The 25 Best Documentaries You Can Stream Right Now

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is seen working out in RBG (2018).
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is seen working out in RBG (2018). / Magnolia Pictures/CNN Films

The late, great filmmaker Albert Maysles once explained the power of nonfiction moviemaking by saying, “When you see somebody on the screen in a documentary, you’re really engaged with a person going through real life experiences, so for that period of time, as you watch the film, you are, in effect, in the shoes of another individual. What a privilege to have that experience.”

A privilege, yes, and a privilege that’s outsized for us today. We now have access to thousands of documentaries online, allowing us all kinds of shapes and sizes of shoes to step into. To extend our personal knowledge of human experience. Thousands of little empathy machines. Small windows into lives that aren’t our own.

Here are 25 of the best documentaries that you can stream right now.

1. 13th (2016)

Following the breakout prestige of Selma, Ava DuVernay constructed an exploration of the criminalization of black individuals in the United States, crafting a throughline from slavery to the modern private prison boom. Eschewing an overdramatized style, DuVernay calmly, patiently lays out facts and figures that will drop your jaw only until you start clenching it.

Where to watch it: Netflix

2. Becoming (2020)

The life of former First Lady Michelle Obama is chronicled in this documentary that examines her activism during her book tour for Becoming.

Where to watch it: Netflix

3. Val (2021)

The life and career of mercurial actor Val Kilmer is chronicled in this documentary that draws upon thousands of hours of footage shot by Kilmer himself. In between behind-the-scenes shots from 1986's Top Gun and 1993's Tombstone, we get glimpses of Kilmer's struggles as both a seemingly misunderstood artist and a man now struggling with the loss of his voice due to illness. It's a soul-baring look at a unique kind of stardom.

Where to watch it: Amazon Prime

4. Screwball (2018)

The inside baseball on baseball's steroids scandal is the focus of this documentary, which uses child actors to portray the crooked dealings of dealers and athletes who conspired to sabotage America's pastime.

Where to watch it: Netflix

5. Best of Enemies (2015)

Both quaint and prescient, the televised debates between William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal during the 1968 Republican National Convention show us a midpoint between idealized civic discussion and the worst instincts of modern punditry. This sly documentary explains the force of this rivalry, its ironic popularity as televised circus, and the aftermath of all the clever insults.

Where to watch it: Amazon Prime

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6. Quincy (2018)

If you've listened to any music at all over the past half-century, you've been impacted by the work of Quincy Jones. The storied life of the music producer is profiled in this affectionate film co-directed by Alan Hicks and Rashida Jones, Quincy's daughter.

Where to watch it: Netflix

7. Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution (2020)

Barack and Michelle Obama produced this look inside a revolutionary 1980s summer camp for attendees with disabilities in New York's Camp Jened.

Where to watch it: Netflix

8. Cartel Land (2015)

Raw and fearsome, Matthew Heineman’s documentary puts you in the boots on the ground of the Mexican Drug War. This gripping look at Arizona Border Recon and the Autodefensas of Michoacán shows what happens when governments fail citizens who are in the line of fire.

Where to watch it: Hulu

9. Casting JonBenet (2017)

This isn’t the documentary you’d expect it to be. Kitty Green took an experimental approach that’s less about rehashing the true crime sensationalism of the headline-owning murder of a child beauty queen and more about how many stories can be contained within a single story. Green auditioned actors from JonBenét Ramsey’s hometown and, in the process of making several dramatizations, interviewed them about what it was like living in the area during the 1996 investigations (and what they think really happened).

Where to watch it: Netflix

10. Batman & Bill (2017)

While artist Bob Kane often took credit for creating Batman, it was collaborator Bill Finger who introduced many of the Dark Knight's most enduring details. The film details the efforts of comics historian Marc Tyler Nobleman to finally get Finger the credit he deserves.

Where to watch it: Hulu

11. My Octopus Teacher (2020)

A filmmaker living in South Africa forms an unlikely bond with an octopus in this fascinating look at human and animal communication.

Where to watch it: Netflix

12. Life Itself (2014)

Film critic Roger Ebert finally gets a movie of his own in this look at the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer's career as a media personality and husband.

