The Absolute Best Documentaries on Netflix
There's no shortage of moving documentaries on Netflix. Here are the ones worth watching.
When you're sifting through zillions of movie options on Netflix, the traditionally niche art of documentary can go toe-to-toe with Hollywood blockbusters, which means that previously unheard stories have a more equal opportunity to flourish. That's all the more important for documentary films and docuseries, which typically never reach the heights of popularity comic book movies and other mass-consumption summer fare enjoy.
If you're looking for documentaries that make you stop and reconsider your view of the world, the following entries fit the bill. For the sake of this list, we've included both docuseries and features, because when you're stuck in a Netflix binge, the lines between the two blur.
ALSO READ: Our round-up of the best documentaries and docuseries of 2021
Abducted in Plain Sight (2017)
Abducted in Plain Sight is the kind of documentary that infuriates/captivates anyone who watches it, as hordes of viewers can't quite believe the story of how the seemingly perfect Broberg family was nearly destroyed, singlehandedly, in the mid-'70s by a sociopathic neighbor, Bob "B" Berchtold, who was obsessed with their 12-year-old daughter, Jan. But this description doesn't do the documentary justice, as what unfolds happens to be one of the most mind-boggling cases perpetrated by an insanely conniving man who managed to kidnap Jan not once… but twice. While Abducted in Plain Sight is one of true crime’s craziest films in recent history, it’s also yet another terrifying look at how one man’s manipulation can destroy several lives, and how adults and the justice system continually fail young victims of sex crimes.
Amanda Knox (2016)
Amanda Knox has been convicted and acquitted twice of murdering her roommate while studying abroad in Italy. Directors Rod Blackhurst (Here Alone) and Brian McGinn (Chef's Table) revisit the embattled media sensation's tangly story here with peerless access to key players and new archival footage. The doc explores both sides of Knox's case, asking viewers, "Do you suspect her?" or "Do you believe her?" Given Knox's participation, it's pretty clear whose side you're supposed to take, but whatever you think of her case, by placing you in Knox’s situation the film makes you feel like her story could very well happen to you, too. Dust off your Crazy Walls, guys.
American Factory (2019)
When the Chinese company Fuyao Glass opened a new factory in Dayton, Ohio, there was so much hope in the air. Billionaire Chairman Cao Dewang arrived at his new facility with the intention of writing a bold new chapter in the expansion of global capitalism, delivering prosperity to a struggling area while getting rich in the process. That was the plan, at least. American Factory follows the slow depletion of that hope as the corporate culture of the Chinese managements butts heads with the customs, attitudes, and economic priorities of the American workforce. Directors Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar put their cameras everywhere: terse board meetings, raucous union organizing sessions, casual break-room conversations, and, in one revealing sequence, a business trip to a Fuyao factory in China. Despite sounding tremendously bleak, American Factory has more humor and humanity than your average magazine article about the challenges facing Middle America. For a movie about the complexities of mechanical manufacturing, it feels refreshingly handmade.
American Murder: The Family Next Door (2020)
How do you reframe a narrative previously told in tabloid headlines and cable news chyrons? As with any true crime story, it's something that seems like a challenging, as with the extremely publicized case of Chris Watts who killed his pregnant wife Shanann and their two young daughters, Bella and Celeste. While the story is both horrifying and with extremely grim, straight-forward details, filmmaker Jenny Popplewell manages to reframe the narrative in this documentary by telling the story primarily through Shanann Watts' personal social media. Footage from the police is also provided, but there are no new talking-head interviews, no recreations, and no voiceovers. For some, the no-frills approach of American Murder will be alarming, particularly the way it can resemble a found footage film—but there is no Hollywood-ization here, which is why it's the kind of true crime doc that will stick with you.
The Andy Warhol Diaries (2022)
There's enough Andy Warhol content—biographical books, scholarship, art collections, etc.—to last a lifetime for those obsessed with the artist, but The Andy Warhol Diaries makes the case that we could do with one more attempt at understanding him. Controversially, though with the permission of Warhol's estate, the docuseries uses AI technology to recreate the artist's voice to read excerpts from his posthumously published diaries to serve as voiceover in analyzing his personal life versus his meticulous persona and undeniable impact on the world. It's an archive of his work and famous wigs that we all know and a new read on his most intimate side.
Athlete A (2020)
Not to be confused with HBO's At the Heart of Gold, Athlete A is Netflix's original documentary about the US gymnastics team scandal that shook the sports world when it broke in 2017. It focuses on the heinous crimes committed by former team doctor Larry Nassar who abused the young athletes for years, as well as diving into the work of the investigative team at the Indianapolis Star who broke the story to begin with. As the veil has been pulled back in many spheres where sexism and abuse have quietly dominated for years, Athlete A exposes how extensively the abuse patterns and power dynamics existed in the world of gymnastics and were able to go unnoticed. It's unforgiving, but allows these young women to finally go for the gold of catharsis.
Audrie & Daisy (2016)
Looking at two separate cases of sexual assault that parallel each other to an unfortunate degree, Audrie & Daisy offers a grave look at how sexual violence affects teenage girls. As the cases of Audrie Pott and Daisy Coleman are brought to light, this documentary focuses on how the victim can tend to be made into a villain by their peers, frequently with the anonymity and distance of social media playing a role. While the documentary gives an immensely sobering account of cyberbullying, it also fully realizes the pain of being a victim with nowhere to turn, and acknowledges how frightening, and frequent, this reality is for young women.
The Battered Bastards of Baseball (2014)
Kurt Russell, who interrupted his acting career to play baseball professionally in the 1970s, is one of the highlights of this documentary about his father’s legendary minor league team, the Portland Mavericks. But he’s just one piece of a highly entertaining true story that chronicles the independent baseball club and its ragtag team of rejects, who seem more tailor-made for an underdog sports comedy than reality—no surprise, there’s a Hollywood remake in the works.
