The Best Documentaries on Netflix Right Now
Last Updated: January 2nd
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 fruitful) way to connect with an audience.
And yet, all these films 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.
Director: Jacob LaMendola
The less you know about Jacob LaMendola’s 40-minute documentary Long Shot the better because its twists and turns are absolutely shocking even if its larger point should be burned into viewers memories by now. Overall, the documentary focuses on Juan Catalan, who was accused of a murder he didn’t commit and the lengths he had to go to in order to prove his innocence. While our justice system likes to tout that the accused are “innocent until proven guilty,” Long Shot shows in its brief runtime that the truth is just the opposite. Despite the flimsy evidence against Catalan, he had to be extraordinarily lucky to prove his innocence and that we have a system that incentivizes detectives and prosecutors simply to close cases rather than find justice. The brilliant thing about Long Shot is that it never has to come right out and say it. The case speaks volumes on its own. – Matt Goldberg
Director: Ava DuVernay
Ava DuVernay follows up her acclaimed film Selma with a searing documentary that looks at the mass incarceration of minorities following the passage of the 13th amendment. As the documentary points out, it’s not just ingrained cultural racism that results in the widespread incarceration of African-Americans and other minorities. There’s a financial incentive as well, and it’s good business to lock people up. 13th systematically goes through the decades following the passage of the 13th amendment to show how black people were targeted by the media, by the government, and by businesses to create a new form of slavery. It is a movie that will infuriate you, depress you, and hopefully spur you to action against a system that done egregious harm to our fellow citizens. – Matt Goldberg
Director: Steve James
If you’re a cinephile, then the Roger Ebert documentary Life Itself is required viewing. Based on Ebert’s memoir of the same name, the film began as a chronicle of Ebert’s life, career, and contribution to the world of film criticism, but as filming began Ebert faced severe health issues. As a result, director Steve James—who helmed the documentary masterpiece Hoop Dreams—juxtaposes footage focusing on Ebert’s life and career with present day-set footage of Ebert in the hospital, as the film critic giant continues to display a passion for films and filmmaking up through his final days. It’s a moving, ultimately hopeful documentary that’s also incredibly fascinating, as many friends, colleagues and filmmakers—from Martin Scorsese to Ava DuVernay—weigh in on Ebert’s contribution to the medium. The film is also candid about Ebert’s somewhat prickly personality, with the segment on the animosity between Ebert and Gene Siskel particularly engaging. Again, if you call yourself a fan of movies, this documentary is a must-see. – Adam Chitwood
Director: Kim A. Snyder
The documentary Newtown is not an easy film to watch, nor should it be, but it is absolutely essential. The film is a tactful, powerful look at how the community of Newtown, Connecticut came together in the aftermath of the largest mass shooting of schoolchildren in American history. It is a deeply personal film, focusing on the parents, brothers, and sisters who were affected by this act of terrorism, and how it has impacted not just them but the community as a whole. The film forces the viewer to confront the consequences of gun violence in an unflinching, almost overwhelmingly emotional manner. It is not preachy and it has no agenda other than showing human truth. If I had my personal druthers, this film would be required viewing for every single American citizen. – Adam Chitwood
Director: Matthew Heinemen
Cartel Land is an incredibly compelling piece of documentary filmmaking. The film chronicles the battle against Mexican drug cartels by two vigilante groups on opposite sides of the border: the Arizona Border Recon in the U.S., and a rebel uprising group in the Mexican state of Michoacán. What begins as a seemingly simple story of two groups ultimately fighting for the same thing slowly turns into a deeply unsettling look at the corruption that permeates throughout Mexico, and how the process of rebellion breeds its own kind of corruption and power struggles. The film features some of the most harrowing and intense scenes I’ve ever seen on film, with the electricity and plot twists of a fictional drug war thriller made all the more disturbing for the fact that this is real life. Fascinating, searing, dark, and deeply unsettling, Cartel Land is essential viewing. – Adam Chitwood
Director: Bart Layton
A documentary that falls under the “Stranger Than Fiction” category, Bart Layton’s The Imposter dives into the true story of Frédéric Bourdin, a deeply twisted individual who, in order to find safe harbor, stole the identity of 16-year-old Nicholas Barclay, a boy that had been missing for three years. The twists and turns of the story are beyond belief, but Layton manages it with a deft hand, weaving in dramatizations that almost feel required because otherwise the story would feel too outlandish. It moves with the pace of a thriller, but it’s all wrapped around the too human story of how far we’re willing to go to believe something, especially when that “something” could be the return of a lost loved one. – Matt Goldberg
Director: Jesse Moss
Jesse Moss’ documentary The Overnighters is a current and searing look at not only the shortcomings of the American Dream and the current economy, but also a larger story about how difficult it is just to do good by your fellow man. Pastor Jay Reinke allows men to sleep in his church, but runs up against opposition from his community and the town government. It’s also a touching look at how hard it is to do right by each other when we’re such flawed creatures. It’s a somber, melancholy picture that shows the difficulties of doing right by your fellow man, especially in present-day America. – Matt Goldberg
