25 unmissable documentaries you need to watch right now

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As an intimate film exploring the life of Amy Winehouse arrives in cinemas, Stylist gets an exclusive look at the documentary and lists the other non-fiction films you should make it your mission to see. Words: Colin Crummy.

After Amy Winehouse’s death on 23 July 2011, her closest friends vowed not to publicly discuss her life: no tell-alls to the tabloids, no ‘My Life With Amy’ memoirs, no talking-head TV shows. So when British documentary maker Asif Kapadia approached them about making a film of her life, he didn’t expect to get anywhere fast.

Fortunately, however, Amy’s former manager Nick Shymansky had seen Kapadia’s impressive documentary Senna, about the Brazilian motor racing champion, and been blown away. “Nick was very moved by the film,” Kapadia tells Stylist. “At the time he had even said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if one day someone made a film like that about Amy?’” So when Kapadia called, Shymansky gave the green light, and persuaded the singer’s two close friends Lauren Gilbert and Juliette Ashby to talk to Kapadia.

The result is haunting and soul-stirring and the first time a director gained such unfettered access to the life of the tragic star.  Between anecdotes about the girl who ‘just wanted to sing’ and archive footage of interviews and seminal performances, the film shines a light on an extraordinary character who was just a normal girl struggling with fame. We see Amy mucking around on holiday in Majorca, and Amy the razor-sharp-witted popstar who, just before she wins her fifth Grammy, wonders just why Justin Timberlake would call his record What Goes Around… Comes Around.

But it also records Amy’s tragic demise: the Majorca trip turns sour when Amy hears that her lover Blake Fielder-Civil is back with his girlfriend; and at the Grammys, she confesses to her friend that the event is, “So boring without drugs.” Amy is also not shy about questioning the role played by her father Mitch (who advises her not to go to rehab for alcohol addiction), the tabloid press and us, the audience, for our insatiable need for celebrity tittle-tattle. But the film’s ultimate focus is overwhelmingly and powerfully on Amy’s huge talent, now gone. 

Amy premiered at Cannes and has been hailed as a “tragic masterpiece”, quite an achievement for a documentary – a genre that has steadily been shedding its dry and scholarly shell over the past decade. Recent figures from the British Film Institute (BFI) show that 89 documentaries were released in 2013, compared to just four in 2001.

It’s been mooted that documentaries fill the gap left by the lack of investigative journalism, or that naturally dramatic stories make more gripping viewing than Hollywood’s superhero epics. From the BBC (which just announced a fund for documentary-making) to Netflix to the podcast Serial, production companies are investing more time and money into documentaries than ever before.

Variety magazine has declared that 2015 is ushering in a “golden age” for the medium. HBO’s The Jinx on murder suspect and property heir Robert Durst; Iris, an affectionate profile of one of New York’s ageing eccentrics; and Nick Bloomfield’s Tales Of The Grim Sleeper, a study on a notorious LA serial killer, have had audiences pinned to their seats.

So in celebration of the real deal, Stylist presents 24 other documentaries that demand your attention.

Amy is released in cinemas on 3 July. 

Iris, 2015

Meet Iris Apfel, an eclectic and inspiring 93-year-old whose approach to style (and life) will leave you feeling so much better about ageing. Directed by Albert Maysles – who helmed the beautiful Grey Gardens, an intimate portrait of two fashion recluses – it’s a heart-warming look at a lady who refuses to be bound by fashion’s ‘rules’.

Best bit? Iris’s 101-year-old husband Carl buying a red baseball cap and wearing it all day, much to his wife’s dismay.   

Touching The Void, 2003

When British mountaineer Joe Simpson slipped off an ice cliff in the Peruvian Andes, his climbing partner Simon Yates had to cut the rope connecting them in order to save himself. Through a thrilling mix of reenactment and testimony, Kevin MacDonald’s film explores what happened afterwards as the two men struggle to survive. As gripping and gruelling as any Hollywood disaster film.

Need to know: It’s the most successful British documentary of all time, making more than £9 million at the box office.  

Bill Cunningham New York, 2010

This vibrant film follows 81-year-old New York Times photographer Bill Cunningham as he trawls the streets of New York, camera in hand in pursuit of Manhattan street style. His subjects – from Wall Street workers to Met Ball attendees – fear fashion exile when he doesn’t stop to take their picture.

Best bit? A look at his tiny flat, overflowing with photos and film: “Why the hell would anyone want a kitchen and a bathroom?”

In Bed With Madonna, 1991

From performing a Catholic Church-baiting stage show to simulating fellatio with a Perrier water bottle, Madonna plays it to the hilt in what is still one of the most outlandish pop music documentaries ever. The film, which follows the megastar on her controversial 1990 Blonde Ambition world tour, showed the world exactly what a fiercely empowered woman looked like.

