The 50 Best Documentaries Streaming on Netflix 2014

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The 50 Best Documentaries Streaming on Netflix 2014

One thing Netflix is quietly doing very well is streaming some of the best documentaries of the last few years. Nearly all of our favorite documentaries of 2013 are now available on the streaming service. But it’s not always easy finding the best of Netflix’s broad documentary selection. So here are our updated picks for the 50 Best Documentaries Streaming on Netflix in 2014:

helvetica.jpg 50. Helvetica
Year: 2007
Director: Gary Hustwit
For his documentary-directing debut, Gary Hustwit did not follow the local basketball team through its championship tournament. He did not dissect a pressing political issue. And he sure as hell didn’t eat exclusively Big Macs for a month.
Instead, Hustwit created a documentary on a font: Helvetica, to be specific. Go ahead, pull it up in your word processor of choice. How compelling does it look to you? The fact that Hustwit and cinematographer Luke Geissbuhler turned this benign typeface into a rather well-received film says a lot about their sense of style and passion for the concepts of graphic design.—Jeremy Goldmeier

Enron.jpg 49. Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room
Year: 2005
Director: Alex Gibney
In a cautionary tale of corporate greed, negligence and diffusion of responsibility, the leaders of Enron defrauded employees and investors out of millions, encouraging others to stay aboard a sinking ship while they were quietly bailing themselves out. Among the highlights of Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room is Alex Gibney’s montage that cross-cuts footage of Stanley Milgram’s 1961 social experiment with images of the chaos caused by Enron in the 2000 California energy crisis, narrated by phone calls between ruthlessly jovial Enron traders, all set to Los Straightjackets’ “California Sun.” The unexpected wit and verve with which this documentary tells its infuriating tale is what sets it apart. Emily Riemer

best-worst-movie.jpg 48. Best Worst Movie
Year: 2009
Director: Michael Paul Stephenson
The 1990 horror flick Troll 2 features listless acting, klutzy special effects and not a single troll. It stars a whiny 10-year-old named Michael Paul Stephenson—who, two decades after the movie’s release and titanic flop, is still grappling with that disastrous first brush with stardom. Only a few years ago did Stephenson—by then an aspiring filmmaker—realize how oddly popular the movie had become, winning the strange hearts of B-movie aficionados worldwide. They’d thrown costume parties, hosted public screenings, even dubbed it the “best worst movie of all time.” This unlikely cult following is part of what Stephenson chronicles in his directorial debut, a kind of laughing-with approach to reconciling Troll 2’s disastrous beginnings and unlikely cult following. He also tracks down a number of his co-stars to gauge their enduring relationship to the film; obscurity, thwarted ego and general mental illness plague some, but George Hardy—the actor turned small-town dentist who played Stephenson’s father in Troll 2—becomes the documentary’s de facto star with his guileless, picket-fence grin. It’s a tale of despair, redemption and transcendence—like all the best movies, and all the worst.—Rachael Maddux

art-of-the-steal.jpg 47. The Art of the Steal
Year: 2009
Director: Don Argott
In the early 20th century, Albert Barnes rose from his blue-collar beginnings to considerable wealth, assembling what would become the most impressive collection of post-impressionist art in the world (181 Renoirs, 59 Matisses), currently valued at over $25 billion. He housed it all in an impeccably civilized foundation on private property outside the city of Philadelphia as an act of defiance against his lifelong enemies, the Philadelphia art establishment and city government. Then, as a final middle finger to those forces, he clearly demanded in his will that the collection never be sold, loaned or moved, and specifically never to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. You can guess from the title what happened next. An infuriating look at a government’s brazen attempt to steal a priceless collection from a foundation that Matisse called “the only sane place to see art in America.”—Michael Dunaway

tabloid.jpg 46. Tabloid
Year: 2010
Director: Errol Morris 
Since his breakthrough feature, 1988’s The Thin Blue Line, every one of Errol Morris’ features has essentially been about searching for the truth. It’s been a wide-ranging exploration, one that’s been equally fruitful delving into the mysteries of the universe and displacing common beliefs about Vietnam. With Tabloid, Morris continues probing into this theme, but here he’s found a case in which everyone is lying and the truth itself may be unobtainable—which is likely why its story fascinated him so much.—Sean Gandert

