HBO Documentary Films launched in the late 1970s in the days before streaming, but today, you can watch all of the best HBO documentaries at home on HBO Max. The streaming service releases around 10-15 features per year and has consistently been the source of some of the most evocative and moving docs in recent decades. This means there are hundreds of titles to choose from and you might be looking for some recommendations when you crave award-winning non-fiction features and series.
From celebrity-driven docs about such icons as Tina Turner and Jane Fonda to gritty true-crime documentaries, there is no shortage of real-life stories that captivate. We looked to the critics for their picks of the best HBO documentaries as well as metrics provided by IMDB about what series and films people are talking about the most. We hope to provide you with a good mix of current favorites as well as some true classics you might have missed. Let’s take a look at some truly amazing docs!
Check Out the Best HBO Documentaries Below!
Woodstock 99: Peace, Love, and Rage (2021)
If you love documentaries that feel like you’re watching a slow-moving horror film, you must watch Woodstock 99. The film explores the factors that resulted in a disastrous music festival that devolved into violent riots, looting, and sexual assaults. You might think you know just how bad things were for attendees in 1999 but, trust us, it’s much worse than you could have imagined.
I Love You, Now Die: The Commonwealth v. Michelle Carter (2019)
I Love You, Now Die: The Commonwealth v. Michelle Carter is a sober look at the trial of Michelle Carter, who received a ton of media coverage after it was discovered that the teen had allegedly encouraged her boyfriend to commit suicide via text message. Conrad Roy went on to commit suicide at just 18. The doc looks at social media and mental health and mines the central question: can one person be blamed for another’s suicide? It’s one of the best HBO documentaries to come out about the controversial subject.
Tina tells the story of Tina Turner‘s life with equal amounts of electric energy and tons of heart. Not only is it one of the best HBO documentaries, but it’s also one of the most critically acclaimed docs in recent years. Hear the music that made her famous as well as her life’s story which both showcase immense talent and resiliency.
When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts (2006–2007)
Spike Lee‘s poetic and heartbreaking docuseries, When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts, recounts the devastation of New Orleans, Louisiana following the complete failure of the levees during Hurricane Katrina resulting in catastrophe. Unlike other documentaries, Lee’s does not feel like you’re on the outside looking in, but instead, like you’re on the inside looking out. Thanks to the accounts from locals who lived through the devastation, you get a truer sense of how each failure of government compounded to leave New Orleans in such a state.
Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God (2012)
Director of many of the best HBO documentaries, Alex Gibney tackles the issue of pedophilia and the Roman Catholic Church in Mea Maxima Culpa. He looks at the broader issue but eventually focuses on a case of allegedly abused boys by a priest at a Milwaukee school for the deaf. The details uncovered in the documentary will make you sick before it turns into anger at one of the oldest institutions still operating in the world today.
I’ll Be Gone in the Dark (2020)
For fans of true crime that like cases that will keep you up at night, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is one of the best HBO documentaries for you. The docuseries tells the story of the hunt for the Golden State Killer which became an obsession of the late writer Michelle McNamara. The film is partly about the author and her tireless quest but also the grizzly details of the serial murderer and rapist who would later be convicted for no less than 13 murders and 50 rapes.
Class Action Park (2020)
What happens in a world without oversight? Teenagers running an amusement park with rides created by an unhinged park owner. Class Action Park tells the story of one of the most infamously dangerous amusement parks in the world, Action Park. You won’t believe the shenanigans the folks got up to. If you watched Woodstock 99 and are looking for next steps, Class Action Park is one of the best HBO documentaries about another failed venture.
Jane Fonda in Five Acts (2018)
You might think you know of Jane Fonda’s life, her continued activism, and acting career but Jane Fonda in Five Acts takes the deepest dive yet into the iconoclast’s colorful past. You learn of instances of vindication for some of the causes she has fought for over the decades as well as some candid moments of regret about missteps along the way. Illuminating and full of life, it’s definitely worth checking out.
The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst (2015)
One of the most explosive and best HBO documentaries was delivered in 2015. The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst follows the clues of the eccentric real estate heir who has long been suspected of a string of crimes including the disappearance of his wife and later the murder of a close friend. There are tons of twists and turns here as the documentarians try to pin down Durst who is somehow forthcoming and elusive at the same time. There’s a moment captured by a hot mic that every doc fan should see.
Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (2015)
One of the documentaries that truly uncovered the darkness, potential criminality, and cultish behaviors of the Church of Scientology, Going Clear is yet another compelling documentary film from Alex Gibney. The filmmaker speaks with former members of the church to learn of their accounts about the organization’s sketchy practices that include everything from alleged torture to alleged exploitation. It’s a winner!
Atlanta’s Missing and Murdered: The Lost Children (2020)
One of the best HBO documentaries, on a topic that you might have missed, involves the kidnapping and murder of 30 Black children and young people. Yes, the subject matter is bleak but it’s an extremely important story about who gets justice in this country and who unfortunately does not. Atlanta’s Mayor recently reopened the investigation following the release of the doc and new DNA evidence uncovered.
Keep Reading for More of the Best HBO Documentaries to Stream!
If you love absolutely wacky characters that seem too over-the-top for real life, McMillion$ is going to be one of the best HBO documentaries for you. Each person interviewed for the series has so much to tell about their connection to a fraud scheme involving McDonald’s Monopoly game in the 1990s. Around $24 million was stolen from the giant and you will not believe how it was done!
