40 Best Documentary Movies to Come Out in 2023

40 Best Documentary Movies to Come Out in 2023

May 22, 2024

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Whether they’re terrifying true crime, revelatory celebrity profiles, scathing corporate exposés, or chilling predictions of the future, these documentaries are some of the best films to come out from every corner of the world in 2023. They are heartwrenching, eye-opening, and jaw-dropping—in other words, they’re a crash course into the real world: truthful accounts that will leave you questioning everything you’ve known prior to watching. So join us as we dive behind the headlines with the best documentaries you’ll see this year.

31. The Space Race (2023)

7.6

Country

United States of America

Director

Diego Hurtado de Mendoza, Lisa Cortés

Actors

Charles Bolden, Ed Dwight Jr., Guion Bluford

Moods

Instructive

Like many American narratives, the history of space exploration is rife with long-buried secrets that are finally coming to the surface. The Space Race is an attempt to collect those secrets and weave a fresh new history that finally celebrates the heroes we should’ve learned about years ago. There are interviews with the likes of space pioneer Ed Dwight (who is responsible for unforgettable lines like “I’m not part of history, but a mystery” and “I had the capability, but not the opportunity) and the first Black man to fly into space, Guion Bluford, as well as surprising information about confidential test pilots, political involvement, and the undeniable influence of Afrofuturistic art and media in the field.

But education aside, what gives the documentary an edge is that it’s not afraid to question and at times attack NASA and the government for their racist past. We see celebrated astronaut Victor Glover reconcile his loyalty to his nation with his anger over the murder of George Floyd, for instance. At the same time, others like Dwight wanted to “just talk about space, not the struggle” but were tokenized both by the government and the opposition for their gains. Despite its compact run time, The Space Race covers all these nuances and more to provide a richly detailed and lovingly told new history of space exploration in America.

32. Navalny (2023)

7.5

Country

Switzerland, United States of America

Director

Daniel Roher

Actors

Alexei Navalny, Alexey Navalny, Angela Merkel, Christo Grozev

Moods

Discussion-sparking, Gripping, Suspenseful

In the words of the journalist Christo Grozev, Alexei Navalny isn’t just a politician; he’s also an internet personality, reporter, investigator, lawyer, and opposition leader who’s up against one of the biggest regimes in the world. He’s a dangerous man, a top Kremlin target, and the documentary gives us incredible access into the ins and outs of his daily operations. 

It’s always astonishing to see a hero humanized, especially since the documentary makes sure to balance newsworthy events with quiet moments of rest and reflection. But more than just a profile, Navalny is a valiant work of investigative journalism, as well as a timely reminder of the importance of activism. It’s relevant, revelatory, and rousing; a must-watch in our ever-heating political climate. 

33. BS High (2023)

7.5

Country

United States of America

Director

Martin Desmond Roe, Travon Free

Moods

Discussion-sparking, Thought-provoking

The particulars of the scandal are enough to shock, enrage, and move anyone, but the directors of BS High also put Johnson in the hot seat and skewer the guy until they wring all ego and delusion out of him. The result is a compelling and terrifying look into a con man’s mind. Johnson alternates between justifying and denying his fraudulent ways and even tries to draw empathy from the audience by explaining his upbringing. But cleverly, the directors intercut his wild speeches with heartfelt testimonies from the real victims of this scam: the young recruits who were promised a better life if they played in Johnson’s team, only to be abused and marked for life. It’s impossible not to feel for the young men, who even up until the documentary’s end, wonder out loud how they could possibly move on from such a traumatic experience. 

34. Close to Vermeer (2023)

7.5

Country

Netherlands

Director

Female director, Suzanne Raes

Actors

Abbie Vandivere, Anna Krekeler, Gregor J. M. Weber, Jonathan Janson

Moods

Instructive, Smart, Sunday

Less a documentary on Johannes Vermeer himself and more about the art scholar’s mission to study ideas of beauty and aesthetics from various perspectives, this documentary successfully takes an admittedly very esoteric subject and makes it compelling. Director Suzanne Raes easily gets to the essence of the complex questions and insights that these Vermeer experts have, but without dumbing them down or reducing them into generic academic talking points. In fact, the thing that really comes through in the film’s discussions is the emotion that these people feel in figuring out how Vermeer managed to paint such stunning images, and what the man was drawn to in human beings. It’s oddly persuasive; whether or not you’re a fan of 17th-century artists, watching Close to Vermeer feels like finally solving a puzzle.

