The world of documentaries has exploded in recent years. Filmmakers are flocking to the genre in droves, and audiences are more than willing to binge the shows and movies that are released. This has led to some of the biggest hits of recent years, such as TIGER KING (NETFLIX) and MAKING A MURDERER (NETFLIX). Even the streaming giants are creating their own lineup of documentaries, especially Netflix with its “Netflix Originals” label. As a documentary filmmaker myself, I am overjoyed that these films and shows are gaining traction with a remarkably large audience. But one thing I have noticed is that there are plenty of documentaries that fly under the radar. They are all amazing and definitely worth a watch, but they are often ignored in favor of other movies and shows. So, without further ado, here are 10 underappreciated documentaries that you may have missed.
ONE OF US (NETFLIX, 2017)
Over the last several years, Netflix has been pushing hard to create its own content from documentaries to series to movies. Recently, the streaming giant has released a series titled UNORTHODOX (NETFLIX, 2020). The series follows a young woman named Esther, who was raised in the ultra-otrthodox Hasidic Jewish community in New York City. At 19-years-old, she escapes her arranged marriage and leaves the community to live her life in Berlin. In 2017, Netflix also released a predecessor of sorts called ONE OF US. This documentary follows a similar story to that of UNORTHODOX, following three people who decide to leave the ultra-orthodox Jewish community in New York. The film shows the fallout that results in their departure, and how they must find their way in a world they are unfamiliar with. It’s an incredibly interesting look at what happens when people must journey out into a world that has moved far past their understanding, and how they can build up a new community that they are comfortable in.
REMASTERED: DEVIL AT THE CROSSROADS (NETFLIX, 2019)
Another entry in Netflix’s lineup of original content, REMASTERED is a collection of short documentaries that tell different stories from the music industry. The entry DEVIL AT THE CROSSROADS is perhaps the most sinister. It follows a man named Robert Johnson, who started out as a little-known blues guitarist before mysteriously disappearing for a year and a half. When he returned, his skills had blown up to the point that he was reportedly doing things that not even his mentors could do. Legend says that he supposedly made a deal with the Devil to become an expert guitar player in exchange for his soul. The film delves into the mythology of the musician, while also moving past the folklore to show his magnificent impact of the world of music
1 (Exclusive Media, 2013)
The world of Formula 1 is an interesting one, with its history being one of the craziest things you’ll likely hear about. The film 1 follows the Golden Age of Formula 1 that happened in the 1960s and ‘70s. At the time, Grand Prix drivers were considered national heroes, and were literally risking their lives to drive. This was a time period where the cars were pushed to their limit to go as fast as possible, while nothing else about racing changed at all. This resulted in many of the drivers dying in the middle of races, with hundreds of fans and TV cameras in attendance. It was a very tense moment in racing history that changed the sport forever.
THEY SHALL NOT GROW OLD (NETFLIX, 2018)
In my opinion, this is one of the most impressive war documentaries ever made, so it’s a shame that it had such an incredibly limited theatrical run. Directed by Peter Jackson, THEY SHALL NOT GROW OLD is an archival documentary about World War I, featuring footage from all aspects of the war and audio interviews with the soldiers that fought in it. But this isn’t just any archival footage. Jackson slowed it down to match more realistic movements, accurately colorized every frame, and added dialogue and sound effects with the help of lip readers. It is a technical feat that is truly impressive to see and is a must-watch for any history buff.
JANE (National Geographic, 2017)
This is another fantastic archival documentary that suffered from the same thing that THEY SHALL NOT GROW OLD experienced. The film was given a very limited theatrical run, with only a handful of showings in an incredibly small number of cities. Produced by National Geographic and featuring never-before-seen footage, the film follows conservationist Jane Goodall during her study of chimpanzees. It’s an incredibly intimate look at one of the most influential women in the world as she balances her work with trying to start a family in the jungles of Africa.
VOYEUR (NETFLIX, 2017)
VOYEUR is fascinating. It not only tells the story of its subject but it turns the camera around and looks at the act of storytelling itself. The film follows writer Gay Talese, who pioneered the New Journalism movement in the 1960s, as he writes his newest book about a man named Gerald Foos. Foos is a former motel owner from Colorado who built a secret tunnel in the ceiling of his building to spy on his guests. Specifically, he was interested in watching them have sex. He is a very perverted man and the story is definitely for a mature audience. But it also serves as an interesting look at the art of telling stories, as Talese is sucked into the story himself. It’s an interesting way to examine the pitfalls of storytelling, and why human beings are so fascinated with macabre tales.
THE KEEPERS (NETFLIX, 2017)
When it comes to movies about the Catholic Church, many people will immediately think of SPOTLIGHT (2015), the movie that highlighted the Boston Globe’s investigation into child abuse committed by the church. But the subject was given new life a few years after SPOTLIGHT in a series called THE KEEPERS (2017). The show focuses on Sister Catherine Cesnik, a nun who taught at an all-girls Catholic school in Baltimore and was found dead in 1969. Several of her former students are still investigating her death, including a few who claim she was killed because she knew about sexual abuse committed by a fellow teacher, Father Joseph Maskell. It is a harrowing look at what happens when an abuse of power goes unchecked for decades, and the importance of the journalists and investigators who refuse to let the story die.
MERU (Zero Media, 2015)
In a way, MERU is a predecessor to the Oscar winning film FREE SOLO (2018). Both films are directed by Jimmy Chin, a mountain climber and National Geographic photographer, and both feature mountain climbers attempting some of the world’s most dangerous climbs. In MERU, outdoorsmen Conrad Anker, Renan Ozturk, and Jimmy Chin attempt to climb the Shark’s Fin on Mount Meru. The film captures a lot of the same feelings that FREE SOLO would several years later. It does a great job at showing what it is like to actually be in the moment and how dangerous it is to be doing this kind of climb. It is a perfect example of how far people will go to achieve the impossible.
SOMM TRILOGY (Forgotten Man Films, 2012 – 2018)
I know, I am cheating a bit by including three movies in one entry. But each movie in the SOMM trilogy is worth mentioning. Each one follows a different aspect of the culture surrounding wine, including the master sommelier exam, wine history, the grape growing process, and a wine conference from the 1970s that changed the industry forever. These aren’t the most critically acclaimed movies on this list by any means, but each movie has a great way of telling its own unique story. It takes the complicated world of wine and explains everything in the most digestible way possible.
EIGHT DAYS A WEEK (HULU, 2016)
The Beatles are one of the most influential bands of all time. They took the world by storm, spawning the term “Beatle-mania” and creating one of the first instances of extreme celebrity adoration. EIGHT DAYS A WEEK explores the band’s touring days, and what made them stop. It starts with their explosion in the United States on the Ed Sullivan show, and works its way through their career until they decide to stop touring and stay in the studio. It provides an interesting look at an aspect of music that people don’t normally see. It is highly beneficial for bands to go on tour, but it can be an exhausting process that wears them down. It is possibly one of the greatest looks at one of history’s biggest pop culture icons.