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Best documentaries on Amazon Prime: Doomed!

Screengrab via Amazon Prime

The 40 best documentaries on Amazon Prime

Learn something new tonight.

Jul 8, 2020, 4:40 pm*


John-Michael Bond 

John-Michael Bond

Amazon Prime has thousands of titles to choose from in its catalog, including a stunning array of documentaries. However, unless you’re really into UFOs, it can sometimes be difficult to sort through all the fluff to find the good stuff. Below, we present you with a list of the best documentaries on Amazon Prime. From true crime to music to professional skateboarding, this list has a little bit of everything for discerning documentary fans.

The best documentaries on Amazon Prime

1) 4 Little Girls (1997)

One Sunday morning in 1963, a bomb tore through a black church in Birmingham, Alabama, killing four young girls. The bomb had been placed by members of the KKK, and their act of terror became a rallying point for the civil rights movement. Spike Lee’s harrowing 1997 documentary follows the investigation of the bombing and the impact it had on the passage of the 1963 Civil Rights Act. 4 Little Girls is a heartbreaking film but one that’s worth watching, now as much as ever.

2) City of Ghosts (2017)

An Amazon original, City of Ghosts tracks the trajectory of RBSS, or “Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently,” from its inception in Syria to the myriad threats and atrocities that eventually forced key members to flee to Turkey and Germany. It mostly focuses on spokesperson Aziz, reporter Mohamad, and cameraman Hamoud, but many other members of RBSS appear throughout the film as well. While the leadership of this organization has since left, there are incredible Skype interviews with members on the ground in Syria at the time of filming. In case there was any question as to why that’s so remarkable, ISIS declared RBSS an enemy of the caliphate almost immediately after its videos exposing the terrorist group’s actions came out. —Chris Osterndorf

3) Long Strange Trip (2017)

Martin Scorsese executive produced this look at the history of the Grateful Dead, which clocks in at nearly four hours long. That’s only appropriate for a band that’s known for their epic-length jams, but when it hit Amazon Prime after its theatrical run, Amazon sliced it into six episodes for more easy viewing. Long Strange Trip features concert footage, of course, but the new interviews with surviving band members and friends of the band are what really give the documentary heft. Even if you’re no Deadhead, there’s plenty of intrigue in this deep dive into one of the defining acts of the 20th century. —David Wharton

4) Gleason (2016)

This documentary tells the story of former NFL player Steve Gleason. Gleason played for the New Orleans Saints, among other teams, before retiring in 2008. Gleason was diagnosed with ALS (more commonly referred to as Lou Gehrig’s disease) in 2011. The documentary charts Gleason’s battle and his advocacy, while also showing how his family has adapted to their circumstance. It’s an incredibly touching film, one that is inspirational and full of hope even in the darkest of moments. —E.S.

5) Ken Burns: The Central Park Five (2013)

In 1989, five black and Latino teenagers were arrested and convicted for the rape of a woman in Central Park. The crime itself was horrific, but the story that unfolded about the men’s arrest and innocence stand as a horror of its own. The Central Park Five shows how the media, racism, public outrage, and a police force desperate for an arrest carried out a brutal miscarriage of justice that destroyed five innocent lives.

6) Paradise Lost, Paradise Lost 2 Revelations, & Paradise Lost 3 Purgatory 

Through the ’90s, the West Memphis Three became odd miniature celebrities, three young men from Tennessee who were accused and convicted of a shocking triple murder. The Paradise Lost trilogy follows the original murder investigation through the West Memphis Three’s eventual release, thanks in no small part due to the national spotlight the first installment created. If you were enthralled with Making a Murderer, you’ll want to add these to your queue. 

7) The Kill Team (2014)

In moments of combat, you need to be able to know you can trust the men and women serving with you. But does that mean you have to protect their darkest secrets at the expense of your soul? Private Adam Winfield, a 21-year-old soldier when he served Afghanistan, faced those questions when members of his platoon committed unspeakable war crimes while serving. Winfield reached out to his father to help alert the military to what was going on, but his warnings went ignored. The Kill Team is a painful watch at times but remains one of the most compelling tales on Amazon about what happens when power and opportunities are abused.

