In its ongoing quest for streaming media dominance, Netflix has established an impressive roster of documentaries. Here are the best.
Editor’s Note: This post is updated monthly. Bookmark this page and come back every month to see what other excellent documentaries join the Netflix roster.
Updated for March 2018
At some point during this decade, it seems like all of Western culture came to an unprecedentedly unanimous decision all at once: Documentaries are dope.
Just scroll through IMDb or Rotten Tomatoes and see how long it takes before you find a documentary with bad reviews. They’re relatively rare! Perhaps because documentarians invest so much time in their subjects that it’s nearly impossible to turn out a bad product and perhaps just because real life really is that much stranger than fiction.
The point is, we now need outlets to feed our insatiable documentary palates. Thankfully, streaming services like Netflix are stepping up to the plate. Netflix’s documentaries are deep, diverse and damn good. Pick any one of these films (and in some cases documentary TV series) when you need a dose of reality.
Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press
Nobody Speak is among the most recent entries on the list and its ability to capture a disturbing trend in the moment as it happens makes it among the most terrifying.
Nobody Speak uses the trial between Gawker and Hulk Hogan as a jumping off point to view the existential threats a free and independent press is increasingly finding both in the court room and as the direct result of billionaire intervention. Yes, a certain current president is discussed.
Chef’s Table comes to you from the filmmakers behind the equally brilliant Jiro Dreams of Sushi and it is like a Netflix algorithm gone mad with power. You guys like watching pretty food be prepared in ultra-HD? Well, here is 12 hours of it. Don’t you even THINK about canceling your subscription while this is on here.
Chef’s Table presents the stories behind truly creative and brilliant chefs across the world. Still, it knows exactly who the real star is: the food.
Get Me Roger Stone
Have you ever noticed how reality is kind of like absolutely fucking insane right now? Longtime political operative Roger Stone is one of the reasons why.
Get Me Roger Stone traces Stone’s life and political career from his time as the youngest person to testify during the Watergate hearings all the way through his shrewd stewarding of Donald Trump into the Oval Office.
Making a Murderer
Hey, you remember this! Making a Murderer in many ways has become the archetype for the true crime episodic documentary on television.
It’s the decades long story of Steve Avery, his first wrongful conviction for murder, and the legal effort to prove that his second conviction for murder is equally wrongful. Making a Murderer has had its biggest cultural moment but parts of the case continue to move through the legal system and its always worth watching the crime masterpiece once again. It’s truly the beginning of documentary renaissance on Netflix.
When judging documentaries, sometimes it’s best to figure out if they’re “definitive.” Meaning that they have the final word on their subject of choice, almost rendering every other documentary needless.
Well, Planet Earth is the definitive documentary for all of planet Earth. The remarkable 2006 BBC production about life in all its complicated glory on the planet has spawned both several sequels and many imitators but it remains the class the art form.
Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey is the follow up to the popular Carl Sagan-led series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage. That’s a big legacy to fill and the latter Cosmos is up to it thanks to the tireless charm of new host Neil Degrasse-Tyson.
Think of Cosmos as the cosmic answer to Planet Earth. Through many episodes it covers the mysteries of the universe we inhabit with the right amount of awe and explanation.
Emboldened by the success of Making a Murderer, Netflix has now tried its hand at several other true crime documentaries. Casting Jonbenet doesn’t quite reach the delirious highs of Making a Murderer or achieve the cultural zeitgeist like the former did.
That’s hard to do when so many of the original players in this well-known crime are unwilling to appear onscreen. Still, Casting Jonbenet is a fascinating exploration of an already well-tread story.
This is kind of cheating as we’re counting three separate multi-episode documentary series as one entity, but don’t think for even a second that any of the three is skippable. CNN’s documentaries covering recent decades The Sixties, The Seventies and The Eighties are incredible.
Just incredible. The task of distilling entire decades into eight, hour-ish long chapters each is intimating and a foolhardy endeavor to be sure. The level at which these CNN productions succeed, however, is staggering.
Last Chance U
Last Chance U is the football documentary for people who didn’t realize they needed a football documentary. The two-season series focuses on junior college football team the East Mississippi Lions. East Mississippi prides itself on taking the players no other school will take due to either academic or behavioral issues.
It’s not exactly a selfless crusade as the players are often excellent and East Mississippi is a powerhouse with a reputation for eventually sending these players off to bigger colleges. The dynamics at play here are fascinating. It’s hard not to get wrapped up in each individual’s story while at the same time questioning the school’s ultimate motives.
The Civil War
Creating the definitive Civil War documentary is only slightly less insane and difficult for making the definitive documentary for all of planet Earth. That’s the business that documentarian Ken Burns is in, however, making incredibly, completely definitive documentaries on big, American subjects.
