If you're someone who thinks that Netflix is the streaming service wearing the documentaries crown right about now, you need to remember who the OG is. HBO was churning out incredible true stories before Netflix was even a big-ass red box outside your grocery store. We're talking pre-Redbox, y'all. HBO has been doing the work for years.
Seriously. As far back as 1996's Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, HBO has been freaking out its subscribers with true crime stories that are just as harrowing today. When the new century hit, HBO also started pioneering in the sports-doc genre, giving us Hard Knocks—and later on, incredible profiles of sports legends like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Tiger Woods.
Of course, there's all the weird, but can't-look-away shit in between, from Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief to Class Action Park. Frankly, it makes attempting to decide the best of HBO's documentary slate an impossible task. We took a shot at it anyway. Here are the 20 best HBO documentaries of all time.
At the Heart of Gold: Inside the USA Gymnastics Scandal (2019)
In 2016, Rachel Denhollander publicly accused USA Gymnastics national team doctor Larry Nassar of sexual misconduct. Her report would empower over 300 women to come forward with their own stories, each one a victim of Nassar’s inappropriate medical ‘treatments.' An affable and seemingly innocuous man, Nassar went more than 13 years exploiting his role as a trusted medical physician and confidante to instill trust in child athletes, who were embedded in the cutthroat environment of Olympic gymnastics. Culling together footage of Nassar, clips from the court hearings, and interviews with the victims, At the Heart of Gold is an alarming tale that examines muddled notions of right and wrong, while also providing an empowering precedent for the #Metoo movement a few months after.
Baltimore Rising (2017)
Most of us probably remember what occurred during the Baltimore protests in 2016. But Baltimore Rising is something altogether different, capturing the city after 25-year-old black man Freddie Gray died while under police custody. For those of you that envision the Baltimore riots as if it was an apocalyptic movie scene—the initial scenes will not necessarily disprove this dystopian imagery—Baltimore Rising will expose you to the greater picture of the aftermath, giving a nuanced perspective of an event that shook the social and political landscape of the country.
Beware the Slenderman (2016)
On May 31, 2014, two twelve-year-old girls took their best friend to the woods and stabbed her 19 times, acting under the delusion that they might appease an internet demon known as Slenderman. Irene Taylor Brodsky’s chilling documentary uses court footage, family and friend interviews, criminal investigation interrogation videos, and deep-dives on internet forums to show the origin of the girls’ beliefs and their budding plans. The camerawork in court, makes you feel like you're really there, sitting alongside the spectators. You’ll find yourself hooked during investigative footage, begging to ask your own questions in the courtroom.
Boy Interrupted (2019)
In an emotional collection of personal footage, award-winning documentary filmmaker Dana Perry guides us through the life of her bipolar son leading up to his suicide at the age of fifteen. The documentary, titled after the acclaimed novel Girl, Interrupted, is a front-row seat to the metamorphosis of mental health. Equally subtle and abrasive, Boy, Interrupted centers on a storyline that has deeply affected this family and remains the reality of countless others.
Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds (2017)
It's been a few years since we lost Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher within weeks of each other—and the world still misses them terribly. Looking back, Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds memorializes the two great actresses, releasing just a few weeks after their deaths. The film profiles the relationship between the two mother and daughter, which tells us a startling amount about the grand, dark story of old Hollywood.
Class Action Park (2020)
Documentaries rarely feel like full-blown fiction, full of shit that is too insane to be true. Class Action Park is the exception. The film revisits Action Park: an amusement park that more closely resembles a collection of steel death traps than genuine theme park fare. (Action Park was located in 1980s New Jersey, which really shouldn't surprise you.) HBO's telling of its very-very-problematic history is stuffed with stories from the people who were bruised and beaten by Action Park's rides themselves.
Everything is Copy—Nora Ephron: Scripted & Unscripted (2015)
Some people seem to live a hundred lives, and those are the ones who make the best documentary subjects. Everything is Copy details Nora Ephron’s life, career, and relationships, captured by her eldest son—who interviewed with her closest cohorts. The love shown for Ephron by each friend, confidant, and editor is interspersed with interviews of Ephron herself, as well as clips from her films, from Heartburn to Harry Met Sally to Julie & Julia. The motivation behind Ephron’s work was her powerful, raw emotion—but the driving force behind this documentary is what she evoked in others.
Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (2015)
Tax law, self-improvement, and ⅓ of a lie detector test drew congregation of the Church of Scientology in.
And Galactic overlord Xenu, ancient prison planets, and child abuse are what separate the defectors from the brainwashed. Going Clear features interviews with former members of the Church of Scientology, including John Travolta’s church liaison Spanky Taylor, and the words of founder L. Ron Hubbard himself. By the end you’ll know Scientology's jargon, use the lingo, and still wonder how so many high-profile individuals remain swept up in the swindle of a century.
Hard Knocks (2001-present)
When you think about it, the sum of Hard Knocks, which has followed one NFL team’s training camp per season since 2001, is pretty incredible. Most of the major pro sports teams, still, fuss when you so much as dare to ask a player a somewhat-not-really-tough question (ever try to talk to Russell Westbrook after a bad game?), but Hard Knocks manages to find genuinely incredible and revealing moments in one of sports’ most closed-door leagues. Where else can you have a tight end teach you about the wonders of healing crystals?
