best hbo documentaries : The Defiant Ones

Photo via Joe Pugliese/HBO

27 documentaries on HBO everyone should see

HBO’s deep library of documentaries covers everything from Scientology to the West Memphis Three.


Chris Osterndorf


Posted on Jul 19, 2017   Updated on Jan 27, 2021, 12:53 am CST

While Netflix has made big plays in the documentary world recently, it’s no secret that HBO has plenty of great offerings for doc lovers too. For decades now, HBO has been producing and acquiring fresh and important true stories about the odd, overlooked, and most compelling people you can point a camera at. Most of these HBO documentaries are available to stream right now on HBO Go and HBO Now. The options are vast, but here’s where you should start.

The best HBO documentaries

1) The Defiant Ones

HBO’s The Defiant Ones, a four-part documentary series, reaches soaring heights by getting vulnerable. Director Allen Hughes locates the necessary trust from the two towering men, masterfully finding their humanity. The intertwined stories of Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine are the tales of Beats headphones’ billions, unaddressed heartache, and big risks. Their stories are about everyone else, too, including the rock stars who show up to tell this story. You learn about Trent Reznor’s contract issues, Tupac’s moral dichotomy, Bono’s regrets, and the rise of Eminem. That’s just the beginning. —Kahron Spearman

best hbo documentaries 2017: defiant ones

2) 4 Little Girls

Spike Lee is a great director, period. But he probably doesn’t get enough credit for the work he’s done in documentaries specifically. 1997’s 4 Little Girls was the first major evidence of this, and it still stands as one of his best in the documentary or narrative field. An investigation into the 1963 bombing of a Birmingham church that took the lives of four young Sunday school students, the film is a searing portrait of a landmark moment for the civil rights movement. 4 Little Girls may be the defining chronicle of this horrifying incident, and the doc includes an interview with former Alabama Gov. George Wallace that is shockingly frank. The most troubling thing about the documentary, however, is its continued relevance. 

Best Documentaries on Amazon and HBO: 4 Little Girls

3) The Case Against 8

The Case Against 8 looks at the effort in California to overturn Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage, while also following the first federal marriage equality lawsuit to reach the Supreme Court. Co-directed by Ryan White, who made this year’s Netflix series The Keepers too, The Case Against 8 is a key document on a recent historical event that we have not even fully grasped the importance of yet. Catch it now, before the upcoming Hollywood remake gets here.

hbo documentaries : The Case Against 8


4) The Paradise Lost trilogy

Comparable to Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line, the Paradise Lost trilogy is the rare piece of filmmaking about the flaws of the American justice system that actually helped enact real change. Centered on the West Memphis Three, each documentary in the series follows Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley, Jr., and Jason Baldwin from their arrests to their eventual release from prison. Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills came out in 1996 and covers the trials of the three men during their teenage years, when they were convicted of child murder in West Memphis, Arkansas. Paradise Lost 2: Revelations, which came out in 2000, examines the unanswered questions and irregularities of the case, most of which pointed to the conclusion that the wrong people had been put in jail. Finally, 2012’s Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, looks at the fight to get the West Memphis Three out of prison, a fight that was eventually won when Echols, Misskelley, and Baldwin were freed in 2011. Joe Berlinger is a prolific director and a known master in documentary filmmaking, but his exhaustive and important chronicles of the Robin Hood Hills case may be both his and HBO’s crowning achievement in the field.  

5) Beware the Slenderman

True crime is always fascinating but rarely is it as disturbing as in Beware the Slenderman. The doc captures the events and aftermath of a 2014 murder attempt by two 12-year-old Wisconsin girls who tried to sacrifice their friend to the fictional internet character Slenderman. The interviews with experts on web culture trotted out to analyze the case are absorbing on their own, but the addition of the girls’ families, who are all remarkably candid, really makes Beware the Slenderman something to behold. Coming at the story from all angles—personal, cultural, psychological, and legal—the film ends with the terrifying conclusion that as long as internet memes can take on a life of their own, the easily impressionable are at risk.

best hbo documentaries : beware the slenderman

6) Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds

Directors Alexis Bloom and Fisher Stevens rushed to get this film done following Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds’ abrupt passing in late 2016. But what makes Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds work is that it is less concerned with the details of its subjects’ deaths than it is with celebrating their lives. While undeniably bittersweet, Bright Lights is also a funny, revealing an intimate look at a unique mother/daughter relationship and a singular showbiz dynasty. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, but if you loved these two women, you’ll be glad you watched it.  

