nonfiction screen

Nonfiction on the Screen: My Favorite Documentaries

nonfiction screen

My nonfiction nerding knows no bounds, so I’m glad there are no limits to this week’s Nonfiction November prompt, which is focused on nontraditional nonfiction. The only thing is…I may be skipping the reading part. Along with podcasts and many other forms of nonfiction, I can’t get enough when it comes to documentaries. Earlier this year, I paired some of my favorite docs (like The Weather Underground and After Tiller) with some of my favorite nonfiction titles, but I’m going to use this chance to gush about a few more.

Dear Zachary (Netflix)

I’m putting this one first because it’s best to get the tough stuff out of the way. I’ve seen this movie multiple times and it never fails to leave me in a pile of sobbing mess. There’s a reason it’s the second highest rated documentary on Netflix (right behind Man on Wire, which is also great).

In 2001, 28-year-old Dr. Andrew Bagby is found dead in a park in Pennsylvania. He had been shot by his ex-girlfriend, who then fled to Canada, where she was able to walk free on bail, pregnant with Andrew’s child. Andrew’s enraged parents campaign to gain custody of the child and convict their son’s killer. Filmmaker Kurt Kuenne pairs this story with home movies and interviews with those who knew Andrew, hoping to give his best friend’s son an opportunity to discover who his dad was.

King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (Hulu)

You’ll need something fun after watching Dear Zachary, and King of Kong is it. Even if you don’t like or don’t care about video games, this is a fantastic documentary. Steve Wiebe is the world’s best underdog and phew, that Billy Mitchell is some kind of evil cartoon character in human clothing.

Named “Video Game Player of the Century” in 1999, Billy Mitchell sets a record score in Donkey Kong that many felt would never be broken. In 2003 Steve Wiebe, who has recently lost his job, learns about the record, sets out to beat it and does. So both men embark on a cross-country battle for inclusion in the 2007 Guinness Book of World Records as the supreme king of the electronic game.

Searching for Sugarman

Ugh, this movie will just make you FEEL GOOD, you guys. You will want to hug people and tell them it will be okay. Maybe you will cry (I cried).

Searching for Sugar Man tells the incredible true story of Rodriguez, the greatest ’70s rock icon who never was. Discovered in a Detroit bar in the late ’60s by two celebrated producers struck by his soulful melodies and prophetic lyrics, they recorded an album which they believed would secure his reputation as the greatest recording artist of his generation. In fact, the album bombed and the singer disappeared into obscurity amid rumors of a gruesome on-stage suicide. But a bootleg recording found its way into apartheid South Africa and, over the next two decades, he became a phenomenon. The film follows the story of two South African fans who set out to find out what really happened to their hero.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Netflix)

Werner Herzog has made like 1,300 movies and nearly all of them are brilliant, but this is the one that makes me googly-eyed. I can totally understand people who aren’t super into history getting a little sleepy by halfway through, but just seeing the cave drawings for a few minutes is totally worth the price of admission (which is free, by the way, if you have Netflix).

Cave of Forgotten Dreams follows an exclusive expedition into the nearly inaccessible Chauvet Cave in France, home to the most ancient visual art known to have been created by man. It’s an unforgettable cinematic experience that provides a unique glimpse of the pristine artwork dating back to human hands over 30,000 years ago – almost twice as old as any previous discovery.

 What are some of your favorite documentaries?


  • Kim Bramson

    So my Husband LOVES documentaries and is always trying to get me to watch them with him. Usually, I don’t but when he goes on and on about one then I tend to give in…Dear Zachary and King of Kong were two that I have watched based on his rave reviews and they are awesome!! I will have to share the others on your list with him and maybe we will watch them together :)

    • My husband watches way more than I do, too, but these definitely won both of us over. Searching for Sugar Man is so great…I’d go for it!

  • I like After Tiller too. I watch a lot of food and health documentaries. There was one about Remote Area Medical clinics in TN that was good. Mostly I yell at the screen during medical things.

  • It’s nice to see some else also ‘reads’ documentaries!

  • Great way to do this category! I skipped this one b/c I couldn’t get my head around it, but looking back, I could have done docs! Grr. Dear Zachary sounds right up my alley. Going to see if I can get my husband to watch it with me. We tend to watch sports docs, but Cocaine Cowboys (if you liked Narcos, CC is for you) is also one of our faves.

  • I love documentaries as well and will have to check these out on NF.

  • The trailer for Dear Zachary had me crying, but the last one about the cave is more my thing. When I do watch documentaries they tend to be about animals and nature. I own the BBC Planet Earth series, and the best thing about it is that my son loves watching it with me. :)

  • Awwwww, lookie. You nailed this prompt in a big way. I LOVE documentaries and I haven’t seen any of these. Maybe I’ll write about my fave “nonfiction show” on Netflix…This is Life with Lisa Ling. Or Anthony Bourdain! Or or! I’ll credit you of course because I was not thinking of this on my own but now I’m all excited because I love being an advocate for great shows in this realm.

  • LOVE King of Kong. Can’t bring myself to watch Dear Zachary, though. Truly chilling: Jesus Camp.

  • Love this! I am a big fan of documentaries and I am glad you shared some I have not seen. Yet!

  • Thank you for sharing these suggestions, Shannon; I’m always looking for more rainy day treadmill material – ha! I will say that my husband & I watched Searching for Sugarman together and I definitely cried; so good!

  • JoAnn @ Lakeside Musing

    I’m a fan of documentaries and you’ve given me some great suggestions. Thanks!!

  • One wouldn’t think I’d be a fan of documentaries, since I don’t care for non-fiction, but I DO love documentaries. Searching for Sugarman looks really good. I’ll be watching that one for sure. Thanks for these recommendations!

    • Watching can definitely be different than reading – I love, love, love Searching for Sugar Man…it’s totally worth watching.

  • Dear Zachery & King of Kong are two of my favorites as well. Since I haven’t heard of the other two and you obviously have tastes aligned with mine, I’ll have to check out the other two.

  • Dear Zachary sounds interesting but I feel it would be too hard on me Love non fiction and I am thrilled to see these become movies.

    • Dear Zachary is incredibly difficult to watch. Some of the others are much more uplifting, especially Searching for Sugar Man :)

  • I doubt you’ll be surprised but two of my favorites are about fashion. The first is Diana Vreeland: The Eye has to Travel. What an exuberant woman- I love her! The other is L’amour fou, the story of YSL and his life with Pierre Berge, his lover and partner. So much love, pain and beauty in their life together.

    Searching for Sugar Man sounds great- will check it out!

  • Christy

    I really should watch more documentaries than I do. There are so many great-sounding ones out there. I remember really liking Queen of Versailles.

  • Thanks for the recommendations, these sound great! I’ve got a bunch of documentaries flagged on Netflix, but tend not to make time for them in favor of catching up on old television shows.

  • I like this post. I’ve seen the Sugar Man doc and the Herzog cave doc, both are fascinating. Man I hadn’t heard about the Dear Zachary case. After reading about it on Wiki — I shudder that Bagby got involved with this person. Holy smokes, how awful. Scary. I think a recent good doc I saw was Going Clear about Scientology, wow that gave me creepy dreams for weeks. I never much about it till then. Scary too