8) The National Parks: America’s Best Idea

A docuseries as grand and awe-inspiring as its subject matter, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea captures the history and beauty of NPS with Ken Burns’ trademark attention to detail and narrative flair. The six-part, 12-hour series starts in 1851, when early California settlers uncover the Yosemite Valley, sparking a conversation movement that forever changed the landscape of the U.S. It’s evocative, inspiring, and guaranteed to inspire your next summer camping trip. —Austin Powell

9) I Am Not Your Negro (2016)

James Baldwin died in 1987, but the civil rights leaders’ work stands today as some of the most poignant and topical writing on race. I Am Not Your Negro is based on Remember This House, the book Baldwin was writing at the time of his death. Using archival recordings of Baldwin, director Raoul Peck connects the Civil Rights movement of the ’60s to race in America today. It’s a heavy documentary, asking difficult questions about the place of African Americans in the United States’ society. Nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary, I Am Not Your Negro is an artistic and educational triumph. Whether you proudly state “All Lives Matter” on your Facebook or marched after the death of Mike Brown, I Am Not Your Negro should be required viewing for every American.

10) Human Flow

Director, political activist, and artist Ai Weiwei grapples with the enormity of the global refugee crisis in Human Flow. The documentary focuses on segments of displaced people all over the world. Weiwei goes out of his way to include plenty of statistics in the movie, but they occasionally distract from the story he’s trying to tell about displaced people and human truths too complicated to be quantified. As many facts as you can learn watching Human Flow, what sticks with you about the documentary are the moments of tragedy and triumph both big and small. —Chris Osterndorf

11) The Wild Wonderful Whites of West Virginia (2009)

best documentaries amazon prime - wild wonderful whites of west virginia

Pop culture paints its own image of life in Appalachia, but the truth in the mountains is more complicated than any drama could paint. Julien Nitzberg’s real-life southern gothic portrait of the Whites family of West Virginia is often hilarious, occasionally chilling, look into life for one mountain family. Caught in a generational cycle of crime, drugs, dancing, and mental health issues, the Whites have carved out a place of infamy in their community. Learn the oddly inspirational, yet equally tragic story behind their bloodline in The Wild Wonderful Whites of West Virginia.

12) Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father (2008)

Dear Zachary - amazon documentaries

Set aside a box of tissues for when you decide to tackle Dear Zachary, a true-crime story of compounding tragedy that paints a harsh image of the justice system. In 2001, Andrew Bagby was murdered by his ex-girlfriend, Shirley Turner, following a breakup. She fled to Canada, where Bagby’s parents learned she was pregnant with their son’s child. Dear Zachary began as a memorial documentary for a son to learn about his lost father. Sadly, as Shirley Turner’s case spirals wildly out of control, we’re shown a far darker story.

13) Ted Bundy: Falling for a Killer (2020)

best documentaries amazon - falling for a killer

True crime stories have never been more popular but even the best entries have a major problem; they center the killers first. Ted Bundy: Falling for a Killer take a fresh approach, telling the story of Ted Bundy from the perspective of the women in his life. Interviewing his former romantic partners, his daughter, and his surviving victims Falling for a Killer shows the brutal impact of his crimes without glamourising them. The end result is a nightmarish walk through the hunt for one of history’s most notorious murders full of humanity instead of just horror.

14) Cropsey (2009)

Every town has an urban legend, but growing up in Staten Island filmmaker Joshua Zeman and Barbara Brancaccio the legend of Cropsey seemed like something more. Digging into the roots of their local myth, the duo discover the spine chilling roots of their childhood fears, and the lives lost along the way. Cropsey is easily one of the scariest documentaries ever made, so watch it with a friend or with the lights on.

15) Doomed! The Untold Story of Roger Corman’s The Fantastic Four (2016)

The first Fantastic Four movie to hit theaters came out in 2005, but the first Fantastic Four film ever made was shot in 1993, with no intention of ever being seen. Made by B-movie legend Roger Corman as a way to not lose the film rights to the characters, the entire cast and crew set out to make the film without knowing it would never see the light of day. Doomed! tells the full story behind one of worst superhero films ever committed to celluloid, complete with clips from the disaster itself.

