100 Must-See Documentaries Streaming on Amazon Prime This August

Oscilloscope Laboratories

If you’re a Prime member, you’ve got plenty to watch for free.

We’ve been on a bit of a hiatus, and a lot of documentaries have been added to Amazon Prime Video over the last few months. Of those, I’ve selected 11 titles to add to my list of essentials, including one of the best nonfiction releases of 2018: The Road Movie. Also, for a very different yet timelier look at Russia, there’s Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer.

The other nine additions range from the Oscar-winning An Inconvenient Truth to the Oscar-nominated I Am Not Your Negro and should-have-been-nominated Why We Fight. Plus three cool music docs: the Iggy Pop-focused Gimme Danger; the Nick Cave-centered 20,000 Days on Earth; and Hit So Hard, about Hole drummer Patty Schemel.

Also, we’ve now got the mesmerizing Samsara, the uncomfortably funny Kung Fu Elliot, and the fashion doc The September Issue. And in the shorts section, I’ve added the 1969 film Black Panther (not to be confused with Agnes Varda’s Black Panthers), about the eponymous group.

The features all replace titles that are no longer available free to Prime members, though most are still streaming on Amazon for a price or through other subscription services. The 11 expired titles are: Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer, Bill Cunningham: New York, Varda’s The Gleaners and I, Indie Game: The Movie, Last Train Home, The Oath, Paradise Lost 2: Revelations (the other two parts are still available), Trouble the Water, We Come as Friends, When the Levees Broke, and You’ve Been Trumped. Also expired: Ken Burns’ The War series.

Here is how the Amazon 100 titles are numerically arranged:

They are mostly ranked in order of my favor with some objective authority, but there are some clumps throughout the list that obviously fit together. Some are by director, some are by genre or subject matter, and some are by series. In fact, I see this whole list as being best watched in order of the rankings. There are a few double and triple features in the bunch and some groupings where I truly think the higher ranking title is best watched before a certain title or titles below it. Also, the first bunch of entries are usually those that are new to the list that month.