The Paradise Lost Trilogy (1996 – 2011)
Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills was released in 1996 followed by two sequels which formed a trilogy about three boys who were accused of the murders and sexual mutilation of three prepubescent boys in 1993. The documentaries find huge inconsistencies between the evidence and how the case was prosecuted. It also makes an argument that “Satanic panic” helped fuel a narrative that may or may not stand up through the years. These are some of the best HBO documentaries for true crime lovers who really want to get lost in hours of documentary work.
Capturing the Friedmans (2003)
From the director who brought you The Jinx, we find his older film Capturing the Friedmans also streaming on HBO. After gaining access to a trove of home movies from a convicted father-son duo of child sexual abusers. It was a high-profile case in the 1980s that film explores more deeply through interviews and a careful look at those home movies and archive footage. It’s a breathtaking movie that is widely considered one of the best docs to come out this century.
Black Art in the Absence of Light (2021)
Black Art in the Absence of Light is a look at Black American Art and representation using David Driskell’s landmark Two Centuries of Black American Art exhibition as a framing device to discuss representation in the art world and beyond. The documentary explores past artworks as well as interviews artists who are working today to get a better example of how Black artist are faring in the contemporary art world. It’s magnificient and one of the best HBO documentaries about art.
The Vow (2020)
The headlines coming out about the NXIVM organization and sex cult included rackateering and sex trafficking but the creators of the documentary The Vow capture the deepest dive into the shadowy organization to reveal the stories of the lives damaged by it. Former members, some of whom were instrumental in NXIVM success, come forward to describe a pattern of brainwashing, abuse, and many other unsavory details. The founder, Keith Raniere, was convicted of sex trafficking and racketeering in 2019. You won’t believe how it got to that point.
The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley (2019)
Another one of the best HBO documentaries to come out in recent years is The Inventor which details the life and potential crimes of Elizabeth Holmes, the founder of multi-billion dollar Silicon Valley tech company Theranos which promised to deliver new technology for easier blood tests. It’s a wild ride, another one from HBO doc darling, Alex Gibney.
Exterminate All the Brutes (2021)
A poetic and haunting look at colonization and genocide around the world, Exterminate All the Brutes combines personal essay, investigation, and other modes of storytelling to paint a fuller picture of the systemic extremities people have faced for centuries. It’s one the best HBO documentaries on this list but it’s hard to put into words how affetive a doc it is so see it yourself!
Life According to Sam (2013)
While we’ve presented you with some heavy-hitting subject matter at the heart of many of these documentaries one of the lighter films on this list is called Life According to Sam and tells the story of Sam Berns who is a high school junior living with progeria (a rare progressive genetic disorder that causes children to age rapidly). More heartwarming than anything else thanks to the doc’s star,
4 Little Girls (1997)
Another excellent documentary from Spike Lee, 4 Little Girls mines the tragic 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Alabama that occured in 1963. The title of the doc refers to four Black children murdered in the attack: Addie May Collins, Carol Denise McNair, Cynthia Wesley, and Carole Rosamond Robertson. The important story is a moving look at how barbaric hate has been in the US.
Diana, Our Mother: Her Life and Legacy (2017)
After 20 years since their mother died, Prince William and Prince Harry look back on their mother’s legacy in this personal and poignant documentary. Both of her sons share intimate details about their relationship with Princess Diana. The documentary brilliantly portrays a person with a bigger-than-life reputation in and delicate and sensitive manner. If you love the royals, you must check out one of the best HBO documentaries in Diana, Our Mother.
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Allen v. Farrow
Allen v. Farrow tells the beind-the-scenes story of the sexual abuse allegations against Woody Allen involving his then 7-year-old daughter, Dylan, his child custody trial with Mia Farrow, and his marriage to Farrow’s young daughter, Soon-Yi. Sensational headlines and the media allowing Allen to drive the narrative around the allegations obscure the deeper story that this documentary manages to get beneath the surface of.
There you go! Did you discover some HBO documentaries that you want to give a try? HBO is home to some of the very best non-fiction series and feature films and we hope you give some of their impressive catalogue a try.
Andrew is a Chicago-based writer who enjoys finding the best of the internet, obsessively making lists, and cooking for friends. After studying Film and Art History, he developed a deep love for both topics. Celebrity news, pop culture, and stories that bring people together are his passions.
- 1 Check Out the Best HBO Documentaries Below!
- 1.1 Woodstock 99: Peace, Love, and Rage (2021)
- 1.2 I Love You, Now Die: The Commonwealth v. Michelle Carter (2019)
- 1.3 Tina (2021)
- 1.4 When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts (2006–2007)
- 1.5 Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God (2012)
- 1.6 I’ll Be Gone in the Dark (2020)
- 1.7 Class Action Park (2020)
- 1.8 Jane Fonda in Five Acts (2018)
- 1.9 The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst (2015)
- 1.10 Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (2015)
- 1.11 Atlanta’s Missing and Murdered: The Lost Children (2020)
- 2 Keep Reading for More of the Best HBO Documentaries to Stream!
- 2.1 McMillion$ (2020)
- 2.2 The Paradise Lost Trilogy (1996 – 2011)
- 2.3 Capturing the Friedmans (2003)
- 2.4 Black Art in the Absence of Light (2021)
- 2.5 The Vow (2020)
- 2.6 The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley (2019)
- 2.7 Exterminate All the Brutes (2021)
- 2.8 Life According to Sam (2013)
- 2.9 4 Little Girls (1997)
- 2.10 Diana, Our Mother: Her Life and Legacy (2017)
- 2.11 Allen v. Farrow
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