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30 Best Documentaries On HBO Max [October 2021]

Documentaries offer a safe and engrossing way for viewers to be a proverbial fly on the wall, to gain access and observe situations they might never find themselves privy to. Such films present life as it happens, and they entertain as they educate. They can also sadden, delight, surprise, and shock. With cameras always rolling, impossible-to-fake and extra-real moments are captured forever. Because of these unique properties, one could argue that documentaries will always be more dramatic and breathtaking than even the best fictional films.

And when it comes to the very best docs, the streaming service HBO Max has a huge library of movies at the ready. We're talking about some of the most important, riveting, and unforgettable documentary films and made-for-TV series ever made.

Updated on September 25, 2021: As HBO Max constantly updates its catalog, the availability of films on the streaming site changes constantly. So if you want to keep up to date on all the latest developments on HBO Max, make sure to check back every few weeks to see what new documentaries have popped up on the site. 

Won't You Be My Neighbor?

Millions of American kids grew up watching "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" on public television. Along the way they learned emotional intelligence and empathy (and the joys of puppets) from a kindly man in a sweater and sneakers who spoke directly and gently to them. "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" seeks to demystify the real Mr. Rogers, Fred Rogers, an ordained minister and passionate advocate for children and education. What viewers will find is that TV's Mr. Rogers and the real Mr. Rogers were wonderfully (if bafflingly) not all that different.

Spellbound

This documentary has all the thrill of victory and agony of defeat of a sports movie, except that the sport is the 1999 Scripps National Spelling Bee and the athletes are junior high kids from around the United States who descend on Washington, D.C. The Spelling Bee looks like quirky fun on TV, as super smart and introverted kids agonize over how to spell difficult words. The reality of it, as captured by "Spellbound," reveals a subculture of expected achievement and pressure from parents and teachers as this cross-section of millennium-era children vie for scholarships, bragging rights, and glory.

Nanook of the North

Cited by many film scholars as the first modern, full-length, narrative documentary, "Nanook of the North" dazzled moviegoers in the early 1920s, taking them to places and profiling people they likely would never have seen or met, thus demonstrating the power and promise of cinema in its relative infancy. 

A silent film with written inter-titles, this doc depicts the day-to-day life — focusing on the traditional elements — of the Inuit population of the Ungava Peninsula off the east coast of Canada. The action centers on a man named Allakariallak, or Nanook, and his family as they traverse waterways, ice floes, and tundra in search of animals to hunt. They get around with kayaks and dog sleds and demonstrate how to build an igloo. Some scenes were staged for the sake of the movie, but that only opens up the debate about what a documentary truly is, especially when the form was still in flux.

The Mystery of D.B. Cooper

Over Thanksgiving 1971, a man who'd become known as D.B. Cooper hijacked a plane in the Pacific Northwest, and with his demanded cash windfall in hand, he parachuted out of the jet into the forest below. Cooper was never captured and his whereabouts and fate were never determined. Since then, there have been plenty of documentaries and TV crime shows about D.B. Cooper, but HBO Max original "The Mystery of D.B. Cooper" is more about the legend of the figure and how myths build, spread, and mutate over time. At the center of the film are interviews with several different people with increasingly vague recollections of individuals who came into their lives long ago — individuals who they're all certain were D.B. Cooper. And their stories are all pretty credible.

Fake Famous

A wry and sideways but thorough and devastating look at the role social media plays in the lives of 21st century young adults, "Fake Famous" tracks a staged, sociological experiment that demonstrates just how easy it is to manipulate sites like Instagram and Twitter to one's own advantage, duping countless others in the process. Filmmakers find three talented but little-noticed, fame-hungry entertainers and make them famous by doing things that other previously famous people have done, such as purchasing followers and faking photos to earn credibility and sponsors. The most startling thing about it all is that it works.

Class Action Park

This HBO Max Original takes its title from a not-really-joking nickname for Action Park, a suburban New Jersey theme park that catered to thrill-seeking teens in the 1970s and 1980s. It would seem that nearly all the rides at Action Park (also nicknamed "Traction Park") were poorly or quickly constructed and woefully dangerous. In this doc, now-famous people who grew up attending Action Park and emerged relatively unscathed recount their memories alongside still bewildered employees. Then the movie takes a dark and tragic turn for the story of George Larsson Jr., a visitor killed on one of the site's attractions.

Capturing the Friedmans

This film — a dark and deeply unsettling look about the wickedness that may be lurking next door — began as an accident. Budding moviemaker Andrew Jarecki started off making a documentary short about veteran New York area birthday party entertainers, particularly a clown named Silly Billy, the wacky persona of David Friedman. After he got the footage he needed, Jarecki dug a little deeper and found that Friedman's brother and father had pleaded guilty to and been sent to prison for some extremely heinous crimes. Jarecki made "Capturing the Friedmans" about the family's legal troubles and dark secrets and the longstanding damage it all caused, pieced together with interviews and the Friedmans' own vintage home movies.