Director: Gabriela Cowperthwaite
Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s second feature, Blackfish, tracks the psychological and physical torment inflicted on Orca whales in the name of a strong corporate brand, but its contours are not your everyday money-excuses-death scenario. It’s plotting suggests something far more audacious, as the director, aided by interviews from former SeaWorld staff members and experts, carefully builds a case for freely empathizing with animals in captivity. As you watch, one can clearly understand why these mammals lash out and why, despite their aggressive and largely unhelpful harangues, advocates against animal captivity and cruelty devote their time to such endeavors. Cowperthwaite’s film does more to open up a dialogue about animal treatment in America, corporate or otherwise, than a million cleverly written protest signs and manipulative ads featuring Sarah McLachlan music combined. – Chris Cabin
Director: Barak Goodman
Before the 9/11 attacks, the most devastating terrorist attack on U.S. soil was the 1995 bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City, which killed 168 people and injured 680 others. Oklahoma City uses this event to frame and contextualize what drove Timothy McVeigh to plan and execute this horrific act, which in turn is also a chronicle of the early days of the alt-right movement. The film touches on Ruby Ridge and the standoff at Waco (where McVeigh was present) as precursor events that spurred McVeigh into action, and the white supremacist and anti-government fallout planted seeds that still grow today. Indeed, Oklahoma City is a heartbreaking tribute to the victims of that bombing, but it also has relevance to the world we live in today with regards to domestic terrorism. A compelling, fascinating watch. – Adam Chitwood
Director: Albert Maysles
To plenty of people, Iris Apfel is very important, but not in life-or-death terms; the stakes of her importance are relatively low, seeing as she’s made her living as a fashion icon and an interior designer. Her legacy in the fashion world is very simply unparalleled, but that’s not exactly what the late Albert Maysles is after in Iris, his loving, exquisite portrait of the elderly icon and one of the rarest birds of New York City’s socialite crowds. As the film opens, she explains how she put together the exuberant outfit she’s wearing, a burst of bold colors and various textures, and stresses her love for accessories – bracelets, most prominently. And as the film goes on, it becomes clear that Maysles takes Apfel’s philosophy of fashion style as reflective of film style as well, and sees a kindred spirit in the famed clotheshorse. – Chris Cabin
Directors: Bryan Carberry and J. Clay Tweel
Finders Keepers is one of the most thoughtful documentaries of 2015, and I’m including Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Look of Silence in that estimation. The quarrel between two men over a severed leg may not be on the level of genocide, but it’s also nowhere near as silly as the absurd pretext may lead some to believe.
The reasons why John Wood wanted to hold on to the leg he lost in a plane crash and keep it in a smoker grill, or why Shannon Whisnant refused to give that leg back when he won the smoker grill in an auction, seem inexplicable at first glance, but directors Bryan Carberry and J. Clay Tweel found the achingly human heart at this bizarre conflict. Symbols have meaning, and sometimes we don’t get to choose those symbols. Sometimes the symbol is a severed leg; that doesn’t make its meaning—or Finders Keepers—any less poignant. – Matt Goldberg
Of Men and War
Director: Laurent Beque-Renard
There are three cuts currently circulating of Of Men and War, a wrenching, endlessly fascinating study of a group of combat veterans working through the emotional toll of warfare in a Napa Valley facility. If you have the chance, seek out the longest one possible, which clocks in at a little over two hours and offers a totally immersive psychological experience in watching these soldiers talk through memories of death, blood, and almost surreal tragedy with one another. Insights into how memories manifest as anger, paranoia, and calcified routine, and how medics are often the most severely damaged in wartime, are only the tip of the iceberg, and director Laurent Béque-Renard shapes the material beautifully to give a full view at these men’s lives. Beyond the therapeutic sessions, the filmmaker captures them with their families, and evinces thrilling moments that give a unique sense of how such experiences affect parenting, spousal harmony, and general health. More than anything, Beque-Renard’s assemblage gives a profound argument for homes and support structures like this in greater number, an argument that so often is ignored by those who ensconce themselves in all things “patriotic.” – Chris Cabin
Director: Crystal Moselle
This utterly fascinating documentary first made waves at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, and it’s certainly one of the most engrossing movies of that year. The film focuses on the lives of six brothers who grew up entirely within the confines of a New York City apartment, with movies serving as their only connection to the outside world. As the brothers grew restless in what was essentially a prison (with their father as the warden), they began finding a means of escape by not only watching films over and over again, but literally transcribing the screenplays and then acting out their own versions with costumes and all. The Wolfpack goes inside their NYC apartment as Moselle follows the brothers and their family, delving deeper into their passion for all things film. While the movie falls short when digging into the larger psychological issues at hand when it comes to the boys’ father, it does serve as an interesting (and, admittedly, entertaining) case study of sorts about how a human being is shaped when films are presented as “reality”. Those who grew up obsessively poring over the world of filmmaking would do well to check this one out. – Adam Chitwood
