12 Must-See Documentary Films

Movies to Be Watched Time and Again

Documentaries are a rich source of information and inspiration. While there are many great films to choose from, some stand out as monumental and timeless. From the effects of war to the wonders of nature, these are the documentary movies you will want to see time and again.

Restrepo

A groundbreaking film in the heart of the Afganistan battlefield, "Restrepo" is nothing short of intense. War documentaries this intimate are rare and that is why it is such a moving, heartbreaking, and patriotic film.

Directors Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger gain unprecedented access to Second Platoon, Battle Company of the 173rd Airborne Brigade for over a year. They were able to capture firefights, the death of friends and enemies, and the genuine bond of soldiers gripped in war. The platoon will make you laugh and weep as their reality is made real for everyone.

Muscle Shoals

Muscle Shoals, Alabama was home to one of the great recording studios in American history. This documentary captures that sound and tells the stories of the talented musicians who recorded there. Headliners include Mick Jagger, Etta James, and Percy Sledge and many were backed by "The Swampers," Muscle Shoals' own house band.

You have heard these songs for years. After all, they're among the biggest chart-toppers of modern music. It's not until you watch this film that you'll understand what the "Muscle Shoals Sound" truly is. After that, you won't be able to escape it. 

Yael Hersonski's "A Film Unfinished" is a remarkable Holocaust documentary. It is comprised primarily of previously unedited historic footage shot by Nazi filmmakers. These men ostensibly chronicled daily life in the infamous Warsaw Ghetto during World War II.

The gripping film demonstrates how the Nazi's manipulated information and public impressions of life in the Warsaw Ghetto. This reveals the tremendous power of media and the dangers of propaganda. The film reminds us that we must remain wary of misinformation, even today.

"The Cove," is an Oscar-winning film. It features animal rights activists Richard O'Barry (the man who trained dolphins for "Flipper") and Louis Psihoyos. The duo recruited an A-Team-like crew of filmmakers and environmentalists to expose the Taiji drive hunt.

The chilling film follows the annual practice of rounding up and slaughtering thousands of dolphins by Japanese fishermen. It plays like a spy thriller while revealing the nasty methods of the largest dolphin hunt in the world.

Enemies of the People

Enemies of the People - Theh Sambath interviews Nuon Chea. Old Street Films/International Film Circuit

Before escaping from Cambodia in 1979 at age ten, Thet Sambath witnessed the murder of his father. His mother was forced to marry a Khmer Rouge soldier and his eldest brother disappeared. In 1998, Sambath—by then a journalist in Phnom Penh—embarked on a personal journey to uncover truths about the genocide in his country.

After years of getting to know former Khmer Rouge soldiers and gaining their trust, Sambath met and interviewed Nuon Chea, Pol Pot's second in command. Sambath's quiet demeanor and objectivity make Chea's shocking revelations all the more heartbreaking. The film is at once remarkable, subtle, and poignant.

"Inside Job," the 2011 Oscar winner, presents a comprehensive analysis of the global financial crisis of 2008. At a cost of over $20 trillion, it caused millions of people to lose their jobs and homes in the worst recession since the Great Depression. It also nearly resulted in a global financial collapse.

Filmmaker Charles Ferguson is an extraordinarily capable journalist and investigator. His exhaustive research, revealing interviews with key players and commentators in the financial game, and smart use of relevant archival footage of government hearings adds up to a searing—and infuriating—expose.

Nominated for an Oscar, this 2006 documentary reveals preteens who are taught to talk in tongues, go into trances, and commit themselves to crusading—to die, even—for Jesus. We follow them from their home environments to summer camp, and onto the streets where they preach to strangers.

Much to the credit of directors, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, "Jesus Camp" maintains its objectivity. The movie has been praised equally by fundamentalists, who consider these kids the next generation of missionaries, and by liberals, who identify them as potential religious fanatics and terrorists. It is up to you to take in the information and make your own judgment.

Forty years after the 1964 murders of civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, the story comes back to life.

"Neshoba" documents the State of Mississippi's indictment and trial of 80-year-old racist preacher Edgar Ray Killen, the alleged mastermind of the killings. It brings with it dissension regarding the belated revelation of truth and consequent punishment. The film also raises the question of whether the trial would bring reconciliation to the community or ignite residual racial tensions.

Sweetgrass

Filmmakers Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor follow Montana sheep herders as they drive 3,000 sheep through the Beartooth Mountains of Montana during the summer of 2003.

This challenging and dangerous journey was the final annual sheep drive along a trail that has been followed since the early 1900s. The documentary is cinema vérité—realism and naturalism—in its purest form. "Sweetgrass" is an exquisite example of what the directors call "visual anthropology."

By all accounts other than his own, Pat Tillman was a hero. Make that Hero, with a capital H. Famously, Tillman was the pro football player who turned in his multimillion dollar contract to become a patriot soldier.

His death in combat came as a shock to his bereaved family and fans, especially as Tillman's mother persisted in trying to find out about its circumstances. This film follows her steadfast journey to learn the truth.

Soldiers returning from combat experience severe depression, sleep disorders, and other symptoms collectively known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Wartorn presents the history of the effects of war on combat veterans. It begins with the U.S. Civil War—when doctors called it hysteria, melancholia, and insanity—and passes through to the more recent traumas suffered by veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Nature films of the magnitude of "Winged Migration" are hard to find. This majestic film by directors Jacques Perrin and Jacques Cluzaud is one for the ages and the heights they went to in order to capture it are remarkable.

Along with their 500-person crew, the team set out to capture the most striking footage of bird migration possible. Their four-year journey spanned the globe, following various species of birds on their annual flights covering thousands of miles. The search for food of such a varied and vast group of animals has never been witnessed to such a breathtaking degree.