30 Inspirational Documentaries to Watch Now

30 Inspirational Documentaries to Watch Now

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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.

20. Man on Wire (2008)

7.9

Country

UK, United Kingdom, United States of America

Director

James Marsh

Actors

Annie Allix, David Forman, Jean François Heckel, Jean-Louis Blondeau

Moods

Inspiring, Mind-blowing, Thrilling

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.

19. How to Change the World (2015)

best

8.0

Country

Canada, Netherlands, UK

Director

Jerry Rothwell

Actors

Bill Darnell, Bobbi Hunter, David Garrick, Emily Hunter

Moods

Inspiring, Instructive

How to Change the World is an insightful and candid documentary about the formation of Greenpeace in 1971 by a small group of environmentalists and activists in Vancouver, British Columbia. Beginning with their attempt to disrupt U.S. nuclear testing in Amchitka, Alaska, the film follows their subsequent efforts to thwart commercial whaling in the Pacific, their anti-sealing campaign in Newfoundland, and their ongoing efforts to defend the natural world against what they perceive as excessive human intervention and abuse. How to Change the World is as much a poignant tale of inspired activism as it is an interesting study of the organization’s early tribulations: idealism vs. anarchy, social movement vs. organizational structure (or lack thereof) and leadership vs. disunity. The voice of co-founder Robert Hunter (de facto leader of Greenpeace from inception) is heard posthumously throughout via narrator Barry Pepper, and it adds an impassioned air of gravitas to the film, detailing the many complexities Greenpeace experienced over the course of its early years of growth and development. A compelling and educational viewing experience.

18. This Much I Know to Be True (2022)

best

8.1

Country

United Kingdom

Director

Andrew Dominik

Actors

Andrew Dominik, Earl Cave, Marianne Faithfull, Nick Cave

Moods

Emotional, Inspiring, Original

Whether or not you’re a fan of Nick Cave’s contemplative, idiosyncratic style of music, This Much I Know to Be True still works on a purely experiential level. There’s confusion, then a rush of euphoria, then an overwhelming sense of peace when listening to Cave’s (and musical collaborator Warren Ellis’s) cryptic lyrics and delicate compositions—shot with breathtaking use of studio lights by director Andrew Dominik and cinematographer Robbie Ryan.

And things only get more emotional when you consider how far Cave has come, that these performances are happening several rough years from the untimely death of his son. And suddenly even all the unrelated B-roll footage included in the film—of Cave talking about his sculptures, talking to Ellis, answering profound fan emails—takes on a greater urgency. This sounds like music for mourning, but in its own way it’s music for celebration, too, and gratitude despite everything.

17. Maidentrip (2013)

best

8.1

Country

United States of America

Director

Jillian Schlesinger

Actors

Laura Dekker

Moods

Inspiring, Uplifting, Warm

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.

16. Gather (2020)

best

8.2

Country

United States

Director

Sanjay Rawal

Moods

Inspiring, Instructive, Mind-blowing

This insightful and uplifting documentary is about a growing movement within indigenous communities: obtaining food sovereignty by going back to pre-genocide ways of cultivating food.

The violent changes that have affected indigenous communities don’t impact just the people, but also the animals, the fish, and the land. All of these are now bearing the brunt of climate change.

Historically, North American governments forbid Native people from fishing and cultivating their foods as a way to repress them and create dependency. Gather is as much a recognition of the damage that was done as it is a forward-looking vision about how these communities are taking control of their faiths.

15. Fifi Howls from Happiness (2014)

best

8.2

Country

France, Iran, United States of America

Director

Mitra Farahani

Moods

Inspiring, Instructive, Mind-blowing

This incredible documentary is about the elusive Iranian artist Bahman Mohassess, whose work has the uniqueness of a Picasso or a Salvador Dalí.

But unlike his European counterparts, most of Mohassess’ work has been destroyed. Some in the aftermath of the Islamic Revolution in Iran but most, interestingly, by the artist himself.

After the revolution, he went into exile. For 40 years his whereabouts remained unknown — until an Iranian filmmaker based in Paris tracked him in a hotel in Rome.