page-one.jpg 45. Page One: Inside the New York Times
Year: 2011
Director: Andrew Rossi
The always entertaining Times reporter David Carr could easily have been the focus of the entire film but director Andrew Rossi smartly uses Carr as an appropriate voice of experience, albeit an unabashed defender of the paper. The grizzled, ex-drug addict journalist is a film editor’s dream as he speaks in sharp, insightful and seemingly effortless sound bites.—Tim Basham

who-is-harry-nilsson.jpg 44. Who is Harry Nilsson (And Why is Everybody Talkin’ About Him)?
Year: 2010
Director: John Scheinfeld
Lennon and McCartney allegedly said that Nilsson was their favorite group, thinking he was a band, not a man. That sums up well the enigma of Harry Nilsson—always there but always missing. With rare footage and frank interviews, director John Scheinfeld fills in much of the missing parts on one of popular music’s greatest and strangest talents. For example, in 1972 Nilsson followed up his commercially successful Nilsson Schmilsson (containing the Grammy winning “Without You”) with the more self-indulgent album Son of Schmilsson containing one of the greatest break-up songs of all time, “You’re Breakin’ My Heart” (“…you’re tearing me apart, so fuck you.”)—Tim Basham

no-end-in-sight.jpg 43. No End In Sight
Year: 2007
Director: Charles Ferguson
After several years of fine and varied documentaries on Iraq, Ferguson came along to sum up the American side of the debacle—the fear, hubris and missed opportunities—with great efficiency. It’s an especially good, if infuriating primer for those who’ve grown exhausted of following daily reports from the Persian Gulf.—Robert Davis

queen-versailles.jpg 42. The Queen of Versailles
Year: 2012
Director: Lauren Greenfield
Lauren Greenfield only meant to take a few pictures of a very wealthy family in the midst of all their opulence. Her subjects were the Siegels—the self-made billionaire, the trophy wife, the eight not-as-maladjusted-as-you-might-think children, the monochromatic menagerie of animals. But once the family began opening up about their lives, the woman behind the camera decided to stick around a little while longer, positing that there might be more to this story than just infinity symbols for account balances. Her perseverance resulted in an alternately hilarious and heart-wrenching cautionary tale about the excesses of the American dream.—Tyler Chase

thunder-soul.jpg 41. Thunder Soul
Year: 2010
Director: Mark Landsman
During the early ’70s, there was a group in Houston that was acclaimed by some as the greatest funk band in the world. Amazingly enough, it was made up of high-school students, the Kashmere High School Stage Band. After 35 years, alumni return to give legendary band director Conrad “Prof” Johnson one more concert as he nears the end of his life. Mr. Holland’s Opus meets The Commitments, but real.—Michael Dunaway

waiting-room.jpg 40. The Waiting Room
Year: 2012
Director: Peter Nicks
A heart-wrenching wake-up call about the complex problems with our healthcare system in America. Director Peter Nicks chronicles patients who are waiting for treatment in a saftey-net hospital in Oakland, Calif. People living without health insurance talk about their hardships and struggles as they to find relief for their illnesses. A real eye-opener, The Waiting Room beautifully pieces together disparate stories that make us question our current healthcare system, and point us to reform. —Danielle Radin

restrepo.jpg 39. Restrepo
Year: 2010
Directors: Tim Hetherington, Sebastian Junger
CNN has called the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan the deadliest place on earth, and that’s where filmmakers spent time embedded with a platoon of U.S. soldiers during heavy combat. Dealing with at least four fire fights per day instills a close comradery among the troops that is especially evident when one of them is killed. The film’s title comes from a fallen comrade.—Tim Basham

semper-fi.jpg 38. Semper Fi: Always Faithful
Year: 2011
Directors: Rachel Libert, Tony Hardmon
Just what did they know? And when did they know it? These are two questions that dominate much of the documentary Semper Fi: Always Faithful. The “they” is the U.S. government and more specifically the officials who administered the Camp Lejeune Marine Corps base, located in North Carolina. The “what” is part of the mystery uncovered in this rich film likely to factor into the awards discussion as the year draws to a close.—Jonathan Hickman

