5 best Prime Video documentaries to watch right now

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The streaming era has brought a flood of documentaries to watch at home, which has been both a blessing and a curse for the genre. Documentaries are more popular and well-funded than ever, but they’re also more commercialized and homogenized, often stretched into multi-part series when a single feature film would be the best way to tell their particular stories.

The best Prime Video documentaries side-step those problems, with clear visions from talented filmmakers, and subject matter that is inherently compelling. Prime Video is so full of hastily produced, low-quality documentaries that it can be tough to determine which ones are worth watching, but these five documentaries represent the best the genre has to offer, telling true stories with care, passion and artistry. 

Grizzly Man

Renowned German filmmaker Werner Herzog reached a new level of mainstream success with his documentary about the death of environmentalist Timothy Treadwell. Herzog’s harsh existentialist perspective provides the proper framing to tell the story of Treadwell, a misguided activist who believed that he could befriend and protect the grizzly bears living in Alaska’s Katmai National Park. Herzog’s observations about the inherent cruelty of nature contrast with Treadwell’s casual behavior around dangerous animals.

Herzog has access to extensive footage shot by Treadwell himself, showcasing his shocking lack of fear around the bears. That brazen and tragic disregard for safety ultimately led to the deaths of both Treadwell and his girlfriend in a bear attack. Herzog expresses sympathy to Treadwell’s loved ones, while using the film to examine human arrogance and the terrifying mysteries of the natural world.

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Man on Wire

It’s hard to believe that acrobat Philippe Petit actually pulled off the 1974 feat depicted in James Marsh’s Oscar-winning film, even with the documentation right there onscreen. Marsh takes advantage of the outlandishness of Petit’s accomplishment to approach the movie like a thriller. In interviews, Marsh has compared Man on Wire to a heist movie, and he builds suspense as Petit makes clandestine plans and puts together a team to help him stage the audacious stunt of walking a tightrope between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center.

Petit is such a charismatic personality that his interviews alone would make for a fascinating film, but Marsh offers a layered portrayal of the single-minded Petit and his associates. The movie lays out the logistics of Petit’s project, then sits back and marvels at its sheer wonder.

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Before making the Oscar-winning climbing documentary Free Solo, married couple Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi directed another film about daring mountain expeditions, this one featuring Chin himself as one of the expert mountaineers. The title of Meru refers to the Meru Peak in the Himalayas, and specifically to the treacherous, razor-thin route known as the Shark’s Fin, which Chin and two of his fellow climbers are determined to summit.

Having one of the climbers as the movie’s co-director provides a hands-on perspective, and Chin and Vasarhelyi prove that they have a unique understanding of the sometimes self-destructive mindset of practitioners of this kind of extreme sport. The film is breathtaking in its visual beauty, and also in its tense moments of near-disaster as the three subjects embark on their seemingly impossible task.

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The final film completed by legendary documentary filmmaker Albert Maysles before his death, Iris profiles another legend, fashion icon Iris Apfel. Maysles was in his 80s and Apfel was in her 90s during the film’s production, and it’s a testament to both of them as enduringly vibrant artists at any age. Apfel, who spent her life working in fashion and design, retains her distinctive and daring sense of style, serving as an influence for models and designers who are decades younger.

Like Iris herself, the movie is an inspiration for anyone worried about getting older, as Iris embraces her age but never allows it to hold her back. It’s a wonderful experience to just hang out with Iris for 90 minutes or so, soaking up her vivacious wisdom and self-assurance, along with her bold looks.

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Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father

Before the current glut of true-crime documentaries desensitized audiences to devastating twists in real-life crime stories, director Kurt Kuenne made this heartbreaking film about the murder of his longtime friend Andrew Bagby. As its title implies, Dear Zachary is structured as a letter to Bagby’s son, who was born after his death and whose custody battle is the primary focus of the movie. 

It’s difficult enough to learn about Bagby’s killing at the hands of his ex-girlfriend, but that’s only the first horrific event to unfold in Kuenne’s film. The filmmaker’s personal connection to the story makes it all the more meaningful, while also making the emotions that much more intense when the full picture of what happened to Bagby and Zachary becomes clear.

Watch on Prime Video

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Josh Bell

Josh Bell is a freelance writer and movie/TV critic based in Las Vegas. He's the former film editor of Las Vegas Weekly and has written about movies and TV for Vulture, Inverse, CBR, Crooked Marquee and more. With comedian Jason Harris, he co-hosts the podcast Awesome Movie Year.