Despite Netflix continuing to be the most popular streaming service in the world, its status as a preferred location for documentaries is waning more and more. Since our last list of the best nonfiction films on Netflix, a few of the last remaining non-Originals have expired, including two from Gianfranco Rosi: Fire at Sea and Sacro GRA. Additionally, the Oscar-nominated Last Men in Aleppo is now gone.
Fortunately, at least two non-Originals replace the Rosi films on our list. Asif Kapadia’s archival masterpiece Senna is back on Netflix, while Stanley Nelson’s jazz icon biography from last year, Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool, was added recently. Meanwhile, Netflix does have a number of good-looking new Originals arriving in April 2020, and at least one of them as our seal of approval.
Circus of Books, which won awards at the Camden International Film Festival and the Sidewalk Film Festival last year, tops the list this month, despite not being available until April 22nd. The documentary, by Rachel Mason, looks at the decades-long history of the filmmaker’s family’s gay pornography shop, which was an institution for the LGBTQ+ community in Los Angeles. Watch it when you can.
Here is a reminder of how the titles are (otherwise) numerically arranged:
They are mostly ranked in order of our favor with some objective authority, but there are some clumps throughout the list that obviously fit together. Some are by director, some are by genre or subject matter and some are by series. In fact, we see this whole list as being best watched in order of the rankings.
There are double features in the bunch (LA 92 and Let It Fall, for example) and some groupings where we truly think the higher ranking title is best watched before a certain title or titles below it (Gaga: Five Foot Two and Miss Americana). Docs of the same genre are mostly grouped, too.
- Circus of Books (Rachel Mason, 2019)
Mason digs into her own family history, particularly focused on her parents’ ownership of a gay pornography shop in Los Angeles.
- Senna (Asif Kapadia, 2010)
“An overview of [racing driver] Ayrton Senna’s whole career, from 1984 to 1994…Without ever stooping into hagiography, it makes the viewer understand how Senna became a figure who accumulated not just fans but genuine admirers in both Brazil and all over the world.” – Dan Schindel
- Paris is Burning (Jennie Livingston, 1990)
“Takes us inside the African American and Latino drag ball culture of the 1980s in Harlem. And it’s even more fabulous than you can possibly imagine.” — Christopher Campbell
- American Factory (Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert, 2019) * OSCAR WINNER
A look at the operations of a Chinese glass company’s new factory in Ohio. “Bognar and Reichert remain fairly balanced in their portrayals of the Chinese and the Americans, whether that’s to keep to a neutrally observational format or because they don’t want to offend the company and the people that granted them access.” – Christopher Campbell
- The Legend of Cocaine Island (Theo Love, 2018)
“The Legend of Cocaine Island is a riot. There are no genuine characters. Everyone is pretending, and everyone is making it up as they go along. What little reality we grab from the events involving that buried sack of cocaine is compelling, and the liberties Love takes with the material only entices the audience as Julian’s tall tale must have done to those that fell under its spell. Traditionalists need not apply.” – Brad Gullickson
- For the Birds (Richard Miron, 2018)
Profile of a woman hoarding 200 birds, including various fowl, and her fight to keep them all.
- Why We Fight: Prelude to War (Frank Capra and Anatole Litvak, 1942) * OSCAR WINNER
Part one of seven World War II propaganda films produced by the U.S. War Department.
- Why We Fight: The Battle of Russia (Frank Capra and Anatole Litvak, 1943) * OSCAR NOMINEE
Part four of seven World War II propaganda films produced by the U.S. War Department.
- Report from the Aleutians (John Huston, 1943) * OSCAR NOMINEE
American World War II propaganda film about troops stationed in Alaska.
- How to Operate Behind Enemy Lines (John Ford, 1943)
American World War II training film for special agents.
- Tunisian Victory (Frank Capra, Hugh Stewart, and John Huston, 1944)
British and American World War II propaganda film on the successful liberation of French North Africa.
- Know Your Enemy (Frank Capra and Joris Ivens, 1945)
American World War II propaganda film about the Pacific campaign.
- Nazi Concentration Camps (George Stevens, 1945)
Evidential record of the Nazi atrocities against Jews and others during World War II.
- Let There Be Light (John Huston, 1946)
A controversial and longtime-unreleased look at PTSD following World War II.
- The Pixar Story (Leslie Iwerks, 2007)
Who needs Disney+ when you’ve got one of their historical documentaries right here? Of course, this look at the rise of Pixar Animation Studio is preferably paired with its parallel history lesson documented in Waking Sleeping Beauty.
