We’ve all been there — spending hour upon hour scrolling through Netflix’s vast library trying to figure out what to put on next. While more often than not, the easiest option is to revert to a tried and tested classic (Rick and Morty for the billionth time, anyone?), many of the documentaries the streaming giant offers get overlooked — and they shouldn’t be.
Hiding among your Friends re-runs and the hot new releases are a bunch of awesome, educational documentaries. From delving into the most convoluted of police cover-ups to the mistreatment of killer whales to late ’80s vogueing culture — there really is something for everyone. To make your doc-hunt all the easier, we’ve put together a list of the best documentaries on Netflix right now for your streaming pleasure.
Director: Ava DuVernay
“Fierce” is the first word that comes to mind when contemplating Ana DuVernay’s Academy Award-nominated documentary, 13th. “Intelligent” is the second. Tackling such excruciatingly heavy subject matter with grace is no task for the ham-fisted. Taking its name from the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery yet left a loophole that states involuntary servitude can be used in criminal circumstances, the documentary draws a line from the abolition of slavery, through gang culture, to the myths of “black criminality” that have become systemic within the U.S. judicial system.
Yet DuVernay’s message isn’t clouded by anger. Rather she uses articulate talking heads and a myriad of archive clips to hammer the rage home to any viewer with an ounce of morality. This isn’t an easy watch by any means, but then the best documentaries on Netflix rarely are.
Director: Gabriela Cowperthwaite
The New York Times described Cowperthwaite’s Blackfish as “delicately lacerating,” which summarizes the film to a T. The documentary takes the tragic tale of an orca in captivity and his human victims and uses it to question the ethics of theme park giant SeaWorld, which vehemently denied many of the claims made.
It’s an alarming watch. Demanding awareness from the audience, Blackfish focuses on 12,000lb bull orca Tilikum, who was involved in the death of three people. The documentary argues that not only should Tilikum not have been captured in the first place, but the harassment Tilikum suffered at the hands of fellow captive orcas contributed to his later aggression.
The documentary overflows with unsettling and sometimes disturbing imagery — bleeding whales, a crushed trainer, another dragged into a holding pool — but it should be at the top of your “to watch” list nevertheless.
Director: Albert Maysles
Ninety-three years old at the time, Iris Apfel is the New York fashion icon upon which Iris is based. The sartorial symbol is globally renowned for her improvisational style, layering item upon item to create looks that are both eclectic and extremely polished.
One of the more joyful additions to this list of best documentaries on Netflix, we’re invited into Iris’ personal Aladdin’s cave of style, which she shared with interior designer husband Carl, who sadly passed away in 2015. A true model of living life to the full, Iris and her bold attire are accompanied by her witty, down-to-earth, lovable persona, which is at the forefront of the film as much as her sense of style.
After watching, you’ll be head over (extremely chic) heels in love with Mrs. Apfel.
Gaga: Five Foot Two (2017)
Director: Chris Moukarbel
Music documentaries don’t get much bigger than Gaga: Five Foot Two, a big story about a pint-sized woman. The documentary follows the global superstar during the recording, release, and promotion of her fifth studio album, Joanne, and the lead up to her Super Bowl half-time show in 2017.
Yet it’s not all glitz and glamor. Much of the movie takes a deep dive into Gaga’s pain, both physical and mental. Here the film tackles break-ups, a debilitating hip injury, and the death of her aunt, Joanne, whose battle with lupus inspired the album.
It’s refreshing to see a documentary about such a huge star who’s unafraid to voice naivety. It’s worth noting, though, that some scenes are so tender you’ll probably be in a bucket of tears by the end of the film. You have been warned.
The Wolfpack (2015)
Director: Crystal Moselle
Have you ever watched a film and felt like it saved your life? If you tend towards the dramatic, then perhaps, but for the six Angulo brothers — The Wolfpack — this question couldn’t be closer to the truth.
For most of their lives, the brothers and their younger sister were imprisoned in their Lower East Side apartment building by their father. Homeschooled and seriously lacking in social skills, the boys learned how to navigate the outside world by watching and reenacting scenes from their favorite movies. Not stopping there, they’d kit themselves out in handmade costumes and face paint and would transcribe scripts line for line without a computer.
While the content here sounds disturbing and devastating — and in many ways, it is — director Moselle takes a totally non-exploitative approach. Instead, she shapes the story into a curious peek at the wolfpack’s bizarre, claustrophobic world and gifts us one of the best documentaries on Netflix in the process.
Paris Is Burning (1990)
Director: Jennie Livingston
Filmed in New York in the late ’80s, Paris Is Burning struts into the birthplace of vogueing, the style of dance Madonna made famous with “Vogue” in 1990.
In the decades since its premiere, the film has gained cult status within the LGBT community. It is beloved primarily for its brilliant insights into the vibrant, marginalized ball culture — social events held by the black gay community in the ’80s, in which contestants competed in dance and modeling events.
