Oscars: 48 Documentary Features That Showcase History in Real Time

9:50 AM 1/8/2021

by Tyler Coates, Scott Feinberg, Gregg Kilday, Jeanie Pyun, and Maya Tribbitt

Directors of these feature docs tapped into the instances, big and small, that define the stories of humanity worldwide, from asteroids to voter suppression, Taylor Swift to truffle hunters.

(From left) 'Rebuilding Paradise,' 'I Am Greta,' 'My Psychedelic Love Story,' 'Belushi,' 'Kingdom of Silence.'
Courtesy Photos

(From left) 'Rebuilding Paradise,' 'I Am Greta,' 'My Psychedelic Love Story,' 'Belushi,' 'Kingdom of Silence.'

  • 'Be Water' (ESPN)

    An installment of ESPN's acclaimed 30 for 30 series, Be Water offers a glimpse of martial arts icon Bruce Lee previously unseen to movie audiences. The documentary gives insight into his legacy and life beyond his athletic and acting talents, examining the struggles he faced on his path to success as he found himself caught between the two competing worlds (and cultures) of Hong Kong and Hollywood.

  • 'Belushi' (Showtime)

    Using audio recordings of interviews with the actor-comedian's friends and family, R.J. Cutler's documentary about John Belushi is a love letter to the Saturday Night Live star's comic legacy while examining the dark downside of his sudden fame and fortune.

  • 'Crazy, Not Insane' (HBO)

    The prolific Alex Gibney — who also has Totally Under Control in the running — directs this portrait of psychiatrist Dorothy Lewis, whose controversial research attempts to understand the psychological motivations of serial killers (including two notorious subjects: Johnny Frank Garrett and Ted Bundy). Oscar winner Laura Dern provides narration.

  • 'My Psychedelic Love Story' (Showtime)

    Oscar winner Errol Morris centers his latest film on Joanna Harcourt-Smith, the longtime lover of LSD guru and counterculture icon Timothy Leary, charting the pair's wild transcontinental affair and Harcourt-Smith's role in Leary's eventual release from prison.

  • 'David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet' (Netflix)

    The natural world is fading," the 94-year-old British naturalist says at the start of this film, summing up his globe-trotting life's work. "This is my testament." Full of the stunning nature photography familiar to fans of his docuseries Blue Planet and Planet Earth, it's also a passionate plea for mankind to save the shrinking forests and oceans before they collapse.

  • 'I Am Greta' (Hulu)

    In a year when street clashes dominated headlines, it can be tempting to think of the Fridays for Future school strikes against climate change started by a resolute, 15-year-old Swedish eco-activist in 2018 as quaint. Greta Thunberg's stark words at international summits and the U.N., which are met with condescension and death threats, are documented in this origin tale, but her mission to reduce global warming remains critical.

  • 'Rebuilding Paradise' (National Geographic/Disney+)

    This documentary about the Camp Fire, which ravaged a town called Paradise in 2018, focuses on the residents of what used to be "one of the most historic towns in California." Opening with horrific images of rampaging flames and oceans of sparks rolling underneath a burning sky, the film records the slow recovery from a flattened 100,000-plus-acre landscape of toxic ruin to a $13 billion settlement from PG&E a year later. Closing with images of tornadoes and floods from Beauregard, Louisiana, to Bangladesh, Rebuilding Paradise connects the dots on human-induced climate change as it celebrates and notes the resilience and trauma of "still left behind broken people."

  • '76 Days' (MTV Films)

    The time period of the title refers to the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic as the novel coronavirus outbreak struck Wuhan, China, the city of 11 million people where scientists believe the virus first spread among humans. The film centers on the health care workers and patients on the front lines of the health crisis during the city's two-and-a-half-month lockdown that began in January.

  • 'Totally Under Control' (Neon/Hulu)

  • 'All In: The Fight for Democracy' (Amazon Studios)

    Oscar nominee Liz Garbus and Emmy winner Lisa Cortés' doc about voter suppression feels as urgent as ever given that principal talking-head/producer Stacey Abrams helped swing Georgia for Joe Biden in November, remained front-and-center ahead of Georgia's Jan. 5 runoffs to determine control of the U.S. Senate, and has supported the film during its awards season campaign.

  • 'Boys State' (A24/Apple TV+)

    This portrait of teenage boys competing in a mock government program in Texas — the winner of 2020 Sundance's U.S. Documentary Grand Jury Prize and one of the fest's biggest sales, going to Apple TV+ — works because of the filmmakers' selection of four compelling subjects out of hundreds of participants.

  • 'City Hall' (PBS)

    The 45th film from 91-year-old doc legend Frederick Wiseman — who has never received an Oscar nom, but did receive an honorary Oscar in 2017 — is a 4.5-hour study of Boston's government. Both co-chief film critics of The New York Times ranked it as 2020's second-best film; the critics of Cahier du Cinema collectively put it at No. 1.

