28 Docs Later You’ll Be A Better Person, Just Watch

We love documentaries. ALL OF THE DOCUMENTARIES! We didn’t realize just how much we all love documentaries until our staff email chain about this post.

We love the self-righteous enlightenment and intellectual superiority that briefly engorges your soul after something like Jesus Camp, Bowling For Columbine, Food Inc or Inconvenient Truth! We love the fascinating children of Spellbound and Mad Hot Ballroom and the geektacular splendor of Trekkies or Cinemania and the life-scarring/disturbing/enthralling horror of Paradise Lost or Capturing the Friedmans and we love EVERY SINGLE LGBTQ DOCUMENTARY EVER from For the Bible Tells Me So to The Celluloid Closet to The Aggressives and back again. We’ve talked about some of those, in fact: here’s our review of 8: The Mormon Proposition, our interview with the creators of  Fish Out of Water and our list of documentaries about religion and homosexuality.

But this particular list isn’t limited to queer films; this list is our answer to “what documentaries do you think everyone else needs to see RIGHT NOW especially if they ever want to understand a very crucial aspect of the world we live in?” As a result of our enthusiasm, this is much, much more than a top 10.

Consider it Autostraddle’s definitive list of the documentaries you need to see before you die.

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Laneia // Executive Editor:

Beautiful Losers

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Beautiful Losers looks at the most influential artists of the early nineties – most of whom were unknown at the time – and how their work affected fashion, music, and essentially all of pop culture.

The interview subjects (Harmony Korine, Shepard Fairy and Margaret Kilgallen, to name a few) were just punk freaks who wanted to do something real, so they did. They spray-painted shit and regular-painted other shit and built things and figured out how to get their points across to people who cared. I mean, if you’re not even more inspired than usual to embrace your weirdo artistic side after watching Beautiful Losers, I don’t know if you should be here. WAS THAT HARSH I’M SORRY THIS FILM IS JUST REALLY F*CKING GOOD AND I THINK YOU’LL LOVE IT.

+ Watch Beautiful Losers now.

The Business of Being Born

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The Business of Being Born examines what it’s like to give birth in America, specifically the stark differences between hospital and home deliveries. The overall point of the film is that women need more information about all of their options, as well as a greater understanding of what their bodies are naturally capable of, before choosing a method of birth.

It was produced by Ricki Lake after her own unsatisfying experience with a hospital birth (something I instantly related to). The film really gets into the monetary side of the medical industry, revealing information that shocked even me, a strong supporter of midwifery.

What I especially liked was how even-handedly the facts were presented. Every woman makes this decision for herself — there’s no right or wrong choice and things don’t always go as planned — and I think The Business of Being Born was very empowering in that sense. More empowering, in fact, than either of the OB/GYNs who delivered my children.

+ Get The Business of Being Born.

Helvetica

After watching Helvetica last fall, I read like, six books on graphic design and made a list of all of the most influential designers of the last 100 years and then I read a few books about them and I STILL wasn’t satisfied. I think the only way to get it out of my system is to either a) take classes or b) hang out with Alex a lot. I have chosen option b) because a) costs too much money and Alex cooks.

I’d never stopped to consider how much control graphic artists have over OUR ENTIRE LIVES. It’s so weird, right? I mean, the way I feel about The Gap is due, in part, TO FONT. That is f*cking crazy!

+Watch Helvetica now.


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Official Favorites of “Julie & Brandy in Your Box Office

The September Issue

An interesting window into one of Fashion’s most creative and dynamic teams. Julie is the Grace Coddington to Brandy’s Anna Wintour. For anyone who doesn’t already know, Anna Wintour is the bitchy one.

+ Watch The September Issue.

Paris is Burning

If you’re gay and you haven’t seen this movie, you should kill yourself. It’s a crucial part of the history of gay culture in this country. So much of the imagery we see today is culled from this time period and lifestyle (including In Your Box Office). This documentary is Gay and Fashion. Period. It endlessly inspires us.