35. The Pigeon Tunnel (2023)

7.5

Country

United Kingdom, United States of America

Director

Errol Morris

Actors

Charlotte Hamblin, Garry Cooper, John le Carré, Mike Noble

Moods

Discussion-sparking, Gripping, Smart

You may not know the name of Errol Morris, but you must have seen either Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy or The Night Manager, as films and TV have offered ripe adaptations of 20th century espionage novels under the disguise of simple entertainment. What you may not know is that the author of the books they are based on has been a spy himself, for most of his life. David John Moore Cornwell, better known as John le Carré (his pen name), is the subject of the latest work of detective-turned-filmmaker Errol Morris whose penchant for exploring the limits between fact and fiction has propelled the documentary form numerous times over the last decades. The film is a quasi-biographical doc with some exceptional reenactments that color Le Carré’s own tales to try and outmanoeuvre the viewer’s ceaseless desire to fix what one sees into either category: fact or fiction. With an ex-spy and a documentarian, you never know. 

36. Silver Dollar Road (2023)

7.5

Country

France, United States of America

Director

Raoul Peck

Actors

Kim Renee Duhon, Mamie Reels Ellison

Moods

Discussion-sparking, Emotional, Heart-warming

Silver Dollar Road isn’t a new story– it’s one of many that comes as a consequence of systematic Black land loss that continues to happen to this day. Director Raoul Peck tells it in a new way, completely focusing on the Reels family and hearing their story entirely, from the initial confusion to two of the homeowners’ incarceration, and remembering the good old days when they used to enjoy the land. The land dispute has escalated to years of harassment, imprisonment, and being taken advantage of from opportunistic legal counsel. While it could have benefitted from from detailed legal proceedings, Silver Dollar Road still powerfully depicts an intimate family story that outlines the systemic racism enabling Black land loss today.

37. Another Body (2023)

7.5

Country

United Kingdom, United States of America

Director

Reuben Hamlyn, Sophie Compton

Moods

Discussion-sparking, Instructive, Original

Sophie Compton and Reubyn Hamlyn’s British-American documentary about the harm of deepfakes won the SXSW Special Jury Award for its innovative storytelling and deservingly so. The two filmmakers use a clever and considerate way to let a young woman fictitiously named Taylor share her story of how she found deepfake pornography of herself online. With testaments, desktop form reconstructions, and lots of deepfakes, Compton and Hamlyn alert the audience to how terrifyingly widespread this kind of abuse is, and even more: how unregulated it is. Across the globe and 48 US states deepfake pornography is legal to make and spread, while victims remain helpless and unprotected. More than 90% of them are women. These chilling statistics are only part of the reason this documentary takes an activist stance and wants to raise awareness against the uncontrolled spread of face-swapping algorhythms amidst heated discussions around AI and ethics.

38. Higuita: The Way of the Scorpion (2023)

7.5

Country

Colombia

Director

Luis Ara

Actors

René Higuita

Moods

Binge-Worthy, Dramatic, Inspiring

When people think of football, they think of teams, and if not teams, they think of individual goalscorers. Higuita: the Way of the Scorpion focuses instead on a single goalkeeper from Latin America. To be fair, this goalkeeper is René Higuita – even just checking his Wikipedia is bound to pull some curiosity. But the documentary does a great job in introducing the man and his life story, starting with his fantastic scorpion kick before delving into the more personal and sensitive aspects of his life. With the wild gameplays and crazy controversies linked to the man, it’s actually unbelievable how a documentary like this hasn’t been made yet.

39. The Lady Bird Diaries (2023)

7.5

Country

United States of America

Director

Dawn Porter, Female director

Moods

Discussion-sparking, Thought-provoking, True-story-based

Partially based on the 860-page memoir, “A White House Diary”, and on the actual audio recordings Claudia Alta Taylor Johnson made during her time as first lady, The Lady Bird Diaries is an intimate reworking of a past we still know very little about. Told from the vantage point of First Lady Johnson candidly and in detail, the audio track shapes the whole film. All the archival footage is nicely complemented by hand-drawn animations to fit the missing images, but all the visuals are always in service of the narration. In this way, the documentary becomes a piece of history and an archive in itself, its illustrative functions – a crucial storytelling tool for posteriority.

40. A Revolution on Canvas (2023)

7.5

Country

United States of America

Director

Female director, Sara Nodjoumi

Actors

Nahid Hagigat, Nicky Nodjoumi, Sara Nodjoumi

Moods

Discussion-sparking

Initially, A Revolution on Canvas is about the Nodjoumi family’s quest to retrieve the patriarch’s missing paintings in post-Islamic Revolution Iran. Necessarily, it goes through Nodjoumi’s troubled childhood and shocking life as a resilient revolutionary. But the documentary eventually evolves into a knotty and heartbreaking tale about family, specifically about the sacrifices the partner of a rebel genius like Nodjoumi has to make to let the other shine. Nodjoumi’s daughter, Sara, confronts her father about his absence during their family’s formative years and, more importantly, shines a light on the sacrifices her mother–the artist Nahid Hagigat–had to make to keep them all afloat. The documentary could’ve easily been a straightforward portrait of Nodjoumi, but because it’s told through such a specifically intimate lens, it’s elevated into something even more relatable and revealing.

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