Although docuseries seem to be the new push in the way true stories are told, it’s hard to beat a great documentary film. The best documentaries make you wish they were series, but that is part of their magic. They know when to get out so as not to bore you with all their information, a curse that some docuseries have fallen into; not every true story needs eight hours to be told.
Updated May 10th, 2023: To keep this article fresh and relevant by adding more information and entries, this article has been updated on May 6th 2023, by Gaurav Krishnan to ensure that we cover all the very best documentaries of the year 2022.
Documentaries have been no exception to the fantastic content coming out last year in 2022, with Netflix in particular leading the pack as one of the best streaming services for documentary content, with HBO a very close second. There have been numerous great documentary films released this year (Goodnight Oppy, Descendant, Eternal Spring, Dreaming Walls, Free Chol Soo Lee, and Marx Can Wait are all great in particular, but didn’t quite make the cut), and these are the 25 very best.
25 Elizabeth: A Portrait in Parts
Elizabeth: A Portrait in Parts documents the late longest-reigning British monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, who reigned for 70 years. Director Roger Michell puts together a beautiful display of the Queen’s historical achievements while also giving a rare look into her personal life. The documentary is pieced together with archival footage and scenes from great scripted content like The Crown and Elizabeth. Elizabeth: A Portrait in Parts is now available on Showtime.
24 Harry Potter 20th Anniversary: Return to Hogwarts
Harry Potter 20th Anniversary: Return to Hogwarts beautifully reunites the cast of the Harry Potter film series, including stars Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint. The documentary marks the 20th anniversary of the release of the first film, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001). The cast is wonderful as they reminisce about the 10 years they spent filming plus the impact the franchise has had on fans. Fans of the Harry Potter franchise loved the documentary, which received positive reviews. Harry Potter 20th Anniversary: Return to Hogwarts is streaming on HBO Max.
The documentary Sr. centers around the relationship between filmmaker Robert Downey Sr. and his son Robert Downey Jr. While we know Downey Jr. best for playing Iron Man (Tony Stark) and Sherlock Holmes, this is a biographical documentary that’s as much of an impassioned tribute of a son to his father as it is a first-hand account of the close relationship they shared through the years.
Downey Sr. helped shape the independent film scene of the ’70s with films like Putney Swope, Pound, Chafed Elbows, Greaser’s Palace, and Moment To Moment, and he discusses & dissects the filmmaking process as it was back then compared to what it is now with the documentary’s director Chris Smith. Downey Jr. reflects on his late father’s life in this short and revelatory film, which is a fitting elegy to Downey Sr. The bio-doc delivers a poignant take on a father and son who are both rather eccentric; despite the seemingly dysfunctional relationship they share, it reveals the mutual admiration and love and respect they had for each other.
22 The Sound of 007
An intriguing take on the music that has shaped every James Bond film over the past six decades, ever since the Ian Fleming character was adapted to the big screen, The Sound of 007 delves deeply into the music that has gone into making the film franchise as legendary, suave & widely revered as they’ve contrived to become over the years. The music behind the iconic superspy series, as the trailer suggests, has a certain pervading magic to it as artists and composers recount how it felt working on the music for a Bond film and how getting the gig to create the music for the franchise is as competitive as the casting of Bond itself.
John Barry’s now timeless theme has been reiterated and recreated by a multitude of globally recognized musicians, composers and artists who have also written title songs for the film series, from Shirley Bassey and Paul McCartney to Chris Cornell and Adele, and as of the latest Bond flick No Time to Die, Bilie Eilish. The documentary, directed by Matt Whitecross, gives viewers the inside story on the process of writing music for Bond and its legacy over the past 60 years which is a candid take on the art of composing and songwriting for the globally adored film franchise.
21 Return to Space
The Netflix documentary Return to Space brings us inside the revolutionary SpaceX mission as they send NASA astronauts back to the International Space Station. The documentary follows SpaceX from one of its first vehicles, the Falcon 1, to the 2020 launch of astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken on the Crew Dragon Demo-2.
