These should be required viewing.
They say truth is stranger than fiction. What they don’t tell you is that it can also be funnier, lovelier, and more interesting than your average Hollywood story. The documentaries listed below, all currently available on Netflix and with write-ups culled in part from some of our other streaming guides, are proof of that. You may not find the exact truth in all of them, but you will find something that will stick with you long after the credits fade.
The best documentaries on Netflix
1) Jiro Dreams of Sushi
Jiro Dreams of Sushi is the kind of documentary that was meant to be on Netflix. Though it was well-received upon theatrical release, it often takes the accessibility of streaming services for stories with such specified subject matter to reach a wider audience. Sushi master Jiro and his relationship with son Yoshikazu (parodied on IFC’s Documentary Now) make for a fascinating portrait of the pursuit to do one thing really well. Caution to sushi fans, though: Your mouth will be watering through much of the 1:20 runtime. —Chris Osterndorf
There are many documentaries that advocate for social change, but few have been as effective as Blackfish. Helping to put an end to SeaWorld’s inhumane whale shows, this film called attention to egregious animal rights violations that had been going on right in front of us for years. It’s telling that when Tilikum, one of the orcas at the center of Blackfish, passed away in early 2017, there was a renewed sense of interest on his behalf—and on behalf of policing SeaWorld. —C.O.
3) The Thin Blue Line
Like Blackfish, The Thin Blue Line is a work of social activism (and like Jiro Dreams of Sushi, it was parodied on IFC’s Documentary Now). But what makes The Thin Blue Line a singularly important piece of filmmaking is that it actually saved a man’s life—Randall Adams, who was was wrongly sentenced to death in 1976 for the murder of a Dallas police officer. Errol Morris is widely considered to be one of the greatest documentarians of all time, but even among his impressive filmography, there’s nothing quite as politically significant as this exploration of gross misuse of power. —C.O.
2013 was a breakout year for Tig Notaro—and one of her hardest. During a performance at New York City’s Largo, the lesbian comic came out with her breast cancer diagnosis in a set that became instantly iconic, in part because Notaro only received the news a day before the show—and it closely followed another health scare and the death of her mother. The acclaimed Netflix documentary Tig examines the comedian’s life during her treatment and in recovery—as she and her partner attempt to have their first child. Kristina Goolsby and Ashley York’s film is both as candid and disarmingly intimate as you would expect a film about Notaro to be. The documentary is a testament to human resilience—about finding the courage to go on after enormous hardship. —Nico Lang —Nico Lang
5) Exit Through the Gift Shop
Is it an elaborate prank or a piece of high-performance art? Is it an inviting work of genius, or is it subtly poking fun at everyone who views it? These questions apply to both Exit Through the Gift Shop as a work of art and to the art world the film depicts. Directed by the ever-enigmatic Banksy, this documentary begins as a co-exploration of the street art movement, and the French shopkeeper who sought to capture it, Thierry Guetta (a.k.a. Mr. Brainwash). But when Banksy decides halfway through the movie that Thierry might not be, so to speak, the ideal candidate to make the definitive movie on this movement, Exit Through the Gift Shop’s narrative takes an unexpected turn. The film eventually becomes a meditation on the idea of authenticity in an art culture that is increasingly commercialized. If that sounds too esoteric for you, don’t worry, Exit Through the Gift Shop is also riotously funny and at times utterly unbelievable. —C.O.