If you or anyone you know has been a victim of sexual assault, help is available. Visit the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network website or contact RAINN's National Helpline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).

Hoop Dreams

"Hoop Dreams" might break just as many hearts as people it inspires. Both Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert called it the best movie of any kind of 1994, such are the stakes and hard-hitting emotions at play. Filmmakers follow two teenage boys from an inner-city Chicago housing project, both preternaturally talented at (and driven to succeed in) basketball. Both struggle to make it to the next level because the odds and the system are against them in many ways. Like a lot of young men, both William Gates and Arthur Agee strive to break out of the poverty and crime that's part of their day-to-day lives via sports, where success is a long shot at best.

Grey Gardens

One of the grittiest and saddest documentaries ever produced, the scope of "Grey Gardens" is small — it takes place almost entirely in one house, the titular East Hampton estate that has fallen into severe disrepair —and stars just two people, the deeply troubled mother and daughter who live there in abject squalor. But "Grey Gardens" has a lot to say, and the footage, free of narration or any framing device, shows the darker truth behind the mystique of the extended Kennedy family. "Big Edie" and "Little Edie" Beale — the aunt and cousin of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis — spend their days in the crumbling mansion, surrounded by garbage and filth, recalling their long-gone glory days as members of the upper crust before life and death gave them multiple tragic blows.

  • Directors: Ellen Hovde, Albert Maysels, David Maysels, Muffie Meyer
  • Year: 1975
  • Runtime: 95 minutes
  • Rating: PG
  • Rotten Tomatoes Score: 94%

The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling

Garry Shandling went from being one of the most popular comedians of the '70s and early '80s into a purveyor of extremely innovative television comedy, with the fourth-wall-breaking and self-aware sitcom "It's Garry Shandling's Show" and the behind-the-scenes of a late-night program "The Larry Sanders Show." He was also a fervent and prolific diarist, consistently analyzing his relationships, his work, and his spiritual development. He left behind countless journals, which his close friend and mentee, acclaimed comic filmmaker Judd Apatow, used as the creative and visual basis for a thoughtful and exhaustive two-part documentary about the life of his hero.

McMillion$

In the 1980s and 1990s, it was probably the most popular and eagerly anticipated annual promotional contests in America — McDonald's "Monopoly." Mimicking the popular board game, fast food customers collected stickers representing different properties, with a grand prize of $1,000,000 to the lucky individual who snagged both Boardwalk and Park Place. As we learn in "McMillion$" thanks to the investigative skills of a supremely and hilariously confident federal agent, the whole thing was rigged, with winners all tied back to one nefarious and cutthroat individual with underworld connections.

  • Director: James Lee Hernandez and Brian Lazarte
  • Year: 2020
  • Runtime: 6 episodes, 52-55 minutes each
  • Rating: TV-14
  • Rotten Tomatoes Score: 89%

The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley

This documentary from Emmy- and Oscar-winning chronicler Alex Gibney asks, "Whatever happened to Elizabeth Holmes?" as well as, "How did Elizabeth Holmes even get as far as she did?" In the early 2000s, Holmes took the route followed by many singular technological geniuses, dropping out of a prestigious university to start her own company that would disrupt a staid industry and change everything. Within a decade, her health care tech company, Theranos, was worth billions ... despite not really ever producing much. As it turns out, Holmes and Theranos were massive frauds, never delivering on the promise of "Edisons," mobile, miniature, super-fast blood testing labs that could quickly identify ailments and speed up treatment. And "The Inventor" examines the power — and danger — of a charismatic industrialist.

Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck

Much has been written about the death of Kurt Cobain but not as much about his life — or rather the unique set of circumstances and influences that led him to be the uncomfortable voice of a generation as the lead singer of '90s grunge kings Nirvana. "Montage of Heck" portrays a guy who just wanted to get away from familial instability and personal problems that bombarded him as a child and teen in rural Washington. Influenced by punk rock bands and the teens-gone-wild movie "Over the Edge," Cobain became a knock-around rocker and, eventually, one of the most important musicians in the world. With actual footage and animated sequences, "Montage of Heck" provides a well-rounded, sometimes unflattering portrait of an iconic figure, one whose sense of humor and anarchic spirit are sometimes lost to history and myth-building.

George Harrison: Living in the Material World

George Harrison was known as "the Quiet Beatle," and as such, he was the most mysterious and little-understood member of the Fab Four despite being one of the most famous people on the planet for the second half of the 20th century. In this two-part documentary from illustrious filmmaker Martin Scorsese, Harrison's adventurous music and progressive spirituality are given special attention in a biography that spans the icon's life from his childhood in Liverpool to Beatlemania and all the way to his untimely death in 2001.

