The “Best Documentary Feature” category at the Academy Awards used to be something only the most devoted cinephiles cared much about. But over the past 20 years, docs have swelled in popularity, thanks in part to crowd-pleasing hits like “Free Solo” and “March of the Penguins” — and thanks also to streaming services like Netflix and Hulu making these movies easier to watch.
(Note: The dates reflect the year a film was in competition, not necessarily its U.S. theatrical release.)
‘American Factory’ (2019)
The filmmakers Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert bring some valuable perspective to some of the biggest issues facing the global economy in their absorbing, illuminating and often quite funny film, which tracks what happened when a Chinese company opened a glass plant in the U.S. heartland. While charting the differences between Chinese and American work habits — as well the differences in the workers’ expectations — Bognar and Reichert tell a story that’s ultimately about the changing nature of labor in our increasingly automated age.
‘Free Solo’ (2018)
In 2017, the accomplished mountain-climber Alex Honnold attempted to ascend Yosemite’s towering El Capitan formation with no ropes or other safety equipment to prevent him from falling thousands of feet if he lost his grip. The husband-and-wife filmmakers Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi recorded the entire adventure, from the planning to the climb, focusing primarily on Honnold’s uncanny calmness as he risked his life to achieve something extraordinary. This movie is a fascinating character study, as well as a harrowing document of extreme risk.
In its early scenes, this investigative documentary from Bryan Fogel has the director using himself as a guinea pig, taking illegal performance-enhancing drugs to find out whether they actually give athletes an edge. But entering this world of black-market dope peddlers puts Fogel in contact with shady characters, and as he gets to know these crooks and doctors, his film’s emphasis shifts from what P.E.D.s do for individuals to the many ways that international crime syndicates — some of them covertly state-sponsored — have corrupted Olympic sports. What starts as a quirkily personal sports doc turns into a political thriller.
‘O.J.: Made in America’ (2016)
In retrospect, the 1995 O.J. Simpson murder trial was a pivotal moment in American history, exposing this country’s racial, gender and wealth disparities. ESPN’s five-part docu-series “O.J.: Made in America,” directed by Ezra Edelman, covers all those topics, framing them with the career of a football star who was thriving in showbiz before he was accused of killing his wife. Edelman widens his scope beyond the crime by considering the history of racially insensitive policing in Los Angeles and the question of whether money and fame allows some people to avoid facing consequences.
Cameras seemed to capture every moment of soul singer Amy Winehouse’s brief, painful life, whether they were held by friends and lovers or shoved into her face by paparazzi. Using this raw and often invasive footage, this brilliant biography by director Asif Kapadia paints a compassionate portrait of the troubled yet immensely talented artist, and implicates our collective fascination with tabloid train-wreck stories in her death. Thankfully, the downward spiral has built-in uplift in the form of Winehouse’s tender, velvety singing voice.
In 2013, from a hotel room in Hong Kong, Edward Snowden leaked documents showing that U.S. cyberintelligence was monitoring the communications of hundreds of millions of people around the world. Filmmaker Laura Poitras was in the room with him and journalist Glenn Greenwald, chronicling Snowden’s seismic revelations and the aftermath. The result is this suspenseful espionage thriller, complete with code names, classified information written on scraps of paper and testimonies before German Parliament. While Greenwald broke the news in The Guardian, Poitras turned it into art.
’20 Feet From Stardom’ (2013)
This lighthearted jaunt by director Morgan Neville profiles several backup singers, including Darlene Love and Merry Clayton, whose most memorable recordings were made standing behind the main attraction. We learn about these women’s roles in shaping the classic-rock canon in songs from the Rolling Stones, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Lou Reed and many more, and the film rousingly ends in a heartwarming staged concert with the backups singing lead, however briefly. Although the film provides many inspirational moments, this is no simple tune: It is also an examination of the various factors that can qualify (or disqualify) one for the American spotlight involved — not just talent and luck, but also gender, race and age.
‘Searching for Sugar Man’ (2012)
In his hometown, Detroit, in the 1970s, Rodriguez was a failed folk singer-songwriter with two flop albums to his name. But in South Africa he was a Dylanesque hero, his songs having become anthems for the anti-apartheid movement. This precise narrative by director Malik Bendjelloul begins by introducing us to the fans who kept Rodriguez alive, then leads us upstream, via masterful pacing, as they discover what became of their phantom prophet.