6) She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry
This documentary gives you an all-access pass into lives of the heroes behind the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s. The girl-power history divulges into the radical waves made for things we rightly take for granted in American society today. These women stood on the front lines in battle for gender equality and are still around to tell the world about it. —Nia Wesley
7) Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond—Featuring a Very Special, Contractually Obligated Mention of Tony Clifton
When Jim Carrey prepared to play Andy Kaufman in 1999’s Man on the Moon, he went beyond method. In Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond, we see 20-year-old footage of his transformation, as well as “Andy” terrorizing the set and Carrey losing himself in the process. You’ll cringe, you’ll laugh, and you’ll try to decipher Carrey’s existential ramblings. —Audra Schroeder
Netflix’s The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson explores the tragic 1992 death of a legendary gay rights activist, officially ruled suicide but which many suspect to be a murder. Director David France uses the film to explore the larger scope of Johnson’s life and impact on both the landscape of LGBTQ rights and those closest to her. —David Wharton
Although not as formally inventive as I Am Not Your Negro, nor as narratively ambitious as O.J.: Made in America, 13th is the third in a trifecta of great Oscar-nominated documentaries about race in America we got in 2016. From Selma director Ava DuVernay, this film builds off of works such as Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow to explore mass incarceration in the U.S. and eventually ask the difficult question: What if slavery in this country never ended, just transformed? Bound to become an instructional text in liberal schools all over, the biggest criticism one can level against 13th is that at an hour and 40 minutes, there might not be enough of it.—C.O.
10) What Happened, Miss Simone?
Did you know her real name was Eunice Kathleen Waymon? “Nina Simone” was a stage name because she didn’t want her mother knowing she was performing in saloons at the start of her career. And this Netflix-produced documentary opens with her less-than-humble start in 1930s North Carolina and progresses through her journey across the country to become a pioneering all-timer. With archived footage and priceless family photos, Simone’s identity as a black political activist during the civil rights era and her struggles with mental illness are brought front and center. (Her alluring, timeless performances? Plenty of that too.) –N.W.
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In the Netflix original documentary Laert-se, comic strips depict the inner workings of a Brazilian cartoonist as she comes to terms with her gender identity. The device serves two purposes: informing the audience of artist Laerte Coutinho’s thoughts, and acting as a way to tell this searing, real story in a straightforward manner. Coutinho is initially hesitant to be intimately honest with documentarian Eliane Brum, but the more she opens up, the more the artwork exposes her thoughts and desires. The end result is a compelling, in-depth look at Coutinho’s transformation. —Dan Marcus
This documentary shines a light on journalist Gay Talese and the scandal surrounding The Voyeur’s Motel. His 2016 book told the story of Gerald Foos, a serial voyeur who modified his Colorado motel so that he could spy on the guests from an attic crawl space that allowed him to peep in through the ceiling vents. Talese’s interactions with Foos raised a whole host of ethical questions, especially when Foos claimed to have witnessed a murder… and that was before a Washington Post story revealed that Foos might not have been telling the truth. —David Wharton
13) Man on Wire
Man on Wire is the rare documentary that asks you to root for the criminals. In 1974, Frenchman Philippe Petit broke more than a few laws in pursuit of an impossible dream—walking on a tightrope between the Twin Towers. James Marsh’s film is an incredibly gripping nail-biter that’s paced like a thriller. That’s why it’s unsurprising that director Robert Zemeckis adapted it into a feature film starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Petit, a kind of fact-based Ocean’s Eleven that takes the whimsy up to 12. But you’re much better off sticking to the groundbreaking original, which is one of the few movies to earn a perfect score on Rotten Tomatoes. —N.L.
14) The Imposter
Not content to merely deliver on the weirdness of its premise, The Imposter goes down several strange rabbit holes over the course of its runtime. Following the story of Frédéric Bourdin, a grown Frenchman who decides to impersonate Nicholas Barclay, a missing 16-year-old from Texas, the film first asks what kind of psyche would decide to pull such a con? But as director Bart Layton digs deeper, it also questions why Barclay’s family would’ve been so eager to accept Bourdin’s absurd story. Like all great mysteries, The Imposter makes you question everything. It also gave us one of the best real life movie detective in years with Texas lawman Charlie Parker, who becomes a lynchpin in the film’s third act. —C.O.
