As any second grade teacher knows, children learn what they want to learn. Bobby doesn’t feel like learning division today? Not gonna happen. Unless…well, unless he learns without realizing it. The old pill in the ice cream trick, so to speak. Swallowing the medicine in the guise of something delicious, the innocent Bobby gets what he needs without ever realizing the ruse.
In a way, good documentaries serve a similar package. In a tasty dish of directorial vision, technical artistry and engaging narrative, they offer inspiration and knowledge. How many viewers left The Endless Summer with a renewed sense of passion? How many left Supersize Me pledging never to buy another Happy Meal? Or changed their holiday vacation plans after watching Blackfish? Any one of the fifty documentaries on this list contains enough medicine to change your life. And the best part? You don’t even realize you’re taking it.
Now, without further ado, grab some popcorn, sit back, and dim the lights. The show’s about to start.
Methodology: like our books piece, the selections for our Definitive Men’s Movie Collection represent our favorites, “considered in the light of how much they changed our lives, and might change yours.” If it makes you feel any better that your favorite flick didn’t make the cut, consider that one of our auditors, in a moment of weakness, tried to get Nick Cage’s Ghostrider on the docket. Taste is subjective, so take this for what it’s worth.
The brief life of F1 racing driver Ayrton Senna, who won the world championship three times before his death at age 34. Specific focus on his rivalry with Alain Prost.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunes TT3D: Closer to the Edge
Follow Guy Martin through the 2010 Isle of Mann TT. The most dangerous race in the world, the TT is a 37 mile course where riders average over 125mph. Settle in and get a glimpse at where raw courage meets insanity.
Amazon DVD / iTunes The Cove
The film that exposed Japan’s dolphin hunting culture and questioned its purpose.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunes Man on Wire
A stunning film on Philippe Petit‘s renegade 1974 high-wire walk across the 1,368-foot-tall World Trade Center buildings. Petit’s personality would be enough to make the film great even without the incredible visuals.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix Nanook of the North
Considered the first feature-length documentary, Nanook of the North follows an Inuk man and his family as they struggle to survive in the Canadian arctic.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix Hoop Dreams
The story of William Gates and Arthur Agee — two young men in Chicago with dreams of making it to the NBA. The 1994 film raises a number of issues about socioeconomic and social values in America all while showcasing the tireless drive of two dreamers.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunes Grizzly Man
An agonizing film about Timothy Treadwell and Amie Huguenard who were killed in 2003 while living among grizzly bears in Alaska.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunes Last Train Home
Director Lixin Fan highlights China‘s changing demographics and rise to the status of global superpower by following a Chinese couple as they embark on a trip back home for the Chinese new year.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunes 4 Little Girls
Spike Lee’s seminal film on the bombing of a Birmingham, Alabama church that killed 4 girls during the Civil Rights Movement.
Amazon DVD / Netflix Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room
A 2005 documentary on what was one of the biggest business scandals in history — Enron’s gaming of the deregulated Californian Electricity industry.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunes Nanking
On December 9, 1937, the Japanese army dropped leaflets on the capital city of China, Nanking: surrender or face annhilation. They delivered on that promise. The fall of the city brought six weeks of atrocities, including an estimated 200,000-300,000 deaths of Chinese citizens along with countless rapes, lootings and other crimes. Nanking focuses on the atrocities through interviews with survivors as well as letters and diaries; it also explores the Nanking Safety Zone, an area set up by foreign diplomats who fiercely defended the helpless Chinese citizens.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunes Home
Copious flyover shots provide this bio-doc its earthy eye-candy. And that stirring you feel in your gut? The realization that the film’s right — we humans are screwing things up.
Amazon DVD / Netflix Earthlings
Joaquin Phoenix narrates this doc on how we earthlings treat each other; specifically, it’s about humankind’s relationship with animals.
Amazon DVD / Netflix / iTunes The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters
“The average Donkey Kong game doesn’t last a minute. It’s absolute brutality”, says Billy Mitchell, the man who set a DK record score in the 1980s. But the cocky Mitchell has a new challenger — this time in 2007. Competition through an arcade game was never more intriguing.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunes Blackfish
Rethinking something that’s right in front of our faces: why do we expect a hulking, cooped-up creature to play by the rules, and why are we putting these things into captivity in the first place?
