All I want for Christmas are some great documentaries!
December 21, 2012 8:15 PM   Subscribe

I need documentary recommendations! Requirements inside . . .

I am on my own this Christmas (cue violins), and I have decided to spend my time watching awesome documentaries online. I love long documentaries crammed with interesting facts. Recent favorites include: James Burke's Connections (naturally), Ken Burn's Prohibition, The Story of English (from PBS and the BBC) and Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton (PBS Gold), available on Netflix. I haven't seen that many documentaries, so chances are if you have a favorite, I haven't seen it.

I don't like war documentaries, nor the effects of war (survivor stories, veterans' experiences, etc.). History, history of science, and social topics are great, but I'm not a big fan of hard science, nature or anything "cutting-edge" or currently politically or socially controversial. I've searched around a bit online, but I'm finding it hard to design a google search for "cool documentaries not about war or Banksy." I'm hoping that the hivemind will have some great suggestions for me. Thanks!
posted by backwards compatible to Media & Arts (34 answers total) 55 users marked this as a favorite
Ken Burns' Jazz is absorbing. As is Ken Burns' Baseball. I know a lot of jazz aficionados have serious glosses on Burns' treatment, but if you are relatively new to jazz, it's a fantastic starting point.
posted by Miko at 8:20 PM on December 21, 2012

I know you said no nature, but Ants: Nature's Secret Power is absolutely amazing. It has captivated everyone I've told to watch it, even die hard documentary haters.

It's not super nature-y. They do a lot of experiments with the ants, like have them run on treadmills and lift heavy objects.

I think I've watched it probably six or seven times now and it hasn't gotten old.

Also, if you haven't seen the Thin Blue Line, put that on your list. It's Errol Morris, and it's about a a guy on death row for killing a cop.
posted by phunniemee at 8:21 PM on December 21, 2012

"Men who Built America" will really open your eyes to the mechanics of how the USA was built.
posted by bkeene12 at 8:31 PM on December 21, 2012

"The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters."

It's the story of a man who rose to the challenge of defeating the tremendously arrogant champion ..of Donkey Kong.

Documentaries don't usually go for funny, but this one is hilarious, charming, has a good narrative flow, is *mostly* accurate, and uncovers a living subculture that you might not have ever suspected exists. No war, no violence, and the only thing that dies is the Donkey Kong game when you beat the 99th level.
posted by Sunburnt at 8:31 PM on December 21, 2012 [4 favorites]

Harlan County, USA.
posted by scratch at 8:34 PM on December 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

The BBC's The Century Of The Self about the development of the marketing and public relations industries during the 20th Century.
posted by XMLicious at 8:38 PM on December 21, 2012

The Up series is amazing. Not all are available for streaming, but the first one just might get you hooked!
posted by kimota at 8:44 PM on December 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

Jiro Dreams of Sushi
Hoop Dreams
Senna (Brazilian Formula One race car driver)
The Parking Lot Movie
If A Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front (a terrorist??)
Buck (a horse whisperer)
Touching the Void (mountaineers)
Cave of Forgotten Dreams
Running the Sahara
ANVIL: the story of Anvil (aging heavy metal band goes on one last tour)
posted by wearyaswater at 8:56 PM on December 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

Empire of the Air, another Ken Burns documentary, is a compelling look at the early days of radio broadcasting.
posted by 1367 at 9:03 PM on December 21, 2012

Bill Cunningham New York
posted by Miko at 9:06 PM on December 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

Waste Land is unexpected at every turn: a film about an artist who rose to worldwide fame from the favelas in Brazil, who then went back and used the garbage that the favela residents pick and sort to create fine art portraits of the people themselves. Beautiful and really moving.

The Story of India (PBS) is pretty cool to watch.

Kings of Pastry, about a pastry championship of a lifetime in France.

Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work (seriously, really great)

Have you seen many Werner Herzog films? Encounters at the End of the World, Grizzly Man, Klaus Kinski: My Best Fiend. And Burden of Dreams, which is about Herzog trying to film Fitzcarraldo.

Pageant! It is guaranteed to turn any frown upside down.

Lost in La Mancha is the behind the scenes story of how Terry Gilliam's attempts to film Don Quixote failed again and again and again.

The Topp Twins: Untouchable Girls: yodeling lesbian twins from New Zealand -- what's not to love?

Bill Cunningham New York: fantastic portrait of the guy who takes those NYTimes fashion photos on the street

If you're okay with films that are emphatically NOT packed with facts and information, there's Ross McIlwee's films, such as Bright Leaves, Six O'Clock News and Sherman's March.
posted by Madamina at 9:09 PM on December 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

Marwencol will break your heart a little and has action figures.
posted by vrakatar at 9:17 PM on December 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

posted by Ideefixe at 9:23 PM on December 21, 2012

A good way to start narrowing stuff down is to go to and filter by ratings and critical acclaim.

I agree with Wasteland although its more feel good than fact heavy. Also the one about the black guy who becomes a horticultural artist (someone will be along soon to aid my memory).
posted by desjardins at 9:25 PM on December 21, 2012

Eyes on the Prize is amazing if you can find a copy in your local library. It was distributed on the Internet for a while because copyright issues prevented it from being put on DVD (though that's no longer the case I think).
posted by schroedinger at 9:59 PM on December 21, 2012

Man on Wire is very good.
posted by SLC Mom at 10:38 PM on December 21, 2012

It's a mini series, not a straight documentary, and there's a bit of dramatic license, but generally speaking they tried for accuracy so I would class it as a form of "documentary": From The Earth To The Moon. It seems to be online various places. Here's Episode 1. Episode 10 is one of the best popular dramatizations that demonstrates the value of science that I've found, without overwhelming you with hard science.
posted by gudrun at 10:47 PM on December 21, 2012

When We Were Kings. Muhammad Ali vs. George Foreman in the Rumble in the Jungle. I'm not much of a sports fan, let alone a boxing fan, but this movie had me entranced.

