Serial. Capturing the Friedmans. The Act Of Killing. Jonestown. Grizzly Man. The popularity of a specific segment of documentary might have you believing they're all doom and gloom-laden stories of betrayal, death, and the nihilistic bleakness of humanity. Not so! That just seems to be in the zeitgeist, but if you're looking for another, sunnier slice of reality, there's plenty out there to pep up your queue! Right here are 24 uplifting documentaries streaming now to brighten your outlook and put some hope back in your heart.
Sure, you can keep adding true crime and cult stuff to the list — they're certainly out there. But balance them out with some gorgeous natural photography, like
Cave of Forgotten Dream's glittering cathedral-sized geode with hints of early human expression, or Botany of Desire's time-lapsed photography revealing plants to be as active as any energetic kid. Maybe get a peek into the pleasant side of the human condition with Won't You Be My Neighbor, Love, Gilda, or Cutie and the Boxer, all depicting flawed but lovable humans who won't make you suspect your neighbor might try and poison you. Bathtubs Over Broadway, GLOW, and Twenty Feet From Stardom offer deeply personal joys shared with the larger world, and we're all the richer for them! So tune in and cheer up — these documentaries provide a window onto a happier humanity.
'Won't You Be My Neighbor?'
WARNING: You'll need a full box of tissues before starting this documentary about America's neighbor and gentle saint, Mr. Rogers. The film insists on adding mawkish animated pieces despite a subject with decades of footage available, but if his moving testament to public television's importance doesn't warm your heart, you must not have one.
Streaming on HBO Go and Amazon Prime.
This glorious, previously unseen Aretha Franklin gospel performance will send chills down your spine and put sunshine in your heart.
Streaming on Tubi.
Back in 1992, teenager Sandi Tam made Singapore's first road movie. Unfortunately it was stolen by her mentor Georges. Twenty years later, Tam gets word the film's been found, and makes this film about herself, her friends, their history, and what happened.
Streaming on Netflix.
'Catwalk: Tales From The Cat Show Circut'
If I have to try and sell you on this behind-the-curtain peek at the fancy-breed cat show circuit, filled with fluffy babies and wildly competitive owners, you
must be a dog person. Streaming on Netflix.
Comedian Gilda Radner influenced a generation, and in this sweet documentary about her life and work, fans like Melissa McCarthy, Bill Hader, and Amy Poehler talk about her importance and humor.
Streaming on Hulu.
'Bathtubs Over Broadway'
Former Letterman Show writer Steve Young turns a lonely discovery into a personal mission as he tracks down the wonderful and weird history of Industrial Musicals, made for corporate audiences to celebrate sales and products but backed by real Broadway talent.
Available to rent on Amazon, Fandango, YouTube, Apple, and Google.
'Horror Noire: A History Of Black Horror'
This might be a niche form of "uplifting," but for a lot of viewers, exploring the often-ignored history of Black genre filmmaking and discussing the evolution of race and convention in horror feels pretty darn good.
Streaming on Shudder.
This lush, lovely documentary focuses on four plants that have affected human evolution as much as we've influenced theirs, narrated thoughtfully by
Omnivore's Dilemma author Michael Pollen. Streaming on Amazon Prime.
Roger Ebert loved movies. This celebration of his life and work as one of the famous faces of American film criticism conveys that message as well as his life's work did.
Streaming on Hulu, TubiTV, and Kanopy.
Though we recently lost
outstanding filmmaker Agnes Varda, this documentary captures her honesty and focus on the human as she and muralist JR go on a road trip. Driving around with a large-scale printer, they photograph someone, print out their face made enormous, and paste it on the nearest blank place (hence the name). Subjects discuss feelings about seeing themselves outsized in familiar spaces, making for a quirky and lovely story. Streaming on Netflix and Kanopy.
This is a party in film form. In a concert just for you, the Talking Heads and filmmaker Jonathan Demme literally build up to an all-out crescendo of music, and yes, the Big Suit.
Streaming on Amazon Prime, Tubi, Sundance Now, and Vudu.
It's a classic documentary for a reason, comprised of breathtaking, hypnotizing footage of surfers chasing waves all around the world in search of that ephemeral moment of pure zen.
Streaming on Amazon Prime, Hoopla, Kanopy, Tubi, and Fandor.
'Garlic Is Good As Ten Mothers'
Les Blank specialized in delightful documentaries presenting a small shining facet of life: gap teeth, polka music, and here,
garlic. Delicious, stinky, historical, magical — he explores every clove of this oft misunderstood root. Streaming on Kanopy.
After living in her husband's shadow as famous boxer for his entire career, his wife Noriko seeks a life of her own. Their affection for each other's just as strong as their personalities.
Available on Netflix.
Before the dramedy film starring Steve Carell, there was the documentary, about a man who rebuilt his shattered world in his own image, as well as those around him.
Streaming on Kanopy and Fandor.
'March Of The Penguins'
Penguins! Really, if that doesn't sell you, the gorgeous nature photography might... really though it's all about the trials and tribulations of penguins.
Streaming on HBO Go.
This uplifting story about the singers behind the main acts reveals talent, heartache, joy, and above all, a deep love of music.
Streaming on Netflix.
'Eames: The Architect And The Painter'
Two of the greatest minds of the design world worked together to literally shape how post-war America looked. Their strengths as artists and people were so multifaceted they couldn't be contained to just one title.
Streaming on Kanopy, Mubi, and RealEyz.
'Joan Rivers: A Piece Of Work'
Unapologetically brassy and bold, Joan Rivers made her way in comedy at a time when women just weren't comedians. How? A fierce work ethic, boundless determination, and deep sense of self-deprecation.
Streaming on Showtime.
Bronx native Dick Miller set out to be a writer, but instead ended up a beloved character actor in hundreds of movies - you've definitely seen him in
something, whether it was Gremlins, E.R., Chopping Mall, Terminator, The 'Burbs, or one of many others. The story of his life is almost a story of cinema over three decades. Streaming on Amazon Prime.
'GLOW: The Story Of The Gorgeous Ladies Of Wrestling'
You may have caught the show, but you should still check out the real story behind G.L.O.W., the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling. Brash, bold, and brutal, these ladies smashed through the glass ceiling and changed wrestling forever.
Streaming on Netflix.
'The Wild Parrots Of Telegraph Hill'
Two outsiders managing to survive — a flock of exotic parrots in chilly San Francisco and homeless musician Mark Bittner — bond and become a part each others' lives in this surprisingly sweet doc.
Streaming on Hoopla, Tubi, Kanopy, Sundance Now, and the Dove Channel.
'Cave Of Forgotten Dreams'
I know what you're thinking: "Oh no, it's Werner Herzog." But don't worry! This time he's using his dark powers of observation to explore a gorgeous cave system holding some of the earliest signs of human life, awed by its beauty and meaning.
Streaming on Netflix.
A film about absolute stink-bomb
Troll 2 (not actually related to the original Troll), and the fine local folks involved in making it, including the town's delightfully hammy dentist. Streaming on Amazon Prime.
See? Real life isn't all oppressive cults and hidden crimes coming to light; there are plenty of under-explored topics out there that can bring a smile to your face and some happiness to your queue.