Entertainment

The Best Documentaries on Amazon Prime

Amazon's got documentaries covered.

cropsey
'Cropsey' | Breaking Glass Pictures
'Cropsey' | Breaking Glass Pictures

Streaming (plus a burning desire to watch something ) is the great equalizer. When you're sifting through zillions of movie options, the best documentaries can go toe to toe with Hollywood blockbusters. Fiction or nonfiction—doesn't really matter. A movie's a movie, and if it's moving/crazy/hilarious enough, it's worth a watch. Here's an array of documentaries on Amazon that fit the bill.

the act of killing
Det Danske Filminstitut

The Act of Killing (2012)

Before releasing The Look of Silence , which earned a place on our best movies of 2015 list , documentarian Joshua Oppenheimer investigated the 1965 Indonesian genocide through the eyes of its perpetrators. Anwar Congo, a gangster sanctioned by the government to eliminate "communists," begins by bragging to Oppenheimer about murdering over 1,000 people. His glory transmutes into a meta-atonement when Act of Killing casts Congo in the "movie adaptation" of his own life. It all makes sense when you submit yourself to Oppenheimer’s bizarre, tragic, and eye-opening experiment.
Watch it now on Amazon

all these sleepless nights
The Orchard

All These Sleepless Nights (2017)

Not so much an experience of the dream of youth but a dream of the experience of youth, Michal Marczak's film of two aimless, privileged 20-somethings floats through a year, mostly at night, as its subjects go to parties, drink, smoke, fall in and out of love, and fall in and out with each other. It is like a French New Wave film that isn't French nor as fun and just barely less fictional. It is the kind of documentary that many claim isn't really a documentary. Yes, there are scripted elements, but if you're looking for what's real and what isn't, you've overlooked the movie's real insight. Is anyone really real in their 20s anyway?
Watch it now on Amazon

all this panic
Gage Betterton

All This Panic (2017)

The best nonfiction teen movie (and maybe best teen movie, period) since 2012's Only the Young , this honest and endearing documentary tracks the lives of seven girls in New York City over a few years, shining a light on both common and uncommon struggles of urban youth. All This Panic  is more like a real-life John Hughes film than a frank depiction of reality like Kids , but with spurts of underage drinking, candid talk of sex, and an evident level of freedom that living in the Big Apple allows minors, All This Panic  captures an innocence, normalcy, and authenticity that this age group rarely earns from documentary.
Watch it now on Amazon

antarctica a year on ice
Music Box Films

Antarctica: A Year on Ice (2013)

Unlike your typical Antarctica doc about penguins and glaciers, this film explores what it’s like to live and work on remote Antarctic research stations while enduring extreme cold and four months of total darkness. Interviews with real workers in Antarctica’s Ross Island region reveal insights such as "never confuse your pee bottle with your water bottle" and how tears freeze to your face when you’re standing on top of a mountain for a group photo in temperatures of -80 degrees. The humanizing doc reveals what it’s like to take a different path in life and how the small living quarters force intimate and intense relationships. Bonus: an outdoor dance party scene and amazing sunsets that look like the sky is on fire.
Watch it now on Amazon

author jt leroy documentary amazon
Amazon Studios/Magnolia Pictures

Author: The JT LeRoy Story (2016)

The story of JT LeRoy, the pen name and made-up public identity (one of them, at least) of Laura Albert, is so Fascinating with a capital "F" that it's been fodder for multiple documentaries and became a dramatic feature starring Kristen Stewart and Laura Dern. This particular film is also Fantastic in its execution, featuring a central interview with Albert, who may not be the most reliable narrator but is a captivating and engrossing character nonetheless. Author: The JT Leroy Story is a highly compelling collage of stylish archival footage and recorded phone conversations that flesh out this notorious Catfish -like caper of the literary world.
Watch it now on Amazon

cartel land documentary
The Orchard

Cartel Land (2015)

Produced by The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty director Kathryn Bigelow, this cinematic documentary is like a real-life Sicario . Documentarian Matthew Heineman embedded himself in both a group of Arizona border-control vigilantes and a band of Mexican "Autodefensas," armed with only a camera and his instincts. The run-and-gun style and Heineman's jaw-dropping access will keep your heart pounding through this examination of the current War on Drugs.
Watch it now on Amazon

citizenfour
RADiUS-TWC

Citizenfour (2014)

Laura Poitras' Oscar-winning documentary is a political thriller unfolding in front of your eyes in real time. The story begins when Poitras receives encrypted messages from a source known as "Citizenfour," and she goes on to document her and journalist Glenn Greenwald's journey to meet whistleblower Edward Snowden as the world learns about the NSA’s extensive surveillance program. Both a narrative about contemporary media's power and a multifaceted look at what Snowden’s extensive discovery means, Citizenfour is a darkly harrowing account of history in the making. 
Watch it now on Amazon

city of ghosts on amazon
Amazon Studios

City of Ghosts (2017)

