HBO, complemented by its streaming network Max, has long been home to some of the most can’t-miss TV and movie content — from critically acclaimed fare like Game of Thrones and The White Lotus to movies, documentaries, standup comedy specials, and much more.
In this post, we want to spotlight five of the best HBO documentaries you can either stream right now or, in the case of the final title on this list, that you’ll be able to watch starting in just a matter of days. They range from stories about the life and times of famous figures to deep dives into historical moments as well as stories about strange and unusual places. If you love documentaries, like I do, you basically can’t go wrong with any of these HBO standouts. And we’ll take a closer look at them all now, in no particular order.
At this point, the Sackler family behind the disgraced pharma giant Purdue Pharmaceutical has spawned a whole documentary industry unto itself — and not just a slew of probing, investigative works about the family’s role in the opioid crisis, but also TV dramas like Netflix’s Painkiller.
HBO’s All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, which was nominated for a Best Documentary Oscar earlier this year, follows artist and activist Nan Goldin, who gets creative in her attempt to hold the Sackler family accountable for the opioid overdose crisis. “The film follows P.A.I.N., a group Goldin founded to shame museums into rejecting Sackler money, destigmatize addiction, and promote harm reduction,” HBO explains. “Inspired by Act Up, the group orchestrated protests to expose the Sacklers and the crimes of their Purdue Pharma, the makers of OxyContin.”
Alexei Navalny is something of a rarity among antagonists of Vladimir Putin in Russia — in that, at least as of this writing, he’s still alive.
Granted, the Putin regime has certainly done its utmost to change that fact. It tried to poison Navalny with the deadly nerve agent Novichok, a terrifying attempted murder that’s documented in filmmaker Daniel Roher’s masterful documentary about the Russian dissident. Navalny, which won the Best Documentary Oscar this year, documents the man’s recovery from being poisoned — as well as his effort to link up with the independent journalism outfit Bellingcat in order to research, identify, and then prank call — right there on the screen, as Roher’s camera was rolling — the crew of Russian hitmen who tried to assassinate him.
Navalny even goes so far as to coordinate with international press outlets to name and shame them all.
Unfortunately, this is a Russian story — which is to say, it doesn’t have a happy, Hollywood ending. Navalny is currently serving consecutive sentences in a Russian jail, after having been tried on trumped-up charges. Worryingly, his outside team has reportedly not heard from him or been able to locate him for several days, and there is growing concern for his safety. Watch this documentary about Navalny’s story anyway, and prepare to be inspired by his uncommon courage.
The late Anthony Bourdain is the subject of this documentary from Oscar-winning filmmaker Morgan Neville, who takes viewers inside the mind of the chef with a punk edge and for whom the world was always a movable feast. From his books to his TV travelogues like No Reservations, Bourdain made the world feel a little bit smaller to his viewers and the millions of fans who adored his prose that frequently took your breath away. Roadrunner is the respectful yet warts-and-all documentary that this complicated man deserves.
“Drawing on unseen footage from Bourdain’s television shows, his recognizable voiceovers, and all-new interviews with those who knew him best, Neville creates an unforgettable record of an extraordinary man’s rise to stardom as a celebrity chef, bestselling author, and Emmy-winning writer/producer,” HBO’s summary explains.
“A nuanced portrait of a complex, contradictory, and charismatic persona, Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain is a fitting tribute to the man who reinvented cultural storytelling and himself over and over again.
As for this next title on our list of can’t-miss HBO documentaries, New Jersey’s infamous Action Park is reminiscent in the minds of some people with spectacular fun and endless summer adventure. To other people, HBO explains about its documentary Class Action Park, this is a place “where unruly 1980s teenagers were given free rein to go gonzo on strange contraptions that seemed to violate the laws of common sense (and perhaps physics)
“… Shirking the trappings of nostalgia, the film uses investigative journalism, newly unearthed and never-before-seen documents and recordings, original animations, and interviews with the people who lived it to reveal the true story for the first time.”
For the final title rounding out our list of some of the best HBO documentaries, we turn next to a film that’s coming (fittingly!) on Dec. 30. Time Bomb Y2K, directed by Brian Becker and Marley McDonald, is ostensibly about the technology quirk that confronted the world at the end of the 20th century — when everyone thought that a software bug meant computers would misinterpret the new year of 2000 as 1900, bringing chaos and catastrophe to electronic systems around the world.
“Time Bomb Y2K,” HBO explains, “is a prescient and often humorous tale about the power and vulnerabilities of technology. By re-appraising both the cooperative efforts and mass hysteria surrounding this millennial milestone, Time Bomb Y2K explores how modern life has been dramatically transformed by the digital revolution.
Through access to rare archival material, including home video and never-before-seen outtakes, the film features first-hand accounts from computer experts, survivalists, scholars, militia groups, conservative Christians, and pop icons grappling with a world that could descend into chaos.”