100 Must-See Documentaries Streaming on Amazon Prime This January

This month's new recommendations include 'Fahrenheit 11/9,' 'The Act of Killing,' 'Tchoupitoulas,' and Frederick Wiseman's 'Ex Libris: The New York Public Library.'

Fahrenheit 11-9
GathrFilms

With a new year comes new streaming contracts and renewals. As a result, we’ve added 15 fresh titles to our Amazon 100 highlighting the most essential documentary features available on Amazon Prime. One of those titles is a new film and won’t be available until mid-month: Michael Moore‘s Fahrenheit 11/9. Another is Joshua Oppenheimer‘s 2012 Oscar-nominated masterpiece, The Act of Killing.

The other feature additions include the vital political and historical films Why We Fight, Oscar nominee If a Tree Falls, After Tiller, Dolores, Copwatch, The Chinese Mayor, Oscar nominee The Square, and The Return to Homs, the more artistic character-driven films Tchoupitoulas, Brimstone & Glory, and Finders Keepers, the classic, Oscar-nominated competition doc Spellbound, and a Frederick Wiseman film: Ex Libris. We’ve also added five classic Oscar-contenders to the shorts section: the winners I’ll Find a Way and Flamenco at 5:15 and the nominees City of Gold, First Winter, and Hardwood.

Of course, that means 15 titles have been removed. Two of them, An Inconvenient Truth and Haxan, are no longer available on Prime (though the Inconvenient Truth sequel is). I’ve gone through and picked 12 very good but slightly less-essential titles from the list, and certainly, any of them can be added back later. They are: Author, Dior and I, Do You Trust This Computer?, Fatherland, Motherland, Head Games, Into the Cold, Kung Fu Elliot, Reindeerspotting, The Source Family, Superheroes, and Until the Light Takes Us. Oh, and I just this month realized that one of the Nick Broomfield docs on the list (Who Cares) should be in the shorts section.

