When you need a dose of reality with your streaming check out our list of the Best Documentaries on HBO.
Editor’s Note: This post is updated monthly. Bookmark this page and come back every month to see what documentaries are being added to HBO Now and HBO Go.
Updated for February 2018
HBO’s most consistently excellent quality might be its deep roster of documentaries. At any given moment HBO has dozens of high-quality documentaries available for streaming. We’ve done our best here to find and present the best of the best documentaries available on HBO Now and HBO Go streaming.
It was certainly a tall task as almost every documentary by default seems excellent at first. How could anything that’s presenting further context on an important or interesting real life story be anything but fascinating? Still, here are the absolute must-watches for when you need a dose of truth and discomfort.
3 1/2 Minutes, Ten Bullets
3 1/2 Minutes, Ten Bullets debuted at Sundance in 2015 under its original name of simply 3 1/2 Minutes. That title seems intriguing and ominous enough but the new title for HBO along with the school photo of Jordan Davis leaves tragically little doubt as to what the film is about.
On November 23, 2012, Michael Dunn pulled up next to Davis at a Jacksonville, Florida gas station. Three and a half minutes later, Dunn fired ten shots at Davis, killing him. 3 1/2 Minutes, Ten Bullets covers the implications of this tragic story for Davis, Dunn and our culture at large.
Alive Day Memories: Home from Iraq
In addition to being a brilliant actor, Tony Soprano actor James Gandolfini (“actor” somehow doesn’t feel like a strong enough term for the miracle of creation that Gandolfini pulls off in The Sopranos) also felt strongly about his causes. One of them was supporting American military veterans.
Alive Day Memories is a rather atypical documentary as it features quite a bit of Gandolfini in addition to its subjects. But the passion and realness that Gandolfini brings to his conversations with Iraq War amputees and other injured veterans still makes for a remarkable, thoughtful viewing experience.
Atomic Homefront (Debuts February 12)
Nuclear energy could very well be the future. Before it is, however, we’re going to want to clean up the nuclear past. Rebecca Cammisa’s documentary examines a major American city, St. Louis, and its past as a nuclear processing site and eventual dumping ground during the Manhattan project.
Atomic Homefront examines the consequences of St. Louis’ nuclear legacy and what can be done to fix it.
Becoming Mike Nichols
How does one film cover the monumental and enormous career of writer/director/filmmaker Mike Nichols? As best it can.
Becoming Mike Nichols isn’t perfect. One might argue its even a bit too focused. Still, its subject just happens to be perfect. Nichols, himself, appears in the doc shortly before his death in 2014 as he casually chats with his close friend Jack O’Brien. Becoming Mike Nichols is the Graduate director’s final filmed appearance and it’s a worthwhile, intimate one.
Beware the Slenderman
Beware the Slenderman is among the most recent and buzzworthy documentaries on our list. It’s also quite great. It’s the story of two young girls who attempt to murder their friend as a sacrifice to fictional internet boogeyman Slenderman.
While the marketing materials are all too happy to play up the spooky story angle (and I thank them for all the fascinating art of Slenderman it produced) the documentary is thankfully more level-headed. It’s not just about scary stories or fear of new technology but rather an exploration of the confusions of youth.
Cries from Syria
Documentary footage of war and human suffering will never not be a vital part of journalism and filmmaking for as long as there is war and human suffering. Hopefully this footage and those documentaries will all be as simultaneously uncompromising and respectful as Cries from Syria.
Cries from Syria traces the beginning, middle and….unfortunately there is no end of the Syrian Civil War. It’s not so much a documentary as it is a desperate plea for help from an entire country of suffering people. That sounds like a tough watch and it is but it’s still absolutely worth your time.
David Bowie: The Last Five Years
David Bowie was the consummate showman until the end. And as we all found out when HBO acquired the rights to David Bowie: The Last Five Years, that showmanship extended to signing off on a documentary about the last years of his life. The documentary comes from Francis Whately who had previously directed David Bowie: Five Years, which covered the Thin White Duke’s cultural peak in the late ’70s and early ’80s.
Last Five Years covers the huge projects at the end of Bowie’s life including the musical Lazarus and the albums The Next Day and Blackstar. Fittingly, The Last Five Years is releases on what would be Bowie’s 71st birthday.
How awkward must it be to have your son approach you and ask to make a documentary about your life? Thankfully for all of us, U.S. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke said yes when his son David did just that. Holbrooke the younger does an excellent job of capturing his dad’s wildly fascinating life story.
