10 Fun, Feel-Good Documentaries for the New Year

Two couples sit on couch watching TV with dog watching them

Who says documentaries can’t be fun? These 10 uplifting documentaries will help get 2013 off to a bright start. (Flickr Creative Commons photo by Wonderland)

Yes, Virginia, documentaries can be uplifting — even downright fun! Here’s a list of 10 feel-good documentaries to get the new year off to a bright start. Some are major award winners. Others aren’t necessarily the highest form of the art. But they all should put a smile in your face. And we think that’s a great way to start 2013.

Young@HeartWay-cool geriatric jammers in New England sing their hearts out in this super feel-good movie. It almost makes you want to be old enough to join the chorus and rock out with them. Check out the film’s Independent Lens page to learn more about these inspirational crooners.


Air Guitar Nation — It used to be something people did only in the privacy of their bedrooms when they weren’t good at the real thing. But this highly entertaining film takes air guitar out of the bedroom and into its most public venue: the international competition stage. You have to love it when one “guitarist” says it’s all about keeping it real. (My guitar gently weeps.)


Herb and DorothyHe was a postal worker, she was a librarian. They met and married, and for decades, became some of the best-known art collectors in New York City. This lovely, enthusiastic couple lived on a shoestring in their one-bedroom Manhattan apartment while amassing an important multimillion-dollar collection of thousands of works — most of which they ended up happily donating to the National Gallery of Art. This charming, heartwarming film feels like an electric blanket on a cold winter night.


Murderball Car wrecks, gunshot wounds, fist fights, and killer bacteria left the stars of this film in wheelchairs, but nothing keeps them down. These bad-ass quadriplegics overcome huge obstacles to play full-contact rugby (aka murderball) in the Paralympic Games. Premier called it “Fierce, funny, and inspiring.”


The King of Kong: A Fistful of QuartersThis is the ultimate underdog story, set around the Donkey Kong world championship. Funny, moving, and as much about character as it is about the culture of gaming. “It’s not just one of the best documentaries I’ve ever seen, it’s one of the best movies I’ve ever seen,” raved Pete Vonder Haar of Film Threat.


Men Who Swim — Realizing they’re no longer wet behind the ears, several Swedish men decide to take to the pool and form an all-male synchronized-swim team. It’s a funny, poignant coming-of-(middle)-age documentary with men forming stars in the water as they take stock of their lives on land.

Wordplay Do you do it with a pencil, pen, or — as Jon Stewart wields on an easy Tuesday crossword — a black Sharpie? This fun film provides a compelling look at New York Times crossword puzzle editor Will Shortz and the fascinating and sometimes-nerdy subculture of crossword puzzles.  Independent Lens has lots of behind-the-scenes film features, should you crave more clues about the film’s background.


Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill —A once-homeless street musician falls in with a huge flock of red and green parrots in San Francisco, and his life is all the better for it. So are the lives of the birds. Mark Bittner, dubbed the “Bohemian St. Francis,” introduces us to a variety of appealing parrot “stars,” such as Pushkin, a single dad who raises three hatchlings on his own. The documentary truly is as its subtitle describes: a love story with wings.


Trekkies — Star Trek lasted all of three seasons in the 1960s, but its devotees, aka Trekkies, seem to grow more rabid with time. This film follows loads of quirky, eccentric Trekkies through their daily lives and to their holy grail: Trekkie conventions. Among the more memorable characters is the dentist who wears a Star Trek uniform to his office, which is decked out like the starship Enterprise. Beam me up, Scottie!


Exit Through the Gift Shop — French immigrant Thierry Guetta is obsessed with filming his every move on the streets of Los Angeles. A chance encounter leads him into the underground world of street art. The rush of following these urban artists engrosses Guetta as he travels to Europe and across America documenting the tenacity and accomplishments of these nocturnal artists. The film has been called a mockumentary (or prankumentary) by some, but this Sundance entry was nominated for an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature 2011. You be the judge.

Despite the genre’s reputation for serious and even depressing subjects, there are plenty of uplifting documentaries. What are your favorites?


