It’s been a year since our last listing of Hulu documentaries, but it’s about time for an update. Especially after a few of them, thanks to the streaming service’s deal with Neon, were either nominated for Academy Awards or topped end-of-year polls. And with Neon and Hulu both continuing to pick up great nonfiction films for the foreseeable future, we have to recommend you subscribing now and getting a start on the best that’s already available.
This month already brings about new titles of its own, too, including the docuseries Hillary, a look at Hillary Clinton’s life and presidential bid from Oscar-nominated director Nanette Burstein. That one’s not on our listing since I haven’t finished watching it, plus I haven’t decided if series need a separate spot. As for features, Margaret Atwood: A Word after a Word after a Word is Power arrives at the end of March. I haven’t seen that yet since Hulu claims to not have screeners available.
Here’s how the list is numerically arranged: the titles 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.
- Apollo 11 (Todd Douglas Miller, 2019)
“With the exhaustively assembled documentary Apollo 11, director Todd Douglas Miller (Dinosaur 13) puts his hands on our shoulders and delivers a serious cinematic shaking. The titular mission was more than the work of a handful of men, and it amounts to more than a postage stamp. A treasure trove of newly discovered 65mm archival footage and more than 11,000 hours of audio recordings have been restored and mined from to assemble the most sumptuous, obsessive celebration of NASA ever constructed. Damn your textbooks, damn your polite concession of history.” – Brad Gullickson
- The Cave (Feras Fayyad, 2019) *OSCAR NOMINEE*
“This film is about an incredible team of women doctors who endlessly treat the wounded in an underground hospital in the city of Ghouta, the last rebel-held enclave bordering the Syrian capital, Damascus…The Cave is proudly a portrait of the power of feminist camaraderie. Amani’s team is mostly made up of women — nurses, cooks, caretakers, and others assigned odd jobs just to get them out of harm’s way — and all of them share in the perils and stresses of living in a war zone. But even so, brief moments of warm humanism are shared underground.” – Jordan M. Smith
- Minding the Gap (Bing Liu, 2018) *OSCAR NOMINEE*
“What first seems like a sweet story about a skateboarding community filling the emptiness left behind by broken families, molds layer-by-layer into a piercing excavation of the wide-reaching pain caused by domestic abuse.” – Luke Hicks
- Life Itself (Steve James, 2012)
In this biography and portrait of the final days of Roger Ebert, “James continues to show that he can really arrange life stories with great clarity and fluidity and with very little filler included just because its a good sound bite. Few directors comprehend their subjects so well let alone make the viewer comprehend them on the same level.” – Christopher Campbell
- Honeyland (Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov, 2019) *DOUBLE OSCAR NOMINEE*
The first film ever to be nominated for the Oscars for both Best Documentary Feature and Best International Feature (aka Best Foreign Film), Honeyland follows a Macedonian beekeeper struggling to maintain her way of life.
- Free Solo (Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, 2018) *OSCAR WINNER*
“Directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin not only made an incredibly thrilling film about a historic sports — and human — achievement, but they also made a film that engages with the documentary medium in powerful ways — ways that some films ignore to their detriment.” – Kyle Kizu
- Three Identical Strangers (Tim Wardle, 2018)
“The story of these three men, alike but completely different, is undeniably riveting. Intellectual, emotional, and moral concerns might cloud Wardle’s ultimate statement, but he never forgets the people impacted by his findings. At its heart, Three Identical Strangers is a simple fairy tale about three brothers re-connecting, but it’s the sensational details that make the story so irresistible.” – J.R. Kinnard
- Cold Case Hammarskjöld (Mads Brügger, 2019)
“Exhaustively researched over the last six years, Brügger’s enthralling documentary…crisscrosses multiple decades and countries to find the truth behind the mysterious plane crash that killed the [titular] UN leader.” – J.R. Kinnard
- Best of Enemies (Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville, 2015)
“This masterfully assembled recounting of William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal’s ten oral sparring matches during the 1968 Republican and Democratic National Conventions and their surrounding events is appropriately bittersweet: it both revels in the party and observes its consequential hangover.” – Landon Palmer
- Mike Wallace is Here (Avi Belkin, 2019)
“The documentary evokes a noir sensibility, particularly with a droning thriller score. Wallace seems like a hard-boiled detective, smoking, shining a light in his subjects’ eyes, and going in for the kill when he thinks he has them. It’s an entertaining method for sure but also highly researched and planned. The accumulation of footage paints a complex portrait of a man’s contradictory motives and hard-won reputation.” – Katherine Steinbach
- The Panama Papers (Alex Winter, 2018)
A documentary about the titular leaked documents that exposed information about offshore financial institutions and shell companies.