- Oceans (Jacques Perrin and Jacques Cluzaud, 2009)
More Disney content here with one of the earliest releases under the Disneynature brand.
- Into the Inferno (Werner Herzog, 2016)
Herzog does volcanos, again. “Herzog delivers yet another essential doc on par with his best.” — Christopher Campbell
- Virunga (Orlando von Einsiedel, 2014) * OSCAR NOMINEE
“Both an almost unbelievable assembly of shocking footage and a thrilling narrative success. Von Einsiedel has taken the whirlwind of environmental conservation, civil war, investigative journalism and the hegemony of the neocolonial oil industry and brought them together with admirable confidence.” — Daniel Walber
- Trophy (Shaul Schwarz and Christina Clusiau, 2017)
“There is a chance that Trophy could change your mind about big-game hunting or wildlife conservation, but that doesn’t qualify its excellence. The doc’s merit is merely in its successful effort to get us thinking about a complicated issue and complex industry.” — Christopher Campbell
- Undefeated (Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin, 2011) * OSCAR WINNER
“Very hard not to like…[Undefeated] tracks a potentially monumental year for the Manassas Tigers of Memphis, considerably the worst high school football team in Tennessee.” — Christopher Campbell
- Screwball (Billy Corben, 2018)
“With the help of some inspired reenactments featuring child actors, director Billy Corben (Cocaine Cowboys) creates something akin to an extended Scorsese riff, with ambitious doofuses hatching convoluted plots that even an amateur screenwriter would reject as too unbelievable.” – J.R. Kinnard
- Beyond the Mat (Barry W. Blaustein, 1999)
The real lives of athletes in the “fake” sport of professional wrestling.
- Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution (James Lebrecht and Nicole Newnham, 2020).
A chronicle of the disabled rights movement.
- Knock Down the House (Rachel Lears, 2019)
Follows four 2018 midterm election campaigns by women candidates, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. “By letting these women express themselves on their own terms while displaying their unique perspectives on policy, Lears is breaking apart the boxes that female politicians have been crammed into for so long. It’s refreshing and hopeful.” – Dylan Brennan
- The Edge of Democracy (Petra Costa, 2019) * OSCAR NOMINEE
A personal look at the rise and fall of Brazilian presidents Lula and Dilma Rousseff.
- The Great Hack (Karim Amer and Jehane Noujaim, 2019)
An examination of the Cambridge Analytica scandal. “We need films like this to tell us over and over what the stakes are when we give ourselves over to apps and memes and viral videos.” – Katherine Steinbach
- The Square (Jehane Noujaim, 2013) * OSCAR NOMINEE
A chronicle of the Egyptian revolution.
- Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom (Evgeny Afineevsky, 2015) * OSCAR NOMINEE
A chronicle of the Euromaidan political protests in Ukraine.
- Oklahoma City (Barak Goodman, 2017)
The history of Timothy McVeigh’s bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in 1995.
- (T)error (Lyric R. Cabral and David Felix Sutcliffe, 2015)
Record of an active FBI counterterrorism sting operation.
- LA 92 (Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin, 2017)
An archival history of the 1992 riots in Los Angeles. “Watching LA 92 is something like a two-hour museum trip into a certain place and a certain time…the sheer aesthetic assault of LA 92is what justifies its existence: there’s a reason why so much of it is sourced from TV coverage of the events. We like to watch.” — Andrew Karpan
- Let It Fall: Los Angeles 1982–1992 (John Ridley, 2017)
A decade history of Los Angeles leading to the 1992 riots.
- Strong Island (Yance Ford, 2017) * OSCAR NOMINEE
“First-time director Yance Ford takes a first-person approach to documenting the case of his brother’s murder in this emotionally gut-wrenching film memoir…Ford centers himself so close up that you can almost touch his tears.” — Christopher Campbell
- 20 Feet From Stardom (Morgan Neville, 2013) * OSCAR WINNER
Background singers get their due.
- Amy (Asif Kapadia, 2015) * OSCAR WINNER
“Asif Kapadia’s documentary on Amy Winehouse, titled Amy, is another affecting rush of archival footage, like his previous, breakout film, Senna. But this one has a more interesting, sometimes troubling relationship between the footage and the subject.” — Christopher Campbell
- Homecoming (Beyonce Knowles, 2019)
“The ‘60s had Woodstock, the ‘80s had Live Aid, and we have Beychella. And now we have a documentary to match.” – Valerie Ettenhofer
- What Happened, Miss Simone? (Liz Garbus, 2015)
A biography of Nina Simone.