This entry was posted in Independent Film and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

View Talkback Guidelines >>

  • http://twitter.com/NoFestRequired No Festival Required

    “It Came From Kuchar”, “Plagues and Pleasures On The Salton Sea”, “Grown In Detroit”, “Drivers Wanted”, “1000 Journals”, “Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo” and “Tokyo Is Dreaming”, among others…all screened in Phoenix Arizona by No Festival Required Independent Cinema!

  • Mike D.

    I stumbled on “Men Who Swim” an hour before midnight on New Year’s Eve watching AZPBS. The documentary was more fun and more inspiring than watching all the overblown televised festivities from Times Square. Will be looking for more of the fun stuff from Independent Lens.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=592153351 Rebecca High

      Me too! I loved it!

  • http://www.facebook.com/mrjoshuamjohnson Joshua Johnson

    The following are available to stream on Netflix…

    Herb and Dorothy
    Men who Swim
    Exit Through the Gift Shop.

    • ChaseSimms

      Which would be cool if netflix wasn’t “unavailable” half the time.

  • http://www.facebook.com/carley.sutton.5 Carley Sutton

    “I Am” is one of my absolute favorites. Am definitely gonna have to check out some of these though.

  • http://twitter.com/realpats0 pats0

    I really liked Bones Brigade: An Autobiography

  • Dee

    Winnebago Man wins my vote!

  • AMck

    I’ve seen “Young@Heart” and “Wordplay” and highly recommend both. I would have added to this list “Spellbound” about the national spelling bee; “Mad Hot Ballroom” about inner-city kids who take ballroom dancing; and “The Real Dirt on Farmer John” a look at the life of a zany Midwestern farmer.

  • MadMarchHare3

    Jiro Dreams of Sushi is also excellent and on Netflix

  • http://www.facebook.com/judy.purcell.96 Judy Purcell

    The Return of the Cuyahoga

  • liz mulholland

    i just watched Bill Cunningham – New York, which was available to stream on netflix and it was excellent! what a great movie about a surprisingly interesting person.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jane.coombs88 Jane Coombs

    Wild China, Between the Folds

  • http://www.facebook.com/mbernardy Maria Bernardy

    Crazy Love

  • Maria Goodavage

    These are great suggestions! We may well be putting together another feel-good doc post based on suggestions here and on Ind Lens FB page.

  • http://www.facebook.com/chris.pollack Chris Pollack

    Man on Wire isn’t mentioned anywhere? Riveting!! One of the best docs ever.

    • phyllis koenig

      agree – should win every award

  • http://www.facebook.com/gretchen.winters2 Gretchen Winters

    The Wild Parrot of Telegraph Hill is wonderful, but few movies made me weep as much as that one! The parrots are still around and I was thrilled to see them in person on my last visit to SF!

  • http://twitter.com/chinbandage Ern

    Dear Zachary, First Position, Supersize Me, The Flat, The Imposter, Religulous, Bowling For Columbine, Winnebago Man, Resurrect Dead, Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport.

  • http://www.facebook.com/ashleypickin Ashley Pickin

    first world problem…. I’ve already seen all of these…

  • http://www.facebook.com/melissa.m.plotsky Melissa Plotsky

    Girls Rock!

  • FilmLover

    Jiro Dreams of Sushi.
    Man on Wire.

    New documentary – Blue Gold: American Jeans coming out early this year looks great!

  • Lesley

    American Movie and Marwencol also get my vote :)

  • http://www.facebook.com/karamarierockstar Kara Muir

    “Gotta Dance” about the senior hip hop dance team for The New Jersey Nets … So uplifting and I just loved it.

  • http://www.facebook.com/SportzNut21 J.D. Frankland

    “Air Guitar Nation” is my favorite…but then again, I’m biased; I’m a competitive air guitarist myself.

  • http://www.facebook.com/linda.j.noble Linda Noble

    See American Harmony! It’s about mens barbershop quartet singing and competition. It puts the music genre in a new, not-so-old-fashioned light! Great fun!

  • fkumn

    Super High Me, Super Size Me, Religulous , Winnebago Man, The King of Kong theres more im sure but I was surprised these didnt make the list