16) Prince: Sign O’ the Times

This isn’t technically a documentary, and some of the music was re-recorded after the fact at Paisley Park, but if you want to get an up-close look at Prince, this is the best way to do it. The 1987 concert film captures the artist at arguably his ‘80s peak, with an hour-plus performance that leans heavily on his double-album of the same name. Play it loudly. —Austin Powell

17) The Perfect Bid (2018)

Most of us know The Price is Right from sick days as a kid, but Ted Slauson truly knows the game. In 2008 he helped a contestant perfectly guess every answer on the show. This brilliant documentary tells Slauson’s story, from his early fascination with the show to his legendary game. Not every documentary has to be dark and this is a lighthearted joy.

18) Jessie’s Dad (2017)

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Screengrab via Amazon

 Jessie’s Dad is one of the shortest films on this list—given its brutal subject matter, though, you may appreciate its brevity. Mark Lunsford isn’t the image that comes to mind when you think of a children’s rights activist, with his long hair, tattoos, and piercings. Before 2005 he was a truck driver. Then his daughter Jessie was murdered by a pedophile who lived across the street from their home. This heartbreaking story about a father’s fight to toughen the nation’s laws when it comes to child predators isn’t easy to watch, but it shouldn’t be. Equal parts true crime and social reform, Jessie’s Dad is a compelling documentary that will stay embedded in your brain.

19) Sriracha (2013)

If you’ve eaten at an independently owned restaurant in the last decade, you’ve encountered Sriracha. The Thai chili sauce has ignited the tastebuds and passions of foodies around the world, seemingly overnight. This lighthearted documentary follows the spread of Sriracha across America, starting with Huy Fong Foods, the company that makes the bottle you see on tables everywhere, through the lesser-known varieties of the sauce that permeate the world.

20) McQueen (2018)

Alexander McQueen came out of nowhere to revolutionize the modern fashion world before burning out as fast as he arrived. Told through exclusive interviews with his friends and family, McQueen explores a true artistic rebel, a man who crafted clothing into confrontational fine art. Even if you aren’t interested in fashion, McQueen is a staggering tale of tortured genius.

21) There’s Something Wrong With Aunt Diane (2010)

On Sunday, July 26, 2009, eight people were killed on the Taconic State Parkway in New York State when a woman drove a minivan 1.7 miles in the wrong direction on the parkway. Her vehicle collided with an SUV head-on, killing Diane Schuler, the driver; her daughter; and the three nieces who were riding with her, along with all three passengers in the SUV. The situation was tragic, but the story the unfolded during the investigation was chilling. There’s Something Wrong With Aunt Diane is a brutal film about the hidden secrets families only discover after a tragedy, and the alternative answers we search for when the truth is too horrible to imagine.

22) Endless Summer (1964)

Bruce Brown’s 1964 surfing classic helped kick-start a revolution, inspiring surfers around the world to travel in search of an “endless summer.” Documenting the travels of Mike Hynson and Robert August on a worldwide surfing adventure, Endless Summer sees the duo tackling waves from America to South Africa set to an unforgettable surf rock score by the Sandals. Filmed on a $50,000 budget, Endless Summer ultimately grossed over $20 million at the box office. In an era where we’re spoiled by perfect sports video shot on waterproof action cameras, Endless Summer is made all the more remarkable due to being shot on 16mm film. If you’ve ever picked up a board, you owe it to yourself to see the genesis of surfing’s popularity.

23) Chinatown (2011)

This 46-minute mini-doc is a fascinating look at what happens when two cultures collide. When the mayor of Kalmar, a Swedish town struggling to stay afloat, invites a major Chinese company to build a trade center, it seems like just what the town needed. But both parties struggled to figure out how to work together and the results were disastrous. Chinatown should be required viewing in international business schools.

24) Waco: The Rules of Engagement (1993)

The federal siege of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, is one the most tragic disasters in American law enforcement history. When it was over, 76 members of the religious cult were left dead, causing ripple effects that still reverberate through separatists across America. Waco explores what went wrong during the lead-up and execution of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives siege. You don’t have to think David Koresh was a good man to be troubled by what happened in April 1993. This even-handed examination lays out the facts with calculated accuracy.

