This year’s festival presents 98 feature-length titles, as well as dozens of TV episodes from Netflix, HBO, Showtime, Amazon, Hulu, National Geographic, and others. Digital Trends has compiled the best entries you’ll be able to stream later this year, and we’ll be updating our list as new titles arrive until the festival ends April 30.
L.A. 92 (Nat Geo)
Warning: This documentary will put tears in your eyes.
Within the first three minutes of National Geographic’s L.A. 92 documentary — which revisits the 1992 Los Angeles, California riots — you hear police officers openly using racial slurs to reference a disturbance. This is followed by a smattering of graphic visuals of people beaten and battered by police during the 1965 riots in Watts. In true National Geographic style, you are not only immersed in the infamous riots that ravaged Los Angeles communities via archival footage from news organizations reluctant to get too close, but you are also unflinchingly placed in the literal center of the anarchy, through home videos from the residents as they film the destruction. L.A. 92 shows how publicized incidents of unpunished crime can quickly ignite dormant tensions in a community, until the innocent and guilty are rendered indistinguishable.
Similar to: ESPN’s OJ Made In America
The Handmaid’s Tale (Hulu)
Based on Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel of the same name, Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale focuses on the totalitarian society of Gilead, where infertility is widespread, so women referred to as “handmaids” are forced to procreate with wealthy men. Elizabeth Moss’ emotional command as abducted handmaid Offred is incredibly moving, as she is able to switch from paralyzing hopelessness to cautious optimism to savage indignation in a mere few minutes.
There are scenes in just the last 10 minutes of the pilot episode that will virtually immobilize you with emotion. The heartbreaking moments last for an uncomfortably long time before cutting to the next scene. Alongside Moss, the series’ other roles are also superbly cast, including the brilliant Samira Wiley, who brings more of that stoic-yet-personable sensibility that made her a star on Orange is the New Black.
Similar to: Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle
Available April 26 via Hulu:
Genius (Nat Geo)
Albert Einstein is unequivocally one of the greatest minds in human history. But, how much do you really know about the man? National Geographic’s 10-part series Genius not only explores Einstein’s history, but mines the shadowy crevices of his life that are rarely given the time of day to create suspenseful drama. Within the first five minutes of the pilot episode — directed by Ron Howard — Einstein rationalizes the biological illegitimacy of marriage with the same intellectual fervor as he does Newtonian physics, but this time with his pants around his ankles.
Academy Award winner Geoffrey Rush and the indomitably charismatic Johnny Flynn split on-camera time as middle-aged and teen-aged Einstein, respectively. The non-linear structure is a great way to see which events from Einstein’s past shaped him into the man the world still reveres today.
Similar to: HBO’s John Adams
Available April 25 via Nat Geo TV app:
Can’t Stop Won’t Stop (Apple Music)
Can’t Stop Won’t Stop was originally meant to be a documentary of May 2016’s 20th anniversary reunion concerts of Sean “P. Diddy” Combs’ legendary Bad Boy Records at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center. But director Daniel Kaufman quickly learned what Diddy constantly intimated at in the documentary — his life is a movie, so his life has to frame the movie. For 80 minutes, Can’t Stop Won’t Stop is a nonstop barrage of the moments of Diddy’s life that shaped and defined the rise of one of the most successful record labels of the 20th century.
For music fans, especially hip-hop fans, the film is a treasure trove of rare glimpses at history. There’s grainy footage of the late Notorious B.I.G joking in the studio with his wife, Faith Evans, and Diddy in 1995. There’s also footage of a blank-faced Jay Z leaving B.I.G.’s funeral in 1997 from the lens of an onlooker’s home camera. Testimonials from Clive Davis, Jimmy Iovine, Andre Harrell, and Nas, just to name a few, attest to the legacy Diddy left with Bad Boy.
Unfortunately, most of the performance footage from the reunion concerts is reduced to slow-motion vignettes with Nina Simone’s Feeling Good scoring the movements. But Can’t Stop Won’t Stop does something Diddy berates his backing band for not doing when rehearsing the live renditions of his ’90s hits — it recaptures that magic, almost perfectly.
Similar to: Jay Z’s Fade to Black
The Sinner (USA Network)
For most of the first half of The Sinner‘s pilot episode you are lulled into a false sense of normalcy by all the usual TV tropes you would see in a relationship drama. There is a family vacation with overly assertive husband Mason (Christopher Abbott), disinterested wife Cora (Jessica Biel). By the time the episode reaches the beach trip the couple is taking with their son, it feels more drama than thriller.
That is, until Biel flashes her first signs of life on that beach by savagely attacking an unsuspecting man in front of dozens of people. The episode jumps into high-gear once detective Harry Ambrose, played with steely cool by Bill Pullman, tries to investigate why a mild mannered woman suddenly decided to attack a stranger. Be prepared to anxiously await each of the eight episodes of this upcoming limited series.
Similar to: Netflix’s Bloodline
Whitney: Can I Be Me (Showtime)
In this unauthorized documentary from Showtime, Whitney Houston’s unprecedented rise and precipitous collapse is framed by one of her favorite quotes: “Can I be me?” In a little under two hours, controversial director Nick Broomfield uses interviews with bandmates, friends, and family members, along with found footage of Houston, to present the iconic singer’s battle with controlling her own identity.
In the film, Whitney’s drug addiction is not sensationalized; it’s contextualized. But the true emotional core of this documentary is exclusive footage shot during Whitney Houston’s 1999 My Love Is Your Love World Tour. Poignantly, we are given what may be the only interview with Robyn Crawford, Houston’s longtime friend and creative director, whose long-rumored sexual relationship with the singer is explored as a catalyst for Houston’s demise.
If you think you know Whitney Houston, this Showtime doc open your eyes.
Similar to: Netflix’s What Happened, Miss Simone?
Available August 26 via the Showtime and Showtime Anytime apps:
City of Ghosts (Amazon)
City of Ghosts is a documentary following the Syrian activist group Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS), the members of which have been risking their lives to document the atrocities taking place in Raqqa since 2014. Through intimately shot moments. filmmaker Matthew Heineman masterfully captures how ominously complicated life can get when you choose to do what is right. He also conveys how the hope of helping fix Raqqa weighs on the activists, through the tremors of their shaking hands and the sorrow that fills their faces when they learn the news of another Islamic State attack.
The documentary also doubles as an astute analysis of how technology has transformed citizen journalism and terrorism. You get to see how RBSS first used social media to spread the group’s YouTube videos around the rest of the world. There is on-the-ground footage of IS members driving around cities, looking to track satellite internet signals to locate people uploading disparaging videos. In showing us how a group of good citizens shed light on tragedy, City of Ghosts is also displays the social impact of the internet.
Similar to: We Are Legion – The Story of the Hacktivists
Another Period (Comedy Central)
Wringing humor out of the history of women’s long struggle for equal rights such as voting is a tough feat that Another Period pulls of in fine fashion. The series centers on the Bellacourts, an opulent, yet socially oblivious family in Newport, Rhode Island, at the turn of the 20th century. The season 3 premiere episode of the comedy inundates viewers with jokes about underage sex with priests, ordering items from “the Amazon,” and women hating women.
If you always wanted to see Comedy Central mix Workaholics with Drunk History, then Another Period will have you laughing at the worst things, and loving it.
Similar to: Comedy Central’s Drunk History
Updated 4-28-2017 by Keith Nelson: Updated to add Can’t Stop Won’t Stop, Another Period, and City of Ghosts.