100 Must-See Documentaries Streaming on Amazon Prime This January

100 Must-See Documentaries Streaming on Amazon Prime This Month

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

This month, the Amazon 100 list adds nine new titles, including the Steve James-helmed, Oscar-shortlisted Abacus: Small Enough to Jail and another great film from last year, Motherland. They join the 1982 Oscar winner Genocide, the 2004 Oscar nominee Super Size Me, the excellent science doc Particle Fever, the fantastic fashion doc Dior and I, the compelling true crime feature Captivated: Trials of Pamela Smart, the Sudanese refugee film God Grew Tired of Us and the vibrant pilgrimage portrait, Touba.

They take the place of eight great titles that are no longer in the Prime catalog: The Square, The Russian Woodpecker, Until the Light Takes Us, The Last Laugh, Kung Fu Elliot, 12 O’Clock Boys, Almost There and Berkeley in the Sixties. We’ve also removed the film Thin, maybe temporarily. We already know of at least one documentary leaving Prime at the end of this month, so watch Amy as soon as you can!

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.

  1. 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
  2. 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
  3. Genocide (Arnold Schwartzman, 1982)
  4. Super Size Me (Morgan Spurlock, 2004)
  5. God Grew Tired of Us (Christopher Dillon Quinn and Tommy Walker, 2006)
  6. 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
  7. 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
  8. 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
  9. 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
  10. 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
  11. Stories We Tell (Sarah Polley, 2012)
    “The reason Stories We Tell is so appealing and absorbing is in how her story is presented, with wonder and vigor and drama and a clever, well-executed structure involving a variety of technique.” — Christopher Campbell
  12. Amy (Asif Kapadia, 2015)
    “Another affecting rush of archival footage, like his previous, breakout film, Senna. But this one has a more interesting, sometimes troubling relationship between the footage and the subject.” — Christopher Campbell
  13. Louisiana Story (Robert J. Flaherty, 1948)
  14. All This Tea (Les Blank and Gina Leibrecht, 2007)
  15. The Chair (Robert Drew, 1963)
  16. Love Meetings (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1964)
  17. Only the Young (Elizabeth Mims and Jason Tippet, 2012)
  18. Approaching the Elephant (Amanda Wilder, 2014)
  19. Last Train Home (Lixin Fan, 2009)
  20. 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
  21. Manufactured Landscapes (Jennifer Baichwal, 2006)
  22. 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
  23. The Gleaners and I (Agnes Varda, 2002)
  24. Foreign Parts (Verena Paravel and J.P. Sniadecki, 2010)
  25. Picture of Light (Peter Mettler, 1994)
  26. Nuts! (Penny Lane, 2016)
  27. Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, 1996)
  28. Paradise Lost 2: Revelations (Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, 2000)
  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. Private Practices: The Story of a Sex Surrogate (Kirby Dick, 1986)
  32. Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer (Nick Broomfield, 1992)
  33. Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer (Nick Broomfield and Joan Churchill, 2003)
  34. Driving Me Crazy (Nick Broomfield, 1988)
  35. Kurt & Courtney (Nick Broomfield, 1998)
  36. Biggie & Tupac (Nick Broomfield, 2002)
  37. Who Cares (Nick Broomfield, 1971)
  38. Soldier Girls (Nick Broomfield and Joan Churchill, 1981)
  39. Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam (Nick Broomfield, 1995)
  40. Tracking Down Margaret (Nick Broomfield, 1996)
  41. David Lynch: The Art Life (Jon Nguyen, Rick Barnes, and Olivia Neergaard-Holm, 2016)