+ Get Paris Is Burning.

Deliver Us From Evil

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To call this a favorite feels a bit strange. But nothing before or since has been quite so horrifying and moving. It’s one of the better documentaries as far as being unbiased. The filmmakers never judge their subjects. They just simply tell their stories.

+Watch Deliver Us From Evil.

Anvil

This is a must-see for anyone out there following an impossible dream.

+Watch Anvil! The Story of Anvil.


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Riese // Editor-in-Chief:

Grey Gardens

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I was on a date with someone who called Grey Gardens “the worst” and “overrated” and that was our last date. You need to know about the costume of the day, the Marble Faun, the flag dance (which I can do) and about being a S-T-A-U-N-C-H character. It’s considerably more important that you familiarize yourself with Grey Gardens if you spend time around gay men or theater people. Prioritize appropriately.

Oh also it’s hilarious and heartbreaking all at once. The documentary by the Maysles brothers (Gimme Shelter) has since been turned into a Broadway musical and an HBO movie starring Drew Barrymore & Jessica Lange.

+ Watch Grey Gardens or buy the Criterion Collection DVD. There’s also The Beales of Grey Gardens, which features more of the Maysles brothers’ footage.

Killing Us Softly

“Advertising does sell products but it also sell it sells values, it sells images, it sells concepts of love and sexuality, of romance, of success and perhaps most important of normalcy. To a great extent, advertising tells us who we are and who we should be. What does advertising tell us today about women? It tells us just as it did 10 and 20 and 30 years ago that’s what most important about women is how we look.”

If you haven’t already seen it in a Women’s Studies class, you can watch the whole version of Killing Us Softly 4 RIGHT NOW. Yup. Or if the “for preview only” thing annoys you, and it probably does, Killing Us Softly 3 is the one I actually saw, and you can see all of it here, right now.

This Film Is Not Yet Rated

Hey did you know that But I’m a Cheerleader originally got an NC-17? The ratings board told Jamie Babbit that she had to cut a scene of Natasha Lyonne masturbating over her underwear while fully clothed. Meanwhile, Jason Biggs was masturbating into an apple pie in American Pie, nationwide.

There’s a million reasons to watch This Film is Not Yet Rated, but as a woman or a queer you should know how female pleasure and gay sex have been censored and are still being censored while dudes hammer away. Clearly there’s a group of rich white republicans behind the MPAA, as there is behind all evil things or secret things. Also, the private detectives Kirby Dick hires to track down the MPAA’s members are, incidentally, lesbians!

+ Get This Film Is Not Yet Rated

Roger & Me

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This is one of my favorite movies ever. I rented it ’cause it’d won an Academy Award and I watched it four times in one weekend and decided I wanted to be a documentary filmmaker. Michael Moore has gotten some shit lately for the obvious agenda his newer films mercilessly peddle — which is devastating, because it enables fence-sitters to write off movies like Fahrenheit 911 and Sicko which contain about five good points/revelatory moments for every one ridiculous one-sided stretch.

But before all that, it was 1989 and we had Roger & Me. Growing up in Southeastern Michigan and having visited Flint many times (including a trip to the ludicrous “Autoworld” featured in the film), I’d seen firsthand how the General Motors’ downsizing/outsourcing had devastated Detroit, Flint, and really most of Southern Michigan altogether. The title refers to General Motors Chairman Roger B. Smith, the man Moore tries to track down for an interview. Nobody knew who Michael Moore was back then.

+Get Roger & Me.


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Brandy Howard
Actress, Model, Comedian, Writer and
co-star of In Your Box Office on Autostraddle.com:

Spellbound

Super cute and funny. Very entertaining.

+Get Spellbound.

Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room

This was about as horrifying as Deliver us From Evil. Only it’s not the Catholic Church, it’s corporate America. And they’re not molesting children – they’re raping our parents.

+ Watch ENRON: THE SMARTEST GUYS IN THE ROOM.

