Last Updated: January 5th
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 are 25 of the best documentaries on Netflix right now to get you going, covering a variety of themes and real stories.
Run Time: 97 min | IMDb: 7.3/10
Even if you’ve already witnessed the madness of this real-life horror story over on Hulu, you should see it again on Netflix. Hulu’s Fyre Fraud feels like more of a thinkpiece directed at the millennials who were suckered into buying tickets to a luxurious music fest on a secluded island in the Bahamas. Netflix’s Fyre does a better job of placing you in the action, giving you a real feel for the chaos and an understanding of how so many people could’ve been roped into this doomed venture.
Homecoming: A Film By Beyoncé (2019)
Run Time: 137 min | IMDb: 8/10
Beyoncé’s history-making Coachella performance was enough to temporarily rename the music festival Beychella last year, and now fans who couldn’t afford to see Queen Bee perform live get a backstage pass to the show with this doc. Are there killer performances, musical mash-ups, and dance routines? Sure. But what really makes this music doc stand-out besides the talent of its star is the intimate look fans are given into Beyoncé’s personal life, from her surprise pregnancy to her struggle to get in shape before the event and all the in-between madness and heartbreak.
Get Me Roger Stone (2017)
Run Time: 82 min | IMDb: 7.4/10
To understand the enigma that was the Trump campaign, one must first understand the man behind the historic presidential run. Roger Stone is a well-connected lobbyist, a Republican political trickster responsible for the campaigns of former presidents like Richard Nixon and Ronal Reagan. He’s well-versed in navigating morally-murky waters to help his horse win the race, and we see him do just that in this doc, which follows the mogul over a five-year period as he crafts Trump’s winning-campaign.
Team Foxcatcher (2016)
Run Time: 90 min | IMDb: 7.3/10
One of the strangest, most tragic sports stories in history is that of professional wrestler Dave Schulz and his friend, John du Pont. Du Pont was heir to the multi-million dollar Du Pont family fortune and used his inheritance to fund a professional wrestling team with the hopes of competing in the Olympics and other prestigious sports events. Mark Schulz was a wrestler struggling to get out of the shadow of his older brother’s more promising career. The two were roped into du Pont’s scheme, training wrestlers for him, but the partnership quickly soured and led to du Pont murdering Dave Schultz before barricading himself in his family compound to avoid arrest. It’s chilling, bizarre, and all the more riveting because of it.
The Battered Bastards Of Baseball (2014)
Run Time: 80 min | IMDb: 8/10
Another sports doc, this one about a rag-tag group of baseball players in Oregon, feels decidedly more fun than its wrestling counterpart. The doc follows the Portland Mavericks, a defunct minor league baseball owned by actor Bing Russell that played for five seasons in the Class A-Short Season Northwest League. Kurt Russell, Bing’s son, also played on the team and served as its vice president. The film charts the Maverick’s origins, from underdogs to anti-establishment heroes.
LA 92 (2017)
Run Time: 114 min | IMDb: 8.4/10
If there were a time to dig into this National Geographic-backed look at the LA riots of the early 90s, now is it. The film, which uses only raw footage to retell audiences of the brutal beating of Rodney King by white police offers in Los Angeles, feels eerily familiar to what we’re seeing on the news right now. Maybe we can learn from it, or maybe we just need to be reminded that systemic injustice has been going on for way too long.
Run Time: 100 min | IMDb: 8.2/10
This 2016 documentary from Ava DuVernay won an Emmy and was nominated for an Oscar during awards season two years ago. The film chronicles the justice system’s abuses against black people, making a case for institutionalized racism being a problem in America that’s only emboldened by the prison cycle. DuVernay boldly explores how prisons and detention centers are making a profit off of free prison labor, most of it done by black men which begs the question, is slavery really dead?
Taylor Swift: Miss Americana (2020)
Run Time: 85 min | IMDb: 7.4/10
Let’s be honest, Taylor Swift could’ve delivered a glossy, stylized, superficial doc about her life to promote her latest album, and her rabid fanbase would’ve eaten it up. Instead, the pop star took a risk and gave filmmakers no-holds-barred access to her personal and professional life, offering up intimate interviews with herself and her family, detailing difficult struggles with body dysmorphia and eating disorders, allowing cameras inside her sexual assault trial, revealing her mother’s cancer diagnosis, and unearthing home video footage of her youth to create a fuller picture of herself. It’s a film that reveals the human underneath the icon. It’s bold, brutally honest, and some of Swift’s best work yet.
