Best Documentaries: Top Documentaries to Watch

The truth is stranger than fiction!

Documentaries are nonfictional films that document some interesting aspect of real life. They can be short or run the length of a full feature film, and can be shot in a variety of cinematic styles.  Some documentaries are educational, and we can all remember watching at least one during our school years. Others may intend to blow the whistle on some unscrupulous practice or criticise a political practice. Documentarians often travel to all corners of the globe in search of intriguing true stories.

If you’re interested in a topic, there’s a documentary about it out there somewhere. We’ve compiled a list of 12 award-winning documentaries to get you started, and from here the sky’s the limit!

12. Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2011)

Name: Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2011)

Director: David Gleb

Awards & nominations: Jiro Dreams of Sushi was nominated for 14 awards, of which it won two: Detroit Film Critics Society Best Documentary 2012 and Denver Film Critics Society Best Documentary Film 2013 

Overview: Even if you don’t like sushi, you’re sure to love this inspirational documentary. Jiro Dreams of Sushi centres on Jiro Ono, sushi master and owner of famed Michelin three-star restaurant Sukiyabashi Jiro. Aged 85 at the time of filming, and now 93 years old, Jiro has devoted his entire life to achieving sushi perfection. Despite an isolated childhood and a difficult relationship with his parents. Jiro’s determination has made his food world-renowned. Even the likes of Barack Obama wait months for the chance to eat in his compact 10-seater restaurant.

Influences: David Gleb’s love of the of music of Phillip Glass is very apparent in the documentary soundtrack.

You can watch it here: You can find it here on YouTube, just make sure you enable subtitles

11. Catfish (2010)

Name: Catfish (2010)

Directors: Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman

Awards & nominations: Catfish won the Utah Film Critics Association Awards ‘Best Documentary Feature Film’ Award 2010 and was nominated for 6 further awards.

Overview: Henry and Ariel decide to film Nev Schulman, Ariel’s brother, as he begins an online relationship with an attractive girl called Megan. She sends him MP3 files of her singing covers of songs – but these files all turn out to be bootlegged from YouTube. Henry, Ariel and Nev decide to make an impromptu visit to Megan’s home town to unravel the mystery of her true identity. Catfish documents the increasingly strange and often sad circumstances that lead people to create misleading online personas.

Influences: After the successful release of the documentary, the Schulman brothers teamed up with MTV to produce a reality television series called Catfish, which examines the lives of people who have been entangled with fictitious persons on the internet.

You can watch it here: You can find it here on ABC iView

10. Abducted in Plain Sight (2017)

Name: Abducted in Plain Sight or Forever B (2017)

Director: Skye Borgman

Awards & nominations: Abducted in Plain Sight has won 14 awards and has received a further nomination.

Overview: Abducted in Plain Sight is a true crime documentary that tends to leave everyone that views it at best,  frustrated, and at worst, downright outraged. Jan Broberg was abducted twice by her neighbour, first when she was 12 and then again when she was 14. Raised in a fairly sheltered religious household, her neighbour convinced her that aliens were watching her every move from space and that these beings wouldn’t hesitate to harm her earthling sisters if she ever revealed what happened during her abductions. The psychology of manipulation and the nature of denial loom large in this infamous doco.

You can watch it here: You can watch it on Netflix AU

Influences: The documentary premiered in 2017, but was picked up by Netflix this year, so viewers have assumed that it is a brand new production. We were immediately inundated with memes, fan theories and reaction videos, so great was the viewer response. Here’s just one of hundreds of reaction videos from Australia’s own funny man Christian Hull (warning: this video contains spoiler alerts!)

9. Grey Gardens (1975)

Name:  Grey Gardens (1975)

Directors: Albert and David Maysles, Ellen Hovde and Muffle Meyer.

Awards & nominations: Grey Gardens won 5 awards and received one further nomination. It has also been deemed worthy of preservation by the United States National Film Registry for its cultural significance and its contribution to film history.

Overview: Mother and daughter Big Edie and Little Edie were the aunt and first cousin of former First Lady and wife of JFK Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Once wealthy, they lived together in their mansion for over 50 years while their surroundings fell into disrepair and squalor. The directors used the direct cinema technique, leaving the woman to tell their own stories to the camera. The result is two eccentric woman living in a fantasy wasteland.

You can watch it here: You can watch Grey Gardens here using YouTube. You can also watch it via HBO and Hulu, and you can watch for free online using SBS movies.

Influences: If you ever wondered what the hell Jinx Monsoon was playing at during this season of RuPaul’s Drag Race, she was playing Little Edie!

