15 great documentaries to stream right now

  • Card 1 of 15

    13th: Ava DuVernay traces a damning line between slavery and mass incarceration (Netflix)

    Vital, searing, and engaging, 13th — from Selma director Ava DuVernay — is a primer on the historical context and moral urgency behind a lot of today’s most pressing public issues, from mass incarceration and the war on drugs to police brutality and private prisons. It also thoroughly explores the dovetailing motivations behind the Black Lives Matter movement.

    The documentary is a compelling whirlwind tour through America’s long history of racism and, perhaps more importantly, America’s long history of denying its racism. It also scored the prestigious opening-night slot at the New York Film Festival in 2016, becoming the first nonfiction film to do so in the festival’s 54 years, with DuVernay becoming the first black woman director to do so as well. (Here’s our review.)

    “That’s a lot of ground to cover, and the film can be as exhausting, in its flood of information, as it is exhaustive. But DuVernay keeps it all chugging and churning along, propelled by the force of her montage and the sheer volume of damning, gripping material.” A.A. Dowd, A.V. Club

    Release date: October 7, 2016

    Streaming on: Netflix

    Metacritic score: 90 out of 100

  • Card 2 of 15

    Ballet 422: A look at how an original stage production goes from concept to reality (Netflix)

    Set backstage at the New York City Ballet, Ballet 422 is a restrained and studious look at the process of shepherding an original production from the conception phase all the way through to its first public performance. The film follows Justin Peck, a 20-something choreographic superstar, as he creates new work for the NYCB’s 2013 winter season. Rather than focusing on glamour, Ballet 422 looks at the nuts and bolts of the rehearsal process, which is a treat for any ballet lover as well as any creative person who has struggled through the process of making something new.

    “Ballet 422 elegantly conveys the complex collaborations behind even a relatively modest production, and the toil and discipline that somehow deliver, for the patrons on opening night, a seamless spectacle of grace.” A.O. Scott, New York Times

    Release date: February 6, 2015

    Streaming on: Netflix, Amazon, Vudu, Google Play, iTunes, YouTube

    Metacritic score: 74 out of 100

  • Card 3 of 15

    Best of Enemies: The chilling origin story for entertainment-driven political punditry (Netflix)

    In 1968, William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal — famous for their strong opinions about both politics and each other — were recruited by ABC to participate in a series of on-air debates during the major political parties’ conventions. The debates were famously contentious, rocketing ABC to the top of the ratings and solidifying, as this documentary argues, the future of hyperpartisan politics and entertainment-driven, shouting-head TV news punditry. Best of Enemies recounts the debates and their fallout. It’s exciting but also chilling — an origin story for a long national nightmare.

    “Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville’s masterful Best of Enemies leaves you with an overwhelming sense of despair. It’s not just a great documentary, it’s a vital one.” Bilge Ebiri, Vulture

    Release date: July 31, 2015

    Streaming on: Netflix, Amazon, YouTube, Google Play, Vudu

    Metacritic score: 77 out of 100

  • Card 4 of 15

    Casting JonBenét: A moving look at how and why we respond to sensationalized crime in deeply personal ways (Netflix)

    The sensational, decades-old case of the 6-year-old beauty queen found murdered in her family’s home on Christmas night in 1996 is a popular subject for filmmakers looking to capitalize on the current taste for “true crime” documentaries and docudramas. But the focus of Casting JonBenét isn’t the crime itself: It’s the people of Boulder, Colorado, where the murder took place.

    Director Kitty Green put out a casting call in the Boulder area, inviting people to audition for any role in the Ramsey case. Once they arrived on her set, Green explained that the casting material would be used in the film — that anything they said on camera during the auditions might end up in the final cut, so they should be careful about what they say. Most of the film comes from these audition tapes. Casting JonBenét makes the case that the way we think and talk about sensationalized crime cases is deeply influenced by our own experiences — and it calls into question the real possibility of ever arriving at something like the “truth.”

    Australian filmmaker Kitty Green creates something powerful, provocative and dazzlingly original with her second feature documentary. Leslie Felperin, The Hollywood Reporter

    Release date: April 28, 2017

    Streaming on: Netflix

    Metacritic score: 74 out of 100

  • Card 5 of 15

    Cave of Forgotten Dreams: Werner Herzog’s fascinating look at the world’s oldest known paintings (Netflix)

    Werner Herzog takes us inside the Chauvet Cave in France, now closed to public view, to see some of the world’s oldest works of art: cave paintings that date back about 32,000 years. Eschewing the purely educational approach, Herzog opts to prioritize his unbridled —and contagious — awe. Interviews with scientists and historians provide context, but the camera lingers on the artwork itself, focusing on the intricacy and beauty of the paintings and conveying a palpable, inspiring sense of wonder.

