As much as we love getting lost in carefully constructed narratives, sometimes truth is stranger than fiction. Documentaries that explore the messy, complicated, downright bizarre business of being human are some of the most fascinating films to watch, and are often the basis for directors to interpret into fictional movies of their own (see: Grey Gardens, Welcome to Marwen).
Below, we’ve rounded up the strangest documentaries you can stream right now. Some feature fascinating people put into bizarre situations (Finders Keepers, The Wolfpack), others explore events that changed the face of pop culture (Casting JonBenét, either of the competing Fyre Festival docs), and some follow obsessive directors on artistic and/or journalistic quests (Grizzly Man, Tickled). Any one of them is worth watching if you’re in the mood to celebrate, lament, or simply acknowledge how strange it is to be a person in the world.
Kitty Green’s (fictional) film about an assistant working for a Harvey Weinstein-type boss, proved that director had a sensitive eye for the subtleties of the #MeToo movement. In her 2017 Netflix documentary, Casting JonBenét, she turned that eye to the nation’s obsession with true crime. The film is ostensibly about the murder of child pageant contestant JonBenét Ramsey, but it actually centers around the casting process for (nonexistent) reenactments of the crime and aftermath. Green interviews those actors — most of them Boulder natives who remember the 1996 tragedy — about the murder and the ensuing tabloid-fueled fallout, their theories about the case, and the impact it had on their community. It’s eerie and morbid and endlessly fascinating.
Casting JonBenet is streaming on Netflix.
When Shannon Whisnant bid on a foreclosed storage shed at auction, he didn’t expect to find a mummified leg under the hood of a barbecue grill. But what many men would see as a gross piece of trash, Whisnant saw an opportunity. He started marketing himself as “The Foot Man,” intending to open a roadside attraction. That is until the owner of the leg, plane crash survivor and recovering addict John Wood, got in touch. The 2015 film Finders Keepers documents their legal battle (they went on Judge Mathis in 2006) and the emotional aftermath, extending some empathy to both men, but also acknowledging how silly and bizarre the whole feud is.
Finders Keepers is streaming on Amazon Prime.
No list of weird documentaries would be complete without Grey Gardens, the iconic documentary about a reclusive mother and daughter — Big Edie and Little Edie — living on a dilapidated estate in East Hampton, New York. It’s fascinating to enter the world that the two eccentric women created for themselves at Grey Gardens, especially when Little Edie is waxing poetic about what she wants out of life or Big Edie is singing “Tea for Two.” It was even adapted into a 2009 HBO movie starring Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange.
Any Werner Herzog documentary would be worthy of this list, not because the subjects themselves are necessarily weird but because the director himself is so delightfully strange that energy naturally extends to his filmmaking. Grizzly Man, probably Herzog’s best known doc, recounts the life and death of Timothy Treadwell, a grizzly bear enthusiast who was tragically mauled by a bear along with his girlfriend. (Audio footage of the attack exists, but Herzog wisely refrained from playing it in the film, though he does include footage of himself listening to the tape, which is harrowing in and of itself.)
Fyre Fraud/ Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened
Both Netflix and Hulu released documentaries on Fyre Festival, the much-hyped music festival that turned out to be a major disaster, and both are worth watching if you’re fascinated with how the events came to a head. The Netflix documentary, Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened, takes a more comprehensive look at the behind-the-scenes planning of the event (in an ethical conundrum, the production company behind the film was also involved in the production of Fyre Festival.) But Hulu’s documentary, Fyre Fraud, got an exclusive interview the festival’s mastermind, Billy McFarland (in yet another ethical conundrum, the Fyre Fraud producers paid McFarland for his involvement.)
Welcome to Marwen, Robert Zemeckis’ film starring Steve Carell as the real-life artist Mark Hogancamp is certainly strange, but lacks the heart of the documentary about Hogancamp and his creation, 2010’s Marwencol. In 2000, Hogancamp was attacked outside of a bar for mentioning that he liked wearing women’s shoes. He woke up in the hospital with severe memory loss and found an interesting way to cope — creating and photographing a miniature WWII-era city in his backyard which he named Marwencol. The film takes significant liberties with Hogancamp’s story, so if you were fascinated (or just confused) by Zemeckis’ movie, it’s worth checking out the more grounded, but still fascinating, documentary.
Stanley Kubrick’s enigmatic interpretation of Stephen King’s The Shining has long been the subject of elaborate fan theories. Several of those theories are explored in Rodney Ascher’s 2012 documentary, which is narrated by The Shining megafans who are convinced that the film is a minotaur allegory. Or a parable about remembering the Holocaust. Or Kubrick’s admission that he faked the moon landing. Ascher doesn’t appear to be advocating for any of those theories, though. Instead, it’s a bizarre, fascinating portrait of fandom at its most obsessive.
Room 237 is streaming on IFC Films Unlimited via Amazon Channels.
The less you know about David Farrier’s descent into the strange world of “competitive endurance tickling” before watching his 2016 documentary, the better. Suffice it to say that the answer to who’s making videos of young men tickling each other while restrained is simultaneously shocking and exactly what you think it is.
Tickled is streaming on Hulu.
The Wolfpack director Crystal Moselle was walking around the Lower East Side of Manhattan one day when she happened upon a group of six brothers who looked like they were characters from Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs. She struck up a conversation with the group and they bonded over a shared love of film. It was only later that she learned that the brothers had snuck out of their apartment where, along with their mom and sister, they had been mostly confined by their father for the past 15 years. Moselle follows the boys as they start to explore the city — most of their understanding of the outside world came from movies and nearly every social interaction is new to them. Their circumstances are certainly bizarre, but the brothers are charming, and fascinating to watch as their world opens up.
The Wolfpack is streaming on Hulu.