My Kid Could Paint That

This documentary is fascinating because it begins as one thing and ends as another. In a truly unique structure, the filmmaker changes the subject of his documentary half-way through after being drawn in and almost becoming the subject himself.

+ Get My Kid Could Paint That.

More Than a Game

One of the best sports documentaries ever made in my opinion. Equal
parts touching and inspiring. I cried so many times.

+ Get More Than a Game

(I’m probably gonna like that new one called Babies too. I’m a sucker for cute).

NEXT PAGE:
Julie Goldman’s picks, Lil’ Wayne, Freeheld, the Dixie Chicks
and more good stuff you need to watch…

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78 Comments

  1. Thank you for the list, it looks very delicious.

    That Helvetica one, I don’t know how I never heard of it before, but it looks like the closest thing to typeface porn I have ever seen.

    If people like Spellbound, try checking out Doubletime which is similar except about SKIPPING!

    Also, one of the best narratives in a doc I have ever seen is in A Boy’s Life which seems very straightforward at first but gets so more complex and fucked up as it goes on. It also contains one of the best lines I have ever heard in cinema:

    “I’m gonna get a job, get some teeth and BE somebody!”

  2. Oh also, do people like Nick Broomfield docs? I’ve only seen a few of his, but I quite liked Fetishes, though he’s famous for the Kurt and Courtney one.

    And Louis Theroux, I don’t know if his stuff is ever shown in the US, but he does lots of docs about America that get shown in the UK, specialising in things-that-give-the-rest-of-the-world-nightmares-about-America such as Westboro and crazy pro-gun people.

    I really love his style though, he’s very unassuming and anti-confrontational, and good at gaining people’s trust only to later tie them in knots with their own hypocrisy.

  3. i already loved Natalie Maines so much and then i saw ‘Shut Up and Sing’ and it was all over. FUTK!

    another great one for the nerds? WORDPLAY. it’s all about Will Shortz and crossword puzzles. Bill Clinton, Jon Stewart and the Indigo Girls are in it.

  4. get ready for precious nerdery- I run a documentary film discussion group for old people. Mostly I have learned that subtitles are evil- but even if you haven’t understood a word of a documentary, you can still comment on it.

    apply this to your life as necessary.

    Anything from the powerhouses of verite- DA Pennebaker, the Maysles, Leacock is worth seeking out. My favorite is Salesman because it’s the saddest fucking movie I’ve ever seen.

    There’s been a wonderful documentary renaissance recently- especially amongst lady filmmakers. “Order of Myths” by Margaret Brown, “12th and Delaware” (by the ladies who did Jesus Camp!) and “Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo” by Jessica Oreck are all five stars.

    LOVE this topic, autostraddle! thankssssss!

    • Wow. Yes. I won’t rest until I see that Lil Wayne documentary! Genius pick, Rachel. Julie and I plan on smoking very petite pot cigarettes while sipping on some purple cough syrup (mixed with sprite, of course) and making a night of it!

      ALSO- I wrote my picks in the dark, in the car, while on a road trip and forgot to mention two crucial docs that I LOVE-

      Cocaine Cowboys & The King of Kong

  5. I adore documentaries as well and I’ve seen most of these picks. Great choices. I particularly love “My Kid Could Paint That”. It’s a film about so many different things and the storytelling is ingenious.

    Off the top of my head, a few more of my favorites that were not mentioned: Crumb, Capturing the Friedmans, Trembling Before the Eyes of God, Jesus Camp, Titicut Follies, The Cruise, The Devil and Daniel Johnston, Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple.

    Also, it’s interesting there are no Errol Morris films on anyone’s list. And as a documentary enthusiast I’m ashamed to admit…I’ve only seen Fog of War and I wasn’t crazy about it.

    • YES. Also any documentary about high school (High School, Seventeen)
      I am a huge doc enthusiast and while I liked fast cheap and out of control, it really took me a while to get into it. I respect what errol morris is doing but new york abstains, courteously (from seeing any more of his films.)