Jane Fonda in Five Acts (2018)
With Jane Fonda taking home the Cecil B. DeMille Award in the Golden Globes this year, you're overdue for a retrospective of the actress's wild, legendary career. Jane Fonda in Five Acts manages the impossible task of looking back on the tragedies Fonda has faced in her life, and the roles that made her a Hollywood icon.
Kareem: Minority of One (2015)
If you want to understand how the modern NBA star was born—players who move between teams like Tinder dates, holding the power to make political and social change far off the court—look at the career of NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Kareem: Minority of One has only become more relevant since it premiered (doesn’t the Warriors’ first ring in the Steph Curry dynasty feel like it was ages ago?), showing how Lew Alcindor became Kareem Abdul-Jabbar—master of the sky hook, and voice of a new generation of empowered athletes.
Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck (2015)
Even for those not familiar with Kurt Cobain’s music, or his drug addiction and eventual suicide, Montage of Heck plays like a visual and eclectic collage that's worth the watch. It explores not just the glorified grit of Cobain’s musical career, but also his relationship with his loved ones and, ultimately, with himself. Artwork and notebooks provide an insight into his mind, while soundtracks and self-recorded footage track his rise into a world of fame that he never desired. With interviews from his friends and family, Brett Morgan brings to life Cobain’s childhood, his musical journey, and relationship with his wife, Courtney Love.
Leaving Neverland (2019)
Some might think a four-hour documentary is either too long, disturbing, or bone-chilling to sit through. So many music fans loved Michael Jackson, and, in a way, that might've led some to overlook his off-stage behavior, which is what writer/director Dan Reed exposes in Leaving Neverland. In the doc, Reed painstakingly records the legacy of abuse that two families have lived in for decades. Now, a backlash from friends, relatives, and staff of Jackson accusing HBO and the victims of lying—and a $100 million lawsuit from the Jackson Estate—has done nothing but propel the documentary further into the spotlight.
Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (1996)
Before there was Making a Murderer, Serial, and our current obsession with everything (seriously, everything) true crime, there was Paradise Lost. The documentary, which was followed by two sequels in 2000 and 2011, told the story of West Memphis Three, who were accused of murdering and sexually harming three young boys in 1993. Although it doesn’t have all the slick, 2010s-era recreations and way-too-dramatic scoring (instead featuring Metallica songs), Paradise Lost set the standard for the perfect blend of drama and journalistic diligence that we see in today’s true crime docs.
Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind (2018)
I’ve come to split my notion of Robin William’s persona into two eras: Robin pre-and-post- Come Inside My Mind. Following the actor's suicide in 2014, Marina Zenovich pieced together a portrait that plays like a narration told by Robin himself. Come Inside My Mind gives an insight into Robin’s artistic journey, undulating alcoholism, and personal relationships. While the footage showcases the quick-witted genius of a comedian catapulted to stardom, it also unmasks a vulnerable artist in an unending quest to entertain and to please. By the end of the doc, you'll see that the Robin Williams you thought you knew and the Robin Williams you see in Come Inside My Mind, are two similar, but very different men.
The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley (2019)
First of all? Any documentary featuring the controversial, enigmatic Elizabeth Holmes is must-see viewing. We're just grateful that The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley's director, Alex Gibney, made something truly great with the access he got to the former CEO of the one-time multibillion-dollar healthcare company. In the film, he shows the dangers of the Silicon Valley boom—and how much the promise of a miracle healthcare invention can turn the world upside-down. Now, we wait for Jennifer Lawrence to star as Holmes in the big-budget adaptation of her story.
Thin follows the lives of patients at the Renfrew Center for Eating Disorders, showing the day-to-day struggles of overcoming a lifelong condition. It features footage from four women on different paths of treatment with one common driving force: their eating disorders has disrupted their lives beyond recognition. The simplicity of the filmmaking underlines the sneaky nature of eating disorders—strip back the outer layers of each of these women and see the previously hidden, or even celebrated, manifestations of their condition. Though over a decade old, Thin leaves you thinking about the state of United States health insurance practices, and what that means for the people who need it most.
In Tiger, directors Matthew Heineman and Matthew Hamachek had their work cut out for them. How do you profile a sports icon while his career is still in motion, and without his approval or involvement no less? Well, you flip the script. The directors revealed a new villain in the sex scandal that defined a large portion of the golfer's career: The tabloid media. The result is a brilliant, unflinching look at how the media can write history—and threaten to ruin lives in the process.
When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts (2006)
With so many hall-of-fame films and Knicks losses (sorry) under his belt, it’s easy to forget that Spike Lee is also a master documentary filmmaker—and his four-hour portrait of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath is some of his best work the genre. When the conversation at the time was dominated by the government’s handling of the disaster, Lee rightfully shifted his camera toward its victims, heartbroken and struggling to recover from the damage. Lee even returned to speak to some of the same people four years later in If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (2018)
Won’t You Be My Neighbor—which celebrates the life of Fred Rogers, the late, treasured host of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood—is one of those movies. You know the one: The kind where if you watch it too late, you’ll go into the movie just a little bit jaded because about 15 people have told you how much it’ll make you cry. This time, it’s an inevitability, as Morgan Neville managed to make a documentary with just as big of a heart as its subject. It’s a shame it didn’t earn an Oscar nomination, but something tells me Mister Rogers would still give a bear hug to each and every member of the Academy anyway.
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