We’ve spoken before about how there’s a satisfying feeling that comes with watching a good documentary; the feeling of learning while being entertained is becoming rarer and rarer, which is why we here at Goliath have taken the time to research and draw attention to 10 documentaries that will absolutely, undoubtedly and assuredly blow your mind. Whether you like true crime stories, sports stories, video game stories or environmental ones, there’s something for everyone on this list, and it’s our hope that all of our readers will be able to sit down with one of these films and come out the other side just a little more aware of the issues pertaining to our contemporary cultural climate.
10. West of Memphis (2012)
The culmination of numerous documentaries chronicling the lengthy legal battle surrounding the West Memphis Three, West of Memphis is a critically acclaimed film that attempts to draw attention to the unsatisfactory ending of this extremely controversial criminal case. Following the spotty investigation and questionable circumstances which led to the (allegedly) wrongful conviction of three Memphis teenagers for the murder of three children, West of Memphis examines all the evidence (or lack thereof) that exists in the case, all the while acting as a scathing indictment of the American justice system and its tremendous shortcomings. An absolutely riveting film that will have you squirming and unable to look away, West of Memphis was directed by Amy Berg and produced by Peter Jackson, of Lord of the Rings fame.
9. Grizzly Man (2005)
Directed by acclaimed German filmmaker Werner Herzog, Grizzly Man chronicles the life (and subsequent death) of Timothy Treadwell, an environmentalist and bear enthusiast who spent nearly thirteen years (on and off) living and spending time with grizzly bears in Katmai National Park and Reserve in Alaska. Treadwell, who was eventually eaten by a grizzly along with his girlfriend, filmed most all of the footage included in the documentary; it was not until after his death that the footage was assembled by Herzog into something coherent. Herzog narrates the film as well, and in doing so adds a presence necessary to the successful internalization of the footage. The film, which features some spectacular footage of grizzly bears the likes of which has been seen nowhere else, is a lesson in obsession; despite his good intentions, most were highly critical of Treadwell’s interactions with the bears, both for his safety and for theirs. The documentary was released to exceptional reviews and is worth a watch for anyone interested in seeing these beautiful creatures in all their (extremely dangerous) glory.
8. Inside Job (2010)
Described by director Charles H. Ferguson as “a film about the systemic corruption of the United States by the financial services industry and the consequences of that systemic corruption,” Inside Job is a meticulously thought out examination of the financial crisis of the late 2000s, and a film most everyone should watch. As there isn’t a soul in the world who went unaffected by the crisis, this excellent critique (which won an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature) should be viewed en masse as a reminder of the mass corruption which currently exists in the financial services industry. Broken into five segments which outline the distinct phases leading up to and including the recession, Inside Job is a deeply disturbing look into the people we trust with our money, and asks why we bother to trust them at all.
7. Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2012)
A documentary just now experiencing a surge in popularity (perhaps due to its availability on Netflix), Jiro Dreams of Sushi was originally released in 2012 and documents the intricate processes of Jiro Ono, the owner and chef of Sukiyabashi Jiro, a Michelin starred sushi restaurant located in a Tokyo subway station that can only hold 10 people at a time. Jiro, whose life can be summated as a quest to craft the perfect piece of sushi, serves only one set of sushi that consists of a 20 course tasting menu. The documentary, while providing an increasingly interesting look at the way in which Jiro’s life is reflected in his craft, is also a touching story of family, as both of Jiro’s sons have also found success in the restaurant business, with his oldest son preparing to succeed Jiro and his youngest opening his own sushi restaurant some distance away from his father’s. Released to almost universal acclaim, Jiro Dreams of Sushi is a surprisingly engaging documentary on the pursuit of perfection.
6. When We Were Kings (1996)
Regularly cited as one of the greatest documentaries in history, When We Were Kings was directed by Leon Gask, who needed over 20 years to fully finance and produce the documentary. Chronicling the legendary boxing match between the young George Foreman and the aging Muhammad Ali, nicknamed “The Rumble in the Jungle,” which took place in Zaire circa October of 1974. The film, which features interviews from celebrities as impressive and varied as Spike Lee, B.B. King, James Brown and renowned author Norman Mailer, documents the series of events which led to the esteemed match, including Ali’s imprisonment for refusal to enlist and his being stripped of boxing’s heavyweight championship, which Foreman then won. The fight itself, which Ali won by knockout in the eighth round, is documented in spectacular fashion, making this documentary a must-watch for sports fans everywhere.