      I can’t believe I forgot the devil and daniel johnston.
      Anyone else have a HUGE problem with Born Into Brothels?

  6. Another strange but powerful documentary along the same lines as Jesus Camp is Hell House. I watched it on youtube and it follows a church as they construct a hell house for Halloween that they hope will scare people about hell so much they will turn to Jesus.

  7. I love documentaries so much. I’ve recently just watched Shine a Light and No Direction Home and they were both so riveting and beautiful.. I cannot wait for Scorcese’s film about George Harrison.

    Another beautiful, heartbreaking and fantastic film is Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father. Y’all, that movie is so devastating. I think it was the only thing to make me cry more than Freeheld. So good. You should watch it if you haven’t.

    Oh and CNN just aired a short doc called Gary and Tony Have a Baby. And that one was really sweet and lovely.

  8. YOU GUYS i forgot to say that the film Alma is AMAZING. here, i’ll transcribe the blurb from the back of ye olde disc container:

    “Alma Thorpe’s bizarre views on sexuality, motherhood and mail-order sweepstakes make her a living, breathing shrine to Southern Gothic. In this intimate and darkly humorous film, director Ruth Leitman follows Alma’s daughter Margie on her journey with a mentally ill mother and an abusive, alcoholic father.”

    it’s like Grey Gardens meets Intervention meets Bastard Out of Carolina. it’s nowhere near as good as Bastard Out of Carolina, but it’s SIMILAR.

  9. Nobody mentioned “Born Into Brothels” or the best documentary I’ve ever seen in my life… “The Farmer’s Wife”

    Loved The September Issue. Blown away by Grace. Interesting once you see where the real brilliance behind something lies.

  10. It may not necessarily be life changing BUT Sounds Like Teen Spirit is amazing, it’s about the Junior Eurovision Song Contest and it’s so funny and heart warming, it follows the stories of a few of the contestants and it’s just a really good watch. Think people that like Spellbound would enjoy it.

    Also second recommendations of Exit Through The Gift Shop, Anvil and My Kid Could Paint That. Great article 🙂

    • Oh oh oh, I really want to see Sounds Like Teen Spirit. I really wanted to see it when it came out but I could not find anyone else with sufficient Eurovision obsession to go and see it.

      Thanks for the reminder, my films-to-watch list grows ever longer…

  11. Thanks for the list, guys! I’m going to watch more than a few of these. I love a good documentary.

    Has anyone seen The Cove? It was pretty painful to watch, but it was a good documentary. I also recently watched Anvil, which I didn’t like quite as much as I thought I would. Some bits seemed a bit staged… I dunno.

  12. This is a very comprehensive list guys, and now I feel like I need to go watch a million documentaries.

    But I have to recommend one more: Darius Goes West!!
    It seriously is a life-changing doc. The guys who made it were all still in high school or college (except for one 25 year old they got to drive their RV) at the time, and they paid for it by pre-selling movie credits. It seriously gives you hope that the world can be better. And the director, Logan Smalley, is one of the best public speakers I’ve ever heard.

    http://www.dariusgoeswest.org/index.php

  13. Today you’re trying really hard to implode because of your own awesomeness.

    I already watched “Killing Us Softly”, I just couldn’t stop once I started and now I want to show it to everyone I know.

  14. This list is gonna keep me busy.

    I recommend The Times of Harvey Milk. It’s old but important. You can watch it on Hulu.

    And you can watch a lot of documentaries on Logo’s website, like:

    Southern Comfort(listed)
    Dangerous Living: Coming Out in the Developing World
    Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin
    Pick Up the Mic

  15. I only recently realised how much I LOVE docs, so perfect timing with this article!! Along with all the docs on this list, i’m especially looking forward to seeing Beautiful Losers, Helvetica and Killing us softly.

