Home Feature news 15 best documentaries on HBO Max to learn something new

15 best documentaries on HBO Max to learn something new

HBO Max offers an extraordinary selection of movies, and its documentary library alone has enough gems for hours of compelling viewing. But if you’re indecisive, have no fear: We’ve gone through the hundreds of documentaries on HBO Max and picked out the ones you absolutely have to make time to watch.

These movies prove the versatility of the documentary genre, both in terms of subject matter and form. They’ll immerse you in high school basketball, concerts, fights for racial justice, and so much more.

Here, in alphabetical order, are the best documentaries on HBO Max streaming now.

1. 3 1/2 Minutes, 10 Bullets

Marc Silver’s 2015 documentary recounts the 2012 death of teenager Jordan Davis, who was shot multiple times in a parking lot while listening to music with friends. His attacker was found guilty of first-degree murder, but only after a mistrial and extensive media coverage, which the film follows along with Davis’ friends, family, and trial proceedings. — Proma Khosla, Senior Entertainment Reporter *

How to watch: 3 1/2 Minutes, 10 Bullets (opens in a new tab)is now streaming on HBO Max.

2. André the Giant

HBO’s original documentary André the Giant is a thoughtful examination of what it means to be larger than life. It gives André Roussimoff credit for his contributions to sports entertainment by identifying him as a pioneer who fully understood how gigantism, the medical condition responsible for his seven-foot-four frame, could elevate him to the status of a living myth. Interviews with wrestling personalities like Hulk Hogan, Ric Flair, and Vince McMahon offer a rare glimpse behind the curtain of kayfabe by documenting Roussimoff’s keen awareness of the awe he inspired and how his example transformed the WWF franchise into the massive performance showcase that exists now as the WWE. — Alexis Nedd, Senior Entertainment Reporter

How to watch: André the Giant (opens in a new tab)is now streaming on HBO Max.

3. Class Action Park

Death trap or fun time?
Credit: HBO Max

Welcome to Action Park! This New Jersey amusement and water park, built by former Wall Street tycoon Gene Mulvihill, was home to attractions such as Cannonball Loop and the Alpine Slide. It was also severely mismanaged and the cause of many injuries and deaths. Class Action Park reveals just how insane the story behind Action Park was, from the park’s madcap rides to Mulvihill’s shady tactics for keeping his venture afloat.

Through a mixture of fun animation and interviews with comedians who attended Action Park as children, Class Action Park keeps things light and humorous. However, it still exercises proper seriousness and restraint when discussing the park’s fatalities. Overall Class Action Park is a wild documentary about a truly wild place – you’ll come for the descriptions of the insane rides and stay for the nuanced exploration of nostalgia and childhood in the 1980s. — Belen Edwards, Entertainment Reporter

How to watch: Class Action Park (opens in a new tab)is now streaming on HBO Max.

4. Everything Is Copy

HBO Films’ Everything Is Copy is the best kind of love letter: one that’s effusive in its admiration of its subject, but also clear-eyed about her quirks and imperfections. Journalist Jacob Bernstein explores the life, career, and 2012 death of Nora Ephron — known to us as the writer and filmmaker behind such movies as Sleepless in Seattle, You’ve Got Mail, and Julie & Julia, and to Bernstein as his mother.

Interviews with family members and famous friends (including Tom Hanks, Meg Ryan, and Mike Nichols), along with archival interviews and excerpts from Ephron’s own work, paint a portrait of a brilliant and ambitious spirit who lived by the motto stated in the title: “Everything is copy,” meaning that everything that happens in life can be fodder for a story later on. Though you wouldn’t mistake Bernstein’s documentary for a work by Ephron herself, the film’s warmth, candor, and humor make it a fitting tribute to the icon she was. — Angie Han, Deputy Entertainment Editor

How to watch: Everything is Copy (opens in a new tab)is now streaming on HBO Max.

5. Gimme Shelter

Keith Richards playing guitar onstage at a Rolling Stones concert.
Keith Richards onstage in “Gimme Shelter.”
Credit: Maysles/20th Century Fox/Kobal/Shutterstock

Originally conceived as a behind the scenes account of the Rolling Stones’ legendary 1969 U.S. tour, Gimme Shelter was ultimately transformed by the circumstances that unfolded around it. While the film does delve into various moments from the UK band’s cross-country trip, its value as a historical document is most evident in its on the ground account of the infamous Altamont Free Concert in 1970 and the circumstances leading up to that day.

