Editor’s Note: This post is updated monthly. Bookmark this page and come back every month to see what other excellent documentaries join the Netflix roster.
Updated for March 2020.
At some point during this decade, it seems like all of Western culture came to an unprecedentedly unanimous decision all at once: Documentaries are dope.
Just scroll through IMDb or Rotten Tomatoes and see how long it takes before you find a documentary with bad reviews. They’re relatively rare! Perhaps because documentarians invest so much time in their subjects that it’s nearly impossible to turn out a bad product and perhaps just because real life really is that much stranger than fiction.
The point is, we now need outlets to feed our insatiable documentary palates. Thankfully, streaming services like Netflix are stepping up to the plate. Netflix’s documentaries are deep, diverse and damn good. Pick any one of these films (and in some cases documentary TV series) when you need a dose of reality.
Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press
Nobody Speak is among the most recent entries on the list and its ability to capture a disturbing trend in the moment as it happens makes it among the most terrifying.
Nobody Speak uses the trial between Gawker and Hulk Hogan as a jumping off point to view the existential threats a free and independent press is increasingly finding both in the court room and as the direct result of billionaire intervention. Yes, a certain current president is discussed.
Chef’s Table comes to you from the filmmakers behind the equally brilliant Jiro Dreams of Sushi and it is like a Netflix algorithm gone mad with power. You guys like watching pretty food be prepared in ultra-HD? Well, here is 12 hours of it. Don’t you even THINK about canceling your subscription while this is on here.
Chef’s Table presents the stories behind truly creative and brilliant chefs across the world. Still, it knows exactly who the real star is: the food.
Get Me Roger Stone
Have you ever noticed how reality is kind of like absolutely fucking insane right now? Longtime political operative Roger Stone is one of the reasons why.
Get Me Roger Stone traces Stone’s life and political career from his time as the youngest person to testify during the Watergate hearings all the way through his shrewd stewarding of Donald Trump into the Oval Office.
Making a Murderer
Hey, you remember this! Making a Murderer in many ways has become the archetype for the true crime episodic documentary on television.
It’s the decades long story of Steve Avery, his first wrongful conviction for murder, and the legal effort to prove that his second conviction for murder is equally wrongful. Making a Murderer has had its biggest cultural moment but parts of the case continue to move through the legal system and its always worth watching the crime masterpiece once again. It’s truly the beginning of documentary renaissance on Netflix.
Emboldened by the success of Making a Murderer, Netflix has now tried its hand at several other true crime documentaries. Casting Jonbenet doesn’t quite reach the delirious highs of Making a Murderer or achieve the cultural zeitgeist like the former did.
That’s hard to do when so many of the original players in this well-known crime are unwilling to appear onscreen. Still, Casting Jonbenet is a fascinating exploration of an already well-tread story.
Last Chance U
Last Chance U is the football documentary for people who didn’t realize they needed a football documentary. The two-season series focuses on junior college football team the East Mississippi Lions. East Mississippi prides itself on taking the players no other school will take due to either academic or behavioral issues.
It’s not exactly a selfless crusade as the players are often excellent and East Mississippi is a powerhouse with a reputation for eventually sending these players off to bigger colleges. The dynamics at play here are fascinating. It’s hard not to get wrapped up in each individual’s story while at the same time questioning the school’s ultimate motives.
The Civil War
Creating the definitive Civil War documentary is only slightly less insane and difficult for making the definitive documentary for all of planet Earth. That’s the business that documentarian Ken Burns is in, however, making incredibly, completely definitive documentaries on big, American subjects.
The Civil War is a nine-episode series that ran on PBS in 1990 and the scope of it is absolutely breathtaking. Still, it’s ability to turn long-dead soldiers from a different era into living, breathing human beings through only their letters is why Burns is considered one of our finest documentarians.
Interview with a Serial Killer
Interview with a Serial Killer is morally icky. Our culture already does enough to glorify violence and killers, do we really need to offer one more a chance for exposure? Unfortunately, I’d say sure, why not.
Documentaries are partially about learning and there is plenty to learn from an in-depth look at the psychology of a serial killer. Interview with a Serial Killer is just 45-minutes long, understated, fair and features an extended interview with a let’s say, less-than-famous killer in Arthur Shawcross.
There is perhaps not a grimmer, more depressing topic possible for a documentary than the Sandy Hook Elementary shootings in Newtown, Connecticut that killed 26 people, mostly elementary school-aged children. The documentary Newtown wisely realizes how heavy a topic this is and tries to depict the survivors and family members as delicately as possible.
This isn’t a documentary about violence – it’s one about grief. And it’s very aptly named as the documentary is more concerned about how a community comes together to fix itself rather than focusing on the individual who broke it.
The Keepers isn’t a direct sequel to Making a Murderer but it may as well be. It’s another Netflix original true crime drama documentary series designed to basically set Reddit servers on fire. Instead of spending time in Manitowoc County, Wisconsin, however, this time we’re in Maryland trying to solve the nearly 60-year-old mystery of who killed Catholic school nun/teacher Sister Cathy.
Two former students of Cathy turned amateur investigators look into the cold case and uncover decades worth of corruption, evil and cover-ups.
You may remember Blackfish as the movie that changed SeaWorld forever. SeaWorld announced recently that it would no longer be seeking out new killer whales to include in its parks or acts. That’s because the upsetting truth revealed by Blackfish.
Orcas don’t do very well in captivity and the conditions forced upon them by the park eventually leads to tragedy. It’s a particularly excellent documentary now that we know the real world ending.
With Icarus, Netflix has reached the “outbidding everyone at Sundance Film Festival for great content” level of its quest for media supremacy. Netflix ponied up $5 million to bring Icarus to its servers and its easy to see why. Icarus is a documentary about the Russian-doping scandal at the 2016 Winter Olympics in Sochi.
