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The best documentaries on Netflix
The number of documentaries on Netflix has exploded in recent years. From classic features to original documentary series, there’s enough content to keep your evenings educational for months. However, finding the best documentaries on Netflix can be difficult due to its notoriously finicky algorithm and interface. To help, we’ve compiled a list of the best Netflix documentaries currently available on the platform.
We have included both documentary features and series covering a wide variety of topics. Whether you’re a political junkie, a nature lover, or a true crime fan, there is sure to be something for you. You can sign up for the service at the link below:
The best documentaries on Netflix:
Editor’s note: This best documentaries on Netflix list will be updated as documentaries leave and other new arrivals make their debut on the streaming service.
Wild Wild Country
This first item on our list of the best documentaries on Netflix is an original docuseries from the platform. It tells the story of the followers of Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (A.K.A. Osho), who moved en masse to a rural community in Oregon. As the group grew in power and wealth, they began to assert their control in strange and increasingly illegal ways. What makes this series stand out is the extensive use of footage and interviews from the community itself, which were initially created as promotional materials.
There are six hour-long episodes in total, but at no point does it feel long. It’s engaging and binge-worthy, which is no small feat for a documentary.
Casting JonBenet makes our list of the best Netflix documentaries not because of its topic, but rather because of the way it tells its story. It deals with the death of American child beauty starlet JonBenet Ramsey, who was found strangled in her home at age six. Instead of simply telling the story and playing existing footage, the filmmakers put out a casting call for a fictional film in Ramsey’s hometown.
The result is a strangely intimate look at how the story evolved in the minds of everyday people once the media got hold of it.
Shirkers isn’t about a global conspiracy or maniacal serial killer. It’s just a simple story of a group of young filmmakers in Singapore and their encounter with a strange man who would eventually run off with their film. That’s not a spoiler, it’s the premise of the entire documentary. What this documentary lacks in gravitas it makes up for in charm. Seeing how the group developed into adults and how it affected their professional and personal lives is fascinating.
If you’re looking for a lighthearted Netflix documentary that won’t leave you in tears, this is the one.
Strong Island is yet another documentary focused on racial injustices in the United States. This time, the victim is the filmmaker’s brother, a 24-year-old African-American teacher, who was killed in 1992 by a white mechanic. The all-white jury ultimately accepted his claim of self-defense, leading to questions around the efficacy of the justice system.
The documentary relies heavily on pulling your emotional strings, so if you’re the analytical type it might not be for you. That said, the production quality alone merits a spot among the best documentaries on Netflix.
Tales by Light
It’s said an image can tell a thousand words, but the best photos can do more than that. A striking shot can bring out feelings, tell stories, and make history, but what does it take to produce such an important visual?
Tales by Light takes you through multiple photographers’ and filmmakers’ quests for some of the most impressive creative content out there. All creators come from different areas of their art and prove there is more than technical know-how to their success.
The Sons of Sam: A Descent Into Darkness
This docuseries focuses on the “Son of Sam,” the name that the killer of six people in New York City in 1976 and 1977 gave himself in letters sent to the police and the press. In 1977 David Berkowitz was arrested for these crimes and was convicted of several counts of murder. This docuseries focuses on the investigations of these crimes by Maury Terry, who believes that Berkowitz didn’t act alone, and in fact was part of a cult.
The Sparks Brothers
Edgar Wright, best known for his fictional movies like Shawn of the Dead, Baby Driver, and most recently One Night In Soho, also directed this acclaimed 2021 documentary. It chronicles the career of Sparks, a pop and rock music duo comprised of brothers Ron and Russell Mael. If you have never heard of them, this documentary is the perfect place to start, as it goes into detail about Sparks and its very theatrical style with lyrics and with its live performances.
