San Diego Comic-Con International Essays

The great filmmaker Albert Maysles once explained the power of nonfiction moviemaking by saying, “When you see somebody on the screen in a documentary, you’re really engaged with a person going through real life experiences, so for that period of time, as you watch the film, you are, in effect, in the shoes of another individual. What a privilege to have that experience.”

A privilege, yes, and a privilege that’s outsized for us today. We now have access to thousands of documentaries online, allowing us all kinds of shapes and sizes of shoes to step into. To extend our personal knowledge of human experience. Thousands of little empathy machines. Small windows into lives that aren’t our own.

Here are 25 of the best documentaries that you can stream right now.

1. 13TH (2016)

Following the breakout prestige of Selma, Ava DuVernay constructed an exploration of the criminalization of black individuals in the United States, crafting a throughline from slavery to the modern private prison boom. Eschewing an overdramatized style, DuVernay calmly, patiently lays out facts and figures that will drop your jaw only until you start clenching it.

Where to watch it:Netflix


For those only familiar with Aileen Wuornos through Charlize Theron’s portrayal in Monster, Nick Broomfield’s documentary offers a considered portrait of the human being behind the murderer. In his first film about Wuornos, The Selling of a Serial Killer, Broomfield considered her as a victim of abuse and betrayal, with her image commodified. In this follow-up, he takes us all the way to the day of her execution, wondering how anyone would think she was of sound mind.

Where to watch it:Netflix and Amazon Prime


“Too big to fail” entered the lexicon following 2008’s bursting housing bubble, but while the world’s largest banks skated through, Abacus Federal Savings Bank was deemed small enough to prosecute. Steve James (of Hoop Dreams fame) has crafted an intimate, Oscar-nominated look at the Chinatown bank that became the only financial institution to face criminal charges in the wake of the subprime mortgage crisis, starting at the family level before zooming out to the community and country.

Where to watch it:Amazon Prime

4. BEING ELMO (2011)

Narrated by Whoopi Goldberg, puppeteer Kevin Clash shares his childhood growing up in Baltimore and the road to a career as a furry red monster on Sesame Street. It’s a delightful peek behind the curtain to see how magic is made, featuring interviews with legends like Frank Oz and Kermit Love. Pairs well with I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story (which is available to rent on Amazon).

Where to watch it:Netflix


Both quaint and prescient, the televised debates between William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal during the 1968 Republican National Convention show us a midpoint between idealized civic discussion and the worst instincts of modern punditry. This sly documentary explains the force of this rivalry, its ironic popularity as televised circus, and the aftermath of all the clever insults.

Where to watch it:Netflix


A bright palate cleanser that shouldn’t be overlooked just because it isn’t emotionally devastating. The success of this film is its ability to transfer other people’s obsessions to the viewer. Tom Hanks, John Mayer, historians, collectors, and repairmen all share their abiding love for the click-clack of a device that defies obsolescence. You may crave a Smith Corona when it’s all over.

Where to watch it:Amazon Prime


Patience is rewarded in this thoughtful, dazzling cinematic quilt of footage collected from 25 years of Kirsten Johnson’s career as a cinematographer. Her lens takes us to Brooklyn for boxing, Bosnia for post-war life, Nigeria for midwifery, and more.

Where to watch it:Amazon Prime

8. CARTEL LAND (2015)

Raw and fearsome, Matthew Heineman’s documentary puts you in the boots on the ground of the Mexican Drug War. This gripping look at Arizona Border Recon and the Autodefensas of Michoacán shows what happens when governments fail citizens who are in the line of fire.

Where to watch it:Netflix and Amazon Prime


This isn’t the documentary you’d expect it to be. Kitty Green took an experimental approach that’s less about rehashing the true crime sensationalism of the headline-owning murder of a child beauty queen and more about how many stories can be contained in a single story. Green auditioned actors from JonBenét Ramsey’s hometown and, in the process of making several dramatizations, interviewed them about what it was like living in the area during the 1996 investigations (and what they think really happened).

Where to watch it:Netflix


There’s nothing like hanging out with Werner Herzog in an ancient cave. Herzog filmed in the Chauvet Cave in southern France to document the oldest known human-painted images, which is fortunate for us because the cave isn’t open to the public. It’s a wondrous nature documentary about us.

Where to watch it:Netflix

11. CITY OF GHOSTS (2017)

Another brutal hit from Matthew Heineman, this documentary carries the audience into the Syrian conflict through the eyes of citizen journalist collective Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently, which both reports on war news and acts as a counter to propaganda efforts from Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Some documentaries are interesting, but this one is also necessary. 

Where to watch it:Amazon Prime

12. DARK DAYS (2000)

Before Humans of New York there was Dark Days. This delicate, funny, mournful project is a true blend of reality and art. Marc Singer made it after befriending and living among the squatter community living in the Freedom Tunnel section of the New York City subway. Despite never making a movie before, he decided that shining a light on these homeless neighbors would be the best way to help them.

