30 Inspirational Documentaries to Watch Now

Updated September 16, 2023 • Staff

Looking for a burst of inspiration get your new year (or any new phase of your life) started on the right foot? Fiction may provide a great, symbolic escape, but sometimes what you really need is to see real people doing the extraordinary or facing insurmountable odds and still having something beautiful to say about it. So don't listen to any naysayers who might dismiss documentaries as boring; some of the greatest stories of human perseverance and wonder come from these little-known nonfiction accounts. Here, we've gathered 30 of the best of these true stories that might just help you realize what you're capable of.

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30.

The World Before Your Feet (2018)

An incredible documentary about Matt Green, a man who decided to walk every street in New York City. That’s more than 8000 miles (more than the diameter of Earth) that he had been walking for six years up to the point of making this movie.  

Matt stops. And that’s the beauty of this documentary, where the filmmaker joins him for part of the journey. You quickly realize that the intrigue is not so much about Matt’s challenge, but about who he meets and what kind of experiences he goes through. You also realize (if you didn’t already) that New York is a place of unimaginable size, with incredibly lively and diverse human stories. Plus lots of other forms of life too: Matt doesn’t have a fixed place, so he cat-sits for shelter.

Fun fact: this is the first movie that actor Jesse Eisenberg ever produced!

Our staff rating: 7.8/10
Genre: Documentary
Actor: Matt Green
Director: Jeremy Workman
Rating: PG-13
29.

Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie (2023)

There’s a scene early in the documentary when present-day Michael J. Fox, who famously suffers from Parkinson’s Disease, swaggers along a street and greets a fan, only to stumble at that very moment and have people surround him with concern. Instead of giving into their pity or pretending nothing happened, he cooly tells the fan, “It was so nice meeting you, you knocked me off of my feet!” 

This brief moment tells you all you need to know about the ‘80s icon—Fox refuses to be a victim. Still is his brilliant and admirable attempt at telling his well-known story on his own terms. It covers everything from his childhood and early work in Hollywood to his life-changing roles in Family Ties, Teen Wolf, and most memorably, Back to the Future. It also sheds light on Fox's life as a husband, father, and Parkinson's sufferer. Director Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth) does a genius job of using faceless reenactments and cuts from films and TV shows to accompany Fox’s narration, which pumps the film with a dynamism that matches Fox’s resilient spirit. 

Urgent, clever, and exciting, Still is one of the rare celebrity biographies that serves a higher purpose than just recounting a famous person's life. Anyone who understands the importance of constantly moving and evolving will appreciate this film's existence. 

Our staff rating: 7.8/10
Genre: Documentary
Actor: Christopher Lloyd, Crispin Glover, David Letterman, Donna Lysell, Eric Stoltz, Gary David Goldberg, Gene Siskel, Hannah Galway, Jason Calder, Jay Leno, Johnny Carson, Justine Bateman, Larry David, Meredith Baxter, Michael J. Fox, Michael McDonald, Muhammad Ali, Rick Pearce, Robert Zemeckis, Roger Ebert, Siobhan Murphy, Steven Spielberg, Thomas F. Wilson, Tracy Pollan, Woody Harrelson
Director: Davis Guggenheim
28.

The Earth Is Blue as an Orange (2020)

The Earth Is Blue as an Orange chronicles the lives of a single mother and her four children as they live in the war-torn Donbas region of Ukraine. Despite the constant threat of violence, the family finds solace in the arts (more specifically in filmmaking). While striving for normalcy in these tumultuous times, they channel their efforts into creating a film about the effect of war on their family. Even as they try to lead individual lives, nurturing this collective project, bombs, debris, and their reality is unavoidable. 

This film is a moving testament to the power of art, creativity, and hope in the darkest times. 

Our staff rating: 7.8/10
Genre: Documentary, Drama
Director: Iryna Tsilyk
27.

Man on Wire (2008)

Man on Wire is a true technical masterpiece. You can almost feel the director telling the cameraman what angle to choose, or thinking about the questions that will generate the most resounding answers. However, this does not diminish the story this documentary tells one bit. It’s one that is glorious, riveting, and fun. It’s one where you feel like an insider to a world lived on and below wires, with high-stake risks. Hopefully the edge of your seat is comfortable, because this is where the movie will keep you till the very end.

Our staff rating: 7.9/10
Genre: Documentary
Actor: Annie Allix, David Forman, Jean François Heckel, Jean-Louis Blondeau, Mark Lewis, Philippe Petit
Director: James Marsh
Rating: PG-13
26.

Stop Making Sense (1984)

Widely regarded as one of the finest concert movies of all time, Stop Making Sense depicts musical innovators The Talking Heads at the height of their game. Directed by Jonathan Demme (The Silence of the Lambs, Philadelphia), and starring the eccentric and energetic David Byrne, the show is a marvel of perfectly executed choreography and mid-eighties musicality. Halfway through the set, one might think they've heard all of the hits, but they keep coming and coming. Before Beyonce was Queen, before Bieber was conceived, this film shows what is capable with a camera, a guitar, and some genius.

Our staff rating: 7.9/10
Genre: Documentary, Music
Actor: Alex Weir, Bernie Worrell, Chris Frantz, David Byrne, Jerry Harrison, Lynn Mabry, Tina Weymouth
Director: Jonathan Demme
Rating: PG
25.

Pamela: A Love Story (2023)

I love when a misunderstood woman reclaims her narrative with her own words, and that’s exactly what Pamela: A Love Story is too, a tell-all documentary told by Pamela Anderson herself.

