No small thanks to Netflix, documentaries are having their day. What once were long, kind of boring treks through a subject, are now buzz-grabbing mainstays of the entertainment industry. Now, we’re never going to slam the value of good fiction. But there’s just something about documentaries that can stir your emotions and open your eyes at the same time.
We’ve put together a list of five documentaries that are illuminating, heart-wrenching and downright entertaining. What’s the common denominator? They’ll change how you see—and in some cases, feel—the world.
They’re not all new, and they’re not all—gasp!—on Netflix. You might have to do some digging and, yes, maybe you’ll spend like $4 on Amazon. But these are worth it, we promise.
A Beautiful Planet
This 2016 film explores planet Earth. Like similar projects, the imagery is breathtaking. But there’s something entirely unique about it—A Beautiful Planet views Earth not from South American rain forests or East Asian mountain ranges—but from the International Space Station. From space. It’s impossible to see the beauty and intricacy and not come away with a greater sense of awe for God’s creation and respect for His creativity.
Plus, the picture is narrated by Jennifer Lawrence, which is just cool.
Even if you haven’t seen Blackfish, you’ve likely heard about it. This dramatic doc takes a deep look at Tilikum, a killer whale that killed three trainers. and the consequences of keeping orcas in captivity. Blackfish features interviews with former SeaWorld trainers who describe the conditions of whales kept in captivity—which the filmmakers argue causes attacks like those Tilikum was a part of.
Blackfish stands out because of the massive effect it had, and continues to have. It’s a testament to the real-world difference art can make.
The Dark Matter of Love
A family of three adds three more to their kids through adoption. What makes The Dark Matter of Love interesting is the up-close look it offers of adoption and long, difficult bonding process that follows. We see through the lenses of detailed psychological study that the family in this doc journeys to a frontier of new relationships with incredible courage.
The Best of Enemies
This film is probably the most fun on this list. The Best of Enemies chronicles and analyzes the 10 televised debates between William F. Buckley, Jr. and Gore Vidal in August 1968 (amid both the Republican and Democratic conventions). That year sits right at the height of the so-called culture wars, and Buckley and Vidal represent the best thinking of the (political) right and left. Not only are there, shall we say, spirited debates entertaining, but we get to see two competing visions of American culture and public life in their most articulate forms.
Even though the Buckley-Vidal debates were almost 60 years ago, their ideas are still warring. So The Best of Enemies is as much about then as now.
Based on a bestselling book, this documentary follows Owen Suskind, a young autistic man who was unable to speak until he began to understand social cues and communicate with his family through the world of classic animated Disney films.
Man on Wire
So maybe you won’t learn any life lessons from Philippe Petit’s “artistic crime of the century.” But there’s a certain beauty to watching the French high-wire walker’s 1974 illicit stroll between the World Trade Towers in New York.
To its credit, the 2008 documentary makes no mention of the events of 9/11, instead choosing to focus on the sheer beauty of audacity. (And, you know, evoking absolute terror in the viewer at the thought of working without a net.)