Last Updated: January 19th
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 20 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 story 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?”