brooklyn-castle.jpg 37. Brooklyn Castle
Year: 2012
Director: Katie Dellamaggiore
The subject of Brooklyn Castle sounds like the premise for a soppy, Oscar-baiting drama. At I.S. 138 in Brooklyn, New York, a competitive chess program has helped an extraordinary number of lower-income inner city students improve their standings in life. But this documentary is all real, which makes the triumphs and failures of these kids all the more affecting. Featuring a delightful roster of vibrant young people and a timely exploration of how budget cuts are harming extracurricular programs, it may be the best school doc since Resolved.—Dan Schindel

fambul-tok.jpg 36. Fambul Tok
Year: 2011
Director: Sara Terry
People of the African nation of Sierra Leone practice an ancient ritual of family talk called Fambul Tok in this incredible documentary. Citizens whose lives were horrifically changed by civil war, where family members became killers of their own families, where torture and cruelty were every day occurrences, demonstrate a remarkable amount of tolerance and forgiveness as they gather to heal the emotional scars of war. Even though the fighting was over, rapists and murderers would walk among the victims and victims’ families with impunity. But instead of imprisonment, the perpetrators would be reconciled with the citizenry through Fambul Tok. Sierra Leone, we learn, has a saying that sums it up best. “There is no place to throw away a bad child.”—Tim Basham

survive-a-plague.jpg 35. How To Survive a Plague
Year: 2012
Director: David France
A New York journalist who has covered the AIDS epidemic for 30 years, first-time filmmaker David France has assembled a superb record of the decade-long fight for a viable treatment protocol and an intimate portrait of the personalities leading the charge. How to Survive is indeed a tale of survival, but the AIDS community didn’t get there without a fight—and a steep personal toll. —Annlee Ellingson

bully.jpg 34. Bully
Year: 2012
Director: Lee Hirsch
Despite the strong language that controversially garnered it an R from the MPAA, Bully deserves to be seen. According to the Department of Education, 13 million children will be bullied each year. Bully profiles five of these victims, including Alex, a 12-year-old seventh grader at East Middle School in Sioux City, Iowa. Alex’s victimization, as well as the well-meaning yet highly ineffectual efforts of school administrators and even his parents to deal with what they don’t fully understand, is caught on tape. Alex is subjected to the foulest of threats and name-calling by his peers, impossible to edit out and a disservice to the movie’s message if bleeped. He’s also hit, pushed, poked and stabbed—all on film. Hirsch was able to capture such shocking behavior by blending into the fabric of the school.—Annlee Ellingson

client-9.jpg 33. Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer
Year: 2010
Director: Alex Gibney
Alex Gibney was a presence in 2010 with four major documentary features. Client 9 was his tightest, his most personal and his best. Gibney has great sympathy for Spitzer and great anger at the powers that brought him down, but his impatience at the weakness Spitzer exhibited in making that fall possible is evident. As with most of Gibney’s films, expect a sharp intellect, crisp photography, brilliant use of music and a strong viewpoint.—Michael Dunaway

iraq-in-fragments.jpg 32. Iraq in Fragments
Year: 2006
Director: James Longley
Applying the full spectrum of cinematic technique to a nonfiction film, Longley made one of the most striking movies this year, an immersive view of life in Iraq; a record of opinions and faces from across the country, all captured at close range.—Robert Davis

marwencol.jpg 31. Marwencol
Year: 2010
Director: Jeff Malmberg
Some of the best documentaries are the ones that confuse and confound you before completely winning you over. Marwencol does that, sneaking up on you with a simple story of a damaged man whose unique form of self-treatment is making him whole again. That part of Mark Hogencamp’s life would suffice as a pleasing story, even if we never looked closer. But director Jeff Malmberg does bring us closer, and the result is a story rich in awakenings, Barbie dolls and shoes.—Tim Basham

blackfish.jpg 30. Blackfish
Year: 2013
Director: Gabriela Cowperthwaite
Blackfish delivers ominous chills not because it documents orca attacks, but because it makes a clear, strong case that the attacks are of humankind’s making. It’s more Frankenstein than Jaws. Orcas are highly intelligent animals, susceptible to psychological scars, boredom, frustration and anger. The attacks didn’t spring from base animal instinct—killer whales aren’t known to attack humans in the wild—but from lives of mistreatment.—Jeremy Mathews