hbo documentaries : Bright Lights starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds

7) Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief

One wonders if years down the line, Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief will mark a kind of before-and-after moment for the Church of Scientology. Based on the book by Lawrence Wright and made by the busiest man in documentaries today, Alex Gibney, Going Clear spares no prisoners in its examination of this celebrity-filled, cult-like organization. Tracking its roots from L. Ron Hubbard through the current wealthy but notorious incarnation of the movement, the film contains plenty of the gossip you’ve likely already heard about Scientology, as well as some crazy details you may not have: Its efforts to be seen by the U.S. government as a real religion, the rise of current church leader David Miscavige, the intimidation and abuse suffered by former members, the core tenets of Scientology. Few documentaries are as crazy, as entertaining, or as critical.

hbo documentaries : Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief


8) Eagles of Death Metal: Nos Amis

This doc, directed by Colin Hanks, provides a thoroughly distressing account of the terrorist attack at the Bataclan theater during an Eagles of Death Metal show in November 2015. Hanks interviews the band members present at the show as well as EODM drummer and Queens of the Stone Age leader Josh Homme, who was in the U.S. for that tour, in the time between the band’s return home and their return to Paris. The terror in their voices as they retell their escape is hard to shake. But the documentary finds ways to inject more uplifting moments, like the band reuniting with fans and getting back on stage with U2. It’s a harrowing tale tinged with survivor’s guilt and an ode to the power of music. It’ll move you. —Eddie Strait

9) Meth Storm

This documentary offers a frank look at one Arkansas community’s epic struggle with methamphetamine use. Families are decimated by meth use, and people are trying to maintain their habits. Law enforcement is getting soundly trounced due to a lack of funds, and there isn’t much hope for a better outcome on the horizon. People on both sides of the battle are desperate, and that desperation fuels the human heartbreak at the center of this unsolvable puzzle. —E.S.

hbo documentary meth storm

10) Baltimore Rising

Baltimore Rising takes us back to the tumultuous spring in 2015 after the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray, who died in police custody after his spine was mysteriously broken. In 90 minutes, the HBO film by Wire alum Sonja Sohn unpacks the societal response to his death. The documentary’s greatest virtue is the wide range of emotions we see from a community low on hope but adamant to see change. When Baltimore tells its story, there are no easy answers. —Danielle Ransom

best documentary hbo : baltimore rising

11) Mommy Dead and Dearest

It’s crazy to think that a murder may be the least insane part of a crime story, but for HBO’s Mommy Dead and Dearest, murder is where the story jumps off. The doc covers the murder of Dee Dee Blancharde and the hands of her daughter, Gypsy Rose, and her boyfriend, Nicholas. The more we learn about the case, the more stunning it becomes. Decades of lies come to light and the truth turns out to be so convoluted and bizarre than anyone could’ve ever imagined. David Wharton

12) If You’re Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast

With a long career that includes nine Emmys, a Grammy, and creating The Dick Van Dyke Show, nobody would blame Carl Reiner  if he wanted to just relax and play shuffleboard until the lights go out. In HBO’s charming documentary, Reiner profiles celebs who are thriving on the far side of 90, including Mel Brooks, Norman Lear, Betty White, Dick Van Dyke, and Stan Lee. —D.W.

best docs 2017 : If You're Not In the Obit, Eat Breakfast

13) Tickled

Tickled falls into that category of documentaries you might call “so weird I can’t believe it’s true.”  Although the film appears at first to be an exposé on the “sport” of competitive tickling (already pretty weird), it takes a turn early on in its run to become something else entirely. By the end, filmmakers David Farrier and Dylan Reeve have uncovered a conspiracy so deep and so strange it doesn’t even merit an attempt at an explanation here. Over everything, Tickled is an examination of wealth and power and how the possession of these things lets people get away with almost anything.

best hbo documentaries : tickled


14) Unlocking the Cage

Unlocking the Cage is an animal protection story dressed as a courtroom drama. A team of nonprofit lawyers, headed by Steve Wise, work to establish personhood for chimpanzees, which is a stepping stone toward some animals having human rights. The documentary shows glimpses of the work being done with the animals to quantify their abilities, which is fascinating. But the bulk of the runtime is focused on the legal battle and the slow march of progress. It’s a compelling look at a situation with obvious, and uncomfortable, parallels to past and present debates about civil rights.  —E.S.

