Asking someone to recommend documentaries on Amazon Prime is high on the list of the most daunting movie suggestions you can ask someone to make.
One thing about Amazon Prime: It is a staggering labyrinth of material to watch. This is perhaps most emphasized by how many documentaries are available. At last count, there are at least a few thousand titles available on the service that can qualify as a documentary. The library begins with critical juggernauts like All In: The Fight for Democracy, and runs all the way to the 1997 FOX Network “expose” UFOs: The Best Evidence Ever Caught on Tape 2.
My point is that you can find just about anything. This can make actually recommending the best Amazon Prime documentaries a little challenging. What are you into? What do you want to watch tonight?
While I can’t cover everything, and while any list I construct will favor some of my own interests (there are three music documentaries included here, and I’m kind of surprised it isn’t more), I’m going to try my best to offer a range to showcase just how diverse this particular category on Prime can get.
Whether you’ve just signed up for a Prime account, or if you want a recommendation of something you perhaps missed, we’re going to cover the best possible sampling of the best documentary movies currently on Amazon Prime.
While perhaps a little romantic for a time where pro wrestlers were on the road for as many as 300+ days of the year (this is where the movie gets its title from), there is no denying the power of 350 Days as a document to an era of pro wrestling that for some younger fans, may be difficult to imagine.
Interviewing legends ranging from Bret “The Hitman” Hart, to Greg “The Hammer” Valentine (a man who is weathered even by the standards of his unforgiving industry), “Superstar” Billy Graham, and many others highlight an industry that still has a long way to go for how its talent is treated, but is in considerably better shape than it was in the days of these individuals. No one is on the road 350 days a year anymore, so far as I know.
“Chilling” can certainly be applied to the decidedly unique 2012 film The Act of Killing. Yet I cannot help but feel that using a word to describe a documentary in which the former leaders of Indonesian death squads take up the opportunity to reenact their “achievements” via their favorite cinematic genre.
What sounds like a particularly sadistic piece of satire is in fact very real. It’s impossible to sum up this profoundly unsettling documentary in the short amount of space we have here.
All I can really do is promise that The Act of Killing, if you’re completely unfamiliar with the subject matter, is going to change the way you look at the world.
3. The Booksellers (2019)
Director: D.W. Young
“Lively” is a word you’ll notice a couple of times if you search for this sleeper hit Amazon Prime documentary on Google. There are a lot of applicable adjectives like that, which showcases the world of rare book collecting in New York. The thing is, the movie is also surprisingly disarming. To the point where I am relatively confident that I can recommend this to almost anyone.
Even if you wind up not really getting into the multifaceted world of this film, which features an executive producer credit and appearance by Parker Posey (makes sense), I guarantee moments where you’re really going to get caught up in the inner workings of people who, at their core, appreciate literature from an increasingly-niche angle.
4. Facing Ali (2009)
Director: Pete McCormack
With seemingly a few million documentaries on the iconic Muhammad Ali, starting anywhere with a cultural figure on this level can be daunting. Facing Ali takes a unique approach by using 10 of Ali’s opponents to create its biographical portrait.
The result, which also takes time to establish the men who speak of their experiences with Ali, is an incredible account of the various stages which defined Ali’s long career in the ring. It also offers unique insights into some of the most notable moments of Ali’s life beyond the ring, including his conversion to Islam.
You don’t even have to like boxing. There’s a considerable element of fascination to be found in seeing one of the 20th century’s most discussed human beings deconstructed on a level that removes the scholars, the hype, and virtually everything else.
5. Gimmie Danger (2016)
Director: Jim Jarmusch
Indie film elder Jim Jarmusch is still among the best directors in the world. He may not be known for documentaries in particular, but his 2016 film about the legendary Stooges, fronted by Iggy Pop, is a good example of his eye for detail. Jarmusch also succeeds admirably and uniquely at giving this band, which emerged in the early days of Detroit’s music scene in the 1960s, the context and weight they deserve.