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunes
A two-part documentary on France’s collaboration — and resistance — to the Nazi occupation of France in WWII. The larger questions of the war loom, of course, but Marcel Ophüls brings human decisions, both cowardly and brave, into the limelight.
Amazon DVD / Netflix When We Were Kings
The “Rumble in the Jungle” fight, and Ali himself, are proof that life is stranger than fiction. Rope-a-dope, Zaire, good music and an incredible fight make for perhaps the best boxing doc ever made.
Amazon DVD / Netflix The Last Waltz
Never heard of The Band? You’ve certainly heard their songs and their influence. They backed Dylan; they wrote and recorded “The Weight”; Rolling Stone ranked them number 50 on their lists of best artists ever. In The Last Waltz the Canadians put on their final show, joined by one of the best lineups ever: Dr. John, Paul Butterfield, Muddy Waters, Eric Clapton, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Neil Diamond, Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Ringo Starr and Ronnie Wood. Oh, and it was directed by Scorsese. Dream team, indeed.
Amazon DVD / Netflix 56 Up
Turning real people into an epic documentary that spans lifetimes — now that’s a grand idea, and exactly what The Up Series is doing by making one film every seven years about the same cast of real people. The latest film, 56 Up, catches the protagonists as they round life’s bases.
Amazon DVD / Netflix / iTunes Restrepo
War is hell, especially in the Korangal Valley of Afghanistan. Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger teamed up to make this stunning war doc about their time embedded with an American Army unit; it’s the most iconic and powerful film about America’s most recent wars in the Middle East.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunes ESPN Films 30 for 30: The U
The story of the University of Miami’s football team in the 1980s. The film is a great look back at the amazing football and impressive cultural forces that shaped the team often referred to as “Thug U”.
Amazon DVD / Netflix A Man Vanishes
A 1967 film by Shohei Imamura about a Japanese man who disappears without a trace. Though this kind of disappearance was all too common in mid-century Japan, what’s uncommon is Imamura’s direction of the film and the twists it takes at the end.
Amazon DVD Chasing Ice
Jeff Orlowski’s excellent film follows photographer James Balog as he travels across the arctic to capture the effects of climate change.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunes Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse
A behind-the-scenes documentary about the making of Apocalypse Now and, how much it sucked to be Francis Ford Coppola between 1976 and 1979.
Amazon DVD / Netflix Bill Cunningham New York
A film following omnipresent fashion photographer and king of the blue unstructured blazer Bill Cunningham as he mills about New York photographing its residents.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunes Waiting for “Superman”
Exposing the miserable state of America and Washington DC’s public school system, Davis Guggenheim’s film follows students as they strive to be accepted into a charter school.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunes Searching for Sugar Man
The incredible story of two South Africans who set out to find a musical icon of their youth — the mythical Rodriguez.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunes Bowling for Columbine
Framed by the 1999 Columbine High School shootings, Bowling for Columbine is Michael Moore’s elightening and harrowing look into America’s obsession with guns.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunes Taxi to the Dark Side
A look at the “enhanced interrogation” practices of the United States in Guantanamo Bay, focusing on an innocent Afghani taxi driver.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix Crumb
A David-Lynch-directed look into the twisted and depraved — read: human — mind of one of the 21st century’s most influential cartoonists, Robert Crumb, as well as those of his two equally gifted but more disturbed brothers.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunes
Morgan Freeman. Penguins. It’s as good as it sounds.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunes The Endless Summer
THE surf movie. Bruce Brown’s seminal 1966 film follows Robert August and Michael Hynson around the globe in search of the perfect wave. Despite some mild racism during the Africa scenes, it’s an incredible journey.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunes Undefeated
An incredibly timely documentary about an underfunded and underprivledged high school football team that reverses its fortunes with a new coach. It’s like Remember the Titans, but real.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunes The Act of Killing
A harrowing documantary that interviews Indonesian death squad leaders — who have never been prosecuted and are still praised as heros — and challenges them to reenact their mass-killings in the style of American movies.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunes Deep Water
A compelling film on the first round the world sailing race, the 1968 Sunday Times Golden Globe Race, and its most unlikely, unprepared competitor, Donald Crowhurst.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunes Touching the Void
The perilous story of two men climbing in the Peruvian Andes. Not one of those movies where you want to go out and climb a mountain after…
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunes Exit Through the Gift Shop
A manic French filmmaker tries to film a documentary about the elusive street-artist Banksy…or is Banksy filming a documentary about him? Or are they both filming a documentary together? An interesting, insightful look at the art market.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunes The Thin Blue Line
In Dallas County, Texas, a young man gets convicted of a murder and the judge sentences him to die. Only problem? He didn’t commit the crime. Even if you don’t like the unique jig-saw puzzle arrangement of the film’s elements, you can probably still appreciate the fact that this film successfully got a wrongfully convicted man off Death Row.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunes Microcosmos: Le Peuple de L’Herbe
Before Planet Earth, there was Microcosmos, a French film focused exclusively on bugs that required fifteen years of research, two years of equipment design and three years of shooting. Have you ever seen a ladybug eat a mite? Now you have, and you’ll never forget it.
