
The documentary takes a look at tightrope walker Philippe Petit’s illegal hire-wire walk between the Twin Towers in 1974. The Oscar-winning documentary chronicles the extraordinary act, described as the “artistic crime of the century”, and his subsequent arrest, psychological evaluation and jail time.
2. I Am Not Your Negro (2016)
The Oscar-nominated documentary envisions James Baldwin’s unfinished thirty-page manuscript Remember This House. Baldwin began a thought-provoking personal account of the lives and deaths of US Civil Rights Movement leaders Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. With the help of Samuel L. Jackson’s voice, the must-watch documentary sets out to fill in the rest of the pages. It examines the history of race in America intertwining the Civil Rights Movement with today’s #BlackLivesMatter and reveals the ugly truths of America.
1. Bowling For Columbine (2002)
Considered one of the best documentaries of all time, Michael Moore’s explores America’s relationship with guns starting with the 1999 Columbine High School shooting. It is a thought-provoking and uncompromising look at the culture of violence and fear in America.