California’s attempt to reproduce the success of Woodstock took the form of a massive free concert staged at the Altamont Speedway in 1969, drawing a crowd of about 300,000 people. The Hells Angels motorcycle club provided security for the event in what turned out to be an ill-fated decision that ended in a stabbing during the Stones performance. The filmmaking team led by Albert and David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin captured it all, and Gimme Shelter, a triumph of the cinéma vérité movement, is the result. — Adam Rosenberg, Senior Entertainment Reporter

How to watch: Gimme Shelter (opens in a new tab)is now streaming on HBO Max.

6. Grey Gardens

"Little Edie" sitting in her room in 1975
“Little Edie” Beale pictured in Grey Gardens, 1975.
Credit: Tom Wargacki/Archive Photos/Getty Images

In their famed 1976 film Grey Gardens, brothers and documentary team Albert and David Maysles pay a visit to a dilapidated mansion in the Hamptons. There, they profile the intriguing and tragic lives of a reclusive mother and daughter, both named Edith Beale, in a strange and winding character study unlike any other.

Relatives of First Lady Jackie Kennedy, the life stories of “Little Edie” and “Big Edie” are sensationalized in the documentary, and many argue that the film takes an inherently exploitative view of its subjects and their apparent mental health conditions. But as far as fascinating footage goes, Grey Gardens is a must-watch — capturing a unique family at the heart of a broader dialogue about the decline of political royalty and ‘60s-era Americana. — Alison Foreman, Entertainment Reporter *

How to watch: Grey Gardens (opens in a new tab)is now streaming on HBO Max.

7. Harlan County, USA

Harlan County, USA drops us into small-town Kentucky in the 1970s to show us a time, a place, and a community — and to reveal wheat happens when a group of coal miners go on strike, incurring the wrath of the Duke Power Company. Barbara Kopple’s film follows the miners and their supporters (including their ferociously determined wives) into the front lines of the fight, from picket lines to town hall meetings to more intimate moments of grief or rage or everyday life. 

As the battle intensifies, spilling over into violence, what emerges is a gritty portrait of hard-won courage against an all-too-familiar villain, captured through Kopple’s principled perspective. Harlan County, USA won Best Documentary at the 1977 Oscars, and almost half a century later, it’s still regarded as one of the best documentaries of all time. It’s as riveting, as powerful, and urgent as it was the day it was released. — A.H.

How to watch: Harlan County, USA (opens in a new tab)is now streaming on HBO Max.

8. Hoop Dreams

A man in a yellow basketball jersey raises his arms in victory.
Arthur Agee in “Hoop Dreams.”
Credit: Fine Line/Kartemquin/Kobal/Shutterstock

Hoop Dreams dives into the lives of Arthur Agee and William Gates, two young men from inner city Chicago who dream of making it big in the NBA. Both are recruited to play for St. Joseph’s high school’s highly regarded basketball program early on in the film, but over the next four years they take extremely different paths. Through Agee and Gates’ basketball careers, director Steve James explores issues of race, class, and how sports recruitment can cross into the realm of the exploitative and put undue amounts of pressure on young players.

What’s astonishing about Hoop Dreams is the level of intimacy James achieves with both Agee and Gates. He follows their journeys on and off the basketball court as they and their families experience parental separations, sports injuries, and financial struggles. The resulting documentary makes you feel like you’re experiencing life alongside Agee and Gates, so you desperately want them to succeed. It all comes to a head in the thrilling and tense basketball sequences. Even though these games were played decades ago, James makes every missed shot feel like a lost opportunity and every successful play feel like a massive victory. — B.E.

How to watch: Hoop Dreams (opens in a new tab)is now streaming on HBO Max.

9. Original Cast Album: Company

If you’re a fan of the legendary Stephen Sondheim and George Furth musical Company, or of musical theater in general, this documentary is for you. Director D.A. Pennebaker trains a close eye on the original cast and orchestra of Company as they undergo an intense 15-hour recording session. You hear stand-out Company numbers such as “Being Alive” and “Getting Married Today” and get to see Sondheim at work. The film’s best and most famous sequence comes towards the end, when the great Elaine Stritch struggles to record “The Ladies Who Lunch.” It’s a gripping portrait of a performer trying to push through exhaustion and her own frustrations, and a perfect end to this stellar documentary. — B.E.

How to watch: Original Cast Album: Company (opens in a new tab)is now streaming on HBO Max.

10. The Problem with Apu

The Simpsons’ Apu Nahasapeemapetilon may not have bothered most viewers, but Hari Kondabolu’s deep dive into the characters origins and legacy reveal a racist caricature that damaged a whole generation of South Asian Americans. The Problem With Apu reveals just how harmful Apu was at a time when South Asians were practically invisible, especially in Hollywood, where brown face and offensive accents stood in for actual representation until — well, they still do.