BLACKPINK: Light Up the Sky (2020)
Unless you've been living under a rock, you should be at least slightly aware that K-pop is one of the biggest, if not the biggest, phenomenon in music right now. It's not necessarily new, but it's still new to some—and this documentary about the current reigning queens of the genre, BLACKPINK, is an excellent entry point. Documentarian Caroline Suh (Salt Fat Acid Heat) chronicles their rise in this film, from their early days being primed by their agency YG Entertainment with archival footage to today with contemporary interviews. For those curious about the dynamics of YG and its business model of more or less manufacturing stars from young ages, you won't find that here; Light Up the Sky is more interested in turning the stage lights on these four artists to spotlight their individuality, struggles, and triumphs. It'll certainly give you a newfound respect for the girl group, or if you're already a Blink, expect to love these girls even more.
The Bleeding Edge (2018)
Forget Big Pharma; Big Medical Devices is the shadow industry making a lot of us sick, according to this Netflix doc. We're only given a glimpse through an ensemble of people whose lives have been forever altered by the larger horrors wrecked by less-than-substantially tested—and in some cases, failed and put to market anyway—devices used for surgeries, for keeping our limbs together, and every literal crevice of our bodies in between.
Casting JonBenet (2017)
Casting JonBenet is both one of the cleverest and hardest documentaries to just sit back and enjoy. Using the unsolved 1996 murder of 6-year-old JonBenet Ramsey as a foundation, the film finds amateur actors, all local to the town where the tragedy took place, auditioning for parts in a dramatization of the story. The result is more disturbing than expected, though more fascinating in its exploration of the legacy of the mystery and others like it. When it comes to true-crime films, the facts almost always trump the storytelling. This is a major exception, one that should have you discussing much more than the cold case in question.
Challenger: The Final Flight (2020)
If you were alive in the '80s—as a child especially—the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1986 was traumatizing, and one of the most tragic events that defined the underbelly of the decade. While the event and the fact that NASA may never be able to prove the single cause of the disaster has been covered before, this four-part docuseries from Steven Leckhart and Glen Zipper thoughtfully examines the lives of the individuals on board just as much as it does the lead up to their unfortunate, catastrophic fate. Both detailed and sobering, Challenger: The Final Flight is perhaps the most complete work on the historically significant event.
Chasing Coral (2017)
The crew behind this disturbing, yet beautiful, documentary literally had to invent their own equipment to showcase the phenomenon of coral bleaching, which causes coral to die as a result of warming ocean waters. It's not easy making time-lapse shots of unmoving objects compelling, but Chasing Coral does just that, leaving you in awe of humankind's dual capacity for invention and destruction.
Whatever you think about cheerleading, Netflix's docuseries Cheer will make you re-consider what you think you know. If your perception is full of clichés about mean girls and thoughts that the sport isn's really a sport, it'll prove you wrong. Focusing on the road to a national championship for the ultra-competitive Navarro College team, Cheer exposes the intensity of both the sport itself and the emotional pull behind it for the fascinating teammates and coach that make up the squad. Their athleticism and gymnastics are awe-inspiring, and the rigor of it all is not for the faint of heart.
Chef's Table (2015–2019)
Over the years, the histrionic formula for the Chef's Table series has become such a caricature of itself that it earned its very own Documentary Now! parody. That's just because it's the standard bearer for profiling fine-dining chefs and their often Michelin-starred restaurants on camera, treating the dishes that glide across the table (or sometimes that are the table) as if they were famous pieces of art. Chef's Table is the pinnacle of food porn pretension and snobbery, but who among us is above indulging in a little beautifully shot, vicarious snobbery now and then? It's helmed by the director behind Jiro Dreams of Sushi, so you can expect it to be pretty much perfect.
Circus of Books (2020)
When it comes to work-life balance, Karen and Barry Mason know best. For decades, the unassuming Orthodox Jewish couple quietly ran a gay bookstore and porn shop in Southern California, taking a front-row seat to the AIDS crisis and finding a soft spot for a community that once seemed foreign—all while raising three children who had no idea about their day job. In Circus of Books, their now-grown daughter, Rachel (who has since been clued in on the family business), documents the real story of Karen and Barry’s relationship, their secret business, and how working in a queer industry would help them come to terms with their own son’s sexuality down the road.
Crip Camp (2020)
Chances are you have not heard of Camp Jened, a camp for disabled people that operated in upstate New York between the 1950s and 1970s. But the documentary Crip Camp invites you into this hippie-run utopia, introducing its attendees that will later go on to fight for disabled rights across the country. The film, produced by Higher Ground, the Obamas' company, is co-directed by sound designer Jim LeBrecht, who went to the camp in 1971 and the stay changed his life. As a teen suffering from spina bifida, he felt like an outcast among his peers. At Jened he was a cool kid. Through incredible archival footage, the documentary shows how campers at Jened were given the freedom they so often lacked in the outside world.
Conversations With a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes (2019)
Director Joe Berlinger's work on the Paradise Lost trilogy centered on the myriad miscarriages of justice in the case of the West Memphis 3, who were convicted of murdering three boys in the mid-'90s. While this Netflix docuseries focuses on a man whose guilt is never in question, he still manages to work in sly critiques of the American penal system. Bundy may have been a ruthless serial killer, but somehow law enforcement failed to catch him, allowed him to escape from prison TWICE, and wound up convicting him in Florida thanks to some flimsy evidence and a showboating prosecutor. The tapes referenced in the title come from a journalist who interviewed a cagey Bundy on death row, but are ultimately secondary to the treasure trove of archival footage Berlinger intersperses throughout a relatively conventional docuseries peppered with talking heads—one of whom survived a Bundy attack and is one of the more revelatory figures in the doc. The convicted man eventually opens up when he begins referring to his crimes in the third person, but, like most serial killers, he's impossible to relate to, and you wind up learning little about what makes him tick.
Cuba and the Cameraman (2017)
It's an incredible gift that director Jim Alpert has been visiting and filming Cuba for almost half a century, documenting an island that's undergone seismic cultural changes while also, thanks to embargoes and other restrictions, remaining partially stuck in time. The resulting footage is a rich portrait of history in the making, with Alpert creating his own version of the island nation, its residents, and its iconic leader, Fidel Castro, whose death provides a backdrop to the story of a culture on the brink of change.