In 2009, Hollywood stars Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore starred in a movie called Grey Gardens, based on the filming of the documentary itself.

8. Marwencol (2010

Name: Marwencol (2010)

Director: Jeff Malberg

Awards & nominations: Marwencol has won 20 awards, both nationally and internationally, and has received 10 further nominations

Overview:  In 2006, Mark Hogancamp was brutally attacked by a group of five men as he left a bar. Mark spent 9 days in a coma and was lucky to be alive – but when he awoke, he had no recollection of his adult life and had to relearn even the most basic tasks like walking and writing. Eventually his state-sponsored therapy ran out and he could not offer to receive more, so Mark took matters into his own hands.  He built a 1:6 scale World War Two town in his backyard and populated it with dolls who represented his family, friends, his attackers and himself.

You can watch it here: You can watch Marwencol using SBS On Demand

Influences: In 2013, famed director Robert Zemeckis began work on dramatising Mark’s story, and in 2018 Welcome to Marwen hit the big screen,  with Steve Carell in the lead role as Mark.

7. When Louis Met Jimmy (2000)

Name: When Louis Met Jimmy (2000)

Director: Louis Theroux, and featuring Jimmy Saville, the UK’s once beloved entertainer and philanthropist whose fall from grace was unprecedented.

Awards & nominations: When Louis Met Jimmy was voted one of the top 50 documentaries of all time in a Channel Four survey.

Overview: When we think ‘good documentaries’, we think Louis Theroux. The bespectacled darling of the BBC with the softly softly interview technique that seems to extract all the information he needs with ease.  Some of his best documentaries have tackled Scientology, Neo-Nazism, the Westboro Baptist Church – but none are as haunting as When Louis Met Jimmy. The When Louis Met… series saw Louis accompany a different celebrity in each program as they went about their daily lives. In this episode, Louis accompanies Jimmy in his day-to-day life and tries to get Jimmy to discuss the rumours of paedophilia that have followed him for over 10 years. Immediately after Saville’s death, UK program Newsnight began an investigation into the sexual abuse claims against him. It soon became apparent that Saville was one of the UK’s most prolific offenders.

Influences: Louis agonised over his interaction with Saville for 15 years, berating himself for not questioning him hard enough and failing to see what, in hindsight, is so blatantly obvious. In 2015, he created a follow-up program Louis Theroux: Saville, where he meets with survivors and comes to terms with his own guilt.

You can watch it here: You can watch When Louis Met Jimmy here on Vimeo and you can also watch the follow-up Louis Theroux: Saville here on Vimeo

6. Amy (2015)

Name: Amy (2015)

Director: Asif Kapadia 

Awards & nominations: Amy is the winner of 51 awards, including an Oscar, a BAFTA, a Grammy, and received 44 further nominations. Amy also broke the UK box office record for the highest opening weekend of a British documentary film.

Overview: One of the best music documentaries ever made, Amy is a portrait of singer-songwriter Amy Winehouse who died at age 27 from alcohol poisoning. Asif speaks extensively to Amy’s family and close friends and shows his audience previously unseen footage of Amy, both talking about her own life and performing her songs. Amy explores Winehouse’s dedication to her art, her battles with addiction, how she was mistreated by the media and ultimately let down by those closest to her.

Influences: Asif had also directed the documentary Senna, and Amy was produced in roughly the same style. The documentary photography is very similar, with lots of home footage and little commentary.

You can watch it here: You can watch it here on YouTube

5. Blackfish (2013)

Name: Blackfish (2013)

Director: Gabriela Cowperthwaite

Awards & nominations: Since its debut at the Sundance Film Festival in 2013, Blackfish has won 6 awards and has received 39 further nominations.

Overview: “Oh, it’s about nature” we hear you say. “Another one of David Attenborough’s wildlife masterpieces? Believe us when we say – this is not your . typical whale doco. Blackfish centres on Tilikum, an orca whale involved in the deaths of three individuals during his time held captive at SeaWorld Orlando. Cowperthwaite takes her audience back to Tilikum’s capture in 1983, when he was a living in his natural habitat off the coast of Iceland. His inadequate living conditions (a tiny pool akin to a prison) and the harassment he received from other whales are thought to be what lead to his aggression. Cowperthwaite also challenges the claims made by SeaWorld that orcas held in captivity live as long as orcas in the wild. 

Influences: The influence of Blackfish was almost immediate. SeaWorld Orlando was due to host a concert in 2014, and artists like Heart, Pat Benatar, Willie Nelson, The Beach Boys and Cheap Trick pulled out, wanting nothing to do with a franchise associated with animal cruelty. As a result, SeaWorld suffered a $15.9 million loss. In the United States, The Animal Welfare Act was updated in regards to dolphin and whale captivity, and Blackfish was cited as responsible for having raised public concern.