- The Reagan Show (Sierra Pettengill and Pacho Velez, 2017)
“The Reagan Show is, at its heart, a comedic portrait of a president, revealing him to be as petty and insecure as we all are. As a platform, that’s the basis of most stand-up or situational comedy and, through a campy editing style and scoring, this is how The Reagan Show plays out.” – Andrew Karpan
- Hail Satan? (Penny Lane, 2019)
“The direct subject of the documentary is The Satanic Temple, a post-Christian community of pranksters and protesters…Hail Satan? is quick and charming and thoughtful as it redefines adversaries both symbolic and real. It asks viewers to consider why Satan is used to threaten people with some sort of dark destiny. It explains Satanic Panic and deflates the myth. It offers alternate moral frameworks and carnivalesque humor. But more than anything, it warns against government enforcement of religious views.” – Katherine Steinbach
- The Brink (Alison Klayman 2019)
The documentary, about Steve Bannon, “is a dynamic portrait of large and small scale self-destruction. Mapping one man’s ambivalence onto a national and global crisis is quite an achievement. How this man defines himself reflects how hard it is for nations to adjust in an era of global flow.” – Katherine Steinbach
- Active Measures (Jack Bryan, 2018)
A riveting documentary about Vladimir Putin’s assistance in the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States.
- Zero Days (Alex Gibney, 2016)
“If you’re the sort who prefers his spy movies to be on the ground with its heroes and packed with action, Zero Days does paint enough of a picture of its world and events that even someone with the most basic imagination could simply fill in the rest. The film even manages to make screens full of computer code exciting to anyone, through practical animation. Kudos to Gibney for achieving such an engaging and enlightening doc without needing to resort to too much fluff.” – Christopher Campbell
- The Kill Team (Dan Kraus, 2013)
“A stunning, powerful film that boldly complicates the conversation around America’s wars.” – Daniel Walber
- Dirty Wars (Rick Rowley, 2013) *OSCAR NOMINEE*
“This film dives full-on into the world of black ops and drone strikes, and its revelations are deeply uncomfortable. Our leaders have the blood of innocents on their hands, bystanders caught in the crossfire of the War on Terror. As journalist Jeremy Scahill continues to push against the government’s wall of secrecy, the answers he finds are only half as disturbing as the questions they raise about how far this war could go.” – Dan Schindel
- Cartel Land (Matthew Heineman, 2015) *OSCAR NOMINEE*
A look at vigilante groups on two sides of the U.S./Mexico border attempting to stop the drug cartel from operating in the area.
- Crime + Punishment (Stephen Maing, 2018)
“In covering the story so intimately, Crime + Punishment shares the nerve-racking personal experiences of people doing what’s right. The result is a rare issue film that is constructive and inspiring.” – Christopher Campbell
- Whose Streets? (Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis, 2017)
“Activist filmmakers Sabaah Folayan and Sabaah Jordan have made a powerful doc that excites as it enlightens. It’s not an objective work, but it’s hard to see how it could be.” – Christopher Campbell
- RBG (Julie Cohen and Betsy West, 2018) *DOUBLE OSCAR NOMINEE*
“Ginsburg’s voice is a strong presence throughout the film, providing plenty of voiceover insight, as well as face-to-face interview time. Her measured tone is a charming blend of confidence and humility. Though she isn’t outwardly funny, her dry humor makes for an enjoyable chat.” – J.R. Kinnard
- Jane (Brett Morgen, 2017)
“Jane tells an essential story about the exploits and life of Jane Goodall, how a woman was able to make the discovery of our species and its similarities to that of chimpanzees…Morgen has created a wonderful tribute to the life and work of an extraordinary woman.” – Max Covill
- Sea of Shadows (Richard Ladkani, Sean Bogle, and Matthew Podolsky, 2019)
“Like The Cove, Sea of Shadows features some thrilling action, including boat chases, much of which is filmed from above by the drones used by activists to locate totoaba poachers — after seeing what good they can do, nobody can broadly criticize the use of drones in docs anymore. Don’t worry, there are no blood-soaked waters, though there is a gut-wrenching moment involving a vaquita. And incidentally, there’s a pretty sad scene with a sea turtle, too.” – Christopher Campbell