The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson (2017)
When Marsha P. Johnson, the transgender activist hailed as the "Rosa Parks of the LGBT movement," was found dead in the Hudson River in 1992, authorities ruled it a suicide despite a number of suspicious details. Twenty-five years later, many people still believe she was murdered, and in The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson, trans activist Victoria Cruz sets out to get some answers. Through her interviews with Johnson's friends and family, plus archival footage of Johnson and fellow leaders like Sylvia Rivera, viewers are able to piece together the monumental life she lived—and make judgments about her untimely death. In an age where trans people of color still live in fear of being targeted, the documentary feels all-too apt and important.
Dick Johnson Is Dead (2020)
Kirsten Johnson's Dick Johnson Is Dead is simply one of the most beautiful, moving, personal, and probably even helpful pieces about loss that anyone has ever created. It's often laugh-out-loud funny, but also a sob-fest from beginning to end. Johnson, a lauded cinematographer who made the brilliant 2016 documentary Cameraperson by cobbling together footage she had previously shot, was facing the advancing age of her beloved father, C. Richard a.k.a. Dick, when she asked him to collaborate on a project. She wanted to make a film about the end of his life with his full cooperation, not just documenting his own decay, but imagining scenarios in which he could die. Together, Kirsten and Dick stage elaborate (and sometimes hilarious) deaths for him with the help of stunt people, and Dick Johnson Is Dead becomes a portrait of how filmmaking itself trains us and inures us to the very idea of a human's demise. But along the way, Kirsten shows the very real process of dementia eating away at a once vibrant person's memory as her psychiatrist dad starts to lose his own mental faculties. Still, for as depressing as it is, Johnson is as much focused on the pain of losing loved ones as she is on the joy of having them in your life. It's a spectacular portrait that will crush you.
Most Americans say they don’t personally know a trans person. That means the media is largely responsible for shaping society’s understanding of the trans community, and for the most part, films and TV shows haven’t done an adequate job. Disclosure analyzes the history of trans representation in media and how those characters stack up to the lived experiences of actual trans people. Directed by Sam Feder, executive produced by Laverne Cox, and featuring in-depth interviews from trans filmmakers, actors, and activists like Candis Cayne, Chaz Bono, Mj Rodriguez, and Jamie Clayton, Disclosure shows that media may have come a long way with increasing trans representation, but there’s still plenty of work left to be done to demystify, deradicalize, and diversify trans portrayals.
Don't F**k with Cats: Hunting an Internet Killer (2019)
A message of caution: Don't F**k with Cats doesn't f**k around. This three-part docuseries is the prime example of Netflix's recent territory of holy shit, how is this real subjects for documentaries, following a group of internet sleuths' hunt to catch somebody who is seemingly obsessed with getting clout by cruelly torturing and killing cats on camera. In an age where the true-crime obsession has exploded, this series manages to call into question our own voyeurism and self-righteousness as it tells its own twisted story.
The Edge of Democracy (2019)
A fair share of Netflix's documentary offerings are foreign features, and they're just as much worth a watch as the streamer's English language releases. The Edge of Democracy, hailing from Brazil, received an Oscar nomination for its informative and intimate telling of how a polarized nation descents into political turmoil, and attempts to rebuild from that. Director Petra Costa, who instead of remaining objective is extremely impassioned in her filmmaking, was granted unprecedented access to Brazilian Presidents Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff to contextualize the coup that tried to overthrow the Brazilian government, Rousseff's impeachment, and what came next. Not only is it a fascinating political piece, it's outright frightening in its portrayal of fascism existing to the extent it does on a global level.
Evil Genius (2018)
Evil Genius is the kind of story that would only work as airport fiction had it not actually happened. In four tightly wound 45-minute episodes, the story of Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong and her twisted, murderous ways are recounted via FBI investigators; local police in Erie, Pennsylvania (where the crimes took place); journalists; and the friends and family of those involved. Be warned, though—the show will likely leave you with more questions than answers.
Fantastic Fungi (2019)
Mushrooms are something special. They pop up out of nowhere and disappear again within days. Their root systems allow trees to communicate with each other and share nutrients. Some of them are poisonous, some of them are delicious, and some of them give people visions of God. Fantastic Fungi, which partially follows mycologist rockstar Paul Stamets' passionate journey into the world of mycelial networks, reintroduces us to the organisms we see every day, not as simply food or fun drugs, but as fabulously ancient creatures of immense, alien intelligence (and with the sentient thoughts narrated by Brie Larson) that exist in a world we've only been able to scratch the surface of.
Five Came Back (2017)
Adapted from Mark Harris's comprehensive book of the same name, this film—chopped into three episodes for maximum binge-iness—explores the lives of five Hollywood directors who exited the emerging Hollywood scene to aid their country during World War II. Through filmmaking, John Ford, William Wyler, John Huston, Frank Capra, and George Stevens played pivotal roles in shaped the American understanding of WWII, and after the war subsided, they too were changed by the experience. With interviews from names like Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, and Guillermo del Toro, Five Came Back is a historical epic for every Netflix-subscribing movie-lover.
Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened (2019)
In April 2017, the internet lost its mind when Fyre Festival, a would-be luxury music festival, literally blew up in its face. Although the world watched on social media as the disastrous consequences of an ill-fated-from-the-start event unfolded, the full story of how the hell rich kids could go from glamping to eating sad, makeshift sandwiches never really made sense amid the media firestorm it became. In Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened, documentarian Chris Smith digs further into the backstory, looking at the poor choices the festival’s overly ambitious and conniving creator Billy McFarland made. It's a part hilarious, part disgusting examination of the obsession with perception that made Fyre such a disaster, and despite the controversy surrounding the doc's creation, it remains the better of two Fyre films to appear in the same week.
Gaga: Five Foot Two (2017)
There is the Lady Gaga of then—the meat dresses, the lobster hats—and, as chronicled in this behind-the-scenes doc, the Gaga of now, a forceful, musical talent who's just as vulnerable as every other "little monster" on the planet. Gaga: Five Foot Two contextualizes the woman behind the belted anthems in everyday life, from seconds before her big Super Bowl halftime show to the doctor's office, where reality hits hard. As MTV's Diary once bluntly stated, "You think you know ... but you have no idea."
Get Me Roger Stone (2017)
Many political historians and social observers will spend the rest of their lives figuring out how Donald Trump became President of the United States. Republican political strategist Roger Stone, the subject of this quick-turnaround doc, knows the answer. It's grimy, provocative, and cutthroat. You won't like it. You will like this movie.