- Gaga: Five Foot Two (Chris Moukarbel, 2017)
A profile of Lady Gaga as she reinvents herself with a new album.
- Miss Americana (Lana Wilson, 2020)
A profile of Taylor Swift as she reinvents herself with a new album.
- Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story (Martin Scorsese, 2019)
“Part concert film, part documentary, and part attempt at mythmaking, Martin Scorsese‘s “fast-and-loose with the truth” feature is one of the best films that the streaming giant has ever put out, bar none.” – Cole Henry
- Echo in the Canyon (Andrew Slater, 2018)
Director Andrew Slater and rocker Jakob Dylan pay tribute to iconic bands of mid-1960s Los Angeles. “Watching this film, I smiled and giggled and tapped my toes a lot. These grizzled faces have weird and horny stories to tell.” – Katherine Steinbach
- Satan & Adam (V. Scott Balcerek, 2018)
“Those looking for the curious story of two seemingly mismatched blues icons will find plenty of musical inspiration in Satan & Adam. Those searching for something a bit deeper will find a moving story of friendship, humanity and, ultimately, rebirth. It’s an unassuming little gem that lures you in with the music and sends you away with a better understanding of what it means to be human.” – J.R. Kinnard
- I Called Him Morgan (Kasper Collin, 2016)
A film about the death of jazz trumpeter Lee Morgan. “A uniquely captivating music doc…[it] might be the most pulpy biographical film ever.” — Christopher Campbell
- Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool (Stanley Nelson, 2019)
“Necessary or not, Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool is a fine addition to what’s already available, for fans and newcomers alike. The latter gain access to never before seen footage of Davis, while the latter receives a proper introduction to the legendary trumpeter if this is their first stop in appreciation.” – Christopher Campbell
- Bobbi Jene (Elvira Lind, 2017)
“An incredibly moving portrait of an artist producing incredibly moving work, this film follows American dancer Bobbi Jene Smith during her attempt to go independent as a performer following a nine-year stint as a member of Israel’s renowned Batsheva Dance Company…a rare artist profile that’s an achievement on its own, beyond its subject.” — Christopher Campbell
- Elena (Petra Costa, 2012)
“Costa has made one of the most unique docs of the last couple years, a personal and dreamy portrait of herself and her older sister, Elena, and the parallel lives they shared, save for the latter’s death. Taking inspiration from Chris Marker and Agnes Varda but still working in a poetic style distinctly her own, Costa recounts her move from Brazil to New York City to become an actress, following in the footsteps of her sibling more than a decade earlier.” – Christopher Campbell
- Shirkers (Sandi Tan, 2018)
“A cinephile-turned-filmmaker-turned film critic, Tan tells her mind-boggling story in undefined chapters, starting from growing up in Singapore, building a friendship with her soul mates Jasmine and Sophie (they call themselves “The Coen Sisters”) and their insatiable desire to make their own film under the dizzying influence of American Independents.” – Tomris Lafly
- Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond (Chris Smith, 2017)
A look at the making of the Andy Kaufman biopic Man on the Moon starring Jim Carrey.
- Cutie and the Boxer (Zachary Heinzerling, 2013) * OSCAR NOMINEE
“Cutie and the Boxer is not an art documentary, or a love story. It’s a film about two artists, a rocky but persistent marriage and their work…The film shines because it lets these two individuals shine, allowing them to define themselves and then carefully crafting them into a beautiful portrait.” — Daniel Walber
- Jiro Dreams of Sushi (David Gelb, 2011)
Profile of Japanese sushi master Jiro Ono. “Like the food on display in beautiful close-ups, the film is a sleek reminder that simple can be fulfilling, and maybe even brilliant.” – Christopher Campbell
And here are the 11 most essential documentary miniseries and series:
- Ugly Delicious (Eddie Schmidt, Morgan Neville, Jason Zeldes and Laura Gabbert, 2018-2020)
“You’re sure to want a second helping when you’ve devoured all eight parts…the show seems to have it all covered with regards to the concept of and the concentration on the ugly and the delicious. But I want some more, please. You will, too.” — Christopher Campbell
- Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness (Rebecca Chaiklin and Eric Goode, 2020)
A wild story about big cat owners, private zoos and the shady people who run them.
- The Staircase (Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, 2004–2018)
A chronicle of the murder investigation of novelist Michael Peterson.
- Cheer (Greg Whiteley, 2020)
A year following the Navarro College cheer team as they prepare to compete in Daytona.
- Wild Wild Country (Chapman Way and Maclain Way, 2018)
An archival chronicle of a cult that started a utopian community in Oregon in the 1980s.