Very early in the film, director Mitra Farahani points out that Mohassess died half an hour after one of their filming sessions.

The urgency of their conversations, the genius of Mohassess and his relationship to his art, and the uniqueness of the untold story of his life, all make this more than just another documentary. It’s a work of immeasurable historic value.

14. Uppity: The Willy T. Ribbs Story (2020)

best

8.2

Country

United States of America

Director

Adam Carolla, Nate Adams

Actors

Adam Carolla, Bernie Ecclestone, Bobby Unser, Chase Austin

Moods

Discussion-sparking, Inspiring, Instructive

“They called me uppity. Uppity n*****. And I loved it”. That’s how this excellent documentary, about the first professional black racing driver Willy T. Ribbs, starts. It summarizes the strong personality of a champion who excelled in tracks that were filled with confederate flags.

The documentary explains the details of the difficulties that Ribbs went through in the 70s and 80s, but also the people who supported him and recognized his talent. It’s by no way a sad movie, on the contrary, even when Ribbs is talking about people spitting wherever he walks or about the death threats escalating, his unharmed determination is at the center of the story.

This is an inspiring documentary about a character who never got his worth in the history books. I was full of shivers by the first half-hour mark.

13. Fire of Love (2022)

best

8.4

Country

Canada, United States of America

Director

Female director, Sara Dosa

Actors

Miranda July

Moods

Discussion-sparking, Inspiring, Lovely

Fire of Love is a documentary that follows Maurice and Katia Krafft, a scientist couple who’ve dedicated their entire professional lives to studying (and marveling at) volcanoes. The two met at university and have been inseparable ever since, chasing explosions around the world until their death at the Mount Unzen eruption in 1991. 

The fiery passion the title refers to is as much about Maurice and Katia as it is about their dedication to volcanoes. Like any love story, it tracks how they were first wonderstruck by the formation and how that awe shaped their lives and led them to each other, as well as how they came to discover hard truths about it and dealt with the heartbreak that soon followed. 

Combining the breathtaking footage the couple left behind with lovely writing and artful animation, director Sara Dosa creates a moving documentary about passion, adventure, and the world itself. 

12. This Is Not a Film (2011)

best

8.4

Country

Iran

Director

Jafar Panahi, Mojtaba Mirtahmasb

Actors

Jafar Panahi

Moods

Discussion-sparking, Inspiring, Thought-provoking

Everything about This Is Not a Film revolves around state censorship. Documentarian Mojtaba Mirtahmasb records Iranian cinema giant Jafar Panahi’s life under house arrest, maneuvering through the legal loopholes on Panahi’s 20-year ban on filmmaking and screenwriting. Here Panahi describes one of his unmade films that was rejected by the Iranian ministry, creating makeshift sets out of tape and his apartment’s living room, further emphasizing the ridiculousness of the state-imposed limitations on his artistic freedom. The result is a quasi-documentary that functions paradoxically, its un-cinematic quality essential for aesthetics as well as narrative. That this film had to be smuggled from Iran to Cannes on a flash drive hidden inside a birthday cake is a testament to political cinema’s power to be a vessel of pro-democracy sentiments, a fist raised proudly against state censors.

11. Diego Maradona (2019)

best

8.4

Country

UK, United Kingdom

Director

Asif Kapadia

Actors

Alberto Bigon, Ciro Ferrara, Claudia Villafane, Corrado Ferlaino

Moods

Inspiring, Instructive

Asif Kapadia, the genius of biopics who gave us Senna, is back with this documentary on an even bigger sports personality: Argentinian soccer player Diego Armando Maradona. Considered as possibly the best soccer player of all time, Maradona’s footage on the pitch is pure wizardry, and you’ll feel that way whether you are a soccer fan or not. But that’s not the focus of this documentary. What happens outside the pitch is more interesting: from Maradona’s modest beginnings to the passionate hatred (and love) that entire countries develop of him. And it doesn’t make his story less interesting that during his time in Naples he was affiliated with the mafia.

This is an excellent documentary that distills 500 hours of footage into 2, giving you all you need to know about a character who captured the imagination of a big part of the world for decades. 

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