HBO MAX is not just another streaming service. It’s not even just another HBO streaming service. This time, the cable brand and Warner Bros. are aiming to bring fans a greater library of content, including popular entertainment of the past, new original programming, and even apparently high-demand recuts of blockbuster movies. The streaming service is also immediately notable for its documentary offerings, including the best of the HBO Documentary Films brand as well as other classics of nonfiction cinema.
Below is a list of our current favorites and essential recommendations, in order of necessity and/or grouped by genre, subject matter, or filmmaker. There are features, shorts, and a few series, and we start you off and conclude with releases from 1922. You could easily become an expert in documentary cinephilia and history with this bunch.
- Nanook of the North (Robert J. Flaherty, 1922)
One of the first feature-length documentaries, showcasing life in the Candian Arctic.
- F for Fake (Orson Welles, Gary Graver, Oja Kodar, and François Reichenbach, 1973)
A documentary about art forgery and other lies that properly prepares you for the rest of documentary cinema.
- Salesman (Albert Maysles, David Maysles, and Charlotte Zwerin, 1968)
Direct Cinema feature following bible salesman.
- Grey Gardens (Albert Maysles, David Maysles, Ellen Hovde, and Muffie Meyer, 1975)
The greatest character-driven documentary ever.
- The Beales of Grey Gardens (Albert Maysles and David Maysles, 2006)
More with Little Edie and Big Edie.
- Harlan County, U.S.A. (Barbara Kopple, 1976) **OSCAR WINNER
A masterpiece about a mining strike.
- The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant (Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert, 2009)
The short film that sets up the Oscar-winning 2019 documentary American Factory.
- Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport (Mark Jonathan Harris, 2000) **OSCAR WINNER
One of the most moving Holocaust documentaries.
- Which Way Home (Rebecca Cammisa, 2009) *OSCAR NOMINEE
One of the most moving immigration documentaries.
- 4 Little Girls (Spike Lee, 1997) *OSCAR NOMINEE
A heartbreaking tale from the Civil Rights era.
- The Loving Story (Nancy Buirski, 2011)
A romantic Civil Rights story featuring archival footage originally directed by Direct Cinema icon Hope Ryden.
- Primary (Robert Drew, 1960)
The grandfather of political campaign documentaries.
- Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment (Robert Drew, 1963)
An even better but less-acknowledged Kennedy documentary by Drew.
- The War Room (D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus, 1992) *OSCAR NOMINEE
From the shoulders of Primary, a masterpiece of the political campaign documentary genre that made stars of its subjects.
- The Times of Harvey Milk (Rob Epstein, 1984) **OSCAR WINNER
A perfect biography of the politician and LGBTQ+ icon.
- Bowling for Columbine (Michael Moore, 2002)
Arguably Moore’s strongest film, which is focused on the issue of gun violence in America.
- Paradise Lost: The Child Murders of Robin Hood Hills (Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, 1996)
Setting the standard for the courtroom documentary, especially as an inspiration for activism.
- Paradise Lost 2: Revelations (Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, 2000)
Sequel focused on the activism and theories that came from the first film plus some unfortunate finger-pointing.
- Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory (Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, 2011) *OSCAR NOMINEE
The trilogy capper, which culminates with the subjects being released from prison.
- Mommy Dead and Dearest (Erin Lee Carr, 2017)
One of the most fascinating and disturbing true-crime documentaries in recent years.
- The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst (Andrew Jarecki, 2015)
The series that may have inspired the current long-form true-crime fad, but none have a subject like Durst.
- When the Levees Broke (Spike Lee, 2006)
Four-part docuseries examining the Hurricane Katrina disaster and its aftermath.
- They Shall Not Grow Old (Peter Jackson, 2018)
A stunning work of restoration with colored and remastered footage from World War I.
- Hearts and Minds (Peter Davis, 1974) **OSCAR WINNER
One of the first and most important documentaries to look back on the Vietnam War as it was coming to an end.
