The best Netflix documentaries have something for everyone. Even though you may have no interest in yoga, cheerleading, or rich idiots throwing the worst music festival in existence, these feature films entertain and inform us regardless.
Netflix seems to still be relentlessly splashing the cash on new investigative features, so get ready for your watchlists to get even bigger. This is great news for fact fans, though, and as you can see from the quality films that make up the following list, it'll hopefully lead to more excellent non-fiction deep dives.
The Last Dance and Tiger King kept us sane during those pandemic-induced months spent indoors, Sandi Tan's Shirkers is one of the most heartfelt features you can see and Ava DuVernay’s 13th remains as powerful and important as it was on release in 2016. So, these are the best Netflix documentaries to add to your watchlist right now – and to keep things simple, we've just picked Netflix Originals, so you can enjoy them wherever you live.
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For our money, Icarus is still the best documentary on Netflix. Even if it hadn't taken home the Oscar for Best Documentary feature in 2018, Bryan Fogel’s exposé of the Russian doping scandal would nevertheless rank among the best whistleblower films ever made.
What begins as a fairly run-of-the-mill investigation into the effects of performance-enhancing drugs soon becomes an unexpected and downright thrilling journey into the violence, corruption and betrayal surrounding professional athletics, and Icarus expertly combines talking heads, undercover footage and smart animation to make it stand out from the documentary crowd.
Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, and Madness
Big cat owners come in all shapes and sizes – well, stripes – but nobody is quite like Joe Exotic, the Tiger King. This polygamist, gun-wielding animal-lover is properly larger-than-life, and for the majority of 2020 he was the most talked about character on Netflix.
In Tiger King, what starts out for Exotic as a humane enterprise descends into cruelty, madness and vanity as he engages in a protracted spat with an animal rights activist who may not be all she seems. Things get pretty crazy, to say the least – Exotic's humble zoo becomes a home for murder planning, electoral runs and suicide. It's unpredictable, seemingly-impossible and it'll have you open-mouthed for all seven of its episodes.
American Factory took home Best Documentary Feature at the 2020 Oscars, and marks the first film from Barack and Michelle Obama’s production studio Higher Ground Productions. It follows the working lives of US and Chinese employees in the Fuyao Glass factory in Ohio.
While the concept of saving a shuttered General Motors factory and thousands of jobs seems like a Hollywood dream, the reality of the stark differences in attitudes to socializing and day-to-day work becomes a serious challenge for everyone involved. Handled deftly by the directors, the human side of this story is never lost. Just mind the culture gap.
Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal
Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal delves into the fraudulent methods used by Rick Singer to get the children of rich and famous families into top US universities.
The feature-length documentary uses a clever combination of talking heads and acted sequences – headed by Matthew Modine as Singer – to great effect, and provides an eye-opening account of the very recent, very public scandal in which actresses Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman were involved.
Don’t F*ck With Cats: Hunting an Internet Killer
There is, apparently, one rule on the Dark Web. You can show whatever you want – murder, violence – just don’t f*ck with cats. This controversial and disturbing three-part documentary is what happened when someone flouted that rule and a group of armchair detectives got together to take them down. Built from the visual internet lexicon of Google Maps images and notifications, this is smart storytelling with a purposeful sting in its tail.
The Last Dance
Like Tiger King before it, The Last Dance arrived on Netflix just in time to abate our lockdown-induced blues. In fact, it probably got millions more people into basketball, too. The ten-part docuseries chronicles the rise of the Chicago Bulls throughout the 1990s and, in particular, superstar Michael Jordan as he traverses fortune and fame.
Never-before-seen footage makes this one a must-watch for basketball fans, and for everyone else, The Last Dance is a case study in how to present sport as the thrilling, emotional business that it is. The soundtrack is pretty great, too.
Formula One: Drive to Survive
Sticking with the sports theme, Formula One: Drive to Survive can probably claim to have done more for the publicity of F1 than any driver before it. Seriously, it makes the idea of 20 race cars driving around a track for 60 laps seem like a Hollywood movie – it’s genuinely thrilling to behold.
