If you lined up each documentary available on HBO Max next to each other, it would span the entire circumference of Earth. Actually, that’s a total lie that I came up with in a desperate attempt to create an introduction for this article.
While that statement might not be true, it sure feels like that upon first glance at the A-Z page of documentaries listed on HBO Max. These next 25 are some of the best documentaries on HBO Max, though they’re just scratching the surface of what the entire platform has to offer documentary-wise.
Nothing beats a good, old-fashioned cult documentary. Being that The Vow was released in the throes of the pandemic, it had just about everyone talking about NXIVM for weeks. The docuseries follows previous members of the NXIVM cult, using interviews prior to its downfall and footage of everything that was going on inside during its height. The series was renewed for a second season which will most likely focus on those currently indicted and arrested for the crimes committed within the cult, including sex trafficking and racketeering.
Director: Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer
Runtime: 1h (per episode)
When you think of the cousins of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, you might imagine some very Nantucket-y and uppity individuals—but that’s far from the mother-daughter duo of the Beales. Little and Big Edie are basically profiled in this bonkers documentary about the two as they live out their lives in a severely dilapidated and decaying home in East Hampton, New York. The most insane thing about this situation isn’t even the fact that they’re living among tons of feral cats and raccoons—it’s their personalities that truly steal the show. However, the feral cats and raccoons make this one of the best documentaries on HBO Max.
Director: Albert Maysles, David Maysles, Ellen Hovde, Muffie Meyer
Runtime: 1h 40m
LFG follows the long-winded and much-anticipated legal case brought forth by members of the United States Women’s National Team (USWNT) against the United States Soccer Federation on the basis of unequal pay and discrimination on the basis of sex. Despite being a soccer team winning more titles and games as well as bringing in more revenue and larger crowds than their male counterparts, the USWNT was still being paid way below what they deserved.
Director: Andrea Nix Fine, Sean Fine
Runtime: 1h 45m
Just recently released in April of 2022, Tony Hawk: Until the Wheels Fall Off tells the complete story of iconic skateboarder, Tony Hawk, from his beginnings days in California skateparks to his rocketing success on the national scale. On top of Hawk’s career in the skating world, Hawk and his friends get frank about the mentality behind skateboarding and the risks they previously were and are currently willing to take for the sake of the sport.
Director: Sam Jones
Runtime: 2h 15m
A portrait of the sometimes-controversial photographer and artist, Robert Mapplethorpe, this documentary does a superb job of gathering up tiny mementos of his early days growing up, moving into Manhattan, and ultimately launching his career. Because there’s such little footage of him working, the documentary relies on rare audio tapes, photographs, and interviews with close friends and family to give a fuller picture of Mapplethorpe.
Director: Fenton Bailey, Randy Barbato
Runtime: 1h 48m
One of the most well-known and iconic docuseries to date, Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown ran for 12 seasons up until. Bourdain’s death in 2018. The series, which was featured on CNN, aimed to open up viewers to new experiences, food, and cultures through Bourdain’s travels in fairly unknown places across the world.
Director: Tom Vitale, Various
Runtime: 1h (per episode)
Scientology is a “religion” that has been highlighted and covered time and time, yet this documentary does, by far, the greatest job of showing the full scope of its history, members, and overall belief system. Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief features in-depth interviews with former members paired with documents and other details that show what’s actually going on behind the door of the Church of Scientology.
Director: Alex Gibney
Another incredible documentary by Alex Gibney, The Inventor: Out For Blood in Silicon Valley, is all about the infamous “inventor,” Elizabeth Holmes, who was the creator and CEO of Theranos. The company was supposedly creating a machine that could run over 70 blood tests with just a simple drop of blood, yet upon further examination, it basically turned out to be one, massive lie that earned her over four billion dollars and an impending prison sentence.
Director: Alex Gibney
Runtime: 1h 59m
Remember that old McDonald’s Monopoly game? Yeah, that’s what this entire docuseries is about. Basically, the game (which always seemed sketchy) turned out to be a huge scheme that many people used to steal millions of dollars from. It dives deep into the team behind the game, namely Jerry Jacobson, who ran the security for the promotion agency and was able to rig the game.
Director: Brian David Lazarte, James Lee Hernandez
Runtime: 1hr (per episode)
As his passing was only recently in 2020, John Lewis: Good Trouble provides a greater history of the Congressman who proved to be so instrumental during his years of service. Combining extremely rare footage with audio and other interviews, the film highlights some of the greatest achievements in his career of over 60 years in public service and social activism.
Director: Dawn Porter
Runtime: 1h 36m
With cameras not technically allowed inside the annual Met Gala, The First Monday in May tracks fashion’s biggest night from the inception of one idea to the massive collaboration that culminates early in May each year. Switching back and forth from Vogue to The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the documentary details the intense planning that goes into the Met Gala, from seating, attendees, haute couture, and media coverage to the physical creation of the exhibition.
Director: Andrew Rossi
Runtime: 1h 30m
While we all know about Serena Williams, none of us really know who she actually is. The five-part docuseries, Being Serena, fully brings us into her orbit, showing a personal side to her that none of us were ever able to see. We track her during both her pregnancy and new life as a mother and wife, also delving into her career and history on the court and within her life as a businesswoman.
Director: Noah Lerner
Runtime: 2h 35m
Directed by Judd Apatow, The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling is a two-part docuseries examining the life of legendary comedian, Garry Shandling. A dedicated journaler and note-taker, the series dives into those diaries for a look inside the brain of Shandling, who ended up having quite a bit on his mind besides the usual joke-telling that everyone was used to.
