25 of the Best Documentaries on HBO
These days, TV is one of the only ways we can keep ourselves entertained (we’re looking at you HBO, Netflix and Hulu). But sometimes, we want a break from our favorite fictional shows and films in favor of something more emotionally and intellectually stimulating. Yup, we’re talking documentaries, people. Keep reading for 25 of the best documentaries on HBO.
1. ‘MOMMY DEAD AND DEAREST’
Everyone who met the wheelchair-bound Gypsy Rose Blancharde and her mother, Dee Dee, felt compelled to help the close-knit family. It wasn’t until Dee Dee was murdered and Gypsy could suddenly walk that it became very clear things were not as they seemed.
2. ‘THE LOVING STORY’
This powerful film dives into the 1965 mixed-race marriage of Mildred and Richard Loving. One of the most important love stories of our time, the Lovings' marriage incited a historic civil rights case that put an end to laws banning mixed-race marriages in 16 states.
3. ‘BRIGHT LIGHTS: STARRING CARRIE FISHER AND DEBBIE REYNOLDS’
With the twinge of a Grey Gardens feel, Bright Lights celebrates the close bond that the late Carrie Fisher and her mother, Debbie Reynolds, shared in the years before their tragic deaths.
4. ‘GOING CLEAR: SCIENTOLOGY AND THE PRISON OF BELIEF’
Whether you've visited one of their many impressive and monolithic churches or centers across the nation or you've just seen a Tom Cruise movie, Going Clear is a startling exposé on the history of Scientology and its many beliefs and practices.
5. ‘LIFE ACCORDING TO SAM’
Thirteen-year-old Sam Berns has a rare disorder called progeria that makes him age at a rapid rate, but his positive attitude and charming sense of humor are what really stand out in this courageous documentary.
6. ‘BEWARE THE SLENDERMAN’
Remember a few years back when two young girls attempted to murder their friend in order to appease a fictitious (but really creepy) Internet character named Slenderman? Well, this terrifying doc dives into that whole debacle in vivid detail.
7. ‘EVERYTHING IS COPY’
We’re movie buffs here at PureWow, so it may not come as a complete surprise that this 2015 exploration of famed writer and filmmaker Nora Ephron touches our hearts. Ephron’s son, who directed the film, borrowed Ephron’s famous catchphrase for the title of a documentary that explores what went on behind the scenes of some of his mother’s most famous films, such as Sleepless in Seattle, When Harry Met Sally and You’ve Got Mail.
8. ‘A GIRL IN THE RIVER: THE PRICE OF FORGIVENESS’
There’s a reason this short yet incredibly powerful film won an Oscar in 2016. It paints the horrifying picture of a young Pakistani woman whose family tried to kill her in order to preserve her honor in the only type of society the family has ever known.
9. ‘Murder on Middle Beach’
Murder on Middle Beach is a four-part documentary series that follows director Madison Hamburg as he tries to solve a ten-year-old case involving an unspeakable crime. Oh, and did we mention the story at the center of the doc is about the murder of Hamburg's mother?
10. ‘PARADISE LOST: THE CHILD MURDERS AT ROBIN HOOD HILLS’
This movie documents the trial of the West Memphis Three, three teenagers who were accused of murdering three young boys in 1993 in Arkansas. The questionable evidence has plagued investigators for years, so prepare the popcorn. If you’re feeling adventurous, be sure to check out the next two parts of the trilogy, Paradise Lost 2: Revelations and Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory.
11. ‘Won’t You Be My Neighbor’
The documentary film does a deep dive into the heart of creative genius Fred Rogers, who inspired generations of children with compassion and imagination. Not to mention, it was one of the highest grossing biographical documentaries of all time—NBD (but it still got snubbed by the 2018 Academy Awards).
12. ‘Welcome to Chechnya’
This powerful and eye-opening documentary centers around a group of activists risking their lives to confront the ongoing anti-LGBTQ persecution in the repressive and closed Russian republic of Chechnya.
13. ‘The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley’
The two-hour film documents Holmes’s rise and fall as an entrepreneur, and yes, it’s pretty much the TV version of the New York Times best-selling book Bad Blood and subsequent hit podcast The Dropout. The Inventor features a slew of interviews with former Theranos employees, including Dave Philippides, Douglas Matje, Ryan Wistort, Tony Nugent and—of course—the two whistleblowers, Tyler Shultz and Erika Cheung.
14. ‘Four Little Girls’
Director Spike Lee offers a detailed look at the 1963 bombing of a church in Alabama, which took the lives of four young girls: Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley. The movie uses interviews and archived footage to look at how the incident inspired America’s civil-rights movement.
15. ‘I Love You, Now Die: The Commonwealth v. Michelle Carter’
ILYND follows the after math of 18-year-old Conrad Roy who died by suicide in his car at a parking lot in Fairhaven, Massachusetts. Shortly after, police discovered a series of alarming text messages from his girlfriend, 17-year-old Michelle Carter, that seemed to encourage him to kill himself.
16. ‘Baltimore Rising’
Baltimore Rising follows activists, police officers, community leaders and gang affiliates, who struggle to hold Baltimore together after the tragic death of Freddie Gray, who died in police custody. Now, the community wants answers (and justice).
17. ‘Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind’
Created by HBO as a tribute to the late actor/comedian, the documentary film is comprised of mostly archival footage and reminds viewers about his legacy through his most iconic performances. Spoiler alert: You’re going to need some tissues for this one.
18. ‘Capturing The Friedmans’
Capturing The Friedmans follows the trial of Arnold and later Jesse Friedman on the grounds of molestation and sexual abuse. The 2003 film, which is comprised of home videos and audio recordings, was nominated for Best Documentary Feature at the Academy Awards (and we totally see why).
19. ‘Ice on Fire’
Narrated by Leonardo DiCaprio (need we say more?), the environmental film focuses on climate change. However, rather than dwelling the negative and devastation throughout the world, the doc puts forth a possible solution that could potentially reverse some of the damage.
20. ‘King in the Wilderness’
Director Peter Kunhardt takes viewers on a journey of Dr. Martin Luther King’s entire life from childhood to his time as a conflicted leader to his tragic final days in Memphis. This must-watch focuses on the pressures and struggles that Dr. King and the civil rights movement faced in the last years of his life.
21. ‘John Lewis: Good Trouble’
HBO’s official synopsis reads: “An intimate account of legendary U.S. Representative John Lewis’ life, legacy and more than 60 years of extraordinary activism - from the bold teenager on the front lines of the Civil Rights movement to the legislative powerhouse he was throughout his career until his passing on July 17, 2020.”
22. ‘Andre the Giant’
You’ve heard the name, but how much do you actually know about Andrew the Giant? This documentary showcases the life and career of one of the most beloved legends in WWE history. With everything from Andre’s upbringing in France and his impressive WWE career to his forays into the entertainment industry.
23. ‘The Jinx: The Life and Times of Robert Durst’
This six-part docuseries examines the life of the reclusive millionaire who turned out to be at the heart of three killings (including his own wife) spanning four decades. Even if you haven’t seen it, you’ve definitely heard about this story in one form or another.
Through exclusive interviews with actors, family and the filmmaker himself, this unprecedented documentary from 2017 pulls back the curtains on the remarkable career of the director behind classics like Jaws, E.T. and Schindler’s List.
25. ‘40 Years A Prisoner’
Directed by Tom Oliver, this 2020 documentary chronicles one of the most controversial shootouts in American history—the 1978 Philadelphia police raid on the radical back-to-nature group MOVE. The almost two-hour film focuses on the aftermath that led to a son’s decades-long fight to free his parents from prison.