We’ve been talking a lot lately in the Doc Soup kitchen about really well made documentaries that actually effect change, so I’ve compiled a list of the Most Aesthetically Accomplished Documentary Films that Come with a Social Agenda. I’m not going to include war documentaries, although there happen to be several excellent ones (Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience, Taxi to the Dark Side and Restrepo are the first to come to mind; look for the Veteran’s Day list!) That’s a different sort of animal. This is a very subjective list, and I encourage you to give me your ideas about what you think belongs here and what doesn’t. Maybe Paris is Burning belongs here, as does Tongues Untied (POV 1991). But, honestly, those docs came out in my college years and I fear my aesthetic judgment was impaired by my activist zeal.

I give one to five ★’s in two categories: a film’s quality and its ability to promote a particular cause.


10) Supersize Me
Filmmaking: ★★★
The Cause: Fighting obesity and McDonald’s stranglehold on America ★★★★
Maybe this doc doesn’t really belong on this list because it didn’t actually have a social action plan, but if you consider the impact it had on how so many Americans perceive fast food, it had a profound effect for the social good.

9) Trouble the Water
Filmmaking: ★★★
The Cause: Fighting injustice on the Gulf Coast ★★★★
This is the sort of movie that gives the likes of JJ Abrams (Cloverfield) ideas about how to make mainstream feature hits, because it so adeptly shows life on the brink.

8) Waiting for Superman
Filmmaking: ★★★
The Cause: Improving the public education system in America ★★★★
Davis Guggenheim is the only director with two films on this list, and I think it’s because he’s a filmmaker first, and a cause-guy second. And, yeah, he’s got the money to make good-looking movies.

7) Food, Inc. (POV 2010)
Filmmaking: ★★★
The Cause: Agribusiness gone amok ★★★★
It’s not like this is a miracle in filmmaking; it’s just very well done — nicely shot, well-edited, good sound, good narrative structure, et al.

6) The Cove
Filmmaking: ★★★
The Cause: Dolphin slaughter and over-fishing in the oceans ★★★★
I guess this movie is a little silly in the way it tries to pass a dolphin cause-movie as a thriller with spy cameras and scuba gear and Japanese thugs. But it got me, and it will provide a sounding board for future doc filmmakers who want to appeal to the mainstream.

5) War/Dance
Filmmaking: ★★★★
The Cause: Ending the abuse of children worldwide ★★★★
Directors Sean Fine and Andrea Nix use their background in nature photography to make an incredibly cinematic, sumptuous narrative about a dance contest in Uganda. If that sounds a little icky, maybe it is, but I dare anyone to come up with another documentary that makes Africa look more beautiful.

4) An Inconvenient Truth
Filmmaking: ★★★
The Cause: Raising consciousness about global warming ★★★★★
With good camera work, solid implementation of graphics, and a star (Al Gore) who was at his peak, this documentary became a phenomenon because of its ability to deliver a concise message.

3) Born into Brothels: Calcutta’s Red Light Kids
Filmmaking: ★★★★
The Cause: Children of prostitutes in India ★★★★
Co-director Zana Briski‘s Kids with Cameras campaign has helped send children to school, and has spread to other countries like Haiti. This was one of those rare documentaries that felt like a film.

2) Harlan County USA
Filmmaking: ★★★★
The Cause: Workers’ rights ★★★★
Director Barbara Kopple may not have had great technical skill, but her access to incredible characters in a remarkable moment transcends those limitations.

1) Roger & Me
Filmmaking: ★★★★
The Cause: Workers’ rights; Stratification of wealth ★★★★★
Back before he became The Mouth, director Michael Moore defined what it means to make a movie that’s a pleasure to watch at the same time that a vital message is delivered. It’s a movie that can make you laugh or cry — just like a Hollywood classic.

Now it’s your turn. Are there films that I’ve overlooked? Let me know what else you think belongs on a list like this.

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Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He is a former Premiere magazine senior editor, who graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom's freelance work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter and other publications. He has written several Kindle Singles, including the bestselling Kindle Singles Interview: Ken Burns. Tom's current list of favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi by Godfrey Reggio; 2. Hoop Dreams by Steve James; 3.Stories We Tell by Sarah Polley; 4.Crumb by Terry Zwigoff; 5. Montage of Heck by Brett Morgen