Documentary films are known for sparking social change. (Case in point: Who wants to eat at McDonalds after seeing Super Size Me or Food, Inc.? What parent suggests visiting SeaWorld after seeing Blackfish?) Though 2014’s nonfiction films weren’t massive box office hits, they pointed out injustice and lifted our eyes to the doers making a difference. Here are the 10 must-see documentaries that inspired us to action.
10. The Great Invisible
BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010 still darkens the coastline along the Gulf of Mexico in the form of altered ecosystems and ruined lives. Named best documentary at the SXSW Film Festival, Margaret Brown’s documentary dives deep beyond the news coverage you may remember into a tale of corporate greed and lasting environmental damage.
9. If You Build It
Two designers travel to the poorest county in rural North Carolina to teach a year-long class, culminating in building a structure for the community. In this heartwarming story, 10 students learn much more than construction skills.
8. The Kill Team
An infantry soldier struggles with his wartime experience after alerting the military his Army platoon had killed civilians in Afghanistan. On the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ long list for best documentary, Dan Krauss’s challenging film shows how morality dissolves in the fog of war and terror of battle.
7. Starfish Throwers
Three people — a renowned cook, a preteen girl and a retired teacher — inspire an international movement to end hunger. Jesse Roesler’s film includes the story of Allan Law, the man who handed out 520,000 sandwiches during the course of a year in Minneapolis, which we featured on NationSwell.
6. Lady Valor: The Kristin Beck Story
A former Navy SEAL (formerly named Christopher, now Kristin) says that changing genders, not military service, was the biggest battle of her life. In retrospect, her SEAL experience takes on new importance as she comes to understand the true value of the words “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
5. The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz
An online pioneer who developed Creative Commons with the academic and political activist Lawrence Lessig at age 15 and co-founded Reddit at 19, Swartz crusaded for a free and open internet. Another potential Oscar candidate, the film poignantly recounts how Swartz ended his own life at age 26 after aggressive prosecutors initiated a federal case against him.
4. True Son
A 22-year-old black man recently graduated from Stanford returns to his bankrupt hometown of Stockton, Calif., to run for city council. Michael Tubbs convinces his neighbors (and the movie’s audiences) you can have “a father in jail and a mother who had you as a teenager, and still have a seat at the table.”
3. The Hand That Feeds
After years of abuse from their bosses, a group of undocumented immigrants working for a New York City bakery unionize for fair wages and better working conditions. Led by a demure sandwich maker, the employees partner with young activists to fight their case against management and the food chain’s well-connected investors.
2. Rich Hill
Three boys confront impoverishment, learning disabilities and dysfunctional families in this human portrait of growing up in small-town America. The backdrop to the teenagers’ lives is their Missouri hometown of 1,396 residents, where one in five lives in poverty and where the fireworks still glow every Fourth of July.
1. The Overnighters
Our top film and a favorite for an Academy Award nomination details how an oil boom draws a city-sized influx of workers to a small town in North Dakota, where they scrape by on day labor and live in their cars. With the heft, detail and narrative twists of a Steinbeck novel, Jesse Moss profiles the Lutheran pastor Jay Reinke, who welcomes these desperate men into a shelter called “The Overnighters,” to his congregation’s dismay.
Are there any documentaries that should have made the cut? Let us know in the comments below.