Max offers an extraordinary selection of movies, and its documentary library alone has enough gems for hours of compelling viewing. But if you’re indecisive, have no fear: We’ve gone through the hundreds of documentaries on Max and picked out the ones you absolutely have to make time to watch.
These movies prove the versatility of the documentary genre, both in terms of subject matter and form. They’ll immerse you in high school basketball, concerts, fights for racial justice, and so much more.
Here, in alphabetical order, are the best documentaries on Max streaming now.
1. 3 1/2 Minutes, Ten Bullets
Marc Silver’s 2015 documentary recounts the 2012 death of teenager Jordan Davis, who was shot multiple times in a parking lot while listening to music with friends. His attacker was found guilty of first-degree murder, but only after a mistrial and extensive media coverage. The documentary uses interviews with Davis’s family alongside footage from the trial to fully illustrate the grim reality of Florida’s self-defense laws.* — Proma Khosla, Senior Entertainment Reporter
How to watch: 3 1/2 Minutes, Ten Bullets is now streaming on Max.
2. André the Giant
André the Giant is a thoughtful examination of what it means to be larger than life. It gives André Roussimoff credit for his contributions to sports entertainment by identifying him as a pioneer who fully understood how gigantism, the medical condition responsible for his seven-foot-four frame, could elevate him to the status of a living myth. Interviews with wrestling personalities like Hulk Hogan, Ric Flair, and Vince McMahon offer a rare glimpse behind the curtain of kayfabe by documenting Roussimoff’s keen awareness of the awe he inspired and how his example transformed the WWF franchise into the massive performance showcase that exists now as the WWE. — Alexis Nedd, Senior Entertainment Reporter
How to watch: André the Giant is now streaming on Max.
3. Class Action Park
Death trap or fun time?
Credit: HBO Max
Welcome to Action Park! This New Jersey amusement and water park, built by former Wall Street tycoon Gene Mulvihill, was home to attractions such as Cannonball Loop and the Alpine Slide. It was also severely mismanaged and the cause of many injuries and deaths. Class Action Park reveals just how insane the story behind Action Park was, from the park’s madcap rides to Mulvihill’s shady tactics for keeping his venture afloat.
Through a mixture of fun animation and interviews with comedians who attended Action Park as children, Class Action Park keeps things light and humorous. However, it still exercises proper seriousness and restraint when discussing the park’s fatalities. Overall, Class Action Park is a wild documentary about a truly wild place. Come for the descriptions of the insane rides, and stay for the nuanced exploration of nostalgia and childhood in the 1980s. — Belen Edwards, Entertainment Reporter
4. Everything Is Copy
Everything Is Copy is the best kind of love letter: one that’s effusive in its admiration of its subject, but also clear-eyed about her quirks and imperfections. Journalist Jacob Bernstein explores the life, career, and 2012 death of Nora Ephron, known to us as the writer and filmmaker behind such movies as Sleepless in Seattle, You’ve Got Mail, and Julie & Julia, and to Bernstein as his mother.
Interviews with family members and famous friends (including Tom Hanks, Meg Ryan, and Mike Nichols), along with archival interviews and excerpts from Ephron’s own work, paint a portrait of a brilliant and ambitious spirit who lived by the motto stated in the title: “Everything is copy,” meaning that everything that happens in life can be fodder for a story later on. Though you wouldn’t mistake Bernstein’s documentary for a work by Ephron herself, the film’s warmth, candor, and humor make it a fitting tribute to the icon she was. — Angie Han, Deputy Entertainment Editor
5. Gimme Shelter
Keith Richards onstage in “Gimme Shelter.”
Credit: Maysles/20th Century Fox/Kobal/Shutterstock
Originally conceived as a behind-the-scenes account of the Rolling Stones’ legendary 1969 U.S. tour, Gimme Shelter was ultimately transformed by the circumstances that unfolded around it. While the film does delve into various moments from the UK band’s cross-country trip, its value as a historical document is most evident in its on the ground account of the infamous Altamont Free Concert in 1970 and the circumstances leading up to that day.