act-of-killing.jpg 29. The Act of Killing
Year: 2013
Director: Joshua Oppenheimer
Documentary filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing focuses on one of the darkest chapters of the 20th century, speaking to some members of the Indonesian death squads who slaughtered hundreds of thousands of their countrymen and women in 1965 and ’66. These people don’t live in the shadows, though: They’re treated like royalty in their native land, celebrated as heroes who helped “save” Indonesia from communism. The film is so shocking and depressing that its subjects’ utter disconnection from morality would almost be funny if it wasn’t so frightening. Oppenheimer amplifies those conflicting reactions further by introducing a daring gambit. In the process of interviewing these butchers—who brag about raping and killing their victims (including the occasional beheading)—the director asked if they would be interested in re-creating their murders through fictionalized, filmed scenes. The men—most notably a gentleman named Anwar Congo, who was one of the death squad leaders—leapt at the chance.—Tim Grierson

marley.jpg 28. Marley
Year: 2012
Director: Kevin Macdonald
It’s not entirely clear why director Kevin Macdonald decided to make a documentary about the musician Bob Marley, a cultural icon whose life has been recounted countless times through a variety of mediums. Macdonald claims it’s because he wants to understand why Marley continues to speak to legions of fans around the world. Whatever his reasons, he’s clearly up to the task. Marley offers an expansive and at times fascinating perspective on the man through interviews with his fellow former Wailers, family, and childhood friends. The film is fairly detailed concerning Marley’s songwriting and musicianship from his early ska days up through the release of Catch a Fire. After this, however, it skips through his catalogue, choosing to focus more on his personal life, conversion to Rastafarianism, the tumultuous state of Jamaican politics, and his prolific womanizing—all of which are important elements of the artist’s character.—Jonah Flicker

how-to-grow-a-band.jpg 27. How To Grow a Band
Year: 2011
Director: Mark Meatto
A good film—and a good band, for that matter—can be much like the Wizard of Oz. If everything goes just right, if the curtain doesn’t get pulled back, then the audience can find itself part of a great and powerful experience. That said, in How To Grow A Band, director Mark Meatto proves that, sometimes, a look behind the curtain can yield just as amazing of an experience. Meatto followed the folk-formal-fusion-but-don’t-you dare-call-it-bluegrass band Punch Brothers for two years: on tour, in studio, on the street, in the living room, in comfort and in flux. The portrait of the band that emerges is clear and precise. We come to know the band so well that the music is comfortingly familiar by film’s end; we come to the know the band members so well that we can hear each individual personality filter through each song. And that’s what How To Grow A Band is really about. Meatto shows us how five virtuosos come together to take traditional music in a new direction. There’s no need to pull back the curtain—just sit back and enjoy the show. While Punch Brothers are playing, you’re definitely not in Kansas anymore.—Joan Radell

26. Jesus Camp
Year: 2006
Director: Heidi Ewing, Rachel Grady
This hard-to-watch film follows three children who attend a charismatic Christian summer camp called Kids On Fire in North Dakota. The kids speak in tongues, believe global warming is a political conspiracy, and bless a cardboard cutout of George W. Bush. There’s no need for a narrator or editorial opinion—the footage says it all. It’s no surprise that the camp closed after the film’s release.—Kate Kiefer

the-square.jpg 25. The Square
Year: 2013
Director: Jehane Noujaim
Bringing calm insight to an impassioned, still-developing historic event, the documentary The Square looks at the 2011 Egyptian Revolution from the perspective of those who were on the frontlines from the very beginning, personalizing the dramatic developments without losing a sense of the greater stakes. Director Jehane Noujaim, who previously helmed Control Room and co-directed, has delivered a snapshot of a grassroots political movement over its bumpy two-year history, embracing the emotional complexity and logistical obstacles that have made Egyptians’ road to democracy so difficult.—Tim Grierson

cutie-boxer.jpg 24. Cutie and the Boxer
Year: 2013
Director: Zachary Heinzerling
Great artists are often forgiven for flaws in their personal lives, but such forgiveness usually hinges on success. Cutie and the Boxer, Zachary Heinzerling’s fascinating documentary about Ushio Shinohara and his wife, Noriko, depicts a man who is entering his 80s, but still dreams like he’s 20. Heinzerling leaves open for debate whether the old man is an important mind or a bum.—Jeremy Mathews