25) Unsolved Mysteries: The Original Robert Stack Episodes (1989)

Before Ancient Aliens, Lore, and every other show about murder and the supernatural that we love today, there was Unsolved Mysteries. Now you can relive the magic of Robert Stack’s haunting anthology of crime and the unknown on Amazon Prime. Featuring all 12 seasons of the groundbreaking show, Unsolved Mysteries is ready and waiting to be your next binge watch. The best part is, thanks to Google, you can now look up if the crime you’re hearing about has since been solved.

26) Backyard Blockbusters (2012)

The earliest known fan film was made in 1926, when a group of friends shot their own version of the popular Our Gang series. For almost 100 years movie fans have been using any technology available to make unauthorized productions based on their favorite properties. Backyard Blockbusters follows the movement’s modern participants, chronicling their legal struggles with copyright law and special effects alike. Would you take a legal threat just to see Batman fight Predator on screen? Meet the people who do.

27) My Name Was Bette: Life and Death of an Alcoholic (2014)

The rates of alcoholism in women have risen over the last 20 years, but often their struggles aren’t noticed until they are too late. My Name Was Bette chronicles Bette VandenAkker, a nurse, wife, mother, and alcoholic whose battle with the bottle was lost in 2007. Substance abuse doesn’t always take the form of falling over or yelling at your kids. Sometimes it’s a quiet battle that people only see being fought until it’s too late. This story is tragic, but perhaps it will help you notice something in someone you love’s life. Just don’t read the heartbreaking Amazon reviews from viewers who relate all too much to this documentary’s subject matter.

28) Art and Craft (2014)

Mark Landis is arguably the most prolific art forger in the history of the United States. Over the course of 30 years, he has passed off forgeries from a wide range of artists and styles. From a fake letter by John Hancock to a recreation of the French Neo-Impressionist Paul Signac, Landis’ frauds were notable for their wide-ranging targets and styles. There’s just one catch: Landis isn’t in it for the money. He gives away his work. What drives Mark Landis, and why are so many people angry with him? Art and Craft asks difficult questions about the ownership of artistic ideas, but it also tells the story of a man who just wants to be appreciated—even if he has to tell a few lies to achieve his goal.

29) Children of Shame (2015)

Tuam, Ireland, was a quiet, if unremarkable, town until the spring of 2014, when authorities discovered a mass grave holding the remains of hundreds of children. Found on the grounds of a former home for single mothers, the grave ignited a soul-crushing investigation into the dark history of this supposed home of second chances and love. Children of Shame uses the tragedy of Tuam to examine Ireland’s brutal treatment of children born out of the sacred bonds of marriage up until the 1990s. Filmmakers Nicolas Glimois and Saskia Weber trace the lives of both mothers and children separated at birth because of the profoundly conservative religious state they lived in. While extremely dark at times, at least you can take comfort knowing these institutions are no longer running in Ireland.

30) Alison (2017)

True crime often falls into the trap of accidentally glamorizing the crimes they cover. Alison is a harrowing exception. Using interviews and live-action re-creations, the film covers the 1994 attack of Alison Botha, who survived horrific mutilation and sexual assault after being abandoned. Botha managed to help the authorities track down her attackers, but her story doesn’t end with their arrest. Centering on Botha’s recovery, Alison is one of the most powerful true crime documentaries on Amazon.

31) Bones Brigade: An Autobiography (2014)

Skateboarding has become a massive industry, but in the ’80s, the idea of being a pro skater was still mostly a pipe dream. The Bones Brigade helped change that, giving birth to the modern skate video, pushing boundaries with tricks, and becoming one of the greatest teams in the history of the sport. Today, even your parents know who Tony Hawk is. Bones Brigade: An Autobiography will show you where he came from and how he and five other absurdly talented friends helped kick-start a revolution in skateboarding.