In March 2016, SeaWorld finally announced an end to its orca breeding program and begun to phase out all live performances using orcas.

You can watch it here: You can watch it here on ABC iView

4. Paris is Burning (1990)

Name: Paris Is Burning (1990)

Director: Jennie Livingston

Awards & nominations: Paris is Burning is the winner of 16 awards and preserved by the United States National Film Registry for its cultural and historical significance, 

Overview: Paris Is Burning challenges our ideas about race, class, gender and sexuality and is a must watch for anyone who wants learn more about the historical struggles of the LGBTQIA+ community. The film alternates between documenting elaborate runway competitions where contestants ‘walk’ or compete in categories, and  interviews with several influential ball world figures.

Influences: Paris is Burning is frequently referred to in RuPaul’s Drag Race. Many challenges that RuPaul contestants participate in are explored in Paris is Burning – such as ‘reading’ which is taking one of your peers’ small flaws and blowing it way out of proportion. In fact, sometimes RuPaul contestants pay direct homage to the those who appeared in Paris Is Burning. In Season 2 when Tyra Sanchez called JujuBee “an under-grown orangutan“, she was making reference to Venus Xtravanganza in this Paris Is Burning scene. The iconic dancing or ‘voguing’ in Madonna’s music video for her song ‘Vogue’ was also taken straight from ballrooms like this one.

You can watch it here: You can watch it on Netflix AU or you can watch it here on YouTube

3. Bowling for Columbine (2002)

Name: Bowling for Columbine (2002)

Director: Michael Moore, and featuring famous celebrity appearances from Charlton Heston, rocker Marilyn Manson and South Park co-creator Matt Stone

Awards & nominations: Bowling for Columbine is the winner of 41 awards and has received 12 further nominations. After the documentary finished its screening at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival, the audience gave it a 13 minute standing ovation – which tells you everything you need to know about why Bowling for Columbine is number 3 on our top documentaries list!

Overview: Michael Moore seeks to understand why the deadly Columbine massacre occurred and why America has such high rates of violent crime in comparison to the rest of the world.

Influences: Bowling for Columbine openly challenged the National Rifle Association’s views on firearm laws and gun sports, and rebutted the argument that violent video games and gothic music were to blame for the deaths at Columbine High School. It drew much needed attention to the dire state of American gun laws – especially the scene where Moore himself gets given a free gun in a bank!

You can watch it here: You can watch it here on YouTube

2. Super Size Me (2004)

Name: Super Size Me (2004)

Director: Morgan Spurlock.

Awards & nominations: Super Size Me won 7 awards and was nominated for a further 12,  including an Oscar at the 2005 Academy Awards.

Overview: If the dangers of fast food and maintaining your health are concerns of yours then the chances are that you’ve already watched Super Size Me,  one of the best documentaries of all time. If medical issues aren’t really your thing and you have a weak stomach, then you’ve been warned. Indie filmmaker and director Morgan Spurlock ate nothing but McDonald’s food for every meal for 30 days. We witness the drastic physical and psychological toll the fast food diet takes on Morgan’s body, as he criticises McDonald’s corporate influence.

Influences: Morgan Spurlock was inspired to produce the gruesome yet educational documentary in the wake of the law suit Pelman v. McDonald’s Corp, where two obese girls tried and failed to sue McDonald’s for their weight gain.

You can watch it here: You can watch it here on YouTube for free

1. The Up Series (1964 – Present)

Name: The Up Series (1964 – present)

Director:  Paul Almond directed the first instalment, Seven Up!, and Michael Apted has directed all subsequent films.

Awards & nominations: The Up Series is the winner of the 2012 Peabody Award

Overview:  The Up Series began in 1964,  operating on the premise that the class system was so strong in the UK that an individual’s life path would be set at birth. Almond interviewed fourteen 7-year olds from varying economic and social backgrounds, and every 7 years these subjects were interviewed again to see where  life had taken them. So far, the documentary has eight episodes from Seven Up! to 56 Up!.  It began as a political documentary, and developed into one more focused on the human condition and existentialism.

Influence: The documentary has had various direct influences on the lives of the participants. For example, Paul’s wife credits the documentary with keeping their marriage together while John refers to the documentary as a poison pill he has to take once every 7 years. 63 Up! is due for release in spring this year.

You can watch it here: You can watch the latest episode 56 Up! here on PBS, and you can find most subsequent episodes on YouTube.

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