100 Must-See Documentaries Streaming on Fandor This October

More than 125 years worth of nonfiction film classics.

The Cruise
Artisan Entertainment

Have you already seen all the essential documentaries on Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Hulu? Now it’s time to give Fandor a shot. The streaming service is actually vital for nonfiction film fans who want to see a lot of older docs — the classics and culturally significant works as well as early nonfiction efforts of major fiction filmmakers such as Jonathan DemmeBennett MillerBarry Jenkins, and Denis Villeneuve. There are films from all over the world and all throughout the last 127 years.

In addition to highlighting 100 of Fandor’s most necessary documentary features — many of them by such diverse artists as Werner Herzog, Nick Broomfield, Kartemquin Films, Agnes Varda, and the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab — I’ve selected 20 short films, almost half of which are very brief early actuality films by the likes of William K.L. Dickson and the Lumiere Brothers. There are so many more films of various lengths to discover beyond my picks, too.

The titles on the features list is 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.

  1. Sherman’s March (Ross McElwee, 1985)
    “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. Besides Charleen Swansea, that is. It’s wonder.” – Christopher Campbell
  2. Bright Leaves (Ross McElwee, 2004)
  3. Hoop Dreams (Steve James, 1994)
  4. Stop Making Sense (Jonathan Demme, 1984)
  5. The Cruise (Bennett Miller, 1998)
    “What better place to begin than with a film about a Manhattan tour guide? In this debut from the future director of CapoteMoneyball and the upcoming Foxcatcher, we meet Timothy ‘Speed’ Levitch, a poet and philosopher who was hosting tourists on double-decker Gray Line buses. When we follow along with him at work, we get a one-of-a-kind history of the city, sometimes with creative license and always with colorful verbiage (ironic since the doc itself is black and white). And when he’s off the bus he goes off on his deeper ideas, like that of the ‘anti-cruise.'” – Christopher Campbell
  6. On the Bowery (Lionel Rogosin, 1956)
  7. Portrait of Jason (Shirley Clarke, 1967)
    “A landmark of independent filmmaking, as well as an invaluable document of gay life before Stonewall, Shirley Clarke’s Portrait of Jason has lately had a bit of a renaissance. It was re-released in cinemas in the spring of 2013, and was then made much more readily available for home viewing. It has since been the subject of not only plenty of discussion and praise, but also a controversial and fictionalized remake from director Stephen Winter.” – Daniel Walber
  8. Ornette: Made in America (Shirley Clarke, 1985)
  9. Home for Life (Gordon Quinn and Gerald Temaner, 1967)
  10. Inquiring Nuns (Gordon Quinn, 1968)
  11. The Clowns (Federico Fellini, 1970)
  12. The Beaches of Agnes (Agnes Varda, 2008)
  13. Daguerréotypes (Agnes Varda, 1976)
  14. Far from Vietnam (Joris Ivens, William Klein, Claude Lelouch, Agnès Varda, Jean-Luc Godard, Chris Marker, and Alain Resnais, 1967)
    Far from Vietnam sees filmmaking itself as a collective project. Constructed through segments helmed by Joris Ivens, William Klein, Claude Lelouch, Agnès Varda, Alain Resnais and Jean-Luc Godard, and “organized” by Marker, Far from Vietnam was meant not to preserve a moment in time but to present an ardent case for returning Vietnam to the Vietnamese. As such, the film is a detailed historical curiosity so many decades after the American intervention and stands now as a testament to what the politics against the Vietnam War meant for French leftists during the 1960s.” – Landon Palmer
  15. S21: The Khmer Rouge Death Machine (Rithy Panh, 2003)
  16. Acadia Acadia?!? (Michel Brault and Pierre Perrault, 1971)
  17. Nostalgia for the Light (Patricio Guzmán, 2010)
  18. Chariots of the Gods (Harald Reinl, 1970)
  19. Lessons of Darkness (Werner Herzog, 1992)
    “Upon its release, Lessons of Darkness was criticized in many circles for its daring and grandiose repurposing of footage shot of a battered Kuwait just after the Gulf War. Using truly breathtaking 16mm images (many of them aerial shots), a sweeping orchestral score (Mahler, for example) and sparse but heavily biblical voice over, Herzog creates an apocalyptic opera of observation on war, environmental calamity and absurd human folly.” – Robert Greene
  20. Fata Morgana (Werner Herzog, 1971)
  21. Little Dieter Needs to Fly (Werner Herzog, 1997)
  22. Land of Silence and Darkness (Werner Herzog, 1971)
  23. My Best Fiend (Werner Herzog, 1999)
  24. Grass: A Nation’s Battle for Life (Merian C. Cooper, Ernest B. Schoedsack, and Marguerite Harrison, 1925)
  25. Sweetgrass (Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor, 2009)
  26. Manakamana (Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez, 2013)
    “Directors Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez went to Nepal to film, choosing the mountain temple of Manakamana as their subject. Specifically, their focus is the cable car that takes pilgrims over the foothills on their way to pay tribute to the goddess Bhagwati. Their method? Stick a 16mm camera on one of the cable cars, staring directly at those riding up (or down), and see what happens. Repeat. The duration of a single trip in the cable car is about 9 minutes. Manakamana is an assembly of eleven of these trips, each of which is presented in its entirety.” – Daniel Walber
  27. Leviathan (Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel, 2012)
  28. Stop the Pounding Heart (Roberto Minervini, 2013)
  29. Bestiare (Denis Côté, 2012)
  30. Dreams of a Life (Carol Morley, 2011)
  31. The Arbor (Clio Barnard, 2010)
  32. Kate Plays Christine (Robert Greene, 2016)
