100 Must-See Documentaries Streaming on Amazon Prime This December

This month's additions include another classic music doc, a couple of Oscar nominees, and a drug-filled Christmasy story.

The Kids Are Alright
New World Pictures

Following last month’s spotlight on The Last Waltz, the featured addition to our Amazon 100 list for December 2018 is another classic ’70s music doc: The Who’s The Kids Are Alright. It’s not really comparable in its necessity, but for fans of the rock band, it’s essential. Joining that is the return of Reindeerspotting: Escape from Santaland, which isn’t exactly a Christmas doc — more like a real-life Trainspotting — but is thematically appropriate enough for this season.

Four other additions to the Amazon 100 include two Oscar nominees, Michael Moore‘s gun-control issue film Bowling for Columbine and The Line King, which focuses on iconic caricaturist Al Hirschfeld. There are also two recent releases: The Workers Cup, which was recently nominated for Best Music Documentary at the Critics’ Choice Documentary Awards, and the Algiers-set Of Sheep and Men.

The six new titles replace two documentaries that are no longer available on Amazon Prime: Be Cool and The Cove. The other four replacements are still available but I’ve chosen to remove them from our list for the time being to make room: Art and Craft, Crime After Crime, The Flaw, and Shut Up and Play the Hits.

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 consists of those that are new to the list that month.