    I just watched ‘Art & Copy’, now I don’t think i’ll ever be able to watch a commercial or look at an ad in the same way…infact, it kinda made me want to drop my degree and take up advertising haha

  16. Documentaries usually manage to make me feel both extremely self-satisfied and profoundly inadequate at the same time. Since that is my preferred state of mind/comfort zone, I really like watching them, so I appreciate all of your recommendations very much. Consider your recommendations very much appreciated.

    Also, I didn’t know “The Carter Documentary” existed and now I need to watch it (even though I admit I’ll never be ready for that shit).

    Also II, if I stop visiting AS it probably just means I saw “Beautiful Losers” and thought it was baloney.

    • In the interest of preventing a potential misunderstanding, I just want to point out that I haven’t seen “Beautiful Losers” and I meant that last ‘Also’ as something that could eventually happen (but not really). More importantly, I meant it as an unfunny joke. So, if no one though it was at all funny, just keep in mind that that was exactly what I was going for.

      “Beautiful Losers” probably is baloney, though.

      [comfort zone: occupied]

  17. Aileen Wuornos: The Life and Death of a Serial Killer is good. Also, Capturing the Friedmans gave me bad dreams for about a week. Documentaries can take the whole concept of mindfuckery that little bit further than film, I think… Because, y’know, it’s real and there is an ACTUAL answer out there, somewhere, but chances are you’ll probably never see it.

    Zero Day was a good mockumentary, too. Just, uh, FYI and shit.

  18. One of my faves is Cinemania, a film about 5 obsessive movie-goers in New York. A mate of mine randomly picked it up at the video store and we were both blown away by it.

    Catch up on your queer history with
    Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt
    The Times of Harvey Milk
    Before Stonewall

    Kind of a new one – The Topp Twins: Untouchable Girls is *really* well made, and is a portrait of two amazing women.

    • i loved cinemania. my favorite part is how they were super competitive with each other about who saw what movies, and they’d like look at each other in the theater and be like, “ugh of COURSE she’s here,” etc. also i liked how serious they were about their schedules.

      • Ugh I go to the movies with those people. I am terrified about my friends becoming those people- they’re pretty close already except that they’re younger and have slightly better personal hygene. I remember when Roberta (who has since passed away) belching loudly in the middle of a quiet contemplative scene in a Japanese movie. Talk about killing the mood.

        The best was when two olds got in a FISTFIGHT at an Anthony Mann western and actually rolled out into the aisle.

  19. Wow, I’ve only seen Helvetica (in class) and Fish out of Water (obvs) from this list. Several of these are on my ‘to see’ list but many of these I’ve never even heard of. One of my fav documentaries to watch is Mad Hot Ballroom because I am a sucker for kids being cute & artistic & doing things to help improve their situations/fulfill their dreams. I also got Pageant for my birthday but I haven’t watched it yet…

  20. I don’t think I saw this in the comments, but the doc “Man on Wire” is AMAZING. It won the Oscar in 2008, I think, and it’s about Philip Petite, a French tightrope walker who walked between the WTC towers in the 1970s. Really really well done, and Philip Petite is the perfect interview subject — really expressive and dramatic and just awesome.

    Also – GREY GARDENS FTW.

  21. I declared today Documentary Day and watched The Carter Documentary, Helvetica, The Weather Underground and Paris is Burning pretty much back to back. Now I’m watching Paper Clips. ONLY LIKE TWENTY MORE TO GO. Then I’ll be a better person right?

  22. Another documentry lover…thanks for the recomendations, there are a bunch I havn’t seen yet. (I’ve already watched a couple, since reading this article on fri…)

    I was super excited to see that I could watch Freeheld on logo.com…and it’s not even geo-blocked for us canadian/international folk

  23. Anything at all, even if you don’t like the subject matter, by Ken Burns. ‘Unforgivable Blackness’ especially.

    Recently watched ‘Training Rules’, that was really good. ‘The Aggressors’, amazing.

    David Sutherland did two riveting documents, ‘The Farmer’s Wife’ and ‘Country Boys’. Both enthralling and I highly recommend them. If the Appalachian region interests you, (and you are interested in photography) then *definitely* check out ‘The True Meaning of Pictures’.