Chasing Coral (2017)
Run Time: 93 min | IMDb: 8.1/10
Few environmental warrior films do more for the cause than Jeff Orlowski’s Chasing Coral. The doc rounds up a team of scientists, photographers, and divers from around the world to draw attention to an environmental crisis we’ve never seen before — the vanishing of the world’s coral reefs. It works on two levels: By giving us an underwater adventure that attempts to shed light on the mysteries of the deep and highlighting a problem we can see with our own eyes. There’s no denying this one, no looking away, and Orlowski’s crew takes full advantage of that.
Casting JonBenet (2017)
Run Time: 80 min | IMDb: 6.2/10
’90s crime nostalgia is alive and well in this pseudo-doc from director Kitty Green. Everyone knows how tiny pageant queen JonBenet Ramsey died — bludgeoned to death in the basement of her family home — so Green is less interested in rehashing the investigation into the little girl’s death and more interested in reenacting her life and final moments. To do this, she enlists actors from the area where the family lived, all hoping to play JonBenet or her parents in an upcoming production. Over the course of the film, these thespians are forced to confront the reality of the Ramsey family’s situation which in turn helps viewers to take a look under the surface of this tabloid trauma.
Athlete A (2020)
Run Time: 103 min | IMDb: 7.7/10
This timely doc gives us a look at the Larry Nassar sexual abuse scandal that rocked the world of gymnastics just two years ago from the point of view of reporters at the Indianapolis Star in charge of exposing it. A cover-up spanning two decades and involving higher-ups at both US Gymnastics and Michigan State where Nassar served as a physician and professor, this revealing investigation into a sinister culture that’s hidden behind the success of its top female athletes makes you rethink everything you thought about the Olympic dream.
American Factory (2019)
Run Time: 115 min | IMDb: 7.6/10
his marks the first documentary to come from Netflix’s high-profile producing deal with Barack and Michelle Obama. The film takes a hard look at what happened to a General Motors plant in Ohio when it was closed down during the 2008 financial crisis, causing 2,000 workers to lose their jobs and destroying the small town of Moraine, Ohio. Things only get more complicated when a Chinese billionaire comes to town to transform the plant into a glass-making facility, promising thousands of new jobs before cultural divides threaten to derail the whole thing. It’s a fascinating view of consumerism, the American workforce, culture clashes, and how people can connect with each other despite seemingly insurmountable obstacles.
Run Time: 97 min | IMDb: 7.5/10
In 1992, Sandi Tan, along with her friends, made Singapore’s first indie film. She wrote and starred in it, a project called Shirkers, her two girlfriends produced and edited it, and a man named George Cardona directed. Cardona vanished one day, taking all the film materials with him, and propelling Tan on a decades-long journey to find the truth. It’s an engrossing study in betrayal and the dangers of collaboration, and it works mostly because Tan approaches it from a true-crime mystery angle, stripping it of any nostalgia that might tint her lense.
One of Us (2017)
Run Time: 95 min | IMDb: 7.1/10
This gripping documentary confronts some hard truths about religion: its power to unite and its power to divide. Filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady follow three members of New York’s notoriously insular Hasidic community as they try to break free from their religion while holding onto their families and sense of belonging.
Run Time: 121 min | IMDb: 8/10
Bryan Fogel’s Academy Award-winning documentary Icarus wasn’t supposed to involve Russians and doping scandal and cover-ups. Fortunately for Fogel, when the filmmaker decided to test his mettle by competing in one of the toughest cycling competitions in the world and chose to dope to help his chances, he ended up meeting Russian scientist, Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov, the director of Russia’s national anti-doping laboratory. The result is this nearly 90-minute film that chronicles Russia’s extensive history with doping and Rodchenkov’s fight for his life after he blows the whistle on the country’s bad practices.
Amanda Knox (2016)
Run Time: 92 min | IMDb: 7/10
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?”