  1. The Kids Are Alright (Tim Doyle, 1979)
  2. Reindeerspotting: Escape from Santaland (Joonas Neuvonen, 2010)
  3. The Workers Cup (Adam Sobel, 2017)
    “If sold as a sports film, The Workers Cup could appeal to a crowd that might not always consider the adverse side to the international machinations of something like the FIFA World Cup, so what a great gateway to reach all parts of the world through love of football and present a human rights issue.” – Christopher Campbell
  4. Bowling for Columbine (Michael Moore, 2004)
  5. The Line King: The Al Hirschfeld Story (Susan Warms Dryfoos, 1996)
    “Fittingly, Dryfoos is, herself, sketching a fitting caricature of Hirschfeld: her ear for melancholy picks up resentment, confusion, old ladies tsking.” – Andrew Karpan
  6. Of Sheep and Men (Karim Sayad, 2017)
    “Despite its laser-like focus, Of Sheep and Men somehow manages to articulately convey several broader metaphors about Algeria. That it does so with such eloquence and maturity mitigates against its minor sins, making this feature a remarkable debut.” – Farah Cheded
  7. Louisiana Story (Robert J. Flaherty, 1948)
  8. All in This Tea (Les Blank and Gina Leibrecht, 2007)
  9. The Chair (Robert Drew, 1963)
  10. Love Meetings (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1964)
  11. Only the Young (Elizabeth Mims and Jason Tippet, 2012)
  12. Approaching the Elephant (Amanda Wilder, 2014)
  13. 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
  14. 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
  15. Hoop Dreams (Steve James, 1994)
  16. 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
  17. Crips and Bloods: Made in America (Stacy Peralta, 2008)
    “Los Angeles was the birthplace of not one but two of the largest, most violent street gangs in America. And despite their similar origins and the common socioeconomic influences that lead young men to them, the Crips and Bloods have been at each other’s throats for decades…[this film goes] through the history of the two gangs — the factors that led to their formations in the late ’60s and early ’70s, what leads their recruitment, and what fuels their business and rivalry.” – Dan Schindel
  18. Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities (Stanley Nelson, 2017)
    “For this film, the overarching theme of the true importance of education to all, past, present, and future, with specific focus on what it has meant to African Americans in the past and present and going forward makes it a more unified experience of the fragmented history. Nelson has made docs that can be casually viewed, but this isn’t one of them.” – Christopher Campbell
  19. Manufactured Landscapes (Jennifer Baichwal, 2006)
  20. 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
  21. Foreign Parts (Verena Paravel and J.P. Sniadecki, 2010)
  22. Picture of Light (Peter Mettler, 1994)
  23. Samsara (Ron Fricke, 2011)
  24. An Inconvenient Truth (Davis Guggenheim, 2006)
  25. Last Call at the Oasis (Jessica Yu, 2011)
    “There is a LOT of stuff presented in this film, with coverage of everything from climate change and aquifer depletion to sewage treatments to endangered fish to amphibian mutation to hurricanes to carcinogenic pollutants in drinking water. And plenty more. As a foundation on all this, though, it actually seems quite thorough and the flow from topic to topic streams very nicely. If it makes us have to read more after the lights go up, this is probably a positive point. ” – Christopher Campbell
  26. Nuts! (Penny Lane, 2016)
  27. Private Practices: The Story of a Sex Surrogate (Kirby Dick, 1986)
  28. Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, 1996)
  29. Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory (Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, 2011)
  30. The Central Park Five (Ken Burns, Sarah Burns and David McMahon, 2012)
  31. Chicago 10 (Brett Morgen, 2010)
  32. The Witness (James D. Solomon, 2015)
  33. The Imposter (Bart Layton, 2012)
  34. 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
  35. Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer (Nick Broomfield, 1992)
  36. Driving Me Crazy (Nick Broomfield, 1988)
  37. Kurt & Courtney (Nick Broomfield, 1998)
  38. Biggie & Tupac (Nick Broomfield, 2002)
  39. Who Cares (Nick Broomfield, 1971)
  40. Soldier Girls (Nick Broomfield and Joan Churchill, 1981)
  41. Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam (Nick Broomfield, 1995)
  42. Tracking Down Margaret (Nick Broomfield, 1996)
  43. Tales of the Grim Sleeper (Nick Broomfield, Barney Broomfield, and Marc Hoeferlin, 2016)
    “With its Los Angeles setting and plot filled with sex and murder and police corruption, on the surface Tales might be the closest thing there is to nonfiction noir, with Broomfield an ever-narrating hardboiled detective leading the way. But it’s hardly a pulp story, its complications deeper than warrants a clever line of ‘forget it, Nick, it’s South Central.'” – Christopher Campbell
  44. Author: The JT LeRoy Story (Jeff Feuerzeig, 2016)
  45. McQueen (Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui, 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.” – Christopher Campbell
  46. 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
  47. 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
  48. Do You Trust This Computer? (Chris Paine, 2018)
    Do You Trust This Computer? is worth watching. On a general and introductory level, it’s pretty current in showing and telling about the progress of physical robots and AI programs, which ones are to be embraced as a benefit to mankind and what to be concerned with as a threat to our existence or our freedom or our jobs.” – Christopher Campbell
  49. Prelude to War (Frank Capra and Anatole Litvak, 1942)
  50. Divide and Conquer (Frank Capra and Anatole Litvak, 1943)
  51. The Battle of Britain (Frank Capra and Anatole Litvak, 1943)
  52. The Battle of Russia (Frank Capra and Anatole Litvak, 1943)
  53. The Battle of China (Frank Capra and Anatole Litvak, 1944)
  54. War Comes to America (Frank Capra and Anatole Litvak, 1945)
  55. Desert Victory (Ray Boulting and David MacDonald, 1943)
  56. The True Glory (Garson Kanin and Carol Reed, 1945)
  57. Let There Be Light (John Huston, 1946)
  58. Genocide (Arnold Schwartzman, 1982)
  59. Last Days in Vietnam (Rory Kennedy, 2014)
  60. Cartel Land (Matthew Heineman, 2015)
  61. 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
  62. The Kill Team (Dan Krauss, 2013)
  63. Standard Operating Procedure (Errol Morris, 2008)
  64. 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
  65. War Don Don (Rebecca Richman Cohen, 2010)
  66. Street Fight (Marshall Curry, 2005)
  67. In the Shadow of the Moon (David Sington, 2007)
  68. Fake It So Real (Robert Greene, 2011)
  69. The Endless Summer (Bruce Brown, 1966)
  70. On Any Sunday (Bruce Brown, 1971)
  71. On Any Sunday II (Ed Forsyth and Don Shoemaker, 1981)
  72. Seven Second Love Affair (Robert Abel, 1965)
  73. Gleason (Clay Tweel, 2016)
  74. 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
  75. 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
  76. 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
  77. 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
  78. The Last Waltz (Martin Scorsese, 1978)
    “Documents the final 1976 concert of The Band and features, on stage, such guest stars as Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Neil Young and Ringo Starr. Directed by Martin Scorsese, the film represents a kind of closing night for the era of rock and roll that these artists came out of. It’s appropriate that the filmmaker went from working on Woodstock to orchestrating this, because it’s almost its antithesis. The mid-70s was a time of overproduced music, so it makes sense for a concert film to arise out of the period with as much luster as this one does. It’s not a surprise to learn most of the instruments were overdubbed with studio-recorded performances for utmost perfection, or that an equivalent of digitally removing flaws (rotoscoping) was also involved.” – Christopher Campbell
  79. 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
  80. Until the Light Takes Us (Aaron Aites and Audrey Ewell, 2008)
  81. Hit So Hard (P. David Ebersole, 2011)
  82. Her Master’s Voice (Nina Conti, 2012)
    “One of the fun, fresh things the filmmaker does is interview herself and others via this monkey puppet, which functions as a kind of surrogate […] it’s interesting to see Conti using the two levels here, and yet there is definitely no hiding. She is extremely open and candid in her film, and I think she also gets a good deal of honesty out of others by letting them talk to Monkey and the camera. For such a short, seemingly simple doc about ventriloquism, Her Master’s Voice is remarkably complex and important to the consideration of both art forms.” – Christopher Campbell
  83. 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
  84. Stations of the Elevated (Manfred Kirchheimer, 1981)
  85. 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
  86. 4 Little Girls (Spike Lee, 1997)
  87. The Pruitt-Igoe Myth (Chad Freidrichs, 2011)
  88. Fatherland (Nicolas Prividera, 2011)
  89. 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
  90. Sick Birds Die Easy (Nicholas Fackler, 2013)
  91. 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
  92. 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
  93. Into the Cold: A Journey of the Soul (Sebastian Copeland, 2010)
  94. Voyage to the Edge of the World (Philippe Cousteau, 1976)
  95. Kon-Tiki (Thor Heyerdahl, 1950)
  96. 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
  97. Superheroes (Michael Barnett, 2011)
    “Often Superheroes comes off as also being more about the problems of the world than the costumed crusaders on screen. Through people like “Zetaman,” “Life,” “Mr. Extreme” and the simply named “Super Hero,” we are made to think about the issues of homelessness and violent crime, as well as police corruption and bureaucracy that lead to the necessity for these RLSHs to pop up in cities across the nation.” – Christopher Campbell
  98. 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.” – Christopher Campbell
  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 six must-see series:

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

(Editor in Chief)

Christopher Campbell is the founding editor of Nonfics.