The film, directed by Oscar winners Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhely of Free Solo and The Rescuei, is an interesting look inside Musk’s process of building a re-usable spacecraft. In retrospect, after the disaster that is Musk’s Twitter takeover, the film seems a bit like propaganda, but in The Triumph of the Will kind of way — cinematically great and perfectly executed.
20 Jennifer Lopez: Halftime
The Netflix documentary Jennifer Lopez: Halftime follows the career of Jennifer Lopez with a focus on the year leading up to her 2020 Super Bowl halftime show. The documentary, directed by Amanda Micheli, captures Lopez’s dedication to her craft and documents the hardships she has faced throughout her life and career. Jennifer Lopez: Halftime includes interviews with Lopez and people that know her best, giving a personal look into the superstar.
19 Spring Awakening: Those You’ve Known
Spring Awakening: Those You’ve Known is an emotional reunion of the original cast and creative team of the Tony-winning Broadway show, Spring Awakening. Director Michael John Warren filmed the original company’s 15-year 2021 reunion concert to benefit The Actor’s Fund and their rehearsals while mixing in interviews from the cast, which includes stars Jonathan Groff and Lea Michelle. The HBO film offers a wonderful look at the groundbreaking play that continues to enthrall fans to this day.
18 Tony Hawk: Until The Wheels Fall Off
Tony Hawk: Until the Wheels Fall Off, directed by Sam Jones, is a biographical documentary that explores the life of arguably the greatest skateboarder of all time, Tony Hawk. Born in San Diego, California, Hawk found it rather difficult to fit into skateboarding culture in his younger years because of his personality, but his sheer determination to land unimaginable & at times outrageous tricks and push boundaries, transformed him into one of vertical skating’s greatest ever proponents.
In the HBO documentary with never-before-seen archival footage, Hawk reflects on his life from his humble beginnings as a teenager to launching a successful video game franchise and all the ups and downs and glories & failures he had to grapple with in his career and pathway to becoming an icon of the sport. Hawk reflects on fame, and raising a family, and also becoming a skating icon revered by fans and contemporaries across the spectrum, with his relentless desire to land every skateboard trick he envisioned in his head. Hawk would persevere and accomplish great heights in his longstanding career with his never-say-die attitude becoming a household name, and skating, as the title suggests, until “the wheels fall off.”
17 Moonage Daydream
Brett Morgen’s Moonage Daydream shows us David Bowie as we’ve never seen him before. As opposed to a more traditional bio-documentary, Morgen’s work relies less on fact and more on atmosphere to create a hallucinatory, yet deeply authentic portrait of the musical icon. Instead of interviews with those who knew Bowie, Morgen’s documentary relies on a prolific usage of archival footage, as well as newfound usages of Bowie’s music. Morgen clearly didn’t just want us to learn about Bowie, but to feel what it was like to know him.
16 The Tinder Swindler
The Tinder Swindler follows the story of the Israeli conman Simon Leviev and how he used the dating app Tinder to swindle women out of thousands of dollars. Director Felicity Morris interviews the women who Leviev emotionally manipulated to support his lavish lifestyle as they describe his wild tactics and how they got their revenge in the extremely popular Netflix documentary.
15 Our Father
Netflix’s Our Father tells the haunting story of Donald Cline, a former Indianapolis-based fertility doctor who used his own sperm to impregnate his unsuspecting patients. The documentary follows the children of Cline as they discover the truth about what happened to their mothers and unite with each other to take him down. Our Father, directed by Lucie Jourdan, is a compelling and upsetting tale that stays with you long after the film’s close.
14 The Mystery of Marilyn Monroe: The Unheard Tapes
The Mystery of Marilyn Monroe: The Unheard Tapes follows Anthony Summers, author of Goddess (1985), as he discusses his research on the untimely death of cultural icon Marilyn Monroe. Director Emma Cooper uses archival footage and interviews from people that knew her using the 650 tape-recorded interviews Summers gathered during his three years of research. The Netflix documentary is an interesting look into the star’s “suicide” that has been a source of conspiracy for years.