Their story is a good way to define their era, but The Stooges, Iggy in particular, are extremely interesting individuals with long careers in music. This movie is filled with storytellers who can captivate with ease.
Jarmusch has the wisdom to let the energy of their music and personalities dictate what we watch and discover. The film is then wrapped in just enough technique and style to perfect its appeal.
6. Grizzly Man (2005)
Director: Werner Herzog
How to describe Timothy Treadwell, the subject of what might be Werner Herzog’s best documentary? Even with a full documentary film to go over, which benefits from Herzog’s ability to measure the utterly incredible elements of this story with the complex human components that are sometimes difficult to understand.
To be sure, Timothy Treadwell was a very, very strange man.
A failed actor who craved fame, Treadwell later became a conservationist of sorts. That part is certainly up for debate, but Treadwell’s dedication to living among wild grizzly bears, a decision which eventually (huge surprise) cost him his life, is clear.
Among the many harrowing moments of this film, you’ll want to pay special attention to the moment in which we watch Herzog listening to the actual footage of the bear that mauled and partially devoured Treadwell and his girlfriend. We don’t get to hear it ourselves. Herzog’s face, one of the sternest of the stern German visages, tells us more than we probably want to know.
7. I Am Not Your Negro (2016)
Director: Raoul Peck
Building on a book (Remember This House) James Baldwin was unable to finish in his lifetime, I Am Not Your Negro is one of the best examples in recent history of a documentary showing the power of that genre to bring history to its most vibrant and essential life.
The film offers a deep, unshakable, and often sorrowful account of not only Baldwin himself, but the nature of a manuscript which sought to explore racism through Baldwin’s own memories of civil rights leaders Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr, and Medgar Evers.
As you can imagine, I Am Not Your Negro speaks plainly, using a brilliant blend of editing, old footage of Baldwin, and other elements, about an ugly history many continue to ignore. Watching this documentary is not going to cure racism, but it can give you an introduction into just how long white supremacy has dominated the American landscape.
Beyond that? It’s also a beautiful portrait of a powerful artist.
8. The Last Waltz (1978)
Director: Martin Scorsese
The Last Waltz is considered by many to be the greatest concert film of all time. I suppose it helps considerably to be a fan of The Band, whose farewell 1976 concert is the subject of this film. However, I’m at best a casual fan of this group, but I find myself inclined to agree with those who consider the movie to be among the best of its kind.
However, for the sheer volume of music history represented by the guest performances, including Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, and several others, as well as the unbelievable atmosphere and energy captured by director Martin Scorsese, The Last Waltz really is something special, and one of the best documentaries to watch on Amazon Prime.
9. My Kid Could Paint That (2007)
Director: Amir Bar-Lev
My Kid Could Paint That operates flawlessly on two fundamental levels of the documentary format. In the first place, it presents an absolutely enthralling story based around the likelihood that a small child named Maria was responsible for paintings which found a notable measure of success in the art world.
Did Maria really paint that? You get to make the call, but the fact that the film so ruthlessly and intelligently pursues the larger issues of art, respect for the medium, and how things like capitalism can completely change the way you think about the creative impulses of an individual. This is the second level upon which My Kid Could Paint That rests.
You will draw your own answers to these questions, and I’m willing to bet you will be troubled by what you find.
10. Nightmares In Red, White, and Blue (2009)
Director: Andrew Monument
There is no shortage of brilliant documentaries about horror films and horror culture. Nightmares in Red, White, and Blue focuses specifically on the exploration of the American Dream as a concept, and the complex relationship it has consistently shared with horror films.
Narrated by the iconic Lance Henriksen, the film features interviews with filmmakers like George A. Romero and John Carpenter, and the political concepts their films explored, either overtly or indirectly.
