Top 12 Documentary Movies To Watch

Photo of Lucy Andia
3 January 2017

Based on the Grierson Trust and the BFI’s list of best performing documentaries this year, we take a closer look at 12 films that every documentary lover must watch. From the haunting to the sublime, watching these films gives great insight into the spectrum of human emotion.

The Immortalists

Daniel Defoe once wrote that there is nothing more certain than death and taxes. The subjects of David Alvarado and Jason Sussberg’s The Immortalists beg to differ. This thought provoking film follows scientists Bill Andrews and Aubrey de Grey as they biologically search for the ever-elusive fountain of youth within and beyond the confines of their labs. However, rather than an education in the science of their cause, The Immortalists takes a personal approach, exploring aspects of their lives that give context to the hunt and reason for the desire to live forever.

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Jean-Francois Caissey’s Guidelines is a strikingly intimate portrayal of growing up in a local high school set in a rural Quebec town. Caissey dwells on the distinction of who you are inside school and who you become outside of it, expressing the dichotomy of tentative steps and bold abandon that comprise the spirit of every adolescent. Through passive observations of the relationship between child and adult, Caissey puts his finger on something undeniably definite yet indisputably unspoken.

In The Basement

It is hard not associate the title of this Austrian documentary, In the Basement with news stories of captivity and horror. This, however, is far from Ulrich Seidl’s intention and resulting film. In the Basement is simultaneously unsettling and amusing, tender and saccharine. It takes us on a motley tour of underground caverns, the basements within which suburban residents contain and outfit their personal hobbies. From a Nazi with a tuba to a woman obsessed with a doll, the most personal and oddball of pastimes are brought to light from the shadows of the basement.

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Hockney: A Life in Pictures

Mirroring one of David Hockney’s paintings, Randall Wright’s tribute to Hockney is warm, colourful, and inviting. Wright’s access to Hockney’s archives alongside interviews with Hockney’s closest friends and fellow artists result in a film that leaves you feeling like you’ve just had a cup of coffee with one of the most iconic artists of the twentieth century. Hockney today is 77 and as this film clearly displays, has lost nothing of the vivacious spirit and aesthetic genius that made him a household name to begin with.


Sergei Loznitsa’s Maidan, a documentary about the anti-government movement in Ukraine, is as chaotic and impassioned as the events it depicts. The film covers the period from December 2013 to February 2014, beginning with former President Yanukovych’s rejection of an accord with the EU in favor of a closer relationship with Russia. These three months were a time of uncertainty and incessant wavering between calm seas and violent storms. Loznitsa’s documentary allows us to ride these waves in an attempt to understand the true power of the masses and their effect on history.

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The Green Prince

The Green Prince documents the life of Mosab Hassan Yousef, son of a Hamas radical who became an informer for Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service. This cinematic documentary takes you on a journey that twists and turns with every act of deception and betrayal whilst grounding itself in interviews with Yousef and his sympathetic Shin Bet ‘handler’. Documentarian Nadav Schirman’s film noir-styled articulation of Yousef’s experience entertains and informs in a visually provocative manner.

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Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait

Silvered Water is not an easy film to watch. It is, however, an immensely important documentation of Syria’s ongoing civil war. The shots are not constructed, nor do not have even edges. In order to create this testimony to human suffering, director Ossama Mohammed allegedly spent hours upon hours watching cell phone footage whilst in exile in Paris. The result is accordingly brutal. It is a film that not only indicts human suffering but also pays tribute to the poetry of existence.


Lynette Wallworth’s Tender takes place in the Australian seaside industrial town, Port Kembla and follows a community group as they decide to reclaim an act of humanity that for most belongs to the business sector: funerals. The film is beautiful, touching, and full of spirit, making us reassess our views of how we interact with and what we do for our fellow human.

The Possibilities are Endless

When Edwyn Collins, famed front man of Indie band Orange Juice, had a stroke in 2005, he was left devoid of memories, speech, and the ability to stand on his own two feet. For months he could only say, ‘yes’, ‘no’ and ‘the possibilities are endless’. James Hall and Edward Lovelace’s documentary, aptly titled, The Possibilities are Endless, is about his journey to recover his memories, his mind, and ultimately his life. Overlaying landscape shots of Collins’s homeland with recordings of his thoughts, the beautiful images gain poignancy through experience of the struggle Edwyn Collins undergoes simply to express himself. This film is unsettling at first but ultimately uplifting as it is truly a demonstration of man’s ability to rise above his circumstances and to reclaim what has been lost.

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Stray Dog

You might think you know Ron ‘Stray Dog’ Hall: Vietnam veteran, blue-blooded biker, leather clad tough guy. But you don’t. Debra Granik (director of 2010’s haunting, ‘Winter Bone’)’s ‘Stray Dog’ ensures that your expectations are overturned and your presumptions put aside. The film follows Ron Hall as he attends military funerals, tries to learn Spanish to communicate with his Mexican wife and frankly discusses the ways in which his two tours of Vietnam four decades ago still impact his life on a daily basis. It is a candid discussion of the greater issues of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, immigrant wives and children, and trailer park Americana that is made exceptionally personal through the life of one man.

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National Gallery

Frederick Wiseman’s National Gallery takes ‘fly-on-the-wall’ documentation to a new level. National Gallery brings you everywhere: no room is left undiscovered, no conversation unheard. Giving insight into the inner workings of an institution that functions as its own microcosmic universe, this documentary also evokes the question, ‘Of what value is art?’. This question is not answered and it is not meant to be. The viewer is simply given tools to think, and prompted to take a second look at that Rubens and to rediscover that Rembrandt.

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Ne Me Quitte Pas

It has been said that misery loves company. Sabine Lubbe Bakker and Niels van Koevorden’s Belgian documentary, Ne Me Quitte Pas gives an insight into this cliché. The film follows two lonely alcoholics who are navigating the uncertain terrain of aging depression with only each other and a flask. If ‘Withnail and I’ were a documentary, it would take the form of this film full of deadpan humour, costumed antics, and long stretches all in place.

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