    Kate Plays Christine is a documentary of the making of a movie about Christine Chubbuck, a Sarasota news reporter who killed herself on live television in 1974. But the movie being made is this movie. Or part of it. I’d say it’s a film within a film, but that makes it sound like there’s a fake movie inside the real movie. It’s all just one real movie. At its center is actress Kate Lyn Sheil (House of Cards), who has been cast in the role of Chubbuck. For her preparation, she gathers as much information as she can on the infamous yet mostly forgotten suicide, interviewing people who knew Chubbuck and others who could provide some insight into the character.” – Christopher Campbell
  33. Edvard Munch (Peter Watkins, 1974)
    Edvard Munch is not a documentary, but it is one of the greatest, most singular works of cinematic nonfiction ever made. With the recent emergence of the so-called ‘hybrid’ documentary, it is important to remember that there have been innovative films made in this mode since the dawn of cinema. In many ways, Edvard Munch is so original that it has been the father of few children. But anyone with even a passing interest in the evolution of the nonfiction form should see it and try to understand its magic.” – Robert Greene
  34. The Mystery of Picasso (Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1956)
  35. Marwencol (Jeff Malmberg, 2010)
  36. Almost There (Dan Rybicky and Aaron Wickenden, 2014)
    “Too many films about people like Anton suffer for just assuming we’ll agree that their subjects are interesting. This one puts in the work and gives us reason to find his life and work interesting. Contrary to what he believes, outside of his own artistic compulsion to be such, Anton is not that important, nor is his art that significant. This film, on the other hand, is both.” – Christopher Campbell
  37. Art and Craft (Sam Cullman, Jennifer Grausman, and Mark Becker, 2014)
  38. Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present (Matthew Akers and Jeff Dupre, 2012)
  39. Bill Cunningham New York (Richard Press, 2010)
  40. Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People (Thomas Allen Harris, 2014)
    “A brief history of African-American photography from the 1840s to the present, inspired by one particular text, Deborah Willis’s Reflections in Black. Well over a century of art is tied together as contribution to a single corpus, a tome of images that will serve as the repository of aesthetic tradition for an entire community. Yet rather than taking an academic approach, director Thomas Allen Harris tries something more personal…” – Daniel Walber
  41. Manufactured Landscapes (Jennifer Baichwal, 2006)
  42. Capturing Reality (Pepita Ferrari, 2008)
  43. The Seasons in Quincy: Four Portraits of John Berger (Bartek Dziadosz, Colin MacCabe, Christopher Roth, and Tilda Swinton, 2016)
  44. The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology (Sophie Fiennes, 2012)
  45. Dig! (Ondi Timoner, 2004)
  46. Kurt and Courtney (Nick Broomfield, 1998)
  47. Pulp: A Film About Life, Death and Supermarkets (Florian Habicht, 2014)
    Pulp is simultaneously a concert documentary and a biographical portrait of Pulp’s lead singer, Jarvis Cocker — a layered feat that Habicht elegantly accomplishes by framing the film around Pulp’s farewell show in their hometown of Sheffield, Yorkshire. Through this framing, Habicht gives contextual insights into the band’s past as they emerge through their interactions with the present — it doesn’t try to tell a comprehensive history of the band from A to Z but covers the important shifts and elements that have defined their career, from its members’ pre-Pulp beginnings to the angry, reactionary days of their 1998 album This is Hardcore, which found the band lashing out at the demands of modest success.” – Landon Palmer
  48. Shut Up and Play the Hits (Will Lovelace and Dylan Southern, 2012)
  49. Musicwood (Maxine Trump, 2012)
  50. A Band Called Death (Mark Christopher Covino and Jeff Howlett, 2012)
  51. Until the Lights Take Us (Aaron Aites and Audrey Ewell, 2008)
  52. Hated: GG Allin & the Murder Junkies (Todd Phillips, 1993)
    “From drug addiction to self-harm to eating his own feces, Allin’s story is truly one of a kind. It’s also very disturbing. Todd Phillips’ documentary chronicles the final chapter of the notorious rocker’s life as he gets hammered, fights, strips, and defecates without a second thought. The film doesn’t hold back when it comes to showing the ugliness of the singer’s life and at times it’s truly revolting. At the same time, the doc is also very compelling as Allin unapologetically lived his life on his own misguided terms, which is somewhat admirable.” – Kieran Fisher
  53. Style Wars (Tony Silver, 1983)
  54. Dark Days (Marc Singer, 2000)
  55. The Pruitt-Igoe Myth (Chad Freidrichs, 2011)
  56. Concerning Violence (Göran Olsson, 2014)
  57. God Loves Uganda (Roger Ross Williams, 2013)
  58. Cousin Jules (Dominique Benicheti, 1972)
    “It has in it everything you might expect from a simple, vérité documentary of rural life, with its humble breezes and slowly changing seasons. Its aged central couple, Jules and Félicie Guiteaux, barely speak. One wonders if what little conversation they do have is but for the sake of the camera. After decades of marriage, they live in the same rhythmic patterns, knowing each other instinctively. Speech seems practically unnecessary. Benicheti shows their silence in the context of their love, and of nature itself. Cousin Jules possesses the gorgeous pastoral hush that characterizes so many great films of the countryside, fiction or otherwise.” – Daniel Walber
  59. Araya (Margot Benacerraf, 1959)
  60. Crude (Joe Berlinger, 2009)
  61. El Sicario, Room 164 (Gianfranco Rosi, 2010)
  62. Seventeen (Joel DeMott and Jeff Kreines, 1983)
  63. Teenage (Matt Wolf, 2013)
    Teenage is a film that, like your stereotypical teenager, is palpably enamored with itself from the get-go. While some of its elements will surely inspire some necessary eye-rolling, more often its pungent romance with adolescence is intoxicating and contagious.” – Landon Palmer
