The Best Documentaries on Hulu Right Now

The Best Documentaries on Hulu Right Now

June 11, 2024

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Drawing its films from an eclectic mix of sources, and backed by the reach of Disney, Hulu has become a unique place to find original and at times unconventional fare. Take the documentary film: while some networks and streamers lock in on particular types of documentaries—often going the classical route of combining archival footage with talking heads or voiceover narration—Hulu also offers documentaries that are more than happy to play with the form. Through different structures, offbeat characters, and combinations of techniques, these documentaries can help you rethink the very way you think about things.

1. Blackfish (2013)

best

9.0

Country

United States of America

Director

Female director, Gabriela Cowperthwaite

Actors

Anderson Cooper, Carol Ray, Dean Gomersall, Gabriela Cowperthwaite

Moods

Challenging, Thought-provoking

Orcas killing people? Saving whales? There was indeed a time when these issues were frontpage news and that might be the reason why this sounds like a 90s cliché to you. You might agree that this issue should be staunchly dealt with once you’ve watched Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s 2013 documentary. Orcas still being held captive by marine parks like SeaWorld to perform stunts and to parade around swimming pools to entertain ticket-buying families. Blackfish is the story of one of them in particular: a bull Orca named Tilikum, who has killed several people as a result of their immoral imprisonment. Similar incidents tend to be covered up by the parks’ operators and management. They are, however, attributable to the fact that the animals are quiet simply driven mad by the unnatural conditions they are subjected to. They are not born as killers, they are turned into them. First-hand accounts by former whale trainers and experts deliver fascinating truths about Tilikum and the species as whole, elaborating on their remarkable intelligence and social behaviors. For those unaware of this, this passionate documentary makes for a chilling watch.

2. I Am Not Your Negro (2017)

best

8.9

Country

Belgium, France, Switzerland

Director

Raoul Peck

Actors

Bob Dylan, Dick Cavett, H. Rap Brown, Harry Belafonte

Moods

Instructive, Smart, Thought-provoking

In a stunning and vivid (re-) introduction to the Black intellectual, author, and social critic, James Baldwin, this movie digs very deep into the American subconscious and racial history. It tells the story of America by telling the story of “the negro” in America, based on a book Baldwin started to write, which would have studied the famous assassinations of three of Baldwin’s friends: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. He wrote about 30 pages before he passed away in 1987. Haitian director and activist Raoul Peck picked up the project and made it into a movie, earning him an Academy Award nomination. Narrated by none other than Samuel L. Jackson, I Am Not Your Negro highlights, at the same time, Baldwin’s genius, his unique eloquence, and the beauty of his soul as a human being. It is a sad truth that Baldwin’s denouncements feel as relevant today as they did 50 years ago. As such, this movie serves as a sobering reminder of how far America still has to go. A mesmerizing experience!

3. 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.

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

best

8.6

Country

United States of America

Director

Questlove

Actors

Abbey Lincoln, B. B. King, Chris Rock, David Ruffin

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.

5. Flee (2021)

best

8.5

Country

Denmark, Estonia, Finland

Director

Jonas Poher Rasmussen

Actors

Behrouz Bigdeli, Belal Faiz, Bo Asdal Andersen, Daniel Karimyar

Moods

Discussion-sparking, True-story-based

When Amin sits down for a tell-all interview about his troubling past, his memories come to life in vivid animation. Sometimes they are sweet and intimate, like when he recounts his time as a playful boy in a much freer Afghanistan. But often, they’re marred by the unbelievable horrors of refugee life. Now a successful academic and soon-to-be husband, Amin discovers the inescapability of his status and identity, the reality of which continues to threaten his safety to this day.

Relevant and vital, Flee sheds some much-needed light on an often-overlooked phenomenon. More than just displaying factoids and numbers, it relays the specific unease and constant vigilance that comes with fleeing one’s home. But as Amin’s story, it is also richly detailed and wonderfully personal; for all its harsh exposés, the film leaves enough room for Amin’s stirring realizations about love, identity, and sexuality.

6. Fire of Love (2022)

best

8.4

Country

Canada, United States of America

Director

Female director, Sara Dosa

Actors

Alka Balbir, Guillaume Tremblay, Katia Krafft, Maurice Krafft

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. 