Kondabolu, an acclaimed comedian, speaks with many successful contemporaries — including Aasif Mandvi, Kal Penn, Sakina Jaffrey, Hasan Minhaj, and many more — all of whom are now shining examples of South Asian American talent and stories, who carry Apu’s burden to this day. — P.K.

How to watch: The Problem with Apu (opens in a new tab)is now streaming on HBO Max.

11. Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind

Robin Williams laughing in 1980
Robin Williams pictured in New York City, 1980.
Credit: Sonia Moskowitz/Images/Getty Images

Years after Robin Williams’ death by suicide in 2014, the loss of his talent and presence still stings. Come Inside My Mind paints a portrait of Williams through those closest to him; his son, ex-wife, best friends, and many more — a portrait of someone immensely, inordinately talented who battled mental illness for most of his life. Marina Zenovich’s documentary chronicles Williams’ whole life, from a sometimes lonely childhood to a meteoric comedy rise, addiction, relationships, and an often troubled career despite his cemented status as a legend. Clips of his performances remind us — though no one needs reminding — that there was and likely never will be another with Williams’ iconic spark of madness. — P.K.

How to watch: Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind (opens in a new tab)is now streaming on HBO Max.

12. Say Her Name: The Life and Death of Sandra Bland

Sandra Bland in front of a red background
Sandra Bland in “Say Her Name.”
Credit: HBO

When 28-year-old Sandra Bland was arrested for a traffic violation and subsequently found hanged in her jail cell days later, a two-year legal ordeal began. Filmmakers Kate Davis and David Heilbroner document the family’s battle with law enforcement while sharing Bland’s own video blogs and history of activism. Though her death was ruled a suicide, it remains surrounded by questions and the undeniable fact that it can’t be undone. — P.K. *

How to watch: Say Her Name: The Life and Death of Sandra Bland (opens in a new tab)is now streaming on HBO Max.

13. Transhood

A young woman crosses her fingers.
Leena at a modeling audition in “Transhood.”
Credit: HBO

In Transhood, director Sharon Liese documents the lives of Phoenix, Avery, Jay, and Leena, four transgender children and teenagers living in Kansas City, over the course of five years. It’s a moving portrait of its subjects’ – ages 4, 7, 12, and 15 at the start of filming – childhoods and transitions.

Transhood is intimate but never invasive, following its subjects with a caring and understanding eye. From consultations about gender-affirming treatments to interactions with friends, we get to know Phoenix, Avery, Jay, and Leena, as well as their parents, whose support and sacrifices fuel some of the film’s most emotional moments. Transhood doesn’t choose to lift Phoenix, Jay, Avery, or Leena up as monoliths of the trans experience. Rather, it celebrates the differences and similarities between their journeys and finds the beauty in their transitions, all while inspiring great amounts of compassion and empathy. — B.E.

How to watch: Transhood (opens in a new tab)is now streaming on HBO Max.

14. Welcome to Chechnya

The third film from Academy Award-nominated documentarian David France, Welcome to Chechnya takes viewers on a guerilla-style investigation into the anti-gay purges that still plague the constituent republic of Russia.

Not only does the explosive project detail the abhorrent policies created by Vladimir Putin and Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov to criminalize homosexuality, it also delves into the insidious culture the government has instilled in its citizens to encourage hate crimes. It’s a painful watch that demands attention from viewers, focusing in large part on the courageous efforts of underground networks working to help LGBTQ people escape the region.

What makes this doc stand out is the urgency. Documentary filmmaking can help us examine issues or events in greater detail, as well as preserve them for the historic record. Welcome to Chechnya does both with heartbreaking heroism, urging western audiences to at the very least acknowledge the genocide that continues to this day. — A.F.

How to watch: Welcome to Chechnya (opens in a new tab)is now streaming on HBO Max.

15. Woodstock: 3 Days of Peace and Music

This director’s cut of Woodstock: 3 Days of Peace and Music is almost 4 hours long, but don’t let that stop you from watching. Director Michael Wadleigh’s 1970 film is a celebration of Woodstock, including performances from Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Crosby, Stills & Nash, and so many more legendary musicians. It’s also an engrossing look at the counterculture surrounding Woodstock, and the community that formed over the course of the festival. If you watch Woodstock and get a hankering for more musical documentaries, be sure to check out Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s Summer of Soul, an exceptional look at the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival. — B.E.

How to watch: Woodstock: 3 Days of Peace and Music(opens in a new tab) is now streaming on HBO Max.

Asterisks (*) indicate the write up comes from a previous Mashable list.

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