The filmmaking team led by Albert and David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin captured it all, and Gimme Shelter, a triumph of the cinéma vérité movement, is the result. — Adam Rosenberg, Senior Entertainment Reporter
6. Grey Gardens
“Little Edie” Beale pictured in Grey Gardens, 1975.
Credit: Tom Wargacki/Archive Photos/Getty Images
In their famed 1976 film Grey Gardens, brothers and documentary team Albert and David Maysles pay a visit to a dilapidated mansion in the Hamptons. There, they profile the intriguing and tragic lives of a reclusive mother and daughter, both named Edith Beale, in a strange and winding character study unlike any other.
Relatives of First Lady Jackie Kennedy, the life stories of “Little Edie” and “Big Edie” are sensationalized in the documentary, and many argue that the film takes an inherently exploitative view of its subjects and their apparent mental health conditions. But as far as fascinating footage goes, Grey Gardens is a must-watch — capturing a unique family at the heart of a broader dialogue about the decline of political royalty and ’60s-era Americana.* — Alison Foreman, Entertainment Reporter
7. Harlan County, USA
Harlan County, USA drops us into small-town Kentucky in the 1970s to show us a time, a place, and a community — and to reveal wheat happens when a group of coal miners go on strike, incurring the wrath of the Duke Power Company. Barbara Kopple’s film follows the miners and their supporters (including their ferociously determined wives) into the front lines of the fight, from picket lines to town hall meetings to more intimate moments of grief or rage or everyday life.
As the battle intensifies, spilling over into violence, what emerges is a gritty portrait of hard-won courage against an all-too-familiar villain, captured through Kopple’s principled perspective. Harlan County, USA won Best Documentary at the 1977 Oscars, and almost half a century later, it’s still regarded as one of the best documentaries of all time. It’s as riveting, as powerful, and urgent as it was the day it was released. — A.H.
8. Hoop Dreams
Arthur Agee in “Hoop Dreams.”
Credit: Fine Line/Kartemquin/Kobal/Shutterstock
Hoop Dreams dives into the lives of Arthur Agee and William Gates, two young men from inner-city Chicago who dream of making it big in the NBA. Both are recruited to play for St. Joseph High School’s highly regarded basketball program early on in the film, but over the next four years they take extremely different paths. Through Agee and Gates’ basketball careers, director Steve James explores issues of race, class, and how sports recruitment can cross into the realm of the exploitative and put undue amounts of pressure on young players.
What’s astonishing about Hoop Dreams is the level of intimacy James achieves with both Agee and Gates. He follows their journeys on and off the basketball court as they and their families experience parental separations, sports injuries, and financial struggles. The resulting documentary makes you feel like you’re experiencing life alongside Agee and Gates, so you desperately want them to succeed. It all comes to a head in the thrilling and tense basketball sequences. Even though these games were played decades ago, James makes every missed shot feel like a lost opportunity and every successful play feel like a massive victory. — B.E.
9. Original Cast Album: Company
If you’re a fan of the legendary Stephen Sondheim and George Furth musical Company, or of musical theater in general, this documentary is for you. Director D.A. Pennebaker trains a close eye on the original cast and orchestra of Company as they undergo an intense 15-hour recording session. You hear stand-out Company numbers such as “Being Alive” and “Getting Married Today” and get to see Sondheim at work. The film’s best and most famous sequence comes towards the end, when the great Elaine Stritch struggles to record “The Ladies Who Lunch.” It’s a gripping portrait of a performer trying to push through exhaustion and her own frustrations, and a perfect end to this stellar documentary. — B.E.
How to watch: Original Cast Album: Company is now streaming on Max.
10. Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind
Robin Williams pictured in New York City, 1980.
