50 Best Documentaries Available to Watch for Free Online
March 17, 2023
I love documentaries! I've seen hundreds of them and wanted to highlight some of the very best documentaries available to watch for free online that I feature here on FreeGreatMovies.com. Currently, we have over 700 popular and critically acclaimed documentaries on the site which you can browse here:
Over 700 Free Documentaries on FreeGreatMovies.com
And I've categorized these 700 documentaries into eight different subgenres. I've seen all of the 50 documentaries in the list below to verify their greatness. Also for this Top 50 list below, I've written a short blurb about each documentary that might spark your curiosity. And note that I've tried to pick documentaries that are consistently available for free online on streaming platforms, but sometimes the rights change and certain ones might become unavailable. Also as I watch more free great documentaries and I add more documentaries to the site, I'll add more movies to this list. So without further adieu, here are the 50 Best Documentaries Available to Watch for Free Online. They're not in any particular order of ranked greatness, but I've tried to put my favorites toward the top:
Grizzly Man (2005) - There are numerous Werner Herzog documentaries on this list, but Grizzly Man (2005) remains my favorite. This documentary on the life and death of Timothy Treadwell as he befriends grizzly bears in Alaska contains so much of Herzog's philosophy and his iconic narration.
Salesman (1968) - Masterful cinema verite documentary by the Maysles brothers. They follow around door-to-door Bible salesmen in New England as the men face the harsh realities of making a buck in America. A must-see documentary.
42 Up (1998) - All of Michael Apted's series of Up documentaries are great, covering a group of 14 British kids from the time they were 7 years old and then catching up with them every seven years as they grow up. 42 Up is my favorite as it's amazing to see these adults reflect on their adulthood and where they all ended up.
Rize (2005) - Life-affirming documentary directed by famed photographer David LaChapelle covers the dancing styles of Clowning and Krumping and how the youths in the movie use their amazing dance to cope with everyday life in South Central Los Angeles.
Hoop Dreams (1994) - Undoubtedly one of the greatest documentaries of all time from director Steve James. The film is about two African-American high school students, William Gates and Arthur Agee, as they try to make it to the NBA. And the film is about a whole lot more than that. Roger Ebert called it the best film of the 1990s decade!
Capturing the Friedmans (2003) - Andrew Jarecki's great film starts as a documentary on clowns, and then peels back the layers of illusion to reveal so much more about the Friedman family including a history of child sexual abuse. We watch the Friedman home videos and see the American nuclear family disintegrate in one shocking turn after another.
Style Wars (1983) - Amazing document of graffiti art and early hip-hop culture in New York City in the early 1980s. Great graffiti artists, break dancers, and hip-hop music are featured throughout.
Lake of Fire (2006) - One of the best documentaries on the controversial topic of abortion by director Tony Kaye, who also directed American History X (1998). An unflinching and honest look at this complex political issue that has divided Americans for decades.
Pumping Iron (1977) - Classic professional bodybuilding documentary starring a young Arnold Schwarzenegger as he competes for Mr. Olympia. Arnold's charisma is on full display as he takes on numerous bodybuilders including Lou Ferrigno. The movie that helped Arnold become a superstar!
The Act of Killing (2012) - Bizarre documentary masterpiece that follows men who were involved in the Indonesian mass killings of the 1960s. As the men artistically reenact their crimes, some of them begin developing a conscience about their participation in the genocide.
Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple (2006) - There are numerous documentaries on Jonestown and the Peoples Temple cult lead by Jim Jones. This one remains the best one, covering the cult from many perspectives, and integrating amazing archival footage.
The Decline of Western Civilization (1981) - The definitive L.A. punk rock documentary directed by Penelope Spheeris. Features interviews and performances with many of the best L.A. punk bands including the Circle Jerks, Black Flag, Fear, the Germs, and X.
Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (1996) - Outstanding documentary by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky covering the trials of the West Memphis Three, who were three boys accused of child murder in West Memphis, Arkansas. While the three boys were accused of carrying out the murders as part of a Satanic ritual, Berlinger and Sinofsky dig deeper to investigate a potential miscarriage of justice. They made two more well-done documentaries on the subject matter in 2000 and 2011 that led to even more revelations about the crimes.
Scared Straight (1978) - Academy Award-winning documentary covering juvenile delinquents who are scared straight by convicted criminals who forcefully encourage the juveniles to never commit crimes again!
Dark Days (2000) - Director Marc Singer literally goes underground in the New York subway system to meet and befriend homeless people living there. Not as depressing as it sounds, the film even has a happy ending.