Across three seasons, Drive to Survive focuses on the plight and politics of all 10 teams competing on the grid, and will leave you yearning for the next instalment of burning rubber and aggressively-shaken champagne. Or, if you wanted, you could just watch F1.
As much as Cheer can be viewed as the incredible achievements of an elite cheerleading squad, it can also easily be seen through the lens of a horror movie. Here, in this impressive six-part series from the director of the equally compelling Last Chance U, young men and women risk life and limb as they are tossed skyward, leaving their trust in those left on the ground. Whether you're watching through your fingers or punching the air in victory, Cheer is emotional viewing.
Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened
If you followed the Fyre Festival hashtag back in 2017 like that popcorn gif you've now put in the bad taste bin, then it's time to settle down for a reality check. The true story from those on the ground of the car crash influencer fest, this is just as astounding as those shots of sad cheese sandwiches offered in place of luxurious party food.
Fyre, one of two documentaries covering the tropical island holiday from hell, is an expertly woven tale of entrepreneurial villainy, 21st century indulgence and the very real – not to mention dire – consequences faced by Bahamian workers.
Evil Genius: The True Story of America's Most Diabolical Bank Heist
It sounds like the plot of a Saw movie. A pizza delivery man robs a bank with a pipe bomb strapped around his neck, and the subsequent deadly explosion is televised globally as he desperately pleads for surrounding police to remove it.
Evil Genius is the investigation into exactly why Brian Wells did what he did, and the involvement of a woman called Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong and her friend William Rothstein. There's no concrete answer here, but the filmmaker's discussions with the convicted Diehl-Armstrong remain fascinating, if infuriating.
Plenty of the documentaries on this list will, quite rightfully, make you angry. Nowhere, though, is this feeling more potent than in Ava DuVernay's Oscar-nominated investigation into the mass incarceration of black Americans. 13th is a devastating look at the invention of the modern prison system in the US, and the misaligned scales of justice when it comes to race. The mirroring of 21st century politics to the attitudes of pre-American Civil War society is a sobering wake up call.
The Great Hack
The Cambridge Analytica scandal and the widespread use of our data for nefarious purposes isn't huge news now in 2021, but The Great Hack's informative breakdown of 21st century power and technology is still provocative viewing.
With fascinating talking heads and a truthfully bleak outlook, this documentary explores the insidious nature of the use of data for voter manipulation, marketing and – essentially – global domination. That places The Great Hack firmly in the 'true crimes against humanity' sub-genre.
Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator
The #MeToo movement is not relegated to one industry. This profile of the phenomenally successful yoga teacher Bikram Choudhury is a devastating breakdown of the alleged psychological and sexual abuse from those he worked with. Speaking directly with his accusers, this difficult documentary shows exactly how he managed to leave the country without incident.
Making A Murderer
Our obsession with the true crime genre isn’t new, but Making A Murderer was the first series to make it socially acceptable to have watercooler discussions over diabolical interview techniques, potential police cover ups and the identity of the murderer who killed young photographer Teresa Halbach in Wisconsin.
The story of the guilt or innocence of convicted man Steven Avery and, somehow more tragically, his nephew Brendan Dassey has now had two seasons, with the second seeing high-flying attorney Kathleen Zellner take his case. Combine it with some follow-up reading for further context on the case, and Making A Murderer remains essential viewing.
When it comes to the best reasons to buy a new OLED TV, nothing can come close to the David Attenborough-narrated Our Planet. Taking four years to film across 50 countries, this eight-part wonder of a nature series is led by the brains behind the BBC's Planet Earth.
Just take note that, while it might seem like audiovisual Listerine after the blood and grime of the rest of the entries on this list, nature's plight on a globe that humans have been systematically destroying is as hard-hitting as any true crime documentary.
Not that the world actually needs a reminder of just how villainous the tabloid press can be, but here's another one anyway. In her own words, straight down the lens and into your soul, Amanda Knox, the woman convicted and subsequently cleared of the murder of British exchange student Meredith Kercher in Italy in 2007, explains exactly how she was painted as a nefarious psychopath. Thanks to interviews with key press players and the individuals involved, this remains an absorbing, not to mention infuriating, film.