- Flint Town (Zackary Canepari, Drea Cooper and Jessica Dimmock, 2018)
A series following the police of Flint, Michigan. “There’s a likelihood that after watching the whole thing, whether or not you have a better appreciation for the police, you’ll at least take local government and agencies and community into greater consideration. Because ‘Flint Town’ could, outside of some obvious specifics, could be Anytown.” — Christopher Campbell
- The Keepers (Ryan White, 2017)
A series following the investigation into the unsolved murder of a nun.
- Conversations With a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes (Joe Berlinger, 2019)
“A fascinating peek behind the myth of Bundy, and through interviews featuring Bundy on death row and other reels of found footage, the myth becomes self-immolated and the viewer sees the man for who he really was. A monstrous man whose narcissism and self-hubris knew no bounds; he waxes philosophical but never really manages to say anything at all.” – Cole Henry
- November 13: Attack on Paris (Gedeon Naudet and Jules Naudet, 2018)
“Chronicles the events of November 13, 2015, when ISIL terrorists attacked six locations around the city, including the Stade de France during a soccer match and the Bataclan theatre during an Eagles of Death Metal concert, killing a total of 130 people with hundreds more seriously injured…if November 13 affects American viewers the way 9/11 affected non-American audiences, the Naudets will have again achieved a solidarity among us all.” – Christopher Campbell
- The Vietnam War (Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, 2017)
Ken Burns chronicles the history of the Vietnam War.
- Our Planet (Adam Chapman, Hugh Pearson, Huw Cordey, Sophie Lanfear, Mandi Stark, and Jeff Wilson, 2019)
“This is nature television for the concerned viewer. It swaps beauty and awe for social awareness and concern. Through the footage and Attenborough’s narration, Our Planet becomes a rallying cry for the whimpering mortality of nature, and it stands as both a love-letter to nature and a pointedly blunt criticism of the machinations of humankind that has brought the entire natural world to its knees.” – Cole Henry
And here are the 15 most essential documentary shorts:
- Fire in Paradise (Zackary Canepari and Drea Cooper, 2019)
A terrifying chronicle of a California town completely devastated by wildfire.
- Ghosts of Sugar Land (Bassam Tariq, 2019)
Young Muslim Americans in Texas discuss their friend who became an extremist.
- Little Miss Sumo (Matt Kay, 2018)
A profile of a woman sumo wrestler.
- Resurface (Joshua Izenberg and Wynn Padula, 2017)
“The film follows Operation Surf, a program founded by California native Van Curaza with the sole purpose of saving veterans through riding waves…The film productively shines some light on mental health issues that aren’t being fully addressed, and the subjects involved have interesting stories to tell. For that alone, it’s well worth your time.” – Kieran Fisher
- Life Overtakes Me (Kristine Samuelson, John Haptas, Kristine Samuelson, 2019) * OSCAR NOMINEE
A look at a strange illness affecting refugee children who enter a coma-like state.
- Period. End of Sentence (Rayka Zehtabchi, 2018) * OSCAR WINNER
“Period. End of Sentence is informative about an issue, setting up the stigma of and ignorance about menstruation in rural India, and enlightening about a project dealing with that issue, following empowered women as they use a sanitary pad manufacturing machine donated to them and establishing a business and brand to sell them in the area.” – Christopher Campbell
- Heroin(e) (Elaine McMillion Sheldon, 2017) * OSCAR NOMINEE
Women trying to make a difference in the overdose capital of America.
- The White Helmets (Orlando von Einsiedel, 2016) * OSCAR WINNER
A look at the heroic volunteers of the Syrian Civil Defense.
- Extremis (Dan Krauss, 2016) * OSCAR NOMINEE
Follows families of patients in the ICU making the decision to pull the plug.
- End Game (Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, 2018) * OSCAR NOMINEE
Follows doctors trying to change how we think about dying.
- The Battle of Midway (John Ford, 1942) * OSCAR WINNER
“This is a war documentary that makes the viewer feel the fight, to see what it’s like to be a soldier who may not even himself know or comprehend the specifics of each mission, and the sensation can be much more inspiring than something more informative.” – Christopher Campbell
- The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress (William Wyler, 1944)
American World War II propaganda about the titular B-17 bomber.
- The Negro Soldier (Stuart Heisler, 1944)
American World War II propaganda on the African-American contribution to the war.
- San Pietro (John Ford, 1945)
American World War II propaganda on a significant battle in the Italy campaign.
- Thunderbolt (John Sturges and William Wyler, 1947)
American World War II propaganda on P-47 Thunderbolt bombings in Italy.