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 Ostendorf
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.
Screengrab via Movieclips Trailers/YouTube (Fair Use)
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.
2014 was a breakout year for Tig Notaro. During a performance at New York City’s Town Hall, the lesbian comic came out as a breast cancer survivor. In a career-making set, Notaro performed shirtless, baring her double mastectomy for the world to see. After the act generated massive buzz (and applause from those who lauded her fearlessness), she would do it again—this time on her HBO standup special, Boyish Girl Interrupted. 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
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.
Screengrab via ENTRTNMNT/YouTube (Fair Use)
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) We Were Here
There’s been an embarrassment of great documentaries on the ’80s AIDS crisis in recent years, the most well-known being David French’s great How to Survive a Plague. The year before Plague was released, David Weissman and Bill Weber directed We Were Here, an equally important look at queer life during an era where being gay was looked at as a death sentence. What’s refreshing about We Were Here is that shows a community coming together for hope and healing. Weissman and Weber interview psychologist Ed Wolf, activist Paul Boneberg, and others who worked to fight the disease, which had infected 50 percent of gay men by the mid-’80s, including Guy Clark, a dancer who lived in San Francisco’s famed Castro district during the epidemic. He brought flowers to the funerals of those who passed away from HIV. The uplifting We Were Here is a stirring reminder of the power and beauty of solidarity. —N.L.
8) Room 237
Do you like movies? Better yet, are you obsessed with movies? What about one movie, specifically? If you’ve answered yes to any of these questions, you have qualified as a prime candidate for watching Room 237. One of the most original documentaries of the past few years, director Rodney Ascher’s exploration of fan theories swirling around Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining is a testament to the power of cinema to captivate and consume. Native Americans, the moon-landing, and more fall in the crosshairs of various Shining truthers whom Ascher allows to expound on their theories at length here. Ascher’s doesn’t endorse any of the theories, but he doesn’t condemn them, either. uses an objective style, so as not to condemn any of them either. Instead, the movie offers a meditation on how we project our own desires and politics into cinema. —C.O.
Screengrab via Firstshowing.net/YouTube (Fair Use)
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 tradition of LGBT-themed documentaries like Freeheld, the Bridegroom is one hell of a tearjerker. Directed by Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, the film made headlines in 2013 when it was presented at the Tribeca Film Festival by former President Bill Clinton, who highlighted the award-winning doc’s incendiary subject matter. Mild spoiler alerts for those touchy about that sort of thing: In 2011, Shane Bitney Crone’s partner, Tom, was unexpectedly killed after falling off the couple’s roof. Because the two men were not legally wed, Crone wasn’t able to receive benefits—or even attend his partner’s funeral. Given the progress made since the film’s release, Bridegroom might feel like a time capsule, but it’s a powerfully important one, as well as a reminder of the right to basic dignity for which the LGBT movement continues to fight. —Nico Lang
12) How to Survive a Plague
How to Survive a Plague reflects the terrible struggle gay activists went through just to get noticed while their community was dying in record numbers. Depicting infighting among activist groups, ignorance, and apathy on the part of the political and medical establishment, and the onslaught of a disease no one knew anything about yet, How to Survive a Plague is a necessary reminder of a time when HIV meant an almost certain death sentence. As Larry Kramer reminds us in the film, this was no regular epidemic, it was a “FUCKING PLAGUE!” —C.O.
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 witnesses for a specific cause, is more complicated than we tend to think. —C.O.
18) If You Build It
Need one of those feel-good, impact documentaries? See how a handful of high school students in the nation’s poorest county used a class project to give their small town something that brought the community together while boosting its economy. Set in Windsor, North Carolina, the 2013 documentary shows how two innovative teachers grapple with the school district to get funding for their course. See to what lengths the two will go to let the students and their project succeed in a small town in fear of change. –N.W.
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) Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room
Remember the Enron scandal of 2001? This documentary lays out the saga from beginning to end in a two-hour behind-the-scenes look into the bad guys that eventually steer the company to bankruptcy. From suicide and strippers to inside trading and a $40 billion lawsuit, The Smartest Guys in the Room masterfully airs out all of the fallen energy empire’s dirty laundry. –N.W.
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) 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. The film breaks down everything to do with the glass you have after work. –N.W.
27) Super Size Me
Super Size Me has gotten a lot of flack over the years for being the “well, duh” of documentaries. It wasn’t hard to figure out before the film was made that McDonald’s is bad for you. On top of which, Morgan Spurlock’s confrontational, Michael Moore-style of documentary filmmaking, wherein he often becomes the star and subject, doesn’t hold up for a lot of people. But Super Size Me still works as an in-depth examination of the fast food industrial complex in America, and it proved a revealing exposé on McDonald’s’ culture, one which, debatably, it’s never quite recovered from. —C.O.
Screengrab via Cinedigm/YouTube (Fair Use)
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.
Screengrab via Vice/YouTube (Fair Use)
29) Jesus Camp
Jesus Camp is as disturbing as almost any documentary you’re likely to see, and that includes the ones about serial killers and murder. The Oscar-nominated film from Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady follows a group of kids attending an evangelical summer camp, as well as Becky Fischer, the Pentecostal minister who’s in charge of the program. Although the movie is incredibly one-sided, atheists and Christians alike can surely admit that bringing child after child to tears by threats of eternal damnation is a dubious endeavor. Combine that with sections exploring the rise of evangelicalism nationally during the Bush era and you’ve got a nightmare of a film on your hands. —C.O.
Clocking in at just over an hour and a half, Tower is sure to become the defining film on the August 1, 1966 Kent State shooting. Nevermind that it came out 50 years later. 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. 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 in real life as they exist today, some of them actually meeting in person, all the more powerful. —C.O.
31) Planet Earth
Editor’s note: This article is regularly updated for context.
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