Girl in the Picture (2022)
In 1990, a young woman is found on the side of the highway with a brutal head injury that will kill her, leaving behind a 2-year-old son who gets kidnapped. The central motive of Girl in the Picture is to figure out who the 20-year-old Tonya Hughes, an alias, actually was, how she ended up dead, and who would want to kidnap her toddler. Connecting the dots becomes a dizzyingly vast roadmap of evil, one that must be seen to be believed.
High on the Hog (2021)
This docuseries, hosted by journalist Stephen Satterfield and based on the book by Jessica B. Harris, is an essential look into the traditions of African American cuisine, demonstrating and celebrating its pervasive influence, and tackling the history that began on slave ships. But High on the Hog is not stuck in the past—it's also an essential and invigorating look into how chefs are innovating and paying homage to what came before.
Homecoming: A Film by Beyoncé (2019)
2018’s Coachella, now dubbed "Beychella," has already gone down in history thanks to Beyoncé’s monumental headlining performance. In Homecoming, the pop icon not only places you in the front row of the concert, but gives an in-depth look at the the show's conception and production, exploring her creative process and just how important it was to her to highlight the influence of HBCUs and celebrate black culture in her set. The film is more than the spectacle of the icon and her career-spanning music; it finds Beyoncé in a rare intimate light, breaking down what has become the unmatchable artistry that's made her a global superstar.
I Am Not Your Negro (2016)
Samuel L. Jackson narrates this film based on an unfinished James Baldwin manuscript, voicing the late author's words about his fallen friends Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and Medgar Evers and their part in the civil rights movement. Like the exceptional films of Goran Olsson (The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975; Concerning Violence), I Am Not Your Negro finds vital and momentous relevance in old writings and archival footage, with Peck's doc delivering a timely indictments of race relations in America that have long continued unsatisfactorily since Baldwin wrote on its history decades ago.
I Called Him Morgan (2017)
The story of murdered jazz trumpeter Lee Morgan is recounted partly by his killer, who also happens to be his widow. More than 20 years following the 1972 incident, Helen Morgan, Lee's common-law wife, gave an audio interview about her life with the musician and how she came to shoot him dead at a packed club one stormy winter night. Now, another two decades later, it serves as the centerpiece of a uniquely captivating music doc. Friends and fellow jazz musicians appear to fill in details in what might be the most pulpy biographical film ever, accentuated as it is with atmospheric archival footage of snow falling on New York City moodily scored by Morgan's own soulful recordings.
The filmmakers of this Oscar-winning documentary didn't set out to blow the lid off of Russia's illegal Olympics doping scandal, but that's the controversy they found themselves embroiled in once they start asking questions with the help of Russian scientist Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov and his "anti-doping" program.
I'll Sleep When I'm Dead (2016)
Every generation gets its own musical moment, a genre or subgenre that serves to completely bewilder the one that preceded it. For today's youth, it's all about EDM and the few successful players who've become millionaires from the explosive popularity of DJs. I'll Sleep When I'm Dead follows Steve Aoki—a man best known for throwing cakes onto the faces of his audience and being the son of the founder of Benihana—on his rise to fame. It's surprisingly poignant, shedding strobe lights on the movement that dominates music today.
The Innocent Man (2018)
Drawing from John Grisham's only nonfiction work of the same name, The Innocent Man follows two mysterious murders that occurred in the small town of Ada, Oklahoma in the '80s. This gripping series documents the early conviction and exoneration of former suspects, as well as the fate of two other suspects later discovered who maintain their innocence to this day while they remain behind bars. In the vein of other hit true-crime series, this Netflix original knows how to hook the audience by slowly unraveling details and alternate case theories.
Into the Inferno (2016)
Werner Herzog’s illuminating semi-sequel to Encounters at the End of the World reunites him with volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer for encounters with volcanoes all over the world. This time, Herzog stays offscreen and lets Oppenheimer have most of the spotlight, though there is plenty of the filmmaker’s signature narration: some of it to revisit the making of another of his films, the 1977 short La Soufrière; or to present other interesting stories of volcanoes and the people who worship them.
Jerry Seinfeld: Comedian (2002)
In 2002, Jerry Seinfeld had wrapped up his eponymous hit sitcom, and Orny Adams was a 29-year-old standup working the circuit. One of them is supremely confident in his abilities, and the other is nervous, uncertain, and self-conscious. Adams is the confident one, and, well, we have the advantage of knowing how his career turned out. It's a fascinating character study that shows the exacting precision required to make comedy work, without lapsing into the comic hagiography so present in contemporary culture. It's also one of the most cringeworthy displays of hubris you'll see onscreen, and each passing year of Adams' modest career adds another shudder.
Jim and Andy: The Great Beyond (2017)
This doc, directed by Chris Smith, tells the behind-the-scenes story of Jim Carrey's method acting madness as he shot 1999's Andy Kaufman biopic, Man on the Moon. At the height of his career, Kaufman was one of the most influential figures in comedy, blending reality with fiction to such an extent that when he died of a rare form of cancer at age 35, many fans thought it was just a dark joke. When Carrey won the chance to portray his idol in the Milos Forman-directed film, he decided to "become" Kaufman—a process that was captured on camera for what was supposed to be bonus and promotional material. The results were, to use a technical term, batshit crazy.
Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold (2017)
Actor and filmmaker Griffin Dunne maybe fawns a little too much over his aunt, who also happens to be one of the greatest writers of a generation. He offers a generally rosy portrait of Joan Didion, running through her life and career to the present day, but wrings out key moments that paints her as acutely human, which is to say flawed.
Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower (2017)
14-year-old Joshua Wong took a stand against the China's pro-Communist education program by staging a protest outside the territory's government headquarters. What started as a group of 20 grew to a crowd of over 100,000. If you ever feel incapable, you have Joshua Wong to inspire you with the click of a button.
The Keepers (2017)
True-crime docs are a dime a dozen these days, but The Keepers takes the genre to another level by dealing in both micro and macro layers of a story involving sexual abuse, murder, police corruption, and the Catholic Church. At its center is the strange disappearance and death in 1969 of a schoolteacher nun named Sister Cathy Cesnik, a case that continues to be investigated by her former students, who the filmmakers follow. Numerous shocking twists are revealed over the course of the seven-episode series, as the haunting mystery turns disturbing exposé and then circles back around again.
