The 21 Best Documentaries to Stream Right Now

Mahita Gajanan
The 21 Best Documentaries to Stream Right Now

The great documentary filmmaker Albert Maysles once said in an interview that “what a documentary is very special at doing very well is depicting somebody experiencing something, so that the viewer experiences that as well.” Given that documentaries span so many subjects, moods and time periods, they offer to us as viewers a bottomless well of opportunity for new experiences. From true crime series that have become streaming sensations, to films that examine the full scope of the lives of artists and musicians, to a 1976 classic of the form from Maysles and his brother David Maysles, below are 21 of the best documentaries you can watch right now.

What Happened, Miss Simone?

Where to watch: Netflix

Director Liz Garbus tracks the singer-songwriter Nina Simone’s life as a performer and activist, from her early years as a star musician to her rise in fame as the civil rights movement took hold across the United States. Using archival footage and unreleased recordings, the Oscar-nominated film chronicles the struggle Simone faced as she weighed her burgeoning success with her emergence as an activist.

13th

Where to watch: Netflix

Named for the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States constitution—which outlaws slavery and involuntary servitude, except when used as a punishment for a crime—this film from Ava DuVernay shows how the evolution of the U.S. criminal justice system has essentially allowed for a modern system of legalized slavery. 13th examines how various racist policies in the U.S. have oppressed and disenfranchised Black Americans, with mass incarceration at the center of it all.

Read More: Ava DuVernay on Her Oscar-Nominated Documentary 13th and Resistance Through Art

Amy

Where to watch: Netflix

Released four years after the shocking death of Amy Winehouse, Amy attempts to make sense of the life of the beloved singer, whose struggles with mental health and substance abuse issues made her a target of tabloid coverage. From the filmmaker Asif Kapadia, Amy, which won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature, features dozens of interviews with Winehouse’s family and friends to build a lasting, complex portrait of the artist.

Paris Is Burning

Where to watch: Rent on iTunes

The seminal 1990 documentary from director Jennie Livingston delves into New York City’s 1980s-era drag-ball scene. The film, which was added to the U.S. National Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 2016, showcases performances from and interviews with many of the central figures of the drag scene from rival fashion houses, who found dignity and purpose in the ballroom scene against the painful backdrop of rampant homophobia and transphobia, violence and the AIDS crisis.

Read More: 8 LGBTQ Documentaries to Watch During Pride Month

Formula 1: Drive to Survive

Courtesy of Netflix

Where to watch: Netflix

Across two seasons, the documentary series from Formula One takes viewers through the daily lives of the drivers racing in the Formula One World Championships. Season one covers the 2018 world championship, while season two tracks the 2019 competition. Its high level of access makes for a deep view into the world of racing, particularly for the uninitiated.

OJ: Made in America

Where to watch: WatchESPN

ESPN’s Emmy- and Oscar-winning five-part documentary from filmmaker Ezra Edelman walks viewers through O.J. Simpson’s life, from his triumphs as a Heisman-winning college football player and later professional athlete to becoming the prime murder suspect in the killings of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman in 1994. Through Simpson’s life, the series explores how race and celebrity play out in the United States, piecing together interviews, archival footage and news coverage.

Read More: O.J.: Made in America Explores Why the Juice Couldn’t Set Himself Loose

Three Identical Strangers

Where to watch: Hulu

Three Identical Strangers follows the story of a set of triplets—Edward Galland, David Kellman and Robert Shafran—who found each other later in life after being adopted into three different families as infants. While their coincidental reunion at age 19 was at first joyous and made the trio a media sensation, the men’s quest to find out why exactly they were separated as babies unearths dark secrets that form the crux of the film.

Read More: How Documentaries Became the Hottest Genre of the Summer

Going Clear

Where to watch: HBO Now or HBO Go

Based on a book by Lawrence Wright, HBO’s 2015 documentary about Scientology premiered to controversy at the Sundance Film Festival when it dropped several bombshells about the secretive church that counts a number of Hollywood stars among its ranks. The film traces the rise of Scientology by exploring the story of the church’s founder, L. Ron Hubbard, and its influence in Hollywood. Revelations in the film include numerous allegations of violence and abusive behavior by church officials and claims over what really happened in Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman’s marriage.

Faces Places

Where to watch: Rent on Amazon Prime

The late filmmaker Agnès Varda, known for her influence in the French New Wave, and the French artist JR make for what seems, at first, like an unlikely pairing. In this charming documentary, Varda and JR, with an age difference of more than 50 years, meet out of a mutual admiration for one another’s work and decide to travel through France together for an art project in which they find subjects, make large images of them and paste them onto buildings. The result is both a moving homage to the people of France and a deep meditation on the friendship that grows between Varda and JR, who each come to new understandings of art, memory and mortality.

Read More: ‘She Was Always in the Present.’ Artist JR on the Films and Friendship of Agnès Varda

Tickled

Where to watch: Rent on Amazon Prime

The phenomenon of “competitive endurance tickling” is intriguing enough on its own, but this documentary goes beyond a basic FAQ on such quirky athletic pursuits. After director David Farrier, a New Zealand-based TV journalist, learns about the existence of endurance tickling competitions, he digs a little more only to be stonewalled by the producers behind videos of men tickling each other. As he researches further, his exploration of what seemed like a silly pastime becomes a gripping and insightful glimpse into the ethical practices of the video producers behind the endeavor.

