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Expand your horizons.
Documentaries are enjoying a boom in 2019, particularly on streaming services. Netflix has led the charge with high-profile documentaries on Billy McFarland’s spectacular Fyre Festival failure and the congressional campaigns of four female Democrats, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.). But the streaming giant has also released several humbler, equally addictive docuseries, delving into Southeast Asian street cuisine and using sports to explore the obtuse concept of losing. From single-serving feature films to binge-worthy series, these are the best Netflix original documentaries of 2019.
The best Netflix original documentaries of 2019
1) Street Food (nine-episode docuseries)
Street Food, the newest offering from Chef’s Table masterminds David Gelb and Brian McGinn, has the lovely filmmaking and meticulous food porn shots that you have come to expect from them, and much of modern documentary food culture in the Instagram era. Yes, Street Food offers the exotic locales and delicious cuisine, but this series adds a sharp sociopolitical sensibility that makes for one of the most compelling food shows ever made. Season 1 snakes throughout Southeast Asia, focusing on master street food chefs, the adversity they’ve overcome, and the gentrification that’s plagued their homes and jeopardized their profession. In Street Food, there are no easy recipes, and there are no easy answers. —Brenden Gallagher
2) Our Planet (eight-episode docuseries)
Our Planet, Netflix’s new nature documentary series, is full of majestic creatures and gorgeously shot tableaus, covering the frozen tundra, deserts, jungles, and forests. But the scene people are talking about is one in which several walruses climb up a cliff and apparently fall to their deaths. In many nature documentaries, we’re meant to marvel at wildlife or cheer for the prey to outrun the predator. But in Our Planet’s intro, narrator David Attenborough asserts that the series will “celebrate the natural wonders that remain, and reveal what we must preserve to ensure people and nature thrive,” adding an element of uncertainty to what it’s documenting. —Audra Schroeder
The star of Knock Down the House is Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), and there’s really no way around it. But Rachel Lears’ film documentary wouldn’t be complete without three other women who ran for Congress in their respective districts in 2018: West Virginia’s Paula Jean Swearengin, Missouri’s Cori Bush, and Nevada’s Amy Vilela. Lears gives us a real-time look at the campaign trail hustle for everyday citizens. She also shows the emotional stakes. Initially funded on Kickstarter, it was purchased by Netflix earlier this year for a stunning $10 million. It’s clear there’s a desire to see these feel-good, grassroots stories of the progressive movement, even as the rapidly changing landscape leading to 2020 recontextualizes them. —A.S.
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4) Losers (eight-episode docuseries)
Losers puts defeat in its crosshairs, with the understanding that no one prepares for losing—they survive it. The eight-episode sports docuseries captures the agonies of defeat and considers the cumulative cost of failure in the lives of its subjects. In the end, people who fail on a grand scale usually arrive at triumph through adversity. Losers finally allows time and space for the humanity that’s often lost in the middle. —Kahron Spearman
5) After Maria
After Maria follows three Puerto Rican women who relocated to New York after Hurricane Maria and tried to put their lives back together. Director Nadia Hallgreen keeps the focus of the documentary on the human side of this tragedy instead of tackling the politics of the recovery process. After Maria is an empathetic reminder that we must not lose track of the people reeling from disaster and caught in bureaucratic purgatory. —Eddie Strait
6) ReMastered series (eight feature-length installments)
Netflix took on a hefty challenge with its ReMastered music documentary series: repackage some of the music industry’s most sensationalistic stories in a way that adds valuable new context and separates fact from fiction. For the most part, Netflix has succeeded. ReMastered debunks some of music’s biggest conspiracy theories while also stripping away the veneer to dive into the personal lives of its featured artists, including Bob Marley, Sam Cooke, Robert Johnson, and more. While a few of the series’ lesser installments fail to rise above glorified Wikipedia entries, most of them recontextualize their subjects’ lives and careers—and in some cases, restore dignity to their names. —Bryan Rolli
In Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened, we get a closer look at the events leading up to the festival, co-organized by Billy McFarland and rapper Ja Rule. “Capture everything,” the directive for documenting the lead-up, yields a bounty of expository content. While attendees who could already afford tickets won a class-action lawsuit, the scammed Bahamian residents didn’t have that luxury. In that way, Fyre illustrates the class divide at the heart of this mess, one that McFarland expertly exploited. —A.S.
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8) Trigger Warning with Killer Mike (six-episode docuseries)
Trigger Warning with Killer Mike distills the controversial Atlanta rapper’s various sociopolitical musings on hurtful ideologies, nationality, America’s addiction to porn, and contextual Blackness/otherness into a cultural docuseries. More or less an imperfect, six-episode thought experiment, Trigger Warning finds the affable Run the Jewels MC serving humor, absurdity, and truth in equal portions. —K.S.
9) Larry Charles’ Dangerous World of Comedy (four-part docuseries)
Larry Charles’ Dangerous World of Comedy is part travel show, part tragicomic variety show. Over just four episodes, Charles—who wrote for Seinfeld and directed episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm and the movies Borat and Brüno—packs in quite a bit of content. He claims in the first episode that he’s “traveled through the comedy danger zone and lived to tell the tale,” and his series aims to figure out what makes people in certain parts of the world laugh, and how people get their sense of humor. —A.S.
Looking for something more specific? Here are our Netflix guides for the best war movies, documentaries, anime, indie flicks, true crime, food shows, rom-coms, LGBT movies, alien movies, gangster movies, Westerns, film noir, and movies based on true stories streaming right now. There are also sad movies guaranteed to make you cry, weird movies to melt your brain, old movies when you need something classic, and standup specials when you really need to laugh. Or check out Flixable, a search engine for Netflix.
Bryan Rolli is a reporter who specializes in streaming entertainment. He writes about music and film for Forbes, Billboard, and the Austin American-Statesman. He met Flavor Flav in two separate Las Vegas bowling alleys and still can’t stop talking about it.