Credit: Sonia Moskowitz/Images/Getty Images
Years after Robin Williams’s death by suicide in 2014, the loss of his talent and presence still stings. Come Inside My Mind uses interviews with those who were closest to him — his son, ex-wife, best friends, and many more — along with archival footage to create a portrait of someone immensely, inordinately talented who battled mental illness for most of his life. Marina Zenovich’s documentary chronicles Williams’s whole life, from a sometimes-lonely childhood to a meteoric rise in comedy, as well as his struggles with addiction and an often-troubled career, despite his cemented status as a legend. Clips of his performances remind us (though no one needs reminding) that there was and likely never will be another with Williams’s iconic spark. — P.K.
11. The Times of Harvey Milk
In 1978, San Francisco’s first openly gay elected official Harvey Milk was gunned down inside of City Hall by a man who said he’s eaten too much sugar the night before. Six years later, filmmaker Rob Epstein made this masterful documentary about Milk’s career, his rise from activist to politician, and what his outrageous death meant to a community that was already embattled on all sides. It’s one of the most important documents of that moment in time. Gus Van Sant’s 2008 biopic with Sean Penn in the lead role does a decent job bringing the story to life, but Epstein’s film blows it out of the water on all fronts, mostly because even Penn can’t fake the fiery magnetism that the real-deal Milk carried around. — Jason Adams, Entertainment Reporter
How to watch: The Times of Harvey Milk is now streaming on Max.
12. Say Her Name: The Life and Death of Sandra Bland
Sandra Bland in “Say Her Name.”
When 28-year-old Sandra Bland was arrested for a traffic violation and subsequently found hanged in her jail cell days later, a two-year legal ordeal began. Filmmakers Kate Davis and David Heilbroner document her family’s battle with law enforcement while sharing Bland’s own video blogs and history of activism. Though her death was ruled a suicide, questions remain, as does Say Her Name‘s tragic timeliness.* — P.K.
Leena at a modeling audition in “Transhood.”
In Transhood, director Sharon Liese documents the lives of four young trans people — who are 4, 7, 12, and 15 when filming begins — living in Kansas City over the course of five years. It’s a moving portrait of its subjects’ childhoods and their respective transitions.
Transhood is intimate but never invasive, following its subjects with a caring and understanding eye. From consultations about gender-affirming treatments to interactions with friends, we get to know Phoenix, Avery, Jay, and Leena, as well as their parents, whose support and sacrifices fuel some of the film’s most emotional moments. Transhood doesn’t lift up its subjects as monoliths of the trans experience. Rather, it celebrates the differences and similarities between their journeys and finds the beauty in their transitions, all while inspiring great amounts of compassion and empathy. — B.E.
14. Welcome to Chechnya
The third film from Academy Award-nominated documentarian David France, Welcome to Chechnya takes viewers on a guerilla-style investigation into the anti-gay purges that still plague the constituent republic of Russia.
Not only does the explosive project detail the abhorrent policies created by Vladimir Putin and Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov to criminalize homosexuality, it also delves into the insidious culture the government has instilled in its citizens to encourage hate crimes. It’s a painful watch that demands attention from viewers, focusing in large part on the courageous efforts of underground networks working to help LGBTQ people escape the region.
What makes this doc stand out is the urgency. Documentary filmmaking can help us examine issues or events in greater detail, as well as preserve them for the historic record. Welcome to Chechnya does both with heartbreaking heroism, urging western audiences to at the very least acknowledge the genocide that continues to this day. — A.F.
15. All the Beauty and the Bloodshed
Photographer Nan Goldin collaborated with Citizenfour filmmaker Laura Poitras on this wily Oscar-nominated portrait of Goldin’s complex life, and what they came up with was a moving masterpiece about the inescapable intersections of art, self, and activism. Interweaving Goldin’s traumatic childhood with her relationships, her celebrated documentation of NYC in the 1970s and ’80s, and her fight to hold the Sackler family accountable for their role in the opioid epidemic, All the Beauty and the Bloodshed is a profound portrait of an unstoppable force — one who’s fueled by a keen sense of righteousness and love. Goldin’s managed to turn her own frailties into her greatest strengths as an artist and a human being, as evidenced in this unforgettable documentary. — J.A.
How to watch: All the Beauty and the Bloodshed is now streaming on Max.