Knock Down the House (2019)
You follow "the squad" on Twitter, you tune into Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's Instagram lives, and you can still recall what a big deal it was when the Democrats won the House in the 2018 elections. Knock Down the House is an informative yet uplifting documentary that follows a handful of progressive candidates, including Ocasio-Cortez, Cori Bush, Paula Jean Swearengin, and Amy Vilela, on their grassroots campaign trails attempting to secure a Democratic primary nomination. Director Rachel Lears manages to turn what could be just another political doc into something quite cinematic in both her filmmaking and the way these women carry a presence on screen. It's inspirational and a pointed piece of history—one that's yet another reminder of how every vote counts.
Last Chance U (2016–2020)
This award-winning series makes up for all the feature-length sports docs that feel too compact in their confined, movie-length runtime. Last Chance U is still far from exhaustive, but its initial six episodes offer a fuller experience of a football season at East Mississippi Community College, where the Lions pursue their third national championship in three years. If not part of the team, you at least feel like an invested member of the EMCC family given how deep the vérité series places you into its world, intimately observing the drama alongside the players, their coach, and their academic advisor. Like in sports, success begets success in the docuseries world, and the latest run of the show will take viewers to a new school to meet a new batch of players fighting for their last chance.
The Last Dance (2020)
During the Chicago Bulls dynasty during their final 1997-1998 championship season, a press crew was given intimate access to the team, Michael Jordan, Dennis Rodman, Scottie Pippen, coach Phil Jackson, et al. The result of that footage (plus recently filmed talking head interviews) is The Last Dance, an insightful, nostalgic 10-episode throwback to a time when the Bulls ruled the playground. Obviously, Michael Jordan resides at the center of the series; he not only carried the team, his legend adds to the gravitas of the story being told. Jackson coined the term "The Last Dance" to reference this period of time which shows a conflicted, struggling team fighting through uncertainty as they worked to nab one last championship title before the winning lineup disbanded for good. The series is one of the most satisfying surprises to hit the small screen in some time.
Making a Murderer (2016–2018)
Netflix's true-crime hit was 10 years in the making, and it still didn't totally resolve the case of Steven Avery, who after spending 18 years in prison for a crime he didn't commit was convicted of murder and sentenced to life without parole. It's a heartbreaking story, and whether or not you think Avery is guilty, the show exposes disturbing truths about crime, justice, and the way America processes both. As the case continues to develop, the second season went deeper into those disturbing truths as a new defense lawyer took on Avery's case.
Mercury 13 (2018)
Histories of Project Mercury, the first American effort to put humans in space, have typically overlooked the contributions of the 13 women pilots who tested as candidates but ultimately were deemed unsuited for the actual program because of their gender. Those pioneers are the lesser-known but crucially important figures finally getting their due in this Netflix-produced documentary. Mercury 13 is a reflection on the progress there still is to be done for gender equality compared to the feat of putting humans on the moon.
Metallica: Some Kind of Monster (2004)
What happens when a metal band past its prime undergoes group therapy sessions as its members try to record a new album? Some Kind of Monster. In the early 2000s, Metallica took the unusual step of hiring a psychotherapist—good for them!—to help them work through the many, many intrapersonal issues its remaining members James Hetfield, Lars Ulrich, and Kirk Hammett built up after spending more than a decade together. During that time, they were also auditioning new bass players, resulting in Robert Trujillo joining the band, and spending two years recording their 2003 album St. Anger, which famously inspired divided opinions. Some Kind of Monster is many things at once: semi-intentionally hilarious, sad, introspective, and euphoric, all of it humanizing one of the biggest bands still working and offering keen insight into the dynamics of a group with huge personalities.
Mucho Mucho Amor (2020)
Walter Mercado knew the value of showmanship. When the famed Puerto Rican astrologer would appear on television, whether it was in a psychic hotline commercial, a daytime talk program like The Sally Jesse Raphael Show, or his own long-running extravaganza on Univision, he always looked immaculate. He was like a statue come to life. The wardrobe, the hair, and the soul-piercing stare made him a star, the type of extravagant screen presence that stops a channel-surfer right in their tracks. Mucho Mucho Amor, a playful and brisk bio-documentary, celebrates his star-making qualities while also arguing that it was his universal message of peace and love that truly made him an icon. Blending captivating footage of Mercado's flashy heyday, animated sequences, and interviews, the movie provides plenty of context and background information for younger viewers who perhaps only know Mercado as a meme or a distant memory. It lacks the outrageous flash of its subject—how do you compete with all those jewell-covered capes?—but the filmmakers make up for it with a curious, empathetic touch.
Murder Among the Mormons (2021)
Over the course of three twist-filled episodes, Murder Among the Mormons, Netflix's true-crime docuseries about a series of deadly bombings in Utah in 1985, reveals itself to be a canny study of belief, entangling Mormons in a con-man's web of lies. On what a prosecutor interviewed in the series describes as a "beautiful day," two pipe bombs exploded at different locations in Salt Lake City, killing two; a third bomb blew up in a car the next day, injuring the rare document dealer Mark Hofmann, who the police eventually learned planted the first two bombs in an effort to get out of an elaborate scheme involving a set of potentially valuable papers to the church. Though Hofmann's story is disturbing, there's a warmth and curiosity to the series that helps it stand out from more traditionally grisly true-crime fare, shedding light on how a master of deception can move through the world with such relative ease.
My Beautiful Broken Brain (2016)
In 2011, Lotje Sodderland suffered a hemorrhagic stroke in her sleep and woke up not knowing who she was or how to communicate. Within days, though, she began to document her situation and her recovery, recording selfie videos that are now a devastatingly personal part of My Beautiful Broken Brain, one of the best documentaries of the year. The film, which also involves David Lynch, puts us in Sodderland's mind to the best of nonfiction cinema's capabilities. In addition to candidly sharing the struggles and insights of its subject, Brain also represents her newly enhanced sensory perception through augmented POV shots, using visual effects that could have been cheesy in a lesser work.