The Thin Blue Line
Director: Errol Morris
You just finished Making a Murderer and you need your true crime fix. Now what? Your best bet is Errol Morris’ seminal 1988 documentary. The story focuses on wrongfully accused drifter Randall Adams, who was railroaded onto death row by false testimony and an overzealous prosecutor. The Thin Blue Line gets its edge not only from interviews with the real killer, David Harris, but also from Morris’ brilliant use of dramatization, close-ups, editing, and truly mastering the documentary form into his now unmistakable style. Making a Murderer may send you looking for more true crime, but The Thin Blue Line will also have you hungry to find another Morris film (I recommend The Fog of War and Standard Operating Procedure). – Matt Goldberg
Jiro Dreams of Sushi
Director: David Gelb
Even if you don’t like sushi, you’ll be salivating over the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, which not only lovingly photographs Jiro Ono’s $500/plate delicacies, but also goes deep into his work ethic and passion. Gelb’s exploration of one man’s pursuit of total perfection, and the personal cost of that pursuit, is utterly captivating regardless of your food cravings. Gelb could have made a documentary about any person who is at the top of their field, but focusing on Jiro Ono opens up the door to not only a feast for the senses (you can almost taste the sashimi), but also a fascinating look at Japanese culture, especially with regards to Jiro’s complicated relationship with his two sons. It’s a filling documentary even if it leaves you physically hungry for such delicious-looking food. – Matt Goldberg
Beware of Mr. Baker
Director: Jay Bulger
An oft-forgotten, pickled voice from rock & roll’s most explosively creative era returns to the forefront in Beware of Mr. Baker, an uncommonly enveloping music documentary centered on the life of Ginger Baker, drummer for psychedelic rock stalwarts Cream. The film vaults back and forth between a chronicle of Baker as a young man, learning how to drum, and eventually becoming one of the most versatile and audacious percussionists in the world, and his present-day life as a cantankerous, violent son of a bitch who goes as far to attack director Jay Bulger. Salty would be a mild way of describing Baker’s tone through the interviews, but his resentment and anger is not entirely uncalled for, as Bulger reveals incrementally. Baker was a drummer that could have sat in with Miles Davis, Wayne Shorter, or John Coltrane any day and held his own, and yet his fame and fortune came from the restrictive structures of rock songs that could be played on the radio. Ambition is a sign of artistic genius, but it rarely provides the basic fiscal needs for a comfortable life, and one can feel the bitterness that arises from that clash in every word Baker speaks in front of Bulger. - Chris Cabin
Director: Mark Hartley
Imagine, for a minute, if a documentary were made where the everyday workers of a big movie studio talked openly about their grievances with the company, gave their real opinions of the movies they made, and openly shared astounding anecdotes about their myriad bosses. With Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films, we don’t quite get that, but we get something awfully close: a startlingly intimate, tremendously entertaining chronicling of the rise and fall of the infamous Cannon Films, the studio behind Masters of the Universe, Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, and more Chuck Norris movies than I care to mention. Script readers, producers, business partners, and stars weigh in equally and most of the anecdotes are uproarious, but the movie is not all jumping on the infamously cheap Cannon’s head.
Mind you, this is the same place where wild masterworks like Love Streams, Jean-Luc Godard’s King Lear, Barfly, Street Smart, Runaway Train, and more found a not-so-happy home. Cannon began as a studio that made lots of cheap movies and waited for a handful to hit, make back expenses with a solid amount of profit, and, finally, enter their catalog. Then, out of hubris and misguided ambition, they tried to make bigger movies and bigger tentpoles that failed across the board. The story of Electric Boogaloo is the story of Cannon’s unfortunate demise, but it’s also a cautionary tale for the big studios, who often belittled Cannon and yet seem to be employing the same production strategy that destroyed them.
Directors: Rod Blackhurst and Brian McGinn
Whether you’re already familiar with the Amanda Knox case or only have a vague recollection of the name, the Netflix original documentary Amanda Knox is a deeply fascinating watch. Framed by exclusive interviews with the titular subject herself, as well as those intimately involved in the case, Amanda Knox chronicles the murder of Knox’s roommate and the subsequent investigation, trials, and appeals regarding her apparent involvement. But beyond simply going into detail about the case, the film is also a searing indictment of the media’s inherent misogyny, and how public perception when it comes to women and sex can be skewed tremendously. – Adam Chitwood
Director: Bryan Fogel
This movie is insane. Icarus began as a project from Bryan Fogel in which the documentary filmmaker wanted to go on a doping regimen for the Haute Route to see if he could elude the race’s intense drug testing. But as Fogel makes contact with a Russian expert in doping, he soon becomes embroiled in the biggest athletic scandal in history, as his “expert” turns out to be the mastermind behind Russia’s doping of the Sochi Olympics. Part dark comedy, part thriller, Icarus is an exciting, fascinating, and truly stranger-than fiction watch. – Adam Chitwood