Best bit? Madonna fake vomiting when Kevin Costner – who called her show “neat” – leaves the room. 

Grizzly Man, 2005

Timothy Treadwell videoed his 13 summers living alongside bears in Alaska… right up to the moment that one of the animals he was studying mauled him and his girlfriend to death. Werner Herzog’s engrossing film uses footage filmed by Treadwell (a troubled ex-actor) to examine just what happens when obsessive behaviour goes awry.

Need to know: Herzog didn’t include the audio recording of the fatal bear attack, captured on Treadwell’s camera, but did show a clip of himself listening to it. He called it “the most terrifying thing I’ve ever heard in my life”.   

The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst, 2015

When director Andrew Jarecki made the film All Good Things in 2010 inspired by millionaire Robert Durst and his involvement in three deaths (including the disappearance of his wife in 1982), he had no idea that Durst would like the film so much that he’d agree to 20 hours of interview time on camera. The result is a heart-stopping investigation into Durst’s life and crimes.

Need to know: In All Good Things, the Durst-inspired role was played by Ryan Gosling.   

Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer, 2003

Nick Broomfield’s follow-up to his 1993 film – Aileen Wuornos: The Selling Of A Serial Killer – is arguably even more moving. With unprecedented access and a strange bond with the killer, Broomfield (summoned to Wuornos’ final appeal before execution) asks serious questions about the state-killing of the criminally insane.

Need to know: When Charlize Theron was cast as Wuornos in Monster, she contacted Broomfield for every frame of footage he had. He has since said her performance was so accurate that he felt like he was actually watching Wuornos.   

20 Feet from Stardom, 2013

It’s not hard to see why Morgan Neville’s rousing film about backing singers won the best documentary Oscar. The talent of these women, who helped shape some of the most famous songs of all time, is exceptional – but the reasons why they never quite made it to the top are even more enthralling. With cameos from Bette Midler, Mick Jagger and Sheryl Crow, the film looks at the pursuit of fame and the sacrifices that go with always being in the background.

Best bit? When the singers come together – with no rehearsal – for a flawless version of Up Where We Belong.

Spellbound, 2002

This hilarious and suspenseful film follows eight children accompanied by their parents as they compete in America’s national spelling bees. Around the agony and the ecstasy of the contest, director Jeffrey Blitz weaves a tale of ambition that transcends race, ethnicity and class.

Watch it for: The dedicated grandfather of Indian contestant Neil Kadakia, who paid 1,000 people to pray for him to win.  

Dreams of a Life, 2011

Will anyone notice when you’re gone? Carol Morley asks just that in this drama documentary about Joyce Vincent (re-enacted by Fresh Meat’s brilliant Zawe Ashton), a 38-year-old Londoner who’d been dead for three years when her remains were found in a bedsit in 2006.

Watch it for: Morley slowly revealing that Joyce was not the recluse you’d expect.

Searching for Sugar Man, 2012

Malik Bendjelloul’s Oscarwinning film follows two South African fans of Seventies soul singer Sixto Rodriguez, who released two albums before fading into obscurity. Setting out to discover if hazy rumours of his death are true, their journey is a celebration of fans, faith and music’s power to cross continents and unite those in turmoil.

Need to know: Rodriguez flopped in his US homeland, but his song Sugar Man was one of the anthems of South Africa’s anti-apartheid cause.  

Bowling for Columbine, 2002

Tackling America’s obsession with guns in his familiar maverick, whistleblowing style, Michael Moore talks candidly to those who witnessed the high-school massacre in Columbine in 1999 (where two students shot and killed 12 students and one teacher), young offenders in America and the musicians accused of “glorifying” guns. Moore proves that documentaries can take on serious subjects and still be as incendiary and entertaining as any other big-screen offering.

Best bit? Moore is gifted a gun as a reward for opening a bank account, which prompts one of the film’s most memorable lines: “Well, here’s my first question. Do you think it’s a little dangerous handing out guns in a bank?”  

Virunga, 2014

Leonardo DiCaprio executive produced this British-made documentary about the awe-inspiring Virunga National Park in the Congo, home to the world’s last mountain gorillas. But it’s not just the animals and the dedicated rangers who protect them – including an ex-child soldier – that take centre stage in Orlando von Einsiedel’s heart-stopping film. A harsh light is also shone on the way that the park’s beauty and biodiversity are threatened by ruthless exploration by oil companies and the brutal armed conflicts that rage in the area.

Watch it for: Gorilla-carer Andre’s clever Pringles trick and the plight of French journalist Melanie Gouby, who tries to secure the future of the park by going undercover.  