The Diplomat covers almost the entirety of Holbrooke’s career as a friendly, yet resolute face the United States presented to the world for almost six decades. Holbrooke was a masterful ambassador, military officer and all-around diplomatic master. Getting to see his story from the perspective of his son is fascinating and poignant.
Everything is Copy
HBO Documentaries cover a huge, diverse array of topics. Still, we must acknowledge some bias here both on the part of documentarians and ourselves. Both documentarians and the stewards of this site just happen to gravitate to stories about journalists and other artists. And why not? Artists and journalists are both dogged pursuers of truth – a topic documentaries should know a bit about. In this instance the artist in question is the irreplaceable Nora Ephron.
Everything is Copy comes from Ephron’s son, journalist Jacob Bernstein and it’s a lovingly-crafted tribute to his mother. Bernstein, secures interviews with many important people to his mother and they talk about the many factors that helped Ephron become one of the true voices of her generation.
Here’s another interesting thing about documentaries. You write about them for long enough and you eventually discover that most of them are almost always relevant. Critics and audiences love to point out that art, both scripted and non-fiction, often reflects the issues of today. The reason for that sadly seems to be: today’s problems are always the same as yesterday’s. Case in point: The Fence.
The Fence is a documentary from 2010 about how the U.S. tried to build a “fence” on the Southern border in 2006. Spoiler alert: it was a really fucking stupid idea.
Ghosts of Abu Ghraib
Ghosts of Abu Ghraib is one of the documentaries that helped put HBO’s documentary brand on the map. It’s a 2007 documentary that examines the 2004 controversy surrounding the U.S.’s Abu Ghraib prison in which many prisoners were abused and/or tortured.
This was an incredibly powerful and well-known story and Ghosts of Abu Ghraib joins the pantheon of documentaries that offer the definitive depiction and interpretation of a controversial real-world event.
Going Clear: Scientology
Oh yes, you remember this one. Going Clear: Scientology is about as close to a definitive documentary about all the various mysteries and craziness of Scientology that we’re going to get. T
his Peabody-award winning doc comes from documentary All-Star Alex Gibney and is based on the book Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief. It’s a fascinating look at a religion/cult with dwindling members but that still has more money than ever.
Heidi Fleiss: The Would-Be Madam of Crystal
If you judged what this documentary was about based on photos alone, you would assume it’s just a story about a woman and her many lovely parrots. Which would be great as the official Den of Geek position on birds is that they are good and nice.
Still, the real subject of Heidi Fleiss: The Would-Be Madam of Crystal is just as fascinating. Fleiss spent years as a successful operator of an underground brothel to the stores before it became not-so-underground and she went to prison. This documentary follows Fleiss’ struggles to overcome her drug addiction and get back to work mastering the world’s oldest profession.
Heroin: Cape Cod, USA
Any documentary depicting drug addiction is going to be brutal. Heroin: Cape Cod, USA is particularly so. It isn’t preachy or saccharine. It’s just uncompromising in its honest depiction of the horrors of opioid addiction.
This doc predates the U.S.’s current opioid crisis by several years and it’s tragic to watch these sympathetic human beings go through deadly struggles that everyone seems helpless to stop.
Jim: The James Foley Story
Jim: The James Foley Story keeps up two running traditions on our documentaries list. One, it’s about a journalist. Two, it’s directed by someone close to the subject – in this case, the subject’s childhood friend.
In this case, however, the subject matter at hand couldn’t be more tragic. James Foley was an accomplished, respected photojournalist who captured many indelible photos during wars and civil conflicts throughout the Middle East. While reporting on the Syrian Civil War in 2012, Foley was captured by ISIL and then then two years later was beheaded. Jim: The James Foley Story focuses on the successful, vibrant life of its subject rather than his ghoulish, heartbreaking end.
The Kid Stays in the Picture
The Kid Stays in the Picture is one of the most honest and uncompromising depictions of the film industry ever made. Based on Robert Evans’ autobiography of the same name, the documentary follows Evans’ life and career from superstar to outcast.
The Kid Stays in the Picture goes far beyond stock photos and interviews. It features and empathetic first-person narration of its subject as he goes through the various ups and downs of life in Hollywood.
Life According to Sam
Meet 16-year-old Sam. Sam is awesome. Sam also has progeria, a rare genetic disorder in which the effects and symptoms of aging begin at an early age. Life According to Sam is a supremely uplifting and bittersweet documentary. Rarely do we get docs that celebrate the lives of “normal” people.
And despite his incredibly rare condition, Sam is a normal, sweet kid. He’s enjoyable to spend an hour and change with. At the same time you’ll learn about a terrible and unfortunate disease.
Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence/House of God
If you feel the need to watch a documentary about the Catholic child abuse scandal, disturbingly HBO’s roster alone has multiple options. Mea Maxima Culpa is certainly among the best, most informative and is obviously completely depressing.
Mea Maxima Culpa (Latin for “Through my most grievous fault”) deals with the first known protest against sexual abuse against men within the Catholic church. It comes from documentarian extraordinaire Alex Gibney and features several famous actors who provide the vocal translations for deaf interviewees. Yes, this one is brutal.
Mommy Dead and Dearest
In June 2015, 23-year-old Gypsy Rose Blanchard had her boyfriend stab her mother Dee Dee to death. That alone is the makings of a fascinating crime documentary. What’s revealed next, however, takes HBO’ new Mommy Dead and Dearest to the next level.
Dee Dee suffered from Munchausen by proxy, making Gypsy Rose’s entire life a living, secluded hell of fake illness after fake illness. Mommy Dead and Dearest is an effective, clear-headed look at all the questions that arise in this incredibly rare scenario.
Paradise Lost is the rare documentary that eventually became its own series of sorts. Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills presents the story of the West Memphis Three – three teenage boys accused of the 1993 murder and mutilation of three children. The case becomes so sprawling and so difficult that it continues through two more documentaries: Paradise Lost 2: Revelations and Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, the latter of which came out in 2011 – a full 18 years after the case began.
Paradise Lost is like The Godfather trilogy of documentaries only if the third one didn’t suck.
Solitary: Inside Red Onion State Prison
Prison documentaries are all over television now. Very few, if any, of them can compare to Solitary: Inside Red Onion State Prison. Solitary depicts the appalling and inhumane conditions within U.S. prisons – particularly the use of solitary confinement.
The real appeal of Solitary is the unprecedented access to film it receives in a setting we so rarely get to see. Solitary isn’t flashy or declarative because the filmmakers involved know that the footage will speak for itself. And it does.
Thought Crimes: The Case of the Cannibal Cop
Oftentimes documentaries are only as interesting as the topic they cover. With that in mind, Thought Crimes is incredibly interesting. The subject at hand, a New York City cop who conspired to kill, cook and eat his wife with a friend, is undoubtedly riveting.
Thought Crimes, however, takes the concept a step further and ponders what this really means for our culture and legal system writ large. Is this a premeditated plot to kill women or was this just a fantasy?
Three Days of Terror: The Charlie Hebdo Attacks
Sometimes living in this day-to-day reality feels like being in a documentary. When the horrific Charlie Hebdo attacks happened in Paris, there were so many videos and images of armored police exchanging fire with equally armored Islamic extremists. We saw everything in real time. So do we really need a documentary?
Yes, as it turns out because Three Days of Terror: The Charlie Hebdo Attacks is very, very good. This HBO original captures the chaos of the day in question while contextualizing it in useful, healing ways.
Hoo-boy, where to even begin with Tickled. Tickled is a story from directors David Farrier and Dylan Reeve who stumble upon seemingly pornographic videos about male-tickling competitions.
Understandably their curiosity is piqued and they decide to do a little research into it. The level of greed, fraud, and straight-up crazy nonsense they eventually uncover is staggering. Watch this one unspoiled if you can.
Valentine Road is the end result of one documentarian reading an upsetting article and immediately traveling to Oxnard, California to understand more. The story in question is a day in 2008 in which 8th grade student Brandon McInerney shot his classmate Larry King twice in the back of the head during first period.
The story that director Marta Cunningham unveils goes much deeper than a simple story of gay panic and intolerance.
When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts
Spike Lee is first and foremost a narrative film director but his pass at a documentary about Hurricane Katrina’s effects on New Orleans is excellent. Lee’s natural ability to establish a sense of place works perfectly here in a documentary that is really all about capturing the sensibilty and lingering pain of one community.
When the Levees Broke is certainly concerned with identifying where to place blame for not being able to prevent a preventable disaster but more than anything it’s a call for empathy for a vibrant city that almost lost everything.
This is a little bit of a cheat as Wishful Drinking isn’t a documentary in the traditional sense. It’s more of a retelling of the stage show of the same name that was adapted from a book by the same name. Wishful Drinking has survived from medium to medium because it’s a beautifully told story told simply. Carrie Fisher is a wonderful actress and even better communicator here.
She tells the story of her exciting, yet tumultuous life honesty and hilariously. This doc (it’s in the Documentary section of HBO Now, after all) is a wonderful gift of Carrie Fisher’s own humanity to us, the audience.