undefeated.jpg 23. Undefeated
Year: 2012
Director: Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin
In introducing us to Coach Bill Courtney, Undefeated finds its voice. The Memphis family man and owner of a lumber business isn’t just the team’s coach; he’s a father figure, mentor and therapist to its troubled players. O.C., Chavis and “Money” are, for all their pluck, still teenagers from broken homes—making them especially difficult and moody. It’s a marvel how tirelessly Courtney works to instill character, discipline and selflessness into each of them—to mold these boys into sound human beings. Watching Undefeated, one realizes that it’s on the backs of individuals like Courtney that entire communities find their soul, their humanity.—Jay Antani

shut-up-and-play.jpg 22. Shut Up and Play the Hits
Year: 2012
Directors: Will Lovelaces, Dylan Southern
A year ago, hundreds of friends and thousands of fans converged on Madison Square Garden for LCD Soundsystem’s farewell performance. All the while, the cameras were rolling, resulting in Shut Up And Play the Hits, a documentary that follows James Murphy and the band in the days leading up to, during and after the tumultuous four-hour farewell. Directors Will Lovelace and Dylan Southern use a staggering number of cameras and crosscut liberally to provide an experience that’s arguably even better than seeing the band live (okay, maybe not quite that good but…). And the scenes outside the concert footage are equally compelling. —Michael Dunaway/Bo Moore

connected.jpg 21. Connected: An Autobiography About Love, Death & Technology
Year: 2011
Director: Tiffany Shlain
Tiffany Shlain’s father was a renowned surgeon and best-selling author whose theories about mass societal shifts between left-brained and right-brained thinking, masculine and feminine energy, analytical and holistic worldviews challenged conventional orthodoxy. She continued her father’s iconoclastic ways, creating the Webby awards, creating great documentary films that made extensive and effective use of pastiche and collage, and becoming one of Newsweek’s “Women Shaping the 21st Century.” When she began designing a film that would be a collaboration, she had no idea that her father would become ill shortly after they began filming. The film changed, and quickly. What began as an academic exploration became the most personal of journeys for Shlain, and what would have been simply an intellectually stimulating film became a wonderfully moving one as well. Connected was one of the truly thrilling experiences of this year’s Sundance, and easily the best documentary in competition.—Michael Dunaway

ai-weiwei-never.jpg 20. Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry
Year: 2012
Director: Alison Klayman
Alison Klayman’s loving portrait of China’s dissident artist Ai Weiwei may strike some as hagiographic, but how can it not be? This is a man who would be a major artist no matter what his national origin. Yet both his art and his story are made infinitely more fascinating by the incredible courage and steadfastness he shows in openly defying and mocking one of the most evil regimes on Earth. He’s smarter than them, he’s more talented than them, and he’s more charismatic and popular than them. Of course, they have the guns. That the fight seems evenly matched may be the greatest tribute of all.—Michael Dunaway

sins-of-my-father.jpg 19. Sins of My Father
Year: 1009
Director: Nicolas Entel
As a boy in Colombia, Sebastian Marroquin was shielded from the hideous side of Pablo Escobar; he only knew him as his doting father. Even the murders Escobar eventually arranged of a crusading Minister of Justice and a stirringly heroic presidential candidate (the very loose equivalent of the RFK and JFK of Colombia) don’t completely open his eyes. But after Escobar’s death at the hands of Delta Force (a death Sebastian immediately resolved to avenge), the son began a long process of coming to terms with the reality of his past, and when we meet Sebastian in the present day he has long since realized that his father was, outside his family life, a monster. That story alone would be compelling enough, but director Nicolas Entel convinces Sebastian to write a letter to, and later to meet with, the equally fascinating sons of his father’s two most famous victims. The meetings that follow should bring tears to the eyes of anyone who cares about reconciliation and forgiveness. Most filmmakers are content with making a film that tells a compelling story; Entel joins the company a select few filmmakers whose films have actually helped create healing within a society.—Michael Dunaway

