must see documentaries

You might have noticed I have been knocked off my feet for two weeks, sick in bed.  Ah yes, it sounds delightful, right?  Spending all your time watching TV, reading, sleeping, shopping online. Well, it’s not.  I started to develop cabin fever pretty quickly.  When your head hurts and you feel like crap, your book or movie has to be really engrossing to keep your attention off pathetic self-pitying thoughts.  In case you find yourself in this predicament, here are 15 awesome documentaries to try out.  Most of these aren’t that recent, but they are tried and true. Please tell me, what are your favorites?

15 Favorite Documentaries

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  1. The Rape of Europa

    The Rape of Europa tells the epic story of the systematic theft, deliberate destruction and miraculous survival of Europe’s art treasures during the Third Reich and the Second World War.

  2. Man on Wire

    Man on Wire: On August 7th, 1974, a young Frenchman named Philippe Petit stepped out on a wire illegally rigged between the New York World Trade Center’s twin towers. After dancing for nearly an hour on the wire, he was arrested, taken for psychological evaluation, and brought to jail before he was finally released. This extraordinary documentary incorporates Petit’s personal footage to show how he overcame seemingly insurmountable challenges to achieve the artistic crime of the century.

  3. Bill Cunningham New York

    The “Bill” in question is 80+ year old New York Times photographer Bill Cunningham. For decades, this Schwinn-riding cultural anthropologist has been obsessively and inventively chronicling fashion trends and high society charity soirées for the Times Style section in his columns “On the Street” and “Evening Hours” … Bill Cunningham New York is a delicate, funny and often poignant portrait of a dedicated artist whose only wealth is his own humanity and unassuming grace.

  4. The September Issue

    The September 2007 issue of Vogue magazine weighed nearly five pounds, and was the single largest issue of a magazine ever published. With unprecedented access, this film tells the story of legendary Vogue editor in chief Anna Wintour and her larger-than-life team of editors creating the issue and ruling the world of fashion.

  5. Exit Through the Gift Shop

    Exit Through the Gift Shop follows an eccentric shop-keeper turned amateur film-maker as he attempts to capture many of the world’s most infamous vandals on camera, only to have a British stencil artist named Banksy turn the camcorder back on its owner with wildly unexpected results.

  6. Nova: Dogs Decoded

    Dogs Decoded reveals the science behind the remarkable bond between humans and their dogs and spurs new questions about what this could mean for our relationships with other animal species.

  7. Catfish

    In late 2007, filmmakers Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost sensed a story unfolding as they began to film the life of Ariel’s brother, Nev. They had no idea that their project would lead to the most exhilarating and unsettling months of their lives. A reality thriller that is a shocking product of our times, Catfish is a riveting story of love, deception and grace within a labyrinth of online intrigue.

  8. IMAX: Born to Be Wild (+ UltraViolet Digital Copy)

    Born to be Wild is an inspired story of love, dedication and the remarkable bond between humans and animals. This film documents orphaned orangutans and elephants and the extraordinary people who rescue and raise them—saving endangered species one life at a time.

  9. Capturing the Friedmans

    Like most families, the Friedmans of Great Neck took video of themselves in their moments of joy and celebration. Unlike most clans, however, this one would be torn apart by sexual abuse, incest and a criminal conviction. They left the cameras rolling, even as their lives unraveled; director Andrew Jarecki shaped the found footage into a heartbreaker.

  10. Freakonomics

    Freakanomics is the highly anticipated film version of the phenomenally bestselling book about incentives-based thinking by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner. The film examines human behavior with provocative and sometimes hilarious case studies, bringing together a dream team of filmmakers responsible for some of the most acclaimed and entertaining documentaries in recent years.

  11. Paper Clips

    As a part of their study of the Holocaust, the children of the Whitwell, TN Middle School try to collect 6 million paper clips representing the 6 million Jews killed by the Nazis.

  12. Born into Brothels

    Born Into Brothels is a documentary about the inspiring non-profit foundation Kids With Cameras, which teaches photography skills to children in marginalized communities. In 1998, New York-based photographer Zana Briski started photographing prostitutes in the red-light district of Calcutta. She eventually developed a relationship with their children, who were fascinated by her equipment.