16. Amazing Grace
Credit: GEM / StudioCanal / Kobal / Shutterstock
In 1972, the legendary singer Aretha Franklin went to church to record her live gospel album Amazing Grace over the course of two nights of performances. All of this was captured on camera too, but while the album went on to become the highest-selling live gospel album of all time, issues with syncing the footage and the sound kept the filmed version sitting in a vault for (checks notes) 45 years.
Part of the issue there was Franklin herself though, because for unknown reasons, she repeatedly sued the producer who’d bought the footage from Warner Brothers and tried to reshape it into something that could be released. Only after Aretha’s death in 2018 did her family make a deal with him, and (sorry, Aretha!) thank goodness they did: Amazing Grace captures the singer at the height of her lofty powers. Side note: This should be paired with the Rolling Stones doc down below, since Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts are seen in the audience grooving out alongside everybody else. — J.A.
How to watch: Amazing Grace is now streaming on Max.
17. David Lynch: The Art Life
Getting director David Lynch to talk about his cryptic, hallucinatory work and its meanings has always been like pulling teeth. And so this 2016 documentary from filmmakers Olivia Neergaard-Holm, Rick Barnes, and Jon Nguyen is vital because it’s probably the closest we’ll ever get to anything of that sort. Lynch is more than happy to talk about his actual hands-on process, especially with regards to his painting, as well as his life story — his childhood in Montana, his big transformative move to Philadelphia, and what led to his breakthrough Eraserhead. And, as ever when it comes to Lynch, we’re then meant to put together those pieces into a pattern that means something to us. He doesn’t make it easy, but he does make it worthwhile. — J.A.
How to watch: David Lynch: The Art Life is now streaming on Max.
18. De Palma
The polar opposite of David Lynch, this 2015 doc proves that you can’t get director Brian De Palma to shut up about his work — nor would you want him to. Here, Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow simply pointed a camera at the man and then asked him to talk about his movies; what they got was hours upon hours of footage, which they then curated down into this almost two-hour soliloquy on movie-making’s ups, downs, and spectacular sideways. De Palma’s monologue is laid over scenes from his gorgeously sleazy cinema; everything from Carrie to Body Double to Dressed to Kill are touched upon, but it’s his lesser-known movies like Casualties of War that end up holding the most fascination. It’s a master lesson in filmmaking from a master filmmaker. — J.A.
How to watch: De Palma is now streaming on Max.
Credit: Photo by Ljubomir Stefanov / NEON
My favorite thing that documentaries can do fairly effortlessly is transport you to a totally alien and unexpected world and drop you right in there, making it suddenly seem not at all alien but instead deeply familiar — empathy by way of immersion. One such standout is Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov’s Oscar-nominated 2019 film Honeyland, which chronicles the life of a Macedonian beekeeper named Hatidže and her blind, bedridden mother Nazife.
The drama that unfurls in Hatidže’s life as she gets new obnoxious neighbors who promptly begin mucking up the delicate balance of nature that their already precarious lifestyle depends on is more riveting than 10 Hollywood blockbusters. It’s a story in miniature that’s echoing across our entire planet, told with such intricacy and intimacy that it takes your breath away. (And when Hatidže showed up at the Oscars ceremony that year, I cried.) – J.A.
How to watch: Honeyland is now streaming on Max.
20. I Am Not Your Negro
Filmmaker Raoul Peck has proven himself to be one of the most formidable voices in documentary filmmaking over the past decade, and so we must also take this moment to recommend his magnificent 2021 documentary series Exterminate All the Brutes (now on Max) and his 2022 film Silver Dollar Road (now on Prime). But this current run of masterpieces began in 2016 with I Am Not Your Negro, Peck’s visualization of writer James Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript about the Civil Rights movement, narrated by Samuel L. Jackson. Rightly nominated for an Oscar, the film is as lacerating and infuriating and sometimes even as funny as Baldwin’s prose. Alongside all of the footage of the author on talk shows and at political events, it somehow does justice to the man’s words, which is in itself a monumental achievement. – J.A.
