100 Essential Modern Documentaries

For all the talk of Peak TV, its often overlooked how much we’re truly living in the golden age of the documentary.  We’ve got Netflix, HBO, ESPN, and PBS pumping out documentary films at record pace in a push to stock their libraries with evergreen content.  We have great anthology series like 30 for 30 and American Experience producing consistent quality year after year.  And we’re enjoying prolific documentarians at their peaks in Ken Burns (still!) and Alex Gibney.   We’ve got so much great content in just a short couple of decades that we decided its high time we got it all down on a proper list.  For our 100 essential modern documentaries we’re looking at films and series that at earliest spanned the turn of the 21st century.

  1. Planet Earth I & II (2006, 2016) 17 hour BBC nature series narrated by David Attenborough.
  2. OJ: Made in America (2016) 5-part ESPN films/30 for 30 miniseries by Ezra Edelman about the rise and fall of OJ Simpson.
  3.  Baseball (1994-2010)  10-part history of baseball from legendary documentarian Ken Burns.
  4.  The Vietnam War (2017)  10-part Ken Burns doc chronicling the history and legacy of the Vietnam War.
  5. The Defiant Ones (2017) Four part HBO series about the intertwining lives and music careers of Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine.
  6. Prohibition (2011) 3-part PBS miniseries by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick about the drive to enact and repeal the banning of booze in America.
  7. The Two Escobars (2010) 30 for 30 episode by Jeff and Michael Zimbalist about the intertwining lives of Columbian soccer player Andres Escobar and his countryman, drug lord Pablo Escobar.
  8. Long Strange Trip (2017) 4-hour Grateful Dead film by Amir Bar Lev.
  9. Jazz (2001) 10-part Ken Burns miniseries about the history of jazz music.
  10. The Untold History of the United States (2012) 12-part Oliver Stone series covering WWII to present day world politics.
  11.  Moguls & Movie Stars: A History of Hollywood (2010) A 7-part TCM doc spanning the earliest days of Hollywood cinema to the early 1970’s.
  12. 13th (2016) A film by Ava DuVernay about race and incarceration.
  13. The U parts 1 & 2 (2009, 2014) 30 for 30 films by Billy Corben about the University of Miami football team.
  14. Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) Michael Moore film about how George W Bush and media coverage helped lead the country into the War on Terror.
  15.  The Sixties (2013) 10-part CNN miniseries from Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman exploring the major events and pop culture of the 1960’s.
  16. Apocalypse: The Second World War (2009) Six-part French documentary by Daniel Costelle and Isabelle Clarke featuring far-ranging colorized footage of WWII.
  17.  The Blue Planet I and II (2001, 2017)  Comprehensive BBC docuseries on the world’s ocean life.
  18. History of the Eagles (2013) Two-part music doc directed by Alison Ellwood about the turbulent history of American rock group The Eagles.
  19. Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (2015) Alex Gibney HBO film based on the book Going Clear by Lawrence Wright.
  20. No Direction Home: Bob Dylan (2005)  Scorsese-directed film about the life and cultural impact of Bob Dylan, most notably in the years from 1961-66.
  21. Capturing the Friedmans (2003) HBO doc by Andrew Jarecki investigating a father and son for child molestation.
  22. Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010) British film by Banksy about a French immigrant and his obsession with street art.
  23.  Wild Wild Country (2018)  Six-part Netflix series about a controversial guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and his followers who build a utopian community in the Oregon desert and in doing so set off a conflict with the locals.
  24.  Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson (2004)  Ken Burns doc about boxing legend Jack Johnson.
  25. Senna (2010)  Profile of Brazilian Formula One racing legend Ayrton Senna, who would capture three world championships before his tragic death at age 34.
  26.  Spielberg (2017) Standalone doc by Susan Lacy charting the career of filmmaker Steven Spielberg.
  27. Soundbreaking: Stories from the Cutting Edge of Recorded Music (2016) 8-part PBS miniseries exploring music production and recording.