Please Vote For Me. A Chinese third grade class elects a class monitor. Absolutely fascinating.

In the Realms of the Unreal. The life and work of reclusive janitor and visionary artist Henry Darger.

Crumb. More than you ever thought you wanted to know about the sexual obsessions of America's premier underground cartoonist. I don't think I'm selling it very well; it's fantastic.
posted by hydrophonic at 11:00 PM on December 21, 2012

Indie Game: The Movie is about ... well, video games, but omg so enthralling.

Streaming on Netflix. I fell in love with Fez, and really empathized with the Super Meat Boy developers.
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 11:05 PM on December 21, 2012

Seconding Marwencol. It's just a fascinating doc about a truly unique guy.

The Botany of Desire was good. I especially enjoyed the section on marijuana plants. Apparently the best weed suffers from sexual frustration.

Sound and Fury is about the politics of cochlear implants in the deaf community. I had no idea, until I watched this doc, that a good portion of the deaf community considers itself its own culture, and that some parents resist getting cochlear implants for their children.

Grizzly Man is about the life and death of grizzly afficionado Timothy Treadwell. I was attracted to this the way some people are attracted to car accidents--morbid curiosity.

This Film is Not Yet Rated is an awesome expose of the MPAA ratings process. Highly recommended.

Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter Jr. is not streaming currently, but it is probably my favorite Erroll Morris (of The Thin Blue Line fame) doc. Leuchter worked tirelessly to make executions more humane and then really fell off the deep end, becoming a Holocaust denier. It's a crazy, amazing story.
posted by xyzzy at 11:13 PM on December 21, 2012

American Movie, about two hapless working-class filmmakers from Milwaukee.

The Devil and Daniel Johnston. An eccentric genius singer-songwriter struggles with mental illness. This film will break your heart.
posted by hydrophonic at 11:18 PM on December 21, 2012

ditto Man on Wire. Also, if available online, Capturing the Friedmans, and Brother's Keeper. Though both are kinda dark.
posted by tomjoadsghost at 11:41 PM on December 21, 2012

The Gleaners and I -- or any other work by the great Agnes Varda.
posted by tmharris65 at 3:17 AM on December 22, 2012

Wow! What great recommendations. Now i just don't know which one to watch first . . .
posted by backwards compatible at 5:11 AM on December 22, 2012

Himalaya with Michael Palin!
posted by mayurasana at 6:23 AM on December 22, 2012

Marwencol is among the best doccos I have ever seen. (Although I also rate Exit Through The Gift Shop, and that is about Banksy, kinda). And the Up! Series? A must see.

There was a series of docu-style things called Primetime in America.
Not being in the US I am befuddled with how these things are available, but it was four episodes of awesome looking at aspects of the US over 50 years of TV: Males, Females, Misfits and Crusaders.

Also, Get Lamp if you loved text adventure games.

I'm having a hard time calibrating your tastes with my tastes, but I will throw these out there:
Not Quite Hollywood (on Ozsploitation movies - and if you like This Film is Not Yet Rated and can stomach a bit of horror it's must-see, along with its sibling, the name of which escapes just now which examines US-funded Asian films of the like).
The Tawacores (a docco in Islamic punk bands in America).
posted by Mezentian at 7:51 AM on December 22, 2012

Silverlake Life: The View From Here - is about the most heartbreaking thing you will ever see.
posted by timsteil at 10:16 AM on December 22, 2012

Seconding Indie Game. Made me cry, very touching.

The Elephant in the Living Room is an interesting doc about exotic animals as pets.
posted by SarahElizaP at 12:07 PM on December 22, 2012

See What I'm Saying is about deaf and hard-of-hearing entertainers trying to make it in the "hearing" entertainment world. Very touching and interesting.

If you're at all a comic book enthusiast or even a casual comic book movie fan, With Great Power: The Stan Lee Story is also a fun watch, if only because Stan Lee seems like one of the most cheerful and stand-up guys out there.
posted by dean_deen at 4:50 PM on December 22, 2012

I'd second Crumb, When We Were Kings, Touching the void, the Up series, and Harlan County, USA.

I don't see them mentioned here, but I found both Wordplay and Spellbound completely fascinating, though I didn't expect to.
posted by johnofjack at 5:16 PM on December 22, 2012

Frontline: The Confessions (Netflix link) is very, very good, and disturbing - it's about 3 U.S. Navy seaman who were forced to confess to a murder.

Frontline: Death by Fire is similarly excellent. It's about a Texas man who was (probably) wrongly executed for setting a fire that killed his wife and child.

They're not exactly Ken Burns type documentaries, but they expose the underbelly of our justice system and will probably spur you to look for more information.

One more! Though not streaming, Paradise Lost is about 3 boys convicted of the rape and murder of a young boy via coerced confessions.
posted by desjardins at 9:50 PM on December 22, 2012

I love documentaries, so I'll watch any of them at least once.... that said, I found one on Netflix last week that I thought was fantastic. It's about a man who decides to live off the kindness of people on CraigsList for an entire month-- will he be homeless the whole time or are people nicer than we think? It's called Craigslist Joe.
posted by camylanded at 8:13 AM on December 23, 2012

Watching Bernie the other night reminded me of this one: Hands on a Hard Body.
posted by hydrophonic at 11:33 AM on January 24, 2013

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