There are so many awesome documentaries. People and life are so inspiring. And, while this inspiration is sometimes straight out uplifting, other times what expands me is people’s courageous and kind efforts.
So without further ado, here’s my list. The categories are:
• People Being Awesome
• Social Commentary
PEOPLE BEING AWESOME
The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill
I love this documentary from beginning to end. It’s heartwarming, uplifting, and focused around San Francisco. I think the trailer almost says a bit too much. If you’re adventurous and willing to take my word for it, just rent the movie. You’ll have such a feel-good experience because of it.
A Man Named Pearl
It is AMAZING what one person can do. How you can be presented with an obstacle and shrink or decide to use that challenge to let the artistry of your spirit come forth. Pearl Fryar is a testament to the power of creativity and dedication and I’ll bet everyone who knows him personally as well as watches this movie will be permanently touched by his expression.
Man on Wire
Philippe Petit is easily one of the most eccentric and instantly likable people ever. And he did the seemingly impossible: walking on a wire between New York’s Twin Towers. This documentary shows how he did it. Sky’s the limit!
The Real Dirt on Farmer John
He was born into a farming family. This movie shows his ups and downs, his expansions and pitfalls – and how he turns it around to be a beacon in the organic farming movement.
Ram Dass: Fierce Grace
I have a special place in my heart for Ram Dass. His book Be Here Now was the first spiritual book I read. So, in a way, he was like a friend shepherding me into spirituality, a role he’s played for a lot of people. This documentary covers his life, but particularly focuses on his life after his stroke. When you watch it, tell me the moment that makes you gasp as your heart nearly bursts out of you. I’ll bet it’s the same moment that it happened for me.
I grew up with my grandmother talking about reincarnation and karma, so it’s been central to how I’ve thought of the cycle of life my whole life. However, it’s one thing to believe in it. It’s quite another to witness someone search for the reincarnation of someone they knew… and find him! This is what Netflix says about the movie: “Filmmaker Nati Baratz follows the spellbinding journey of Tibetan Buddhist monk Tenzin Zopa as he travels far and wide to identify the child who is the reincarnation of his deceased master, Lama Konchog. Acting on instructions from the Dalai Lama, the shy Zopa relies on astrology, dreams and other signs to locate the child, knowing that if he succeeds, he must also convince the boy’s parents to release their child into his care.”
Joni Mitchell: Woman of Heart and Mind
I remember when I first saw this documentary like it was a religious experience (there’s one other on this list further down that had the same impact) because I found myself borderline shouting at my computer screen “You lived my life!” Uh, repressed artist begging to get out much? Yeah. Needless to say, this documentary, and the life she’s lived, is wildly creative and inspiring. She went from imitating Joan Baez in a coffee shop to performing at Carnegie Hall in three years. Yeah, she’s that talented. And so soul-full.
Joan Baez: How Sweet the Sound
This movie’s fantastic, but the trailer I found for it on YouTube doesn’t do it justice. So let me say that Joan Baez has not been on my radar the way Joni Mitchell has. My mom always loved her, but somehow she didn’t catch my attention. However, watching this documentary I was blown away at what a high-integrity person she is, committed to social justice and music equally. And how creatively and courageously she brought these things together. Very inspiring.
It Might Get Loud
I LOVE rock music. One of my favorite childhood gifts was in 7th grade when I got a 5-cd disc changer and the Led Zeppelin Box Set for Christmas. So, obviously Jimi Page is high up on my list of amazing rockers. But I found myself just as enthralled by The Edge and Jack White. So enthralled, in fact, I’ve watched this documentary several times.
Being Mick: You Would if You Could
This and the next documentary are on Leos. People who make Leo really work for them are quite amazing, in my book. This documentary Mick Jagger made of himself over the course of a year in 2000ish. I was impressed at how active, creative, family-oriented, and all around YES about life he is. I hope to be this creative and inspired when I’m 60!
Madonna: I’m Going to Tell You a Secret (2005)
This documentary is awesome when you watch it after Madonna: Truth or Dare, which she made in 1991, because you get to see how much she’s grown in 15 years. It’s one part fascinating bird’s eye view into her world and one part an intriguing witnessing of her spiritual and personal evolution.
The U.S. vs John Lennon
You really can’t separate the latter part of John Lennon’s life from politics, as this documentary fascinatingly will tell you about. It’s wild how far Nixon went, almost deporting him.
Michael Jackson: This Is It
I am a child of the 80s. Michael Jackson is as woven into the soundtrack of my life as any other artist. When my super fun friend Laura and I saw this in the theater we were the only ones in there and we went WILD. It was inner-child Michael Jackson delight and we were singing and dancing all the rest of the night.