The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst

Robert Durst comes from a prominent New York real estate family, affording him a lot of privilege, cash, and other resources that have kept him out of prison and walking free despite a preponderance of evidence against him. He's cold, smug, and seemingly lacking any empathy, and more than one person close to Durst has disappeared and been presumed dead. He's a fascinating and inscrutable character, one who actively participated in this multi-part HBO documentary series about his unseemly past and alleged role in the deaths of other people. "The Jinx" is a slow-burn of a classic in the true-crime genre, and unlike others in that field, it provides actual answers about the murders discussed — which shockingly and amazingly come straight from Durst himself.

The Lady and the Dale

A great documentary tells a little-known story and tells it well, and the HBO original docu-series "The Lady and the Dale" actually delivers two remarkable tales. In the 1970s, amidst widespread and costly gas shortages, the small and independent 20th Century Motor Car Company unveiled the Dale, an odd-looking, three-wheeled, extremely efficient car for the future. Scandal and fraud would mar the development of the automobile, in part because the company's brash and boastful leader, Liz Carmichael, was a criminal and huckster on the run. But there's more to the story than that: She would emerge as one of the first and bravest transgender public figures.

  • Director: Nick Cammilleri and Zackary Drucker
  • Year: 2021
  • Runtime: 4 episodes, 55-56 minutes each
  • Rating: TV-14
  • Rotten Tomatoes Score: 100%

Scandalous: The True Story of the National Enquirer

The "National Enquirer" has long been one of America's most notorious and popular newsmagazines, not to mention visible, because it's sitting right there in countless supermarket checkout aisles, tantalizing readers with salacious headlines about celebrities and politicians behaving badly — so badly that it couldn't possibly all be true. Well, according to "Scandalous," some of those seemingly far-fetched stories are fact-based, but sometimes they're also juiced or accessed via ways that lack the journalistic ethics of more reputable news sources. In all, this documentary isn't just a fascinating look at how news is gathered but at how the news is presented.

Mommy Dead and Dearest

In 2019, Patricia Arquette won an Emmy and Joey King was nominated for one thanks to their roles as mother and daughter Dee Dee and Gypsy Rose Blanchard in the chilling true crime miniseries "The Act." The real story of the Blanchards, as told in the HBO original documentary "Mommy Dead and Dearest" is even more haunting. Filmmaker Erin Lee Carr dives into why chronically ill young woman Gypsy Rose Blanchard murdered her mother and primary caregiver, Dee Dee. She discovers a word of physical, psychological, and medical abuse, a forbidden and toxic young love, and the fact that the daughter was never really sick at all but a victim of her mother's case of Munchausen by proxy syndrome, bolstered with an elaborate web of lies.

Monterey Pop

A glorious and wide-eyed account of the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival — one of the first and most definitive multi-act, multi-day outdoor music festivals — "Monterey Pop" is a classic concert film consisting largely of footage of legendary, generationally great musicians at their absolute peak. The film is so immersive that viewers will feel like they're really present long ago and far away on that 1967 weekend in coastal California, watching the likes of Janis Joplin, the Who, Jefferson Airplane, and Otis Redding perform. However, it's Jimi Hendrix who blows everyone away — Monterey is where he famously set his guitar on fire.

Batkid Begins: The Wish Heard Around the World

Sometimes it can feel like documentarians are cultural watchdogs, detailing crimes, darkness, and the evil that men do. "Batkid Begins" is not that kind of documentary — it's an exuberant, life-affirming, tear-jerking examination of the goodness and goodwill that can result when large and disparate groups of people come together for a common cause. The film commemorates the viral, cultural moment in 2013 when the Make-a-Wish Foundation, along with an army of friendly volunteers, helped make juvenile cancer survivor Miles Scott's dream come true — he got to pretend to be Batman and fight crime in an actual Gotham City, a temporarily and elaborately transformed San Francisco.

Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind

Four years after his tragic death from suicide after suffering from Lewy body dementia, beloved comedian and Oscar-winning actor Robin Williams was profiled in this documentary that tried to unlock the history and motivations of a truly original artist. Compiling archival footage and interviews with friends, family members, and collaborators, "Come Inside My Mind" paints Williams as a tortured, lonely, and fragile man who was devoted to making his comedy — on stage, in movies, and on "Mork and Mindy" — as exceptional and crowd-pleasing as possible.

If you or anyone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline​ at​ 1-800-273-TALK (8255)​.