32) The Tillman Story (2010)

This powerful and controversial documentary tells the story of Pat Tillman, an American patriot who abandoned a multimillion-dollar NFL contract in 2002 to join the Army after 9/11. For many, he was a symbol of what makes America great, which is why his death from friendly fire came as a shock to the country. The Tillman Story chronicles his entry and service to the Army, as well as his family’s fight to uncover the true story of his death. No matter where you stand on the war in the Middle East, this is a jaw-dropping film about government cynicism and a family that refused to just accept the official story.

33) Trans (2013)

This thoughtful documentary offers a crash course on the issues surrounding transgender Americans. From the medical complexities of transitioning to the dangers of living in a society that doesn’t accept your right to exist, Trans is eye-opening.

34) Stop Making Sense (1984)

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Director Jonathan Demme’s 1984 concert film Stop Making Sense captures The Talking Heads at the height of their career, delivering an epic sold-out show in Hollywood. Opening with David Byrne standing alone on stage, with more members added every song, Stop Making Sense is intimate and explosive all at once. Of course, even if Stop Making Sense was just a good concert, we’d recommend it today for the song “Once in a Lifetime.” In these trying, frankly scary times, it represents an embrace of the unknown that provides a much-needed salve to sore hearts everywhere. Get up and dance while you’re watching.

35) I Can’t Believe I’m Telling You This (2008)

I Can’t Believe I’m Tell You This traces the lives of three men dealing with prostate cancer as they find strength in each other online. Medical pain and fear is something we’re taught to ignore as a country, particularly in old-fashioned masculine groups. It’s refreshing to see older men address and examine their fears, and I Can’t Believe… treats their reality with thoughtful respect. It makes for heavy yet insightful viewing.

36) The Sheik (2014)

The Iron Sheik holds the rare distinction of being both an icon of the professional wrestling’s golden era and Weird Twitter. This 2014 doc lets you meet Khosrow Vaziri, the man behind the notorious persona, and understand his impact on the WWE (then WWF) and Hulk Hogan through candid interviews with the Rock, Mankind, Jake the Snake, and others. It might not break your back, as the Iron Sheik is want to do with his signature Camel Clutch finisher, but it will make you humble. —Austin Powell

37) Circus Kid (2016)

When Lorenzo Pisoni was six years old he signed a contract to be his father’s clowning partner. In any other family this would be a cute story about a child with big dreams, but in the Pisoni family, it was serious business. After all, they lived, breathed, and ran a circus. Circus Kid is an unconventional narrative about an unconventional childhood, following Pisoni as he traces his family history and explores the dynamics of growing up under the big top.

38) Missing Mom (2018)

For almost 25 years, Rob McCallum and Chris Byford lived with the mystery of what happened to their mother. One day she just disappeared, with no one able to provide answers to where she might be. Missing Mom traces the journey of these two grown men to unlock the secrets of their family history. Interviewing family members with secrets of their own, the two begin to decipher clues that put them on a path to find the painful answers that have eluded them their whole lives. This award-winning documentary is a must-see for real-life mystery fans, full of suspense and shocking family secrets.

39) Cartel Land (2015) 

If you’ve watched Narcos or any of the other drug-war-related series on Netflix, do yourself a favor and watch this harrowing documentary. Cartel Land provides a sobering look at the Templar Knights cartel in Michoacán and the grassroots revolutionaries trying to take their community back. Cartel Land won best documentary at the Sundance Film Festival in 2015, it’s as suspenseful as a blockbuster production.

40) Unseen (2016)

Evil sometimes hides in plain sight, especially when it targets the most marginalized members of society. In 2009, the Cleveland police department made a horrifying discovery at the house of a known sex offender named Anthony Sowell. Police found the bodies of 11 women on the property. But the worst horrors were yet to be revealed: how Sowell was able to kill 11 women over two years without anyone noticing. Powerful and genuinely haunting, Unseen is an incredible true crime documentary.

Still not sure what to watch on Amazon? Here are the best Amazon originals, what’s new on Amazon, the best 4K movies, thrillers on Amazon Prime, alien movies, and the sexiest movies you can stream right now.  

Looking for something more specific? Here are the best comedies on Amazon Prime when you need a laugh, sad movies to make you cry, kids movies for the whole family, the best thrillers to get your heart racing, and the classic movies on Amazon Prime everyone should see.

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

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*First Published: May 2, 2017, 5:00 am