The Bleeding Edge (2018)
Director Kirby Dick and producer Amy Ziering’s revelatory Netflix doc (out July 27) chronicles injuries caused by the birth-control device Essure to tens of thousands of women around the world, paying particular attention to ASHES, a patient activist group working against it. A week before the release, Bayer abruptly pulled the device from U.S. markets.
Editor’s note: This gallery was originally published Sept. 27, 2010, and most recently updated July 26, 2018.
An Inconvenient Truth (2006)
Davis Guggenheim’s Oscar-winning doc relied on Al Gore’s surprising showmanship to raise public awareness about climate change. The film is now viewed in classrooms around the globe, and a follow-up film, An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power, was released in 2017.
The Up Series (1964, 1970, 1977, 1984, 1991, 1998, 2005, 2012)
Influential for its epic scope, The Up Series has followed the same group of British children every seven years since 1964. The novel idea has been repeated in numerous other countries, and director Michael Apted has said the next installment in the series, 63 Up, is due in spring 2019.
For the Bible Tells Me So (2007)
Detailing how scripture is interpreted to justify discrimination against homosexuals, Daniel Karslake’s film has become a godsend for gay youths coming out to their religious families.
The Thin Blue Line (1988)
Errol Morris’ groundbreaking film about Randall Dale Adams, a man who was sentenced to life in prison for allegedly murdering a Dallas police officer, ultimately resulted in Adams’ conviction being overturned. Through a multitude of interviews and innovative crime-scene reenactments, Morris revealed that many of the witnesses had lied under oath.
The Times of Harvey Milk (1984)
Rob Epstein’s Oscar-winning film chronicled the late San Francisco supervisor Harvey Milk’s ascent into politics and his trailblazing impact as a gay rights activist. The documentary was essentially retold in the 2008 biopic Milk.
Man With a Movie Camera (1929)
This Soviet Union silent film is on this list not for any kind of political influence, but rather for its exuberant exploration of cinematic techniques. Director Dziga Vertov and his camera captured the daily city life of Odessa, Ukraine, and then constructed a dizzying narrative that featured split screens, double exposure, fast motion, freeze frames, jump cuts, and stop-motion animation. No movie has ever seemed quite as energized by the possibilities of the medium.
Triumph of the Will (1935)
Leni Riefenstahl’s “documentary” — cinema’s most notorious (and influential) propaganda film — presented the 1934 Nazi Party Congress in Nuremberg so slickly and skillfully that it helped solidify Adolf Hitler’s control over the German citizenry. Frank Capra famously said the following regarding Triumph: “[It] fired no gun, dropped no bombs, but as a psychological weapon aimed at destroying the will to resist, it was just as lethal.”
Harlan County, USA (1976)
Barbara Kopple’s Oscar-winning documentary depicted a group of coal miners’ prolonged and frequently dangerous strike against the Brookside Mine in Harlan County, Kentucky. In addition to raising awareness of the miners’ fight for safer working conditions and appropriate wages, Kopple likely prevented an outburst of violence simply by having her cameras on the scene.
The Cove (2009)
With the aid of hidden cameras, Louie Psihoyos’ riveting doc (an Oscar winner in 2010) uncovered the annual slaughter of dolphins in Taiji, Japan.
Why We Fight (1942-45)
The United States’ Office of War Information commissioned this series of seven propaganda films from Hollywood filmmaker Frank Capra, who frequently used and recontextualized clips from German propaganda (including another film in this gallery, Triumph of the Will) to convey the necessity of America’s involvement in World War II. The first film in the series, the Oscar-winning Prelude to War, was shown to U.S. troops before they were deployed.
The Invisible War (2012)
This harrowing exposé about widespread sexual harassment and assault in the U.S. military led then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta to issue a directive stemming the immoral practice of commanders adjucating cases from within their own units. In its wake, the Marine Corps, Air Force, and other military divisions unveiled plans to combat sexual assault, and legislation was introduced by multiple senators aimed at reducing cases.
The Hunting Ground (2015)
Inspired by the response from women on college campuses to their previous doc The Invisible War, filmmakers Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering explored the epidemic of campus sexual assault, sparking a nationwide conversation about how college administrations have failed on a systemic level to respond to cases adequately.
Super Size Me (2004)
Filmmaker Morgan Spurlock ate only McDonald’s for a month and gained 25 lbs. The fast-food chain subsequently canceled the Super Size option and added nutritional info to its packaging. Coincidence?
Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004)
Michael Moore’s tirade against the Bush administration’s war on terror ignited arguments over everything from the Patriot Act to The Pet Goat. Along the way, it grossed a record $222 million worldwide.
No one’s looked at SeaWorld the same way since this impassioned documentary about the plight of captive killer whales, which ignited a wave of controversy aimed at the theme parks. After the film’s release and consequent drops in revenue, SeaWorld announced plans to end its orca breeding program and phase out all live performances using orcas.
This popular fracking doc led to greater media coverage, public interest, and anti-fracking activism, all of which has served to radically overhaul our country’s understanding of natural gas drilling (as well as to make the term “hydraulic fracturing” dinner-table conversation).
Slavery never ended — like all tools of oppression, it simply changed its face in response to controversy, bleeding into systems of racial control that have served to criminalize Blackness itself within the U.S. Ava DuVernay’s incendiary doc 13th ignited a crucial national discourse around the intersections of race, justice, and mass incarceration, as well as the ways in which the existence of the prison-industrial complex ensures corporations benefit tremendously from keeping a staggering number of people of color behind bars.