national-parks.jpg 18. The National Parks: America’s Best Idea
Year: 2009
Director: Ken Burns
Early in Ken Burns’ mega-documentary, a mythic figure appears. A twangy score settles into gentle piano chords, and after a lyrical interlude, the man is finally identified as John Muir, a vagrant Scotsman who entered the Yosemite Valley in the late 1860s and died five decades later as one of the central reasons it remains preserved today. Burns—the legendary documentarian known for The Civil War, Jazz and Baseball—frames Muir as a naturalist miracle who arrived precisely when the country needed one most. The six-part, 12-hour doc debuted on PBS and traces over 150 years of our park history. More than any other Burns series, National Parks includes large sections that focus on nothing but massive natural vistas—a gesture for viewers to think of the national parks not as dad-mandated family-vacation spots but as some of the most quintessential places on our soil.—Jeffrey Bloomer

20-feet-from-stardom.jpg 17. 20 Feet From Stardom
Year: 2013
Director: Morgan Neville
20 Feet from Stardom is a thorough—to the point of feeling a bit long—document on the craft of backup singing, revealing the special skill set required to achieve a perfect blend of voices and the spiritual high that can sometimes result; the difference between backup singers and eye candy (looking at you, Ike Turner); and the recording of “Sweet Home Alabama” amid the Civil Rights Movement. And it’s all set to a soundtrack some of the best tunes to come out of the second half of the 20th century.—Annlee Ellingson

7-up.jpg 16. 7 Up Series
Year: 1964-
Director: Michael Apted
In 1964, some British filmmakers rounded up a group of fourteen seven-year-old kids from across the country—boys and girls, rich and poor, black and white—and interviewed them for a BBC program called Seven Up. At the end of the show, a voice-over commanded that viewers tune back in sometime in the year 2000, when the team would circle back to the kids as adults. But in 1971, at the hands of director Michael Apted, who’d been a researcher on the first installment, came Seven Plus Seven, which caught up with the kids at age fourteen and kicked off what’s now known as the Up Series, which has revisited the same bunch every seven years since.—Rachael Maddux

stories-we-tell.jpg 15. Stories We Tell
Year: 2013
Director:** Sarah Polley
With Stories We Tell, actress-turned-director Sarah Polley has proven herself a consummate filmmaker, transforming an incredible personal story into a playful and profound investigation into the nature of storytelling itself. The central mystery of her documentary—that the man she grew up believing to be her dad is not her biological father—is public knowledge and revealed in the film’s trailer. Yet Polley conceals and reveals information—starting with her relationships to her interview subjects—in such a way as to constantly surprise, even shock, her audience. The result is a film that entertains and delights viewers while elevating her investigation to art.—Annlee Ellingson

leviathan-13.jpg 14. Leviathan
Year: 2013
Directors: Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor
“The film is a gesture, a physical and emotional reaction to our experience, almost like an epileptic crisis or something—an aesthetic translation of what we have been subjected to.” That’s how co-director Véréna Paravel describes her documentary Leviathan, an utterly ravishing and pummeling impressionistic account of life on a high-seas fishing boat. Instead of storylines or talking-head interviews, Paravel and her partner Lucien Castaing-Taylor’s film simply plunges us into the terror and isolation of a brutal, dangerous job, its cameras diving into the ocean or following along as a fish gets caught in the net on its way to being gutted. You don’t learn many facts about commercial fishing from Leviathan, but you leave the movie convinced you understand it on a primal, cathartic level, which is how art sometimes works best.—Tim Grierson

exit-through-the-gift-shop.jpg 13. Exit Through the Gift Shop
Year: 2010
Director: Banksy 
When renowned graffiti artist Banksy took the camera away from the man shooting his biopic and decided that the subject would become the documentarian (and the documentarian, the subject), the zaniest doc in years was born. Was it Banksy’s own attention and the pressure of the film that motivated Mr. Brainwash to become an international sensation in his own right, with his inaugural show in Los Angeles becoming the largest and most profitable in street-art history? Or was the artist born, not made? Or is his whole career just part of the whole huckster atmosphere of the film? Banksy’s not saying. But it’s certainly a wild ride to watch.—Michael Dunaway