A movie about fashion icon Iris Apfel should be as fabulous as her extraordinary life. On that front, Albert Maysles’ film is a smashing success. The legendary filmmaker has a way with larger-than-life subjects. With his late brother, David, Maysles directed Grey Gardens, the acclaimed documentary about a pair of faded socialites living in a condemned house in the Hamptons. In the film’s most famous scene, Little Edie Beale models her “revolutionary costume for the day,” a bathing suit with a makeshift headwrap and an American flag. Like Edie, Iris was a one-woman trailblazer, someone who refused to be defined by convention. The force-of-nature is a lively presence on screen, but Iris has a quiet poignancy to it, as the aging icon deals with the daily realities of growing old. Iris is so dazzlingly pleasurable that you might not realize how touching this love letter to oddballs everywhere truly is. —N.L.
16) Life Itself
Steve James is debatably the most important documentary filmmaker of the last quarter century, with acclaimed works like Hoop Dreams, Stevie, and The Interrupters under his belt to show for it. But while all his films are personal in nature, James’ 2014 portrait of fellow Chicagoan Roger Ebert feels especially close to home. Ebert had championed his work for years by the time James decided to do a film on America’s most famous film critic. But the result is no mere hagiography, pulling pieces from Ebert’s own memoir to create a warts-and-all portrait that is made all the more affecting by scenes in which James visits him during the last few months of his life. The overall achievement proves to be both a moving tribute to a unique American voice and a touching meditation on mortality itself. —C.O.
17) The Witness
A powerful if underseen documentary from 2016, James Solomon’s The Witness examines the notorious murder of New Yorker Kitty Genovese through the lens of her brother, Bill. A Vietnam war vet who lost both his legs, Bill proves to be an unstoppable force for truth, so much so that the rest of the Genovese family sometimes question how far he’s willing to go. When Bill reaches out to Kitty’s killer, who died in prison last year before the film was released, no one is exactly sure what he’s hoping to accomplish, including Bill himself. What The Witness does chip away at is the legend that 38 bystanders watched and listened to Kitty get murdered without doing anything to intervene. In the end, the film suggests that being a witness, both in the sense of watching someone commit a crime and being a witness for a specific cause, is more complicated than we tend to think. —C.O.
18) Brother’s Keeper
Brother’s Keeper tells the strange tale of the Ward brothers, four semi-literate farmers who lived together in a shack in Munnsville, New York. After one of them is murdered, a media frenzy breaks out around the siblings and their unconventional lifestyle. Questions about whether this was a case of coerced confession, a mercy killing, or something more sinister abound—not to mention whether the Wards are being exploited or playing dumb for the camera. From Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky (the Paradise Lost trilogy), Brother’s Keeper is one of the essential titles in modern documentary filmmaking. —C.O.
19) The Nightmare
Eight percent of the population suffers from sleep paralysis, defined as “a discrete period of time during which voluntary muscle movement is inhibited, yet ocular and respiratory movements are intact.” Basically, your body is completely asleep but you can’t move. For the people who suffer from this disorder, it can be a terrifying nightmare, being trapped in a body that can’t move. The Nightmare is a documentary about these people and the night terrors that follow them. While not everyone with sleep paralysis sees the dark figures that haunt the subjects of this documentary, we promise they’ll haunt your dreams long after your viewing. —John-Michael Bond
20) The Overnighters
This acclaimed 2014 documentary focuses on a North Dakota pastor named Jay Reinke. The North Dakota oil boom attracted countless souls dreaming of an easy payday, only to have them discover a far less rosy reality and a housing shortage that left many on the streets. Pastor Reinke’s ministry turned toward helping these beleaguered workers and their families as the huge population boom strained local resources and drove some to desperation. The Overnighters premiered at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Special Jury Award. —David Wharton
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21) Paris Is Burning