How to watch: I Am Not Your Negro is now streaming on Max.
21. Little Richard: I Am Everything
Credit: Magnolia Pictures
Finally getting his due as the Black queer icon who really invented rock and roll, this 2023 doc from director Lisa Cortes shows us how Little Richard went from the dirt-poor third of twelve kids of a bootlegger father in Macon, Georgia, to making white teen girls lose their minds as he performed hits like “Tutti Frutti.” Richard’s path was all over the map. White artists like Pat Boone and Elvis kept covering his songs and getting more play because of the color of their skin. He also abandoned music for religion at the height of his career in the 1950s, renouncing the devil’s music before returning to its embrace a few years later — and this happened several times over his lifelong career. But the showman couldn’t be contained; when an outsider renegade like John Waters is aping your style, then you know that you’re a legend. – J.A.
How to watch: Little Richard: I Am Everything is now streaming on Max.
22. Moonage Daydream
When David Bowie died in January of 2016, some people decided in retrospect that that was the moment where humanity shifted onto the shittier timeline that’s brought us the past several years of chaos. And while Brett Morgen’s 2022 musical bio-doc of the man doesn’t make that exact case, it does in its margins make the case for why people would feel that way. Morgen’s trippy film combines performance footage and interviews into something appropriately unique for its subject; it lands somewhere between a concert film and a deification, and that only seems right to me. – J.A.
How to watch: Moonage Daydream is now streaming on Max.
23. Paris is Burning
Documenting the drag balls of ’80s NYC, director Jennie Livingston followed her subjects around for six full years, making it an invaluable record of a moment in time and place that was disappearing and changing even as she filmed. Some of that was due to AIDS, some of that was due to violence and poverty, so some of those things haven’t changed that much after all. But the people interviewed – including ball legends like Pepper LaBeija, Dorian Corey, Willi Ninja, and Angie and Venus Xtravaganza – didn’t have that luxury: One of the film’s most defining and shocking moments in the film comes when we hear that Venus has been murdered. But the scales fall fairly evenly on the scene; it doesn’t wallow in the bad stuff as nearly as much as it celebrates the magic and wonder that these queens scrape up out of it. – J.A.
How to watch: Paris is Burning is now streaming on Max.
24. Rock Hudson: All That Heaven Allowed
Until we get the inevitable biopic of the most famous closeted gay movie star there ever was (and I can’t imagine who could play him), we’ll just have to make due with Stephen Kijak’s very fine 2023 doc on the actor. Thankfully there are still plenty of people around who knew and cavorted with Rock in his lifetime, so there’s no shortage of subjects more than willing to now spill the beans. As the Tales From the City author Armistead Maupin hilariously says at one point, “If I was fucking Rock Hudson, I would want my mother to know immediately.”
But it’s not just gossip about his sex life that makes Rock’s story worth being told; the man was the biggest star in Hollywood for several years, emblematic of the 1950s and ’60s ideals of big, strong manly-man masculinity, all while being forced to hide who he really was lest that unravel it all. He is simply put one of the biggest chapters in the Hollywood story, and Kijak’s film does that stratospheric tale justice. — J.A.
How to watch: Rock Hudson: All That Heaven Allowed is now streaming on Max.
A landmark documentary that was inspired by Truman Capote’s revolutionary style in the telling of In Cold Blood, this first film from Albert and David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin is seen as a pioneer feature in verite cinema. According to legend, they just chose four Bible salesman to follow with their cameras by virtue of their schedules, and then the movie sorted itself out from there. But what the filmmakers ended up finding in the salesmen’s stories somehow approaches mythical proportions. It ends up being about as staggering a portrait of mid-century America, religion, and consumerism as could possibly be imagined. One of the most important documentaries there are, while also being fly-on-the-wall simple and surprisingly funny. – J.A.
How to watch: Salesman is now streaming on Max.
Asterisks (*) indicate the write up comes from a previous Mashable list.
UPDATE: Jan. 11, 2024, 1:39 p.m. EST This article has been updated to reflect current streaming options.