OVID just celebrated its one year anniversary, and we’re celebrating with a showcase of our 50 favorite documentaries streaming on the platform. Plus, we’re all looking for more great films to watch online these days, and OVID has a tremendous collection of nonfiction classics and modern masterpieces. Now’s a great time to subscribe, too, since OVID is offering Nonfics readers a 25% discount on their first four months! Just use the coupon code “NONFICS” at checkout on OVID.tv.
Whether it’s on the website OVID.tv or the OVID apps available for phones, tablets, and other devices and smart televisions, there’s so much we can vouch for here at Nonfics. In full disclosure, this is a sponsored post, but I’ve been given free rein in curating a list of the 50 most essential documentaries available from OVID, including many titles considered part of the canon of nonfiction film history as well as many personal favorites.
Admittedly, there are so many films in the OVID library that we haven’t seen them all. Forgive me for any other great documentaries left off that might deserve placement if that’s the case. I’m still watching and am sure to tweet out more recommendations when I’ve come across something else I want to endorse. Also, be sure to follow us for any new additions and new releases arriving after the list’s publication.
For now, these 50 titles begin with the most imperative picks followed by groupings by director and by genre/theme. Some filmmakers have more great works than I’m including, though, because otherwise, the whole list would be just Ross McElwee, Chris Marker, and Chantal Ackerman. There’s also a trilogy spread out over three lines — many consider The Battle of Chile to be one long three-part documentary, but as they were released separately and exist separately on the site, we are dividing them up — and there are some double features in the bunch, too, like the 2011 duo Better This World and If a Tree Falls, both of which are about similar stories of domestic terrorism.
- Sherman’s March (Ross McElwee, 1985)
History and romance, from the master of first-person cinema. “McElwee can do personal documentary in a way that doesn’t feel self-indulgent. Even though this is a film about him making a film while also trying to find a mate, it’s always about more than him. So many today try to do what Sherman’s March does, and few seem to get what makes it so magical.” – Christopher Campbell
- Bright Leaves (Ross McElwee, 2003)
More of McElwee’s personal documentaries can be found on OVID, including Backyard, Six O’Clock News, Time Indefinite, and his latest, Photographic Memory. This one is my favorite after Sherman’s March, with its combination of family history, film history, and focus on the tobacco industry. Plus more scene-stealing from Charleen Swansea, the greatest documentary character of all time. – Christopher Campbell
- Our Daily Bread (Nikolaus Geyrhalter, 2005)
“A peek at anonymous European food manufacturing plants…This isn’t a journalistic expose, yet your own perspective might make it out to be. As for my views, I think it’s poetry watching baby chicks and beef carcasses floating across the screen and also quite amusing seeing the mundanity of employees eating their lunch after working these jobs.” – Christopher Campbell
- The Battle of Chile: Part I (Patricio Guzmán, 1975)
“Chronicles in aching and stunning detail the time leading up to September 11, 1973, that infamous day Allende’s presidential palace was bombed in a military coup, hours before he committed suicide…an extended moment of extreme political tumult, rendered in excruciating detail; a work of cinematic nonfiction as political protest art…a film that happens as we watch, the filmmakers often present while the electricity of the moment vibrates as captured energy on celluloid.” – Robert Greene
- The Battle of Chile: Part II (Patricio Guzmán, 1976)
- The Battle of Chile: Part III (Patricio Guzmán, 1979)
- Salvador Allende (Patricio Guzmán, 2004)
A biographical film about the titular Chilean president.