With its unforgettable look at Harlem’s drag ball community, this famous documentary doesn’t just give us a glimpse of a hugely underrepresented aspect of queer, black, and Latino cultures. It also introduces us to notable trans icons like Octavia St. Laurent and prominent drag queens like the legendary Paris DuPree and Pepper LaBeija. And it gave us the story of other trans women like Venus Xtravaganza, who ultimately became victims of a transphobic society that three decades has done little to erase. Released just as the AIDS epidemic was peaking in the gay community, Paris Is Burning examines issues of race, class, homophobia, transphobia, and the devastating effects of AIDS on the community. A seven-year labor of love, the documentary still causes heated controversy today because of white filmmaker Jennie Livingston’s approach to telling the stories of a community not her own. But it remains an important and multifaceted early look at queer culture, at a historical moment when far more than Paris was on fire. —Aja Romano
22) Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World
As The Daily Dot’s Audra Schroeder writes in her review of the film, “Lo and Behold asks more questions than it answers, but that’s always been Herzog’s style.” However, Schroeder also notes that what makes Lo and Behold an interesting entry in the Herzog catalog is that this time he is asking questions about something which he seems to know nothing about. Typically consumed by man’s battle with his environment and the inescapable chaos of the world, Herzog is a naturalist, albeit a pessimistic one, at heart. Here, he brings that same pessimistic fascination to his investigation into the digital realm. As per usual, Herzog does not condemn or approve, so much as marvel at the magnitude of his subject. Perhaps that’s what makes Reveries of the Connected World one of the better documentaries about the internet. Herzog takes no stance either way, except perhaps a stance of wonder. —C.O.
23) The Art of Organized Noise
Ever wonder how rap duo Outkast got its start? Talk about hard work, dedication, and a lot of bars. The humble beginnings are brought to the stage in this 2016 rap history lesson. The documentary highlights how the two were pioneers in putting southern rap on a national radar. Featuring artists like Diddy, Future, Ludacris, 2 Chainz, and Cee Lo, the documentary pays homage to the basement label Organized Noize that thrust Outkast onto a national scale. –N.W.
24) I Called Him Morgan
Helen Morgan killed her common-law husband, virtuoso jazz trumpeter Lee Morgan, in cold blood on a February night in 1972. It was a heinous act that took a talented man from the world when he still had a lot left to offer. But while Kasper Collin’s I Called Him Morgan gives the proper weight to this tragedy, the documentary is elevated by not demonizing Helen for her actions. In using recordings from an interview she gave before her death, Collin pieces together the life of an extraordinary if troubled woman, even arriving at some understanding of why she did what she did. The film is an elegant, empathetic portrait of two remarkable subjects. —C.O.
25) After Porn Ends
It’s the billion-dollar industry that has a special place in many people’s lives. But unlike other porn documentaries, this 94-minute flick doesn’t focus on the business side of the industry. After Porn Ends dives into the careers of those in the field and how hard it is to start fresh after they’ve hung up their dancing shoes. It shows a harsh reality of why many of them enter the business and why even more can’t stay away for very long. –N.W.
26) Kingdom of Us
Director Lucy Cohen’s heart-wrenching Kingdom of Us is a touching and intimate view into the lives of a grieving wife and her seven children, all attempted to understand why patriarch Paul Shanks killed himself in Warwickshire, England’s Crackley Woods. Through old family videos, interviews, recited writings, and even songs, Cohen provides her Netflix documentary with precipitous depths to coping with mental illness and extraordinary loss. She goes inside the photographic negative of the supposedly happy family living out an idyllic countryside life and finds what went wrong. —Kahron Spearman
27) Hot Girls Wanted
There’s no doubt that the internet has steadily revolutionized access to porn. But it’s also made it more feasible to access potential actors and actresses, misleading them into the world of amateur porn with promises of fame and fortune. Hot Girls Wanted undoubtedly gives an intimate view of several 18- to 19-year-old amateur porn “stars,” highlighting the dangers of hiring young, inexperienced performers. With former print journalists leading the project, the documentary is approached both informatively and respectfully while simultaneously bringing to light the troubles of the “girl next door” gone “internet sensation.” —Dahlia Dandashi
28) The Wolfpack
Intimate, heartfelt, and often unsettling, The Wolfpack is about life, film, and what it’s like to live one’s life through film. Because for the Angulo brothers, who grew up confined to their New York housing project by their strict father, film was once all they had. Growing up, the Angulos, or as they nickname themselves, “the Wolfpack,” would reenact scenes from movies they watched, filming their own housebound versions to amuse themselves. —C.O.