7. Lakota Nation vs. United States (2022)

best

8.2

Country

United States of America

Director

Female director, Jesse Short Bull

Actors

Candi Brings Plenty, Krystal Two Bulls, Layli Long Soldier, Nick Tilsen

Moods

Depressing, Discussion-sparking, Emotional

Using the documentary form with supreme clarity and righteous fury, Lakota Nation vs. United States distills hundreds of years of American history into two powerful, consistently engaging hours of film. The information presented in this movie has always been available to the public, but directors Jesse Short Bull and Laura Tomaselli do an excellent job at allowing these historical accounts and more recent headlines to cumulatively take on a truly emotional—almost spiritual—resonance. The enormity of the losses that Native Americans have endured physically, culturally, and economically is genuinely horrifying, and every new obstacle that the Oceti Sakowin peoples face feels heavy with the struggle of all of their ancestors before them.

Short Bull and Tomaselli stick to a generally conventional structure, but are able to weave together together personal stories and factual legal arguments through archival footage, majestic shots of the frontier, and the poetry of Lakota poet Layli Long Soldier. The whole film, then, begins to take on more of a lyrical quality—as if every tragic moment has permanently become part of the tapestry of Native life, impossible to forget and always driving efforts for reparation forward. Still the Native struggle continues, but with much more hope than despair.

8. The First Wave (2021)

best

8.0

Country

United States of America

Director

Matthew Heineman

Actors

Al Sharpton, Andrew Cuomo

Moods

Challenging, Depressing, Discussion-sparking

Focusing squarely on two families and a select few health workers, The First Wave gets intimate access to the fears and anxieties of individuals trying to contend with the effects of the initial outbreak of the coronavirus in New York. That these characters also tend to belong to already vulnerable sectors in the United States isn’t a superfluous detail—as director Matthew Heineman illustrates (without the use of detached talking heads interviews) how proper responses to a global pandemic like this one are still hampered by capitalist interests, and racist and xenophobic institutions built into American society. All of these obstacles make every setback and every moment of progress in these characters’ lives feel absolutely crucial, making for an emotionally overwhelming experience.

9. Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time (2021)

best

8.0

Country

United States of America

Director

Don Argott, Robert B. Weide

Actors

Edie Vonnegut, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Morley Safer, Robert B. Weide

Moods

Lovely, Touching

Imagine a fanboy makes a film about his hero—you’d expect something mawkish and fawning, a tribute that praises the icon but sidesteps the flaws. Maybe in less expert hands, that could be the case. But despite being a longtime admirer of writer Kurt Vonnegut, Robert B. Weide’s documentary isn’t any of those things. Sure, it’s lovingly made, but it’s balanced and objective as it sketches a profile of Vonnegut not a lot of us have seen before. It’s also more than just a chronological account of his life; it’s simultaneously a film about this film, which has been in the making for 40 years, ever since Weide first met Vonnegut in 1988 and followed him through his death in 2007. At some point, their lives become tightly intertwined, and it’s impressive to see not just that friendship blossom but to watch it seamlessly fuse into the documentary. When Weide pitches the documentary to Vonnegut, he optimistically promises that it’ll be the definitive guide to his life. He’s right, it’s all that and a bit more.

10. Free Solo (2018)

7.8

Country

United States of America

Director

Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, Female director

Actors

Alex Honnold, Jimmy Chin, Tommy Caldwell

Moods

Action-packed, Gripping, Intense

Alex Honnold might not be the most relatable guy ever, but his obsession with free solo climbing and his single-minded approach to life makes him so interesting. He’s precisely the type of person that chooses to follow his goals, at the expense of everything else. To a certain extent, he has to be — without whole-hearted commitment to the sport, he could literally die. It’s no wonder someone decided to document his climb of Yosemite’s El Capitan wall—a wall that’s 3,000 feet high and hasn’t been free-climbed alone before. The journey is visually stunning and a technical marvel in and of itself. However, what’s most memorable about this film is the character study of Honnold: he has an indescribable instinct that outsiders could only call a death wish. His emotional detachment might make this a frustrating film to watch, but Free Solo serves as a unique portrait of a man who spits at the face of death.

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