My Octopus Teacher (2020)
In 2010 a creative block and personal gloom brought documentarian Craig Foster to travel to the South African coast where he intended to explore underwater kelp forests, and ended up befriending a clever little octopus who stole his heart. Out of the footage he took of his eight-limbed companion, directors Pippa Ehrlich and James Reed, with the help of underwater cinematographer Roger Horrocks, made My Octopus Teacher. It's a film that works equally as a curious, emotional tale of an interspecies friendship, and as an examination of where humans place ourselves in relation to the natural world, why we often feel as though we are separate from it, and what happens to us when we realize that divide is a myth.
Night on Earth (2020)
Another must-watch British nature docuseries, Night on Earth feels like an impossibly fresh take in the self-crowded Planet Earth space just by turning off the lights. Not all of the series is high-tech infrared camera shots taken at night; it finds the right balance between daytime animal behaviors and the dramatic, energetic shift into the dark. The juxtaposition, in addition to newly discovered behaviors as animals (like the famous polar bears) are adapting to their altered ecosystems because of climate change, might seem like merely a gimmick with stunning camera work, but don't be fooled—Night on Earth is the real deal.
Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer (2021)
Scrolling through Netflix, and seeing Mindhunter and many other scripted and unscripted titles in its library, you'd think serial killers were still terrorizing the public and generating headlines with the same intensity they were in the '70s and '80s. Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer, a four-part account of the hunt for brutal murderer Richard Ramirez, fits right into this streaming mood board of dread. While occasionally undermined by lurid details of the cases and overall being too limited in scope, the docuseries ultimately succeeds by emphasizing the struggles of the detectives investigating the case, the media frenzy surrounding the events, and the haunting stories of the victims.
No Direction Home: Bob Dylan (2005)
Martin Scorsese loves a long-ass rock doc. He's also a big Bob Dylan fan. More recently, he released Rolling Thunder Revue, but his first Dylan documentary is 2005's sprawling, three-and-a-half-hour-long No Direction Home, which chronicles the musical legend’s life from growing up as Robert Zimmerman in Minnesota to becoming a folk legend. In particular, the film focuses on his burst of stardom in the Greenwich Village scene and controversial turn towards rock music shortly after between the years 1961-1966. The film is a classic Dylan text and one for obsessives, featuring astounding archival footage and rare interviews to absorb, and an enlightening watch as Scorsese paints a full picture of the artist famously shrouded in mystery.
Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press (2017)
In Nobody Speak, we see the ramifications of Bollea vs Gawker—aka the Hulk Hogan sex tape lawsuit bankrolled by Peter Thiel—which took down the beloved, controversial blog through financial devastation, forcing its co-founders to sell off the media company's remaining assets to Univision. The doc is close read of the current threats the free press faces from malevolent forces—like tech billionaires and the current administration—out of self-interest.
One of Us (2017)
The duo behind the Oscar-nominated documentary Jesus Camp take another jab at religious fundamentalism, this time turning their cameras on the Hasidic Jewish community. The film follows three character-driven stories about individuals who’ve left the strict Orthodox faith for various reasons. One of two men showcased has left behind a family to pursue an acting career in Hollywood, while the other winds up struggling with drug addiction. The third, a woman escaping an abusive husband and now fighting an impossible custody battle for their many children, is not only the standout subject of the triptych, but her courage and the film’s portrayal of her transition into general society makes the whole thing a must-see.
Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal (2021)
Chris Smith's Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal, which takes on the 2019 case of the wealthy parents—including, most famously, Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman—who bought slots for their kids at elite universities. But if you're looking for new information about Aunt Becky or Olivia Jade, Operation Varsity Blues does not provide that tabloid fodder. Instead, it's designed as an attempt to probe the psyche of Rick Singer, the mystery of a man who engineered this entire enterprise, pocketing $25 million, through a combination of interviews with experts and associates as well as reenactments starring Matthew Modine. Smith doesn't probe all that deep: The documentary won't tell you much more than you already know if you've been following the cast, but it's an intriguing mashup of styles.
Our Planet (2019)
The team behind BBC's influential and popular Planet Earth series took their talents (including narrator David Attenborough) to Netflix, and the resulting series is just as stunning as any of the previous installments. Placing more emphasis on the devastating effects of climate change than its Planet Earth companions, Our Planet travels the globe to capture heartbreaking moments like a massive glacier calving and desperate walruses flinging themselves off cliffs to their deaths. The one knock against it as a documentary is that it doesn't depart from its predecessors' style in any meaningful way, down to some sequences that are mere variations on scenes previously depicted—but when the message is this grave, and the natural world still so underexplored, Our Planet can get away with delivering familiar work with a slightly different tone.
Robert Greene's Procession is a searing indictment of the Catholic Churches' practices of shielding sex offenders, while also a remarkable depiction of how art can unpack trauma. Filmmaker Robert Greene is not so much a director as a collaborator here. He worked alongside a drama therapist and survivors of child sexual abuse by priests in the Kansas City area. The project was not just to have these men share their stories, but to have them confront their experiences through scenes that they would write, stage, and film. Procession is as much about putting those on screen as it is about the process of creating them and the healing that can do.
Puff: Wonders of the Reef (2021)
There’s just something about combining stunning visuals of the natural world and weed. Puff is a playful, Planet Earth-esque feature that follows a baby pufferfish through its early stages of life. Not going to lie—this is low-key made for children, with Rose Byrne narrating throughout in a particular maternal tone. We don’t care; it’s comforting as hell. Utilizing the latest in underwater filming techniques, we’re shown the microscopic reef world like never before, with new perspectives of these tiny worlds shared via insane magnification abilities. It’s a whole high in itself to see the bright colors and patterns of the reef creatures magnified with such clarity.
Rapture follows some of the most compelling figures in hip-hop—T.I., Nas, 2 Chainz, A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie, etc—as they share stories of their respective upbringings and their journeys to success. The series' first season features eight hour-long episodes that dive into all things personal, from Logic's emotional rags-to-riches story to 2 Chainz hitting the stages of his Pretty Girls Like Trap Music tour in a tricked out pink wheelchair days after an injury. The result is an ambitious look at what goes on in the lives of some of your favorites artists when the music stops.
