Nature documentaries once had a reputation for lulling us to sleep in science class with their droning narration and less-than-compelling visuals. But there have always been compelling and stunningly photographed movies made in this particular genre. The following seven are the greatest of these exceptions, showcasing sights you could only see through the lens of an adventurous documentarian.
The first feature released under the Disneynature banner, bringing back one of Disney’s most celebrated areas of filmmaking, Earth is pure spectacle. Using footage shot for BBC’s Planet Earth series, it’s an introduction to that greater work while also functioning as a standalone year-in-the-life look at the world through stories of three animal families: polar bears, African elephants, and humpback whales. With narration by James Earl Jones (for the American version), it is still the best of its brand, primarily for its photographic craft. Where to watch it: Rent on iTunes and Amazon
6. Into the Cold: A Journey of the Soul (2010)
Primarily focused on a trip to the geographic North Pole by two men honoring the centennial of Robert Peary’s landmark 1909 expedition, this film is ultimately more significant for its documentation of the Arctic in flux. Into the Cold is similar to the later, more famous Chasing Ice, but in following the journey of photographer Sebastian Copeland, who wrote, directed, and stars in the doc, and explorer Keith Heger, this documentary offers a more intimate look at nature and more experiential encounter with Climate Change. Where to watch it: Stream on Amazon Prime
5. Leviathan (2012)
Filmmakers involved with Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab don't necessarily produce "nature documentaries" as much as make observations of the natural world. This includes the human impact, turing cameras to everyone from shepherds to junkyard workers to the men and women of the fishing industry. Leviathan is an experimental film of the latter, taking us for a visceral ride on and around a fishing boat in the North Atlantic. Much of it is from the perspective of seagulls outfitted with miniature GoPro cameras, giving viewers the sense that they’re one of, or one with, those birds. Where to watch it: Rent on iTunes, Amazon; stream on Fandor
4. Winged Migration (2001)
Filmmakers are scrutinized for manipulating the nature they document, yet this is something that almost always happens to produce works in this genre. And human interference is part of nature now anyway. Winged Migration, which shows the migrations of birds all over the world, is even more engineered than most, with its tamed wildlife, but for such mesmerizing results. The documentary puts us right alongside the creatures as they’re in flight, subtly reminding of our coexistence while taking us to new heights in controlled observation. Where to watch it: Rent on iTunes, Amazon, and VUDU; stream on Tribeca Shortlist
One of a few speculative nonfiction films to win the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature, this controversial classic uses a fictional host to explore the idea that insects are the dominant creatures of Earth and will continue to flourish when humans (soon) become extinct. Sold as a sci-fi horror movie upon release, its microscopic glimpses into the lives of killer ants, deadly mosquitos, and hungry caterpillars remain fascinating while the cleverly gloomy rhetoric is hyperbolically overstated yet still very relevant. Where to watch it: Rent on DVD; happen upon on YouTube
2. Grizzly Man (2005)
Nobody reinvents the nature documentary like Werner Herzog. He does so constantly. With Grizzly Man, he’s quite detached as a director, narrating over compiled footage shot by subject Timothy Treadwell, an environmentalist who became so attached to grizzly bears that he felt he could walk among them. His intersectional inclinations drove him so deep into the bear community, he and his girlfriend were eventually killed by one. Grizzly Man is a film about human nature as much as wildlife, and reminds us that there is a distinction. Where to watch it: Stream on Netflix
1. Microcosmos (1996)
Insects and other creepy crawlies are the most interesting subjects in nature and in nature documentaries. Most people recall this as the film with an extensive snail sex scene, but it should be celebrated for its entire display of bugs’ lives, and unraveling it without narration (outside of the brief voiceover at the beginning and end). With help only from some musical emphasis, the scenes starring bees, ladybugs, spiders, etc. are easily understood. The under-a-microscope sights are beautifully and awesomely captivating. Where to watch it: Stream on Tribeca Shortlist and YouTube
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