Winter on Fire: Ukraine's Fight for Freedom (2015) - Extremely relevant documentary to the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian War, this documentary covers the months-long Maidan Uprising which led to the eventual ousting of Ukraine's pro-Russia President Viktor Yanukovych.
Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005) - Alex Gibney's clear and concise documentary covers the complex story of the collapse of the Enron Corporation. A searing indictment of corporate crime at the highest levels.
The Day After Trinity (1980) - With the upcoming release of Christopher Nolan's Oppenheimer (2023), check out the ultimate documentary on J. Robert Oppenheimer and his efforts to create the first atomic bomb, and then his futile attempts to stop the spread of nuclear weapons. A sobering documentary that is always relevant in the nuclear age.
Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1998) - Another one of Werner Herzog's best documentaries. This film follows Vietnam veteran Dieter Dengler, and his dramatic capture and rescue during the war. It also showcases the ongoing challenge to survive as a prisoner of war even after the war has ended. Herzog adapted Dengler's story into a narrative movie called Rescue Dawn (2006) starring Christian Bale. This documentary is far superior to the dramatization though.
Stories We Tell (2012) - Actor/director Sarah Polley turns the lens on her parents, in this thoughtful family documentary.
Madonna: Truth or Dare (1991) - One of the great rockumentaries features the Queen of Pop at the height of her power while covering her 1990 Blond Ambition World Tour and all the backstage drama along with it.
Man with a Movie Camera (1929) - Would be remiss to leave off Dziga Vertov's classic silent experimental documentary. A hugely influential film that employed many innovative cinematic techniques.
Visions of Light (1992) - For fans of great movie cinematography and the cinematographers behind the camera, this film covers the history of the art of painting with light. Many great filmmakers and cinematographers are interviewed, along with showing off beautiful cinematic clips from dozens of movies.
Iraq in Fragments (2006) - There were many great documentaries covering the tragedy of the Iraq War. This one remains my favorite as it provides unbelievable on-the-ground footage from the viewpoints of Sunni, Shi'ite, and Kurdish after the invasion. A harrowing work of cinematic journalism on the grim realities of this war.
Life in a Day (2011) - Award-winning documentarian Kevin Macdonald utilized YouTube to gather over 80,000 submitted clips to document the day July 24, 2010. Combing through 4,500 hours of footage, Macdonald put together this unique time capsule of one day in the life of planet Earth. He followed up this documentary with a sequel covering July 25, 2020, in Life in a Day 2020.
Crips and Bloods: Made in America (2008) - Honest portrait of the history and current reality of the Crips and Bloods gangs that exist in South Central Los Angeles, and the many factors that led to their rise.
The Wolfpack (2015) - Unique documentary covering seven homeschooled kids who are locked up in an apartment in Manhattan for fourteen years and learn about the world only through watching movies. They survive by re-enacting scenes from their favorite movies.
The Source Family (2012) - One of the great cult documentaries covering the story of Father Yod and his Source Family. All the footage is here, coming from a massive archive of film, photos, and recordings that are expertly assembled.
Harlan County, USA (1976) - Director Barbara Kopple's Academy Award-winning documentary on striking coal miners in the 1970s in southeastern Kentucky.
Bukowski: Born Into This (2003) - Excellent biographical documentary on the life of American poet and novelist Charles Bukowski. All of Bukowski's life is on display including the good, the bad, and the ugly of his lifelong obsession with alcohol.
Baraka (1992) - Experimental documentary from director Ron Fricke shot in over 20 countries over the course of a year. Years later Fricke directed the equally impressive documentary Samsara (2011). Both were shot on glorious 70mm film.
The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years (1988) - Penelope Spheeris's sequel covers the late 80s L.A. heavy metal scene and it's equally as entertaining. Hilarious interviews with metal superstars like Lemmy, Ozzy Osbourne, and Alice Cooper, along with lesser-known metal acts.
The Overnighters (2014) - Remember the North Dakota oil boom? This is a documentary covering it from the perspective of a local pastor Jay Reinke, who helped house over 1,000 of the men coming to work in the oil industry. The movie has some amazing revelations that I won't spoil. Director Jesse Moss went on to direct another excellent documentary called Boys State (2020).
The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner (1974) - Another Werner Herzog documentary! This 45-minute documentary covers the thrilling life of Swiss ski jumper Walter Steiner. From the opening shot, you will be transfixed. Herzog considers this movie to be among his most important, and I wholeheartedly agree.
Ladies and Gentlemen... Mr. Leonard Cohen (1965) - One of my favorite portraits of an artist as a young man. This 45-minute documentary covers the incredibly confident Leonard Cohen at the start of his career as a poet. Shortly after the documentary, Cohen embarked on his career as the singer-songwriter we all know and love.
Hearts and Minds (1974) - Oscar-winning documentary covering the Vietnam War. Certainly anti-war and a masterpiece of political documentary filmmaking, with many unforgettable moments. Released shortly before the war's end in 1975.
Stevie (2002) - Another great documentary from Steve James (who made Hoop Dreams), this time covering the life of troubled youth Stevie Fielding. James knew Stevie through the Big Brother program and returns to Southern Illinois to find Stevie's life in shambles as he is charged with a serious crime. We get to know Stevie and all the people around him in a very close way in this empathetic examination.
The Atomic Cafe (1982) - Classic Cold War documentary featuring found footage from the 1940s through the 1960s, assembled in a comical and terrifying way. An amazing editorial achievement, exposing U.S. government misinformation and propaganda at the height of the Cold War.
Sicko (2007) - Michael Moore has made many impressive political documentaries. Sicko (2007) is one of his finest, covering the horrible for-profit U.S. health insurance industry. Michael Moore shows many of the reasons why the U.S. pays the most for health insurance while getting some of the worst health outcomes in the advanced-industrialized world. He presents obvious alternatives to our failing healthcare system including the universal healthcare offered by Canada, the United Kingdom, France, and many other countries that do better than we do and pay much less.
The Last Moguls (1986) - A priceless document of Cannon Films at the height of their power in 1986. In this one-hour BBC Omnibus documentary director Christopher Sykes acts mostly as a fly on the wall as Cannon co-owner Menahem Golan wheels and deals new films for his prolific independent film production company.
Overnight (2003) - Nothing covers the post-Tarantino Hollywood douchebag filmmaker quite like Overnight (2003). While Tarantino made some great films and ushered in a new era of indie cinema, he also led to a flood of knockoffs including the terrible movie The Boondock Saints (1999) directed by Troy Duffy. Duffy's insane ego is on full display in this embarrassing and hilarious behind-the-scenes documentary that plays like This Is Spinal Tap for idiotic filmmakers. Except Troy Duffy is real!
Private Practices: The Story of a Sex Surrogate (1986) - If you want to cringe, watch director Kirby Dick's first documentary Private Practices (1986). Dick follows a sex surrogate who helps her clients out with sex and intimacy issues, and the results are honest and uncomfortable, to say the least.
The Murder of Fred Hampton (1971) - If you liked the movie Judas and the Black Messiah (2021), then see the story behind the story in this incredible documentary covering the life and death of civil rights activist Fred Hampton. Hampton was murdered in an FBI raid in 1969 during the making of this documentary.
Until the Light Takes Us (2009) - Documentary about Norwegian black metal features crazy interviews with members of bands like Mayhem. Disturbing and compelling filmmaking.
My Best Fiend (1999) - Another Werner Herzog documentary! This one covers Herzog's rocky relationship with his longtime collaborator German actor Klaus Kinski. We get all the behind-the-scenes drama of Kinski's genius and madness in the five films that Herzog and Kinski made together.
Feels Good Man (2020) - Recent standout documentary that covers toxic Internet culture through the meme Pepe the Frog. Pepe the Frog creator Matt Furie is horrified when his illustrated creation Pepe is turned into a meme by the alt-right. Furie desperately tries to reclaim his artistic creation in this nasty Internet age.
American Boy: A Profile of Steven Prince (1978) - Martin Scorsese has made a number of impressive documentaries, including this fun look at his friend Steven Prince. Prince played the gun salesman Easy Andy in Taxi Driver (1976). In real life, Prince is a former heroin addict who is full of stories, and in this documentary, he even tells one that inspired a scene in Tarantino's Pulp Fiction (1994). Watch this movie to hear some wild stories from Steven Prince!
Life Itself (2014) - Steve James's biographical portrait of the late great Roger Ebert. This is a loving document of one of the greatest American film critics. It follows Ebert towards the end of his life in 2013, while flashing back to his amazing career in journalism and on television with Gene Siskel.
Marjoe (1972) - Winner of the Oscar for Best Documentary, Marjoe (1972) is a fascinating documentary on child preacher Marjoe Gortner, who rejoins the ministry as a young adult in order to make money. Tent revivals and evangelism meet rock star charisma as Marjoe tours through the American South in the early 1970s.
Sign 'o' the Times (1987) - One of the great concert films featuring one of the greatest American musicians Prince. It's one hit song after another as Prince tours with an amazing lineup. While the movie Purple Rain (1984) might be Prince's ultimate cinematic masterpiece, Sign 'o' the Times (1987) is still a great concert movie.
So those are my picks for the 50 Best Documentaries Available to Watch for Free Online! I'll add to this list in the future as I watch more free great documentaries and more great docs become available to stream online for free.