This Amazon Original was one of the best documentaries of 2017 , in part simply because of the physical and political risks required to make it. Cartel Land director Matthew Heineman certainly doesn't shy away from those risks, shedding a light on the citizen journalists dedicating their lives to disseminating information about the horrors of ISIS's occupation of Raqqa, a Syrian city. As a collective calling themselves "Raqqa Is Being Silently Slaughtered," members have faced torture, death, and threats against their family members while trying to expose the atrocities they face on a daily basis. Not for the faint of heart, but well worth it.
Watch it now on Amazon

coldplay a head full of dreams
Amazon Studios

Coldplay: A Head Full of Dreams (2018)

After thrusting themselves into the pop consciousness in the early 2000s, Coldplay has become one of the biggest bands in the world. With more than 20 years playing music together, the band decided it's time to start taking stock of their career. This Amazon Studios original comes from longtime Coldplay collaborator Mat Whitecross, and it illustrates the band’s rise from dreamy British alt-rock to megastardom. Featuring recent concert footage paired with Whitecross’ never-before-seen archival clips, as well as intimate interviews, A Head Full of Dreams offers an inspiring look at Coldplay and how they willed their way into becoming superstars. 
Watch it now on Amazon

cropsey
Breaking Glass Pictures

Cropsey (2009)

One of the creepiest documentaries ever made, Joshua Zeman and Barbara Brancaccio’s film shows how some urban legends are based on true stories even more unsettling than the myths. Because the directors grew up on lore rather than facts, their discoveries are as fresh as our own as we learn about a Staten Island boogeyman who was very real, indeed.
Watch it now on Amazon

endless summer documentary amazon
Monterey Media

The Endless Summer (1966)

There's living the dream life, and then there's living the effin' dream. Surfers Mike Hynson and Robert August spent 1963 traveling to the coasts of Australia, New Zealand, Tahiti, Hawaii, Senegal, Ghana, Nigeria, and South Africa to live the "endless summer," a quest to live one beautiful season surfing the perfect waves, for an entire year. They accomplished the mission, and Bruce Brown tracked their every move to put together this seminal surfing documentary.
Watch it now on Amazon

fahrenheit 11/9
Briarcliff Entertainment

Fahrenheit 11/9 (2018)

Comparatively light on humor, Moore’s 2018 documental mostly trades in his trademark political shenanigans for an angry inquiry into "how the f**k" Donald Trump was elected president." Yes, there are some jokes and stunts here and there, but they’re not as substantial as the serious approaches he takes to addressing not just Trump’s victory, but the Democrats’ mistakes—plus, the Flint water crisis, the Parkland shooting, the rise of white nationalism, and the general anxiety of the collapse of democracy in America.
Watch it now on Amazon

generation wealth
Amazon Studios

Generation Wealth (2018)

Filmmaker and photographer Lauren Greenfield (The Queen of Versailles ) took a long and unflattering look at the cultural milieu of the 1%, and those who really wish they were in the 1%. Culled from interviews and photos going back several decades (a middle-school-aged Kate Hudson shows up, as does 12-year-old Kim Kardashian), Generation Wealth  paints a haunting portrait of just how money-driven the Western world is, and what lengths people will go to get in on the action. It's heartbreaking and repellant, but it's also one of the sharpest contemporary commentaries on why the wealthy wield so much power and attract so many people to their lifestyle. 
Watch it now on Amazon

Gimmie Danger iggy pop documentary amazon
Amazon Studios/Magnolia Pictures

Gimme Danger (2016)

Jim Jarmusch (Paterson , Broken Flowers ) directed this music doc, which dives into the history of Iggy Pop and his band, The Stooges. Like Jarmusch's movies, Gimme Danger is 100% authentic cool from beginning to end, fortified by Iggy Pop's shirtless interviews and joint-smoked memories.
Watch it now on Amazon

gleason documentary amazon
Amazon Studios/Magnolia Pictures

Gleason (2016)

When former NFL safety Steve Gleason finds out he has ALS at the same time his wife Michel learns she's pregnant, he begins simultaneously chronicling his declining health and his son's growth. What sounds like a completely devastating tearjerker is filled with humor thanks to its subjects' candor. Much of the film's footage is shot by Gleason for his personal project, which helps us to follow him and his family over many years in a manner of style director Clay Tweel calls "experiential vérité." Even if you don't know Gleason from his football career going in, the documentary is instantly engaging, and will have you caring about him long after it's over.
Watch it now on Amazon

grizzly man
Lions Gate Films

Grizzly Man (2005)

