Documentary equivelants of informative history/science books?
October 28, 2008 11:10 AM   Subscribe

Looking for good documentaries that are truly informative (i.e. a kind of textbook in movie format). What are the best documentaries you've seen that left you much more informed about basic history and human knowledge?

I'm talking about really good, but also highly informative documentaries somewhat (or perhaps exactly if you were lucky) like the ones you'd watch in school. Kind of like a history or science* book condensed into a movie format.

What I'm not looking for are documentaries like Wordplay, Spellbound, or other "human interest" kind of movies, or documentaries with an excessively esoteric subject matter. I'd also like to avoid movies that try really hard to push a specific agenda.

*Note: I say history/science, though this could include things like economics, law, art, etc. (as long as it's sufficiently informative and not too esoteric).
posted by the other side to Media & Arts (28 answers total) 78 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Carl Sagan's Cosmos.
posted by diogenes at 11:22 AM on October 28, 2008

Connections by James Burke. Youtube
Watch the first two episodes, and the first is more of an introduction and not quite like the rest. (And by the time you finish the second, you'll be hooked anyway.)
posted by -harlequin- at 11:26 AM on October 28, 2008

Best answer: The Ascent of Man
Civilisation: A Personal View

I haven't seen either since childhood, but they made a very big impression at the time.
posted by mandal at 11:32 AM on October 28, 2008

The Ken Burns stuff. Civil War, Jazz, Baseball. When's he going do one about Apple Pie?

And if you want to get "serious" - Manufacturing Consent, The Corporation, Enron (The Smartest Guys in the Room) ...
posted by philip-random at 11:39 AM on October 28, 2008

The Human Face, with the bonus of John Cleese narration !
posted by mannequito at 11:44 AM on October 28, 2008 [1 favorite]

Some obvious choices:
Anything by Frederick Wiseman
On a lighter note, Mondovino
posted by RogerB at 11:49 AM on October 28, 2008

Planet Earth
posted by blue_beetle at 11:58 AM on October 28, 2008 [2 favorites]

I really love Fog of War. Directed by the same guy that started those crazy Apple commercials.
posted by bprater at 12:01 PM on October 28, 2008 [1 favorite]

An obscure but wonderful Australian documentary, First Contact, is my favorite documentary film.

The PBS documentary of Guns Germs and Steel is better than the overrated book.
posted by LarryC at 12:05 PM on October 28, 2008

Pretty much any of the documentary series by David Attenborough.
posted by Class Goat at 12:39 PM on October 28, 2008

Robert Hughes's The Shock of the New.
posted by hot soup girl at 1:03 PM on October 28, 2008

Best answer: Previously:

Blow my Mind
Help me nourish my brain.

These had similar enough criteria that you might find them of interest.
posted by Zed_Lopez at 1:49 PM on October 28, 2008

Best answer: -seconding commanding heights. It is excellent!
-There was a series I saw about 10 years ago. It was about the history of oil. Empire something. That was really good. I believe it was a book turned into a series, but I can't find it right now.
-Chicago: city of the century.
-Definitely Cosmos.
-american visions about amercan art history. There was another set which I think was all of art history.
posted by kookywon at 1:55 PM on October 28, 2008

The oil documentary is called 'The Prize'
posted by kookywon at 2:01 PM on October 28, 2008

Black Tar Heroin: The Dark End of the Road - very - very good.
posted by watercarrier at 2:13 PM on October 28, 2008


Not Ken Burns, but informative nonetheless.
posted by mcbeth at 2:29 PM on October 28, 2008

Best answer: Seconded for Connections, but also James Burke's The Day the Universe Changed which is equally fascinating in a different way.

Incidentally, YouTube user JamesBurkeFan seems to have put up every James Burke series and even took the time to playlist the episodes.
posted by ob1quixote at 3:39 PM on October 28, 2008 [1 favorite]

Seconding "Civilisation: A Personal View" - it's great.

Also enjoyed what I saw of Sister Wendy's American Collection in which she tours US Art Galleries/Museums and talks about the pieces - she discusses some beautiful works and is able to talk about them very well.
posted by southof40 at 4:26 PM on October 28, 2008

There was recently a really good one on Discovery about the space program called "When We Left Earth: The NASA Missions"

On the same subject, though its not a documentary, they went out of their way to get it right and its just as informative and very entertaining, "From the Earth to the Moon."

I also second the Ken Burns recommendation. "The Civil War" was incredible.
posted by MattScully at 6:58 PM on October 28, 2008

Eyes on the Prize.
posted by girlmightlive at 7:05 PM on October 28, 2008 [2 favorites]

The Life and Times of Harvey Milk.

American Masters profiles of James Baldwin, Ahmet Ertuguen, Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald.

The Up Series.

All of these have been aired on PBS at some point.
posted by Riverine at 8:26 PM on October 28, 2008

Best answer: China A Century of Revolution (3 disc set) was an excellent survey of 20th century China, much better than the upper-div China class I took twenty years ago.

I'm watching NHK's Silk Road, a zillion-part series that moves pretty slow but has got interesting travelogy historical progress.

Speaking of travelogues, Michael Palin's travel series are all uniformly excellente.
posted by troy at 10:23 PM on October 28, 2008

oh, and nth-ing "The Day the Universe Changed". I saw this when it first came out and was completely blown away. Immensely educational, must-see viewing for anybody who desires to learn how we learn and invent.
posted by troy at 10:24 PM on October 28, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks for all the suggestions, everyone. Looks like I have many hours worth of good stuff to watch.
posted by the other side at 6:41 AM on October 29, 2008

Bosnia Hotel (occasionally aired on LinkTV.)
posted by snuffleupagus at 4:56 PM on October 30, 2008

The Day the Universe Changed: James Burke proves 1+1=3, and then he blows your mind!

More previous threads on Documentaries.

My more recent favorites are Simon Schama's Power of Art, and The Private Life of a Masterpiece.

Cosmos is completely missable.
posted by Chuckles at 9:18 PM on October 31, 2008

Best answer: The video programs produced by Annenberg Media. They've made a lot of programs designed to be used as teaching resources. Some examples:

America's History in the Making
Explore American history from the Pre-Columbian era through Reconstruction.

Art of the Western World
A video instructional series on art history.

Bridging World History
A video course that looks at global patterns through time, seeing history as an integrated whole.

Economics U$A
Explore the fundamentals of economic history, theory, and practice, including microeconomics and macroeconomics, through interviews with Nobel Prize-winning economists. The series features Milton Friedman, Paul Samuelson, John Kenneth Galbraith, Walter Heller, and others
posted by nooneyouknow at 9:43 AM on November 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

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