Well sort of. It actually starts out as director Bryan Fogel’s experiment to see how doping would affect his own bicycling performance. And in the process he uncovers an astonishingly huge scandal.
When you stumble upon a pun as phenomenal as “Miss Representation,” you’ve just got to make a movie. Miss Representation is (brilliantly) about the misrepresentation of women in mass media.
It’s a pared down, simple documentary that features interviews intercut with images from pop culture that highlight the limited roles women are often presented it. It’s a fair, quick watch that remains relevant just half a decade after its release and will hopefully seem very dated in the near future.
Gloria Allred is one of the most famous attorneys in American history. She’s represented the family of Nicole Brown Simpson, Britney Spears bodyguard, Anthony Weiner’s accusers, and much, much more. She’s one of the rare lawyers who has recognized that winning in the court of public opinion is almost as important as winning in court, itself.
The documentary Seeing Allred explores that showman’s side of Allred and places her in context of the current cultural evolution on sexual assault. Roberta Grossman and Sophie Sartain’s documentary makes explicit what Allred has always implied: culture changes first, and then the legal system follows.
This six-part documentary series comes from famed documentarian Going Clear Alex Gibney. Gibney produces a series of six documentaries (all from different directors, though Gibney directs the first) that revolve around the theme of financial corruption.
Gibney’s hour focuses on the Volkswagen emissions scandal while other hours cover payday loans, Canadian maple syrup heists, banks laundering drug money, the biotech industry, and yes, Donald J. Trump…obviously.
Dirty Money is the kind of documentary specifically designed to make you angry and make you angry it will.
David Chang is one of the most famous and accomplished chefs in the world. And he’s sick of making pretty food. Ugly Delicious is a return to documentary television for Chang and it’s a good one. In it, Chang spends eight episodes going super in-depth on a certain topic surrounding food i.e. pizza, tacos, Thanksgiving, etc.
Chang is kind of a notoriously cranky guy and Ugly Delicious matches that spirit. It’s both a celebration of food and a skeptical takedown of any and all conventional wisdom surrounding the culinary arts.
Wild, Wild Country
Wild, Wild Country is a six-hour documentary turned into a more palatable six-part documentary for Netflix. It’s about the Rajneeshee cult led by Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh that took root in rural Oregon in the 1980s.
Like most documentaries about cults, it doesn’t take long for the Rajneeshee to get dark and oppressive. But what Wild, Wild Country is able to bring to the table is a detailed and empathetic depiction of the cult experience in rural America and how religious cults confront our perceptions of religious and personal freedom.
“One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” Neil Armstrong famously said upon stepping onto the lunar surface. Netflix’s documentary Mercury 13 tells the story of how “one small step for man” came close to needing a subject change.
In 1961, a group of 20 women privately trained to become astronauts for a non-NASA-sanctioned program. 13 of the 20 women who trained passed all the test the NASA-approved male astronauts did but were denied entry into the space program. Mercury 13 catches up with the remainders of the 13 and ponders what could have been.
He Named Me Malala
He Named Me Malala is the story of the world-recognized and renowned Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai. Malala advocated for women’s education her entire life and miraculously survived an attempt on her life from Taliban assassins.
He Named Me Malala is more of a straightforward biography of a remarkable cultural figure than it is a sustained attempt at a documentary. Thankfully, that biography is so strong and so meaningful that any artistic shortcomings are barely noticeable or consequential.
Evil Genius: The True Story of America’s Most Diabolical Bank Heist
The subtitle of Evil Genius really says it all. What happened to Brian Wells on August 23, 2003 in Erie, Pennsylvania really was diabolical. It was also clearly the work of an evil genius…but who? Evil Genius follows the real life and baffling story of the “pizza bomber” case. Brian Wells was a mild-mannered pizza delivery guy until he was abducted during a delivery, fitted with a collar bomb and sent out to rob a bank as part of a horrific scavenger hunt.
Over four episodes Evil Genius explores the bizarre event and tries to uncover who was truly responsible for it. More importantly it tries to figure out why. The answer gives new meaning to “the banality of evil.”
Jiro Dreams of Sushi
In some ways, Jiro Dreams of Sushi is responsible for a lot of other documentaries on this list – even the ones that precede it chronologically. This, the story of master sushi-maker Jiro and his son Yoshikazu perfecting the art of sushi-making at a beyond-exclusive Tokyo restaurant, has been a mainstay of Netflix documentaries since it popped up on the service.
Its popularity inspired Netflix to begin investing more heavily in original documentaries. That’s no surprise as it is excellent, surprisingly emotional, and some of the best food porn imaginable.
The story behind Fyre resembles the story of the ill-fated Fyre Festival itself. Ok not at all but the doc didn’t come without some controversy.
Hulu released Fyre Fraud just four days before Netflix released its own Fyre Festival documentary, Fyre, as a direct strike in the ongoing streaming wars. The team behind the Hulu doc accused the Netflix doc of being illegitimate because of Jerry Media’s involvement. Netflix fired back by pointing out that Fyre Fraud paid festival organizer Billy McFarland to interview him.
Both streaming services have a point but here’s the thing: both of this documentaries are excellent and capture the hilarious and terrifying disaster that was Fyre Festival perfectly.
Knock Down the House
The 2018 Congressional election was historic in many ways, not the least of which how many women ran for and ultimately won for the House of Representatives. Director Rachel Lears had the good fortune and keen insight to follow four of these women running for office with cameras.
Knock Down the House tells the story of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Amy Vilela, Cori Bush, and Paula Jean Swearingen as they run in the Democratic primary campaigns against entrenched incumbents. The film reveals just how exhausting it is to run a primary campaign and challenge big money candidates. But occasionally…it somehow all works out.