- Hôtel Terminus (Marcel Ophuls, 1988)
A three-part biographical film about Gestapo leader Klaus Barbie (see part II and part III). ” I felt like outwardly it pretended, in a way, to be this bog-standard TV-style documentary. ‘Here’s one side, here’s the other side, here’s the synthesis.’ But it’s a sneaky doc, and I kind of feel all of [Ophuls’] films are this way where there’s a lot more going on than what you see on the surface. It’s a lot more playful.” – Alex Winter
- Karl Marx City (Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker, 2016)
“Epperlein’s journey back to her former home, as she dives into the vast archive of information left behind in the wake of the GDR’s collapse…The feat of editing that Karl Marx City pulls off is all the more remarkable when one rethinks the narrative through-line of the film and realizes that Epperlein’s actual quest is fairly straightforward. It’s in unfolding every detail around the questions she seeks to answer that the documentary is able to sketch this part of history, search out the gaps we have in it and interrogate which of those gaps can be filled in, and how, and what can be done about those that can’t be filled in.” – Dan Schindel
- Under the Sun (Vitaliy Manskiy, 2015)
“Mansky went to North Korea to assist in the production of a film, a government-directed vision of the life of an idealized nuclear family. As they traveled from stage to stage, he kept the camera running. His final product is not, however, a journalistic expose of the lies of North Korean official communication. It is, instead, a quietly chilling document of what is added and subtracted from citizens when they are reshaped into the role models of a totalitarian system. ” – Daniel Walber
- From the Other Side (Chantal Akerman, 2002)
“A portrait of life on either side of the United States-Mexico border, made just as the federal government was ratcheting up security measures in the wake of September 11th, 2001…the camera’s tracking of this forbidding line in the sand further articulates the way that it collapses space, as the American government exerts its energy to halt the flow of humanity.” – Daniel Walber
- South (Chantal Akerman, 1999)
Akerman’s take on the American South as well as the story of a lynching of an African-American in Texas. “The mood is created in long, leisurely drives through Jasper, projecting the anger induced by the facts out into the vegetation and the architecture of Southern decay. The final shot, which follows the route upon which Byrd was so horribly murdered, has an unspoken but unmistakable anger.” – Daniel Walber
- An Injury to One (Travis Wilkerson, 2002)
“A potent piece of pop agitprop, an old school leftist snarl bathed in nostalgia for an era of more gleefully dogmatic activist art, while reinventing essay filmmaking for a new cut-and-paste century…the film tells the stories of former copper kingdom Butte, Montana, tragic agitator Frank Little and the most notoriously radical of all unions, the IWW.” – Robert Greene
- Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? (Travis Wilkerson, 2017)
“In 1946, Travis Wilkerson’s great-grandfather murdered a black man named Bill Spann and never saw a night in jail. The story was known in the family through whispers, but no one dared explore further into the event for fear of culpability or worse…a horrific portrait of sin through interviews, photo albums, home movies, and dashboard footage of his journey back to the scene of the crime.” – Brad Gullickson
- Far from Vietnam (Joris Ivens, Agnes Varda, Alain Resnais, Jean-Luc Godard, Chris Marker, Claude Lelouch, and William Klein, 1967)
“A manifesto assembled by various leftist French filmmakers critiquing many aspects of the American military presence in Vietnam…Far from Vietnam uses the political union of a filmmaking collective to reveal the essay film’s capacity for both transformative didacticism and powerful observation.” – Landon Palmer
- A Man Vanishes (Shôhei Imamura, 1967)
“A Man Vanishes may not technically involve an actual crime. Or actual truth for that matter. Just like a number of fictional crime films in which supposedly murdered or missing persons turn out to be people framing others for crimes, the titular vanished man may just be hiding or otherwise purposefully disappeared. Perhaps he never even existed at all. Either way, the investigative documentary is still, even if loosely, a work of nonfiction.” – Christopher Campbell
- Nostalgia for the Light (Patricio Guzmán, 2010)
“Explores some deep questions while looking out into space for signs of life and looking into the Earth for remnants of the dead. Set in Chile’s Atacama Desert, where we meet astronomers working in a prime location for stargazing and women digging the dirt for bodies ‘disappeared’ and ditched during Pinochet’s regime, it’s really a masterpiece.” – Christopher Campbell
- Anthropocene: The Human Epoch (Jennifer Baichwal, Edward Burtynsky, and Nicholas de Pencier, 2019)
“Astonishment. Pure, lurid, ravishing, genuine astonishment. That is Anthropocene: The Human Epoch. At times, you have to quadruple take, and what you’re looking at still doesn’t fully click. It’s so impossible to comprehend yet such a significant achievement in scientific study and documentary storytelling. Its story is massive in scope. On the short end, it covers 10 millennia, the span of human history. On the long end, it spans 4.5 billion years, the duration of the Earth.” – Luke Hicks
- Decasia (Bill Morrison, 2002)
“An experimental, carefully manipulated assemblage of decayed film stock accompanied with a score by Michael Gordon that will haunt your dreams …with an industry moving exponentially to digital and with studios shutting down their libraries, Decasia (beyond its existence as an absolutely mesmerizing film) provides a vital meeting between the viewer and the increasingly foreign materiality of film itself.” – Landon Palmer
- Dawson City: Frozen Time (Bill Morrison
“An epic presentation of history, film history, and film as history all in one … if you care about film at all, you have to see this miraculous documentary.” – Christopher Campbell
- Le Joli Mai (Chris Marker and Pierre Lhomme, 1963)
“An epic, ambitious documentary that seeks to capture a people, a mood and a moment in time by fluctuating between critical distance and passionate engagement. This is a film that possesses a subjectivity that patiently seeks insight and vaguely longs for revolution, and in doing so it seeks to capture the subjectivities of a city’s people.” – Landon Palmer
- 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. I doubt I was the only one who thought this, but it was particularly interesting to watch after wondering what Giuliani had done with the majority of homeless while cleaning up the city in the ’90s.” – Christopher Campbell
- Disorder (Weikai Huang, 2009)
A kind of collaborative city symphony film that can serve as an entry into the New Chinese Documentary movement.
