10 Of The Best Must-See Documentaries (Including Full Videos)
Documentaries have developed over the years from being simple, dry and, contemplative to shocking, creative, thought-provoking films that tell complex stories. A good documentary must elicit a response from the viewer, be it joy, appreciation, fear or outrage. It must be honest, and bring to light all aspects of the subject being documented, not just a single slanted viewpoint. The following documentaries provide an intriguing and often shocking look into our world and the people and events around us.
Note: Some of the documentaries below contain graphic and disturbing footage.
Waltz with Bashir
The feeling of guilt over an incident can create long-lasting issues. Sometimes, the guilt is so severe that it can distort the way a person remembers it, or even cause them to erase it from their memory. A mix of animation and real-life, Waltz with Bashir chronicles the struggle of Ari Folman, a former IDF soldier and filmmaker, who slowly pieces together the part he played in the Sabra and Shatila massacre. With stimulating visuals highlighted by stark animation sequences, it shows how even being on the fringes of a horrible act can scar a person for years.
In every war, there is a profit to be made. Some make it through selling weapons, some make it through selling supplies. Fidelis Cloer claims he sells “a good feeling,” but what he actually sells is armored vehicles, and he is purely a war profiteer. This documentary follows Cloer into Iraq immediately after the arrival of coalition forces, where he is trying to sell his vehicles to the government and private contractors. The viewer is taken through a number of visits to the research facilities, as well as to the field in Iraq. The camera is not shy about showing blood or violence, or demolished cars where people have perished. A thorough look into the commerce of war, this movie sheds light on what many do not want to talk about, the monetary value of a life in war time.
Having lived a life of poverty and violence, Sandro Rosa do Nascimento witnessed the murder of his mother when he was young, and later witnessed the Candelaria church massacre at the age of 15. At the age of 22 he got on a bus, intending to rob the passengers. Bungling the robbery, it soon became one of the most televised hostage incidents in Brazil, as well as one of the most questioned, involving the death of a hostage from police gunfire and the death of the hostage-taker in police custody. Dark and gritty, Bus 174 examines the path taken by Nascimento, the life in the slums of Brazil and the resulting incident.
The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert McNamara
An enormously powerful and influential politician and businessman, Robert McNamara was the architect of American defensive policies for over seven years, and is regarded by many as the man responsible for the escalation of an American presence in Vietnam. In his own words, the film looks at his rise from rather modest beginnings to the president of Ford, and then becoming the Secretary of Defense. McNamara instituted the use of systems analysis as a basis for making key decisions, and later pushed for the withdrawal of troops from Vietnam, although he receives much of the blame for America’s role in the conflict from the public. This film provides in depth insight into both his life, and the international relations of the United States as a whole. Not shocking, but incredibly thorough and enlightening, this is one of the few must-see documentaries ever made.
The Act of Killing
From 1965 through 1966, there was an anti-communist purge in Indonesia following a failed coup. Some of the worst killings were carried out at the hands of ex-gangsters who were given free range to run death squads under the protection of the Sukarno government. In North Sumatra, Anwar Congo was in charge of one of the most notorious death squads to operate. The film blurs the lines of fact and fiction, having Anwar re-enact some of the killings with themes behind them. These themes become more surreal as more is revealed, pushing into the depths of Congo’s guilt. Disturbing and graphic, at times stomach-turning, this is not for the weak of heart, but it is a great look at how those guilty in times of genocide view their participation.
Touching the Void
Two men ascended one of the most difficult climbing faces in the world, but the climb was the easy part. The descent would cause one of them to make the most difficult decision of his life, while it would cause the other to have to face death. This movie documents the acts of the two men and the long lasting effects on them, physically and psychologically. Not a true documentary in that it is a recreation of events, it is nonetheless dark, and makes you ponder one of the darkest questions a human can be faced with. It also manages to provide a light at the end of the tunnel, in showing that even the worst situations can have a positive outcome if Lady Luck intervenes.
A documentary that spans the breadth of emotions, Armadillo studies the deployment of a group of Danish soldiers to the front lines of Afganistan, to a forward operating base called Armadillo. A study in bravery and behavior, the movie probes in to how young men address a war they don’t understand, where the enemy can be the villager standing next to them. Graphic and controversial, with raw film directly from firefights, the filmmakers take an unflinching stance, and are willing to depict the events in authentic fashion. The behavior of the soldiers is crass, sometimes borderline criminal, but it is never fake. It is a look at the psychology of young soldiers in war that must be seen.
Night and Fog
An incredibly stark documentary that tries to take an even-handed look at one of the worst atrocities in the history of the world, this film is a short, straight-forward look at the concentration camps of the Holocaust. Blending together two generations of footage, it explains the processes of the plants, the conditions faced by inmates, and the processes the camps operated by. Often graphic, with footage of camp conditions from archives, this movie created controversy in Europe and Israel, and faced censorship a number of times, although the full movie is now available. Night and Fog is considered today one of the greatest documentaries ever made.
A gory look at the drive hunt harvesting of dolphins in Japan, The Cove is a decidedly one-sided film, shot from the point of conservationists. It is a look at the culture of the drive hunting as part of the Japanese culture, and also at the efforts of the Japanese political machine to cover up these events, even from their own people. It has stirred up a great amount of controversy around the world, but has also received a great amount of recognition for the effort behind the making of the film and the quality of the picture itself, not necessarily the message it tries to convey.
A cautionary tale of the difficulties that come from sudden success, this film chronicles the rise and fall of Troy Duffy, a musician and filmmaker best known for being the writer and director of The Boondock Saints. This movie demonstrates how the ego and attitude of a newly-minted, arrogant hot-shot can destroy their career before it even starts. Through insulting and alienating Hollywood power players, Duffy manages to destroy his opportunity in Hollywood before it has a chance to blossom. The film is harsh, and at some times makes Duffy appear almost as a caricature of a boor, but it is true to life and a great example for ambitious writers on how not to conduct one’s self.