10 Movies Like Black Widow (2021) On Max (HBO Max)

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At one point in the documentary, director Kristen Lovell says, “I wanted to archive the movement that was building between transwomen and sex workers,” and that’s exactly what she achieves with The Stroll, a well-researched, creatively edited, and deeply moving account of the trans-sex-work experience that defined New York for a good chunk of the 20th century. It’s both historical and personal, touching and rousing, as it recounts a history that’s often been forgotten even among the LGBTQ+ community. To do this, Lovell digs up archival footage, brings to life long-buried data, and strikes up heartfelt conversations with survivors of The Stroll, that street in New York where Lovell and her fellow homeless escorts used to pick customers up. Thanks to Lovell’s hard work in telling this extraordinary story of struggle and success, there isn’t a moment in this film where you’re not shocked, frustrated, or exhilarated along with them.

Genre: Documentary, Drama

Actor: Laverne Cox, Michael Bloomberg, Rudolph Giuliani, RuPaul

Director: Kristen Parker Lovell, Zackary Drucker

Biographical documentaries tend to depict exceptional people– people who are so great that everyone wants to know about them, and people who are so terrible that they serve as a warning. Great Photo, Lovely Life depicts a serial sexual abuser in photojournalist Amanda Mustard’s family, able to get away with nearly all his crimes each time he skips over state lines. It’s not an easy film. It’s deeply uncomfortable. There are certain interviews that will trigger anger, despair, and bewilderment over how someone so evil can remain out of bars all his life. Great Photo, Lovely Life doesn’t provide any easy, comforting sequence as a balm to sexual abuse survivors around the world, but it’s an urgent reminder of the consequences of maintaining silence.

Genre: Documentary

Actor: Amanda Mustard

Director: Amanda Mustard, Rachel Beth Anderson

Even if you aren't familiar with the original, Tony Award-winning Broadway production from Lin-Manuel Miranda, this adaptation of In the Heights is still infused with the same infectious energy and loaded with many of the same eclectic songs. This is musical theater at its most fundamental (cheesy, us-against-the-world romance; unstoppable optimism) and also at some of its most unique—with old-school Broadway numbers mixing seamlessly with hip hop, Latin dance, and cheery 2000s pop. But beyond its music, In the Heights offers a gorgeous tapestry of stories about life in a proud immigrant community and the challenges of staying rooted to home while reaching for the stars.

Genre: Drama, Family, Music, Romance

Actor: Anthony Ramos, Ariana Greenblatt, Christopher Jackson, Corey Hawkins, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Dascha Polanco, Dean Scott Vazquez, Gregory Diaz IV, Javier Muñoz, Jimmy Smits, Leslie Grace, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Marc Anthony, Mateo Gómez, Melissa Barrera, Olga Merediz, Olivia Perez, Patrick Page, Ryan Woodle, Seth Stewart, Stephanie Beatriz, Susan Pourfar, The Kid Mero, Valentina

Director: Jon M. Chu

This charming documentary about one of the most brilliant, groundbreaking comedians alive strikes a delicate balance between accessible and deeply appreciative, making it both a great gateway for those yet to be uninitiated into the Albert Brooks fan club and a satisfying retrospective for us confirmed devotees. It’s directed and fronted by Rob Reiner, celebrated director himself and one of Albert Brooks’ oldest friends, and the choice is perfect: his rapport with Brooks is warm and easy, extracting real sincerity from the famously deadpan comedian-writer-actor-director.

Defending My Life features plenty of talking heads gushing about Brooks’ dazzling multi-hyphenate talents (among them Steven Spielberg and Sharon Stone), a standard convention for documentaries of this kind. But what elevates this into a portrait worthy of its subject are the scenes from a dinner shared by Brooks and Reiner, during which the former opens up about his childhood, reflects on his career, and divulges the autobiographical elements that informed his work. Their tete-a-tete flows with all the unforced rhythm of conversation between good friends; Reiner’s presence coaxes illuminating insight from Brooks, which makes watching the documentary feel as close to pulling up a seat at their table as you’d hope for. The 90 minutes just fly by.

Genre: Documentary

Actor: Alana Haim, Albert Brooks, Anthony Jeselnik, Ben Stiller, Brian Williams, Chris Rock, Conan O'Brien, David Letterman, James L. Brooks, Jon Stewart, Jonah Hill, Judd Apatow, Larry David, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Nikki Glaser, Rob Reiner, Robert De Niro, Sarah Silverman, Sharon Stone, Steven Spielberg, Tiffany Haddish, Wanda Sykes

Director: Rob Reiner

Rating: PG-13

If Katrina Babies seems like a somewhat disjointed account of the myriad responses to Hurricane Katrina and the U.S. government's horrible, anti-poor response to the disaster, director Edward Buckles Jr. uses this structure with much more intent. For once this is a documentary that feels like citizen reporting and not a sanitized report from experts who have little to no real personal stake in the subject. As the film swings from one talking point to the next, you get the sensation of just how much the people of New Orleans are still trying to comprehend; the loose structure brings to this film a sense of helplessness that, for some, just can't be overcome.

