When “based on a true story” flashes on the screen, many moviegoers are left cold, knowing that Hollywood obliterates so much of the truth in pursuit of dramatic arc and tried-and-true narrative formulas. Documentary film allows a much smaller margin for manipulation, and the best ones prove that truth is indeed stranger — and more rewarding — than fiction. While they can be hard to come by, several of the documentary gems listed here should be in larger video shops (or you can always buy them online).


On the surface, the artist behind such 1970s icons as “Fritz the Cat” and “Mr. Natural” is an oddball pseudo-celebrity. By digging deep into the life of the man dubbed the Brueghel of the 20th century, filmmaker Terry Zwigoff reveals Robert Crumb to be a deeply perverse and yet fascinating man.

Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr.

The subject of the latest documentary by Errol Morris, of “The Thin Blue Line” fame, is a self-styled death expert who strives to make state execution equipment the best it can be. When he’s recruited by Holocaust deniers to travel to Europe to expose Auschwitz as a historical hoax, he falls into a trap laid by his own ego.

Gimme Shelter

Much more than a concert film, this documentary of the 1969 free Rolling Stones concert at Altamont Speedway near San Francisco captures the end of an era. If Woodstock is remembered as representing the best of the flower-power generation, Altamont was where it all went wrong — a crassly and shoddily handled event that turned into a bloody debacle. The filmmakers’ crowning triumph was to get on camera the Stones themselves reacting to the footage.

Roger & Me

For decades, General Motors was the lifeblood of Flint, Mich. When the carmaker decided to cut costs by moving production out of the country, it left a devastated community in its wake. Filmmaker Michael Moore takes a sardonic and sobering look at how boardroom decisions can ruin lives, and his quest to get an interview with GM CEO Roger Smith is hilarious.

When We Were Kings

When We Were Kings

First released more than two decades after the event it documents — the 1974 “Rumble in the Jungle” championship boxing bout in Zaire between the provocative and charismatic Muhammad Ali and a street-tough George Foreman — this is a vibrant time capsule of culture, music, celebrity and imagery.

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