new hbo documentaries : unlocking the cage

15) Atomic Homefront

Rebecca Cammisa’s cautionary and quiet documentary dips into the unmitigated effects and cruel ironies of the Manhattan Project. The film follows activists asking for relief stemming from the government’s ineptitude during the storage and discard of nuclear waste near a St. Louis suburb. Though Cammisa’s no-nonsense approach eventually tunnels into a lesson in bleakness, Atomic Homefront remains a necessarily infuriating watch. —K.S.

best hbo documentaries 2018 - hbo's atomic homefront

16) 32 Pills

This gut-wrenching documentary tells the story of its director Hope Litoff, a New York-based mother of two who scours over the remains of her sister Ruth Litoff’s life six years after she ended it. Emptying out a forgotten storage unit filled with the journals and artwork documenting Ruth’s breakdown, Hope attempts to recreate her lost sister’s mindset and, in so doing, succumbs to the same demons. —Gillian Branstetter

best hbo documentaries : 32 pills

17) The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling

In The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling, director Judd Apatow attempts to understand the many contradictions of the legendary comedian’s life as best he can. The documentary follows Shandling’s influential career, from his days as a sitcom writer in the ‘70s to his success as a stand-up comedian and his two legendary series, It’s Garry Shandling’s Show and The Larry Sanders Show. It also delves into Shandling’s personal life, tying his complicated relationship with his mother to his struggle to commit romantically and constant search for enlightenment and eventual conversion to Buddhism.

best hbo documentaries - The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling

18) Arthur Miller: Writer

Arthur Miller: Writer is the kind of documentary that is neither overly ambitious nor completely by the book. It uses home movies and personal interviews to give the viewer an intimate, behind-the-scenes look into the subject’s life and perspective. The reason the film was granted this footage, along with excerpts from Miller’s journals and letters, was because it was directed by his daughter, filmmaker Rebecca Miller. This familial connection adds another layer to the movie, one that’s central Writer’s successes and failings. 

best documentaries on hbo - Arthur Miller: Writer

19) I Am Evidence

I Am Evidence is a harrowing documentary that examines the legal system’s failure to thoroughly investigate sexual assault cases in the United States, as evidenced by more than 200,000 untested rape kits collecting dust in storage rooms nationwide. The film prominently features the stories of Helena and Amberly, two women who were assaulted by the same person despite living in different parts of the country—and whose cases were both neglected by authorities. The failure of the justice system in cases like these makes up the heart of the film, and directors Trish Adlesic and Geeta Gandbhir shine a light on the systemic and societal inequality and misogyny coursing through the country. I Am Evidence doesn’t exactly say anything that we don’t already know, but it makes clear the cost of this dereliction of responsibility. —E.S.


20) Andre the Giant

Andre the Giant was larger than life. He was one of pro wrestling’s biggest stars—literally and figuratively—and though he died in 1993, his presence still looms over the industry. But Andre the Giant’s life, in many ways, was a tragedy. His body produced too much growth hormone, resulting in a condition called acromegaly. He had a daughter he knew he couldn’t effectively raise, and his feelings were constantly hurt because people couldn’t stop gawking at him. This documentary might not break much new ground about one of the most famous wrestlers in history—though the fact that director Jason Hehir tracked down the doorman of the Paris hotel where Andre the Giant died was impressive—but the insight provided by his almost all of his famous peers is captivating. —Josh Katzowitz

hbo documentaries 2018 - andre the giant

21) Elvis Presley: The Searcher

There have been movies about Elvis Presley before, but there’s never been a definitive take on the “King of Rock n’ Roll.” He’s simply too big; no actor has ever been able to adequately fill his blue suede shoes. Elvis Presley: The Searcher, a two-part documentary, offers a more sensible way to cover Presley’s life and career. Rather than picking over the many details of who he was and what he did for the thousandth time, director Thom Zimny condenses countless hours of archival footage and voiceovers to approach Presley in a scholarly but streamlined way. The Searcher exhaustively covers Presley’s music, but it fails to re-contextualize the myriad facts about his life and dances around the question of cultural appropriation, something which will always be central to his legacy. Luckily, most of the music speaks for itself.

hbo documentaries 2018 - elvis presley the searcher

22) Rolling Stone: Stories From the Edge

Rolling Stone: Stories From the Edge is a predictable yet fun look back at the history of the storied publication and the artists and events it covered. While the series provides a nice mixture of cultural history and personal biography, it’s a distinctly sanitized take on a publication with a more complicated cultural role than its founder would have you believe. Stories From the Edge is a series made for music fanatics, but might have little to bring to those hoping for something new. —G.B.