Well Groomed

A pleasant, jaunty, and nonjudgmental documentary can be a great way to discover a subculture you never even knew existed. Take "Well Groomed," for example, a film about the little-known world of competitive dog grooming. Most of the human competitors work in dog grooming parlors around the country, and their skills are so refined and their artistic vision so wild that they can go head-to-head with their colleagues and maybe win some cash. "Well Groomed" is like "Best in Show" but real ... and with a lot more dogs wearing brightly colored costumes made out of their own fur,

Meet the Patels

Audiences might recognize Ravi Patel, an Indian-American character actor, from shows like "Grandfathered" and "American Housewife" or movies like "Wonder Woman 1984." His parents are very traditional, and after he breaks up with a woman named Audrey, he agrees to try to settle down once and for all and submit to their methods of matchmaking and arranged partnership. He dutifully goes along with their machinations, but he keeps coming back to Audrey, making "Meet the Patels" (which the star directed with his sister) a real-life romantic comedy.

The Crime of the Century

In this two-part made-for-HBO documentary, investigative filmmaker Alex Gibney explores America's opioid crisis. Hundreds of thousands of people have died after becoming addicted to or overdosing on powerful, habit-forming prescription-grade painkillers. And with the help of whistleblowers, incriminating documents, and other alarming and damning evidence, Gibney focuses the blame on what he presents as an impossibly wealthy, poorly regulated, and almost untouchable pharmaceutical industry, which seemingly built a public health crisis in the name of bolstering the bottom line.

4 Little Girls

Spike Lee, one of the greatest and most insightful filmmakers of our time, most frequently writes and directs movies that take a hard and critical look at race in America, both historically and in contemporary times. In 1997, he stepped away from narrative film to helm "4 Little Girls," a documentary about an ugly and tragic event in U.S. history. In 1963, Ku Klux Klan operatives set off explosive devices at a predominantly Black church in Birmingham, Alabama. Four children, all girls between the ages of 11 of 14, died in the attack. The documentary features interviews with civil rights activists of the era, along with authorities and relatives of the people involved in the bombing, creating a documentary that serves as memorial, reflection, and a call to action.

Banksy Does New York

Documentaries about notable people are supposed to be revealing, exposing some new and heretofore unknown element about the otherwise familiar subject. "Banksy Does New York" is a compelling documentary about a moment in the career of the notorious and provocative street artist while adhering to Banksy's dictums of anonymity and anarchy. In other words, the viewers never learn Banksy's actual, long-concealed true identity, nor do they get much in the way of why he does what he does. They do, however, witness the impact of the street artist as his chaotic, button-pushing trip to New York — and the outrageous public art he creates there — gets under the skin of some and inspires far more, primarily to see it before it disappears.

The War Room

The 1992 presidential election was a historic one, the first in years with three major candidates and one that would result in the first Baby Boomer president, Democrat Bill Clinton, ending 12 years of Republicans in the White House. And if you want to know more about that pivotal moment in politics, "The War Room" follows a documentary crew embedded in the Clinton campaign. The film takes a shine to strategists George Stephanopoulos and James Carville as they steer an unlikely candidate to victory, dealing with all sorts of challenges as they arrive, including adultery scandals and poor primary showings.

The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart

The Bee Gees were phenomenally popular in the 1970s, as rare vintage footage from the era demonstrates in "The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart." This documentary charts the rise and sustained popularity of the group, best known for its disco hits and "Saturday Night Fever" soundtrack, but they also had a string of Beatles-esque pop hits in the '60s and became highly in-demand songwriters and producers in the '80s (if secretly, owing to the massive anti-disco backlash for which the group bore the brunt). The film is also a look back at a life and career for Barry Gibb, the Bee Gees frontman and one-time sex symbol who's sadly and acutely aware that he's the last surviving Bee Gee and Gibb brother.

The Cold Blue

During World War II, three-time Academy Award-winning director William Wyler headed to the European Theater to film combat missions on B-17s as they happened, embedded with the Eighth Air Force division. Some of that visceral, harrowing footage was used in the 1944 documentary "The Memphis Belle." However, the raw footage (all of it in color) was uncovered in the National Archives, and documentarian Erik Nelson restored it to 4K quality and compiled it into this remarkable film depicting daily life for young, brave, and frightened American soldiers.

A Brief History of Time

The late Stephen Hawking was commonly regarded as the smartest man on the planet, and in 1988, he published "A Brief History of Time," one of the most widely read popular science books in existence. He explained in simple terms the secrets of space, universe, the cosmos, and physics. Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Errol Morris adapts that curious, patient, and joyous book to the screen, intercutting the cosmology with a look at the life of Hawking himself, particularly his struggles with the effects of ALS, which left him mostly immobile, confined to a wheelchair, and requiring the use of a speech synthesizer.