The 100 Best Documentaries Streaming on Amazon Prime in July 2019

This month's new additions include a recent Oscar nominee, a classic music doc trilogy, and the latest from Robert Greene.

Decline of Western Civilization
Shout Factory

Long before she was making Hollywood comedies like Wayne’s World and Black Sheep, Penelope Spheeris made her mark with music documentaries. Specifically, films focused on the L.A. punk and heavy metal scenes. She even went back and completed a trilogy after she broke out in the mainstream. Now you can watch all three installments of her Decline of Western Civilization series on Amazon Prime Video.

For this month’s guide to the best nonfiction titles streaming for Amazon Prime members, we’ve added Spheeris’ trilogy along with a couple of last year’s best docs, Robert Greene‘s Bisbee ’17, which digs deep into the dark past of a New Mexico mining town, and RaMell Ross‘ Oscar-nominated Hale County This Morning, This Evening, which showcases an Alabama county. They’re joined by the odd classic The Space Movie and the World War II propaganda film Tunisian Victory, which further completes Amazon’s library of docs of its kind.

They replace a bunch of great docs that sadly have expired from Amazon Prime: Sarah Polley‘s Stories We Tell (now streaming free on Tubi), Frederick Wiseman‘s Ex-Libris: The New York Public Library (now streaming free on Kanopy), Martin Scorsese‘s The Last Waltz (available to buy on Amazon), and Verena Paravel and J.P. Sniadecki‘s Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab film Foreign Parts (now streaming free on Kanopy). We also removed The People vs. George Lucas, Cocaine Prison, and Charm City, for now, to make room.

