We are in the midst of a golden age of documentaries. Seemingly every week there is a new movie or docuseries grabbing the world’s attention with scintillating true-crime, a deep look into a celebrity’s life and career, or any number of fascinating stories told from every angle imaginable.
Documentaries have always been an essential storytelling medium, a way to share the trials and tribulations of those directly involved with their subject. HBO has long been a company committed to bringing the best of these stories to light and, now, with the expanded library included with their streaming hub HBO Max, they are home to more documentaries than ever.
Here is our ranking of the 10 best documentary series and movies currently streaming on HBO Max.
10. Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (1996)
This 1996 true-crime documentary, in a way, portends the kind of true-crime docs that pop up seemingly every week on any number of streaming services. Paradise Lost tells the story of the West Memphis Three, a group of teenage boys accused of grizzly satanic murders that took place in May of 1993 and the subsequent trial. Wrapped up in the trial and the coverage surrounding the murders is the satanic panic of the time, one that saw moral outrage spread throughout the United States in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Though there is no significant physical evidence linking the boys to the crime, they are ultimately found guilty of the murders, a decision that was later overturned. Paradise Lost won a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Informational Programming.
9. Class Action Park (2020)
Premiering on HBO Max in the summer of 2020, Class Action Park is the story of an amusement park like nothing you’ve ever seen before. Tucked away in Vernon Township, New Jersey in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, Action Park was an adult playground run by a shady con man with absolutely none of the safety measures needed to properly run an amusement park. The documentary does a good job of showing the two sides of this coin. The first half or so focuses on some of the hi-jinks — drinking, drugs, etc — that took place in and around the park’s many rides, including the Cannonball Loop, the SuperSpeed Waterfalls, and the Alpine Slides. Many of its primary players talk at length about the complete lack of supervision at the park and how that gave the whole thing a kind of summer camp vibe. The latter portion of the film, however, brings things back to Earth in devastating fashion. Complete freedom, drugs, drinking, and dangerous rides do not, it turns out, lead to positive ends. In the end, Action Park was the site of multiple deaths, including George Larsson Jr., whose death was covered up by the park’s owner Eugene Mulvihill.
8. George Harrison: Living in the Material World (2011)
You could say there have been a few documentaries about The Beatles, maybe a few too many. We’ve been told the story of these four Liverpool boys with shaggy hair and infectious harmonies countless times, which is what makes this one special, being the doc that mostly glosses over The Beatles entirely, instead focusing on the post-Beatles efforts of perhaps its most enigmatic figure, George Harrison. Directed by Martin Scorsese, George Harrison: Living in the Material World is a three-and-a-half hour epic, featuring interviews and never-before-scene footage from all the major players you would expect. This is an especially interesting watch when viewed in tandem with one of the other great Beatles’ docs, last year’s groundbreaking Get Back. Harrison often comes off as the surliest of the group during the sessions captured in Peter Jackson’s epic, and Living in the Material World gives us a good picture of why he might have felt a little stifled as part of the enormous Beatles machine. You could even make the argument that Harrison had the most successful post-Beatles run. Overall, Harrison is a truly fascinating individual, someone who embraced the spiritual revolution of the time and seemed intent on forging his own path to happiness and Scorsese and company do a great job of capturing that journey.
7. George Carlin’s American Dream (2022)
George Carlin has a way of remaining eminently topical, even when HBO Max isn’t premiering a documentary about his life. Look through your Twitter feeds and you are likely to stumble upon one of his famous bits. The most recent is his searing takedown of conservatives’ abortion views in which he effectively boils down their obviously hypocritical stance; “They will do anything for the unborn. But once you’re born, you’re on your own,” he says before acknowledging what we all know so well. “They’re not pro-life, they’re anti-women.” What’s fascinating about George Carlin’s American Dream is how Carlin got to the point in his life where he felt comfortable espousing his most honest views. Directed by Judd Apatow and Michael Bonfiglio, this two-part series tracks Carlin’s life from his childhood in New York City to his time as a straight-laced early ‘60s staple of variety programs and his heyday as an icon of the counterculture, in exhaustive detail. Through a series of talking-head interviews with some of the world’s most iconic comedians, including Steven Colbert, Jon Stewart, and Jerry Seinfeld, Apatow gives us a view of just how essential Carlin is to this day and how universal his jokes and bits remain.
6. Exterminate All Brutes (2021)
Exterminate All Brutes is not for the faint of heart and certainly not the easy, relaxing watch many will be looking for when they fire up a documentary. There’s our fair warning, because to dive into this series is to explore some of the most troubling aspects of both America and human nature as a whole. Exterminate All Brutes is an exhaustive look at imperialism and colonialism and the attendant horrors they brought and continue to bring our world to this day. Written and directed by Roaul Peck (I Am Not Your Negro), this film has a way of deconstructing pretty much everything you know about American and European history, re-framing every moment through the lens in a way it should have been presented all along; a series of tragedies and genocides enacted by those in power as a way to gain more power. We often look at history as moments of triumph, Exterminate All Brutes shows us the inherent flaws in that view. Documentaries are almost always designed for binge-ability, this is not that kind of series, but I would argue Exterminate All Brutes is essential viewing nonetheless.
