Hoop Dreams (1994)
Photo: Fine Line Features/Everett Collection

HBO has long been a pioneer in nonfiction storytelling. From series like Paradise Lost to The Jinx, it has led the way in true-crime documentaries, and the network commonly picked up acclaimed ones from Sundance, SXSW, and other film festivals. Add in the Criterion section of Max’s programming, and the streaming service arguably has the richest nonfiction-film database anywhere. It was incredibly difficult to narrow this list down to 20 films, and we will update it regularly with new offerings as they cycle through the revolving door of Max. Every single one of these films is worth your time. Trust us.

Year: 1997
Run time: 1h 43m
Director: Spike Lee

On September 15, 1963, the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, was bombed by four members of the KKK, resulting in the murder of four Black girls. One of Spike Lee’s first masterful documentaries, and maybe still his best, 4 Little Girls details not just the lives of the lost children but how the bombing impacted the entire community, and the world. A tough but moving watch, it was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary.

Year: 2022
Run time: 1h 37m
Director: Shaunak Sen

An Oscar nominee for Best Documentary,  All That Breathes is the simple tale of two brothers living in New Delhi, taking care of the birds impacted by the rampant air pollution in the area. Saud and Nadeem grew up respecting the black kites (a type of bird) that dotted their city’s skyline, and they have now dedicated themselves to caring for them. A gentle, ruminative film about our relationship to the natural world, this movie is a gift.

Year: 2022
Run time: 2h
Director: Laura Poitras

Nan Goldin’s photography blended art and activism into something equally beautiful and powerful with her work spotlighting the AIDS and opioid crises. The brilliant Laura Poitras tells Goldin’s story in a manner that elevates it into more than a standard art bio-doc. Great documentaries are often about the intersection of filmmaker and subject, the best allowing each half of that dynamic to express themselves equally, creating something new in the process. That’s the case with this winner of the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival.

All the Beauty and the Bloodshed

Year: 2016
Run time: 1h 43m
Director: Kristen Johnson

A major fest hit and a movie that appeared on a number of top-ten lists of not just 2016 but the entire decade, Kirsten Johnson’s stunning video essay of a film is, at its heart, a bio-doc, but it’s like none you’ve ever seen. Johnson unpacks her life and work as a cinematographer on movies like Citizenfour and The Oath, using footage she shot to tell her story, amplifying a piece that’s about the very form of filmmaking, analyzing the intersection between a filmmaker and where she aims her camera.

Year: 1994
Run time: 2h 53m
Director: Steve James

This is quite simply one of the best films ever made, documentary or fiction. Steve James spent five years with William Gates and Arthur Agee, two Black high-school students from Chicago, as they explored their dreams of becoming NBA stars. Already selected for preservation in the National Film Registry, Hoop Dreams is a master class in documentary editing — James and his team trimmed 250 hours of footage into a riveting study of human exceptionalism.

Year: 2022
Run time: 1h 39m
Director: Daniel Roher

The death of Alexei Navalny in early 2024 has given this Oscar winner for Best Documentary Feature even more tragic power. Daniel Roher was there with Russian opposition leader Navalny as he led a cultural and political revolution against Vladimir Putin, which eventually got him killed. There’s an unforgettable scene in this film involving a phone call in which Navalny gets to the bottom of an attempt on his life, uncovering exactly how he was poisoned by his enemies.

Year: 2003
Run time: 1h 48m
Director: Andrew Jarecki

Long before he made The Jinx, Andrew Jarecki directed a premier “holy shit” crime documentary. The 2003 Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize winner is the story of the 1980s investigation into Arnold and Jesse Friedman, which Jarecki uncovered while making a separate movie about David Friedman’s birthday-party clown gig. The result is a study of abuse, trauma, and a family coming apart at the seams.

Year: 2021
Run time: 1h 38m
Director: Nanfu Wang

There will be many documentaries made about the COVID-19 pandemic, but this is the strongest to date. Chinese-born filmmaker Nanfu Wang got cameras on the ground in Wuhan in the first days of the pandemic, allowing us access into those heartbreaking days when confusion reigned, and death was everywhere. Balancing the human story with the governmental campaign of disinformation in her film, Wang made an essential historical document.

Year: 2017
Run time: 1h 23m
Director: Erin Lee Carr

The story of Dee Dee and Gypsy Rose Blanchard is undeniably sad and undeniably strange. Dee Dee was a horrendously abusive mother, a woman who controlled her daughter through managing diseases of her own creation and hiding Gypsy Rose from the world … until Gypsy Rose killed her. Already dramatized in Hulu’s hit series The Act, this is the impressive nonfiction version of the same unforgettable tale.

