The element that most viewers tend to gravitate toward when it comes to documentaries is the essence of real life that one gleans from the assemblages of historical footage, photographs, talking heads, pre-recorded audio, and sequences of physical excursion or simple quotidian tasks. There’s an undeniable feeling of authenticity even when you’re watching something clearly biased, such as a Michael Moore joint. Even in cases where the film’s overall focus is narrowed to fit a pre-conceived narrative, there’s an unmistakable feeling of intimacy, of being let into a filmmaker’s brain for a quick flash. In using snippets of the real world, in a variety of forms, great documentaries use images of universal, familiar existence to impart something tremendously personal, even intimate.
As entertaining and informative as he can be, Moore’s template of sardonic political outrage is certainly not the only (or most fruitul) way to connect with an audience. Blackfish, the galvanizing recitation of the case against SeaWorld for their blatant mistreatment of Orca whales, unfolds like a great piece of investigative journalism, paced with a near-clinical precision. Approaching the Elephant is a bracing, immersive view into the workings of a New Jersey “free” school, antic and unpredictable yet invigoratingly curious in its shifts of focus. And then there are works like The Act of Killing that are so wondrously inventive in their conception, so unbearable in their terrifying revelations of political doctrine (in Indonesia specifically), psychology, viewership, and genocide that it feels wrong to label the movie anything at all.
And yet, they all remain under this same rubric, and Netflix has a bountiful of great ones that passes well beyond the aforementioned, essential titles. Here are the best documentaries currently on the streaming giant.