Documentaries: For some, the word conjures up images of the snooze-worthy movies employed by high school teachers in need of a break from lecturing, or perhaps the kind of snooty fare beloved by that boy you briefly dated sophomore year of college who was predictably obsessed with David Foster Wallace and used words like “aforementioned” in everyday conversations.
But the genre has come a long way in recent years, thanks in part to streaming services like Netflix and Hulu, which are rife with films on everything from politics to fashion to true crime.
Flipping on a documentary is a great way to flesh out your knowledge about a given topic, and chances are, it’s a bit more stimulating than your typical Tuesday night streaming picks (no offense to reruns of Curb Your Enthusiasm). Below, a few docs we consider required viewing for both experienced viewers and those new to the genre.
Bill Cunningham New York, 2010
If you have yet to learn the story of the late, beloved New York Times Style section photographer Bill Cunningham, well, let’s just say you are in for a treat. Richard Press’s inquiry into the daily life of street style’s humble forefather is glamorous, intimate, and surprisingly melancholy.
Fashion freaks will appreciate appearances by the likes of Anna Wintour, Iris Apfel, and Anna Piaggi, while those who have only heard of Cunningham in passing will finally understand what made the man in the blue jacket such a legend.
Paris is Burning, 1991
Directed by Jennie Livingston, this film chronicles the now-infamous ball culture of the 1980s, a predominantly gay, transgender, Black, and Latino scene that later served as the inspiration for cultural touchstones like Madonna’s “Vogue.”
Through interviews with prominent members of the community, it delves into both the rituals surrounding drag dance competitions and the issues faced by many participants, including AIDS, racism, homophobia, and poverty.
Man on Wire, 2008
Let me just start by saying that if you’re afraid of heights, this is not the film for you. But if you can hack it, the story of high-wire walker Philippe Petit’s epic 1974 walk between the Twin Towers is thrilling.
Directed by James Marsh, the movie takes on the feeling of a heist film as it follows Petit’s stunt from inception to preparation to eventual arrest following a death-defying, hour-long impromptu performance.
Exit Through the Gift Shop, 2010
These days, legally sanctioned street art, the kind used by hip brands to advertise products or landlords to jazz up otherwise unremarkable building facades, is everywhere, and while the movement owes big to New York graffiti writers and the band of artists who painted Berlin Wall, an anonymous British artist named Banksy is widely credited with its recent popularization.
This controversial documentary goes behind the scenes to show what life is like for Banksy and his band of merry painters, complete with some unexpected twists and turns.
With her trademark oversized glasses and quirky, colorful sense of style, 96-year-old Iris Apfel is as charming and authentic a fashion icon as they come. Directed by Albert Maysles, one half of the duo behind the famed 1975 doc Grey Gardens, Iris goes behind the scenes of a life very well (and very stylishly) lived, and features cameos by the likes of Kanye West, Jenna Lyons, and Tavi Gevinson.
Kardashian: The Man Who Saved OJ, 2016
Believe it or not, the Kardashian clan didn’t just materialize out of thin air a decade ago to hawk weight loss tea and contour palettes to unsuspecting consumers. No, like everyone, the girls have an origin story, and it’s surprisingly sordid.
The rub is this: After O.J. Simpson was arrested for the alleged murder of wife Nicole Brown Simpson, estranged friend Robert Kardashian sprang into action, reactivating his expired attorney’s license and possibly even concealing evidence crucial to the case against Simpson. In so doing, Kardashian was thrust into the spotlight, inadvertently paving the way for the cultural phenomenon that his family would eventually become.
Beyond Clueless, 2014
They say high school never ends, and if you paid attention solely to Hollywood, you’d probably agree. This Charlie Lyne-directed, Fairuza Balk-narrated film uses clips from over 200 teen movies that range from American Pie to The Virgin Suicides, highlighting popular tropes like the makeover scene and the slow-mo hallway strut. The result is part nostalgia trip, part rumination on love, angst, sexuality, and what it means to grow up.
Hot Girls Wanted, 2015
Produced by Rashida Jones, Hot Girls Wanted sheds light on the amateur pornography industry, following five young women lured into the business with promises of fame and cash. Initially praised, the film has since drawn ire from those who feel it unfairly vilifies the entire industry and inadvertently shames the women involved. Either way, it’s worth watching in order to draw your own conclusions.
The Queen of Versailles, 2012
This intimate look at an eccentric family ultimately serves as a lens through which to understand consumer culture, the concept of the American Dream, and the 2008 global economic crisis.
The film centers on Jackie and David Siegel, owners of a timeshare resort firm, who are obsessed with constructing their very own “Versailles,” but are eventually thwarted by a lack of funds following the recession. Like an episode of “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” gone awry, it’s hard not to feel a healthy dose of schadenfreude watching the Siegel’s self-inflicted misfortune, and it’s also impossible to look away.
Long Strange Trip, 2017
You don’t have to be a Deadhead to appreciate the Grateful Dead’s lasting influence on both popular culture and rock n’ roll history, but you should probably have at least a passing interest in the seminal jam band before committing to this Martin Scorsese-produced, four hour-long look into their struggles and successes, which features a predictably psychedelic soundtrack of Dead hits.