- Middletown (Tom Cohen, Peter Davis, and John Lindley, 1982)
A documentary series about Muncie, Indiana, available under the episode titles The Campaign, The Big Game, Second Time Around, Community of Praise, Family Business, and Seventeen, the last of which counts as its own feature below.
- Seventeen (Joel DeMott and Jeff Kreines, 1983)
The final, more standalone entry in the Middletown series, which focuses on high school students. Fascinating as a time capsule and the reality version of an ’80s teen movie.
- Kati with an I (Robert Greene, 2010)
Former Nonfics contributor Robert Greene’s breakout documentary focused on his half-sister’s last year of high school. “Greene, because of his relationship, has the utmost trust of his subject and gets awfully close and candid. And she’s a terrific, unrestrained presence as a result. Even when the screen isn’t filled with her face in close-up, she’s a magnetic character with a genuinely lovable personality, including the times when she’s whining. She’s certainly a bit naive…but no more than your average youth.”
- Girl Model (David Redmon and Ashley Sabin, 2011)
“A film exposing the world of youth modeling in ways you both expect and can’t possibly imagine. It’s not necessarily sad in a direct way, but the circles of blame and cycle of the industry are upsetting in an overarching sense.” – Christopher Campbell
- Maidentrip (Jillian Schlesinger, 2013)
A teen movie set on a sailboat around the world. “The usual themes of coming of age do fit so well with Dekker’s unique story and setting, and Schlesinger thankfully allows these connections to play for themselves rather than pointing them out. All that the film literally offers is a kind of selfie cinema about a girl and her ketch. Dive deeper, though, and it’s another terrific portrait of the woes and wonders of youth on the verge of whatever comes next.” – Christopher Campbell
- The Road Movie (Dmitrii Kalashnikov, 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. Through these recordings, viewers also witness strange encounters with bears and brides and prostitutes and parachuters. We experience a camera’s theft by way of its own documentation of the incident. We travel into a forest in flames — an incredibly surreal sight — courtesy of one device. We take an inadvertent dip into a river thanks to another. 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
- Stray Dog (Debra Granik, 2014)
“Ron ‘Stray Dog’ Hall is the aged owner of an RV park in rural Missouri. He lives in a cramped house with four dogs and his Mexican-born wife Alicia, who is recently arrived in America and still learning the language. Stray Dog is a biker and looks every inch it — he’s barrel-chested, leather-clad and grungily bearded. But his personality is very much the opposite of whatever apprehensive image one may conjure up of a biker. He’s sweet-natured, clever, and thoughtful…[the film is] wonderfully naturalistic, and I want every documentarian to take notes from it.” – Dan Schindel
- 12 O’Clock Boys (Lotfy Nathan, 2013)
“The film focuses on three years in the life of a boy named Pug as he tries to join the titular group of men who illegally ride off-road motorcycles and ATVs on the streets of Baltimore, and there are some great slow-motion shots of these 12 O’Clock Boys (named for the way they like to speed vertically pointed up at the 12 o-clock position) as well as three thrilling action sequences involving police intervention and chase. Another notable scene is the ending, which I won’t give away but just say it’s a brilliantly creative structuring of the moment.” – Christopher Campbell
- Quest (Jonathan Olshefski, 2017)
“This is not any one kind of documentary. It’s a music doc. It’s a political doc. There’s even some sports in there for a moment. It’s extremely up close, yet it’s hardly a small story. It’s about the past in a way that, even with all the tragedy and drama, now looks like more innocent times, and it’s about the future in the way it inspires hope that we can all overcome every painful obstacle and come to comprehend the issues and differences of everyone in this country.” – Christopher Campbell
- Chisholm ’72: Unbought & Unbossed (Shola Lynch, 2004)
“The story of Shirley Chisholm…the first African-American woman elected to Congress, and in 1972 she ran for president. She came in fourth place out of the 13 Democrats running and ninth out of the nearly 80 possibilities for the vice presidential ticket.” – Christopher Campbell
- After Tiller (Martha Shane and Lana Wilson, 2013)
“The film is titled after the murdered Dr. George Tiller, who was gunned down in church in 2009. There are only four remaining doctors in the country who will perform late-term abortions, and all of them are former employees of the slain physician…After Tiller is informative to humanize, an offering of open dialog to a conversation that so often reduces to shouting…[it] will likely not magically solve the communication problem on this issue, but it does seem to assert that mutual understanding is at least possible.” – Daniel Walber
- If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front (Marshall Curry, 2011)
Curry’s second Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Feature came with this profile of a radical environmentalist.