  1. The Road Movie (Dmitrii Kalshnikov, 2016)
    “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…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.” – Christopher Campbell
  2. Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer (Mike Lerner and Maxim Pozdorovkin, 2013)
    “While A Punk Prayer is certainly a kinetic and informative document on the band’s history, tactics and controversies, the film illustrates more broadly the conflict between a nation’s gestures toward democracy and its privileging of an orthodox culture.” – Landon Palmer
  3. I Am Not Your Negro (Raoul Peck, 2016)
    I Am Not Your Negro gives Baldwin’s trenchant, brilliant prose — ever timely both because he was a genius and because America is too slow to change on these matters — its due, keeping his spirit in times when it’s needed badly.” – Dan Schindel
  4. Why We Fight (Eugene Jarecki, 2005)
  5. Samsara (Ron Fricke, 2011)
  6. An Inconvenient Truth (Davis Guggenheim, 2006)
  7. Gimme Danger (Jim Jarmusch, 2016)
  8. 20,000 Days on Earth (Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard, 2014)
    “Gloomy, enigmatic and oddly seductive.” – Daniel Walber
  9. Hit So Hard (P. David Ebersole, 2011)
  10. Kung Fu Elliot (Matthew Bauckman and Jaret Belliveau, 2014)
    “Everyone seems like they’ve jumped out of a Daniel Clowes or Harvey Pekar comic. But the filmmakers never seem to judge the subjects, not even when events go a little off the rails in the third act and climax rather shockingly.”
  11. The September Issue (R.J. Cutler, 2009)
  12. Louisiana Story (Robert J. Flaherty, 1948)
  13. All This Tea (Les Blank and Gina Leibrecht, 2007)
  14. The Chair (Robert Drew, 1963)
  15. Love Meetings (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1964)
  16. Only the Young (Elizabeth Mims and Jason Tippet, 2012)
  17. Approaching the Elephant (Amanda Wilder, 2014)
  18. Cameraperson (Kirsten Johnson, 2016)
    “Every time Johnson picks up a camera, there is an almost chemical reaction, a negotiation between vision and subject that yields only more questions. This is what nonfiction cinema should be, a living dialog that complicates the position of the camera person in invigorating, sometimes emotionally taxing ways. This mediation, for lack of a better term, is art.” — Daniel Walber
  19. The Interrupters (Steve James, 2011)
    “The documentary brings James back to Hoop Dreams territory, setting-wise, by following the inspiring Chicago-based organization CeaseFire, tracking the work and lives of a few members of its ‘violence interrupters’ team. These individuals, many of whom come from a violent past themselves, now mediate gang disputes and try to resolve other potential causes for alarm that may lead to more murders, adding to an already epidemic issue in the city. Through a year in the lives, we witness the subjects’ personal struggles with inner-city violence as well.” — Christopher Campbell
  20. Manufactured Landscapes (Jennifer Baichwal, 2006)
  21. Dark Days (Marc Singer, 2000)
    “A film about the city beneath the city, this documentary reveals the homes of the homeless in the abandoned tunnels of Manhattan. And no New Yorker who saw it could think the same about the island (or the rest of the boroughs) again.” — Christopher Campbell
  22. Foreign Parts (Verena Paravel and J.P. Sniadecki, 2010)
  23. Picture of Light (Peter Mettler, 1994)
  24. Nuts! (Penny Lane, 2016)
  25. Private Practices: The Story of a Sex Surrogate (Kirby Dick, 1986)
  26. Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, 1996)
  27. Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory (Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, 2011)
  28. The Central Park Five (Ken Burns, Sarah Burns and David McMahon, 2012)
  29. Crime After Crime (Yoav Potash, 2011)
    “More important than dramatic, more cause-minded than storyteller, Crime After Crime is nevertheless a worthwhile legal doc for those more concerned with the legal process and its faults than a riveting narrative.” — Christopher Campbell
  30. Captivated: Trials of Pamela Smart (Jeremiah Zagar, 2014)
    “In a way, it’s not really a documentary about Pamela Smart, only using her story as a perfect example of how the over-mediation and sensationalist exploitation of crimes like her husband’s killing wind up effecting the outcome. Director Jeremiah Zagar (In a Dream) even got a journalism professor to explain the relevant Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, but it’s not all as simple as the observed changing for the sake of the cameras. This doc is also and perhaps more so concerned with how observation changes the observer.” — Christopher Campbell
  31. Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer (Nick Broomfield, 1992)
  32. Driving Me Crazy (Nick Broomfield, 1988)
  33. Kurt & Courtney (Nick Broomfield, 1998)
  34. Biggie & Tupac (Nick Broomfield, 2002)
  35. Who Cares (Nick Broomfield, 1971)
  36. Soldier Girls (Nick Broomfield and Joan Churchill, 1981)
  37. Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam (Nick Broomfield, 1995)
  38. Tracking Down Margaret (Nick Broomfield, 1996)
  39. Author: The JT LeRoy Story (Jeff Feuerzeig, 2016)
  40. Dior and I (Frederic Tcheng, 2014)
    “This documentary about the famous couture house is peppered with shots of the name itself, hanging above the doorway of a shop or pasted onto an advertisement. Sometimes the effect is intimidation, other times adoration, but it is always at least brushing up against fetishization. Never quite slipping into insistence or redundancy, this leitmotif reminds of the power and dignity of the house, legendary since Christian Dior opened its doors in 1947.” — Daniel Walber