- For All Mankind (Al Reinert, 1989) *OSCAR NOMINEE
A perfect primer on the Apollo missions to the Moon.
- A Brief History of Time (Errol Morris, 1991)
An impossibly great adaptation of a nonfiction book about the universe as well as a biography of its one-of-a-kind author, Stephen Hawking.
- Paul Robeson: Tribute to an Artist (Saul J. Turell, 1979) **OSCAR WINNER
Short film about the legendary actor and activist.
- Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds (Alexis Bloom and Fisher Stevens, 2016)
A wonderful mother-daughter portrait filled with joy.
- Robin Williams: Come Inside My Head (Marina Zenovich, 2018)
A must for everyone, not just fans of Williams.
- The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling (Judd Apatow, 2018)
A loving tribute in two parts that never feels as light as something so personal would normally be.
- Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck (Brett Morgen, 2015)
A visual treat that goes beyond just being a music doc.
- Don’t Look Back (D.A. Pennebaker, 1967)
One of the pioneers of the music doc genre delivering one of the most influential films of any kind, and also it made Bob Dylan one of the most memorable documentary characters of all time.
- Monterey Pop (D.A. Pennebaker, 1968)
Penny continues to perfect the music doc with one of the first music festival concert films.
- Woodstock (Michael Wadleigh, 1970) **OSCAR WINNER
A momentous festival and a momentous film to go with it. And it’s the Director’s Cut.
- Gimme Shelter (Albert Maysles, David Maysles, and Charlotte Zwerin, 1970)
The flip side of Woodstock gets a doc that’s a flip side of Woodstock. A piece of history in more ways than one.
- Wattstax (Mel Stuart, 1973)
An underrated concert film and one of the best Los Angeles documentaries of all time.
- Buena Vista Social Club (Wim Wenders, 1999) *OSCAR NOMINEE
One of the best music docs ever and especially notable in that regard for being outside of the usual rock doc focus.
- Capturing the Friedmans (Andrew Jarecki, 2003) *OSCAR NOMINEE
An unexpected story turned unexpected hit, one that helped kickstart this ever-ongoing “Golden Age of documentary.”
- On the Record (Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering, 2020)
Dick and Ziering doing what they do best, exposing abuse, this time in the recording industry.
- Twist of Faith (Kirby Dick, 2004) *OSCAR NOMINEE
One of the first and still one of the best docs to tackle the Catholic Church’s sexual abuse problem.
- Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God (Alex Gibney, 2012)
Gibney’s take on sexual abuse in the Catholic Church has a unique focus and a unique way of presenting interviews.
- Hear and Now (Irene Taylor Brodsky, 2007)
One of the more interesting docs focused on the filmmaker’s parents, both of whom in this one are deaf.
- Moonlight Sonata: Deafness in Three Movements (Irene Taylor Brodsky, 2019)
Sort of a sequel to Hear and Now but with a very interesting angle.
- 12th & Delaware (Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, 2010)
A surprisingly unique and very compelling angle on the abortion issue.
- In Vanda’s Room (Pedro Costa, 2000)
A film about addiction that’s unlike anything else.
- Hoop Dreams (Steve James, 1994) *OSCAR NOMINEE
The king of basketball documentaries and so much more, and yes, I know you’re surprised it’s all the way down here on the list.
- Tokyo Olympiad (Kon Ichikawa, 1965)
HBO MAX has a lot of Olympics documentaries. A lot. And some others are very good, but this one is the cream of the crop and even canonized by Robert Greene.
- The Crash Reel (Lucy Walker, 2013)
One of the most complex sports films you’ll ever see and — because you’ll keep thinking about its issues — experience.
- March of the Penguins (Luc Jacquet, 2005) **OSCAR WINNER
Maybe not the best nature documentary of this century but definitely one of the biggest and most influential.
- Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (Benjamin Christensen, 1922)
I always love ending a list of recommendations with this strange and singular nonfiction film.