Reversing Roe (2018)
More relevant than ever, this doc is a crash course for over 50 years of abortion politics and the effort from the right to overturn the landmark Roe v. Wade and the activists fighting to keep the procedure legal on the federal level. Reversing Roe will enrage and embolden you to take a stand for women's rights.
Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese (2019)
Bob Dylan has long been surrounded by lore, and Martin Scorsese's documentary on his mid-70s tour further plays into the legend. Rather than a straight concert film that touts never-before-seen backstage footage, though, Scorsese looks at the Rolling Thunder Revue tour and its revolving door of groundbreaking guests, from Allen Ginsberg to Joan Baez, as Dylan's means of exploring the endless bounds of creativity. With interviews from Dylan himself, influential collaborators, and even fictional characters, it's a dizzying doc about the mythos of the artist and his endeavors. Of course, there's straight concert shots and clips from behind the scenes, too, but they only confound what's real and what's meant to dizzy even more so. It's like an inside joke for devotee Dylan heads, or a fascinating look for entry-level fans at the lack of confines on how he makes art.
The food world is a messy business, as this Netflix docuseries demonstrates in unappetizing detail. From powerful garlic lobbyists to fraudulent fish to hormone-laden chicken, Rotten goes the extra mile to show that the reasons a wealthy nation like America has (some measure of) food security are often unpleasant and exploitative. It's not for the weak-stomached, but it will hopefully make you think before your next trip to the grocery store.
Salt Fat Acid Heat (2018)
There are a few essential elements that make cooking both an incredible and universal experience, and according to author/chef Samin Nosrat, those four basics are salt, fat, acid, and heat. Nosrat built on those elements in her James Beard Award-winning cookbook, Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, and now in the Netflix series, she travels the globe to explore how these principles fuel good food. The show comes from the creators of Cooked, and Nosrat is extremely charismatic, making her travels into the homes of families in Japan, Italy, Yucatán, and even Berkeley especially enlightening. While each episode focuses on one of the four keys to cooking, its simplicity allows it to alter the cooking show genre by breaking things down to the elementary level, infusing that with demonstrations, human conversation, and a whole lot of charm.
Seeing Allred (2018)
Directors Roberta Grossman and Sophie Sartain pay tribute to the work attorney Gloria Allred has put in during her decades in the public eye as a vocal supporter of women's, gay, and trans rights, giving specific attention to her defense of women who accused Bill Cosby of sexual assault. Of course, it's a fitting doc for the era of #MeToo and #TimesUp, but also a humanizing look at one of the most publicized lawyers in American media.
A Secret Love (2020)
A League of Their Own is a wonderful comedy about the historic All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, but the film managed to skimp on uplifting some of the true identities of some of the women that made the team what it was. Like the story of player Terry Donahue, a lesbian who, although was a star on the team, kept her sexuality a secret. A Secret Love is an opportunity that finally uplifts Donahue and her partner Pat Henschel, who are now in their 90s and have been together for decades, despite their families being unaware of their relationship for years. The film is the kind that'll make you weep, both for how tender its documentation of their lifelong romance is and the way it somberly explores how society's prejudices forced them into concealing their true selves. But even then, it's sweet and a reminder that love always wins.
Although Sandi Tan grew up to have a fulfilling career as a novelist and filmmaker, she never quite forgot about one project from her youth: Shirkers, a homemade movie she and her best friends made in Singapore as teenagers. The footage quite literally disappeared, along with one of their collaborators, Georges Cardona—and that was the last they saw of both him and the film. This documentary, named after the original film, follows Tan’s quest to discover what exactly happened to their beloved movie and the strange man who altered their lives. Written, directed, and co-edited by Tan herself, Shirkers takes you directly on the filmmaker’s mysterious journey, telling a lively, revealing, and heartwarming narrative about a woman on a mission and her lifelong dreams.
The Square (2013)
Best Documentary nominee The Square examines what a revolution looks like. It's not one that looks at the past, though—director Jehane Noujaim instead brings his camera directly into the upheaval of history-in-the-making by following the young activists leading the charge of the Egyptian revolution. Starting with the uprising at Tahrir Square in 2011 that catalyzed the events of Arab Spring, the film goes beyond the headlines to look at action on the ground that contributed to serious progress towards civil rights and rebuilding a nation. As it shot quite literally in the midst of chaos, it's a shocking watch, but one that's done so breathtakingly as few revolutions have seriously been caught on film.
The Staircase (2004, 2013 & 2018)
Before French filmmaker Jean-Xavier de Lestrade’s The Staircase was picked up by Netflix in 2018, the mid-2000s series (with two "update" episodes released in 2013) was one of the first auteur true crime series that its many successors have since modeled their stylistic choices and formats after. The series follows the lengthy trial against Michael Peterson, the author accused of murdering his wife in 2001 after Kathleen Peterson was found dead at the bottom of the staircase in their home. Peterson has maintained his innocence, even with one crazy revelation after the next and the emergence of interesting theories that strongly suggest that an owl might have done it. While the case approaches a two-decade long stretch, the show illustrates that whether Peterson is innocent or not is besides the fact: If the system doesn't even work for a wealthy and well-known white man, then who does it serve? The mess of the criminal justice system is nearly as haunting as the murder's mystery itself.
Strong Island (2017)
First-time director, and first-ever openly trans Oscar-nominated director, Yance Ford takes a first-person approach to documenting the case of his brother’s murder in this emotionally gut-wrenching film memoir. It’s a true-crime doc, but it’s also an autobiographical family portrait—Ford’s main interview subjects are himself and his mother. It's one of the more intimate profiles of a senselessly terminated black life, arriving at a time when many similar stories have entered the current social discourse. We obviously don’t get to meet William Ford, but we get to know the man before he was killed over a dispute about auto repairs. The film feels handmade in a tactile sense, as archival photographs are shared manually on screen, and Ford centers himself so close up that you can almost touch his tears.