5. Gimme Shelter (1970)
If Woodstock can be said to be the definitive document of the high water mark of the free-love, hippie-driven late ’60s, Gimme Shelter is its antithesis, capturing all the things that go wrong when you mix large crowds, drugs and inexperienced management. Gimme Shelter, directed by documentary auteurs Albert and David Maysles (Grey Gardens), follows The Rolling Stones on the tail-end of their 1969 US tour, ending in the now-infamous performance at Altamont Raceway, which led to the death of four attendees. Much of the earlier portion of the film includes some excellent live footage of the Stones perforiming at the height of their considerable powers hits like “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” and “Brown Sugar”. It’s the last half hour, though, that is particularly fascinating. From the beginning of the Altamont Free Concert, things started to get out of hand. The decision to hire the California Hell’s Angels as security was a dubious one at best and ultimately increased the violence and sense of pandemonium. Seeing these flower-power, seemingly peace-loving fans devolve into what essentially amounts to an angry mob is something to behold and a definite dark stain on the era as a whole.
4. I’ll Be Gone In The Dark (2020)
The best documentaries are able to explore multiple themes and subjects simultaneously. I’ll Be Gone In The Dark, which premiered its first of seven episodes back in June of 2020, does just that. This documentary, directed by Liz Garbus (What Happened, Miss Simone?), follows the story of Michelle McNamara as she investigates the serial murderer known as the Golden State Killer. When we meet McNamara, she is the writer behind a true-crime blog titled True Crime Diary, but she soon lands a pitch to cover a developing story for Los Angeles Magazine, one that is set to uncover mysteries behind crimes committed in California in the 1970s and ‘80s. As McNamara continues to unearth more and more grizzly details, her own life becomes consumed by the investigation, a fact made all the more interesting because of her marriage to well-known comedian and actor Patton Oswalt. What makes I’ll Be Gone In The Dark so fascinating is that it is really an investigation of an investigation, adding layers upon layers in a way that remains scintillating throughout its seven-episode run.
3. Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (2015)
Based on the book of the same name by Lawrence Wright, Going Clear digs deep into the world of the Church of Scientology, pulling no punches in its examination of a clearly corrupt and often dangerous organization. Pulling largely from interviews with eight former Scientologists, including filmmaker Paul Haggis (Crash), Going Clear is an exhaustive look at the church, breaking down everything from its history to its current-day leader David Miscavige and the allegations of abuse made against him. Going Clear was written and directed by Alex Gibney, a titan of documentary filmmaking whose work includes The Inventor: Out For Blood in Silicon Valley about Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos, and The Crime of the Century about the opioid epidemic. Going Clear received seven Emmy nominations in 2015, and won the Emmy for Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Special.
2. Harlan County, USA (1976)
One of the great features of HBO Max is their treasure trove of classic films (their TCM hub is of particular appeal to those cinephiles interested in classic Hollywood). This includes documentaries, which often have a way of getting lost in the annals of time more quickly than narrative films. That’s a shame, because something like Harlan County, USA is near-essential viewing. Harlan County, USA follows the story of a coal miners’ strike in Kentucky in 1973. Told with no narration or talking head interviews, this is a documentary that relies heavily on the actions of its many characters, focusing heavily on the picket-line clashes between the miners and Duke Power Company workers and executives. The specifics of their contract negotiation are important, of course, but what Harlan County, USA does best is to become a kind of representative example of the way workers are continuously exploited in the United States in the name of capitalist gain. Seeing the residents of Harlan County live in poverty and squalor while Duke Power’s profits rise 170 percent is, sadly, not unfamiliar in today’s day and age. In fact, with rising rent and stagnant wages all over the country, you could argue we are all living in Harlan County, USA.
1. Hoop Dreams (1994)
In many ways Hoop Dreams is the father of all sports documentaries. Directed by Steve James — who would go on to make one of the best of ESPN’s 30 For 30 installments, No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson — Hoop Dreams follows the story of William Gates and Arthur Agee, two teenagers from Chicago with dreams of becoming professional basketball players. It’s hard to overstate how big of a filmmaking achievement this film was, pulling from over 250 hours of footage James is able to make a consistently compelling story while touching on such themes as race, class, and the ambition of those hoping to transcend these forces. Hoop Dreams was a hit with critics and audiences alike, winning the Sundance Film Festival award for Best Documentary Features in 1994 and has since been added to the National Film Registry of the Library Of Congress. The famed film critic Roger Ebert was a particularly vocal advocate for the film, calling it “one of the great moviegoing experiences of my lifetime.”