Last Updated: May 4th
Streaming video is the best thing that’s ever happened to documentaries. People who would never have paid for a ticket to a theatrical nonfiction film are now, thanks to Netflix’s robust selection, scarfing down the stuff by the barrel. But where to start among the masses? Here’s a selection of 15 of the best documentaries on Netflix right now to get you going, conveniently organized by theme for easy bingeing.
The Thin Blue Line (1988)
Before Making a Murderer, before Serial, before The Jinx, there was Errol Morris’ landmark work of investigative cinema dredged up from the heart of Texas. The true crime documentary famously helped overturn the death row conviction of Randall Dale Adams, thanks in part to the director’s then-unheard-of habit of staging re-enactments of Adams’ alleged crime to see if they squared with available evidence. Its influence has been absorbed to the point where it’s virtually invisible, but The Thin Blue Line still manages several palpable shocks for newcomers to the Adams case. Once you watch it, read this excellent interview with Morris where he reflects on making the film.
India’s Daughter (2015)
Calling Leslee Udwin’s searing account of the gang rape and murder of a Delhi medical student “true crime” is really a vast understatement — plus, the film isn’t about the investigation. However, it is indeed necessary to view something this horrific as a crime, one perpetuated not just by the brutes on the bus but also by the culture of India itself against its vulnerable female population. At only an hour long, and also including an infuriating interview with one of the convicted men from prison, India’s Daughter packs in more righteous anger than is probably healthy. Watch it when your stomach is steeled enough.
Amanda Knox (2016)
It seems as though we’re all now more aware than ever of how utterly screwed any of us can be in an instant if the system places us in its crosshairs for being in the wrong place at the wrong time and not behaving in a way perceived to be “normal” in the immediate aftermath. Recent true crime documentaries like The Staircase, Making a Murderer and Serial have certainly played a part in illuminating this frightening and unfortunate slice of reality. We can now add Rod Blackhurst and Brian McGinn’s Amanda Knox to that list. Prepare to be terrified and infuriated as the filmmakers detail how an overzealous Italian prosecutor and a global tabloid press thirsty for a sensational story joined forces to wreck a young woman’s life, largely for their own benefit. As Daily Mail journalist Nick Pisa freely admits on camera — without any trace of remorse or shame — about his work covering the case, “A murder always gets people going… And we have here this beautiful, picturesque hilltop town in the middle of Italy. It was a particularly gruesome murder; throat slit, semi-naked, blood everywhere. I mean, what more do you want in a story?”
SAVING THE WORLD
The film that turned the tide of public opinion on Sea World and convinced Pixar to change the ending of Finding Dory, Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s animal rights muckraker is more than just 83 minutes of theme park shaming. In telling the story of Tillikum, the psychologically damaged orca who spent his life in captivity and was involved in the deaths of three people, the movie is an elegy for the freedoms that marine creatures like him were once able to enjoy. Is there an ethical way to view creatures like Tillikum up close and personal, and if so, should we trust a private company to deliver it to us?
Take Your Pills (2018)
Adderall and other stimulants are nothing new in this day and age, but how did they become so wildly available? And what long-term effects do they have? Take Your Pills examines their history, dating all the way back to 1937 up to now when they’re even more common among performance-driven adults than young people who actually need them. Peppered with pop culture references and imaginative art, it’s an intriguing and thought-provoking documentary.
ART, POLITICS, & AND REBELLION
Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (2012)
Part one of the fascinating yet completely unintentional Ai Weiwei documentary saga is Alison Klayman’s thrilling biography of the Chinese dissident artist and political provocateur. Klayman had the good fortune to catch Ai during his period of greatest freedom, as the globetrotter defaces symbols of Chinese heritage and outwardly challenges the government on social media. Never Sorry is a profile of the artist as the people’s hero, and a swift rejoinder to those who find the art world “boring.” And all would seem to be well for the cause of the lone voice against the regime, at least until the events in the doc’s follow-up, Ai Weiwei: The Fake Case.
Man on Wire (2008)
While many other films on this list tackle complex social issues or unanswerable questions, sometimes it’s needed to kick back with a light doc that’s there simply to entertain and amuse, and Man On Wire does just that. It centers on a seemingly impossible feat shocked the world: Those 45 minutes back in 1974 where a man walked, danced, and achieved his grandest dreams on top of a cable between the Twin Towers. And it’s a fun ride. Framed like a heist movie, Man On Wire may rely on recreated footage to tell its tale, but you’ll quickly get caught up in the almost whimsical nature of a performer, his wire, and his walk.