The documentary bares it all—the scandalous sex tape, Anderson’s troubled past, the disgusting misogyny that continues to tarnish her career. She even touches on the Hulu miniseries made about her demise (which Netflix must feel so smug about). But this isn’t a pity party. Just the opposite, the documentary is a testament to resilience. “My life is not a woe-is-me story,” Anderson says at one point, and truly, this is an inspiring and humanizing story about a woman taking charge of her own life. An absolute must-see.

Our staff rating: 7.9/10
Genre: Documentary
Actor: Brandon Thomas Lee, David Hasselhoff, David Hogan, David Letterman, Douglas Schwartz, Jimmy Kimmel, Julian Assange, Kelly Slater, Michael Berk, Pamela Anderson, Ruby Wax, Tommy Lee, Tony Curtis, Vivienne Westwood
Director: Ryan White
Rating: TV-MA
24.

The Great Buster: A Celebration (2018)

In his last film, American Serb film historian Peter Bogdanovich celebrates silver screen legend Buster Keaton. The subject alone is compelling to watch. It would be easy to pull clips from Keaton’s works, dig through the headlines, pull in some celebrity interviews, and call it a day. However, in Bogdanovich’s hands, this documentary handles Keaton with respect. Instead of focusing on the scandals, Bogdanovich focuses on Keaton’s brilliant work. Instead of reciting facts, Bogdanovich highlights how his bits influenced film today. Excellent editing - cuts, structure, and scoring - helps us glide through Keaton’s work. The film truly understands Keaton’s life and exactly why he’s brilliant. Comprehensive yet very focused, this documentary honestly feels better than film school.

Our staff rating: 7.9/10
Genre: Comedy, Documentary, Drama
Actor: Bill Hader, Bill Irwin, Buster Keaton, Carl Reiner, Cybill Shepherd, Dick Van Dyke, Eleanor Keaton, French Stewart, James Karen, Johnny Knoxville, Jon Watts, Mel Brooks, Nick Kroll, Norman Lloyd, Orson Welles, Paul Dooley, Peter Bogdanovich, Quentin Tarantino, Richard Lewis, Tom Holland, Werner Herzog
Director: Peter Bogdanovich
Rating: Not Rated
23.

Film, The Living Record of Our Memory (2023)

It's impossible not to be moved by this passionate love letter to the medium of film and its singular abilities to witness, commemorate, connect, educate, and, yes, entertain. The Living Record is more than that, though: it’s also an urgent clarion call for better support of the infrastructure and people who preserve and restore the celluloid reels that contain so much of our history.

In two hours, it packs in a lot — perhaps even too much, because there is so much fascinating material here that it’s almost overwhelming to take it in all at once. The doc draws on a sweeping line-up of contributors who collectively illuminate every facet of the need for preservation and restoration, from archivists to filmmakers like Jonas Mekas, Ken Loach, and Costa-Gavras. Its scope is just as commendably exhaustive, featuring nuanced discussions of the dangers politics poses to preservation efforts, as well as the particular need for archives in formerly colonized countries to prevent “cultural amnesia.” Despite all the challenges it highlights, its tone isn’t hopeless, as the film draws strength from the tireless efforts of archivists and cinematic saviors like Martin Scorsese. It’s impossible to watch this and not come away affirmed or converted into similarly passionate champions of preservation.

Our staff rating: 7.9/10
Genre: Documentary, Drama
Actor: Ben Mankiewicz, Costa-Gavras, Jonas Mekas, Ken Loach, Martin Scorsese, Ridley Scott, Vittorio Storaro, Wim Wenders
Director: Inés Toharia Terán
22.

The Saint of Second Chances (2023)

You don’t need to know a lot about baseball to appreciate The Saint of Second Chances. It has enough going on to keep you hooked from start to end, beginning with Jeff Daniels’ inimitable voice as the narrator and Charlie Day’s inspired casting as the younger Veeck, all the way down to the Veecks’ fascinating ties with American sports history and Mike’s inspiring and heartwarming second-chance philosophy. It all gets a bit too much at times, as if the filmmakers themselves were overwhelmed with their abundant material and creative decisions, but it’s executed with so much care and love that it seems as if this is the only way it could’ve come out: a wonderful mess. 

Our staff rating: 8/10
Genre: Documentary
Actor: Bill Veeck, Charlie Day, Howard M. Lockie, Jeff Daniels, Lamar Johnson, Tom Billett, Tony LaRussa
Director: Jeff Malmberg, Morgan Neville
Rating: PG-13
21.

Maidentrip (2013)

In 2010, Dutch 15-year old Laura Dekker set out on a mission to be the youngest person to sail solo around the world. Maidentrip is the beautiful and inspiring documentary film that tells her story as she took on this behemoth task.

The film lets you experience this adventure of a lifetime along with Laura, share at first in her loneliness at sea, and later in her desire to be left alone when surrounded by people. Documenting her thoughts and feelings during this voyage, Laura reveals herself to be wise beyond her years. Yet despite the magnitude of the task Laura has taken in, her teenager self still glows clearly with its distinct child-like quality - simply wanting to do what makes her happy - sailing and seeing the world. The sheer honesty in Laura's narrative is what makes this story so extraordinary. You will accompany the young skipper against all odds as she follows her dream and in the process, lose and once again find her identity and sense of belonging. Maidentrip will leave you with an itch - an itch to travel, but more importantly, an itch to follow your dreams.

Our staff rating: 8.1/10
Genre: Adventure, Documentary
Actor: Laura Dekker
Director: Jillian Schlesinger
Rating: Not Rated, Unrated

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