Team Foxcatcher (2016)
In the '80s, millionaire John du Pont was determined to help the USA Olympic Wrestling Team come home with the gold. He pumped funds into the team and even convinced world-class wrestlers Mark and Dave Schultz to join what he called "Team Foxcatcher" and live on his expansive property, which featured its own state-of-the-art training facility. In the Netflix original doc Team Foxcatcher, director Jon Greenhalgh chronicles this eccentric story, primarily through the life of Dave Schultz, and how his association with du Pont eventually cost him his life. This unsettling film features rare, original home footage that adds a chilling depth to the story told in the 2014 film Foxcatcher, starring Steve Carrell, Channing Tatum, and Mark Ruffalo as Dave Schultz.
They'll Love Me When I'm Dead (2018)
The iconic director Orson Welles spent the last 15 years of his life desperately trying to reclaim his stake in Hollywood by making the film The Other Side of the Wind, but because of lack of resources and optimism, it was never completed before his death in 1985. In They'll Love Me When I'm Dead, director Morgan Neville (20 Feet from Stardom) examines the years-long effort to finish the project, feeling like a companion piece to the original drama, as both examine an aging director attempting to create their comeback feature. It may be a dense doc about a painful, winded effort from Welles, but it's no less an inspiring look at one of Hollywood's greats and his mysterious last piece.
Tig Notaro had one heck of a year. After suffering a serious bacterial infection, losing her mother, and then being diagnosed with breast cancer in quick succession, the comedian took to the stage at LA’s Largo and performed a now-legendary stand-up set that begun: “Hello, I have cancer.” This Netflix documentary chronicles Tig's life leading up to her career-changing set, and its aftermath: grappling with her overnight fame and trying to forge a way forward with marriage and motherhood. A frank, sweet snapshot of one woman's life and art and where they intersect, Tig is a testament to grace and good humor in the ugliest of circumstances.
Trial By Media (2020)
Just when you thought you couldn't tolerate yet another true-crime series, along came Trial By Media, executive produced by George Clooney, with a refreshing angle on the genre. While some of these kinds of series touch on community and media reactions of violent murders and political scandals, this seven-episode anthology is squarely about that, stepping outside of the inner circle of each case and reflecting on the larger societal context and impact of major cultural moments, such as the tragic killing of Amadou Diallo in 1999 after being shot by NYPD 41 times and its fallout on the city's racist policing tactics, Jenny Jones and the lawsuits that came out of "gotcha" talk shows, the wild story of disgraced Illinois governor Roy Blagojevich whose swirling corruption scandal landed him on the Celebrity Apprentice. A fascinating look back at the last 30-odd years of history, Trial By Media will reframe these cases that you may or may not have heard of in brand-new light.
If you like feel-good sports movies with underdogs going the distance to complete a triumphant season, this documentary can entertain and inspire with the best dramatic films out there. The coach of the Manassas Tigers, a high school football team from the poor side of Memphis, gives the crowd-pleasing Oscar winner a real emotional and motivational spark. Undefeated is conventional, with enough of the usual sports movie obstacles that it almost feels scripted, plus it looks too good to be true, but it is, and it's a wonderful work of nonfiction.
How do you stop a billion-dollar business from laying waste to an oil-rich national park? Make a movie. Part nature doc, part eco-thriller, Virunga catapults viewers into a struggle to protect Congolese mountain gorillas from poachers who may or may not be tied to SOCO International, a British conglomerate eying the lush lands. With a style akin to Hollywood action movies, Virunga sets out to investigate and muckrake, firing off accusations between actual firefights and appreciating the beauty of Virunga National Park, a place no viewer could imagine losing.
Voyeur presents a disconcerting subject: a Colorado motel owner named Gerald Foos who spies on his guests through his motel attic. It's the kind of profile that's strange and disturbing, yet very intriguing. What's so compelling about the documentary, though, is that it ends up being a reflection on a whole different kind of voyeurism—as it follows famed journalist Gay Talese' investigation of Foos and ends up being a critique of the relationship between journalist and subject. With heady questions hanging overhead and a self-referential tone, it's certainly not for everyone, but those at all curious to peer into this one will be quite interested at what they see.
What Happened, Miss Simone? (2015)
How do you convey the richness of a career as complex, contradiction-filled, and exuberant as Nina Simone’s? The answer turns out to be relatively simple: by focusing on her performances. Through elegant editing of archival footage and selective talking-head interviews, director Liz Garbus depicts the North Carolina-born singer, composer, and activist with little fanfare.
Wild Wild Country (2018)
Netflix's collaboration with producers the Duplass brothers is chock full of jaw-dropping twists and turns that, while a bit meandering at times, are nevertheless worth the six-hour binge. With the help of archival news segments and home-movie-style footage, the doc takes a trip back in time to chronicle the forgotten about story of a 1980s cult commanded by Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, whose purchase of an extensive plot of land in Oregon leads to conflicts with locals and eventual scandal on a national level. Most of what unfolds in Wild Wild Country isn't unlike other cult documentaries that have come before it, but that doesn't make watching it any less of a wild ride.
The White Helmets (2016)
Winner of the Oscar for Best Documentary Short, this powerful film profiles the titular team of first responders operating in war-torn Aleppo and other parts of Syria, endangering their own lives to save as many others as they can. And the filmmakers follow along, also under great duress. Even more tense, though, are scenes in a White Helmets training camp in Turkey, where recruits are away from their families, worrying for their loved ones' safety in their absence.
Won't You Be My Neighbor? (2018)
Nobody can deny that children’s television icon Mister Fred Rogers makes for a great subject worth watching in any form (that’s one reason Won't You Be My Neighbor? became one of the top-grossing docs of all time). Fortunately, this particular film comes in the form of a tightly focused profile on the late Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood host by the Oscar-winning director Morgan Neville (20 Feet From Stardom, Roadrunner). As with his other films, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? has more to it than merely spotlighting its main subject. There’s a little history lesson here, a subtle political jab there, and yes, a guaranteed tear-jerking moment.
Selma director Ava DuVernay snuck away from the Hollywood spotlight to direct this sweeping documentary on the state of race in America. DuVernay's focus is the country's growing incarceration rates and an imbalance in the way black men and women are sentenced based on their crimes. Throughout the exploration, 13th dives into post-Emancipation migration, systemic racism that built in the early 20th century, and moments of modern political history that continue to spin a broken gear in our well-oiled national machine. It's not the greatest documentary ever made, but you'll be blown away by what DuVernay uncovers in her interview-heavy research.