Post-War America is indeed a weird, dangerous place. Horror has always been a great way to explain and understand that. Nightmares in Red, White, and Blue takes a focused approach to this concept that will give you a great opportunity to appreciate classics like Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Night of the Living Dead.
11. One Child Nation (2019)
Directors: Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang
Most of us know that until 2015 China had a “One child per family” rule. Most of us don’t really know much more about it than that. You can change that in less than 90 minutes with the moving, complex documentary One Child Nation.
The filmmakers themselves use their own experience as children born under this rule as the starting point. From there, we’re given a firm understanding of exactly what this policy entailed. More importantly, the film also shows us the results over the several decades in which this law existed.
Fair warning: As you might have guessed from a trailer, or from this synopsis, you’re going to be watching a very depressing, essential film. The concepts of bodily autonomy, family, and a dramatic shift of going from one culture to another, and then back again, are fully and powerfully on display here.
12. Perfect Bid: The Contestant Who Knew Too Much (2018)
Director: CJ Wallis
Nothing seems to hit that wistful nostalgia quite like remembering when you stayed home from school sick and got to watch The Price is Right in a haze of NyQuil and chicken broth. Perfect Bid is the depiction of someone who essentially decided to build their entire life around that feeling. It’s difficult to imagine a bigger fan of The Price is Right, or indeed, of anything, than Ted Slauson.
The degree of devotion Ted has for the show can be a little disconcerting. However, you can’t fault the success built upon the work he put in. Unfortunately, some people did, and Ted’s dedication shifts to a matter of controversy.
Was it right for him to memorize the show down to its very DNA, and then use that to his advantage? I can’t even begin to guess what your answer might be, which is the beauty of this endlessly intriguing movie.
13. Pumping Iron (1977)
Director: George Butler and Robert Fiore
You don’t have to give a single giddy damn about bodybuilding to appreciate the layers of fascination to be found in the extremely-successful 1977 documentary Pumping Iron. The film made a celebrity of Arnold Schwarzenegger, who used that momentum to eventually conquer action films, Hollywood itself, and even the political arena.
A bodybuilder becoming one of the most famous and successful people on the planet really doesn’t make a lot of sense on paper, does it? Some of the later critics of Schwarzenegger’s films sure couldn’t figure out the appeal.
Maybe, you won’t either. However, as you watch Arnold completely dismantle rival Lou Ferrigno with some of the most impressive psychological warfare ever committed to something as seemingly simple as bodybuilding. This sport comes down in many ways to projecting something powerful. It is interesting to watch that concept unfold, and it’s nothing short of extraordinary to see how Schwarzenegger exploited those expectations.
14. Stop Making Sense (1984)
Director: Jonathan Demme
I suppose you do have to probably at least appreciate David Byrne and The Talking Heads to enjoy this game-changing 1984 concert film, directed by Jonathan Demme, who would later craft films like Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia. Then again, the sheer energy of the creativity on display here, both in terms of filmmaking techniques, and how those things serve the eclectic catalog of the band, is something I think can pull in people who could care less about David Byrne’s ongoing existential crisis.
Stop Making Sense still has that impressive reach to gain your attention. It’s an adventure in of itself, and it manages to avoid ever slowing down, wasting our time, or even hinting at a potential dullness. This movie is electrifying from beginning to end.
15. Sunshine Hotel (2002)
Director: Michael Dominic
New York City’s history can be downright grim sometimes. The concept of the flophouse, which is occasionally romanticized, is something New York will never be able to fully ignore. No matter how many neighborhoods are gentrified. Regardless of how many poor people are punished by one or several of the five boroughs for being poor.
Sunshine Hotel, depicting one of the last notable flophouses in New York City, is a testament to the people who truly represent this city. It is a fascinating piece of history, as much as it is a somber portrayal of the derelicts, homeless, and other members of the walking weary. At the same time, it also displays beauty and humor.
Sunshine Hotel is content to let these people and stories dictate themselves, and the film is all the better for it.
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