  28. Magic & Bird: A Courtship of Rivals (2010) HBO film directed by Ezra Edelman about the long-spanning rivaly between Magic Johnson and Larry Bird.
  29. The War (2007) Seven-part miniseries produced by Ken Burns and Lynn Noveck and written by Geoffrey C. Ward about the Second World War.
  30. Michael Jackson’s Journey from Motown to Off the Wall (2016) A Spike Lee joint about Michael’s Jackson’s rise to superstardom through the release of his solo album Off the Wall.
  31. Inside Job (2010) Academy-award winning film by Charles Ferguson about the late-2000’s financial crisis.
  32. Once Brothers (2010) A 30 for 30 episode by Michael Tolajian about the relationship between Yugoslavian basketball players Drazen Petrovic and Vlade Divac.
  33. The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert McNamara (2003)  Errol Morris film about former US secretary of defense Robert McNamara and his observations on modern warfare.
  34. The Roosevelts: An Intimate History (2014) A seven-part Ken Burns miniseries about the lives of Teddy, Franklin, and Eleanor Roosevelt.
  35. Citizenfour (2014) Academy-award winning film by Laura Poitras about Edward Snowden and the NSA spying scandal.
  36. Making a Murderer (2015) Netflix series from Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos about the arrest and conviction of Steven Avery and his nephew Brendan for the murder of local photographer Teresa Haibach.
  37. Pearl Jam Twenty (2011) A Pearl Jam retrospective from director Cameron Crowe.
  38. Sinatra: All or Nothing at All (2015) Two-part HBO doc by Alex Gibney about the life and career of Frank Sinatra.
  39. Sonic Highways (2014) HBO miniseries from Dave Grohl exploring eight different American cities and their associated musical histories.
  40. The Great War (2017)  Three part WWI documentary from Stephen Ives, Amanda Pollak, and Rob Rapley that aired as part of PBS’ American Experience series.
  41. Taxi to the Dark Side (2007) Academy-award winning film from Alex Gibney that looks at the US policy towards torture and interrogation.
  42. Jesus Camp (2006) Film by Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing about an Evangelical Christian summer camp for children.
  43. West of Memphis  (2012) A retrospective and followup to the Paradise Lost trilogy of docs from the nineties chronicling the events surrounding the West Memphis Three in which three teenagers were convicted for the murder of three young boys. Directed by Amy Berg and produced by Peter Jackson and Damien Echols.
  44.  Andre the Giant (2018)  Jason Hehir-directed film about the legendary life and career of wrestling superstar Andre the Giant.
  45. Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple (2006) Film about the People’s Temple and its leader Jim Jones, who orchestrated a mass suicide of over 900 members in 1978.
  46. A Decade Under the Influence (2003)  IFC film by Ted Demme and Richard LaGravenese about the rise and impact of the New Hollywood filmmaking of the 1970s.
  47. The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2007) Film from Seth Gordon that follows one man in his attempts to capture the all time high score in Donkey Kong.
  48.  LA 92 (2017) Nat Geo doc using only real time footage to show the events surrounding Rodney King and the LA riots of 1992.
  49.  The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years (2016)  Ron Howard directed look at the world-beating Beatles during the years 1962 to 1966.
  50. Cocaine Cowboys (2006)  Film from Billy Corben on the rise of cocaine and the Miami drug war of the 1970s and 80s.
  51. The Best That Never Was (2010) 30 for 30 episode by Jonathan Hock about the recruitment and subsequent career of high school phenom Marcus Dupree.
  52. The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst (2015)  Six-part HBO series from Andrew Jarecki exploring real estate heir Robert Durst and his connection to three unsolved murders.
  53. Festival Express (2003)  Film about the 1970 train tour across Canada with The Grateful Dead, The Band, Janis Jolin and other music legends.