Where to watch it: Amazon Prime

13. Too Funny to Fail: The Life and Death of the Dana Carvey Show (2017)

Following his successful run on Saturday Night Live and films like 1992's Wayne's World, Dana Carvey could do no wrong. For his 1996 variety series The Dana Carvey Show, he enlisted future stars like Stephen Colbert and Steve Carell. So why was it canceled after just eight episodes? This funny and sharp autopsy explains all.

Where to watch it: Hulu

14. Gaga: Five Foot Two (2017)

It’s incredibly honest. At least, as much as an inside look into the life of a global pop superstar can be. Lady Gaga (real name Stefani Germanotta) spends a healthy amount of the movie standing around without makeup, waxing wise and humorously before jumping face-first into her work. The film focuses on her time crafting her Joanne album and her Super Bowl halftime show, but they could make one of these every few years without it getting stale: Gaga is a tower of magnetism.

Where to watch it: Netflix

15. RBG (2018)

The life of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has seen her involved in seminal decisions on everything from abortion to equal rights. The film details her journey from law school to setting precedent on some of the nation's most pressing issues—and becoming a role model in the process.

Where to watch it: Hulu

16. Summer of Soul (2021)

Questlove directs this look back at the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, which was hailed as one of the greatest music concerts of all time but never received the attention of Woodstock or other gatherings.

Where to watch it: Hulu

17. Joshua: Teenager Vs. Superpower (2017)

When someone tells you it can’t be done, show them this documentary. The simple title both celebrates and belies the smallness of one person fighting a system. Joe Piscatella’s doc follows the explosive growth of the Hong Kong protest movement engaged by teen activist Joshua Wong when the Chinese government refused to act on its promise of granting autonomy to the region. It's a dose of pure inspiration.

Where to watch it: Netflix

18. WeWork: Or the Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn (2021)

Office collaborative business WeWork was poised to become a billion-dollar firm--then the founder was forced out after its Initial Public Offering and things went downhill from there.

Where to watch it: Hulu

19. My Scientology Movie (2017)

An absurdist rabbit chase and a deliberate provocation, writer/star Louis Theroux’s punk documentary poked the bear of the infamous religion in order to get access to it. They auditioned young actors to recreate real-life events described by ex-members, got denounced by the church, and even got into a “Who’s On First”-style argument with a member (“You tell him to turn the camera off then I’ll tell him to turn the camera off!”). Serious subject matter by way of Borat.

Where to watch it: Hulu

20. Free Solo (2018)

Free-climber Alex Honnold has only one goal in mind: To reach the summit of El Capitan 3200 feet in the air, and to do it without the use of cables or safety equipment. One of the most physically and mentally demanding tasks is captured in this fascinating—and unnerving—documentary that will have you feeling as though you're dangling right next to him.

Where to watch it: Disney+

21. Waiting for Superman (2010)

The plight of the American educational system is put to task in this landmark film from director Dave Guggenheim, who focuses on the trials and tribulations of five young students navigating the problematic public school landscape.

Where to watch it: Netflix

22. Being Elmo (2011)

Narrated by Whoopi Goldberg, puppeteer Kevin Clash shares his childhood growing up in Baltimore and the road to a career as a furry red monster on Sesame Street. It’s a delightful peek behind the curtain to see how magic is made, featuring interviews with legends like Frank Oz and Kermit Love. It also pairs well with I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story, which is available to rent on Amazon.

Where to watch it: Netflix

23. Three Identical Strangers (2018)

Separated at birth, three identical triplets are well into adulthood before discovering they each have one—make that two—doppelgangers in the world. Their joy soon turns to confusion as they search for answers about why they were split apart in a story so unbelievable it probably wouldn't work as fiction.

Where to watch it: Hulu

24. Crack: Cocaine, Corruption & Conspiracy (2021)

The crack epidemic that gripped urban communities in the 1980s was about much more than addiction, involving prejudice, race, and a failing justice system. This documentary takes a deeper look at the stories behind the headlines.

Where to watch it: Netflix

25. Tig (2015)

When you get diagnosed with cancer, the natural thing is to perform a stand-up act about it the same day, right? Comedian Tig Notaro became famous overnight when her set confronting her diagnosis went viral, and this documentary from Kristina Goolsby and Ashley York focuses on the year that followed—one that deals with death, a new career chapter, a new relationship, and possibly a new child. It’s ok to laugh through the tears.

Where to watch it: Netflix