    “If you’re interested in the history of the human race — if you’re a member of the human race — you owe it to yourself to see this movie.” Dana Stevens, Slate

    Release date: April 29, 2011

    Streaming on: Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, iTunes, YouTube, Google Play

    Metacritic score: 86 out of 100

  • Card 6 of 15

    City of Gold: A tour of the Los Angeles food scene with critic Jonathan Gold (Hulu)

    City of Gold follows Pulitzer-winning food critic Jonathan Gold around Los Angeles as he explores its complex, vast network of food cultures, making the case that the life of a city is deeply connected to the food it makes and serves up in its neighborhoods. Gold made his name as an intrepid explorer of hidden treasures in LA, discovering and writing about restaurants nobody else was really aware of. The film traces his footsteps, also bringing in restaurateurs and chefs to talk about the critic and his insatiable curiosity.

    “City of Gold transcends its modest methods, largely because it connects Mr. Gold’s appealing personality with a passionate argument about the civic culture of Los Angeles and the place of food within it.” A.O. Scott, New York Times

    Release date: March 11, 2016

    Streaming on: Hulu, Amazon, iTunes, Vudu

    Metacritic score: 72 out of 100

  • Card 7 of 15

    Fire at Sea: A deeply moving look at the human cost of Europe’s migrant crisis (Netflix)

    Over the past few years, hundreds of African and Middle Eastern migrants have arrived on the Italian island of Lampedusa every week. In Fire at Sea, documentarian Gianfranco Rosi shows what life looks like for the island’s residents and the rescue crews, cutting between scenes of life on the island (which center on a young boy whose predominant interests are his slingshots and spaghetti) and the people who help receive and treat migrants.

    Beautifully shot and highly lauded — the film was Italy’s official entry in the Best Foreign Language Film Category at the 2017 Oscars — Fire at Sea is a deeply humane exploration of the human cost of the crisis, and how people live in the midst of it.

    “[Rosi’s] restraint is reminiscent of Frederick Wiseman’s. … Constructed as much as reported, Fire at Sea is a beautiful artifact presented for your contemplation. It is also an act of conscience. And it is harrowing.” Stuart Klawans, Film Comment

    Release date: October 21, 2016

    Streaming on: Netflix, iTunes, YouTube, Vudu, Google Play

    Metacritic score: 87 out of 100

  • Card 8 of 15

    Going Clear: A searing indictment of the Church of Scientology (HBO Go)

    Documentarian Alex Gibney takes on the Church of Scientology with this comprehensive and incriminating look at the organization, covering both its longstanding connections in Hollywood and its secretive practices and structures. Combining interviews with ex-Scientologists, archival footage, and probing reporting, Going Clear doesn’t want you to be fascinated by Scientology’s strangeness — it’s an indictment of authoritarianism that knows no bounds.

    “If Going Clear were a Hollywood thriller, I’d complain that it’s too over-the-top. But this is real life, which is hard to believe. And it’s disturbingly good.” Melissa Maerz, Entertainment Weekly

    Release date: March 20, 2015

    Streaming on: HBO Go, iTunes, Amazon, YouTube, Google Play, Vudu

    Metacritic score: 80 out of 100

  • Card 9 of 15

    I Am Not Your Negro: A vital, uncomfortable guide to America through James Baldwin’s eyes (Amazon)

    The stunning documentary I Am Not Your Negro (which made box office history when it was released in New York) was directed by Raoul Peck. But it was written by writer and social critic James Baldwin — who died 30 years ago, in 1987.

    This isn’t a documentary about James Baldwin, though it certainly is about him. Instead, it gives new life and voice to Baldwin. All of the film’s narration (by Samuel L. Jackson) was written by Baldwin, mostly drawn from letters and notes he made toward a novel called Remember This House that was never published, as well as other books and essays.

    By pulling together Baldwin’s own words with footage — both images he would have known well and clips of Baldwin himself, talking with interviewers, politely tearing them to shreds — I Am Not Your Negro becomes a document of a country by way of a keen observer and unsparing thinker. It is a cinematic essay-memoir, and a vital, uncomfortable one.

    “‘I Am Not Your Negro’ is a thrilling introduction to [Baldwin’s] work, a remedial course in American history, and an advanced seminar in racial politics — a concise, roughly 90-minute movie with the scope and impact of a 10-hour mini-series or a literary doorstop. It is not an easy or a consoling movie, but it is the opposite of bitter or despairing.” A.O. Scott, New York Times

    Release date: February 3, 2017

    Metacritic score: 96 out of 100

  • Card 10 of 15

    Life, Animated: A poignant tale of an autistic boy who found a lifeline in Disney films (Amazon)

    Life, Animated is an uplifting story of how one young man and his family learned to navigate his autism. Around age 3, Owen Suskind suddenly went from being a peppy and bubbly child to being totally noncommunicative, seemingly locked inside his own world. In the Oscar-nominated film, Owen and his family recount their often heartbreaking story of searching for answers and, eventually, finding a way to help Owen navigate and connect with the world via an unexpected bridge: Disney films.

