In recent years documentaries have often been at the forefront of change when it comes to important contemporary issues. Some of that can be chalked up to availability — once more or less a niche genre, the documentary has exploded in popularity on Netflix and other streaming websites. And with that explosion in popularity, you can expect there to be more documentary content per year than ever before and more opportunities to have your stance changed or strengthened when it comes to important issues. To get you started, here are seven great documentaries that have the ability to change your views.
1. The Thin Blue Line (1988)
Most of the other films on this list are more recent to reflect the issues we face today, but The Thin Blue Line deserves a mention because of its timeless exploration of truth. The film revolves around the case of Randall Adams who was convicted and sentenced to death for a crime he didn’t commit in 1976. Director Errol Morris gathers the crime’s witnesses allowing them to tell their side of story, which is then shown in cinematic re-enactments. The film would later lead to Adams’s release from prison in 1989 and has in the years since been lauded as one of the greatest documentaries of all time with stylistic influences that remain replicated to this day.
2. Inside Job (2010)
If you feel like getting angry about the financial crisis of the late-2000s or want to learn more about why you should be angry, look no further than Inside Job. Directed by Charles Ferguson who began doing research in 2008 while the financial crisis was in full swing, the film breaks down the crisis into five segments: “How We Got Here,” “The Bubble,” “The Crisis,” “Accountability,” and “Where We Are Now.” Critics praised the film’s ability to make a complicated situation understandable to the majority of viewers in a well-paced and surprisingly funny package. The film would go on to win the 2010 Academy Award for “Best Documentary Feature” and is essential material for anyone looking to better understand the financial crisis that continues to impact us today.
3. The House I Live In (2012)
Director Eugene Jarecki previously focused on the United States military-industrial complex in the documentary Why We Fight, and this time he shifts his attention to another uniquely American issue: the war on drugs. The House I Live In makes use of countless interviews from varying perspectives in order to highlight how the war on drugs has failed, chronicling it from the start to where we are now. Interviewees range from judges and police officers to drug dealers and those sentenced for drug-related crimes. Even David Simon, the creator of The Wire, makes an appearance in the film that won Grand Jury Prize at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival.
4. Food, Inc. (2008)
Food, Inc. has been known to sway viewers to alter their eating habits, and after watching it you’ll quickly understand why. Directed by Robert Kenner, Food, Inc. explores the current state of food production in the United States and traces all the issues that have developed from American industrial farming. What Kenner reveals is that the current system of food production is devastating from top to bottom, from the abused animals and employees to unhealthy food products and finally to unhealthy marketing by food companies to keep the entire industry going.
5. Room 237 (2012)
Room 237 is a lighter addition to this list — one that doesn’t explore topical issues or politics — but it might push you to change your view about watching a movie. Directed by Rodney Ascher, the film revolves around a series of fanatics who have each developed incredibly elaborate theories to describe the true meaning behind Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. One theory suggests that the Apollo 11 moon landing was a hoax directed by Kubrick, who then hinted at his involvement within the film as an apology. Another points to imagery of the American west to make the conclusion that the film’s subtext is American imperialism. While the suggestions are generally absurd, it’s the process of hearing movie theories stretched to their breaking point that can make you reconsider how you read into a film.
6. Blackfish (2013)
A lot of us have fond memories of SeaWorld, but Blackfish can make you reconsider those memories and prevent you from ever visiting again. Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite outlines the issues related to captive killer whales, focusing specifically on an orca named Tilikum at the Orlanda, Florida SeaWorld that has been responsible for three deaths. The film has had a devastating impact on SeaWorld whose attendance and stock price has been in decline along with a soured reputation. And just recently, SeaWorld has made the announcement that it will no longer breed orcas or make them do tricks for audiences.
7. An Inconvenient Truth (2006)
One of the most well-known documentaries of all time, An Inconvenient Truth is still essential viewing for anyone looking to gather information on the most pressing issue we face today: global warming. Directed by Davis Guggenheim and written by Al Gore, who also stars, An Inconvenient Truth describes in detail the impact of global warming, refutes critics, and recommends changes that can prevent further damage. The film has been credited for the momentum in global warming attention and received a slew of awards including “Best Documentary Feature” at the 2006 Academy Awards.
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