Genre: Documentary

Actor: Arnould Burks, Calvin Baxter, Cierra Chenier, Damaris Calliet, Quintina Thomas Green

Director: Edward Buckles

Rating: R

Featuring real, in-the-moment footage of operations to rescue young queer individuals from the continuing anti-gay purges in the Chechen Republic, Welcome to Chechnya makes for a demanding but essential call to action. There's a genuine sense of fear that pervades the documentary, not just for those being rescued after being forcibly outed, beaten, and trapped by the people around them, but for the filmmakers themselves, whose operations are built on meager resources and desperate, spur-of-the-moment decisions. It's a remarkably courageous film—one that also presents new ways of keeping sensitive subjects safe through the thoughtful use of deepfake technology, keeping their identities hidden while allowing them to freely express themselves.

Genre: Documentary

Actor: Ramzan Kadyrov, Vladimir Putin, Zelim Bakaev

Director: David France

The Automat is a charming documentary about the historic place it names—a spacious self-service cafeteria that fed thousands of people during a good part of the 20th century. Through nostalgic footage and delightful interviews with the likes of Mel Brooks, Howard Schultz, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, The Automat successfully convinces you that more than just some gimmick, it was a cultural landmark, a piece of Americana whose existence alone taught an entire generation integral values like democracy, diversity, and hard work. It’s also straight-up hilarious, especially when Brooks attempts to direct the film himself, or other subjects salivate as they recall the Automat’s unbeatable menu. It’s more anecdotal than academic, so if you’re looking for a sweet, sentimental, and simple watch, this is it.

Genre: Documentary, Drama, History

Actor: Carl Reiner, Colin Powell, Elliott Gould, Howard Schultz, Mel Brooks, Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Director: Lisa Hurwitz

Rating: TV-PG

A documentary told entirely through animated avatars can be a hard sell, but instead of playing into the expected jokes, director Joe Hunting takes this digital environment extremely seriously, and that makes all the difference. He doesn't downplay how absurd it is to see what are essentially 3D characters going on dates and having bellydance classes together, and yet Hunting still takes time to emphasize how freeing this virtual existence is for all involved. It's disappointing that the film never addresses the many real concerns people have about purely online relationships (deception, exploitation, and abuse, among others), but as a positive and perhaps overly romanticized view of this new, 21st-century social space, the documentary remains fresh and vital.

Genre: Animation, Documentary

Actor: DragonHeart, Dust Bunny, DylanP, IsYourBoi, Jenny0629

Director: Joe Hunting

Rating: R

If you’ve ever been puzzled by “Greek life”, this documentary will go some way to demystifying that somewhat baffling phenomenon of American college culture. Bama Rush follows four hopefuls as they “rush” the University of Alabama’s sororities, a TikTok-viral weeklong recruitment process so cutthroat some candidates spend months preparing for it. The documentary digs deep into why these young women put so much time, energy, and money into joining what the film hints is a largely unforgiving and reductive element of campus life. What it finds is pretty affecting: they’re really just looking for acceptance and belonging.

Threaded throughout are director Rachel Fleit’s reflections on her own history with those motivations, having grown up with alopecia. Though it does illustrate that rushing isn’t so dissimilar from other quests for acceptance, this parallel is sometimes clunkily drawn — and can seem somewhat self-indulgent in places, given the documentary’s comparatively surface-level exploration of more systemic issues. A late development shifts Bama Rush into an even deeper self-reflexive mode, as the film itself becomes a contentious issue in the process it’s documenting. Despite its flaws, turns like this — and its participants’ extraordinary candor — help make Bama Rush an often illuminating look into an opaque world. 

Genre: Documentary, Drama

Director: Rachel Fleit

Composed of archival footage of the titular musical legend and testimonials from those who worked with him or whose lives were profoundly impacted by his courage, Little Richard: I Am Everything feels comprehensive but is also oddly lacking. The documentary makes a bold, confident claim: that all popular music today can be directly traced to his work. And when the film lets itself get into full music nerd mode, it's easy to be convinced. But after you accept that perspective on Little Richard, the rest of the movie seems like it's just spinning its wheels, covering key moments in the artist's life and career without really challenging or substantiating long-held ideas about him.

Chief among these is Little Richard's shifting feelings toward his own queerness—proudly expressing his true self one year, then openly denouncing his own homosexuality the next. This subject matter is ripe for difficult but insightful analysis, which the film just never gets around to. It begins to feel like the believes there is no more discussion to be had about him. And that may very well be true; he deserves the flowers that were denied him for so long. But this attitude doesn't necessarily make for the best documentary.

Genre: Documentary, Music

Actor: Alan Freed, Billy Porter, Elvis Presley, John Lennon, John Waters, Little Richard, Mick Jagger, Nile Rodgers, Nona Hendryx, Pat Boone, Paul McCartney, Tom Jones, Valerie June

Director: Lisa Cortés