Big List

27 Recent Documentaries to Watch in Lockdown

As England goes into its second national lockdown, we highlight the year's best non-fiction films... and there's one for every mood

Well, here we go again. Today, the country enters a 27 day-long lockdown, which also means that cinemas are closed for business. So, to provide you with some worthwhile viewing during this uncertain period, we've assembled a sizeable guide to the year's best and most enlightening documentaries: 27 films for 27 days of lockdown viewing (if you're up for a challenge).

There should be no pressure to “make the most of lockdown,” of course; everyone's experience depends entirely upon them. But for those inclined to watch as many films as possible, this array of non-fiction features does – when viewed in their entirety – paint a valuable picture of the never-ending contradiction that is 2020. Whether they're depicting mankind at its creative best or drawing attention to those areas in desperate need of change, these films show the world as it stands today – for better or worse.

For your easy perusal, we've separated the films into handy sub-categories, from Comfort Blankets to Unreported Worlds, so you can easily find a doc to suit your mood on any given day. Happy streaming, and stay safe out there!

 

Comfort Blankets

The Booksellers

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

Read our full review of The Booksellers

There is something inherently comforting in the idea of books and people who love books. And this breezy foray into New York's rare and antique book scene is basically the film equivalent of curling up with a good book. As we enter a period of uncertainty, take refuge in the dimly-lit rooms, packed shelves, and endless stacks belonging to these dedicated – and endearingly stubborn – bibliophiles. Tom Barnard

 

Dads

Where to watch it: Apple TV+

Read our full review of Dads

Actor Bryce Dallas Howard (she of Jurassic World), daughter of filmmaker Ron Howard (he of countless Hollywood blockbusters, including Apollo 13) makes her directorial debut with this breezy ode to fatherhood, blending profiles of dedicated dads from around the world, alongside some very famous faces (Will Smith!), to craft an affectionate tribute to dads everywhere. It's totally inoffensive and undemanding viewing, but in a nice way – like a well-needed hug from your old man after a long, hard day. TB

 

David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet

Where to watch it: Netflix

Is there another voice as instantly comforting as that of David Attenborough? Here, the national treasure considers his life and legacy in a poignant documentary feature. But more than his own remarkable achievements, he's interested in what will happen to the planet after he's gone. It's a equally joyous and sobering celebration of both the man and our world – an essential chronicle of where where are and where we're going, told with Attenborough's trademark humanity. TB

 

Dick Johnson Is Dead

Where to watch it: Netflix

Read our full review of Dick Johnson Is Dead

Kirsten Johnson mines deep for sophomore doc, a personal dedication to her father faking his own death in order to keep him alive. It might sound morose, but Dick Johnson Is Dead stays light on its feet, celebrating the things that make us feel like ourselves and documenting the ones we love in order to immortalise them. Ella Kemp

 

Weird World

Boys State

Where to watch it: Apple TV+

If you ever needed an argument for dismantling the current structure of US democracy, Boys State offers a chilling look at what happened when 1200 boys were allowed to, well, govern each other and build a government from the ground up. Displaying how politics can be just as much about performance as genuine beliefs, Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine show how one microcosm in Austin, Texas should send a warning out to the entire world. EK

 

Feels Good Man

Where to watch it: BBC iPlayer

Think you know Pepe the Frog? Think again, and dive into the depths of keyboard warriors and the transformation of a cartoon amphibian into, somehow, a hate symbol co-opted by the alt-right. This mind-boggling film explores how the creation of hapless cartoonist Matt Furie was embraced by 4chan and beyond, drawing alarming conclusions on how quickly the internet can turn evil. Entertaining and absolutely terrifying. EK

 

The Painter and the Thief

Where to watch it: Curzon Home Cinema

Read our full review of The Painter and the Thief

This gripping meditation on the intersection of art and life chronicle the unlikely relationship shared between an artist and the thief who stole two of her paintings. Directed by Benjamin Rees with an unintrusive hand, it asks bold questions about who we are, how we see ourselves, and art's intrinsic power to bring us in touch with the truly unexpected. TB

 

Spaceship Earth

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

Read our full review of Spaceship Earth

Predicating the rise of reality television, not to mention tapping into our modern obsession with cults, Matt Wolf’s entertaining documentary Spaceship Earth would be completely unbelievable if it weren't true. It tells the story of “Biosphere 1,” a hippie-ish science experiment that saw a group of eight people confined within the walls of a self-sufficient ecosystem for a period of two years. Enough to make your own lockdown experience feel like a walk in the park. TB