Shirkers

Courtesy of Netflix

Where to watch: Netflix

Filmmaker Sandi Tan dives into her own past for 2018’s Shirkers. The documentary explores how footage from a film Tan worked on with friends in 1992 disappeared when their mentor, Georges Cardona, absconded with it at the end of the project. The disappearance marks a pivotal loss for Tan, who decided to make a documentary about making the film after a search for answers led to Cardona’s ex-wife’s revelation that she had the long-missing footage.

The Keepers

Where to watch: Netflix

The unsolved murder of Sister Cathy Cesnick, who disappeared in 1969, is the basis for this 2017 Netflix series from director Ryan White. Cesnick, who taught at the Archbishop Keough High School in Baltimore and later at Western High School, was found dead two months after she disappeared. While it remains unclear who killed Cesnick, the series explores how her death may have been linked to efforts to keep secret allegations of sexual abuse against a chaplain at the former school.

Read More: The Keepers: Behind the Unsolved Murder of a Nun That Is Now a Netflix Series

Hoop Dreams

Where to watch: HBO Now

Initially meant to be a short PBS documentary, Steve James’ Hoop Dreams, released in 1994, is one of the most widely acclaimed documentaries ever made. Across three hours, the film follows two black teenagers from Chicago, who hope to eventually make it as professional basketball players, as they endure the challenges of high school. One of the first feature films to be shot on video, the documentary was hugely influential to a new generation of filmmakers. As Devil’s Playground director Lucy Walker told TIME, when it comes to her generation of documentarians, “You can point to the lineage of [James] more directly than anyone else.”

Read More: It’s Been 25 Years Since Hoop Dreams Debuted. Here’s How It Changed the Game for Documentaries

Bill Cunningham New York

Where to watch: Amazon Prime

The 2010 documentary from Richard Press follows Bill Cunningham, the late, bicycle-riding fixture of New York City who was known for the images he made for the New York Times’ style section. It turns out that Cunningham’s fashion photography, which captured the best of his city’s street style, is almost as fascinating as the man behind the camera.

Love, Gilda

Where to watch: Hulu

Gilda Radner, a Saturday Night Live original cast member who became known for her stellar impressions and whimsical comedy, comes alive in this documentary that combines her own audio narration, interviews with friends and read-aloud portions of her journals. Radner, who died in 1989 from ovarian cancer, is immortalized in the film, which traces her life, from growing up in Michigan to becoming a star.

Hip-Hop Evolution

Courtesy of Netflix

Where to watch: Netflix

Over four seasons so far, artist and broadcaster Shad explores the history of hip-hop through interviews with some of the genre’s biggest names to break down the influence of DJs, producers and rappers who have shaped the genre into what it is today. The Peabody Award-winning series covers influential artists from Fab Five Freddy to The Sugarhill Gang, N.W.A. to LL Cool J.

Minding the Gap

Where to watch: Hulu

Filmmaker Bing Liu’s personal movie chronicles the friendship between himself and two other young men from Rockford, Illinois, as they bond over a shared love for skateboarding. Through this pastime, the men try to escape the violence and traumas of their past. Skate culture offers an opening for Liu to explore issues like domestic abuse and toxic masculinity, all while including his own story in the narrative.

Read More: Director Bing Liu Discussed Exploring the Cycle of Violence in Powerful Coming-of-Age Documentary Minding the Gap

Grey Gardens

Where to watch: Rent on Amazon Prime

The 1976 film from directors Albert and David Maysles about a mother-daughter pair, formerly members of high society who become recluses living in a dilapidated house in East Hampton, has become a classic of the genre and even inspired a feature film starring Drew Barrymore (as well as comedy spoofs). Known as “Big Edie” and “Little Edie,” the eccentric women at the center of the documentary, who were distant cousins of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, live out their daily lives in front of the camera as their surroundings crumble.

Honeyland

Where to watch: Hulu

Released in 2019, the Macedonian film follows a beekeeper named Hatidže Muratova who minds wild bees. The film’s drama comes from the arrival of a new neighbor to her village who poses a grave threat to the future of her bee colony.

Period. End of Sentence

Where to watch: Netflix

A 2018 Oscar-winning documentary short, Period. End of Sentence follows women in India who work to remove the cultural stigma associated with menstruation and provide proper sanitary products to women in the country. Directed by Rayka Zehtabchi, the documentary was filmed in central India’s Hapur district and chronicles the sea change brought about by a machine that makes affordable sanitary pads.

Read More: Behind the Oscar-Winning Documentary Challenging India’s Taboos About Menstruation

Stories We Tell

Where to watch: Rent on Amazon Prime

Filmmaker Sarah Polley examines her own childhood in this 2012 Canadian documentary, digging into the complicated relationship between her parents. Built on interviews with family members and friends, Polley gradually peels back the layers of how she discovered the identity of her true biological father, telling the story on her own terms.