Where to watch it:Amazon Prime


Covered in spray paint and questionable facial hair decisions, this documentary displays the transformation of Thierry Guetta from clothing shop owner to celebrated street artist, but since Banksy directed it, it’ll never shake the question of its authenticity. Real doc? Elaborate prank? Entertaining either way.

Where to watch it:Netflix

14. GAGA: FIVE FOOT TWO (2017)

It’s incredibly honest. As much as an inside look into the life of a global pop superstar can be. Lady Gaga (real name Stefani Germanotta) spends a healthy amount of the movie standing around without makeup, waxing wise and humorously before jumping face-first into her work and fanbase. The film focuses on her time crafting her Joanne album and her Super Bowl halftime show, but they could make one of these every few years without it getting stale because Gaga is a tower of magnetism.

Where to watch it:Netflix


In the middle of gang violence in Chicago, CeaseFire attempts to use members’ direct experiences to ward off new brutalities. Dubbed “violence interrupters,” Ameena Matthews, Cobe Williams, and Eddie Bocanegra are at the heart of this vital film about ending community violence by employing disease-control strategies, and the Herculean task of reversing systemic criminal activity without losing sight of the humanity of the people affected.

Where to watch it:Amazon Prime


Let’s hope that this meditative, sumptuous documentary never leaves Netflix’s shores. The portrait of then-85-year-old Sukiyabashi Jiro’s quest for unattainable perfection is both food porn and a somber-sweet consideration of the satisfaction and disquiet of becoming the best in the world at something and, somehow, striving for better.

Where to watch it:Netflix


When someone tells you it can’t be done, show them this. The simple title both celebrates and belies the smallness of one person fighting a system. Joe Piscatella’s doc follows the explosive growth of the Hong Kong protest movement engaged by teen activist Joshua Wong when the Chinese government refused to act on its promise of granting autonomy to the region, and it is a dose of pure inspiration.

Where to watch it:Netflix


Joshua Oppenheimer and Anonymous’s sequel to the Oscar-nominated The Act of Killing features an Indonesian man whose brother was murdered during the 1965 purge of Communists talking to his brother’s killers while literally checking their vision. His bravery and composure are astonishing, as is the insight into the many rationalities unrepentant men use to shield their psyches from their own heinous acts. A peerless piece of investigative art.

Where to watch it:Netflix


An absurdist rabbit chase and a deliberate provocation, writer/star Louis Theroux’s punk documentary poked the bear of the infamous religion in order to get access to it. They auditioned young actors to recreate real-life events described by ex-members, got denounced by the church, and even got into a “Who’s On First”-style argument with a member (“You tell him to turn the camera off then I’ll tell him to turn the camera off!”). Serious subject matter by way of Borat.

Where to watch it:Netflix

20. THE NIGHTMARE (2015)

This documentary by Rodney Ascher should be seen by everyone and somehow be banned from being seen. Not content to profile people suffering from sleep paralysis—the condition where you can’t move or speak while falling asleep or awakening, yeah—Ascher riffs on the hallucinations that sometimes accompany the ailment. As if being frozen weren’t enough. The result is a true story that’s just as effective as a horror film.

Where to watch it:Netflix

21. PUMPING IRON (1977)

A landmark docudrama about the Mr. Olympia competition, this is the film that launched a wannabe actor from Austria into the public conscious. Arnold Schwarzenegger is brash and beautiful in this celebration of body perfection which finds a balance between joy and the teeth-gritting agony of endurance. Great back then, it’s now a fascinating artifact of the soon-to-be action star/politician.

Where to watch it:Netflix

22. STOLEN SEAS (2013)

Constructed using real audio and found footage of the 2008 hostage negotiation aboard a Danish shipping vessel, filmmaker Thymaya Payne’s film isn’t content to simply shine a light on the horrific reality of a Somali pirate attack; it strikes to build a contextual understanding of what these attacks mean for the rest of the world. For all of us.

Where to watch it:Amazon Prime

23. STORIES WE TELL (2013)

An absolute personal stunner, actress Sarah Polley directed this docudrama about the scariest thing you can reveal to the world: your family. It’s an emotional, gamut-spanning search for identity that requires reconciling conflicting views about your parents and digging through buried secrets. Polley bringing them into full view, for all of us to see, is a selfless act that resulted in an outstanding piece of art.

Where to watch it:Amazon Prime


A modern classic of nonfiction storytelling. Through archival footage, interviews, and reenactments, documentary royalty Errol Morris used this film to argue the innocence of a man destined for lethal injection. It tells the story of Randall Dale Adams, who was sentenced to death for killing a police officer in 1976, despite evidence that the real killer—a minor at the time—had committed the crime. A must-see for fans of Making a Murderer.