Werner Herzog's best feature-length doc is a sort of forensic character study, an exploration into the mind and actions of bear lover Timothy Treadwell through his own footage, leading up to his and his girlfriend Amie Huguenard's deaths at the hands (paws?) of grizzlies. This stunning multi-tiered work, featuring running voice-over commentary from the director, turns nature documentaries on their head, and its significance has only grown greater following the release of Disney's nonfiction film Bears , which depicted real bears, filmed in the same place that Treadwell died, as cute, friendly, humanlike creatures.
Watch it now on Amazon

hale county this morning this evening
The Cinema Guild

Hale County This Morning, This Evening (2018)

RaMell Ross's debut is an intimate and fragmented look at the mostly poor, mostly black Hale County in Alabama. Although there is some narrative throughline, specific character studies, and implicit political themes to be found in the 75-minute feature, the storytelling takes the loose, lyrical form of a succession of gorgeous shots, the majority of them brief and disconnected. Such incredible cinematography shouldn’t be surprising coming from an established photographer just turning to film in his 30s, and yet nearly every moment is a stunning work on its own. Altogether, it makes up a remarkable picture.
Watch it now on Amazon

human flow documentary
Amazon Studios

Human Flow (2017)

Artist Ai Weiwei directed this documentary about the global refugee crisis, which affects tens of millions of people across age, race, religion, and economic status, all on a global scale. It's a humanitarian crisis virtually no nation has handled gracefully, and one that only threatens to worsen in the face of impending climate disaster. In beautiful visual language, Ai Weiwei conveys the stark horror and brutalist logic of the choices people make when stuck between a rock and a hard place—or a war and abject poverty. 
Watch it now on Amazon

i am big bird the caroll spinney story
Tribeca Film

I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story (2014)

The man behind the yellow-feathered suit from your childhood who helped you learn your ABCs can teach you just as many lessons about life. This endearing documentary looks at the career of Caroll Spinney, the actor and puppeteer behind Sesame Street 's Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, who few have looked beyond the puppet to recognize his own talents. He’s a worthy subject, but you’ll find that his anecdotes are even more interesting than you might’ve anticipated, and the way his characters came out of his own isolation brings a new light to them. This feature's sure to warm your heart, calling back to what likely brought you joy as a child and revealing that even in his darkest moments Spinney was just as special as his Sesame Street  monsters.
Watch it now on Amazon

janis little girl blue
FilmRise

Janis: Little Girl Blue (2015)

By and large, rock 'n' roll was considered a boys club through the '60s and '70s, comprised of music for men, by men, where women were allowed to play the role of groupie if they wanted to play at all. Until Janis Joplin came along. Her scratchy, whiskey-bruised voice arrested a generation and, however accidentally, carved a place for those without a Y chromosome. Little Girl Blue tracks her rock takeover to the very end, up to her tragic death.
Watch it now on Amazon

John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection
Oscilloscope Labratories

John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection (2018)

While possibly disappointing for anyone looking for a biographical portrait of tennis legend John McEnroe, this film offers a methodical profile of his talents on the clay court. Culled from footage originally shot for an athletic study by the French Sports Institute, In the Realm of Perfection  is primarily concerned with McEnroe’s performance at the 1984 French Open and takes inspiration from Jean-Luc Godard's statement that "cinema can lie, not sport.” 
Watch it now on Amazon

the king documentary
Oscilloscope Labratories

The King (2018)

This feature from documentarian Eugene Jarecki (Why We Fight , The House I Live In ) paints a picture of America through the metaphoric lens of celebration and criticism of the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, Elvis Presley. With this gimmicky but effective effort, he drives Elvis’ 1963 Rolls Royce around the US, interviewing people about the legend as they sit in the backseat. If Elvis is America, is the country in the downfall years about to overdose and die? That’s the sort of rhetoric to be found in the film, also filled with terrific music performances by current artists.
Watch it now on Amazon

long strange trip grateful dead documentary amazon
Amazon Studios

Long Strange Trip (2017)

This four-hour journey through Grateful Dead history has jam band junkies and passing music enthusiasts strapping in for the ride. From acclaimed documentarian Amir Bar-Lev (The Tillman Story , My Kid Could Paint That ) and executive producer Martin Scorsese, Long Strange Trip plays like two distinct movies: a two-hour chronicle of The Dead's rise to legendary status, then part two, a psychedelic diversion into cult affection and poisonous fame. Love 'em or hate 'em, when someone goes this deep, you can't help but feel absorbed.
Watch it now on Amazon

the look of silence
Drafthouse Films

The Look of Silence (2015)

