There are a lot of great places to watch documentaries online these days, but one of the newest is one of the best. Here’s our streaming guide to the best documentaries on Netflix.
Many distributors and streaming outlets have been supporting Black Lives Matter lately by sharing films by Black filmmakers and/or about the Black experience for free, and Netflix is no exception. They’ve made Ava DuVernay‘s 13th and Yance Ford‘s Strong Island available for non-subscribers on the site and offer the short Zion free on their YouTube channel as well. Hopefully, when I Am Not Your Negro returns to Netflix in early July, that Oscar-nominated title will follow suit.
As for first-time additions to Netflix this month, the feature documentary Mucho Mucho Amor: The Legend of Walter Mercado, about the famous TV psychic, is a new Netflix Original from Cristina Costantini and Kareem Tabsch (separately co-directors of Science Fair and The Last Resort, respectively) that’s making its debut on July 8th. And then the acclaimed Michael Jordan-focused docuseries The Last Dance, which premiered recently on ESPN, arrives on Netflix on July 19th.
Speaking of The Last Dance, congrats are in order for its win at the Critics Choice Real TV Awards. Netflix cleaned up, especially in the docuseries categories with two wins for Cheer and another one for Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich (which I personally don’t think is that great but is worth watching). Meanwhile, I want to recognize the three docs in this guide that have made my best of 2020 so far list: Athlete A, Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution, and Miss Americana.
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.
- Mucho Mucho Amor: The Legend of Walter Mercado (Cristina Costantini and Kareem Tabsch, 2020)
A documentary about the iconic, gender non-conforming, cape-wearing TV psychic and astrologer.
- I Am Not Your Negro (Raoul Peck, 2016) * OSCAR NOMINEE
“Gives James Baldwin’s trenchant, brilliant prose — ever timely both because he was a genius and because America is too slow to change on these matters — its due, keeping his spirit in times when it’s needed badly.” – Dan Schindel
- 13th (Ava DuVernay, 2016) * OSCAR NOMINEE
“An introduction to this overwhelming history of injustice, a resource for those who may not have read Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy or Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. With such an ambitious goal, it’s frankly miraculous that 13th moves as assuredly as it does.” – Daniel Walber
- Athlete A (Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk, 2020)
“There are a lot of narrative threads in the film (about the investigation into Larry Nasan’s abuse of girls on the USA Gymnastics team), but Cohen and Shenk and their regular editor, Don Bernier, structure everything perfectly, resulting in a cohesive yet multifaceted masterwork of its kind.” – Christopher Campbell
- Audrie & Daisy (Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk, 2016)
“Audrie & Daisy deals with high-school-aged kids and the way rumors spread and lead to severe bullying. Audrie Pott and Daisy Coleman both experienced extreme bullying, name-calling, and harassment on social media following their assaults, and both were driven to attempt suicide.” – Angela Morrison
- 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
- Into the Inferno (Werner Herzog, 2016)
Herzog does volcanos, again. “Herzog delivers yet another essential doc on par with his best.” — 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
- 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.
- Blackfish (Gabriela Cowperthwaite, 2013)
“Blackfish is primarily the story of a specific captive orca named Tilikum, who has taken the lives of multiple humans over the years, most recently in 2010 with an incident that led to the death of one of SeaWorld’s most expert trainers, Dawn Brancheau. And like Orca and many fictional movies about serial killers and slashers, it gets at the root of how the person or thing became a murderer. Or tries to.” – Christopher Campbell
- For the Birds (Richard Miron, 2018)
Profile of a woman hoarding 200 birds, including various fowl, and her fight to keep them all.
- 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
- 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
- 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
- A Secret Love (Chris Bolan, 2020)
A profile of two women, one of them a baseball player who partly inspired the movie A League of Their Own, and their love story spanning seven decades.
- 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.
- 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
- I Am Divine (Jeffrey Schwarz, 2013)
“Fans of Divine and of [John] Waters’ work will be delighted, and anyone else who catches it will want to dive right into the diva’s gigantic body of work.” – Daniel Walber
And here are the 12 most essential documentary miniseries and series:
- The Last Dance (Jason Hehir, 2020)
A ten-episode series on Michael Jordan and the 1990s reign of the Chicago Bulls.
- 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
- Don’t F**k With Cats: Hunting an Internet Killer (Mark Lewis, 2019)
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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 16 most essential documentary shorts:
- Zion (Floyd Russ, 2018)
A short documentary about teenage wrestler Zion Clark, who was born without legs and has lived in the foster care system.
- Little Miss Sumo (Matt Kay, 2018)
A profile of a woman sumo wrestler.
- 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.
- 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.