1. The Times of Harvey Milk (1984)
You could watch the 2008 biopic Milk, or you could check out this documentary, which is composed of real footage of Harvey Milk, San Francisco’s first openly gay supervisor. While his story is, in many ways, one of overcoming adversity, the film also chronicles Milk’s tragic 1978 assassination.
2. Brother’s Keeper (1992)
The death of William Ward remains unsolved: Was he smothered by his brother Delbert as a mercy killing, or was it an act of sex gone bad? Either way, the media frenzy surrounding the trial, as well as the condescending dismissal of the family as illiterate hicks, comes into sharp focus here.
3. Silverlake Life: The View From Here (1993)
Filmed with a handheld video camera, Silverlake Life is a video diary of longtime partners Tom Joslin and Mark Massi as they share the final months of their lives. Both succumbing to complications from AIDS, the men struggle to go about their day-to-day tasks while also dealing with the reality of their mortality.
4. Troublesome Creek: A Midwestern (1995)
Filmmakers Jeanne Jordan and Steven Ascher chronicle the family farm crisis by looking at Jordan’s family’s farm. While it’s been in the family since the mid-1800s, the Jordans are forced to take drastic measures, eventually auctioning off everything, in order to survive the disastrous economic climate.
5. Children Underground (2001)
There are 20,000 children living on the streets in Romania, and this documentary follows five of them. They live in a Bucharest subway station, panhandling and stealing to get something to eat — or worse, to get a can of paint they can huff to get high and temporarily escape their miserable conditions.
6. My Flesh and Blood (2003)
Susan Tom has dedicated her life to caring for special needs children with physical and mental disabilities. The documentary focuses on her home life, where she cares for 11 children, some of whom are terminally ill. One of Tom’s children, who has a terminal illness, does not realize he won’t make it to adulthood.
7. Darwin’s Nightmare (2004)
The introduction of Nile perch into Lake Victoria has devastating effects for the region — first for the natural wildlife and then for the indigenous people who live off of the lake. The locals are left to survive off the decaying carcasses of gutted fish, while their children turn to drugs and prostitution amid their dire surroundings.
8. Earthlings (2005)
Earthlings uses graphic hidden camera footage of animals being brutalized for food, clothing, and medical testing. It’s almost impossible to watch, but many members of the animal rights movement consider it required viewing for its unflinching look at how humans treat other species.
9. The Bridge (2006)
The Bridge attracted controversy when it was revealed that filmmaker Eric Steel, who interviewed family members of people who committed suicide by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge, had footage of the suicides. But the end result is a film that’s haunting for its ability to show the final moments of very troubled people.
10. Deliver Us From Evil (2006)
Catholic priest Oliver O’Grady admitted to having raped and molested 25 children between the late ’70s and early ’90s. As this infuriating documentary shows, the church not only knew about O’Grady’s crimes, but they actively helped cover them up, allowing him to continue sexually abusing children.
11. The Suicide Tourist (2007)
The first of a few documentaries on this list about the right to die, this film follows Craig Ewert, a man suffering from ALS who travels to Switzerland for doctor-assisted suicide. The program was very controversial for its decision to show Ewert’s final moments, painlessly dying with his wife at his side.
12. Bulgaria’s Abandoned Children (2007)
This documentary looks at the Social Care Home, where 75 special needs children with mental and physical disabilities are largely neglected. Some are unable to speak simply because they have never been taught how, while others rock themselves back and forth because it’s the only way they know to pass the time.
13. Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father (2008)
What starts as an elegy becomes a true-crime story that’s as gripping as it is devastating. The less known about Dear Zachary the better: All that really needs to be said is that it began as a film designed to introduce a child to the father he never knew. As filming progressed, however, things took an even more tragic turn.
14. Young@Heart (2008)
Yes, Young@Heart is ultimately uplifting — it follows a chorus whose senior citizen members have an average age of 80. But in preparing for a big concert in their hometown, two chorus members die in quick succession. You will never hear Coldplay’s “Fix You” the same way again.
15. Boy Interrupted (2009)
Evan Perry suffered from depression and suicidal tendencies from a young age. His parents serve as director and cinematographer for this look at their attempts to treat Evan’s lifelong mental anguish — none of which had any lasting effect — and his eventual suicide at age 15.
16. The Cove (2009)
Those who are satisfied knowing their tuna is “dolphin-safe” should avoid watching The Cove, which shows graphic footage of dolphins being slaughtered. In addition to explaining the negative health effects from humans consuming dolphin meat, it also reflects on the unnecessary cruelty of these hunting practices.
17. Restrepo (2010)
Restrepo isn’t just one of the saddest documentaries — it’s also one of the most stressful. More than any other film, it puts you in a war zone, and you feel the danger the platoon feels. That means you also experience their grief following the loss of the titular Restrepo, a medic killed early in the campaign.
18. How to Die in Oregon (2011)
In 1994, Oregon became the first state to allow for physician-assisted suicides. The documentary explains the law — and attempts to expand it elsewhere — while also following terminally ill patients who have chosen to take advantage of it in an attempt to die with dignity.
19. There’s Something Wrong With Aunt Diane (2011)
In 2009, Diane Schuler drove the wrong way on a state parkway in a minivan full of family members: The ensuing head-on collision killed eight people, including Diane. This documentary attempts to understand why Diane’s horrifying actions, which caused the deaths of four children, don’t match her role as a loving mother.
20. We Were Here (2011)
While other documentaries have focused on the initial outbreak of AIDS, We Were Here focuses entirely on San Francisco, where the epidemic killed countless young men, and where early efforts were made to figure out the “Gay Plague” and to determine how to stop its spread.
21. Terry Pratchett: Choosing to Die (2011)
The author Terry Pratchett, who has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease himself, meets with other people suffering from degenerative conditions. His main focus is on Peter Smedley, a man with motor neuron disease who ultimately travels to Swiss assisted-dying organization Dignitas to end his life.
22. The Invisible War (2012)
This film uncovers the shocking amount of sexual abuse that takes place in the military — everything from the failed methods of prevention to the reprehensible cover-ups and the inability of victims to get treatment for the trauma they’ve endured. It’s brutal to watch, as these women and men struggle to reclaim their lives.
23. Call Me Kuchu (2012)
Activist David Kato does what he can to help his fellow LGBT citizens of Uganda, but he is brutally murdered for his efforts. The film documents his struggle, as well as the other atrocities inflicted on Uganda’s LGBT population and their allies, as the country tries to pass a bill making homosexuality a crime punishable by death.
24. The Act of Killing (2012)
This experimental documentary has former members of an Indonesian death squad reenact some of their past crimes, sometimes as the victims. At least one member has a very hard time reliving what he’s done — especially when he’s forced to feel what the victims felt. It’s all a bitter reminder of the reality of what these men did.
25. Blackfish (2013)
In investigating the deaths of trainers at Sea World, filmmaker Gabriela Cowperthwaite uncovers a history of horrible mistreatment of killer whales. The tragedy of the documentary is that both the orca Tilikum and the trainers he killed — animal lovers who believed they were doing good — are victims.