15 Documentaries You Absolutely Have To Watch

Not everyone who goes into the film industry decides to work on a three hundred person soundstage in Hollywood. I am studying Digital Media Production and as I inch closer and closer to my impending graduation in 2020, I am beginning to take more of an interest in smaller independent films than big-name blockbusters.

When you hear the word “documentary,” you may automatically think of “boredom” or “tenth-grade history class” or any other number of undesirable associations, but I promise that documentaries don’t have to be that way. Over the last few years, I have watched a variety of documentary films and series (including most of the ones on this list) and I’m here to report that there are some really good ones out there. You just have to know where to look.

Here are 15 must-watch documentaries that are worthy of your undivided attention. From murder mysteries to fun and games, there’s something for everyone on this list, so be sure to check it out.

Active Shooter: America Under Fire (2017)


This Showtime series has eight episodes in its first season and each one features a different mass shooting in the United States. These tragedies take place all over the country and span over a decade of American history, from the Columbine school shooting in 1999 to the terrorist attack at a gay nightclub in Orlando two years ago, and raise important questions: how did these events happen, why did these events happen, and how can we prevent similar ones from occurring from here on out?

Watch it on Showtime or Amazon Prime Video.

Amanda Knox (2016)


Amanda Knox, an American college student on an exchange program in Italy during the fall of 2007, was convicted and eventually acquitted for the death of her roommate. Talk about a study abroad experience gone wrong. This documentary relies heavily on a narrative provided by Knox herself, as she was willing to sit for interviews and to hear the experience from her perspective is truly fascinating. This woman may be quirky, but she is also extremely intelligent and people still remain divided on whether they think she committed the murder.

Watch it on Netflix.

Beware the Slenderman (2016)


This documentary explores a particularly grisly murder committed by two 12-year-olds. That’s right, the murderers were 12. Middle schoolers Annissa Weier and Morgan Geyser brought their friend Payton Leutner into the woods and stabbed her to death because they believed that they were told to do so by the Slender Man, a fictional horror meme. The film explores the lives of each girl involved, the effects of technology on children, and untreated mental illness.

Watch it on HBO.

Blackfish (2013)


Blackfish tells the story of an orca named Tikium who lived at SeaWorld and the negative impact that captivity can have on marine life. This movie is powerful and has been so widely recognized that it ignited legitimate change at SeaWorld; the theme park has decided to stop breeding killer whales altogether due to outrage from animal rights activists. If you’re an animal lover, this is a must-watch.

Watch it on Netflix.


Catfish (2010)


You may have heard of MTV’s Catfish: The TV Show, but if you haven’t already, you should go back and watch the original documentary that inspired it all. New York photographer met a woman named Megan through Facebook and began an online relationship with her, but something about this woman seems not quite right. When Shulman embarks on a road trip to meet her in person, he uncovers a shocking truth. This documentary shows the great lengths that some people will go to in order to conceal their true identities online and might scare you out of using Tinder for a couple of weeks, to be honest.

Watch it on Amazon Prime.

Confessions of a Superhero (2007)


Confessions of a Superhero explores the lifestyle of people who work as characters on the sidewalks fo Hollywood Boulevard on their way to fame. It follows four individuals who dress up as Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and the Hulk and addresses the challenges of earning a living as a professional superhero.

Watch it on Amazon.


In Defense of Food


This documentary talks about how difficult it can be to pinpoint how to live a healthy lifestyle with so many different “health” foods and fad diets flying around. Rather than pushing its audience towards any particular nutritional habit, it merely suggests that people eat many greens and anything else in moderation, and it’s much more relevant than the typical food documentary.

Watch it on Netflix or iTunes.

Mommy Dead and Dearest (2017)


This might be my favorite documentary of all time. Though it initially appears to be about the murder of Claudine (Dee Dee) Blanchard orchestrated by her daughter, Gypsy Rose, things are not always as they seem and it quickly comes out that Blanchard was not exactly the ideal mother. In the worst ever documented case of Munchausen syndrome by proxy, Blanchard pretended for years that her daughter was ill and forced her to undergo a variety of unnecessary treatments, including a plethora of medications, staying in a wheelchair, and even having a feeding tube put in. From Gypsy Rose’s early days to her secret online romance with her first love to their eventual decision to plot Dee Dee Blanchard’s demise, this film is a wild ride from start to finish.

Watch it on HBO.

Take Your Pills (2018)


Take Your Pills is a moderately controversial documentary, but I thought that it was interesting enough to make the list. It explores the use of drugs like Adderall and Ritalin amongst hypercompetitive students in high school and college in order to get ahead. Through interviews and animation, this film gives the history of these drugs and raises some important issues including academic and athletic pressure placed on students, the ease with which teenagers can find drugs that aren’t prescribed to them, and the overdiagnosis of ADHD.

Watch it on Netflix.

The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2007)


This is the ultimate documentary for anyone who loves gaming, as it follows gamer Steve Wiebe as he sets out to beat Billy Mitchell’s record score in the classic Donkey Kong. The two men journey across the country and battle it out for a spot in the 2007 Guinness Book of World Records. Mitchell is a villain that you will love to hate and you’ll find yourself rooting for Wiebe as he tries to claim that title as his own.

Watch it on Amazon Prime Video or iTunes.

The Staircase (2018)


The Staircase is a Netflix docuseries that follows the murder of Kathleen Peterson, who was found in 2003 unconscious at the bottom of a staircase in her home. This show will have you flipping back and forth as to whether you believe she was killed by her husband, Michael, or whether he is truly a victim in all this.

Watch it on Netflix.


There’s Something Wrong with Aunt Diane (2011)


This film is about a terrible car accident in which a mother drove the wrong way on the Taconic Parkway and crashed into an SUV, resulting in her own death and the deaths of seven others. There’s Something Wrong with Aunt Diane investigates the tragedy six months after it took place and strives to determine whether Diane Schuler was a reckless alcoholic with harmful intentions or an innocent wife and mother who made an awful mistake.

Watch it on HBO or Amazon Prime Video.

Twinsters (2015)


Twinsters is the true story of identical twins who were separated at birth and met by chance online. Originally from South Korea, one was raised in the United States and the other in France, so the odds of them finding each other were infinitesimal. The film explores the special relationship between twins and the power that technology has to connect people to each other.

Watch it on Netflix or iTunes.

When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts (2006)


This four-part documentary directed by Spike Lee exposes the destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. The film shows the disaster that unraveled when the city’s levees failed to protect the people from the storm and the failure of the government to help the poor and underprivileged people of New Orleans; many were mistreated more than they were helped during the aftermath of Katrina.

Watch it on Amazon Prime Video or iTunes.

Word Wars: Tiles and Tribulations on the Scrabble Circuit (2004)


Did you know that people play the word game Scrabble competitively? This film follows four players in the months leading up to the 2002 National Scrabble Championship and reveals what it is like to be so heavily involved in this niche community.

Watch it on Amazon.

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