Where to watch it:Netflix

25. TIG (2015)

When you get diagnosed with cancer, the natural thing is to perform a stand-up act about it the same day, right? Comedian Tig Notaro became famous overnight when her set confronting her same-day diagnosis went viral, and this documentary from Kristina Goolsby and Ashley York focuses on the year that followed. A rocky year that deals with death, a new career chapter, a new relationship, and possibly a new child. It’s okay to laugh through the tears.

Where to watch it:Netflix

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July 16, 2011 | 4:18 p.m.

The costumed superhero (like jazz and baseball) is often described as a uniquely American creation, but the most intriguing creative force in comics these days is Grant Morrison, the Scottish writer who this September will take the most storied franchise, Superman’s “Action Comics,” back to issue No. 1 for the first time since 1938. The 51-year-old has brought a surrealist style to comics and his new nonfiction book, “Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human,” which will be released this week by Spiegel & Grau. In this guest essay, he offers thoughts on Comic-Con International, the pop culture expo expected to bring 120,000 heroic souls to San Diego.

(DC Comics)

Comic-Con International in San Diego is a place where the boundary between fantasy and reality happily surrenders to the carnival spirit and anything can happen, as I discovered in 1999.

It was 1 a.m., in an airless hotel room, overlooking the naval yards of San Diego Harbor. I found myself chewing over the interesting problem of re-creating Superman for the 21st century, with my editor Dan Raspler. To clear our heads, we went downstairs and crossed the street to a Dr. Seuss-ish park between the rail tracks and the city. We were deep in discussion, debating earnestly the merits and demerits of a married Superman, when we spotted a couple of men crossing the tracks into town.

One was an ordinary-looking bearded dude, at first sight like any of a hundred thousand comics fans. But the other was Superman. He was dressed in a perfectly tailored red, blue and yellow costume; his hair was slicked back with a kiss curl; and unlike the often weedy or paunchy Supermen who paraded through the convention halls, he was the most convincing Superman I’ve ever seen, looking like a cross between Christopher Reeve and the actor Billy Zane. I knew a visitation when I saw one.

Racing to intercept the pair, Dan and I explained who we were, what we were doing and asked “Superman” if he wouldn’t mind answering a few questions. He didn’t, and sat on a concrete bollard with one knee to his chest shield, completely relaxed. It occurred to me that this was exactly how Superman would sit. A man who was invulnerable to all harm would be always relaxed and at ease. He’d have no need for the kind of physically aggressive postures superheroes specialized in. I began to understand Superman in a new way.

(DC Entertainment)

We asked questions, “How do you feel about Lois?,” “What about Batman?,” and received answers in the voice and persona of Superman — “I don’t think Lois will ever really understand me or why I do what I do …” or “Batman sees only the darkness in people’s hearts. I wish he could see the best …” — that seemed utterly convincing.

The whole encounter lasted an hour and a half, then he left, graciously, and on foot, I’m sad to say. Dan and I stared at one another in the fuzzy sodium glare of the street lamps, then quietly returned to our rooms. Inflamed, I stayed awake the whole night, writing about Superman until the fuming August sun rose above the warships, the hangars and the Pacific. The end result was my 12-part “All-Star Superman” series with artist Frank Quitely, and the same meeting also inspired elements of the forthcoming relaunch of “Action Comics” with Rags Morales, so it was definitely worth it.

Bumping into someone dressed as Superman in San Diego may sound about as wondrous and unlikely as meeting an alcoholic at an AA meeting, of course, but it rarely happens at night, and of the dozens of Men of Steel I’ve witnessed marching up and down the aisles at Comic-Con, or posing with tourists outside Grauman’s Chinese on Hollywood Boulevard, not one was ever as convincing or as personally significant as the Superman who appeared at the precise moment I needed him most.

(DC Comics)

There is, you’ll be heartened to discover, a cruel, ironic counter to the tale of glory and grace above. San Diego, 2002, and artist Chris Weston was in full enthusiastic flow, telling me just how much he wanted to draw a story featuring Bizarro, Superman’s deranged “imperfect duplicate.” At that very moment, as they say, a convention-goer, dressed as the deformed, backward-talking Bizarro, appeared in the street ahead of us. Chris, sensing an opportunity for a totemic spirit encounter of his own, dragged the green-painted stranger along to a party.

Unlike the courteous Superman of 1999, Bizarro refused to leave Chris’ side, becoming ever more belligerent, raucous and true to character. We’d all been buying him drinks, and the drunker he became, the more authentically possessed by the Dionysian spirit of Bizarro he became as well. Clearly distressed, Chris wailed, “I can’t get rid of him! What am I going to do?”

In the end, much as Superman often did, we had to trick Bizarro into going home by using his own code of “uz do opposite” against him. On the topsy-turvy Bizarro world, we explained, a party was when you were alone, not with other people. Other people, in fact, ruined a party. He was forced to admit this made perfect Bizarro sense and marched backward up the stairs, blind drunk, while we all waved and yelled, “Hello, Bizarro!”

— Grant Morrison


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