  24. Love documentaries. Just watched “The Devil’s Playground” about a group of Amish teenagers going through “Rumspringa” where they get to go crazy for a while before getting baptised into the Amish faith.

    One of my favourite docs is called “Être et avoir” (To be and to have), about a year in a tiny rural French primary (elementary?) school. It is adorable.

  25. ‘Paris is Burning’ is so great. I stumbled across it at the local Blockbusters (movie rental place – is it UK-specific?)
    Assume that someone working there is queer, cos there were a bunch of great gay films on the shelves.

    Annnnyway, great film. I’m going to order Helvetica RIGHTNOW for my gf who gets a little *too* excited by fonts.

  26. This website’s short documentaries are handsome.

    Also, I recently came across this not-at-all-short documentary (24 hours). Based exclusively on the two hours I’ve seen I wouldn’t go as far as to say it’s wildly entertaining, but those hours (9PM* and 3AM) do contain several bits I found strangely compelling.

    Finally, I saw ‘Beautiful Losers’ and I thought it was lovely; it’s very interesting, and I actually had to pause it a couple of times because it was making me feel things: two thumbs up. To the commenter who “joked” about it being “baloney” (having not seen the film, mind you) I want to say: please stop commenting on nice posts when you’re gloomy/cranky and grow up already, idiocymonger.

    *All of you raging homophobes out here, be warned: a lesbian creature emerges for a couple of minutes during ‘9 PM’ and her deviancy is mildly, yet explicitly, discussed.

  27. American movie: the making of northwestern. Pretty much changed my life in terms of how I’m afraid my life might end up with the rest of my film/art/theatre friends. Even though I know my work is amazing and I’ll succeed with it no matter what, this could totally be what I become if somehow all of that fails. And it terrifies me. Watch it. It is so good and human and possible.

  28. I second that you should all come to the True/False Festival in Columbia, Mo. It’s at the beginning of March and is freaking fantastic! I volunteered last year and am volunteering again this year. People, Parties, and Amazing Documentaries. . . COME!

  29. love the list, and this is my first time commenting, but i can’t believe someone else hasn’t said this!

    gays who haven’t seen “paris is burning” should not kill themselves, and enron may be taking people’s money, but it’s not “raping them”

    using this kind of language is careless and unnecessary and completely not okay for a site as socially aware as my beloved autostraddle!

    • Anna, I was just about to say the same thing.
      I wish that everyone would remember that to some people, hearing either/both of those phrases is JUST as bad as the shit some of us get about being gay/queer/trans*/ourselves. Sadly, so many people don’t realize what can hurt unless they or someone they love are hurt by it.

      Love you, Autostraddle. Love you, writers. Just something to be aware of.

  30. “If you’re gay and you haven’t seen this movie, you should kill yourself.”

    could you please take this out? Cause it’s not really funny. Maybe you could say “you should be ashamed” or something. kthx. I usually love y’all but I don’t really want to read stuff like that.

  31. Yay docs yayyyyy. This list is marvelous and has a ton of my faves, now let us all head to Netflix Instant for documentary time.

    (But no Edie & Thea? says the tiniest voice)

  32. My Netflix queue is nearly 50% documentaries. Unfortunately a lot of these suggestions aren’t on Netflix ATM, but I’m bookmarking this thread!

    Some really great docs about natural resources and environmental problems: “Flow”, “Tapped”, “Blue Gold”, “Carbon Nation”, “GasLand”, and “No Impact Man.”
    “A Place at the Table” is about food insecurity in America.
    “Mutantes: Punk Porn Feminism” is as awesome as it sounds.
    “Happy” is about what makes people from around the world happy, and “Life in a Day” is made up of pieces of video shot by people all over the world on the same date, June 24, 2010. Both of those are good antidotes to the depressing stuff in some of the other docs I listed.
    There are more docs that I’ve watched and loved but don’t remember clearly enough to recommend them.

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