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. Fahrenheit 11/9 (Michael Moore, 2018) — Available on Prime 1/19
    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
  2. The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn, and Anonymous, 2012)
    “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
  3. Why We Fight (Eugene Jarecki, 2005)
  4. The Square (Jehane Noujaim, 2013)
    “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
  5. The Return to Homs (Talal Derki, 2013)
    Return to Homs has images of determination and destruction that haunt and amaze. Derki walks his camera through an endless series of bombed-out apartments, using strange passageways birthed by artillery fire. His central figure, a once-promising young soccer player turned revolutionary, undergoes the sort of transformation that evokes the great performances found in historical epics. Yet all the while it is kept profoundly intimate, a tremendous achievement of nonfiction human narrative.” – Daniel Walber
  6. Copwatch (Camilla Hall, 2017)
    “iPhone shots of violent police arrests, bracketed by heavy borders and unseen screams, the effect similar to the loud silence that Michael Moore used to replicate the falling World Trade Center towers in Fahrenheit 9/11. The images are pieces of our own collective, tangential consciences, things we’ve seen before in quick bursts on the news, but Hall’s presentation forces us to acquiesce to its sheer emotional power.” – Andrew Karpan
  7. The Chinese Mayor (Hao Zhou, 2015)
    The Chinese Mayor is no partisan essay, either condemning the system or praising one man’s vision. That wouldn’t work, either as a statement of purpose or a piece of nonfiction art. Instead, this is a panorama both physical and political, committed to as wide an angle as possible. In a place as big as Datong, anything more narrow would be dishonest.” – Daniel Walber
  8. Ex Libris: The New York Public Library (Frederick Wiseman, 2017)
  9. Spellbound (Jeffrey Blitz, 2002)
  10. Tchoupitoulas (Bill Ross IV and Turner Ross, 2012)
  11. Brimstone & Glory (Viktor Jakovleski, 2017)
  12. 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
  13. After Tiller (Martha Shane and Lana Wilson, 2013)
  14. Dolores (Peter Bratt, 2017)
    “The primary purpose of this documentary is to give Huerta her due as an integral part of any complete curriculum on women’s studies, as well as Latino studies, general ethnic studies, and even the whole of American studies.” – Christopher Campbell
  15. If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front (Marshall Curry and Sam Cullman, 2011)
  16. Louisiana Story (Robert J. Flaherty, 1948)
  17. All in This Tea (Les Blank and Gina Leibrecht, 2007)
  18. The Chair (Robert Drew, 1963)
  19. Love Meetings (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1964)
  20. Bowling for Columbine (Michael Moore, 2004)
  21. Only the Young (Elizabeth Mims and Jason Tippet, 2012)
  22. Approaching the Elephant (Amanda Wilder, 2014)
  23. 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
  24. 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
  25. Hoop Dreams (Steve James, 1994)
  26. 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
  27. 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
  28. 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
  29. Manufactured Landscapes (Jennifer Baichwal, 2006)
  30. 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
  31. Foreign Parts (Verena Paravel and J.P. Sniadecki, 2010)
  32. Picture of Light (Peter Mettler, 1994)
  33. Samsara (Ron Fricke, 2011)
  34. 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
  35. Nuts! (Penny Lane, 2016)
  36. Private Practices: The Story of a Sex Surrogate (Kirby Dick, 1986)
  37. Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, 1996)
  38. Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory (Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, 2011)
  39. The Central Park Five (Ken Burns, Sarah Burns and David McMahon, 2012)
  40. Chicago 10 (Brett Morgen, 2010)
  41. The Witness (James D. Solomon, 2015)
  42. The Imposter (Bart Layton, 2012)
  43. 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
  44. Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer (Nick Broomfield, 1992)
  45. Driving Me Crazy (Nick Broomfield, 1988)
  46. Kurt & Courtney (Nick Broomfield, 1998)
  47. Biggie & Tupac (Nick Broomfield, 2002)
  48. Soldier Girls (Nick Broomfield and Joan Churchill, 1981)
  49. Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam (Nick Broomfield, 1995)
  50. Tracking Down Margaret (Nick Broomfield, 1996)
  51. 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
  52. 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
  53. 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
  54. Prelude to War (Frank Capra and Anatole Litvak, 1942)
  55. Divide and Conquer (Frank Capra and Anatole Litvak, 1943)
  56. The Battle of Britain (Frank Capra and Anatole Litvak, 1943)
  57. The Battle of Russia (Frank Capra and Anatole Litvak, 1943)
  58. The Battle of China (Frank Capra and Anatole Litvak, 1944)
  59. War Comes to America (Frank Capra and Anatole Litvak, 1945)
  60. Desert Victory (Ray Boulting and David MacDonald, 1943)
  61. The True Glory (Garson Kanin and Carol Reed, 1945)
  62. Let There Be Light (John Huston, 1946)
  63. Genocide (Arnold Schwartzman, 1982)
  64. Last Days in Vietnam (Rory Kennedy, 2014)
  65. Cartel Land (Matthew Heineman, 2015)
  66. 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
  67. The Kill Team (Dan Krauss, 2013)
  68. Standard Operating Procedure (Errol Morris, 2008)
  69. 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
  70. War Don Don (Rebecca Richman Cohen, 2010)
  71. Street Fight (Marshall Curry, 2005)
  72. In the Shadow of the Moon (David Sington, 2007)
  73. Fake It So Real (Robert Greene, 2011)
  74. The Endless Summer (Bruce Brown, 1966)
  75. On Any Sunday (Bruce Brown, 1971)
  76. On Any Sunday II (Ed Forsyth and Don Shoemaker, 1981)
  77. Seven Second Love Affair (Robert Abel, 1965)
  78. Gleason (Clay Tweel, 2016)
  79. 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
  80. 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
  81. 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
  82. 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
  83. 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
  84. The Kids Are Alright (Tim Doyle, 1979)
  85. 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
  86. Hit So Hard (P. David Ebersole, 2011)
  87. 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
  88. 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
  89. 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
  90. Stations of the Elevated (Manfred Kirchheimer, 1981)
  91. 4 Little Girls (Spike Lee, 1997)
  92. The Pruitt-Igoe Myth (Chad Freidrichs, 2011)
  93. Sick Birds Die Easy (Nicholas Fackler, 2013)
  94. 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
  95. 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
  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. 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
  98. Voyage to the Edge of the World (Philippe Cousteau, 1976)
  99. Kon-Tiki (Thor Heyerdahl, 1950)
  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 16 must-see shorts:

  1. City of Gold (Wolf Koenig, Colin Low, 1957)
    Oscar nominee
  2. I’ll Find a Way (Beverly Shaffer, 1977)
    Oscar winner
  3. First Winter (John N. Smith, 1981)
    Oscar nominee
  4. Flamenco at 5:15 (Cynthia Scott, 1983)
    Oscar winner
  5. Hardwood (Hubert Davis, 2005)
    Oscar nominee
  6. Black Panther (1969)
  7. Heavy Metal Parking Lot (John Heyn and Jeff Jeff Krulik, 1986)
  8. Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe (Les Blank, 1980)
  9. The Sun’s Gonna Shine (Les Blank, 1968)
  10. Who Cares (Nick Broomfield, 1971)
  11. The Negro Soldier (Stuart Heisler, 1944)
  12. The Nazis Strike (Frank Capra and Anatole Litvak, 1943)
  13. The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress (William Wyler, 1944)
  14. With the Marines at Tarawa (Richard Brooks and Louis Hayward, 1944)
    Oscar winner
  15. The Battle of San Pietro (John Huston, 1945)
  16. To the Shores of Iwo Jima (Milton Sperling, 1945)
    Oscar nominee

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.