Pandemic: How to Prevent an Outbreak
The release of Pandemic: How to Prevent an Outbreak was horribly timely, but that doesn't stop this five-part doc from being a fascinating glimpse into the science behind the spread of disease, and those working tirelessly to prevent global outbreaks of influenza. Oh, and prepare to get very, very angry about the anti-vaccine debate. Like, furious.
Who killed Sister Cathy? This might be the simple crux at the heart of this investigation, but The Keepers is so much more than the re-opening of a cold case. This galling and honest seven-parter follows the previous students of Cathy Cesnik who, decades on, have come forward with their stories of sexual abuse at the hands of a Baltimore priest who taught at the same high school. It's not an easy story to hear, but the friendships between these women and their drive for justice is truly inspirational.
Wild Wild Country
The thing about cults is that, first of all, no one ever thinks they are in one, and secondly, the people who aren't in a cult never think they would join. Wild Wild Country, a frankly astonishing dive into the Oregon desert commune of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, does a brilliant job of humanizing those who thought they had found the answer. It also has more violent twists and turns than a Tarantino movie, and creates a masterful profile of the controversial figures at the heart of the supposedly peaceful community.
Knock Down the House
Anyone with a vague knowledge of the American political landscape won't be surprised by the denouement of this triumphant doc, but that doesn't take away from its power. Director Rachel Lear's depiction of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her fellow Justice Democrats in their respective races for election is an utterly human underdog story.
Flicking between their professional and personal lives, Lear channels the genuine elation of trusting in hope and the true power of fighting on even when the odds are against you.
If the idea of the eight-hour documentary sagas scattered across this feature fill your to-do list with dread, Long Shot is (ironically) a short hit of a true crime documentary. When Juan Catalan is arrested for a murder he claims he didn't commit, the source of proof of his innocence comes from an entirely unpredictable place. Yes, Larry David is involved in one of the most unexpected cameos of all time. Just watch it. It's shorter than the time you'll spend on social media today.
Let’s get it out of the way first. No, it wasn't an owl that killed Kathleen Peterson in her North Carolina home in 2001. Whether it was her husband Michael, though, is another matter. This is exactly what The Staircase aims to help you decide. Originally a 2004 series from Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, Netflix released new episodes in 2018 following Peterson’s long fight with the law. Whether you believe he is guilty or not, this is a veritable roller coaster through the modern justice system with a family at its heart.
In 1992, when she was 19, filmmaker, critic and novelist Sandi Tan made a movie with her friends in Singapore. Then all of the footage disappeared. For 20 years.
Shirkers is an entirely unique documentary about a movie that never was, an enigma in the shape of the mysterious man who shot the film and then disappeared, who lived with the trauma of pouring your heart, soul, money and friendships into a project that would never come to light. Shot and edited with the wild creativity of a movie-obsessed youth, Shirkers is a heartfelt and joyous experience.
The Devil Next Door
This thought-provoking mini series follows John Demjanjuk, a quiet, simple grandfather living out his retirement in Cleveland, whose life is turned upside-down. That's because he may also be Ivan the Terrible, a notorious Nazi death camp guard. Naturally, it can be a difficult watch, but The Devil Next Door dramatizes the overriding importance of truth amid a whirlwind of emotion and pain.
Shot in the Dark
When it comes to morals, Shot in the Dark has more shades of grey than an AllSaints window display, but that doesn’t make it any less compelling viewing. Following three of Los Angeles’ most successful so-called 'stringers,' the cameramen responsible for finding footage of accidents and tragedies for the rolling 24-hour news cycle, this is a dark look at the seedy underbelly of modern journalism. There’s more humanity at work here than Jake Gyllenhaal’s cold gaze in Nightcrawler, but it's not easy to watch those running in the direction of the blood on the tarmac.
With its unassuming title, The Pharmacist sits quietly as one of the most riveting true crime documentaries on Netflix. This is the story of Dan Schneider, a pharmacist whose son Danny was addicted to crack cocaine and murdered in 1999. Schneider not only took on the investigation when he didn't feel like the police were doing enough, but followed up with a damning look at America’s opioid crisis as a whole. To divulge more would spoil it, but The Pharmacist is just what the doctor ordered.
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