100 Years: One Woman’s Fight For Justice (2016)
This 2016 documentary chronicles the fight of one woman against the federal government by way of a massive class action lawsuit consisting of Native American tribes who’ve seen their land, money, and dignity stripped away for a century. Diving deep into a bleak, ongoing chapter of American history, 100 Years defines the fine details of just how horribly these tribes have been treated and how nearly insurmountable their struggle has been for so long. It’s a heavy story, but it’s a deeply important one.
Best Of Enemies (2015)
Maybe you’re watching our current political nightmare unfold on TV and asking yourself how things ever got this bad — how showmanship and bluster won out over substantive debate. For the answer, there’s Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon’s briskly entertaining account of televised punditry during the 1968 presidential conventions. That year, a down-in-the-ratings ABC pitted National Review founder William F. Buckley, Jr. against the transgressive gay writer Gore Vidal, and the two promptly went for the jugular. The mudslinging and sustained character attacks that followed would set the tone for the next five decades of political dialogue in this country, leading right to… well, you know.
THE PAST IS NEVER DEAD
The Look of Silence (2014)
Oppenheimer’s follow-up to The Act of Killing doesn’t shatter the documentary format into a million pieces like its predecessor; instead, it’s a much more straightforward account of an eye doctor (kept anonymous) who meets with the men who killed his brother during the genocides. Under the pretext of an eye exam, he relentlessly grills his “patients” about their role in the killings, forcing them to “see” past their own experiences. But though it’s much less formally daring, The Look of Silence becomes a far more sympathetic film, a necessary course corrective: a reminder that heroes can rise up against incredible evil, even if in only small, largely symbolic ways. It should be viewed second, as it lacks the broader societal and historical context that Killing throws in your face, but it should be viewed.
MORE THAN A GAME
The Trials of Muhammad Ali (2013)
In the outpouring of grief that surrounded the passing of the People’s Champion, it was easy to get caught up in Ali’s ringside achievements while overlooking his iconoclastic life outside it. This doc from Kartemquin Films — the same studio that brought us Hoop Dreams — helps paint a fuller picture of the boxer. Covering his conversion to Islam, his refusal to fight in the Vietnam War, and his years-long legal battle over the right to do so, Trials expertly paints a portrait of Ali’s complexity and contradictions and gives the convincing argument that American society simply wasn’t ready for someone like him.
Happy Valley (2014)
There’s a certain angle from which the story of Penn State football looks like the ultimate example of evil forces triumphing in America. In this riveting account, director Amir Bar-Lev captures the fullness of that feeling. The filmmaker visits the Happy Valley campus in the immediate aftermath of the 2011 revelations that the school administration covered up assistant coach Jerry Sandusky’s decades of predatory behavior, chronicling the inabilities of the Penn State faithful to accept that their heroes — especially head coach Joe Paterno — could have been complicit in such deeds. The scene of one loyalist ripping the sign of a lone protester outside a Paterno statue is a perfect encapsulation of how myth can triumph over cold, harsh reality.
What Happened, Miss Simone? (2015)
There’s something profound in pairing Marley with the Netflix-original account of Nina Simone’s life and times: one, the wildly successful career of a peace-loving One Africa Rastafarian; the other, the alternately revolutionary and dispiriting saga of a combative, unapologetic and astoundingly gifted soul singer. Liz Garbus’s doc is a powerful rendering of the struggles Simone faced throughout her career: the ways she became trapped in downward spirals, first of spousal abuse and then of bipolar disorder; and of her desperate, all-consuming urge to affect change on the country during the Civil Rights era. What happened? Watch for yourself.
EAT (BUT NOT TOO MUCH)
Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2011)
The polar opposite of Super Size Me. David Gelb’s meditative-yet-jaunty peek inside sushi chef Jiro Ono’s long road to culinary perfection has proven such a sleeper hit on Netflix that the streaming service hired Gelb to make its nonfiction food series Chef’s Table. Whet your appetite for foodie docs with Jiro, which, in addition to showing us the process behind maintaining the high standards of a three-Michelin-star sushi restaurant (even a tiny one), also doubles as a serious meditation on family legacy. Jiro’s son may be doomed to remain forever in his father’s gigantic shadow.
The Irish Pub (2013)
Seen through the eyes of generations of patrons and owners, Alex Fegan’s 2013 documentary offers up a taste of the traditional Irish pub. Though the locale changes in this visual tour, each bar serves up the same atmosphere: A place where everyone can come together, share a pint and a song, and find a sense of community. Some of these pubs have been around hundreds of years, passed down through hard-working families that strive to preserve the culture for their regulars. The audience is invited to pull up a seat and join, relishing in the rich stories from colorful characters as they welcome the viewer into their second home. It’s a simple, almost calming weave of histories that might leave you booking the next plane to Dublin.
Recent Changes For May 2018:
Removed: Exit Through The Gift Shop, Welcome To Leith
Added: Take Your Pills, 100 Years