Real Stories, Real Impact: The Best Documentaries of the Festival Circuit

May 17, 2023

"Filmmaking is a chance to live many lifetimes." - Robert Altman


Documentary films have become an essential component of the cinematic world, providing us with a glimpse into real-life events and personal stories that can be just as captivating as fictional narratives. Every year, documentary films receive recognition and acclaim at various film festivals worldwide, bringing crucial issues and untold stories to the forefront.  We will explore the top documentary films and shorts that have garnered critical acclaim and won prestigious awards at festivals around the globe.


five people standing in a line posing for a black and white photo


When reality becomes more captivating than fiction


Documentary films have found their place among the biggest film festivals, including Cannes, Sundance, Berlin, Toronto, and Venice, where they receive just as much attention as feature films. Sundance, in particular, has become a breeding ground for some of the most successful documentaries, including "American Factory" (2019), which won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. Other festivals like IDFA, Hot Docs, and Sheffield Doc/Fest are also dedicated entirely to documentaries and are a treasure trove of exceptional stories.


Here are ten must-watch documentary films and shorts that have made a significant impact in the festival circuit, winning critical acclaim and numerous awards:



Batrachian's Ballad

two dark yellow frogs

In Batrachian's Ballad, ceramic frogs and Gypsies serve as metaphors in a poignant commentary on xenophobia in Portuguese society. The film weaves a tale of ambiguity, intervening in the everyday reality of Portugal to shed light on the issue. Through its unique storytelling, Batrachian's Ballad offers a thought-provoking examination of the effects of intolerance and prejudice.



two people riding on the backs of horses through a field

Eva, a 21-year-old woman, has always dreamed of joining the Imperial Guard, a Napoleonic regiment reserved for men. In Impériale, she defies a 200-year-old ban by hiding her identity and riding in the stirrup alongside her male counterparts. As she immerses herself in the world of gunpowder and smoke, Eva discovers her true self and lives out her fantasy of being a handsome soldier beside a beautiful princess. The film is a celebration of breaking down gender barriers and pursuing one's passions, no matter the obstacles.


Hotel 22

a bus driving in the street during the night

Hotel 22 is an award-winning documentary that portrays the story of homeless individuals who take refuge in the public bus line 22 in Silicon Valley. The director, Elizabeth Lo, captures this unique community in motion through a static observational approach, showcasing the bus's swings and turns as it traverses the streets of California. The sounds of the vehicle add to the sensory experience of the viewers, immersing them in the microcosm of the bus. This eye-opening film also explores the tensions of race and ethnicity that come to a head within this makeshift shelter.”


Big Boys Gone Bananas!*

doles bananas

In "Big Boys Gone Bananas," director Fredrik Gertten's fight for freedom of expression is chronicled as he faces off against the powerful Dole Food Co Corporation. The documentary follows the filmmaker's struggle to have his film "Bananas!" seen by American audiences after the agricultural corporation launches a campaign to discredit the film and prevent its distribution. Through behind-the-scenes footage, videoconferences, and interviews, the film documents the epic battle waged by Gertten and his team to defend their right to tell the truth.



a family in a train

Is a captivating documentary that takes a deep dive into the lives of people living in the slums of four of the world's largest metropolitan cities: Bombay, Mexico City, Moscow, and New York. Through twelve gripping episodes, viewers are taken on a journey through the resourcefulness, humor, and dignity of those struggling to survive in these challenging environments. The film shines a light on the daily challenges faced by residents of these megacities, showcasing their resilience and humanity in the face of overwhelming odds. Megacities is a powerful reminder of the incredible human spirit and the lengths that people will go to in order to create a better life for themselves and their families.



a man and a woman kissing in a car

This Amazon Prime documentary chronicles the story of a family's fight for justice after their loved one is sentenced to over 60 years in prison for a non-violent crime. It won the Best Director award at Sundance in 2020.


Dick Johnson is Dead

a man holding a laptop computer in front of his head and a large piece of

A Netflix original documentary in which a daughter stages imaginative ways to help her 86-year-old father, who is battling dementia, accept his inevitable death. It won the Special Jury Award for Innovation in Nonfiction Storytelling at Sundance in 2020.



the 13 most murderss ever

It's a documentary by director Ava DuVernay that explores the intersection of race, justice, and mass incarceration in the United States. The film draws its title from the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for a crime. "13th" has won several awards, including the Emmy for Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Special, and has been highly acclaimed for its powerful and informative examination of a critical issue in American society.



a man with glasses

This documentary, directed by Laura Poitras, follows the story of Edward Snowden, a former National Security Agency (NSA) subcontractor who leaked classified information to the press about the NSA's surveillance activities. The film won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 2015 and offers a thought-provoking look into the implications of government surveillance.


Free Solo

a rock climber has been clinging over the cliff

This documentary follows professional rock climber Alex Honnold as he attempts to become the first person to free solo climb (climbing without ropes or protective gear) Yosemite National Park's 3,000-foot-high El Capitan wall. The film won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 2019, and also won the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Specia


documentary set


Documentaries and shorts have become increasingly popular and important in the film industry, showcasing real stories and issues that often go unnoticed or are misrepresented in mainstream media. As more and more filmmakers turn to this genre, we can expect to see a continued rise in quality and creativity, as well as a greater diversity of voices and perspectives. Whether you're looking for something informative, thought-provoking, or just plain entertaining, there's a wealth of great documentaries and shorts out there to explore. So don't hesitate to dive in and discover the many stories waiting to be told.

* Robert Altman was a renowned American film director, screenwriter, and producer, known for his naturalistic style and ensemble casts.


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