  41. Particle Fever (Mark Levinson, 2013)
    Particle Fever is not necessarily a film about what the Large Hadron Collider does or might prove or disprove. It’s a film about the people involved in its creation and/or with the scientific theories it will impact, such as the young post-doc Monica Dunford and the patient physicist Savas Dimopoulos, who’s been waiting three decades to test out his theories, and even the great hero of particle physics himself, Peter Higgs. And as this, it’s among the very best portrayals of passion and excitement ever put on screen.” — Christopher Campbell
  42. Peace Officer (Brad Barber and Scott Christopherson, 2015)
  43. Prelude to War (Frank Capra and Anatole Litvak, 1942)
  44. Divide and Conquer (Frank Capra and Anatole Litvak, 1943)
  45. The Battle of Britain (Frank Capra and Anatole Litvak, 1943)
  46. The Battle of Russia (Frank Capra and Anatole Litvak, 1943)
  47. The Battle of China (Frank Capra and Anatole Litvak, 1944)
  48. War Comes to America (Frank Capra and Anatole Litvak, 1945)
  49. Desert Victory (Ray Boulting and David MacDonald, 1943)
  50. The True Glory (Garson Kanin and Carol Reed, 1945)
  51. Let There Be Light (John Huston, 1946)
  52. The Battle of the Somme (Geoffrey Malins and John McDowell, 1916)
  53. The Battle of the Ancre and the Advance of the Tanks (Geoffrey Malins, 1917)
  54. City of Ghosts (Matthew Heineman, 2017)
    “Its most interesting moments come in the movie’s coverage of the message war between ISIS and RBSS. Shots of ISIS propaganda are juxtaposed with the carefully cut RBSS footage that is sent to Western media outlets. Home-grown media machines, both: one apes Hollywood video game drama, the other apes our own melodramatic 24-hour news coverage. “We don’t just repeat the news,” an RBSS member tells Heineman. In a war of words, you have to bring your own. There’s always evil to be found; evil, everywhere.” — Andrew Karpan
  55. The Kill Team (Dan Krauss, 2013)
  56. Human Flow (Ai Weiwei, 2017)
    “Ai’s feature debut manages to achieve the visual and political massiveness of Picasso’s Guernica, a mural of frenzied, scared images of a century slowly disconnecting. Shot with iPhones and from drone cameras, Human Flow eschews the small case study-intimacy common among journalist-driven doc fare. Bopping around the fragmented borders of some 23 countries, including the U.S., Human Flow is a work of extraordinary visual art as a well as an agitprop set-piece.” — Andrew Karpan
  57. War Don Don (Rebecca Richman Cohen, 2010)
  58. Cartel Land (Matthew Heineman, 2015)
  59. Videocracy (Erik Gandini, 2009)
  60. Street Fight (Marshall Curry, 2005)
  61. In the Shadow of the Moon (David Sington, 2007)
  62. Fake It So Real (Robert Greene, 2011)
  63. The Endless Summer (Bruce Brown, 1966)
  64. On Any Sunday (Bruce Brown, 1971)
  65. On Any Sunday II (Ed Forsyth and Don Shoemaker, 1981)
  66. Seven Second Love Affair (Robert Abel, 1965)
  67. Gleason (Clay Tweel, 2016)
  68. Head Games (Steve James, 2012)
    “Steve James, best known for Hoop Dreams, directed yet another notable work with Head Games, which looks at the issue of concussions in sports, from football to girls’ soccer. There’s a fairly standard framework to it, but it’s a very important topic at the moment and the film does a great job at presenting the clash of science and culture that is keeping this from being a straightforward matter.” — Christopher Campbell
  69. Stop Making Sense (Jonathan Demme, 1984)
    “One of the most acclaimed and influential music documentaries of all-time… Stop Making Sense is actually a musical rather than a traditional concert film. It fits multiple criteria including a variety of camera shots, a narrative journey with the main character has experienced some form of growth, and there was extremely intentional lighting design to the feature.” — Max Covill
  70. Don’t Stop Believin’: Everyman’s Journey (Ramona S. Diaz, 2012)
    “It’s plenty entertaining, particularly if you like Journey and uplifting rags-to-riches tales. And as far as the abundance of panegyric music films out there go, this one keeps a positive light shone on its subject but never puts him on an undeservedly high pedestal. Pineda is consistently treated and presented as a human figure, an everyman as the sub-title suggests, rather than a rock god or legend. In a way, it’s completely appropriate that the film about him is just good enough, nothing too extraordinary or lasting in our minds.” — Christopher Campbell
  71. Until the Light Takes Us (Aaron Aites and Audrey Ewell, 2008)
  72. Paul Williams: Still Alive (Stephen Kessler, 2011)
  73. Shut Up and Play the Hits (Will Lovelace and Dylan Southern, 2012)
  74. Abacus: Small Enough to Jail (Steve James, 2016)
    “Spotlighting a lesser-known tale of the financial crisis, this unapologetically Capra-esque film presents the story of Abacus Federal Savings Bank, the only institution to face criminal charges, rather than a beneficial bailout, for its involvement in the subprime mortgage debacle. Easily taken for granted because it’s not a broader or more hard-hitting work, the perfectly conventionally doc is in fact quite revealing of systemic racism and other grander issues in America and its judicial system. But it’s also primarily just a portrait of a single family coming together against an unfortunate situation and the goliath government prosecutors looking to make an example out of their business, a pillar of New York’s Chinatown community.” — Christopher Campbell