Abducted in Plain Sight (2017)
Run Time: 91 min | IMDb: 6.8/10
Netflix delivers another worthy installment in the true crime series with this truly bizarre tale of a naive, church-going family and the man who preyed upon them. The Brobergs lived in a small town in Idaho with their three young daughters when they met Robert Berchtold, a seemingly-nice family man who doted on the girls, in particular, a 12-year-old Jan Broberg. Over time, Berchtold began grooming Jan and manipulating her parents, engaging in sexual acts with both her father and mother to cause a rift in the family before kidnapping her and brainwashing her into compliance. This saga went on for years and as strange as it sounds, nothing can prepare you for hearing the first-hand account of how this sociopath destroyed this loving family.
Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond (2017)
Run Time: 94 min | IMDb: 7.8/10
This documentary features never-before-seen footage of Jim Carrey in character as Andy Kaufman on the set of his 1999 film Man on the Moon. Directed by Chris Smith, the film shows Carrey, who was a celebrated comedic actor at the time, going method for his dramatic role as the brilliant on-stage comedian. There’s plenty of behind-the-scenes drama on this one, including Carrey’s backstage antics while shooting the movie, but what’s really interesting about the film is watching the actor’s thorough process and how he’s approached his colorful careers.
The Great Hack (2018)
Run Time: 114 min | IMDb: 7/10
We live in a world connected with most of our interactions happening online. It’s great but, as this doc shows, it’s also terrifying. Terrifying because the way our data changes hands so quickly and indiscriminately — as long as companies shell out the cash for it — skirts all kinds of privacy laws and moral boundaries. This doc, told from the perspective of a journalist attempting to get his search data, the enormous fight with big tech to do it, and how his journey connects to the Cambridge Analytica scandal that may have influenced multiple elections in the States and abroad, is full of fascinating information and shocking tell-alls that could bring this whole internet empire down if people finally decide to start listening.
Knock Down The House (2019)
Run Time: 87 min | IMDb: 6.9/10
This political doc made its way from Sundance to Netflix and we couldn’t think of a better time to watch it than leading up to the 2020 election. It follows the grassroots campaign of the right’s favorite punching bag, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, showcasing her charisma and approachability while also diving into more intimate parts of her life, like her relationship with her late father. It’s a feel-good story from Capitol Hill and really, we need more of that.
Run Time: 83 min | IMDb: 8.1/10
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?
Run Time: 24 min | IMDb: 7.3/10
Clocking in at 24 minutes, the Oscar-nominated Extremis really would only work as a short, as its subject matter is almost unbearably heavy. Following terminal patients, their families, and their doctors, the tearjerker zeros in on the decision that many people are forced to make: whether to end a life or keep struggling to hold on. Netflix’s first foray into short documentary, it’s raw insight that can be rough for anyone who has been in similar shoes or spent any time facing dire choices in a hospital.
What Happened, Miss Simone? (2015)
Run Time: 101 min | IMDb: 7.6/10
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 Nina 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.
The Dawn Wall (2017)
Run Time: 100 min | IMDb: 8.1/10
We’re not sure why watching human beings dangling thousands of feet in the air with no safety net or cable cord to tether them to Earth is so irresistible, but it is, and this doc about free climber Tommy Caldwell and climbing partner Kevin Jorgeson might be Netflix’s most bingeable adventure flick. The two men attempt to scale the impossible 3000ft Dawn Wall of El Capitan, the Everest for free climbers, and if you can stomach over an hour of near-fatal slips, trips, and falls, this is the doc for you.
The Bleeding Edge (2018)
Run Time: 99 min | IMDb: 8/10
Warning: Netflix’s The Bleeding Edge will seriously piss you off. It might also make you swear off doctors for the rest of your life. The film is a deep dive into the medical device industry and the dangers that lurk there for unassuming patients. Like the pharmaceutical industry, there are few laws regulating the creation and implementation of medical devices — think everything from birth control to orthopedic instruments — and the doc shows how this is negatively affecting millions of Americans every year from the women unknowingly sterilized by an IUD device to a doctor whose own ortho-device slowly poisoned him. It’s a frustrating watch, but a necessary one.
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