 

Spelling the Dream

Where to watch it: Netflix

Read our full review of Spelling the Dream

Sam Rega's affable documentary explores the world of the American spelling bee – an institution that has fascinated many an outsider on account of its competitiveness and the pressure faced by its young participants. The focus here is on Indian-Americans and their perceived dominance of the “sport,” offering a light and entertaining look into a very strange world. TB

 

This Is America

Father Soldier Son

Where to watch it: Netflix

Read our full review of Father Soldier Son

This portrait of an American veteran suffering with PTSD paints a devastating picture of life after war. Model soldier – and father – Sgt. Brian Eisch is sent home after he's wounded in Afghanistan. But his injuries take not only a physical toll, but an emotional one, too, poisoning his once ideal family unit. There's something of Boyhood here, as we watch his sons grow up over the course of a decade, impressively captured by filmmakers whose presence is rarely felt, allowing the subjects – and this uniquely American tragedy – to take centre stage. TB

 

The Fight

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

This documentary by Elyse Steinberg, Josh Kriegman, and Eli Despres finds its subject in the American Civil Liberties Union and the lawyers fighting the Trump administration (they've filed a whooping 147 suits since his inauguration in 2017). Despite the subject matter, there's little political commentary here; instead the film acts as a five-way portrait of the dedicated individuals who work tirelessly to protect the rights of US citizens. TB

 

Time

Where to watch it: Prime Video

Read our full review of Time

The best way to process how America’s incarceration system remains unjust and deeply flawed is through the eyes of Fox Rich, who spent two decades waiting for the love of her life to be released from prison following a bungled bank robbery. It’s an enormous sentence for a crime that deserved far less – she telegraphs their romance with resilience and generosity, making this political statement feel deeply personal. EK

 

Totally Under Control

Where to watch it: BBC iPlayer

Read our full review of Totally Under Control

Alex Gibney is the documentary filmmaker best known for his groundbreaking Scientology expose Going Clear. His latest is fascinating and scary in equal measure: a deep dive into the Trump administration's failure to respond and protect its citizens during the ongoing pandemic. If you're looking for an accessible overview of how the United States found itself in its current crisis state, this is a great primer. TB

Inspiring Stories

Crip Camp

Where to watch it: Netflix

This insightful and moving documentary tells the story of Camp Jened, a camp in upstate New York, founded in the 70s and intended for people with disabilities. Directed by James Lebrecht and Nicole Newnham, and produced by the Obamas, this is the sort of film that opens your eyes to a world you had no idea existed, educating and enlightening in equal measure. TB

 

I Am Greta

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

The story of Swedish climate change activist Greta Thunberg powers this slick documentary, which highlights her achievements, her agenda, and her status as a symbol of hope. In production ever since she made her first stand against global warming back in 2015 when she was just 15-years-old, it offers an accessible window into Thunberg's inspiring story so far. TB

 

Inmate Number #1: The Rise of Danny Trejo

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

Read our full review of Inmate Number#1: The Rise of Danny Trejo

Everybody recognise Danny Trejo, who made his career in Hollywood playing violent henchman and murderous thugs in films such as Desperado and Michael Mann's Heat. Less known are the details of Trejo's life as a drug addict, armed robber, and inmate at San Quentin, before he turned his life around. This film lets Trejo tells the story of his own life, from his childhood to the random encounter on a film set that set his career in motion. It's an inspiring testament to the human capacity for change. TB

 

Rising Phoenix

Where to watch it: Netflix

Read our full review of Rising Phoenix

Originally designed to be released alongside this year's Paralympic Games, documentary Rising Phoenix – which considers the long history of the competition and features fascinating interviews with some of its most inspiring athletes – arrives as a worthy consolation prize. Featuring interviews with Jonnie Peacock, Tatyanna McFadden, and Beatrice Vio, it's a moving, inspiring film that will tide fans over until the next time the games can resume (whenever that is). TB

 

A Secret Love

Where to watch it: Netflix

Read our full review of A Secret Love

The 65-year relationship between Pat Henschel and Terry Donahue, two women – one American, one Canadian – forms the basis of touching Netflix documentary A Secret Love, a vivid, moving portrait of love thriving in a broken world. TB

 