The Civil War is a nine-episode series that ran on PBS in 1990 and the scope of it is absolutely breathtaking. Still, it’s ability to turn long-dead soldiers from a different era into living, breathing human beings through only their letters is why Burns is considered one of our finest documentarians.
Interview with a Serial Killer
Interview with a Serial Killer is morally icky. Our culture already does enough to glorify violence and killers, do we really need to offer one more a chance for exposure? Unfortunately, I’d say sure, why not.
Documentaries are partially about learning and there is plenty to learn from an in-depth look at the psychology of a serial killer. Interview with a Serial Killer is just 45-minutes long, understated, fair and features an extended interview with a let’s say, less-than-famous killer in Arthur Shawcross.
There is perhaps not a grimmer, more depressing topic possible for a documentary than the Sandy Hook Elementary shootings in Newtown, Connecticut that killed 26 people, mostly elementary school-aged children. The documentary Newtown wisely realizes how heavy a topic this is and tries to depict the survivors and family members as delicately as possible.
This isn’t a documentary about violence – it’s one about grief. And it’s very aptly named as the documentary is more concerned about how a community comes together to fix itself rather than focusing on the individual who broke it.
Exit Through the Gift Shop
You probably know this as the “Banksy” documentary i.e. just a documentary directed by infamous and (not really anymore) anonymous street artist Banksy. That’s not really the truth. Exit Through the Gift Shop is about street art and comes from Banksy but it’s so much more than a Banksy documentary.
It’s barely even a documentary! Instead it’s a narrative that unfolds almost in real time that makes us question everything we know about art, commerce, popularity and the oftentimes hilarious and baffling interactions among all three.
This list of documentaries features a collection of truly terrifying and grotesque content. Just two or three entries above this one is an actual interview with a serial killer! Still, Food, Inc. remains the only documentary on this list I absolutely don’t have the stomach to watch.
Remember when Upton Sinclair published The Jungle and everyone found out exactly what goes into preparing their meat in cramped Chicago meat-packing factories? Ok, you don’t remember because it was the 1906. But you remember learning about that book.
Food, Inc. is like The Jungle on steroids. In that the chickens are all on hellish, beyond cruel steroids.
Into the Abyss
Werner Herzog is such a famous documentarian that people actually enjoy doing impressions of him. To be fair, a good Werner Herzog impression is finer than the most expensive wine one can find. But I digress.
Herzog’s reputation as a master documentarian is earned but Into the Abyss is rarely discussed when his filmography is brought up. That’s a shame because Into the Abyss is his simplest, most direct and perhaps best film. Herzog is an anti-death penalty advocate and in Into the Abyss he tracks down a murderer on deathrow just to hear his story, brutality and all.
It’s almost as though Herzog is deliberately seeking out the most powerful living counterargument to his beliefs just to see if they hold up.
Film criticism can be a thankless job. There’s not much social benefit in criticizing or praising someone else’s work. Roger Ebert, however, helped turn it into an honest-to-goodness art form. This isn’t so much a documentary as it is an in-depth biography of one man’s life.
Unsurprising, since it’s named after Ebert’s own biography. Thankfully, the man at the center of the biography is more than interesting enough to sustain viewers through a feature length doc. Life Itself is a worth tribute to a worthy figure.
Man on Wire
Part documentary, part re-enacted heist film, Man on Wire is an absolute delight. It tells the story of French artist/high-wire daredevil Philippe Petit’s (played by Paul McGill in re-enactments) high-wire walk between the two World Trade Centers in 1974.
That concept alone makes Man on Wire more than worth watching but the exploration of its main “character” along with the excitement of truly passionate people doing truly crazy things makes it even better.
Jiro Dreams of Sushi
In some ways, Jiro Dreams of Sushi is responsible for a lot of other documentaries on this list – even the ones that precede it chronologically. This, the story of master sushi-maker Jiro and his son Yoshikazu perfecting the art of sushi-making at a beyond-exclusive Tokyo restaurant, has been a mainstay of Netflix documentaries since it popped up on the service.
Its popularity inspired Netflix to begin investing more heavily in original documentaries. That’s no surprise as it is excellent, surprisingly emotional, and some of the best food porn imaginable.
The Keepers isn’t a direct sequel to Making a Murderer but it may as well be. It’s another Netflix original true crime drama documentary series designed to basically set Reddit servers on fire. Instead of spending time in Manitowoc County, Wisconsin, however, this time we’re in Maryland trying to solve the nearly 60-year-old mystery of who killed Catholic school nun/teacher Sister Cathy.
Two former students of Cathy turned amateur investigators look into the cold case and uncover decades worth of corruption, evil and cover-ups.
You may remember Blackfish as the movie that changed SeaWorld forever. SeaWorld announced recently that it would no longer be seeking out new killer whales to include in its parks or acts. That’s because the upsetting truth revealed by Blackfish.