the-imposter.jpg 12. The Imposter
Year: 2012
Director: Bart Layton
It’s obvious The Imposter is going to be a thriller, and a thriller it is, and then some. Three years after the disappearance of their 13-year-old son, a Texas family receive word he’s been found in Spain. When they go to pick him up, they’re so desperate to believe he’s alive that they don’t even notice that the “boy” is actually a French man in his mid-twenties. Is it a monumental case of grief and hope blinding sense, or is there a darker explanation? Director Bart Layton mixes elements of documentary and narrative filmmaking seamlessly in ways I’ve never seen done before. And every character he uncovers in the drama is more of a treasure trove than the last. It’s one of the most compelling films you’ll see all year, in any genre.—Michael Dunaway

room-237.jpg 11. Room 237
Year: 2013
Director: Rodney Ascher
There exists a rare species of obsessive moviegoer—the hyper-fan who focuses on one film, mentally and emotionally ingesting it dozens, maybe hundreds, of times. Along a certain parallel, there is also a serious breed of conspiracy theorist, compulsive in his or her beliefs, taking things far beyond just watching Doomsday Preppers for fun. Put these two types together, and you get Room 237, the confounding, eye-opening, and often hilarious documentary about individuals whose over-wired brains are devoted to one cinematic masterpiece: Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining.—Norm Schrager

this-is-not-a-film.jpg 10. This Is Not a Film
Year: 2012
Directors: Jafar Panahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb
In December 2010, renowned Iranian director Jafar Panahi (Offside) was sentenced to six years in prison and banned from making films for 20 years. His crime? Supporting the opposition party during Iran’s highly charged 2009 election. Three months later on the eve of the Iranian New Year, while his wife and children are away delivering gifts, Panahi is home alone in his apartment. He turns on a camera. What follows is a document of the day-to-day life of a man under house arrest: He spreads jam on bread. He brews tea. He feeds his daughter’s pet iguana. He calls his family. He checks in with his lawyer. But it also evolves into a provocative meditation on the nature of filmmaking itself: Although he has been barred from directing films, writing screenplays, leaving the country and conducting interviews, Panahi’s sentence says nothing about reading or acting, so this is what he does, explaining what his most recent film would have been about had he been allowed to make it. Like René Magritte’s The Treachery of Images, in which the artist scrawls the words “This is not a pipe” under a painting of just such a smoking device, this is not a film but a representation of one.—Annlee Ellingson

general-orders.jpg 9. General Orders No. 9
Year: 2009
Director: Robert Persons
A deeply rich baritone with an accent dripping of old bourbon muses—intermittently—over footage of city and country, group and individual, as hypnotic music plays. It’s as if Terence Malick filmed a newly discovered William Faulkner memoir. A decade in the making, it’s the most wholly original vision in years.—Michael Dunaway

into-the-abyss.jpg 8. Into the Abyss
Year: 2011
Director: Werner Herzog 
Like all Herzog’s work, the film looks far beyond a single idea and, despite a transparent agenda, never sermonizes. Herzog merely puts his belief that capital punishment is wrong to the test, examining it from several angles. In typical Herzog fashion, he explores his subject through conversations between the filmmaker, whom we of course never see, and a plethora of related interviewees. Because it avoids didactic narration and biased statistics, this approach feels honest and reliable and, thus, humanistic.—David Roark

senna.jpg 7. Senna
Year: 2010
Director: Asif Kapadia
Kapadia was already a BAFTA-award-winning narrative director, but there are plenty of narrative directors who haven’t made the transition to documentaries effectively. He doubled the degree of difficulty by deciding to use all period footage of his subject, ’80s and ’90s Gran Prix legend Aryton Senna. He pulled it off in spades, and Senna is one of the greatest sports documentaries of all time, and one of the three best docs of the year.—Michael Dunaway

let-fire-burn.jpg 6. Let the Fire Burn
Year: 2013
Director: Jason Osder
On May 13, 1985, a deadly altercation broke out in Philadelphia between police and a radical organization called MOVE, resulting in 11 deaths and the destruction of several city blocks. First-time filmmaker Jason Osder’s riveting documentary brilliantly re-creates that day entirely through live local broadcasts and a televised city hearing months later that investigated who was at fault. Let the Fire Burn is a found-footage landmark that presents a troubling commentary on race relations in America that remain distressingly unresolved. Perhaps even more impressively, though, Osder’s film doubles as a moving, engrossing courtroom thriller populated with unexpected heroes and fascinating, nuanced insights into how human beings behave in a crisis.—Tim Grierson