Now an arthouse hit, the documentary continues to gain traction, partly in thanks to its revival at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, where it had bagged a documentary Grand Jury Prize back in 1991. Now available to stream, it’s an important watch and, without doubt, one of the best documentaries Netflix has to offer.
The Keepers (2017)
Director: Ryan White
If you loved Making a Murderer, The Keepers is a must-watch. But unlike other true crime docuseries, which take a “whodunnit” approach, this one is an ode to the victims and their quest for justice.
The film is centered around the murder of a nun, Sister Cathy Cesnik, whose body — her skull caved in — was discovered a year after her death on a frozen hillside in 1969, with no one able to say definitively what had happened to her. Filmed almost 50 years after the event, The Keepers is filled with key-witness interviews, as well as conversations with journalists, police, community members, and former students who attended the school Cesnik taught at.
In a nutshell, this is a fascinating story about a group of people bound together by a common cause, determined to unearth what happened to a loved member of the community.
Cartel Land (2015)
Director: Matthew Heineman
Heineman’s hard-hitting exposé of Mexico’s border-hopping drug cartels is not for the faint-hearted, but it’s an absolute must-watch for anyone with more than a passing interest in global politics.
Alarming and extremely real, Cartel Land dives into an ongoing crisis and demands your attention by spotlighting extreme violence, extortion, and corruption. Filled with scenes of people cooking meth, conducting mass-burials, and on-the-ground combat scenes, it’s a nerve-racking watch, to say the least.
While Cartel Land doesn’t offer any real solutions on how to tackle the problem, by remaining one of the top documentaries on Netflix, it spreads awareness about a huge ongoing crisis.
The Thin Blue Line (1988)
Director: Errol Morris
In 1977, a 28-year-old Randall Adams was found guilty of a murder he did not commit and sentenced to death. How this came to be is the subject of Errol Morris’ award-winning documentary, The Thin Blue Line, which got to the core of the politics surrounding Adams’ conviction. The film was made with one goal in mind: proving his innocence.
Fascinating and quite controversial for its time, Adams’ saga starts with the murder of an on-duty policeman. Yet as the documentary highlights through case files and reenactments, there were cases of police corruption and a miscarriage of justice. Via a series of interviews and reviewed testimonies, we’re slowly led to a conclusion different to the one the court reached. All of which led to Adams’ release one year after the film came out.
The Look of Silence (2014)
Director: Joshua Oppenheimer
In 2012, audiences didn’t quite know what had hit them when Joshua Oppenheimer released his surreal, emotionally brutal documentary The Act of Killing. The film gave voice to the perpetrators of political mass murder in ’60s Indonesia by asking them to reenact their atrocities in the style of their favorite films. It was a provocative watch, to say the least.
The Look of Silence, Oppenheimer’s follow up, focuses on the victims of the killings. In heartbreaking interviews with victims’ families, we’re given an intimate insight into what its like to live among the perpetrators in broken silence, stunted by fear of history repeating itself.
The two films are without doubt among the best documentaries ever made and should ideally be watched as a pair. Unfortunately, only The Look of Silence is available to watch on Netflix at present. Regardless, it remains one of the best, most heart-rending things Netflix has to offer.
Man on Wire (2008)
Director: James Marsh
Man on Wire focuses on the brilliant highwire artist Philippe Petit, who, back in August 1974, walked a wire between the two towers of the World Trade Center in New York. Director James Marsh’s film tells the story of how a French dude once stood on a thin line at roughly 1,350 feet. It should go without saying that this isn’t a documentary for the fainthearted.
Using a mixture of interviews with the man himself, photographs from the time, and reenacted footage, we’re shown how Petit pulled off a stunt that most would consider unthinkable. Yet, thanks to nerves of steel and the help of a crew who had to creep up both towers in two teams, literally shooting the wire across the gap with a bow and arrow, he pulled it off. It’s still one of the most awe-inspiring stunts of the last century — not to mention one of the top documentaries on Netflix.
As Petit, filled with childlike ambition and self-belief, does his thing, you can’t help but gasp along with the shocked crowd gathered at the foot of the towers as he struts back and forth along the wire. It’s hypnotic, and you’ll probably spend most of the film’s runtime praying he doesn’t fall to his death — even if you know the outcome already.
Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (2012)
Director: Alison Klayman
He might be China’s most famous international artist and political dissident, but how much do you really know about Ai Weiwei? If the answer is next to nothing, then you’re not alone. Luckily, thanks to director Alison Klayman’s close access to him around the time of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, you’re about to get to know the guy much better.
Klayman’s documentary, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, introduces us to a charismatic and courageous man who strives for originality in every aspect of his life. A modern multihyphenate, Weiwei has had a career that spans work as a photographer, architect, artist, social critic, blogger, tweeter — the list goes on. But it’s not only his career that makes the man so fascinating, with the film delving into his past and the time he spent in prison. Never Sorry is an exhaustive examination of one of the art world’s great figures, and should definitely be somewhere near the top of your Netflix “to watch” list.
What do you think is the best documentary on Netflix? Let us know in the comments.
Now, here are 20 of the best documentaries on YouTube.