    “One of the finest glimpses into the mind of David Lynch available…the documentary traces the years from Lynch’s childhood in Montana through the making of his first feature, 1977’s Eraserhead, but crucially uses only Lynch’s own words to do so.” — Jake Orthwein
  42. Altman (Ron Mann, 2014)
  43. The People vs. George Lucas (Alexandre O. Philippe, 2010)
  44. Best Worst Movie (Michael Paul Stephenson, 2009)
  45. Author: The JT LeRoy Story (Jeff Feuerzeig, 2016)
  46. Prelude to War (Frank Capra and Anatole Litvak, 1942)
  47. Divide and Conquer (Frank Capra and Anatole Litvak, 1943)
  48. The Battle of Britain (Frank Capra and Anatole Litvak, 1943)
  49. The Battle of Russia (Frank Capra and Anatole Litvak, 1943)
  50. The Battle of China (Frank Capra and Anatole Litvak, 1944)
  51. War Comes to America (Frank Capra and Anatole Litvak, 1945)
  52. Desert Victory (Ray Boulting and David MacDonald, 1943)
  53. The True Glory (Garson Kanin and Carol Reed, 1945)
  54. Let There Be Light (John Huston, 1946)
  55. The Battle of the Somme (Geoffrey Malins and John McDowell, 1916)
  56. The Battle of the Ancre and the Advance of the Tanks (Geoffrey Malins, 1917)
  57. 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
  58. The Oath (Laura Poitras, 2010)
  59. The Kill Team (Dan Krauss, 2013)
  60. Granito: How to Nail a Dictator (Pamela Yates, 2011)
  61. Videocracy (Erik Gandini, 2009)
  62. Street Fight (Marshall Curry, 2005)
  63. In the Shadow of the Moon (David Sington, 2007)
  64. Fake It So Real (Robert Greene, 2011)
  65. The Endless Summer (Bruce Brown, 1966)
  66. On Any Sunday (Bruce Brown, 1971)
  67. On Any Sunday II (Ed Forsyth and Don Shoemaker, 1981)
  68. Seven Second Love Affair (Robert Abel, 1965)
  69. Gleason (Clay Tweel, 2016)
  70. 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
  71. Indie Game: The Movie (Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky, 2012)
  72. Jig (Sue Bourne, 2011)
  73. Paul Williams: Still Alive (Stephen Kessler, 2011)
  74. Shut Up and Play the Hits (Will Lovelace and Dylan Southern, 2012)
  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. Bill Cunningham New York (Richard Press, 2010)
  79. Stations of the Elevated (Manfred Kirchheimer, 1981)
  80. The Parking Lot Movie (Meghan Eckman, 2010)
  81. Chicago 10 (Brett Morgen, 2010)
  82. 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
  83. American Commune (Rena Mundo Croshere and Nadine Mundo, 2013)
  84. Farmland (James Moll, 2014)
    “The film looks at the lives of a new generation of growers and ranchers. These subjects, all in their 20s, are a rarity right now, as a lot of children and grandchildren of the traditional American farmer is moving on to other kinds of work.” — Christopher Campbell
  85. 4 Little Girls (Spike Lee, 1997)
  86. When the Levees Broke: An American Tragedy (Spike Lee, 2006)
  87. Trouble the Water (Carl Deal and Tia Lessin, 2008)
  88. The Pruitt-Igoe Myth (Chad Freidrichs, 2011)
  89. Fatherland (Nicolas Prividera, 2011)
  90. Waco: The Rules of Engagement (William Gazecki, 1997)
  91. We Come as Friends (Hubert Sauper, 2014)
  92. Sick Birds Die Easy (Nicholas Fackler, 2013)
  93. Into the Cold: A Journey of the Soul (Sebastian Copeland, 2010)
  94. 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
  95. Voyage to the Edge of the World (Philippe Cousteau, 1976)
  96. Kon-Tiki (Thor Heyerdahl, 1950)
  97. 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
  98. Reindeerspotting: Escape From Santaland (Joonas Neuvonen, 2010)
  99. Super High Me (Michael Blieden, 2007)
  100. Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (Benjamin Christensen, 1922)

And here are the eight must-see shorts:

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

And here are the 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)

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