  13. The Beauty Academy of Kabul

    A documentary following American women (some of whom emigrated from Afghanistan in the early 1980s) who return to the capital city of Kabul to open an American-style school for beauticians. Some of their students are women who maintained “underground” beauty salons while the city was under strict Taliban control.

  14. Very Young Girls

    A documentary and exposé of human trafficking that follows 13- and 14-year-old American girls as they are seduced, abused, and sold on New York’s streets by pimps; while being treated as adult criminals by police.

  15. Thin*

    Eating disorders affect five million people in the U.S., and more than 10% of those diagnosed with anorexia nervosa will die from the disease. Seeking to put a human face on these sobering statistics, acclaimed photographer Lauren Greenfield went inside a Florida treatment center to tell the stories of four women who are literally dying to be thin. The devastating HBO documentary THIN reveals what she found there – and explores the issues underlying their illness.


3 Documentaries I Want to See

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  1. Sherman’s March

    Ross McElwee wanted to make a feature retracing the destructive Civil War march of General William Tecumseh Sherman. But a traumatic breakup refocused things: He’d still follow the path, but would look for romantic attachment along the way. This strikingly perceptive doc is so intimate, it hurts.

  2. Lake of Fire

    Filmed in dramatically crisp black and white yet far from didactic, Tony Kaye’s landmark examination of the smoldering battleground of abortion leaves no conviction untested. Renowned libertarians reveal uncertain hearts; pro-lifers squirm in the cool eye of the lens. Kaye shows it all, as well as footage of the procedure itself; we must watch it.

  3. La Jetee/Sans Soleil (The Criterion Collection)

    Chris Marker’s enthralling, globehopping essay is perhaps the finest first-person documentary, one that can leave you rivetingly unmoored. Ostensibly, we’re following a world traveler as he journeys between locations, from San Francisco to Africa, from Iceland to Japan. A female narrator speaks over the images as if they were letters home (“He wrote me…”) even though the episodes play out right in front of us. Each viewer is bound to have their own favorites: The playful, near-subliminal opening shot of three Icelandic girls walking down a rural road; the Japanese temple dedicated to cats (a very Marker place to visit); the illuminating aside on Hitchcock’s Vertigo. The doc feels like a diary that’s being written, reread and transposed to celluloid simultaneously, reinventing itself from moment to moment. You’ll be mesmerized

Here is another list of the 50 best documentaries and David’s favorite King of Kong, which I will admit was amusing, but probs more of a guy movie.

*This documentary was very moving to me and a great film, but if you watch it, I want to remind you that even at treatment facilities there are girls and women of all weights, shapes, and sizes.  I find the women represented in “Thin” to fit into a stereotype that I would like to break.  On the other hand, it is worth watching because the issues, fears, and factors that lead to an eating disorder are all very similar.


  1. I haven’t seen a single one of these, so I guess I have a lot of watching to get to!

    If you’re looking to add one to your list, I loved the Valentino one that came out in 2009.

  2. I love most of these documentaries as well! Thanks for giving me more to add to my list of docs to watch. I looove documentaries. I want to suggest one to you- if you haven’t seen “The Business of Being Born” (, it is a great one. A bit one sided, sure, many documentaries tend to be :) but it is very informative and eye-opening. I hope you are feeling better! Oh! Also! If you haven’t watched “Miss Representation” ( you definitely should.

    • I have seen the business of being born. I loved parts of it, but you are so right about it being one sided. He lost me at certain points. You must be getting so excited, lady. Due date is so soon!

  3. Just added the ones I haven’t see to my Netflix queue; I can’t resist a good documentary! Also, add the Wild and Wonderful Whites to your list–not to be believed.

  4. Some of my favorites are on your list! I absolutely love Man On Wire, The September Issue, Exit Through The Gift Shop, and Very Young Girls. And Born Into Brothels is in my Netflix queue. I can’t wait to watch it. I’m a big mixed martial arts fan, so a few others on my list of docs to see are Driven, Fight Life and Fightville.

  5. The King of Kong is so awesome! Thanks for keeping your geek in mind when you made this, even if it isn’t technically on the list…

  6. rox

    DANG!! this is a legit solid list!! thanks for linking me…this should keep me busy for a while.

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