rolling stone stories from the edge

23) The Final Year

As the curtains draw to a close on the end of Barack Obama’s second term in the Oval Office, The Final Year follows his administration for 90 days across 21 countries on what begins as a peacemaking journey but ends on a fraught note after the 2016 election. The film takes on an idealistic yet pragmatic candidness the Obama administration has about global relationships with big players like China, Russia, and Iran. In no way does this documentary play like the “fly-on-the-wall” production it pegs itself to be, feeling more like a fleeting montage of quips and fettered conversations with staffers. It ends on too hopeful of a note, with Obama writing Trump’s election off as a mere blip in the trajectory of cementing democracy and peace around the world. Given how quickly his work has been undone, it feels like wishful thinking. —D.R.

HBO documentaries - The Final Year

24) It Will Be Chaos

It Will Be Chaos zeroes in on two particular stories of refugees who made the precarious passage across the Mediterranean, including the sojourn of a former Eritrean soldier named Aregai and the sprawling tale of Wael and Doha, a Syrian couple with four children. While the film details the near moment-to-moment uncertainty that plagues all who brave the unpredictable journey toward safety and freedom, it also considers the other side, like Italian locals coping with the influx of immigrants. It Will Be Chaos lives through these desperate asylum seekers, offering glimpses into the human outcomes of the refugee crisis. It’s a timely, compelling, and intimate film. —K.S.

HBO documentaries - It Will Be Chaos

25) Believer

HBO’s genuinely moving Believer puts an attractive bow tie on the observance of Pride month, laying bare the ostracization of (and embarrassingly slow progress for) the Mormon Church’s queer community. Imagine Dragons frontman Dan Reynolds—a fourth-generation Nevadan with deep roots within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—is the near-perfect protagonist for skilled filmmaker Don Argott (Art of the Steal, Batman & Bill). Willing to utilize his tremendous platform, Reynolds decides to put together the LoveLoud festival for LGBTQ youth.  Reynolds also listens through heartbroken Mormon parents’ stories of their children dying by suicide, and Argott ably captures the singer’s conflicts and refreshing humility. —K.S.

HBO documentaries - Believer

26) John McCain: For Whom the Bell Tolls

The other documentary currently streaming on HBO about a 2008 presidential nominee, For Whom the Bell Tolls finds legendary Senator John McCain reflecting on his legacy and mortality. It’s a worthy portrait of a true American hero—one you could respect and still disagree with. In fact, compared to the Trump administration, McCain’s form of Republicanism seems almost alien. The film posits that you can be a good man, a good leader, and a conservative all at once.

27) Breslin and Hamill: Deadline Artists

Breslin and Hamill: Deadline Artists, examines the fascinating, intersecting lives of Jimmy Breslin and Pete Hamill, the famed New York City truth-tellers who openly challenged their beloved city and the nation. Aside from highlighting two of the Big Apple’s print journalism beacons, the film also rekindles a romance for the written word. Breslin and Hamill: Deadline Artists proves to be a thoughtful document, harkening back to a time when talented writers could speak above the chaos, providing clarity rarely seen today. —K.S.

BONUS: The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst

This Jinx is the one real cheat on this list since it’s not a standalone documentary or a series of films. Instead, this 2015 show from Andrew Jarecki (Capturing the Friedmans) chronicles the life and deaths of the notorious heir to a New York real-estate empire over the course of six episodes. The man in question is Robert Durst, a burping, black-eyed, endlessly fascinating enigma, who’s either a murderer or the unluckiest man in the world. Plenty of great true-crime stories have been told through film, television, and podcasts over the past few years, but The Jinx remains distinctive for getting something like a confession out of its subject. Beware: The last few minutes of this show will chill you to the bone.

HBO docuseries : The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst

New to cord-cutting? Here are our picks for the best movie streaming sites of 2018 and free live TV apps and channels. If you’re looking for a specific channel, here’s how to watch HBO, Showtime, Starz, ESPN, AMC, FX, Fox News, MSNBC, CNN, FS1, Golf Channel, and NFL RedZone without cable, as well as free movies on YouTube.

Editor’s note: This article is regularly updated for relevance. 

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*First Published: Jul 19, 2017, 5:00 am CDT