10 Inspiring Documentaries for a Creative New Year


The new year is a time for making goals and finding the inner strength to achieve them. Why not have a little help along the way with these inspiring, uplifting documentaries? From the underdog who won’t quit, to the filmmakers who dreamed big and the athletes who achieved the unthinkable, these films chart the dreams and successes of creative thinkers and art makers.

The Punk Singer

Feminist punk icon Kathleen Hanna was one of the founders of the riot grrrl movement in the 1990s (as if we had to tell you). Sini Anderson’s 2013 documentary follows Hanna’s career — from zine maker and spoken word poet, to activist and successful musician. It’s an inspiring portrait of an artist who belongs to a tradition of proud individualism. We named The Punk Singer an essential feminist film earlier this year.

Jodorowsky’s Dune

Legendary cult film provocateur Alejandro Jodorowsky and his doomed screen adaptation of Frank Herbert’s influential science fiction novel, Dune, is the subject of Frank Pavich’s 2013 documentary. Jodorowsky’s grandiose vision and larger-than-life personality are riveting — and seeing the way his influence took root in other projects (as told by a series of Jodo collaborators) is absolutely fascinating. A sense of pride, ambition, and love of moviemaking emanates from Pavich’s deeply personal tale of a creator and a collective vision.

!Women Art Revolution

Judy Chicago, The Guerrilla Girls, Barbara Kruger — these are just a few of the pioneering artists who led the feminist art movement and transformed our culture as we know it. Directed by prolific filmmaker Lynn Hershman Leeson, with a score from Sleater-Kinney’s Carrie Brownstein, !Women Art Revolution uses archival footage and interviews with visionary women to trace the sociopolitical parallels that propelled the movement and broke down barriers in the art world.

The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters

“Gamer” is an ugly word these days, given the controversy surrounding the treatment of female gamers — particularly those vocal women addressing the sexist and violent aspects of gamer culture. But 2007’s The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters takes us back to gaming’s innocent days — at the arcade where men, women, and children played side by side. Somehow director Seth Gordon made a film involving a pixellated ape… moving. His look at two players competing for the world high score in Donkey Kong reveals the personal struggles of his subjects (one battles his OCD, while the other battles his own ego), making King of Kong the ultimate ode to the underdog.

Man on Wire

French high-wire artist Philippe Petit made headlines in 1974 when he embarked on an unauthorized walk between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City. Balanced 1,350 feet in the air, Petit made eight passes on the rope (with no safety measures) — a daring aerial stunt that almost landed him in trouble with the law. The courageous performance is the subject of the 2008 documentary Man on Wire, the pacing of which has been constructed like a heist film. Petit’s skill is admirable, and the film’s inspired cinematography pays homage to Petit’s incredible artistic feat.

The Beaches of Agnès

Agnès Varda, “Grandmother of the French New Wave,” completed her first feature, La Pointe Courte, in 1954 (which predates the Nouvelle vague) and her last film may be 2008’s The Beaches of Agnès. The intimate 2008 documentary, made during her 80th birthday, chronicles her memories and the places from her past that have shaped her films and art over the years. Roger Ebert reviewed the film, writing:

This is not an autobiography, although it is about her lifetime. She closes it by saying, “I am alive, and I remember.” The film is her memories, evoked by footage from her films, and visits to the places and people she filmed. But that makes it sound too straightforward. The film is a poem, a song, a celebration. Although she is in robust good health, she accepts, as she must, that she is approaching the end, and je ne regrette rien. She expresses no thoughts about an afterlife, and only one great regret about this one: That [husband] Jacques [Demy] and she could not complete the journey together, as they had planned. This is a great, loving, uplifting film. It provides an ideal of a life well-lived.

Double Dare

A documentary about Hollywood stuntwomen, directed by Amanda Micheli, Double Dare follows two female pioneers in the male-dominated field, Jeannie Epper (Lynda Carter’s double on the 1970s TV series Wonder Woman) and Zoë Bell (known as Lucy Lawless’ double on Xena: Warrior Princess and for playing herself in Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof) over a several year period. Micheli’s coverage of the profession’s women is hardly exhaustive, but Double Dare sheds light on an under-appreciated population who have to contend with body image issues, the scoffing of their male peers, and ageist discrimination.

Herb & Dorothy

A postal worker and a librarian living in Brooklyn amassed a stunning collection of post-1960 minimalist, conceptual art from luminaries like Roy Lichtenstein, Sol LeWitt, and Richard Tuttle (nearly 5,000 works in all). “With no curatorial training beyond an instinctual ‘We like what we like,’ watching the Vogels mull over art that they don’t need to understand only makes their delight more infectious,” wrote the Village Voice.

Mad Hot Ballroom

Amy Sewell explores the ballroom dancing program in New York City’s public school system and the adorable, passionate kids who partake in a citywide competition. The children come from diverse backgrounds — several living in poverty-plagued neighborhoods. But Sewell’s uplifting film details how the would-be dancers shine when they come together, create goals, and muse about the life lessons they learn along the way.

Steve Jobs: One Last Thing

Released just one month after his death, the PBS documentary Steve Jobs: One Last Thing takes a look at the entrepreneur’s rise to the top as Apple CEO and the impact his tech contributions made around the world. “You tend to get told that the world is the way it is, but life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact; and that is that everything around you that you call life was made up by people no smarter than you. . . . Once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again,” Jobs states in a previously unreleased 1994 interview, featured in the film.