Joshua Oppenheimer is responsible for two of the most essential documentaries of the decade, each grappling with the consequences of Indonesian genocide still rippling 50 years after the fact. The Look of Silence is the follow-up to The Act of Killing , where Oppenheimer gave the men who formerly ran death squads resources to produce a Hollywood-style dramatization of their crimes. The Look of Silence is from the perspective of the aching victims: a man confronts the people responsible for murdering his brother and thousands of others. Though chronological viewing of the two films isn't required, it does make The Look of Silence an enhanced version of an already powerful experience.
Watch it now on Amazon

mcqueen documentary
Bleecker Street Media

McQueen (2018)

Fashion designer Alexander McQueen gets one of the most widely appealing biographical documentaries in some time with this perfectly constructed film. Don’t care about fashion? Don’t know who he was? Not a problem, since McQueen’s rags-to-riches story is universally compelling and thoroughly riveting, even if ultimately it has an unhappy ending. He was a rock star in the fashion world, and McQueen  is appropriately sort of a rock doc. Accessibly broken up into a chaptered narrative based around audio recordings of the late subject, the film offers a portrait of an intriguingly humble, yet shockingly brilliant artist. Even if you don’t like his work, you’ll be inspired and saddened by his story.
Watch it now on Amazon

No No a dockumentary
The Orchard

No No: A Dockumentary (2014)

On June 12, 1970, Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Dock Ellis threw a no-hitter against the San Diego Padres. It was a feat worthy of praise, but as fans later discovered, Ellis also performed his legendary game while tripping on LSD. No No: A Dockumentary explores the incident, Ellis' rebellious life, and the contextual culture of the 1960s and '70s that turned the player into a low-key folk hero. Full of archival footage from the era, it's a must-watch for sports fans and history buffs alike.
Watch it now on Amazon

one child nation
Amazon Studios

One Child Nation (2019)

There isn't much hope to be found in Nanfu Wang's first-person interrogation of China's one-child policy, the intensely strict "family planning" mandate in place from 1979 to 2015, and its reverberations are still felt both in China and in western countries today. Much of the information Wang relays isn't entirely new—but the firsthand accounts that all offer intimate perspectives on just how handcuffed and indoctrinated everyone was under the restrictive law. It's a sweeping indictment of the Chinese propaganda machine, of the uniquely complicated mass acquiescence under the system, and, of course, of the profound human rights atrocities committed in compliance with a policy that hasn't exactly helped the country in the long-term. One Child Nation  is a bleak, but necessary, documentary about the very real human fallout of a destructive social experiment that happened in our lifetime.
Watch it now on Amazon

rewind
PBS/Grizzly Creeks Films

Rewind (2019) 

Rewind,  the debut from Sasha Joseph Neulinger, utilizes the filmmaker's own home video footage taken obsessively by Neulinger's father throughout his childhood to retroactively examine how one child, in this case himself, could go from happy to deeply troubled, and the abuse that caused that sea change to go unnoticed for as long as it did. Edited together anachronistically, the film is as much of a somber, unyielding example of how abuse and trauma manifests as it is a brave work of Neulinger's own processing and healing.
Watch it now on Amazon

the road movie documentary
Oscilloscope Laboratories

The Road Movie (2018)

There is a disturbing pleasure to be enjoyed in dashboard-cam footage of traffic accidents, though The Road Movie  isn’t just a compilation of Russia’s craziest car videos. Through these recordings, viewers also witness strange encounters with bears and brides and prostitutes and parachuters. We experience a camera’s theft by way of its own documentation of the incident. We travel into a forest in flames—an incredibly surreal sight—courtesy of one device. We take an inadvertent dip into a river thanks to another. There are surprises aplenty in this Warholian presentation of real-life death and destruction, and it will leave you paranoid about getting behind the wheel of your own vehicle.
Watch it now on Amazon

time 2020
Amazon Studios

Time (2020)

Garrett Bradley’s documentary is both an extraordinary love story and an indictment of America's corrections system. Using home video from her subject and her own footage, beautifully rendered in black and white, Bradley constructs the story of a woman who has been fighting for 20 years for the release of her husband from prison. Fox Rich and her husband Rob both were involved in a bank robbery, but while Fox’s sentence was relatively brief, Rob's was for 60 years. In the interim period, Fox raised their children on her own, started a successful career, and began speaking out about the racial injustice inherent in America's penal policy. Bradley’s film is both a mediation on what it means to wait for someone as much as it is a condemnation of the system that unduly punishes Black people in this country.
Watch it now on Amazon

unseen
Paglin Films

Unseen (2016)

The bodies of 11 women were discovered on the yard and inside the home of convicted sex offender Anthony Sowell in Cleveland in 2009. While little is known about their identities, or those of the survivors found in the home, police work to uncover the truth by starting from an almost entirely blank slate. This true-crime documentary offers a harrowing look at what fate unfortunately often has in store for marginalized women, and why society turns a blind eye to their wellbeing.
Watch it now on Amazon 

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