21 Best Movies to Watch From HBO Documentary Films

Staff & contributors

In All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, documentarist Laura Poitras (Citizenfour, My Country, My Country) lends her empathetic and incisive lens to a subject so passionate and imaginative, she ends up collaborating with Poitras to co-create the documentary about her life. The subject is Nan Goldin, one of the most influential photographers of the late 20th century. 

The documentary captures Goldin’s work as a queer artist and anti-opioids activist, intertwining both aspects to tell a nuanced and incredibly important story about freedom, identity, and self-expression. This incredibly complex, encompassing, and vibrant feature won the top award at the Venice Film Festival, besting 19 other films from around the world.

Genre: Documentary, Drama

Actor: Bernard Herrmann, Cookie Mueller, David Wojnarowicz, Harry Cullen, John Waters, Leonard Bernstein, Nan Goldin, Patrick Radden Keefe

Director: Laura Poitras

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

A 100-minute highlight reel of the audacious 24-hour performance staged by artist Taylor Mac in 2016, this concert film succeeds not only in capturing the show's eclectic mix of songs, drag costumes, and interactive audience segments, but in capturing the emotional atmosphere conjured up in that Brooklyn warehouse. The very premise of the performance is ripe for analysis: a history of America starting from 1776, progressing one decade every hour, represented by selections of popular music of the time—which Mac questions at every turn, reinterpreting and reclaiming them for a contemporary queer audience. It begins as a creatively educational exercise, but gradually becomes more and more personal, until the audience is fully involved in the performances themselves.

Even the 24-hour format transcends its gimmick. That the show becomes an endurance test is deliberate, with bonds forming in real time and the exhaustion of this ever-changing drag performance conveying the weight of all this history on the most vulnerable and misrepresented sectors—who've already endured continuous losses decade after decade. And still there is cause for celebration, and genuine warmth among the people slowly becoming more vulnerable with each other over 24 hours. It's a beautiful, intelligent, frequently funny, and ultimately moving experience in a class all its own.

Genre: Documentary, Music

Actor: Anastasia Durasova, Heather Christian, Machine Dazzle Flower, Matt Ray, Niegel Smith, Taylor Mac

Director: Jeffrey Friedman, Rob Epstein

Rating: PG-13

The culture of propaganda and cover-ups that kicked off the pandemic is the subject of this compelling documentary by award-winning director Nanfu Wang (One Child Nation). Wang, who traveled with her family to China in January 2020, saw and filmed the pandemic firsthand, and wrote to major newspapers like The New York Times to convince them to write about it. They never did. 

Media and government in both China and the U.S. played down the threat, and this documentary asks how different everything would have gone otherwise. More dauntingly, it's an examination of how the Communist Party in China managed to use the event to its advantage. 

Genre: Documentary, Drama

Director: Nanfu Wang

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

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

The Harry Potter movies undoubtedly changed the lives of its young stars forever — but a stuntman whose future the films had more tragic consequences for is the deserved focus of this moving documentary. David Holmes was just 17 when he was hired as Daniel Radcliffe’s stunt double, a role he held throughout the series. The two formed a close brotherly bond on set, growing up alongside one another for 10 years until a terrible accident during the final movie’s filming left him paralyzed from the chest down, a condition that has deteriorated over the years following post-surgery complications. 

This doc is an inspiring portrait of David, from his fearless childhood and dream-fulfilling work to the incredible resilience he’s shown since the accident. It’s also, though, a poignant testament to the loving, supportive community that Holmes inspired at work — friendships that only reached greater depths following the accident and the end of the movies. The doc’s focus empathetically expands from Holmes’ story to include its impact on his bond with Radcliffe (who features prominently here) and Holmes’ fellow stunt doubles — and, while the sheer force of Holmes’ personality would make for a compelling documentary on its own, it’s the tenderness and honesty that all of these participants show that makes this so poignant.

Genre: Documentary

Actor: Andy Holmes, Bonnie Wright, Chris Columbus, Daniel Radcliffe, David Holmes, David Yates, Emma Watson, Greg Powell, Marc Mailley, Rupert Grint, Sue Holmes, Tolga Kenan, Tom Felton

Director: Dan Hartley

Rating: PG-13

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

, 2021

A music documentary with its star as one of its main talking heads runs the risk of coming off like cheap PR, but Tina Turner's own articulate insights never restrict this retrospective on her life. If anything, she assists directors Dan Lindsay and TJ Martin in expanding the film's scope to cover the origins of rock music and the struggles of so many women in the public eye who only ever seem to be defined according to their abusers. Even if Tina is still ultimately a conventional doc that relies on interviews and archival footage, it has a strong emotional core that gives the film a relatively unique psychological edge.

Genre: Documentary, Music

Actor: Angela Bassett, Erwin Bach, Katori Hall, Kurt Loder, Oprah Winfrey, Roger Davies, Tina Turner

Director: Daniel Lindsay, T. J. Martin

Rating: R

"Imagine a nightmare when you had to relive your adolescence," says Cecilia Aldarondo at the beginning of her third film, You Were My First Boyfriend. Indeed, the scene recalls a teen prom that could easily be yours (if you were one of the unpopular girls): neon lights, prettier dresses that are never yours, disapproving looks, and the impression that everyone around you is having the time of their lives, while you sit awkwardly in a corner. This image sets the tone for a self-exploration in documentary form that relies on a simple, yet imaginative premise, what if you could re-enact the formative events from back then, but do so today, by directing actors to step in for your past selves. Aldarondo approaches the topic sincerely and with curiosity. Not a pang of nostalgia there, but the heartfelt doc manages to reflect on the pasts that shape us in a witty way to promote self-acceptance and, ultimately, healing.

Genre: Documentary, Drama

Actor: Cecilia Aldarondo, Gabriel Kristal, Laura Gallegos, Melissa Baker, Sarah Baker Butterfield

Director: Cecilia Aldarondo

Rating: PG

Featuring cannily edited filmography excerpts and interviews with friends and ex-lovers of Rock Hudson — the Golden Age matinee idol who became the first major celebrity to die of AIDS — this documentary lifts the lid on the closeted gay star’s double life. Though its first third draws chiefly on biographers to paint a serviceable picture of the homophobic context Hudson rose to fame in, it’s in later interviews with members of his inner circle that the film comes to life. These contributors give us a more closely informed picture of Hudson, who seemed to accept Hollywood’s compromise: he could live out his professional dreams so long as he didn’t rock the boat.

Some aspects of the film’s approach do raise an eyebrow, such as a risqué conversation that seems to have been surreptitiously recorded. These inclusions lend the film a tabloid scoop’s salaciousness in places, but, thanks to its final third, it’s largely a touching testament to Hudson. As it movingly argues, however reluctant he was to disclose his diagnosis (and, in doing so, his sexuality), he played a pivotal role in changing the tide of public attitudes towards AIDS, and thus to fundraising efforts — making him an unwitting LGBTQ+ hero.

Genre: Documentary

Actor: Allison Anders, Armistead Maupin, Bea Arthur, Burt Lancaster, Doris Day, Douglas Sirk, Elizabeth Taylor, Esther Shapiro, Howard McGillin, Illeana Douglas, James Dean, Joan Rivers, Kathleen Hughes, Lee Garlington, Linda Evans, Lucille Ball, Peter Kevoian, Piper Laurie, Richard Hodge, Rock Hudson, Tim Turner

Director: Stephen Kijak

Rating: PG-13