Year: 1955
Run time: 32m
Director: Alain Resnais

The work of Alain Resnais is among the most acclaimed of his era, but the film with which he is likely most associated is this 32-minute short, one of the first such documents of the atrocities of the Holocaust. Night and Fog was made only a decade after the end of World War II and features the actual facilities at Auschwitz and Majdanek. Controversial on its release — French censors were unhappy about its Cannes premiere, and the German embassy tried to block it — it feels like a more essential piece of filmed history with each passing generation.

Year: 1990
Run time: 1h 18m
Director: Jennie Livingston

Another film already in the National Film Registry, Paris Is Burning is an essential document of queer life in New York in the 1980s. It centers on the ball culture of the era, drag shows that celebrated outsiders at a time when race, class, and gender were being redefined across the landscape. The brilliance of this film is how much it lets its subjects do the talking. And posing.

Year: 2024
Run time: 1h 58m
Director: Dan Reed

However much you hate Alex Jones, you will hate him more after this documentary. Director Dan Reed perfectly structures his film, focusing on the awful shooting of Sandy Hook first (while never mentioning the killer’s name), then detailing how Jones and his idiotic cohorts at Infowars distorted grief for profit. The footage of the defamation trials can be infuriating, but it’s important to see the micro and macro damage that people like Jones do to the national discourse.

Year: 2018
Run time: 1h 29m
Director: Alan Elliott

In 1972, Aretha Franklin recorded a live album at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles. The performance was transcendent, a blend of the Queen of Soul’s gospel background and R&B roots. The recording was filmed by Alan Elliott and an uncredited Sydney Pollack, but an audio problem led to the footage being buried for four decades. Franklin even tried to fight its release, but her passing allowed it to be seen, and it’s breathtaking — an example of an artist at the height of her power.

Year: 2015
Run time: 2h 8m
Director: Asif Kapadia

Amy Winehouse was found dead at her home in Camden in July 2011, and the entire music world shook. Imagine what the 27-year-old could have accomplished if she had lived to see how much her genius would impact popular culture. Kapadia’s film about Winehouse is a respectful ode to a troubled icon, a movie that won dozens of awards, including the Oscar for Best Documentary.

Year: 2015
Run time: 2h 13m
Director: Brett Morgen

So many films about Kurt Cobain fail to really understand what made the Nirvana front man a genius, but in Montage of Heck the phenomenally talented Brett Morgen uses sound and music over art created by the grunge rocker, allowing us a window into Cobain’s process and his demons. It’s more than a mere bio-doc — it’s a statement of an artist’s importance.

Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck

Year: 2023
Run time: 1h 42m
Director: Lisa Cortés

Little Richard shaped rock and roll forever. Don’t believe us? You will after watching this movie and seeing how many artists basically cribbed from Richard’s playbook. The ground-breaking musician expressed himself in ways that let artists including Mick Jagger, David Bowie, Elton John, and Prince do the same. And he never quite got the credit he deserved during his lifetime.

Little Richard: I Am Everything

Year: 2023
Run time: 2h 15m
Director: Brett Morgen

How do you make a bio-doc about an artist as singular as David Bowie? He broke all the rules. A movie about him has to do the same. And Moonage Daydream does, using concert footage, archival interviews, and home movies to create something that’s more like a Bowie album than a traditional documentary. It’s a masterful piece of editing, assembling a work that feels like it embodies the spirit of its subject.

Year: 2020
Run time: 1h 29m
Directors: Chris Charles Scott III and Seth Porges

Action Park was a truly lawless place. The New Jersey amusement park had almost no rules as entirely unqualified people created rides that were so poorly designed and maintained that they led to the deaths of six people between 1980 and 1987. Rides like the Cannonball Loop and the Tarzan Swings were ridiculous torture devices, but this film doesn’t merely write off the decisions made at Action Park as a lark, noting that people actually died there, and then cover-ups took place. Of course, Donald Trump plays a part.

Year: 2019
Run time: 1h 35m
Director: Penny Lane

Satanists get a bad rap. In truth, the Satanist movement is more about separation of church and state than actually praising Beelzebub. The movement started as a way to reveal the hypocrisy of allowing the Christian right so much access to schools and other government institutions, forcing them to respond to Satan as much as they do God. The great Penny Lane unpacks the history of the movement in a way that’s clever and enlightening.

Year: 2014
Run time: 1h 31m
Director: Frank Pavich

The millions who have fallen in love with Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of the Frank Herbert Dune novels really should check out this documentary about what could have been. In 1974, the visionary Chilean director Alejandro Jodorowsky almost made Dune, but the production ballooned out of control before it could even shoot. At one point, Salvador Dalí, Mick Jagger, Orson Welles, and Gloria Swanson were in the cast, and Tangerine Dream was doing the score. Just imagine!

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