  64. Billy the Kid (Jennifer Venditti, 2007)
  65. Only the Young (Elizabeth Mims and Jason Tippet, 2012)
  66. Tchoupitoulas (Bill and Turner Ross, 2012)
  67. Trouble the Water (Carl Deal and Tia Lessin, 2008)
  68. The Order of Myths (Margaret Brown, 2008)
  69. The Endless Summer (Bruce Brown, 1966)
  70. Maidentrip (Jillian Schlesinger, 2013)
    Maidentrip is, along with recent films Only the Young12 O’Clock Boys and Medora, part of a new breed of nonfiction teen movies that acutely tap into the true heart and soul of that age better than any fiction filmmakers are doing right now. Specifically here, that time is an exploration, paralleled with a physical analogy of both triumph and inconclusiveness in the spirit of not only growing up but also growing outward.” – Christopher Campbell
  71. Fake It So Real (Robert Greene, 2011)
  72. The Sheik and I (Caveh Zahedi, 2012)
  73. The Square (Jehane Noujaim, 2013)
    “Jehane Noujaim has done something extraordinary with The Square, her new documentary of the Egyptian Revolution. She was there in Tahrir Square almost from the very beginning, when President Hosni Mubarak was forced out of office. That was February of 2011. Noujaim and her crew stayed, filming a small group of activists through the election of Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohammed Morsi on June 16–17th, 2012. She finished editing the first cut of The Square and took it to Sundance this past January (where it won the Audience Award for World Cinema — Documentary). Then, this summer, people flooded back into the streets to protest Morsi’s granting of unlimited powers to himself. Noujaim went back, got more footage, and re-cut the film.” – Daniel Walber
  74. 5 Broken Cameras (Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi, 2011)
  75. The Law in These Parts (Ra’anan Alexandrowicz, 2011)
  76. Iraq in Fragments (James Longley, 2006)
  77. The Troubles We’ve Seen (Marcel Ophüls, 1994)
  78. War Photographer (Christian Frei, 2001)
  79. The Kill Team (Dan Krauss, 2013)
    The Kill Team is the most daring documentary of the year so far. The production did not involve traversing the Pacific Ocean on a raft or dodging government censors, but filmmaker Dan Krauss’ military exposé is not that kind of audacious. Rather, this is an example of real journalistic bravery, both in its content and its composition. Its subject matter is among the most challenging in recent memory, the case of the Maywand District murders. At least three innocent Afghan civilians were killed by U.S. Army soldiers in early 2010, to be charged later that year. To even bring this story to the screen takes a certain amount of chutzpah.” – Daniel Walber
  80. Let There Be Light (John Huston, 1946)
  81. The Journey (Peter Watkins, 1987)
  82. Rebirth (Jim Whitaker, 2011)
    “Without ever raising its voice above a measured tone, this documentary argues loudly for the power of forgiveness (of both others and the self), of grace, of peace…in a world where 9/11 is still used as an excuse to violate people’s constitutional rights, oppress Muslims and wage shadow wars in other countries, we could use a reminder of the benefits of moving past pain and hate. That’s why Rebirth is more vital than ever.” – Dan Schindel
  83. If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front (Marshall Curry and Sam Cullman, 2011)
  84. Better This World (Kelly Duane and Katie Galloway, 2011)
  85. Informant (Jamie Meltzer, 2012)
  86. Last Train Home (Lixin Fan, 2009)
  87. ‘Til Madness Do Us Part (Bing Wang, 2013)
  88. Behemoth (Liang Zhao, 2015)
    Behemoth is a film of enormous metaphor, which is perhaps obvious from the title. Like many artistically inclined environmentalist documentaries, it contains breathtaking landscapes and a real sense of mythological doom. ‘Mother Nature,’ after all, is under attack.” – Daniel Walber
  89. Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo (Jessica Oreck, 2009)
  90. Girl Model (David Redmon and Ashley Sabin, 2011)
  91. Love Meetings (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1964)
    “A funny, brash and public exploration of human sexuality with real faces and voices. Since 1964, things have only become more and more open. We now fight about access to birth control on Facebook and Twitter. Pasolini the poet might cringe at the way this has changed language, but Pasolini the public intellectual would have been enthralled.” – Daniel Walber
  92. Private Practice: The Story of a Sex Surrogate (Kirby Dick, 1986)
  93. After Tiller (Martha Shane and Lana Wilson, 2013)
  94. The Eleanor Roosevelt Story (Richard Kaplan, 1965)
  95. Convento (Jarred Alterman, 2010)
    “The joy of this film comes more from its subjects than the work of director/cinematographer Jarred Alterman, though it is a beautiful film. It takes us to a 400-year-old monastery in Portugal, where a peculiar family of Dutch artists now lives. Most interesting is son Christiaan Zwanikken, whose creations are like mechanized taxidermy inspired by Herbie Hancock’s ‘Rockit’ video and maybe Blade Runner (I also referred to the sculptures as skeletal Muppets). Also seen are his ballerina mother and animal-loving brother, as the doc poetically explores dichotomies such as natural remains and man-made trash, ancient and futuristic settings, life and death, knights and robots. At only 50 minutes long, it’s also commendable for not overstaying its welcome, while also not trying to fit the temporal confinement of an Academy-recognized short.” – Christopher Campbell
  96. Reindeerspotting: Escape From Santaland (Joonas Neuvonen, 2010)
  97. Storm Children (Lav Diaz, 2014)
  98. What Now? Remind Me (Joaquim Pinto, 2013)
  99. The Pain of Others (Penny Lane, 2018)
  100. Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father (Kurt Kuenne, 2008)

