A good documentary is one of life’s greatest pleasures.
They inspire, educate and entertain. In several cases, documentary films have been the driving force behind real social change, from plummeting the market value of Sea World, to overturning criminal convictions.
Nick Fraser for The Guardian writes, “It would be more accurate to say that documentaries are among the most valuable, neglected cultural forms of our time. They aren’t all good… but the best are unusual, persuasive, seductive.”
We are in the midst of a Golden Age for documentaries, with streaming services like Netflix and Stan making it easier than ever to access hundreds of thousands of films.
But there are just as many ordinary, or downright awful documentaries, as there are brilliant ones. So we've sifted through 'the classics' and the highest grossing docos of all time, to come up with 11 that absolutely everyone must watch.
Bowling for Columbine
Michael Moore's 2002 documentary Bowling For Columbine is considered one of the best documentaries ever made. It explores the cause of the Columbine High School massacre in 1999, and the gun culture that contributed to it. It won an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, and the BBC describes it as "Funny, chilling and provocative... This is a bold, blackly comic masterpiece - everyone should see it."
Bowling For Columbine is the seventh highest grossing documentary ever made, with five of Moore's films being included in the top 25. I could have named five of his documentaries in this list, but instead just chose my favourite. Other must-sees include: Fahrenheit 9/11 (the highest grossing documentary of all time), Capitalism: A Love Story, Sicko and Roger and Me.
LISTEN: If you're after another documentary, we spoke to Louis Theroux on The Binge. Post continues after audio.
Exit Through The Gift Shop: A Banksy Film
This 2010 documentary directed by famous street artist Banksy, tells the story of Thierry Guetta, a French immigrant from the United States who is desperate to locate and befriend Banksy. He describes it as "...the story of how one man set out to film the un-filmable. And failed."
Exit Through The Gift Shop was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, and has a 96 per cent rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
Man On Wire
A 2008 British biographical documentary directed by James Marsh, Man On Wire chronicles the 1974 attempt by Philippe Petit to walk on a single wire between New York's Twin Towers. Petit was eventually arrested, and the film contains rare footage of the preparations, photographs of his attempt and exclusive interviews with participants.
Man On Wire won the BAFTA for Outstanding British Film and the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. 100 per cent of the reviews on Rotten Tomatoes are positive, and it's been described as an "unforgettable documentary".
Searching for Sugarman
Documentary critics often regard Searching For Sugarman as one of the most incredible examples of documentary film in recent years.
Released in 2012, the film set out to explore the life of Sixto Rodriguez, a Detriot folksinger who became a pop music icon in South Africa in the 1970s. Long rumoured to have died by suicide, the film offers an enormous twist, with filmmakers finding more than they ever hoped for.
Commonsense Media describes it as a "captivating film [with] such a wild story that it has to be true; nobody would take it seriously if it were fiction." Searching for Sugarman won a BAFTA and an Academy Award.
Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father
If I had to recommend one documentary - that I'd classify hands down as the best I've ever watched - it would be Dear Zachary.
In 2001, Andrew Bagby was murdered by his girlfriend Shirley Jane Turner after he ended their relationship. After she was arrested, it was revealed that Turner was pregnant with Bayby's child. She decided to name him Zachary.
So documentary maker and close friend of Bagby, Kurt Kuenne, decided to make a film to give to Zachary, so he could see what an incredible man his father was. But this would not be the end of the story.
In an incredible twist, Dear Zachary becomes a true-crime documentary that shakes everyone who watches it.
Martin Tsai of the New York Sun describes the film as "a first-rate thriller...and the film is so unsettling that it will stay with viewers for a long time... It's hands down one of the most mind-blowing true-crime movies in recent memory, fiction or nonfiction."
You can watch the trailer for Dear Zachary above, or watch the full movie on iTunes, here.
Deliver Us From Evil
This 2006 documentary explores the life of Catholic priest Oliver O'Grady, who confessed to having molested and raped 25 children between the 1970s and 1990s.
Directed by Amy J. Berg, the film includes interviews with O'Grady who was released after serving only seven years in prison.
Deliver Us From Evil was the best reviewed film on Rotten Tomatoes in 2006 and was nominated for an Academy Award.
clear-sighted, tough-minded and devastating, a portrait of individual criminality and institutional indifference, a study in the betrayal of trust and the irresponsibility of authority
Although it's hard to watch, it's incredibly important. The New York Times describes Deliver Us From Evil as "clear-sighted, tough-minded and devastating, a portrait of individual criminality and institutional indifference
Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief is a 2015 documentary directed by Alex Gibney which delves into the Church of Scientology.
Incredibly produced, the film received widespread praise and was nominated for seven Emmy Awards. It's also the second most watched HBO documentary of the last ten years.
The BBC's Owen Gleiberman praised Going Clear as "the most exciting – and disturbing – work of cinematic non-fiction in a long time, and awarded it five stars.
This 2013 documentary explores the captivity of killer whales by SeaWorld and has changed the course of history.
It features Tilikum (who died only last week), a killer whale held by SeaWorld who was involved in three deaths. The film argues that animals experience extreme stress, and that water parks have been dishonest about the impact captivity has on killer whales' life expectancy and wellbeing.
Since its release, SeaWorld profits have dropped by 84%, and it was announced in March last year that the breeding program would end immediately and thus this generation of killer whales will be the park's last.
Blackfish was nominated for a BAFTA Award for Best Documentary and has a Rotten Tomatoes rating of 98 per cent.
The Thin Blue Line
This 1988 film is considered by many critics as one of the greatest documentaries ever made.
Directed by Errol Morris, The Thin Blue Line depicts the story of Randall Dale Adams, who was convinced and sentenced to death for a murder he did not commit.
Morris' investigation revealed that five witnesses committed pergury. A year after the film was released, Adams was released from prison.
Variety called the film "the most political work of cinema in the last 20 years", and it is widely understood as the first movie to actually solve a murder.
Morris also directed The Fog Of War, a highly acclaimed documentary about warfare in modern America.
Released in 2015, Amy covers the life and death of British singer-song writer, Amy Winehouse.
Exclusive footage gives viewers an insight into her struggle with substance abuse, the overbearing paparazzi and a tumultuous love life.
To date, Amy is the highest grossing British documentary of all time. It has been nominated for 33 awards, winning a Grammy for Best Music Film and the Academy Award for Best Documentary.
Peter Bradshaw from The Guardian described it as "a tragic masterpiece".
Forbidden Lie$ is an Australian documentary released in 2007.
It's subject is Naomi Khouri's book Forbidden Love, the 'true story' of a Muslim woman killed by her family in Jordan because of an affair with a Christian soldier.
As the film unravels, holes in Khouri's account begin to appear. It is a fascinating examination not one of the 20th centuries' greatest literary hoaxes, but also of the psychology of lying.
Next time you find something with nothing to watch, you know where to start.