muscle-shoals.jpg 5. Muscle Shoals
Year: 2013
Director: Greg “Freddy” Camalier
Freddy Camalier’s masterly Muscle Shoals is about the beginnings and heyday of the recording scene in Muscle Shoals, Ala., a tiny town that improbably changed the face of rock ‘n’ roll, putting out along the way some of the greatest records in the history of American music. Many of those moments are recounted to great effect in the film; first-timer Camalier is obviously a natural storyteller. But there’s so much more to the doc—the cinematography is lush and beautiful, the editing is crisp and precise, and it’s in turns heartbreaking, inspiring, wry, thought-provoking, nostalgic and genuinely funny. It’s simply a stunning debut film. It helps that Camalier and his producing partner Stephen Badger are after more here than just a dry lesson in musical history. They delve into the Civil Rights Movement and its effect specifically on Alabama, especially as it relates to a Muscle Shoals music scene that was, shockingly enough, lacking in any racial tension. They return again and again to the ancient Native American legend about the river that flows through the town and the water spirit who lived there, sang songs and protected the town. And the personal life of Fame Records founder Rick Hall, the protagonist of the film, is itself worthy of a Faulkner novel. It’s thrilling, it’s engaging, it’s fascinating, it’s stirring. It’s the best documentary of the year, whether you’re a music lover or not.—Michael Dunaway

jiro-sushi.jpg 4. Jiro Dreams of Sushi
Year: 2012
Director: David Gelb
Jiro Dreams of Sushi is a documentary about one of the greatest masters of the culinary world, one whom casual foodies have never even heard of. Although Jiro’s work is ostensibly the focus of the documentary, the film is really propelled by the story of his relationship with his two sons; the youngest of whom has started his own restaurant, and the oldest of whom, at the age of 50, continues to work with his father, training to one day take over his restaurant. Devoid of the typical familial jealousy you may expect, Jiro Dreams of Sushi is instead a beautifully filmed documentary about a father and his sons who have devoted their lives to the pursuit of the perfect piece of sushi. —Emily Kirkpatrick

47.ManOnWire.NetflixList.jpg 3. Man on Wire
Year: 2008
Director: James Marsh
In 1974, high-wire walker Philippe Petit fulfilled a longstanding dream by sneaking into New York’s World Trade Center, stringing a cable between the tops of the two towers, and—with almost unfathomable guts—walking across it without a net. The man is clearly a nut, but he’s also a great storyteller with a heck of a story, and Man on Wire gives him a chance to tell it. Petit’s stunt was both an engineering challenge and a test of, well, a test of something that most of us don’t possess in this much quantity. Filmmaker James Marsh uses standard documentary techniques, combining new interviews with a satisfying pile of footage and photographs, but his film has the suspense of a caper movie. The title comes from the report written by a police officer who was more than a little uncertain about how to respond to the audacity on display.—Robert Davis

thin-blue-line.jpg 2. The Thin Blue Line
Year: 1988
Director: Errol Morris 
Errol Morris’ first mature feature is perhaps the most famous case of a documentary having a life outside the silver screen. The Thin Blue Line focuses on the case of Randall Adams, who allegedly murdered a police officer. Combining his nearly obsessive concern for the truth with his experience as a private detective, Morris unearthed a plethora of misconceptions and flat-out lies that made it clear Adams was being framed. Publicity surrounding the film resulted in his case being re-opened, exonerating Adams.—Sean Gandert

hoop-dreams.jpg 1. Hoop Dreams
Year: 1994
Director: Steve James
Seldom has a film, narrative or documentary, so probingly explored the American Dream. In this case, the version of the dream that young William Gates and Arthur Agee have bought into is redemption (and fortune and fame) through athletic achievement. That the odds are stacked so heavily against those dreams ever coming true only makes their dearest hopes that much more poignant. Steve James famously spent nearly eight years making the film, and despite its nearly three-hour running time, it doesn’t feel long at all. Every frame feels essential.—Michael Dunaway

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