Director: Judd Apatow
As Bright Lights was about to make its world premiere, Carrie Fisher and her mother, Debbie Reynolds, both passed away just a few days apart. The documentary walks right into their homes and re-introduces us to the pair, hauling us all the way back to Reynolds’ days of stardom and Fisher’s upbringing with a mother of such massive fame. Cutting back to their present lives, we’re able to see up-close how beautifully their relationship works, especially given the rocky history between the two—and the movie about that relationship, Postcards From the Edge.
Director: Alexis Bloom, Fisher Stevens
Runtime: 1h 35m
One of the most iconic early documentaries ever created, Gimme Shelter rides along with The Rolling Stones as they hit stops on the last weeks of their U.S. tour in 1969. Created by two of the same director later responsible for Grey Gardens, it’s easy to see what a talent the Maysles had for documentary filmmaking. From backstage and on-stage footage to the infamous death that occurred during their set at the Altamont Free Concert in California.
Director: Albert Maysles, David Maysles, Charlotte Zwerin
Runtime: 1h 31m
They’ll probably never stop making documentaries and movies about Princess Diana, but this one might just take the cake for the best one to come out yet, as it heavily features her sons, William and Harry, talking about their mother. Diana, Our Mother: Her Life and Legacy is the story of Diana told by her sons, along with other friends and family, painting a much more intimate picture of an outstanding woman treated poorly by both the press and members of her family.
Director: Ashley Gething
Runtime: 1h 29m
With the last two episodes of the series having just aired in late April of 2022, The Way Down: God, Greed, and the Cult of Gwen Shamblin is the long tale of the infamous Gwen Shamblin, leader of a religious group and creator of a Christian diet program. The docuseries pays special attention to the various accusations made against her and her religious group, which she was active in until her recent death in 2021.
Director: Marina Zenovich
Runtime: 3h 40m
Who doesn’t a love a good cult obsessed with UFOs? Heaven’s Gate: The Cult of Cults centers around the Heaven’s Gate cult, which was originally led by Bonnie Nettles and Marshall Applewhite in Oregon back in 1975. Though it started out with only a few members, it exponentially grew over the years, culminating in the largest suicide on U.S. territory in 1997.
Director: Clay Tweel
Runtime: 50m (per episode)
Just renewed for a third season, How to With John Wilson has long been hailed one of the best hidden gems of HBO. With each episode at only about a half-hour, the docuseries is all about self-discovering through watching and doing, all set on the streets of New York City. At the same time as he’s talking with fellow New Yorkers, he’s also exploring things from a more introspective angle within himself.
Director: John Wilson
Runtime: 28m (per episode)
Co-directed by her son, Jacob Bernstein, Everything Is Copy delves into the life and times of Nora Ephron, journalist-turned-screenwriter-turned-director. There’s a fairly good chance that you know her movies, as she basically took over and revamped the romantic comedy genre in the 1990s with hits like When Harry Met Sally…, Sleepless in Seattle, and You’ve Got Mail. More than anything, though, Everything Is Copy is about Ephron’s psyche and the relationship she had with non-fiction writing, along with Bernstein’s reading between the lines of her work.
Director: Jacob Bernstein, Nick Hooker
Runtime: 1h 29m
A fairly short documentary about the iconic feminist, journalist, and political activist, Gloria Steinem, the message within Gloria: In Her Own Words is needed today more than ever. Steinem has led one of the busiest lives of anyone, fighting for women’s rights by starting her own magazine, Ms. Magazine, reporting on the state of affairs, gathering supporters, writing books, marching, and protesting. Basically, she never stops going. This documentary places all of those pieces together and shows a woman who has simply never stopped fighting for women’s rights.
Director: Peter Kunhardt
Runtime: 1h 1m
Sparking a newfound interest in the Bee Gees around the globe, The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart is about the eponymous group of siblings that were responsible for bringing massive hits to the music scene in the late ’60s and ’70s. The documentary also dives into the relationship between the Gibb brothers—especially Robin and Barry, who had their own set of issues with one another. But most of all, it’s about the music that defined a generation in disco and the relevance it still has today in society.
Director: Frank Marshall
Runtime: 1h 51m
Recently released in October of 2021, Nuclear Family is a three-part docuseries that’s directed by one of the subjects of the documentary itself, Ry Russo-Young. While her mothers are truly the main focus of the series, one of their daughters, Ry, plays an interesting role as she’s both looking at the situation from the inside-out and the outside-in. The main crux of the story is that her mothers had children from two different sperm donors, but as the years passed, one of the biological fathers put forth a lawsuit to regain custody of Ry.
Director: Ry Russo-Young
Runtime: 57m (per episode)
Sure, most of us have encountered Beanie Babies over the years, but not all of us have fully engulfed ourselves in the extremely obsessive and sometimes-lucrative world of Beanie Babies. Beanie Mania is a quick look into the wide universe of tiny stuffed animals, diving into both the history behind the craze and the current state of affairs within the collectable world.
Director: Yemisi Brookes
Runtime: 1h 20m
Released just a few years before his death earlier in 2022, The Gospel According to Andre spotlights the iconic fashion editor, writer, and creative director, André Leon Talley. Talley broke major barriers as being one of the only black male journalists covering the bursting fashion scene in the mid-’70s and through the 2010s. With footage from 2017 of Talley along with older videos, photographs, and interviews with close collaborators, this documentary gives a quieter and more emotional look into someone known for having a big personality.
Director: Kate Novack
Runtime: 1h 34m