- Blackfish (Gabriela Cowperthwaite, 2013)
“A kind of horror film, albeit one with a more serious and real narrative…primarily the story of a specific captive orca named Tilikum, who has taken the lives of multiple humans over the years, most recently in 2010 with an incident that led to the death of one of SeaWorld’s most expert trainers, Dawn Brancheau. And like Orca and many fictional movies about serial killers and slashers, it gets at the root of how the person or thing became a murderer. Or tries to.” – Christopher Campbell
- Jiro Dreams of Sushi (David Gelb, 2011)
“Not really food porn. That’s not classy enough. It’s “food erotic fiction.” A guy cries trying to make eggs and you want to cry too. What more do you want?” – Seth Meyers
- Boom for Real: The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat (Sara Driver, 2017)
“Before he became bigger than New York, Basquiat was only the size of it and Boom For Real functions as an intimate, if occasionally too perfunctory, walk through the wild side that Driver and Basquiat shared in the pre-cleaned up punk ‘70s.” – Andrew Karpan
- Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am (Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, 2019)
“Organized interestingly enough, weaving in and out of the Beloved author’s history, life, and works. Each aspect of focus is expertly complemented by immersive archival images and footage, lending the film — like Morrison’s prose — an enveloping quality. The film’s energy is a bit too low, and the overall structure is not nearly as creative or radical as its subject, but The Pieces I Am‘s reverent and intimate tone works well for its mission: the canonization of a literary saint.” – Sophia Stewart
- Iris (Albert Maysles, 2014)
A profile of 93-year-old fashion icon Iris Apfel.
- Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel (Lisa Immordino Vreeland, Bent-Jorgen Perlmutt, and Frédéric Tcheng, 2011)
A profile of iconic fashion magazine editor Diana Vreeland.
- Dior and I (Frédéric Tcheng, 2014)
“The larger point of Dior and I seems to be the illustration of haute couture as a collaborative art form, much like cinema. Simons is the director, the models are the sets and everything else is done by the staff of the ateliers, particularly in the context of the designer’s more decentralized method. It’s not exactly the same, of course. Yet Tcheng’s style, the employment of voice over, projection, musical score and a sense of space evoked through framing and editing, allow his film to find a communion between the two arts.” – Daniel Walber
- School Life (Neasa Ní Chianáin, 2016)
“This is a film with tons of charm, from the kids rocking out while performing The Troggs and Ellie Goulding tunes and John’s discernible delight through his deadpan expression to Amanda spending time with her dogs and happening upon a student in the woods taking photographs to the co-ed adventures in the forts during playtime, and so much more. It’s a real joy to watch and invest in the characters.” – Christopher Campbell
- The Biggest Little Farm (John Chester, 2018)
“There are profound moments in The Biggest Little Farm showcasing nature at its highest potential. In a world that can feel overrun with humans to the point of no return, it’s hopeful to see the power of our earth’s natural state. The film can be bumpy and overly commercial, but its ability to show us the potential of a dying piece of human-tampered land is ultimately a triumph.” – Dylan Brennan
- October Country (Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher, 2009)
A difficult to describe documentary intimately following an American family.
- That Summer (Göran Olsson, 2017)
“Because That Summer is so closely connected to Grey Gardens, it doesn’t exactly work as a standalone effort. But because Grey Gardens is such a big deal, the new film can exist separately enough…Fans of Grey Gardens and the Beales are going to want to see the unseen footage, and for the most part, they won’t leave disappointed.” – Christopher Campbell
- Dina (Antonio Santini and Dan Sickles, 2017)
“A wonderful look at two people in love as they prepare for their wedding. They happen to both have Asperger syndrome, but that’s not important. Maybe it helps explain their eccentricities and anxieties, but otherwise, they’re just very interesting characters who seem created for a Daniel Clowes comic book.” – Christopher Campbell
- Walk Away Renee (Jonathan Caouette, 2011)
A kind of sequel to Caouette’s cult classic Tarnation, this documentary focuses on the filmmaker’s mentally ill mother.