  • 'The Fight' (Magnolia Pictures)

    Weiner directors Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg teamed with Eli Despres on this Kerry Washington-produced film about ACLU lawyers and the causes — both popular and not — that they tirelessly worked to champion during the tumultuous Trump years. The film received a special Sundance jury award for Social Impact Filmmaking.

  • 'John Lewis: Good Trouble' (Participant/Magnolia Pictures/CNN)

    One of two standout 2020 docs from Dawn Porter (the other being The Way I See It), this chronicles the remarkable life and work of civil rights activist turned U.S. Congressman John Lewis. The film was released in theaters and on VOD in July, just weeks before Lewis succumbed to pancreatic cancer, and subsequently aired on CNN. 

  • 'MLK/FBI' (IFC Films)

    4 Little Girls Oscar nominee Sam Pollard returns to the civil rights era in this study of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the efforts of J. Edgar Hoover's FBI to smear him as his following grew, delving into King's work and some of the incendiary but unconfirmed allegations in the FBI's files, while hiding the faces of talking heads until the end.

  • 'Dads' (Apple TV+)

    Actress Bryce Dallas Howard steps behind the camera for this documentary about contemporary fatherhood that features celebrity dads like Judd Apatow, Kenan Thompson, Neil Patrick Harris and her own father, Oscar-winning director Ron Howard.

  • 'Dick Johnson Is Dead' (Netflix)

  • 'Time' (Amazon)

  • 'Assassins' (Greenwich Entertainment)

  • 'Desert One' (Greenwich Entertainment)

    Two-time Oscar winner Barbara Kopple examines Operation Eagle Claw, the infamous effort to free hostages captured in the 1979 Iranian revolution, from its initial planning stages to its botched rollout — and the latter's effect on the Carter administration.

  • 'The Dissident' (Briarcliff Entertainment)

  • 'The Human Factor' (Sony Pictures Classics)

    The effort to secure peace in the Middle East is the focus of this examination of international relations and diplomacy, with behind-the-scenes stories from the American mediators embedded in the area who spent three decades attempting — mostly in vain — to broker peace agreements.

  • 'I Am Not Alone' (Avalanche Entertainment)

    Depicting the events of the 2018 Armenian Revolution, the doc follows Nikol Pashinyan, a former political prisoner turned member of Parliament, who embarked on a solo protest march against then-Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan — which snowballed into a mass movement.

  • 'Kingdom of Silence' (Showtime)

    The brutal murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi bookends Rick Rowley's film from Alex Gibney's Jigsaw Productions. But the bulk of its running time is devoted to recounting Khashoggi's Zelig-like career — from his early support, later withdrawn, of Osama bin Laden to his excitement over the Arab Spring to his eventual criticism of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman — as well as an accounting of the complicated relations that have bound the United States and Saudi Arabia together. 

  • 'Notturno' (Distribution)

  • 'Welcome to Chechnya' (HBO)

  • 'Collective' (Participant/Magnolia Pictures)

  • 'Disclosure' (Netflix)

    This film from trans director Sam Feder and producer Laverne Cox breaks down the importance and impact of genuine queer and trans representation in film, with trans performers sharing their particular experiences in film and television while offering hope for steps toward positive representation onscreen.

  • 'The Social Dilemma' (Netflix)

    Social media has become ubiquitous, yet many users don't know how the apps actually function. With a mix of scripted scenes and hard-hitting interviews with former Silicon Valley executives, Netflix's The Social Dilemma explores the intentionally addictive programming of these apps and the myth of privacy.

  • 'A Thousand Cuts' (PBS)

    This doc examines the conflicted relationship between the press and the Philippine government — particularly under the authoritarian leadership of Rodrigo Duterte. The film follows journalist Maria Ressa as she risks her reputation and personal freedom to expose corruption and threats to democracy.

  • 'The Way I See It' (Focus Features)

    Former chief White House photographer Pete Souza chronicles his journey from Reagan to the Obama administration in this documentary directed by Dawn Porter. The film follows Souza on tour for his latest photo book, Shade: A Tale of Two Presidents, and looks back at the most iconic images and moments of President Obama's tenure.

  • 'Beastie Boys Story' (Apple TV+)

    Oscar winner Spike Jonze reunites with his frequent collaborators Michael Diamond (Mike D) and Adam Horovitz (Ad-Rock) of the iconic hip-hop trio Beastie Boys to look back at the group's musical and artistic legacy, while also honoring late member Adam Yauch (MCA), who died of cancer in 2012.

  • 'The Go-Go's' (Showtime)

    Charting the band's origins in the Los Angeles punk scene and featuring candid interviews from its members, this rock doc follows the meteoric rise of the first all-female band to play their own instruments, write their own songs and earn multiplatinum record sales — all while setting a new standard for women in rock music.