  75. Unraveled (Marc H. Simon, 2011)
  76. The Flaw (David Sington, 2011)
  77. Art and Craft (Sam Cullman, Jennifer Grausman and Mark Becker, 2014)
  78. Stations of the Elevated (Manfred Kirchheimer, 1981)
  79. The Parking Lot Movie (Meghan Eckman, 2010)
  80. Chicago 10 (Brett Morgen, 2010)
  81. The Source Family (Maria Demopoulos and Jodi Wille, 2012)
    “Chronicles the rise and fall of the eponymous Source Family, a cult of young people who followed “Father Yod,” a charismatic faux-eastern soothsayer…Unlike most other docs about cults, this one is pretty upbeat about its subject. All of the former Family members look back on the experience fondly. It seems that the Source Family actually lived up to its ideals of peace and love.” — Dan Schindel
  82. American Commune (Rena Mundo Croshere and Nadine Mundo, 2013)
  83. 4 Little Girls (Spike Lee, 1997)
  84. The Pruitt-Igoe Myth (Chad Freidrichs, 2011)
  85. Fatherland (Nicolas Prividera, 2011)
  86. Motherland (Ramona S. Diaz, 2017)
    “The biggest strength of Motherland lies in its ability to transport us into the heat of the action. A kinetic energy is maintained throughout as we spend time with staff and patients during their most intimate moments (including childbirth, graphically). In many ways, it feels like a world far removed from our own here in the West, but Diaz does an excellent job of establishing a universal affinity with her subjects. When the end credits roll, you’ll be able to empathize with all of them.” — Kieran Fisher
  87. Sick Birds Die Easy (Nicholas Fackler, 2013)
  88. Touba (Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, 2013)
    “The overwhelming impression created by Touba is one of striking color and spiritual grandeur. The city of Touba feels ancient in its holiness despite its relative youth among sites of pilgrimage. The enormous lines of people celebrating and praying, dressed in bright flowing garments, have a more impressive charm than many of the somber rituals of American and European religion.” — Daniel Walber
  89. Stolen Seas (Thymaya Payne, 2012)
    Stolen Seas lays out this context for the actions of Somali pirates, not to excuse or justify their actions, but to explain them…a great example of taking a singular event and unwrapping it to point to the larger confluence of factors that help an audience understand why it’s happened.” — Dan Schindel
  90. Into the Cold: A Journey of the Soul (Sebastian Copeland, 2010)
  91. The Cove (Louie Psihoyos, 2009)
    The Cove captures in unsparing detail the annual dolphin drive hunt held in the small town of Taiji, Japan. The efforts of the filmmakers and the team of activists they followed were blocked by the authorities, necessitating a covert shooting operation. The doc is presented like a heist movie, with much attention paid to the logistics required in setting up the various cameras and crew members.” — Dan Schindel
  92. Voyage to the Edge of the World (Philippe Cousteau, 1976)
  93. Kon-Tiki (Thor Heyerdahl, 1950)
  94. Song From the Forest (Michael Obert, 2013)
    “Louis Sarno went to Africa in pursuit of his dream. 25 years ago, he followed a musical tradition into the jungles of the Central African Republic, where he found the Bayaka people. He never left. Accepted into this isolated society, he discovered a new community and a sense of peace…the tension between Sarno’s mission and his reality is the crux of Song from the Forest.” — Daniel Walber
  95. Super Size Me (Morgan Spurlock, 2004)
  96. Super High Me (Michael Blieden, 2007)
  97. Reindeerspotting: Escape From Santaland (Joonas Neuvonen, 2010)
  98. October Country (Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher, 2009)
  99. Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father (Kurt Kuenne, 2008)
    “If you don’t know much about this documentary, you’re better off going in cold, and that means not even Googling the title because I guarantee one of the top results is a spoiler. That’s if you want to have the optimal experience of the film’s arguably manipulative storytelling and therefore the optimal amount of tears from your eyes by the end.” — Christopher Campbell
  100. Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (Benjamin Christensen, 1922)

And here are the 10 must-see shorts:

  1. Black Panther (1969)
  2. Heavy Metal Parking Lot (John Heyn and Jeff Jeff Krulik, 1986)
  3. Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe (Les Blank, 1980)
  4. The Sun’s Gonna Shine (Les Blank, 1968)
  5. The Negro Soldier (Stuart Heisler, 1944)
  6. The Nazis Strike (Frank Capra and Anatole Litvak, 1943)
  7. The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress (William Wyler, 1944)
  8. With the Marines at Tarawa (Richard Brooks and Louis Hayward, 1944)
  9. The Battle of San Pietro (John Huston, 1945)
  10. To the Shores of Iwo Jima (Milton Sperling, 1945)

And here are the seven must-see series:

  1. Jazz (Ken Burns, 2001)
  2. Baseball (Ken Burns, 1994, 2010)
  3. The Dust Bowl (Ken Burns, 2012)
  4. The National Parks — America’s Best Idea (Ken Burns, 2009)
  5. Makers: Women Who Make America (Barak Goodman, 2013)
  6. Makers: Women In… (2014)
  7. American Experience (2008–2012)

(Editor in Chief)

Christopher Campbell is the founding editor of Nonfics.