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.

10. The Other Dream Team (2012)

best

8.4

Country

Lithuania, United States of America

Director

Marius A. Markevicius, Marius Markevicius

Actors

Arvydas Sabonis, Bill Walton, Chris Mullin, David Remnick

Moods

Easy, Inspiring, True-story-based

Another fantastic documentary from 2012, this one tells the remarkable story of the 1992 Lithuanian Olympic Men’s Basketball team that received scant attention in the shadow of the renowned U.S. “Dream Team” of NBA superstars (Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, etc.). The Lithuanians’ story is all the more fascinating in that it comes immediately on the heels of their country’s freedom from Communist rule. With little hope of participating in the Barcelona games, they received the most unlikely last-minute assistance from the Grateful Dead, of all sources. A really great true-life story, told with an exuberance and a verve not often expected from non-fiction filmmaking. I challenge anyone watch this one and walk away uninspired.

9. Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) (2021)

best

8.6

Country

United States of America

Director

Questlove

Actors

B. B. King, Chris Rock, David Ruffin, Fidel Castro

Moods

Discussion-sparking, Easy, Feel-Good

Summer of Soul would already be remarkable if it was just a collection of some of the greatest live performances ever put to film. Boasting a roster that includes Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Gladys Knight, and Sly and the Family Stone, the nearly-forgotten 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival featured in the documentary was an all-star catalog of some of the biggest names in popular music, all at pivotal moments in their careers. Seeing them at the height of their powers, in front of a Black audience that meant so much to them, makes for an unexpectedly emotional experience.

But Summer of Soul also expands beyond the actual concert, using the Harlem Cultural Festival to represent a turning point in Black culture and history, especially after the death of Martin Luther King Jr. Through the film’s pristine, electric editing and gorgeous archival restoration, music becomes a communal act of mourning, a rallying cry to face the uncertain future, and a celebration of a people and a heritage continuing to fight against erasure and persecution.

8. Boys State (2020)

best

8.7

Country

United States of America

Director

Amanda McBaine, Female director

Moods

Character-driven, Discussion-sparking, Emotional

What starts out as as a summer camp of teenage boys not taking anything seriously grows into a rousing portrait of their hopes and dreams for the future. You wouldn’t expect a documentary like this—shot like a reality TV show—to carry so much weight, but Boys State knows how to unearth the values that drive each of its incredibly well-rounded characters. So by the time these young men have assembled their mock governments and are casting their votes, it feels like the spirit of an entire generation is on the line. This is powerful, entertaining, and ultimately tear-jerking filmmaking that shows us how much work we still have to do and how much hope there still is.

7. Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2011)

best

8.8

Country

Japan, United States of America

Director

David Gelb

Actors

Daisuke Nakazama, David Gelb, Hachiro Mizutani, Harutaki Takahashi

Moods

Feel-Good, Inspiring

This surprising documentary follows Jiro, an 85 year old Japanese chef, his Michelin-starred restaurant in the Tokyo underground, and his eager sons. While ostensibly about sushi – and believe me, you’ll learn about sushi and see absolutely gorgeous images of the raw-fish creations – the film’s dramatic impetus is carried by the weight of tradition, the beauty of a labor of love, obsession, and the relationship between father and son. Truly a must-watch.

6. Procession (2021)

best

8.9

Country

United States of America

Director

Robert Greene

Moods

Challenging, Depressing, Discussion-sparking

Difficult but essential viewing, Procession tracks the progress of six men undergoing art therapy—specifically, by creating short filmed scenes to process their trauma from being sexually abused by Catholic priests. The resulting films we get to see are wildly varied in the emotions they express, forming a rich and powerful tapestry of the effects abuse can leave on individuals. And to see these men confront the worst events of their lives through filmmaking begins to feel like validation for filmmaking itself, that it can truly be an art form that changes and saves lives. But even more striking, somehow, is the unbreakable bond that forms among these survivors throughout this entire process, captured with reverence and overflowing compassion by director Robert Greene.

5. The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 (2011)

best

9.0

Country

Sweden, United States of America

Director

Göran Olsson

Actors

Angela Davis, Bobby Seale, Erykah Badu, Harry Belafonte

Moods

Inspiring, Instructive, Mind-blowing

Between 1967-1975, a group of Swedish filmmakers traveled to America to document the Black Power movement. The resulting archival footage of Black activists and intellectuals, including Bobby Seale, Huey P. Newton, Eldridge Cleaver, and the amazing Angela Davis, was hidden in an archive until it was unearthed and woven together by Göran Olsson, a Swedish director. Angela Davis also supplies some contemporary voice commentary alongside many others, such as Erykah Badu, Harry Belafonte, and The Roots drummer and rap culture’s No. 1 record keeper Questlove, who also co-scored the film. This adds to the mixtape feel of the film as does the raw and unfiltered piecing together of the historic footage, giving the viewer an authentic impression of the movement and the struggles of the time. Being Swedish, the filmmakers dared to go where American mainstream TV might have never gone.

