Last Updated on August 31, 2020
The quarantine may have shuttered our activity, but it can never break our collective spirit. As many of us scour our streaming services for something – anything – to binge-watch, documentarians offer hope in the form of aspiration, inspiration, and motivation.
The following titles lift us out of the morass of shelter-in-place to provide a vital spark of humanity. Let their pixilated digital light guide you to great heights, because this is documentary filmmaking at its very best.
We kick off our list with a 2-for-1 gem that embraces not only an epic triumph over adversity but also the rugged majesty of a trek to the North Pole. As a child, Swarner conquered cancer and then turned his indefatigable gaze upward. In his adult years, the intrepid adventurer scaled the highest peaks on all seven continents. True North follows Swarner to his ultimate destination atop Mother Earth. As the temperatures drop, the tensions soar, keeping viewers on the edge of their sled!
Buckle up for hell on wheels, courtesy of the wheelchair rugby warriors of Murderball. The sports action is as relentless as the heartstring-tugging in this chronicle of the most hardcore athletes in the world as they vie for Paralympic gold. This documentary inspires the audience to dig down and discover their gritty resolve, and the language is equally spicy. It is rated R for a good reason, so it may not be suitable for younger kids.
Dolphins are a symbol of everything mystical and magical about the oceans. They swirl through our imagination and dovetail with our better angels. The human subjects of The Cove strive to protect our dolphin brothers and sisters at great peril to their own safety, proving that bravery runs deep. Equal parts disturbing, intriguing, enlightening, and riveting, The Cove earned a well-deserved Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.
One year before The Cove took home top honors from the Oscars, the Best Doc trophy went to Man on Wire. This film follows Philippe Petit along the razor-thin cord he strung across the daunting gap between the towers of the World Trade Center back in 1974. Petit defied gravity, expectations, and the law to pull off his spectacular stunt. Decades later, the documentary crew of Man on Wire recreates the daring escapade for the white-knuckle viewing pleasure of modern audiences. Look out below!
Music is the connective tissue of the soul, and nobody understood the power of reggae rhythms more than Bob Marley. His tunes are ubiquitous, but his untold story immerses the viewer in a harmony that transcends the tracks. Marley explores the culture and community heralded by the music icon, amplifying his message with a soundscape that echoes across decades and into the vibrant here and now.
San Francisco is synonymous with gay pride, but it did not merely become an LGBTQ haven on its own. The seismic transformation took hard work, innovation, and love by the mile. Two decades before Sean Penn won his second Best Actor Oscar for playing Harvey Milk, this essential documentary depicted the man who brought inclusion to the Bay Area. Generations of LGBTQ individuals owe a debt of GLAADitude to Harvey, and they can watch this feature with their head held high and a tear in their eye.
We live among animals, but human beings can be one of the cruelest species on Earth. Jane Goodall beseeches us to summon our last shreds of humanity in this urgent film, documenting her efforts to save primates, beginning with our souls and emanating outward to the world at large. Jane’s Journey is an anthropological ballad that orchestrates a narrative about our delicate balance in the wild kingdom and convinces us to reclaim the harmony that benefits us all.
For a bit of a sorbet, grease up with the muscle men of Pumping Iron. Seven years before he blasted into pop culture as The Terminator, Arnold Schwarzenegger competed for the title of Mr. Universe against such heavyweight luminaries as Lou Ferrigno, aka The Incredible Hulk. A testament to the strength of its leads, Pumping Iron is a Goliath vs. Goliath treat for audiences who need a healthy rush of cinematic adrenaline.
Now that you are thoroughly pumped up, replenish your protein with a low-fat, high-fascination serving of inspiration. Jiro Dreams of Sushi excavates the culinary gold of a small eatery tucked beneath the Tokyo subway system, where a master chef hones his expertise. The world’s greatest sushi connoisseur is preparing his greatest feat yet: passing his considerable legacy onto his son. Feast on the sumptuous food porn and family drama, presented with aesthetic grace and grandeur.
Set sail for motivation as a 13-year-old Dutch girl charts a course for destiny. Laura Dekker vows to become the youngest sailor to ever conquer an oceanic trip around the world. Gliding in Magellan’s wake, Dekker’s Maidentrip is a festival of feels. The audience spends part of the film’s duration yearning to protect the young adventurer, then evolves to see the world through her ambitious eyes. Dekker embraces danger, thrives in isolation, and embodies freedom on the open water. Her only passenger is the camera, and viewers reap the benefits of her voluminous bravery.
As you embark on your own journey of empowerment and discovery, allow the above documentaries to act as cinematic life coaches. From the vast wonders of Sean Swarner’s North Pole to the verdant jungles of Jane Goodall’s expansive heart, film can elevate us to exciting new vistas and remarkable achievements. Happy binging…