Unreported Worlds

African Apocalypse

Where to watch it: BFI Player

Read our full review of African Apocalypse

The ghosts of colonisation are brought to life in Rob Lemkin's unsettling travelogue, as British-Nigerian poet Femi Nylander travels to Africa in search of a real life Kurtzian figure. His trip – framed as a rebuttal to Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness – prompts uncomfortable questions about the victims of Imperialism and inherited guilt, offering up an eerie yet fascinating meditation on a troubled continent and its bloody history. TB

 

The Australian Dream

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

Read our full review of The Australian Dream

Powerful and provocative documentary The Australian Dream sees sporting legend Adam Goodes looking back on the prejudice he's faced over the length of his AFL career – incidents which effectively forced him to retire early back in 2015. The resulting film offers an unflinching and timely exploration into racism and identity. TB

 

Welcome to Chechnya

Where to watch it: BBC iPlayer

Read our full review of Welcome to Chechnya

David France's eye-opening documentary explores the state-sanctioned purge of gay people in the Chechen Republic, and chronicles the efforts of those who have dedicated themselves to extracting targets of the regime. It's never easy viewing, but the film's on-the-ground coverage of the extraction process inflicts it with an undeniable thriller-ish edge. TB

 

Musical Moods

Blackpink: Light Up the Sky

Where to watch it: Netflix

Read our full review of Blackpink: Light Up the Sky

As one of the biggest girlbands in the world, K-pop phenomenon Blackpink are only just getting started. Their Netflix doc Light Up the Sky charts the girls’ days in a bootcamp-like school that breeds readymade pop stars and chronicles their subsequent – and almost lightning-fast – rise to the top. The interviews are sweet and the music is catchy – now's the time to get know who they are. EK

 

Max Richter’s Sleep

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

Where do we go when we fall asleep? Exploring the liminal spaces between waking and subconscious stakes, one of today’s most talented composers walks us through his eight-and-a-half-hour composition designed to be listened to while we sleep. The film is as mellow and transportive as its subject, swaying you into a gentle slumber while never forgetting just how precious those in-between moments are. EK

 

Miss Americana

Where to watch it: Netflix

Taylor Swift lifts the curtain on her magnanimous career in the aftermath of her seventh album, Lover, reckoning with years of bitterness and defensiveness and emerging as something stronger, more spirited and, well, happier. Fans will love the honesty, and others will struggle to not be convinced by such talent. EK

 

Calls for Change

Athlete A

Where to watch it: Netflix

Read our full review of Athlete A

Mapping the expose led by the Indianapolis Star into the years of abuse in USA Gymnastics, at the hands of doctor Larry Nassar, Athlete A might retrace familiar steps for those in the know, but it’s a sober and sad examination of what happens when the voiceless are forced to suffer the consequences of unfair power dynamics – too often led by powerful men. EK

 

Disclosure: Trans Lives on Screen

Where to watch it: Netflix

Read our full review of Disclosure: Trans Lives on Screen

If you think you know about how Hollywood has disrespected the trans community over time, think again. Sam Feder’s revelatory documentary is lucid and patient, a real education on the unconscious bias that’s been perpetuated for decades. Best of all, it highlights the ways we should be actively seeking to dismantle prejudice and expand our perspective. Compassionate, essential viewing. EK

 

The Social Dilemma

Where to watch it: Netflix

Whatever you do, put your phone away while you watch. Netflix is here to take you on a whistle-stop tour of the reasons why social media, as we know it, is harmful – both by speaking to experts on the shady manipulations at work, and staging a fictional narrative in which the internet wreaks havoc on one family’s life. It might not change the world, but it’ll certainly make you think about switching your notifications off. EK

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Reviews

County Lines review – dour but vital glimpse at teen drug trafficking

Henry Blake’s directorial debut is a relentlessly bleak affair, though it offers a powerful lead performance from newcomer Conrad Khan

Host review – Zoom-based horror is surprisingly sharp and scary

Rob Savage capitalises on the nightmare of lockdown for a yarn that’s timely but never tacky - and refreshingly lean at 57 minutes

Red, White and Blue review – John Boyega elevates a straight-laced biopic

The latest addition to the Small Axe series is the weakest yet, but a powerhouse lead performance makes it well worth your time

Falling review – Viggo Mortensen’s superbly acted directorial debut

The Lord of the Rings actor writes, directs, and stars in this ambitious tale of fathers and sons, loosely based on his own life