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 Decline of Western Civilization (Penelope Spheeris, 1981)
    The Decline of Western Civilization explores the Los Angeles punk rock scene from 1979 to 1980. At the time, punks were regarded by many as criminals, dope fiends, and nihilists. A danger and a detriment to society, even. If you enjoyed this music and lifestyle, then you were judged. But Spheeris’ film taps into the heart of this subculture and portrays its members in an honest, more nuanced light.” – Cole Henry
  2. The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years (Penelope Spheeris, 1988)
    “Balancing mainstays like Ozzy Osbourne and Kiss with struggling acts like Odin and Seduce, The Metal Years treats hair metal as a scene fit for the era of Reagan and the superficiality stereotypically associated with L.A., all despite the fact that such music was seen as a prime enemy to the moral police of its day. With gender-bending styles brushing up against compensatory machismo, hair metal was loaded with fascinating contradictions.” – Landon Palmer
  3. The Decline of Western Civilization Part III (Penelope Spheeris, 1998)
    “Spheeris is less interested in the music this time around than she is in a specific community that thrives on it: L.A.’s so-called “gutter punks,” homeless teens who have formed a close community against the forces of poverty, stigma, addiction and abuse. While Spheeris delves deep into the often difficult conditions that have brought these disparate outsiders together, she never pathologizes their behavior and instead offers her camera as the conduit for giving voice to kids who most often spend their days asking money from people who are doing everything they can to ignore them.” – Landon Palmer
  4. Hale County This Morning, This Evening (RaMell Ross, 2018) *OSCAR NOMINEE
    Hale County is the cinematic equivalent of a memory quilt, woven together with a deep love of community, comprised of intimate though disparate moments from others’ lives, and poetically comforting despite its historically weighty components.” – Jordan M. Smith
  5. Bisbee ’17 (Robert Greene, 2018)
    “As a cerebral consideration of how different people think of the past and engage with history, Bisbee ’17 is a consuming experience, and as a controlled experiment in getting to that experience, the film is an impressive feat of construction…on a technical level, it’s extraordinary.” – Christopher Campbell
  6. The Space Movie (Tony Palmer, 1980)
    The Space Movie is a product of its time. It is a zany, off-kilter, and often vapid look at space travel. But it is beautiful, and through its beauty, it becomes moving. As a documentary, it feels like a concert film more than a scientific, fact-based endeavor.” – Cole Henry
  7. Tunisian Victory (Frank Capra, Hugh Stewart, John Huston, 1944)
  8. The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn, and Anonymous, 2012) *OSCAR NOMINEE
    “The genius of the film lies not in its buzz-generating conceit, but in the opportunity that its scenario provides for exploring ‘the act’’s fraught relationship to its mediated depictions. The Act of Killing is neither singularly about mass murder nor about movie violence, but about the interminable gap between the horror of the act itself and our strained ability to truly comprehend that horror through its representation.” – Landon Palmer
  9. Louisiana Story (Robert J. Flaherty, 1948)
  10. All in This Tea (Les Blank and Gina Leibrecht, 2007)
  11. Love Meetings (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1964)
  12. Bowling for Columbine (Michael Moore, 2004) *OSCAR WINNER
  13. Fahrenheit 11/9 (Michael Moore, 2018)
    Fahrenheit 11/9 is mostly a sad and scary and angry and alarming movie. There is little room for comedy next to a montage of people who’ve died from Legionnaires’ disease in Flint or following a sequence of smartphone-shot footage of the Parkland, Florida, school shooting, including audio of shots fired and view of one of the dead.” – Christopher Campbell
  14. Tchoupitoulas (Bill Ross IV and Turner Ross, 2012)
  15. Only the Young (Elizabeth Mims and Jason Tippet, 2012)
  16. All This Panic (Jenny Gage, 2016)
    All This Panic finds its art in impressions and perceptions. The varied experiences of these young women illustrate the fluid nature of getting older, each subject reaching milestones at different times, or not perhaps not even reaching the same milestones at all. Its structural looseness and its intuitive images are its greatest attribute, making it the most accomplished American portrait of youth since at least Rich Hill.” – Daniel Walber
  17. Approaching the Elephant (Amanda Wilder, 2014)
  18. I Am Not Your Negro (Raoul Peck, 2016) *OSCAR NOMINEE
    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
  19. Hoop Dreams (Steve James, 1994) *OSCAR NOMINEE
  20. 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
  21. Code Black (Ryan McGarry, 2013)
    “The action in Code Black makes a strong case that there should be more nonfiction films set in hospitals…[it’s] never boring and actually blows through its brief 78 minutes so quickly that it leaves us wanting more.” – Christopher Campbell
  22. Trouble the Water (Tia Lessin and Carl Deal, 2008) *OSCAR NOMINEE
  23. 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
  24. Picture of Light (Peter Mettler, 1994)
  25. Samsara (Ron Fricke, 2011)
  26. Finders Keepers (Clay Tweel and Bryan Carberry, 2015)
    “With this, Tweel proves he can also do right with more intricate and difficult material, further fulfilling his place as one of the most interesting and reliable (and definitely underrated) documentarians in the scene today.” – Christopher Campbell
  27. Nuts! (Penny Lane, 2016)
  28. Waco: The Rules of Engagement (William Gazecki, 1997) *OSCAR NOMINEE
  29. Twist of Faith (Kirby Dick, 2004) *OSCAR NOMINEE
  30. Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, 1996)
  31. Paradise Lost 2: Revelations (Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, 2000)