Amazon DVD / Netflix Super Size Me
We all know that fast food is bad for us, and yet we continue to eat it. After watching investigative filmmaker Morgan Spurlock eat nothing but McDonald’s for a month, you might think twice about ordering that Frosty.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunes Forks Over Knives
Forks Over Knives provides a compelling argument that many modern diseases — from cancer to diabetes — can be cured by changing our diets. If you’re looking to make a major diet change, this would be a good place to start.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunes Woodstock: Three Days of Peace & Music
For those of you who weren’t alive in 1969, or didn’t want to spend three days sitting in the mud with a bunch of hippies, this is the closest you’ll ever get to Woodstock. By itself, Santana’s live version of “Soul Sacrifice” is worth the price of admission.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunes Man With a Movie Camera
In 1929, director Dzika Vertov documented a day in Soviet Russia, as well as himself documenting the documentation of a day in Soviet Russia. Since then, numerous filmmakers have tried the “day-in-the-life” technique, though none ring with the same originality and authenticity as this landmark piece of documentary filmmaking.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix Shoah
Few pieces of film are more moving than this 566-minute documentary. Director Claude Lanzmann wanted to capture the Holocaust, but instead of relying on archival footage and recreations he interviewed witnesses, survivors and former Nazis to put together various first-hand accounts of the atrocity.
Amazon DVD / Netflix Deliver Us From Evil
Earning a 100 percent “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes, this superb bit of filmmaking documents one of the more obscene horrors of society. Through depositions, interviews with priests, psychologists, lawyers and even the man himself, this piece tells the story of Oliver O’Grady, a former Catholic priest who molested and raped approximately 25 children during his tenure.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunes Inside Job
Maybe you remember the point around 2009 when the entire country went to absolute shit as the financial system collapsed beneath us all, stranding homeowners, retirees, job seekers and everyone else in a mire of corruption and bullshit that we’re still climbing out of. The director himself calls the subject of his film “systemic corruption” in the financial fabric of the USA. This one’s a sure bet to get you riled up.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunes Into the Abyss
Werner Herzog’s film about the issue of capital punishment in our country focuses on the life and crimes surrounding a triple homicide. One man was sentenced to life in prison, another to death. The doc was so well received at the Tribeca and Toronto film festivals that it was rushed into theatrical release.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunes Winter Soldier
The years surrounding the Vietnam War were a dark, dark era in American History, the ripples of which still lap at our overall zeitgeist. Chronicling the Winter Soldier Investigation, a series of hearings that investigated atrocities and alleged war crimes in Vietnam — the killing of civilians, razing of villages and more — this film was originally ignored by the general media. Upon its re-release 30 years later, it has garnered near unanimous favor as a prime example of storytelling.
Amazon DVD / Netflix Stop Making Sense
This is the first film to use entirely digital tech, utilizing a $1.2 million budget raised by the subjects themselves — The Talking Heads. Shot over three nights, this is a concert video of the band’s Speaking In Tongues tour and has been called the “one of the greatest rock movies ever made”.
Amazon DVD / Netflix Buena Vista Social Club
We know Cuba churns out some killer cuisine and is home to an outrageous collection of classic cars, but this film documents the country’s supreme music scene. It chronicles Cuban musicians making an album and bringing it to concert form to the United States and the reactions of the band members throughout the experience.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunes