Ten great documentaries to watch now

Ten great documentaries to watch now

The current surge in original content on television channels and now streaming services has turned the flow of new scripted series from a trickle into a deluge, but the age of Peak TV has also given new impetus and variety to the feature-length documentary. The non-fiction format is booming, although some of the best offerings will have to be searched as they are unlikely to come up as a suggestion. To get ahead of the algorithms, here are 10 recommended documentaries to complement episodes of your favourite new show.

13TH (Netflix, 2016):

Angela Davis in 13thCredit:Netflix

If you’ve just watched Ava DuVernay’s dissection of true life injustice on Netflix, the uncompromising drama When They See Us, her documentary on the corruptible, racist designs and deployment of America’s vast prison system is a telling corollary. It shows through sobering historic detail how the incarceration of African-America men – to provide cheap labour, to strip them of their voting rights – became an institutional force that continues to this day.


1941 portrait of actress Hedy Lamarr. Credit:AP

A screen star of Golden Age Hollywood, the Vienna born-and-raised Hedy Lamarr was a brilliant woman who refused to be constrained by her celebrated persona. The box-office star was also a scientist and inventor, whose creation during World War II of "frequency hopping", a technique to avoid Nazi signal jamming, would have far-reaching applications that stretch all the way to today’s ubiquitous Wi-Fi networks. Heard through 1990 interviews, Lamarr is a formidable figure and feminist trailblazer.

CASTING JONBENET (Netflix, 2017): A masterful true crime documentary that never shows its real life subjects, just multiple fictional depictions of them, Casting JonBenet uses the infamous and unsolved 1996 child murder of six-year-old American beauty pageant champion JonBenet Ramsey to examine America's obsession with crime and the unstoppable escalation of conspiracies. Australian director Kitty Green takes a case subsumed by tabloid immediacies and gives it resonant scope.

Kitty Green’s Casting JonBenet, an unconventional look at the murder of JonBenet Ramsey in December 1996.Credit:Michael Latham/Netflix

HOOP DREAMS (Stan, 1994): This epic tale of American hope and inequality started the surge in documentary filmmaking with a portrait both searing and heartbreaking of two teenage African-American basketball prodigies from Chicago – William Gates and Arthur Agee – whose ability at the game offers both life-changing opportunities and harsh demands. As adolescents they hold their family’s future in their hands, and that is a bracing lens to examine race, ambition, poverty, and loss.

William Gates in the documentary Hoop Dreams.

THE INVENTOR: OUT FOR BLOOD IN SILICON VALLEY (Foxtel Go, 2019): Academy Award-winning American filmmaker Alex Gibney scrutinises Theranos, the medical testing start-up that went from future-changer to fraud case, and founder Elizabeth Holmes. The story coolly grapples with Silicon Valley failings, delusional optimism, and corporate malfeasance, with Holmes as a confounding centre-piece whose motives remain mysterious even as the deception she promoted with evangelical self-belief leads to a national business scandal. It’s shocking how far Theranos was able to get.

Entrepreneur Elizabeth Holmes raised $US900m before being indicted for fraud and conspiracy.Credit:AAP

PUTUPARRI AND THE RAINMAKERS (SBS on Demand, 2015): In this enthralling Australian documentary, filmmaker Nicole Ma uses the hard-won changes in the life of Tom Lawford, an Indigenous man whose tribal name is Putuparri, to examine the distance between the traditional and the modern way of life in the remote backblocks of Western Australia. A former activist whose own failings are made clear in stark terms by his daughters, Lawford’s path is mirrored in the campaign for land rights that was launched by his forebears.

Tom Longford, Spider, in Nicole Ma’s documentary Putuparri and the Rainmakers

RATS IN THE RANKS (Kanopy, 1996): One of the greatest Australian documentaries, Robin Anderson and Bob Connolly's classic finds universal themes in local politics. Mayoral elections in the Sydney suburb of Leichardt become a surreal comedy – complete with an Anthony Albanese cameo – as wily independent incumbent Larry Hand exploits dissent within Labor ranks to win re-election. What begins as a deft exploration of council life reveals that politics is marked by ego and malice whatever the setting.

Larry Hand and the creator of the Rats in the Ranks Bob Connelly inside the Leichhardt Council Chambers.Credit:Steven Siewert

SHIRKERS (Netflix, 2018): As a film-obsessed student in early 1990s Singapore, Sandi Tan lost many things to her film teacher and mentor Georges Cardona, including 70 cans of 16 millimetre footage she had shot for her debut feature film and her sense of trust. Part detective story, part memoir documentary, her 2018 film is a dreamily intimate investigation by Tan of her youth, friendship, and budding creativity. This is an idiosyncratic, deeply personal, and ultimately moving reckoning with the past.

SOUR GRAPES (Netflix, 2016): What happens when fine wine becomes a commodity investment class? In Jerry Rothwell and Reuben Atlas’ charmingly piquant documentary they chart the rise and fall of Rudy Kurniawan, a newcomer to Los Angeles who bought, shared, sold and boasted about having the greatest wine cellar ever assembled. It's a tale of supposed good taste and snobbery run amok, complete with an eccentric supporting cast of characters – some supporters, some skeptics – situated just this side of satire.

Tea with the Dames stars, from left, Maggie Smith, Joan Plowright, Eileen Atkins and Judi Dench.

TEA WITH THE DAMES (Amazon Prime Video, 2018): It’s true, there’s nothing like these dames: British acting royalty Eileen Atkins, Judi Dench, Joan Plowright, and Maggie Smith have been friends – and occasional co-stars – for decades, and director Roger Michell astutely puts them together in a room and then steps back. They discuss their beginnings in the theatre, professional philosophies and the occasional famous husband, all with a (sometimes frisky) sense of connection forged over innumerable years.

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