A treat for cinephiles, Lynch/Oz goes down the rabbit hole of fandom, theories, and all things David Lynch. It’s a fitting addition to the fascinating oeuvre of Alexandre O. Philippe, whose films obsess over other films and use the medium to explore obsession and art in general (The People Vs. George Lucas, 78/52: Hitchcock’s Shower Scene, Memory: The Origins of Alien, Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on The Exorcist, and more). Featuring analysis and interviews, plus an aesthetic vibe akin to Lynch’s style, Lynch/Oz is a delightful gift to the world of documentaries.
12 Say Hey, Willie Mays!
Say Hey, Willie Mays! is a must-see for any fan of baseball, new or old. The HBO film follows the legendary lifestyle, both on and off the field, of this Giants giant, whose talent is often compared to that of Babe Ruth. Despite being ninety years of age while filming, viewers are able to hear vivid, articulate stories from Mays himself. The film also captures the unique historical background that Mays was a part of, being both a product of the American Dream and playing during the peak of the Civil Rights movement.
A visually stunning, practically meditative documentary, Bitterbrush is Emelie Mahdavian’s poetic study of two female range riders during a season with their cattle. Bitterbrush not only chronicles the daily and weekly rhythms of two women and the animals, but also the cycles of seasons and the natural order. Without any traditional expositional tools like voiceovers or on-screen text, Bitterbrush gorgeously depicts hard work, friendship, and the absolute majesty of the nature that dwarfs us all.
10 Downfall: The Case Against Boeing
Downfall: The Case Against Boeing is a scathing view of Boeing’s attempt to capitalize on the aircraft market and the manufacturing of their aircraft, specifically the Boeing 737 Max which was involved in the crashes of Lion Air Flight 610 and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302. The documentary looks at the events leading up to the crashes, which killed a combined 346 people, and Boeing’s greed while disregarding safety.
Director Rory Kennedy uses archival footage and interviews with former employees, victims’ families, and pilots including Captain Sully Sullenberger, creating both an emotional and informative film. Downfall: The Case Against Boeing is available on Netflix.
9 Girl in the Picture
Netflix’s Girl in the Picture tells the sad story of Suzanne Sevakis and the horrors she endured at the hands of her abductor, Franklin Delano Floyd. The documentary, directed by Skye Borgman, follows the two decades Sevakis was held captive by Floyd and her suspicious death in 1990. Girl in the Picture locks you in from the minute it starts with its twisted and tragic tale.
8 Riotsville, USA
Sierra Pettengill’s film Riotsville, USA utilizes archival footage exclusively to shine a light on a little-known government project in the United States. The film follows the creation and activities of actual towns that were built in the late ’60s in order to train the police and military on how to respond to protests and civil rights movements. Slyly commenting on modern-day protest movements and police reform, Riotsville, USA takes a powerful look at what that ‘reform’ actually turns out to be most of the time.
7 Three Minutes — A Lengthening
Bianca Stigter’s film Three Minutes — A Lengthening is a fascinating and heartbreaking testament to the power of photography and film, but also a study in human evil. The magnificently edited film examines the only existing media of a Jewish town in Poland after the Nazis destroyed it, expanding upon the three minutes of archival footage from 1938 and drawing from interviews conducted with seven survivors. It’s truly haunting to see a whole community come back to life through film, while viewers watch on with the knowledge of what will happen next.
Russian political dissident Alexei Navalny opens the documentary by stating, “I’m making a movie in the case of my death.” Navalny remains that tense throughout as it explores his vocal opposition to Vladimir Putin and the assassination attempt on Navalny’s life. Closer to a classic conspiracy thriller from the ’70s than the usual character study documentary, Navalny is a suspenseful and encouraging watch, inspiring others to be courageous enough to speak truth to power.
This story originally appeared on Movieweb