Winning the big game is a small victory for a high school football team compared with a player’s going to college: That’s one of the life lessons imparted by Bill Courtney, a volunteer coach who runs a scrappy program at a tough North Memphis high school. For this uplifting underdog sports story, directors Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin follow a pivotal season with Courtney’s team, as its fortunes — and its individual players — crest and fall before the title reveals itself in unexpected ways.
‘Inside Job’ (2010)
Before “The Big Short” came this furious denouncement of the corporate and political skulduggery that led to the 2008 financial crisis. As director Charles Ferguson breaks down the concepts of deregulation, credit default swaps and the housing bubble, he makes no secret of the anger he feels toward investment banks, Treasury Department officials and any current or former economist unfortunate enough to step in front of his camera. Ferguson reframes the Great Recession from being just a story about money to one about the cynical and greedy betrayal of American values.
‘Man on Wire’ (2008)
In 1974, a French daredevil named Philippe Petit sneaked with his crew to the top of the World Trade Center in New York, still under construction at the time, and strung a wire between the two towers; Petit then performed a tightrope act on the wire for nearly an hour. This wildly entertaining account of the vertiginous escapade, by director James Marsh, is the perfect heist movie — filled with tense pacing and thrilling re-enactments of the crack team at work. The film trains its vision on the “how” of the operation rather than the “why,” and yet still makes a case for dreaming (and building) crazy, wonderful things.
‘Taxi to the Dark Side’ (2007)
One of the earliest films from the prolific documentarian Alex Gibney uses one person’s terrifying tale as a way into a larger conversation about the ethics and the efficacy of torture as a tool of war. While detailing the fate of an Afghani taxi driver who was beaten to death while in U.S. custody, Gibney’s well-researched and disturbingly persuasive doc also covers the sequence of small but inexorable steps that led to letting the unconscionable become an accepted feature of American foreign policy.
‘An Inconvenient Truth’ (2006)
Many Americans’ first education on the dangers of climate change came through this 2006 documentary by Davis Guggenheim based on a traveling lecture series by Al Gore. In this breathless film, Gore transforms every methodical tool of the college instructor (PowerPoint slides, graphs of rising temperatures, bulleted lists on fossil fuels) into angry, riveting, impassioned warning bells. Although the film became a rallying cry for environmentalists, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels have continued to climb higher, recently surpassing the “tipping point” Gore warns about in the film.
‘March of the Penguins’ (2005)
Accompanied by Morgan Freeman’s inimitable baritone narration, thousands of emperor penguins must use all their instincts to breed and survive in Antarctica’s harsh subzero environment. This lyrical nature documentary by director Luc Jacquet, which gave audiences an exotic close-up look at the penguins’ annual mating journey over the course of a year, was a smash hit upon its 2005 release: Though their environs are punishing, the adorable waddlers come across as winning heroes who survive not because of any exceptional bravado, but because it’s just what they do — year after year.
‘Born Into Brothels’ (2004)
Two stories interweave throughout this intimate social-issue documentary, directed by Ross Kauffman and Zana Briski. One is about how Briski taught the children of Calcutta’s red light district how to use cameras, allowing them to capture their sometimes shocking living conditions. The other story involves Briski’s navigation of various bureaucracies in an effort to get the authorities to place these children in better schools. What emerges is both an unflinching portrait of extreme poverty and an illustration of how art can illuminate our common humanity.
‘The Fog of War’ (2003)
The former defense secretary Robert McNamara, a chief architect of the Vietnam War, imparts the “11 lessons” he learned while orchestrating the drawn-out conflict under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. An animated and occasionally dodgy presence on camera, McNamara is at once defensive of and distraught by his legacy, which makes him the ideal foil for director Errol Morris’s dogged pursuit of the truth behind the war’s justification and execution.
‘Bowling for Columbine’ (2002)
In the aftermath of the 1999 Columbine High School massacre, Michael Moore plunged into the American gun debate with his usual mix of impassioned advocacy and impish humor. His filmmaking techniques and open partisanship are polarizing for a reason, as the movie often simplifies complex issues to score political points. But Moore’s interviews yield revelatory glimpses into the dark side of human nature, and force us to reckon with our inability to hold a rational discussion about guns, even as the number of mass shootings has only mounted since Moore’s film was released.