  32. Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory (Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, 2011) *OSCAR NOMINEE
  33. The Central Park Five (Ken Burns, Sarah Burns and David McMahon, 2012)
  34. Chicago 10 (Brett Morgen, 2010)
  35. 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 affecting 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
  36. Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer (Nick Broomfield, 1992)
  37. Driving Me Crazy (Nick Broomfield, 1988)
  38. Kurt & Courtney (Nick Broomfield, 1998)
  39. Biggie & Tupac (Nick Broomfield, 2002)
  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. 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
  45. 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
  46. Prelude to War (Frank Capra and Anatole Litvak, 1942) *OSCAR WINNER
  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) *OSCAR NOMINEE
  50. The Battle of China (Frank Capra and Anatole Litvak, 1944)
  51. Desert Victory (Ray Boulting and David MacDonald, 1943) *OSCAR WINNER
  52. The Fighting Lady (Edward Steichen, 1944) *OSCAR WINNER
  53. Resisting Enemy Interrogation (Robert B. Sinclair, 1944) *OSCAR NOMINEE
  54. War Comes to America (Frank Capra and Anatole Litvak, 1945)
  55. The True Glory (Garson Kanin and Carol Reed, 1945) *OSCAR WINNER
  56. Let There Be Light (John Huston, 1946)
  57. Genocide (Arnold Schwartzman, 1982) *OSCAR WINNER
  58. The Long Way Home (Mark Jonathan Harris, 1997) *OSCAR WINNER
  59. One Day in September (Kevin Macdonald, 1999) *OSCAR WINNER
  60. Why We Fight (Eugene Jarecki, 2005)
  61. Last Days in Vietnam (Rory Kennedy, 2014) *OSCAR NOMINEE
  62. Cartel Land (Matthew Heineman, 2015) *OSCAR NOMINEE
  63. 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
  64. The Square (Jehane Noujaim, 2013) *OSCAR NOMINEE
    “Inevitably the situation in Egypt will continue to change, and the factual usefulness of the film will diminish. It’s the narrative itself, the way that the events of this summer change the story of the activists that are profiled, that will keep us coming back to The Square for years to come.” – Daniel Walber
  65. The Tillman Story (Amir Bar-Lev, 2010)
  66. Standard Operating Procedure (Errol Morris, 2008)
  67. 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
  68. Chisholm ’72: Unbought & Unbossed (Shola Lynch, 2004)
  69. The Last Party (Mark Benjamin and Marc Levin, 1993)
  70. Street Fight (Marshall Curry, 2005) *OSCAR NOMINEE
  71. The Weather Underground (Sam Green and Bill Siegel, 2002) *OSCAR NOMINEE
  72. Before the Mountain Was Moved (Robert K. Sharpe, 1970) *OSCAR NOMINEE
  73. In the Shadow of the Moon (David Sington, 2007)
  74. Fake It So Real (Robert Greene, 2011)
  75. The Endless Summer (Bruce Brown, 1966)
  76. On Any Sunday (Bruce Brown, 1971) *OSCAR NOMINEE
  77. On Any Sunday II (Ed Forsyth and Don Shoemaker, 1981)
  78. Seven Second Love Affair (Robert Abel, 1965)
  79. Gleason (Clay Tweel, 2016)
  80. John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection (Julien Faraut, 2018)
    “No other tennis pro could be at the center of a doc like In the Realm of Perfection. Not just because McEnroe is the one whom de Kermadec ended up concentrating on. But also because he was a wild animal. There is, of course, the acknowledgment in the film that the footage looks at McEnroe as another documentary might study penguins in Antarctica. It is, in part, March of the McEnroe.” – Christopher Campbell
  81. 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
  82. 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
  83. The Other F Word (Andrea Blaugrund Nevins, 2011)
    “The most endearing and potentially tearjerking documentary about punks you’ll ever see. Could you ever have expected that a pseudo-sequel to films like Penelope Spheeris’ The Decline of Western Civilization and Suburbia would elicit so many responses of ‘awwwww’? If so, you’re probably a former punk who has grown up, too, and this is made just for you.” – Christopher Campbell
  84. Hype! (Doug Pray, 1996)
  85. 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
  86. 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
  87. The King (Eugene Jarecki, 2017)
    “Somehow, Eugene Jarecki got a hold of Elvis Presley’s 1963 Rolls Royce and hit the road with it. Dropping characters like Alec Baldwin, James Carville, and Emmylou Harris in the backseat, the film attempts to understand the cultural earthquake caused by the arrival of that shy guy from Tupelo, Mississippi and how his rise and fall narrative might mimic that of the nation that birthed him. I’m not quite sure Jarecki nails that theme, but neither is he. This confrontational conversation with The King’s legacy is the best dissection of his myth yet.” – Brad Gullickson
  88. 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
  89. Double Dare (Amanda Micheli, 2004)
  90. Marlene (Maximillian Schell, 1984) *OSCAR NOMINEE
  91. Hollywood on Trial (David Helpern Jr., 1976) *OSCAR NOMINEE
  92. Life After Flash (Lisa Downs, 2017)
    “An excitable, aggressive hug of a movie. Overflowing with appreciation, or downright passion, for the exuberant adaptation of the comic book serial, director Lisa Downs gathers not only every accessible voice that contributed to the cult classic but seemingly every ear that absorbed that craft.” – Brad Gullickson
  93. The Line King: The Al Hirschfeld Story (Susan Warms Dryfoos, 1996) *OSCAR NOMINEE
    “Fittingly, Dryfoos is, herself, sketching a fitting caricature of Hirschfeld: her ear for melancholy picks up resentment, confusion, old ladies tsking.” – Andrew Karpan
  94. The Panama Papers (Alex Winter, 2018)
  95. Stations of the Elevated (Manfred Kirchheimer, 1981)
  96. 4 Little Girls (Spike Lee, 1997) *OSCAR NOMINEE
  97. The Conquest of Everest (George Lowe, 1953) *OSCAR NOMINEE
  98. Voyage to the Edge of the World (Philippe Cousteau, 1976)
  99. Kon-Tiki (Thor Heyerdahl, 1950) *OSCAR WINNER
  100. 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