4. The Salt of the Earth (2014)

best

9.0

Country

Brazil, France, Italy

Director

Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, Wim Wenders

Actors

Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, Lélia Wanick Salgado, Sebastião Salgado, Wim Wenders

Moods

Inspiring, Instructive, Thrilling

Co-directed and narrated by legendary German director Wim Wenders in collaboration with Salgado’s son, Juliano, this unique film tells Sebastião Salgado’s life story from his childhood in Northern Brazil, his early career as an economist, and how he shifted towards photography to become a world-renowned photojournalist. Shot in stunning black and white by Juliano Salgado and Hugo Barbier, The Salt of the Earth is a mesmerizing exhibition of one man’s lifelong dedication to capture the suffering of humanity and of nature. Most famously, the nightmarish images of the teeming workers of Serra Pelada, a Brazilian mountain gold mine. While creating these images raises some ethical questions that Salgado was confronted with throughout his career, it is an utterly enthralling experience, upsetting at times in its frank display of war, death, and devastation. Ultimately, however, Salgado’s elegance and kindness pull us back in and what we see is truth, awareness, and beauty.

3. Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond – Featuring a Very Special, Contractually Obligated Mention of Tony Clifton (2017)

best

9.2

Country

Canada, United States of America

Director

Chris Smith

Actors

Andy Dick, Andy Kaufman, Bob Zmuda, Carol Kane

Moods

Dark, Discussion-sparking, Emotional

After his first serious role in The Truman Show in 1998, Jim Carrey got a shot at playing his idol, the late comedian and performance artist Andy Kaufmann, in Man on the Moon in 1999. When he got the role, a role of a lifetime, Carrey decided to honor Kaufmann’s legacy by transforming into him (and his alter ego Tony Clifton) and, in true method-acting fashion, never to leave character. Jim & Andy is the result of 100 hours of behind-the-scenes footage shot at the Man on the Moon set, which was withheld for 20 years over fears of Universal Studios that people would think Carrey was an a**hole. While Carrey was a complete and utter imposition to the film’s director, Miloš Forman, and everybody else on set, including Danny DeVito, his transformation (or obsession) was a unique, transformative experience for Carrey, who had been sick of fame and acting before he took on this gig. Whether you buy into this view or see it as a vanity piece of a complete maniac, this is one of the most unique and insane documentaries on Netflix. A mind-blowing portrayal of a complex mind.

2. Searching for Sugar Man (2012)

best

9.5

Country

Finland, South Africa, Sweden

Director

Malik Bendjelloul

Actors

Clarence Avant, Craig Bartholomew Strydom, Dan DiMaggio, Dennis Coffey

Moods

Emotional, Inspiring, Suspenseful

American folk singer Sixto Diaz Rodriguez recorded two albums in Detroit in the 1970s, which he played live across the city, but never to critical acclaim or commercial success. Disappointed, he soon quit his musical career, bought a run-down house in the Motor City, and lived a simple life working in construction. So far, this sounds like the biography of many musicians that never quite made it, talented or otherwise.

However, a strange thing happened. By the mid-1970s, his albums were getting significant airplay in countries like Australia, Zimbabwe, and Apartheid-era South Africa, where he was soon considered a musical voice on par with the Beatles. While living a reclusive life in Detroit, Michigan, he unwittingly became a star on the other side of the globe. This engaged and visually appealing documentary by the late Swedish director Malik Bendjelloul tells his story and spells out a fascinating footnote of global music history.

1. Senna (2010)

best

9.5

Country

France, UK, United Kingdom

Director

Asif Kapadia

Actors

Adriane Galisteu, Alain Prost, Arnaldo Jabor, Ayrton Senna

Moods

Dramatic, Inspiring, Instructive

If you’re not a fan of F1 racing, you might not know who Ayrton Senna is. If you are, there is no way you don’t know. However, this 2010 British-French documentary packs so much thrill and emotion, you don’t have to be a racing enthusiast to be engrossed by it.

So, who is Ayrton Senna? At a time when F1 cars were +1000HP fire-breathing monsters and the grid was stacked with world champions, the Brazilian racing driver rose above the rest to take 3 world championships and win the fabled Monaco Grand Prix a record 6 times. At the age of 34, a devastating car crash took his life.

Director Asif Kapadia develops a compelling, emotional, and exhilarating portrait of F1 racing and the man that was Ayrton Senna. He is still considered by many to be one the best and most exciting racing drivers to have ever stepped into an F1 car. The documentary too, is a thrilling pursuit: moving, psychological intriguing and absolutely nerve-wracking!

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