Annie Liebowitz: Life Through a Lens
This is the other religious experience documentary in this list. I watched it at about the same time as the Joni Mitchell documentary when I lived in Venice and this time I actually really did exclaim at my computer screen “YOU LIVED MY LIFE!” This burst out of me at the part when she made a 90 degree turn from painting to photography. Little did I know how my life would change in the years to come. Regardless of my personal reaction to this film, she’s a great artist who has lived a really interesting life. I mean, how many people start their career by going on tour with the Stones?
Chuck Close: A Portrait in Progress
I remember being introduced to Chuck Close by my highschool boyfriend. We were at a gallery that had one of his pieces. It looked so realistic from far away, but close up it was made of scraps of paper. How did he do this? And how has he done it while being in a wheelchair?
What Remains: The Life and Work of Sally Mann
Her work is like 2D poetry, so luscious and beautiful. And her process is so unique to her, so personal and family-based. She’s a great example of you can do it your way.
Herb & Dorothy
Don’t judge a book by its cover. The small, seemingly working class people standing in the art gallery could be some of the biggest art collectors in New York!
Picasso: Magic, Sex, Death
I totally didn’t get Picasso until I saw this documentary, made by his long time friend, John Richardson. It made him and his work come alive for me. It’s personal, illuminating, and an unapologetic survey of his life, relationships, and work.
James Balog, the photographer behind this amazing project documenting the glaciers literally melting before our eyes, is one of my new favorite humans. He’s so passionate, dedicated, and personable. And, this documentary is wildly beautiful and arresting.
Planet Earth (Series) & Frozen Planet (Series)
Both of these series are made by BBC and David Attenborough, who is my favorite naturist. His love for animals and nature is so contagious. And the cinematography is beautiful, covering a huge scope of what’s happening on our planet. Between these two series, you’ve got days worth of high-quality viewing.
These three documentaries could just as easily been put in the People Being Awesome category because they are all of amazing teachers doing amazing work with kids.
The Hobart Shakespeareans
There’s a good amount on YouTube about the Hobart Shakespeareans, but nothing I could find for this movie specifically. To give you a sense of what it’s about, here’s Netflix’s summary: “Mel Stuart’s documentary follows Rafe Esquith, a passionate educator who inspires his students from Central Los Angeles to achieve the best that life has to offer. Mixing Shakespeare, Mark Twain and math, and touring his young charges around Washington, D.C., and college campuses, the elementary school teacher makes learning exciting, including having actors Ian McKellen and Michael York visit the class. For the finale, the kids stage a production of ‘Hamlet.'” You will want to give him a Rafe a hug by the end of the movie and go do something drastic so that teachers can get paid better for the magic they bring to children’s lives.
A Touch of Greatness
Do you remember a teacher that you loved so much that you begged to go to school even when you were sick? If you had such a teacher, lucky you. Here is a man who was that teacher for many people. He makes you wish you were in his class. Elementary school would have been soooo different!
To Be and To Have
This documentary got the Official Selection at Cannes in 2002. It shows a teacher in a little schoolhouse in rural France being a light to this students.
Born Into Brothels
I remember when I watched this movie. I crouched near the television to put the DVD in the player and was so instantly absorbed I watched the whole movie sitting on the floor about 2 feet away from the television. I am completely not surprised that this won so many film awards. It goes straight to your heart.
Chris Rock’s documentary about good hair is not only hilarious, it’s fascinating! It’s so good it won the Sundance Special Jury Prize.
We all want to be happy. But do we know what makes us happy? I mean, if we really knew this, we’d be happy by now, right? The thing is we don’t really know, or don’t fully appreciate, what makes us happy. The simplicity of it baffles our mind. I turned this movie on thinking it’d be just so-so and sat there totally spellbound as it peeled away layers, showed heartfelt stories, and redirected my whole attention from the striving we’re taught will make us happy, the the everyday joy of life.
No Impact Man
Is it possible to have a good life, while living in a city, and stop wasting so much? Hm. Well, this man does a one-year experiment to find out. I was both completely inspired and rather freaked out by it because it’s so different than our impulsive, consuming way of living, which is true even for people who are quite ecologically mindful. If you have a desire to simplify, leave a smaller footprint, or just imagine what that might be like, I think you’ll like this.
The Beautiful Truth
A 15 year old boy, who’s upset about his mother’s recent death because of cancer, researches The Gerson Therapy’s claim that it’s approach and diet can cure cancer. What he finds out is so much more than he was intending. It’s really amazing where our questions can lead us, when we have the tenacity to follow them.
There are few movies that are as visually beautiful as this, let alone as pointed in their message… all without saying a word. If you’ve seen this, you know what I mean. If you haven’t turn it on when you’re in the mood to be wow’ed by nature and artistry and open to navigating visual poetry.
ENJOY! And if you know of other inspiring documentaries that you think should be added to this list, leave them in the comments.