- Better This World (Kelly Duane and Katie Galloway, 2011)
A documentary about “the arrest of two young activists during the 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul, both charged as domestic terrorists on the grounds that they had built and intended to use Molotov cocktails during the protests. Better This World concentrates on these two men, David McKay and Bradley Crowder, leaning on their sides of the story and how they believe there was entrapment on the part of the FBI through an informant who influenced their decision to consider such violence.” – Christopher Campbell
- The Kill Team (Dan Krauss, 2013)
“[An] urgent, journalistic expose of war crimes committed by some American soldiers in Afghanistan…a brutal narrative but an essential one, cracking open our often simplistic ideas about war…Krauss has made a film as bold as its subject matter, hiding nothing from the audience.” – Daniel Walber
- El Sicario, Room 164 (Gianfranco Rosi, 2010)
“An unadorned shot to the face, a shockingly direct and chillingly honest interview with a former assassin in the employ of a Mexican drug cartel.” – Daniel Walber
- A Good Man (Bob Hercules and Gordon Quinn, 2011)
A documentary following theater icon Bill T. Jones as he stages a new production for Abraham Lincoln’s Bicentennial.
- One Day Pina Asked… (Chantal Akerman, 1983)
Akerman on tour with Pina Bausch and her dance company.
- Gunnin’ for That #1 Spot (Adam Yauch, 2008)
From Beastie Boys member Adam Yauch, a film following High school basketball players as they compete in a special tournament.
- The Way Things Go (Peter Fischli and David Weiss, 1987)
“The film presents a Rube Goldberg machine involving common objects. It’s basically a continuous (yet not quite in a single shot) recording of a 100-foot-long chain reaction installation…it is a record of the art project as much as it is itself part of the art project. For its purposes, the work is similar to a concert film.” – Christopher Campbell
- Eames: The Architect & The Painter (Jason Cohn and Bill Jersey, 2011)
A film about design legends Charles and Ray Eames.
- The Case of the Grinning Cat (Chris Marker, 2004)
Marker’s investigation of cat graffiti that has begun appearing around Paris.
- Remembrance of Things to Come (Yannick Bellon and Chris Marker, 2001)
A still-image montage and personal history of France by way of photographer Denise Bellon.
- Forever (Heddy Honigmann, 2006)
One of Honigmann’s many films on OVID (I need to see them all), this focuses on art and death and the Père-Lachaise cemetery in Paris.
- Chasing Portraits (Elizabeth Rynecki, 2018)
“Elizabeth attempts to track down those lost works of art while filling in the blanks of her family’s history. Under her own direction, it’s an extremely personal film, made only more intimate through her raw, handheld footage, which gives us the impression we’re watching a family’s collection of home movies. The documentary isn’t smooth or flashy, and it doesn’t need to be. With its compelling tale of a family’s trauma and recovery, Elizabeth’s story is captivating throughout every stage of her journey.” – Dylan Brennan
- Elena (Petra Costa, 2012)
“One of the most unique docs of the last couple years, a personal and dreamy portrait of herself and her older sister, Elena, and the parallel lives they shared, save for the latter’s death. Taking inspiration from Chris Marker and Agnes Varda but still working in a poetic style distinctly her own, Costa recounts her move from Brazil to New York City to become an actress, following in the footsteps of her sibling more than a decade earlier.” – Christopher Campbell
- Down There (Chantal Akerman, 2006)
“Akerman made Down There while teaching in Tel Aviv and living alone in a rented apartment. She peers out the windows at her neighbors on their balconies. She comments to herself, and by extension to the audience, about goings-on both outside her building and within her own mind. In one sense, it is a breathtakingly intimate portrayal of depression. Yet it is also a film with vast implications, a psychological reading of the Jewish people, and a deconstruction of isolation more broadly.” – Daniel Walber
- No Home Movie (Chantal Akerman, 2015)
“Akerman’s final film is a powerful work of visual stillness…In the still space of the cinema, without the noise of insistent music or scripted dialogue, free from the rush of Hollywood editing, there is plenty of time to think. These films inspire questions as well as asking them, challenging us to determine whether or not an answer even exists. Their power, which was troubling even before Akerman’s tragic death last October, is in the way that they use stillness to capture the ghostly conundrums of history.” – Daniel Walber
- Sherman’s March (Ross McElwee, 1985)