As documentaries are grounded in true stories, they can inspire in a way fictionalized films can’t. The emotional impact can be more thrilling than any blockbuster because they’re based on facts, which explains their appeal. Here are 21 of the very best inspirational documentaries you can find—hunt them down and enjoy!
Stranded details the events of the 1972 Andes plane crash, as told by the 16 survivors. It’s a harrowing, but exceptionally uplifting, tale of surviving against unimaginable adversity. It’s a documentary absolutely everybody should see.
2. The Cove
This will change your views on dolphins in captivity, and the efforts of conservationist Ric O’Barry are life changing. The issue of mercury in the fish we eat is also raised—it hammers this point home with shocking honesty. Revelatory stuff.
Blackfish also highlights the dreadful nature of captivity, and the lengths conservationists will go to in order to help. The orcas in this film have been held captive for up to 30 years, but their incredible intelligence is overtly displayed in a riveting, moving film.
4. Food Matters
In an age of pesticides, preservatives, and mass-produced food, one viewing of Food Matters will make you change your lifestyle for the better.
5. Man On Wire
This is the astonishing tale of Phillipe Petit. The French tight-rope walker waltzed between the two World Trade Centers in New York in 1974. Poignant for obvious reasons, and a rousing portrait of what one person can do.
Formula One driver Ayrton Senna captivated the world with his driving skills, personality, and film star looks. In a controversial, but brilliant, F1 career (from 1984–1994), he won three World Championships, but his story met a tragic end. His legacy, however, will never be forgotten.
Narrated by Michael Fassbender, 1 (available on iTunes) is an in-depth look at the tumultuous era of Formula 1 racing in the 1960s and 1970s. Tragedy was commonplace, and the push for safety improvements was arduous. The FIA’s safety program has now saved millions of lives via the car industry, and much of this is due to the men who risked their lives then.
8. Grizzly Man
Werner Herzog’s exceptional documentary delves deep into the world of Timothy Treadwell, a conservationist who lived with wild grizzly bears for 13 summers. The video footage he recorded is intimate; sadly his daring met with a tragic end, but Herzog’s film displays his inner turmoil and love for nature.
Bob Marley remains a global superstar, and this documentary delves deep into his life to reveal a complex man with a natural gift for music. Poignant and thoroughly inspiring.
The 1969 Woodstock Festival has gone down in legend. What really stands out is the quality of the music on display; whether it’s Richie Havens, The Who, Jimi Hendrix, or Joe Cocker. It’s emotional music and it’s performed before an audience of 500,000!
11. Searching For Sugar Man
Sixto Rodriguez is a rock star who never was—except in South Africa, where his songs became part of the apartheid movement. Believing their hero to be dead, several fans began a search to discover his fate, only to find something utterly unexpected.
12. The Stone Roses: Made of Stone
The seminal English band The Stone Roses were scuppered by legal problems at their peak, and split for 16 years. Despite the odds they reformed in 2011 and embarked on several exhilarating homecoming gigs in Manchester.
13. The Last Waltz
In 1976 Martin Scorsese recorded The Band’s final gig. It’s gone down in history, with Levon Helm’s performance of The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down being considered one of the all-time-great live music moments. A must for fans of good music.
14. Beware of Mr. Baker
An account of notoriously tumultuous drummer Ginger Baker, once of legendary band Cream. The documentary shows the man and his passions (mainly drumming), but in later life he movingly reconnects with his son.
15. Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet
A teenage, guitar-playing prodigy in the late ’80s, Becker’s life seemed over when he was diagnosed with ALS (a.k.a. Lou Gehrig’s disease). Now in a wheelchair and unable to walk or talk, Becker continues to make music. What’s truly exceptional is his lust for life and sense of humor—a remarkable man and example to us all.
16. The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters
17. Jiro Dreams of Sushi
Sushi master Jiro runs a tiny restaurant in Tokyo, yet the 87-year-old has three Michelin stars and is regarded as the best sushi chef in the world. The documentary movingly examines his life and earnest dedication to his profession.
18. Touching The Void
In 1985, two climbers (Joe Simpson and Simon Yates) took on Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes. After making the summit, Simpson fell and broke his leg badly during the descent. What followed was a brutal fight for survival with life-changing decisions made at every step of the way home.
19. Project Nim
A British documentary about the chimpanzee Nim. In the 1970s, Nim was entered into a research project to discover if a primate raised in a human family could develop sign language. The results were erratic, and wavered from stirring to heartbreaking.
20. Waltz With Bashir
An Israeli animated documentary by Ari Folman; this is a mesmerising tale telling of the futility of war, and it can make for shocking viewing. The anti-war message is very clear, however, and Waltz With Bashir stands as a warning to the world.
20. Planet Earth
The BBC’s thorough look at the world we all live on, narrated by Sir David Attenborough. Simply put: it’s brilliant!
21. Into the Universe With Stephen Hawking
Courtesy of the genius mind of the remarkable Mr. Hawking, we get a thorough look at the Universe. Compelling viewing from one of the world’s leading scientific minds.