Joan Didion has always been fairly inscrutable. In her writing there is a quiet voyeurism; sunglasses on, straight face. She’s a reporter in the truest sense, and when you read her words, you see the picture she’s painting, but you also wonder what the artist is thinking. Does Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold illuminate her at all? If you’re intimate with her work, not so much. If you’re a stranger, it’s a reasonable introduction. Griffin Dunne—actor, director, and Didion’s nephew—directs, and having a family member at the helm certainly offers better access. He goes chronologically, detailing Didion’s early formative years in Sacramento and first job at Vogue, and there are voiceovers of Didion reading portions of her work, but the meat here is Dunne’s interviews with “aunt Joan.” —Audra Schroeder
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Clocking in at just over an hour and a half, Tower is sure to become the defining film on the Aug. 1, 1966 sniper shooting at the University of Texas at Austin. As a haunting reminder of the past and a frightening predictor of the present, few events from the last century are as significant or as horrifying as what happened that day. That it took Tower so long to get made isn’t so important as the fact that it got made at all. Using interviews and animation to recreate their actions, survivors of the incident talk about their trauma and their bravery while director Keith Maitland uses rotoscoping to paint a picture of what they went through. This makes the film’s ending, when we see these people as in real life as they exist today, some of them actually meeting in person, all the more powerful.
Five Foot Two documents the months leading up to Lady Gaga‘s record-breaking Super Bowl halftime performance. It does a lot to humanize the pop star, whose meat dress-wearing, hatching-out-of-an-egg-on-the-red-carpet persona admittedly hasn’t been the most accessible over the years. In the doc we get to see her in jorts at her grandma’s house, dealing with chronic body pain, and checking the aisles of a Walmart for her new CD. In other words, she’s ready to be relatable. By the end of the vulnerable, behind-the-music documentary, we’re intimately familiar with our lord and pop savior Stefani Germanotta. —Christine Friar
47) Strong Island
In April 1992, William Ford Jr. was shot and killed during a dispute. An all-white grand jury did not indict the white man who killed William, a black man. Strong Island, directed and produced by William’s sister Yance Ford, is a searing look at a family’s loss. It’s also a way for Yance to reclaim her brother’s name and dictate the narrative of his life rather than letting the courts have the final say. Strong Island is an intimate, angry documentary that is also one of the year’s best. —E.S.
48) SOMM: Into the Bottle
Do you know what a sommelier is? Neither did I until I watched this enthralling documentary. It’s all you ever wanted to know about the history of wine—it literally goes into the bottle, as its title promises—and the cinematography is out of this world. Aerial views around European vineyards leave you wanting to book your next international flight to experience them in real time. It fascinatingly breaks down everything to do with the little red glass you have after work. –N.W.
Veterans meets surfers in Netflix’s Resurface, a documentary that looks at Operation Surf, which offers surf therapy to wounded veterans as a means of helping the vets deal with their post-service issues. Whether suffering from mental or physical ailments, Op Surf provides an escape from the realities and PTSD, physical, and mental injuries. With a runtime under 30 minutes, Resurface doesn’t have time to do into extreme detail, but it does enough to show the value of compassion and the willingness of people to help those who help protect us. —E.S.
This 72-minute documentary presents a clear-eyed look at the economic system that helped build up America and is now crushing so many of its citizens. Based on the book by Robert B. Reich, it’s an even-handed look that doesn’t condone or condemn the system but rather serves as a wakeup call to the fact that, somewhere along the line, we lost sight of what matters most: the people. —Eddie Strait
Editor’s note: This article is regularly updated for context.
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