- Kiki (Sara Jordenö, 2016)
“Jordenö understands that her greatest strength is the way that her subjects present themselves, and the aesthetic choice to highlight portraiture is what elevates this particular film over other community-focused documentaries. Kiki is a smart, confident debut and a real credit to its polyphonic subject.” – Daniel Walber
- Jawline (Liza Mandelup, 2019)
“Offers us two stories on opposite ends of its chosen timeline: that of a social media star’s rise. There’s 16-year-old Austyn Tester on one end as an aspiring ‘influencer,’ and 20-year-old talent manager Mikey Weist and his clients on the other, having already made it big in Los Angeles. The narratives seldom converge, but they both pull back the curtain on the ugly reality of this strange new artform: financial predation, personal brand over personality, and a generally cutthroat environment where ruthlessness is not just acceptable but necessary.” – Jenna Benchetrit
- The Amazing Johnathan Documentary (Benjamin Berman, 2019)
“A loving caricature of form while also presenting a loving portrait of its subject. It’s funny that Berman worried so much about there being too many documentaries being made about Szeles since he wound up basically making two in one. And both of them are exceptional.” – Christopher Campbell
- Shut Up and Play the Hits (Will Lovelace and Dylan Southern, 2012)
A documentary about James Murphy, frontman of LCD Soundsystem, in the band’s final days.
- Seymour: An Introduction (Ethan Hawke, 2015)
“A profile of a brilliant musician [Seymoure Bernstein], to whom most of us really do need an introduction. Hawke shows Bernstein at home, practicing the piano and instructing a handful of accomplished younger musicians. The actor-turned-filmmaker interviews him about his past, using some archival images to underline his potential success and featuring a straightforward montage of sheet music covers to show his prolific endeavors as a composer.” – Daniel Walber
- Amazing Grace (Alan Elliott and Sydney Pollack, 2018)
“A film comprised of resurrected footage presenting Aretha Franklin’s 1972 performances with the choir of the New Bethel Baptist Church in Watts, Los Angeles. Franklin was one of the most timeless, accessible, and seminal figures in music, and this film aims to give the world an opportunity to see her at her best.” – Monica Altmayer
- Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami (Sophie Fiennes, 2017)
“Bloodlight and Bami’s impressionistic context-eschewing approach might make some folks bristle. But this is Grace Jones’s life and we’re all just along for the ride, stepping to her time, flowing effortlessly from Patrois to English to French…Fiennes never tries to contort Jones into a narrative box just so that we can get a warped sense of ‘the real her.’ Instead, Bloodlight and Bami offers a hazy and yet utterly striking impression of a resilient Icon; a brush with something vibrant, raw, and eternal.” – Meg Shields
- Love, Gilda (Lisa Dapolito, 2018)
“An entertaining, informative, surprisingly personal, and above all life-affirming doc thanks to director Lisa Dapolito’s gentle understanding of Radner as both a deeply feeling human and, for too short a while, America’s brightest beam of sunshine.” – Valerie Ettenhofer
- Untouchable (Ursula Macfarlane, 2019)
“You may believe you already know the story of Untouchable [and Harvey Weinstein’s guilt]. You may even be right. I would still encourage you to seek out Macfarlane’s documentation. We owe it to these women and to ourselves to catalog their stories and appreciate the unchecked horror our fetishizing of wealth creates.” – Brad Gullickson
- Ballet 422 (Jody Lee Lipes, 2014)
“Choreographer Justin Peck is something of a big deal in the world of ballet…All of this makes him an excellent subject for a documentary, at least on paper. Ballet 422 follows the production of one of these NYCB commissions from start to finish, all the way up to its Lincoln Center premiere in January 2013…Lipes looks for beauty in the least obvious places, presenting a creative process full of details, questions, and unexpected changes.” – Daniel Walber
- The Cage Fighter (Jeff Unay, 2017)
“A stunningly confident and cinematic feature debut following the dramatic life of Joe Carman, who struggles with the clash between his passion for fighting and his family’s fearful disapproval of the part-time profession. The unscripted film offers a rare case of truth being more riveting than fiction.” – Christopher Campbell
- The Last Race (Michael Dweck, 2018)
Highbrow and lowbrow meet in this beautiful look at the last stock car racetrack in Long Island.
- Fyre Fraud (Jenner Furst and Julia Willoughby Nason, 2019)
“Fyre Fraud is the better, or at least just the more streamlined, of two so-so documentaries about the Fyre Festival released in the same week.” – Christopher Campbell