  54. Searching For Sugar Man (2012)  Two men go in search of the mysterious 1970’s musician Rodriguez.
  55.  New York: A Documentary Film (1999-2003)  Exhaustive 8-part history of New York from Ric Burns (Ken’s brother).
  56. The Act of Killing (2012)  Joshua Oppenheimer directed film which challenges former Indonesian death-squad leaders to reenact their crimes as a means of coming to terms with them.
  57. Amy (2015)  Film charting the life and troubled career of singer/songwriter Amy Winehouse.
  58. Cobain: Montage of Heck (2015)  Authorized biography of Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain from writer/director Brett Morgen.
  59. Daft Punk Unchained (2015) Anglo-French film about the rise of Daft Punk and their subsequent influence on the growth of electronic music.
  60. Third Reich: The Rise and Fall (2010) Two-part History channel documentary on Germany in the 1930’s and 40’s.
  61. Brick City (2009-2011) Two season look at the inner workings of Newark, NJ as it struggles to fight crime and become a model for urban transformation.
  62. Merchants of Doubt (2014)  Directed by Robert Kenner and based on the 2010 book of the same name, the film explores how misleading public relations tactics originally developed by the tobacco industry are now being applied to the climate debate.
  63. Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage (2010)  Film from Scot McFadyen and Sam Dunn on the history of progressive rock band Rush.
  64. Into the Abyss (2011)  Werner Herzog interviews death row inmate Michael Perry, a man sentenced to die by the state for his involvement in a triple homicide.
  65. Food, Inc (2008)  An examination of corporate farming practices in the US, directed by Robert Kenner.
  66. Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005)  Alex Gibney film about one of the largest business scandals in American history.
  67.  Eric Clapton: Life in 12 Bars (2017)  Showtime doc from Lili Fini Zanuck about the transcendent career and troubled life of guitar god Eric Clapton.
  68.  An Inconvenient Truth (2006)  Academy-award winning film about global warming and Al Gore’s efforts to educate the public.
  69. And You Don’t Stop: 30 Years of Hip Hop (2004)  Five-part history of hip hop music and culture.
  70. The Bridge (2006)  Film about the Golden Gate Bridge, the most popular suicide destination in the world.
  71. Oklahoma City (2017)  Film from Barak Goodman about the Oklahoma City bombing and the events that helped lead to that tragic day.
  72. Cartel Land (2015)  A look at vigilante groups combatting the drug cartels on either side of the Mexican/American border.
  73.  NWA: The World’s Most Dangerous Group (2008)  Mark Ford directed film about hip hop supergroup NWA.
  74. The Filth and the Fury (2000)  British film on the history of punk rock pioneers The Sex Pistols.
  75.  Five Came Back (2017)  3-part Netflix series on five major film directors who filmed the conflict from the frontline during WWII.
  76. Night Will Fall (2014)  Andre Singer directed film that chronicles the making of a 1945 British documentary on the Holocaust that languished unseen for seven decades.
  77. Once in a Lifetime: The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos (2006)  The rise and fall of the American soccer club New York Cosmos, a team responsible for bringing Pele to America and briefly fueling a soccer craze during the 1970s.
  78.  Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon (2015) How Doug Kenney and National Lampoon magazine changed the comedy landscape in the 1970’s.
  79.  Mommy Dead and Dearest (2017)  HBO doc exploring the murder of Deedee Blanchard by her daughter Gypsey Rose.
  80.  March of the Penguins (2005)  French doc about the year-long trek of Antarctic emperor penguins in order to find a mate.
  81.  Bowling for Columbine (2002)  Oscar-winning Michael Moore film exploring America’s love of guns.
  82.  Ali-Frazier I: One Nation…Divisible (2000)  A look at the intermingling social and political elements involved with the legendary 1971 bout between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier.
  83.  The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz (2014)  Brian Knappenberger film about computer programmer and internet activist Aaron Swartz.