Blackfish, 2013

When an orca at SeaWorld Orlando killed experienced trainer Dawn Brancheau during a performance in 2010, filmmaker Gabriela Cowperthwaite refused to accept the company line that it was a tragic accident. Instead, she made Blackfish, an impassioned and eye-opening exposé of the cruel treatment of killer whales in captivity over the past four decades. Watch it, and prepare to be incensed.

Need to know: Blackfish inspired a petition with one million signatures demanding that SeaWorld change its ways.  

Valentino: The Last Emperor, 2008

Vanity Fair’s Matt Tyrnauer offers up a touching portrait of a haute couture powerhouse, with lavish dresses, opulent shows, six pugs in a private jet and a tiny Italian with a short fuse and a very deep tan. The film also poignantly captures the end of a fashion era, as corporate suits move in to buy up Valentino’s business.

Watch it for: A moving insight into the relationship between Valentino and his long-suffering, brutally honest partner Giancarlo Giammetti.  

Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer, 2013

The arrest of Pussy Riot after they performed feminist punk rock in a Moscow cathedral, and what happened after, is played out in blistering fashion in a guerilla-style film which gives a unique perspective on their widely reported courtroom trial.

Need to know: Russian officials banned the screening of the film at its premiere in Moscow.  

Shoah, 1985

Claude Lanzmann’s 566-minute film is a devastating account of the Holocaust. The director didn’t use any archive footage, instead interviewing survivors, witnesses and perpetrators himself at locations including the death camps in German-occupied Poland.

Need to know: It took Lanzmann 11 years to piece Shoah together from 350 hours of raw footage.  

An Inconvenient Truth, 2006

A 97-minute lecture from a man with a big projector may not sound riveting, but the charismatic Al Gore’s wake-up call on climate change – which received three standing ovations when it premiered at Sundance – is an urgent, engaging and terrifying warning about the devastating impact humans are having on our environment. You will not forget it in a hurry.

Need to know: Legendary US critic Roger Ebert recommends An Inconvenient Truth in unequivocal terms: “You owe it to yourself to see this film. If you do not, and you have grandchildren, you should explain to them why you decided not to.”  

Finding Vivian Maier, 2013

A nanny in Fifties suburban America, Vivian Maier was also a talented amateur photographer, who took more than 100,000 pictures of people on the streets of Chicago. When the negatives were discovered years later, they were heralded as some of the finest examples of 20th-century street photography. Jon Maloof’s Oscar-nominated film tells the story of a singular and enigmatic woman who posthumously rewrote the history of photography.

Watch it for: Maier’s self-portraits shot via reflections in mirrors and windows, pioneering the selfie decades ahead of time.  

The September Issue, 2009

The underlying battle between American Vogue’s business brain Anna Wintour and its creative force Grace Coddington provides the drama in RJ Cutler’s look at the making of the magazine’s iconic fall fashion issue. Between takes, staff, photographers, designers and underlings visibly cower in Wintour’s presence (while editor-at-large André Leon Talley provides the comic relief) in this humanising and wry take on the often aloof fashion industry.

Need to know: Copies of the September 2007 edition of Vogue have been known to fetch around £100 on eBay  

Senna, 2010

You don’t need to be a racing fan to be touched by this shattering film about late F1 ace Ayrton Senna. It’s a profoundly moving look at a man who was just as exhilarating off the track as he was on it. With memories from those who knew him – including rival Alain Prost, who carried the coffin at his funeral – it reveals the bonds Senna forged with his family, his colleagues and the people of Brazil.

Watch it for: The clashes between Senna and Prost, one of sport’s great rivalries.  

The Act of Killing, 2012

This bone-chilling and wholly original documentary explores the “celebrity” status awarded to purveyors of mass genocide in Sixties Indonesia. By asking them to recreate the killings in varying Hollywood film styles – from thrillers to lavish musicals – director Joshua Oppenheimer creates a unique and fearless film which combines stark realism with absurdist humour. You’ll be utterly absorbed and completely dumbfounded.

Need to know: A companion film by Oppenheimer called The Look Of Silence, in which a family confronts their brother’s murderer, is released this year.  

Paris is Burning, 1990

Jennie Livingston’s cult classic explores the glamour-on-a-budget world of Harlem drag balls, in which young, gay, black and Latino New Yorkers – on the brink of the Aids epidemic – dress up and walk imagined catwalks for prizes and plaudits.

Need to know: Their runway “voguing” is apparently what inspired Madonna.  

Pina, 2011

Wim Wenders’ documentary – described as a eulogy to German choreographer Pina Bausch – is a film to mesmerise even the most dance-averse. It is also highly amusing, as Bausch’s company channels the wonder and absurdity of life through dance.

Best bit? The final piece, Vollmond, where the company thrillingly dances across a flooded stage.    

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