Orcas don’t do very well in captivity and the conditions forced upon them by the park eventually leads to tragedy. It’s a particularly excellent documentary now that we know the real world ending.
An Honest Liar
Documentaries are often made better by fascinating lead figures. And James Randi is about as fascinating as they come. Randi is an illusionist who has spent his life disproving the work of other illusionists who insist that they are performing real magic or miracles.
He’s famous for having a $1 million prize for anyone who can prove the existence of the legitimately supernatural. An Honest Liar covers his life and work and also the ways that he has sometimes lied to himself.
Stephen Fry in America
British actor and humorist Stephen Fry has been obsessed with the United States ever since he found out there was a chance he could have been born there.
In the six-part BBC series Stephen Fry in America, Fry travels across the country in a retooled British taxi, visiting every one of the 48 continental states. It’s a very entertaining documentary responsible for my personal favorite clip to ever grace YouTube.
With Icarus, Netflix has reached the “outbidding everyone at Sundance Film Festival for great content” level of its quest for media supremacy. Netflix ponied up $5 million to bring Icarus to its servers and its easy to see why. Icarus is a documentary about the Russian-doping scandal at the 2016 Winter Olympics in Sochi.
Well sort of. It actually starts out as director Bryan Fogel’s experiment to see how doping would affect his own bicycling performance. And in the process he uncovers an astonishingly huge scandal.
A Good American
You can almost chart how good a documentary is by how angry it makes you. In that case, A Good American is a great documentary. It’s an Austrian film about the United States’ intelligence services and more specifically how those intelligence services failed prior to the September 11 terrorist attacks.
It follows former NSA official turned whistleblower William Binney and his quest to expose the NSA’s failings in preventing a major terrorist attack.
It’s Not Yet Dark
What do we do when we lose our health – the one thing we could always count on? When Irish filmmaker Simon Fitzmaurice was diagnosed with ALS, he decided to just keep going. In his case, he intended to direct his first feature film despite having use of only his eyes and an eye-tracking computer to relay demands.
ALS is among the most brutal and tragic illnesses that a person can possibly experience (see: Gleason, and my inability to stop crying during it). It’s Not Yet Dark doesn’t try to be uplifting. It’s just a simple (and short) film about a simple story. Still one can’t help but be inspired by its subject’s resolve.
Long Time Running
In 2016, Canadian rock band The Tragically Hip embarked on a country-wide tour. It would be their last as they announced the tour just one day after lead singer Gord Downie revealed he had terminal brain cancer.
Long Time Running follows the Tragically Hip across Canada and captures the touching story of artists who want to go out on their own terms and a man who wants to do the same with his life. This a touching, bittersweet, and altogether Canadian story.
Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond – The Story of Jim Carrey & Andy Kaufman Featuring a Very Special, Contractually Obligated Mention of Tony Clifton
Ok, I absolutely could have just abbreviated the title after “The Great Beyond” but where’s the fun in that? This is a fun title for what is sure to be a fun, fascinating documentary. Back in 1999, Jim Carrey portrayed legendary comedian (performance artist might even be a more accurate term) Andy Kaufman for the movie Man on the Moon.
Kaufman was one of the most heady, strange, and brilliant comedians of his time – adopting an awkward, clueless persona. It was impossible to tell where Andy Kaufman the character ended and Andy Kaufman the person began. In preparing for the role, Carrey got a privileged look into Kaufman’s life and psyche and Jim & Andy is the story of Carrey’s immersion into another life that was pretty weird to begin with anyway.
When you stumble upon a pun as phenomenal as “Miss Representation,” you’ve just got to make a movie. Miss Representation is (brilliantly) about the misrepresentation of women in mass media.
It’s a pared down, simple documentary that features interviews intercut with images from pop culture that highlight the limited roles women are often presented it. It’s a fair, quick watch that remains relevant just half a decade after its release and will hopefully seem very dated in the near future.
Gloria Allred is one of the most famous attorneys in American history. She’s represented the family of Nicole Brown Simpson, Britney Spears bodyguard, Anthony Weiner’s accusers, and much, much more. She’s one of the rare lawyers who has recognized that winning in the court of public opinion is almost as important as winning in court, itself.
The documentary Seeing Allred explores that showman’s side of Allred and places her in context of the current cultural evolution on sexual assault. Roberta Grossman and Sophie Sartain’s documentary makes explicit what Allred has always implied: culture changes first, and then the legal system follows.
This six-part documentary series comes from famed documentarian Going Clear Alex Gibney. Gibney produces a series of six documentaries (all from different directors, though Gibney directs the first) that revolve around the theme of financial corruption.
Gibney’s hour focuses on the Volkswagen emissions scandal while other hours cover payday loans, Canadian maple syrup heists, banks laundering drug money, the biotech industry, and yes, Donald J. Trump…obviously.
Dirty Money is the kind of documentary specifically designed to make you angry and make you angry it will.