And here are the 35 must-see documentary shorts:

  1. Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe (Les Blank, 1980)
  2. The Sun’s Gonna Shine (Les Blank, 1968)
  3. Heavy Metal Parking Lot (John Heyn and Jeff Jeff Krulik, 1986)
  4. Who Cares (Nick Broomfield, 1971)
  5. Churchill’s Island (Stuart Legg, 1941) *OSCAR WINNER
  6. The Battle of Midway (John Ford, 1942) *OSCAR WINNER
  7. December 7th (John Ford and Gregg Toland, 1943) *OSCAR WINNER
  8. Report from the Aleutians (John Huston, 1943) *OSCAR NOMINEE
  9. The Nazis Strike (Frank Capra and Anatole Litvak, 1943)
  10. With the Marines at Tarawa (Richard Brooks and Louis Hayward, 1944) *OSCAR WINNER
  11. The Negro Soldier (Stuart Heisler, 1944)
  12. The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress (William Wyler, 1944)
  13. The Battle of San Pietro (John Huston, 1945)
  14. To the Shores of Iwo Jima (Milton Sperling, 1945) *OSCAR NOMINEE
  15. The Last Bomb (Frank Lloyd, 1945) *OSCAR NOMINEE
  16. City of Gold (Wolf Koenig, Colin Low, 1957) *OSCAR NOMINEE
  17. I’ll Find a Way (Beverly Shaffer, 1977) *OSCAR WINNER
  18. First Winter (John N. Smith, 1981) *OSCAR NOMINEE
  19. Flamenco at 5:15 (Cynthia Scott, 1983) *OSCAR WINNER
  20. Hardwood (Hubert Davis, 2005) *OSCAR NOMINEE
  21. Seeds of Destiny (David Miller, 1946) *OSCAR WINNER
  22. Neighbours (Norman McLaren, 1952) *OSCAR WINNER
  23. Eskimo Artist: Kenojuak (John Feeney, 1964) *OSCAR NOMINEE
  24. Blackwood (Tony Ianzelo and Andy Thomson, 1976) *OSCAR NOMINEE
  25. Universe (Lester Novros, 1976)
  26. The Colours of My Father: A Portrait of Sam Borenstein (Joyce Borenstein, 1992) *OSCAR NOMINEE
  27. One Survivor Remembers (Kary Antholis, 1995) *OSCAR WINNER
  28. The Living Sea (Greg MacGillivray, 1995) *OSCAR NOMINEE
  29. Alaska: Spirit of the Wild (George Casey, 1998) *OSCAR NOMINEE
  30. The Witness: From the Balcony of Room 306 (Adam Pertofsky, 2008) *OSCAR NOMINEE
  31. The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant (Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert, 2009) *OSCAR NOMINEE
  32. Cavedigger (Jeffrey Karoff, 2013) *OSCAR NOMINEE
  33. Facing Fear (Jason Cohen, 2013) *OSCAR NOMINEE
  34. Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1 (Ellen Goosenberg Kent, 2013) *OSCAR WINNER
  35. Black Sheep (Ed Perkins, 2018) *OSCAR NOMINEE

And here are the six must-see documentary series:

  1. When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts (Spike Lee, 2007)
  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. American Experience (2008–2012)

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