Icarus starts out as a simple documentary about how easy it is to fool doping tests in professional sports, but it quickly spirals out of control when the filmmaker enlists the help of head of Russia’s anti-doping laboratory Grigory Rodchenkov. Grigory is quite the character, and through his friendship with the filmmaker, he reveals the secrets of Russia’s state-sponsored doping program at great risk to his own life.
This thrilling Netflix documentary won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 2017.
13th is easily the heaviest and most timely film on our list of the best documentaries on Netflix. The title is a reference to the 13th amendment to the Constitution of the United States, which freed the slaves and prohibited slavery. While this was a major step forward at the time, it included an elephant-sized loophole by excluding criminals. This documentary outlines how that loophole was exploited by those in power to keep African Americans and other minorities powerless and imprisoned.
This is not a feelgood Netflix documentary for a weekday evening, but it’s an important issue that continues to plague communities all around the country. It was nominated for an Oscar and took home several other awards, including an Emmy for Best Documentary.
Making a Murderer
Making a Murderer is one of the first original Netflix documentaries to gain popularity in the general public. It has a lot in common with other true-crime series like Serial and HBO’s The Jinx, so if you enjoyed those, this one’s for you.
The two-season docuseries tells the story of Steven Avery, who was a frequent target of local law officials in a rural country in Wisconsin. A concerted effort was made to convict Avery for a murder despite a lack of strong evidence connecting him to the crime.
The Social Dilemma
Remember when social networks like Facebook and Twitter were praised for bringing people from all over the world together to chat about, well, anything? As it turns out, that’s exactly the big problem with them. This Netflix documentary takes a look at the dark consequences of these and other online networks. Our addiction to social media is shown in scripted portions of this documentary as well, making it a very interesting melding of drama and real reporting.
They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead
Released in tandem with the film it covers, They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead focuses on the making of The Other Side of The Wind, legendary filmmaker Orson Welles’ final film.
That project, The Other Side of The Wind, is about a respected (fictional) filmmaker (played by Jon Huston) who has fallen out of favor in Hollywood as he tries to make a film that will propel him back into the limelight.
They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead chronicles the chaotic production, reconstructed in interviews with people who worked on it, including famous director Peter Bogdanovich. It’s a striking portrait of one of Hollywood’s most important filmmakers, and a pretty wild ride, to boot.
My Octopus Teacher
Winner of the 2020 Oscar for Best Documentary Feature, this movie tells the story of oceanic filmmaker Craig Foster. During a filming session off the coast of Cape Town, South Africa, he encounters a small octopus and becomes fascinated by it. As it turns out, the octopus seems to be fascinated by Foster. The two begin a unique relationship that allows Foster to see things about an octopus’ life that have never been documented before. This is both a beautiful-looking film and also a story of friendship and trust between two different species.
Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal, and Greed
The late Boss Ross has become a massive pop culture phenomenon, both before and after his death in 1995. The artist who gained fame with his lessons on PBS’ The Joy of Painting is perhaps more popular than ever. However, very little was known about the man himself. This 2021 Netflix documentary tries to peel away the mystery of Bob Ross, and even discusses the impact of his life after he passed away.
Best documentaries on Netflix: Honorable mentions
There are countless great documentaries on Netflix that just didn’t make the cut. Here’s a look at a few other Netflix documentaries worth watching:
- Evil Genius – The story of a bank heist gone wrong featuring some truly fascinating characters. From the producers of Wild Wild Country.
- Quincy – A biography of influential music producer and composer Quincy Jones. Directed by his daughter Rashida Jones, the film provides an intimate view of his daily life.
- Inside Bill’s Brain – Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates is one of the most interesting and successful men in the world, and this documentary digs into his mind, past, and goals.
- What Happened, Miss Simone? – A biography of Nina Simone, one of the most famous singers of her era. Features previously unreleased footage.
- High Score – This six-part series is an excellent look back at the early history of the video game industry.
These are our picks for the best documentaries on Netflix, as of right now. We’ll add more as new documentaries come to the streaming platform.