  • 'Jimmy Carter: Rock & Roll President' (CNN)

    President Jimmy Carter's friendship with a variety of popular musicians in the 1970s is the subject of this documentary, illuminating the celebrities who campaigned for the then-governor of Georgia during his presidential campaign (including Bob Dylan, James Brown and Gregg Allman) as well as the parade of rock stars who visited the White House during their Washington, D.C., tour stops.

  • 'Miss Americana' (Netflix)

    In her first documentary, Taylor Swift allows fans and critics alike to see the rawest and most vulnerable moments in her decade-long career. With seven studio albums and two secret ones (this year's Folklore and Evermore) on the way, viewers are given an intimate glimpse into Swift's creative process, personal struggles and political views.

  • 'Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band' (Magnolia Pictures)

    Based on Robertson's memoir, Daniel Roher's doc chronicles the rise of the Canadian group that went from Bob Dylan's backing band to rock 'n' roll icons in their own right, culminating in an epic final concert (the subject of Martin Scorsese's The Last Waltz) and a long-lasting musical legacy.

  • 'Gunda' (Neon)

    An enormous sow and her litter of squealing piglets are the stars of Russian-born director Viktor Kosakovskiy's farmyard chronicle — chickens and cows play supporting roles. Shot in luminous black-and-white, eschewing music and narration, it respects its subjects without anthropomorphizing them and has noted vegan Joaquin Phoenix as executive producer.

  • 'Fireball: Visitors From Darker Worlds' (Apple TV+)

    Working with geoscientist Clive Oppenheimer, prolific director Werner Herzog travels the world, offering his typically wry narration, meeting with everyone from astronomers to shamans, as he explores asteroids and their meteorites that fall to Earth, bringing with them unknown elements and even hints of life from beyond the stars.

  • 'My Octopus Teacher' (Netflix)

    Diving off the coast of South Africa, Craig Foster, founder of the Sea Change Project, encounters and becomes obsessed with a solitary octopus, spending the next year visiting her daily as he establishes a bond of sorts and bears witness to her life amid an otherworldly kelp forest.

  • 'The Truffle Hunters' (Sony Pictures Classics)

    This film follows a dying breed of elderly foragers, who, led by their beloved, keen-nosed dogs through the dense forests of Piedmont, Italy, search for the elusive white Alba truffle. Its celebration of an ancient tradition won it spots at both the Sundance and New York Film Festivals.

  • 'Athlete A' (Netflix)

    As if creating a companion piece to the Oscar-winning Spotlight, directors Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk recount the Indianapolis Star investigation that led to the 2017 conviction of Larry Nassar, accused of assaulting hundreds of young women during his years as U.S. Gymnastics' national team doctor. And they give voice to the survivors who ultimately confronted Nassar in court.

  • 'On the Record' (HBO)

    In a follow-up to their 2012 Oscar-nominated The Invisible War, about sex abuse in the military, Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering focus on the allegations of sexual assault and rape that former music exec Drew Dixon and other women have directed at Def Jam founder Russell Simmons, who, though denying the charges, resigned from his businesses.

  • 'Circus of Books' (Netflix)

    The infamous West Hollywood gay pornographic bookstore is the subject of this touching documentary, which tells the surprising story of the couple who operated the shop for nearly 40 years: the director's strait-laced Jewish parents, Karen and Barry Mason. The film examines Circus of Books as both a cultural touchstone and a community space for L.A.'s queer community that is long gone in an era of marriage equality and hook-up apps.

  • 'Crip Camp' (Netflix)

    Executive produced by Barack and Michelle Obama, this acclaimed doc centers on a New York summer camp for teenagers with disabilities, who would later empower themselves as activists for the disability rights movement beginning in the 1970s.

  • 'Giving Voice' (Netflix)

    Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, two of playwright August Wilson's greatest living interpreters, appear as talking heads in this film that follows a monologue competition named for the Pulitzer Prize winner. Thousands of high school students enter the annual competition in an effort to earn a chance to perform on Broadway.

  • 'The Painter and the Thief' (Neon)

    An unlikely friendship forms between Czech artist Barbora Kysilkova and career criminal Karl Bertil-Nordland — who stole two of Kysilkova's valuable paintings in broad daylight from an Oslo gallery in 2015 — as the artist paints a portrait of the thief who pilfered her work. 

  • 'The Reason I Jump' (Kino Lorber)

    Based on the memoir by Naoki Higashida — written when the author was just 13 years old — Rothwell's immersive film gives viewers insight into the lives and struggles of five nonverbal autistic persons across the globe.

  • 'Spaceship Earth' (Neon)

    This stranger-than-fiction documentary looks back at the 1991 experiment that saw eight "biospherians" quarantine themselves inside a giant dome that replicated the earth's ecosystem. The Biosphere 2, built in the Arizona desert, was intended to be a two-year experiment to simulate human existence on other planets — but the participants often clashed in ways that resemble human life as we know it on Earth.