And here are 20 essential actuality and documentary short films:

  1. Newark Athlete (William K.L. Dickson, 1891)
  2. Blacksmith Scene (William K.L. Dickson, 1893)
  3. Edison Kinetoscopic Record of a Sneeze (William K.L. Dickson, 1894)
  4. The Dickson Experimental Sound Film (William K.L. Dickson, 1894)
  5. Workers Leaving the Lumiere Factory (Louis Lumiere, 1895)
  6. Searching Ruins on Broadway, Galveston, for Dead Bodies (Albert E. Smith, 1900)
  7. Coney Island at Night (Edwin S. Porter, 1905)
  8. A Trip Down Market Street Before the Fire (1906)
  9. The Sinking of the ‘Lusitania’ (Winsor McCay, 1918)
  10. A Study in Choreography for Camera (Maya Deren, 1946)
  11. The Sixth Side of the Pentagon (Chris Marker and François Reichenbach, 1968)
  12. Hum 255 (Gordon Quinn and Peter Kuttner, 1969)
  13. Trick Bag (Kartemquin Films, 1974)
  14. Heavy Metal Parking Lot (John Heyn and Jeff Krulik, 1986)
  15. Higher Goals (Steve James and Frederick Marx, 1993)
  16. REW-FFWD (Denis Villeneuve, 1994)
  17. Remembrance of Things to Come (Chris Marker and Yannick Bellon, 2001)
  18. Muzak: A Tool of Management (Joshua Oppenheimer, 2002)
  19. King’s Gym (Barry Jenkins, 2012)
  20. Kings Point (Sari Gilman, 2012)

(Editor in Chief)

Christopher Campbell is the founding editor of Nonfics.