I’ve been pretty sick over the past year. (You probably already know that.) Being nearly bedridden and full of pain for a good chunk of the year ended up meaning watching a lot of movies and television on my phone and laptop to distract myself and pass the time. I watched a lot of great things, but after a while the whole thing became pretty depressing. The inability to accomplish anything was driving me insane. I felt like I was wasting my life and I had no choice.
Enter documentaries. I have always enjoyed them and have a long history of seeking them out, but they became my saving grace during a period where I could do very little on my own. Watching a documentary made me feel like I was learning something. It made me interested in the world again, motivating me to do lots of extra research and discover new things and new ideas. And I discovered some pretty fantastic films.
Below are the top ten documentaries I have watched over 2015. A couple I rewatched but most were brand new to me, which was so exciting. Most of them are available on various streaming sites. I hope that you enjoy them as much as I did.
- Dear Zachary (Netflix): Do not read anything about this film before you watch it. The way it unfolds is best if you are in the dark about what’s coming. I have seen it maybe three times over the past decade and it remains one of my absolute favorites. Fair warning though: you will cry.
- The Imposter (Netflix): This film I have gone out of my way to introduce to people because it is so incredibly put together it doesn’t feel like a documentary. It feels like it must be a work of fiction. This is another to go into without knowing much. It’s insanely good.
- Man on Wire (Amazon Prime): A documentary about Philippe Petite’s tightrope walk between the two towers of the World Trade Center in 1974, I finished the film in awe. It is truly beautiful and well worth seeing, particularly if you plan on watching The Walk, the film based on it starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt later this year. (It also won the Oscar the year it came out, 2008.)
- Project Nim (HBO Go): Did you know that in the 1970’s scientists all over the country were giving families baby chimps to raise as if they were human? Project Nim is about the most famous of those chimps and his journey from beloved child to research object to test subject. I wouldn’t shut up about this film for weeks after I watched it.
- The Invisible War (Netflix): A film about rape in the U.S. Military and how difficult it is for victims to get anything but more pain out of the system after reporting. This is a hard one to watch but so important, especially if you’re a woman considering military service. (I’m not, but I found it no less relevant to my life.)
- Chef’s Table and Jiro Dreams of Sushi (Netflix): I’m cheating, putting these together, but they’re both directed by the same guy (David Gelb) and both deal with the same subject: the people who create incredible food and why they do it. Jiro is a film about one of the best sushi chefs in the world and what is so unique about him. Chef’s Table is a series of six shorter documentaries and is relevant to anyone who eats or creates. If you are a creative person you will learn a lot, even if you don’t cook for fun.
- Blackfish (Netflix): If you haven’t seen it, you have to. About orcas and captivity’s cruel effect on them. Important.
- Into the Abyss (Netflix): This is a film by acclaimed documentary director Werner Herzog, and it is both incredibly complex and deeply moving. Following a young man on death row in the weeks before his execution the film does not ask whether he is guilty or innocent, but rather what the point of his execution is overall. Another one I finished in awe.
- The Jinx (HBO Go): Like Blackfish, HBO’s docuseries The Jinx has transcended the traditional documentary viewership into the mainstream and with good reason. The six episodes are unbelievably well put together and make for a thrilling binge-watch.
- Capturing the Friedmans: Unfortunately this Oscar-nominated documentary is not available for streaming anywhere, but it is nonetheless completely worth checking out of the library. I knew nothing about it before I watched (other than the fact that it was directed by Andrew Jarecki, who also made The Jinx) and it was all the better for it. A true crime doc that fascinates at every turn.
I honestly could keep going (I had to cut at least two while making the list) but these are the films I watched over and over again this year so they’re the ones that win. (Okay, so I didn’t rewatch The Invisible War, but its quality and power overcame that requirement.) Enjoy!