    “Life, Animated doesn’t aim for ‘awareness’ so much as a more honest, comprehensive understanding of autism as a shifting thing particular to each person affected. It’s a warmly empathetic documentary, the kind that simply observes instead of attempting to sound one kind of rallying cry or another.” Dominick Suzanne-Mayer, Consequence of Sound

    Release date: July 8, 2016

    Streaming on: Amazon, iTunes, YouTube, Vudu, Google Play

    Metacritic score: 75 out of 100

  • Card 11 of 15

    Life Itself: A Roger Ebert biopic that doubles as a treatise on art and its critics (Netflix)

    Life Itself is Steve James’s 2014 warts-and-all documentary about legendary film critic Roger Ebert. James began the doc before Ebert passed away in 2013 and finished it after his subject’s death. It’s a biography, and contains narration from Ebert’s memoir of the same name, as well as interviews with the critic’s friends (and frenemies) and footage from his life. But the film is much more than an honest take on the life of an important writer: It’s a defense of art and criticism, and the ways they generate empathy and awe.

    “Death is a part of life — one that informs everything we do, on some level or another — and watching Ebert characterize whatever time he has left as ‘money in the bank,’ from what viewers know is his deathbed, is life-affirming and heartbreaking in equal measure.” Genevieve Koski, the Dissolve

    Release date: July 4, 2014

    Streaming on: Netflix, Amazon, iTunes, YouTube, Vudu, Google Play

    Metacritic score: 87 out of 100

  • Card 12 of 15

    The Look of Silence: A staggering follow-up look at Indonesian genocide (Netflix)

    As a companion piece to the devastating 2013 documentary The Act of KillingThe Look of Silence film returns to the same topic as its predecessor — the mass killings in Indonesia that began in 1965 — and the continuing pride the crimes’ perpetrators maintain, believing their actions were justified. The Look of Silence is not an easy film to watch. But its examination of the myriad ways we deceive and blind ourselves to the truth puts it among the century’s most vital movies, illuminating in devastating detail how genocides happen, and how surprisingly simple it is for humans to act with unspeakable cruelty toward one another.

    “The film does not stab as deeply at the schizoid moral hypocrisy of the perpetrators of the Indonesian genocide as its peerless predecessor, but instead offers an extraordinarily poignant, desperately upsetting meditation on the legacy of those killings, and on the bravery required to seek any kind of truth about them.” Jessica Kiang, the Playlist

    Release date: July 17, 2015

    Streaming on: Netflix, Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube, Google Play

    Metacritic score: 92 out of 100

  • Card 13 of 15

    Peter and the Farm: An unsettling portrait of an eccentric Vermont farmer (Netflix)

    Peter Dunning, who sports a beard and a crotchety, rugged individuality, lives and farms on 187 acres in Vermont. Peter and the Farm (which bears a passing resemblance to the podcast S-Town) follows Dunning through about a year of life, slowly revealing the complicated layers under his surface. You’d never call him polished, but there’s a lot going on behind Dunning’s exterior, and the filmmakers become implicated in his struggles as time goes on. On its face, the documentary is an homage to the beauty of a New England year, but its true resonance lies in what lurks beneath the apparently pastoral exterior: a universe in one farm, and one man.

    “This intimate, unvarnished, and occasionally transcendent micro-portrait may seldom leave Dunning’s property, but it takes stock of the whole world.” David Ehrlich, Indiewire

    Release date: November 4, 2016

    Streaming on: Netflix, Amazon, iTunes, YouTube, Vudu, Google Play

    Metacritic score: 80 out of 100

  • Card 14 of 15

    Welcome to Leith: A record of one white supremacist’s reign in a North Dakota town (Netflix)

    A few years ago, white supremacist Craig Cobb built an enclave of hate in the tiny town of Leith, North Dakota, by buying up real estate and inviting other white supremacists to move in. Employing a matter-of-fact approach to filmmaking, Welcome to Leith chronicles the days leading up to Cobb’s arrest for his threatening behavior and quietly raises questions about the limits of free speech and the apparent limitlessness of hate. And the film’s story is hardly over; Cobb is serving four years of probation for his actions in Leith, but meanwhile he’s still at it, buying property in other small towns and attempting to convert them to white supremacist havens.

    “Welcome to Leith is a sober, terrifying look at the very real monsters roaming the quiet countryside.” Bilge Ebiri, Vulture

    Release date: December 15, 2015

    Streaming on: Netflix, Amazon, YouTube, Google Play

    Metacritic score: 78 out of 100

  • Card 15 of 15

    The White Helmets: An Oscar-winning spotlight on the Syrian Civil Defense (Netflix)

    The Syrian Civil Defense is a group of ordinary men — former builders, tailors, and artisans — who work to extract victims from beneath the rubble in places like Aleppo that have been gravely affected by the Syrian civil war. The group has saved more than 58,000 people since 2013. This 41-minute documentary, which won the Oscar for Best Documentary Short Film in 2017, follows the men as they struggle to prevent the loss of life, and lets them tell us why, as one man puts it, “this job is sacred.”

    “[Director] Von Einseidel is convinced that his subjects are “true heroes.” Viewers will be convinced of the same.” John Anderson, Wall Street Journal

    Release date: September 16, 2016

    Streaming on: Netflix

    Metacritic score: N/A

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