5. The King of Kong: Fistful of Quarters (2007)
Who knew this tiny documentary about one of the most popular video games of all time would become one of the smash hits of 2007? The circumstances are unforeseen, undoubtedly. The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters is directed by Seth Gordon and highlights one video game champion’s quest to break the world record high score in Donkey Kong, the beloved arcade game that grew to prominence in the 1980s. A strange and intriguing film which was heaped with praise upon its release, The King of Kong received no official Academy Awards nominations, despite suggestions of such from critics as celebrated as Richard Roeper. While some have disputed historical details evident in the film (and director Seth Gordon has addressed those rumors head on), overall The King of Kong remains a must-watch for anyone interested in the history of video games or anyone interested in making video game history.
4. Blackfish (2013)
Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, Blackfish is a searing documentary that’s difficult to watch, as it tells the story of Tilikum, a captive orca kept at SeaWorld in Orlando, Florida. The film, which breaks down the series of events leading to the untimely death of Dawn Brancheau, Tilikum’s trainer, draws attention to the severe repercussions that occur when these extremely large, extremely intelligent animals are taken from their homes and thrust into performance and captivity in theme parks around the world. Blackfish, whose message is about a subtle as a hammer to the head (and just as effective, mind you), has caused mass outrage and directly affected the attendance of SeaWorld, and the park has scrambled in the wake of the film to undo much of the negative publicity the film brings to light. A scathing examination into what constitutes sentience and whether or not we, as humans, have a right to imprison other creatures for our entertainment, Blackfish is one of the most eye-opening films on this list.
3. Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010)
A film about the nature of art and performance by one of art’s most mysterious performers, Exit Through The Gift Shop is a curious film, one so curious it left many to wonder whether it was even real at all after its release in 2010. Branded by some as a “mockumentary” or a spectacular hoax, Exit Through the Gift Shop tells the story of Thierry Guetta, a French man so obsessed with street art he begins to document it obsessively as he slowly works his way into the inner circles of this secretive world of expression. Narrated throughout by famous actor Rhys Ifans and featuring an obscured and voice-modulated Banksy in numerous interview sessions, Exit Through the Gift Shop is worth watching for the mystery alone; however, the film’s intricate examination of what it means to be an artist in the 21st century is also spectacular, and will help expand your understanding of what it means to create.
2. Hoop Dreams (1994)
Branded by celebrated film critic Roger Ebert as “the best film of the decade,” Hoop Dreams is as horizon-broadening as documentaries come. Directed by Steve James, Hoop Dreams follows two African American high school students, William Gates and Arthur Agee, as they attempt to transcend their inner city upbringing and pursue their dream of playing in the National Basketball Association (NBA). The film, which deals with issues as varied and important as race, social class, economic stratification and education in America, is engrossing, enlightening and extremely moving. As you watch these two young men endure long commutes, difficult classes, athletic competition and economic hardship, you cannot help but admire the strength and conviction with which they adapt to their situations. It’s a truly revolutionary documentary that is a testament to the genre’s ability to both tell a story and enlighten an audience to a corner of the world they simply couldn’t understand any other way.
1. Man on Wire (2008)
A film so exhilarating, so classic and so wildly intriguing we hate to even label it a documentary, Man on Wire tells the story of Philippe Petit’s infamous tightrope walk of the Twin Towers in New York City in 1974. Based on Petit’s book, To Reach the Clouds, Man on Wire is crafted as a heist film that details the inception, preparation for and execution of the plan which took Petit on his historical walk between the towers of the World Trade Center. The film, which won a slew of awards in most every film competition and ceremony around, also took home the Oscar for Best Documentary at the Academy Awards, where Petit himself was in attendance. A film which holds the distinction of being one of the best reviewed ever, Man on Wire is the documentary everyone should watch if they’re looking for something to blow their minds.