  84.  Tickled (2016)  Incredibly creepy HBO doc about the world of competitive endurance tickling.
  85.  Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2011)  David Gelb directed film that follows 85-year old sushi master Jiro Ono and his two sons.
  86.  Metal Evolution (2011-2104)  12-part series on the history of metal music in all its forms.
  87.  Brothers in Exile (2014)  The story of brothers Livan and Orlando Hernandez and their efforts to escape Cuban repression for MLB glory in America.
  88. Monty Python: Almost the Truth (2009) Six-part celebration of British comedy troupe Monty Python.
  89. R.E.M. by MTV (2014)  Retrospective of the band R.E.M. through thirty years of MTV interviews and performances.
  90. The Dream Team (2012) A NBA TV doc by Zack Levitt on the greatest basketball team ever assembled.
  91. Best of Enemies: Buckley vs Vidal (2015)  Documentary film covering the famous series of televised debates between Gore Vidal and William F Buckley during the lead up to the 1968 election.
  92.  Bobby Fischer Against the World (2011)  Film about the life of eccentric chess Grandmaster Bobby Fischer.
  93. June 17th, 1994 (2010) A 30 for 30 episode by Brett Morgan about the OJ chase and the numerous notable sporting events all taking place concurrently.
  94. Make ‘Em Laugh: The Funny Business of America (2009)  Six-part history of comedy in America.
  95. This Film is Not Yet Rated (2006)  Kirby Dick expose on the MPAA ratings board and its effect on film and culture.
  96. Nixon by Nixon: In His Own Words (2014)  HBO doc from Peter Kunhardt which takes an extensive look at the recorded conversations of Richard Nixon.
  97. Pioneers of Television (2008)  Series celebrating the major personalities and programs involved in the history and development of modern TV.
  98.  Bad Boys (2014)  30 for 30 doc about the Pistons’ teams of the late eighties.
  99.  Rolling Stone: Stories From the Edge (2017)  Two-part HBO retrospective on Rolling Stone magazine and the major stories that filled its pages.
  100.  Prophet’s Prey (2015)  Amy Berg doc about controversial religious leader Warren Jeffs, president of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

 

Honorable Mentions:
Best Worst Movie (2009), American Epic (2017), Beats Rhymes and Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest (2011), Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father (2008), The Two Bills (2018), American Jihad (2017), The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling (2018), The Death Row Chronicles (2018), The Night James Brown Saved Boston (2008), Man on Wire (2008), Let it Fall 1982-1992 (2017), The Kid Stays in the Picture (2002), Dirty Money (2018), Listen to Me Marlon (2015), Planet Rock: The Story of Hip Hop and the Crack Generation (2011), Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God (2012), Into the Universe with Stephen Hawking (2010), The House I Live In (2012), The Cove (2009), The Pixar Story (2007), Being Evel (2015), The Seventies (2015), The Family I Had (2017), The Drug Years (2006), JFK: Three Shots that Changed America (2009), Blackfish (2003), The National Parks: America’s Best Idea (2009), Meth Storm (2017), Mark Twain (2001), LennoNYC (2010), United States of Secrets (2014), Money, Power & Wall Street (2012), The Bomb (2015), The Doors: When You’re Strange (2009), Cries From Syria (2017), Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press (2017), Bad 25 (2012), The Story of Film: An Odyssey (2011), The First World War (2003), Casino Jack and the United States of Money (2010), The Men Who Built America (2012), Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey (2014), Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers: Running Down a Dream (2007), 102 Minutes that Changed America (2008), Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine (2015), Mantle (2005), Grizzly Man (2005), Jim and Andy: The Great Beyond (2017), Dark Days (2000), Secrets, Politics, and Torture (2015), The Corporation (2003), Agnelli (2017)The US vs John Lennon (2006), Jackie Robinson (2016), The Imposter (2012), Bright Lights (2016)

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