50 Must-See Documentaries Streaming on Netflix This May

This month's new additions include documentaries about marijuana, industrial musicals, and Alexandria Ocasia-Cortez.

bathtubs over broadway
Cactus Flower Films

Five recent favorites are added to our list of the best documentaries on Netflix this month. Two of them, the medical marijuana doc Weed the People and the crowd-pleasing Cinema Eye Honors nominee Bathtubs Over Broadway (pictured) begin streaming in mid-May. Two of them, the Beyonce-helmed Beyonce concert film Homecoming and the Fab 5 Freddy-helmed marijuana doc Grass is Greener, were late adds to the service last month.

The fifth title is Knock Down the Door, which is best known as “the AOC documentary” because it prominently features Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez along with other women politicians making bids for Congress in 2018. This is going to be one of Netflix’s big doc titles this year — at least that’s the hope considering they paid a ton for it at Sundance — and will likely be getting a significant awards push down the road.

We’ve also added Our Planet, which we caught up with last month, to the list of the best documentary series on Netflix.

As for what these six titles replace, the knocked-out series is Evil Genius. None of our highlighted features have expired yet, but Agnes Varda and J.R.‘s Oscar-nominated Faces Places is leaving Netflix on May 5th, so we’ve gone ahead and removed it now. The rest were tough picks, but we’ve also taken Notes on Blindness, My Beautiful Broken Brain, The Rachel Divide, and the GLOW doc off the list at this time.

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 a few 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 (Into the Inferno is sort of a sequel to Encounters at the End of the World, for one example set). Docs of the same genre are mostly grouped, too.

  1. Knock Down the House (Rachel Lears, 2019)
    “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
  2. 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
  3. Grass is Greener (Fab 5 Freddy, 2019)
    “A fun, fast-paced introduction to the history of cannabis use in the US and the effect its criminalization has had…Grass is Greener manages to stay compelling throughout its tight 97-minute runtime. When it comes to the music scene and cannabis, Fab 5 Freddy is the perfect person to tell this story, and he does so effectively.” – Kristen Reid
  4. Weed the People (Abby Epstein, 2018)
    “We can only hope that documentaries like this one can go some way towards furthering…legitimacy. Showing us the human side of the debate and finding humor in the absurdity of it all. By giving us a window into the lives of these families, Epstein reminds us of the real people who can benefit from all this. And that anything that can make their quality of life better is worth exploring.” – Hayden Cornmell
  5. Bathtubs Over Broadway (Dava Whisenant, 2018)
  6. The Look of Silence (Joshua Opppenheimer, 2014) * OSCAR NOMINEE
    “The most striking aspect of this film alone is in the specific reactions of the killers and their loved ones, since there’s a concentration on family and the effects the killings have on those related to both victim and perpetrator….The Look of Silence is a record and a tool for changing the world.” — Christopher Campbell
  7. Brother’s Keeper (Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, 1992)
  8. 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
  9. Encounters at the End of the World (Werner Herzog, 2007) * OSCAR NOMINEE
  10. Into the Inferno (Werner Herzog, 2016)
    “Herzog delivers yet another essential doc on par with his best.” — Christopher Campbell
  11. Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Werner Herzog, 2010)
  12. 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
  13. Rats (Morgan Spurlock, 2016)
    “Features human life to the fullest. Like Spurlock’s best film until this one, Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope, it is a celebration of people’s passions.” — Christopher Campbell
  14. The Nightmare (Rodney Ascher, 2015)
    The Nightmare doesn’t settle on giving us the willies. It wants to shake us up. It wants to actually leave us restless…don’t take anyone’s word on the film being good or bad, because it’s still a very unique documentary, one worth experiencing for yourself whether it turns out to be your thing or not and either way whether it affects you in any way.” — Christopher Campbell
  15. Why We Fight: Prelude to War (Frank Capra and Anatole Litvak, 1942) * OSCAR WINNER
  16. Why We Fight: The Battle of Russia (Frank Capra and Anatole Litvak, 1943) * OSCAR NOMINEE
  17. Report from the Aleutians (John Huston, 1943) * OSCAR NOMINEE
  18. How to Operate Behind Enemy Lines (John Ford, 1943)
  19. Tunisian Victory (Frank Capra, Hugh Stewart, and John Huston, 1944)
  20. Know Your Enemy (Frank Capra and Joris Ivens, 1945)
  21. Nazi Concentration Camps (George Stevens, 1945)
  22. Let There Be Light (John Huston, 1946)
  23. Best of Enemies (Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville, 2015)
    “This masterfully assembled recounting of William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal’s ten oral sparring matches during the 1968 Republican and Democratic National Conventions and their surrounding events is appropriately bittersweet: it both revels in the party and observes its consequential hangover.” — Landon Palmer
  24. 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
  25. Trophy (Shaul Schwarz and Christina Clusiau, 2017)
    “There is a chance that Trophycould 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
  26. 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
  27. Senna (Asif Kapadia, 2010)
    “Blows apart all conventional ideas about a documentary’s ability to convey action.” – Dan Schindel
  28. Street Fight (Marshall Curry, 2005) * OSCAR NOMINEE
  29. The Square (Jehane Noujaim, 2013) * OSCAR NOMINEE
  30. Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom (Evgeny Afineevsky, 2015) * OSCAR NOMINEE
  31. Last Men in Aleppo (Firas Fayyad, Steen Johannessen, and Hasan Kattan, 2017) * OSCAR NOMINEE
    “One of this year’s most riveting documentaries on the Syrian Civil War…The documentary’s use of gorgeous colors embellish every corner of the tragic tale Fayad tells. Beyond the contrasting realism of the bloodied bodies torn apart by explosions, which are ample. Beyond the rich and very human stories of the volunteers themselves, many of whom contemplate abandoning the mission, and three or four of whom have died by the time the movie was released, as the end credits reveal.” — Andrew Karpan
  32. Fire at Sea (Gianfranco Rosi, 2016)* OSCAR NOMINEE
  33. Sacro GRA (Gianfranco Rosi, 2013)
    “The attitude of Sacro GRA is one of unassuming humanity, a confidence in the lives of Rome’s people without the need to dress any of them up in glitter or expensive hats. It’s an essential counterpoint to the city’s life in cinema, the wisest Roman film in years.” — Daniel Walber
  34. Oklahoma City (Barak Goodman, 2017)
  35. (T)error (Lyric R. Cabral and David Felix Sutcliffe, 2015)
  36. LA 92 (Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin, 2017)
    “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
  37. Let It Fall: Los Angeles 1982–1992 (John Ridley, 2017)
  38. 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
  39. Growing Up Coy (Eric Juhola, 2016)
    “A family drama in which the family happens to be fighting the State of Colorado over their daughter’s right to use the girls bathroom at her school. Is she a trans child? Yes. Is the battle over civil rights for trans persons at play? Yes. But most of the film is focused on the story of a specific couple, their five kids, and their struggle with an unaccepting community. Any issue could be in play. The beauty is that it’s also a powerfully empathic film for the cause of trans rights.” — Christopher Campbell
  40. 20 Feet From Stardom (Morgan Neville, 2013) * OSCAR WINNER
  41. 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
  42. Justin Bieber: Never Say Never (Jon M. Chu, 2011)
  43. Presenting Princess Shaw (Ido Haar, 2015)
  44. Kurt & Courtney (Nick Broomfield, 1998)
  45. I Called Him Morgan (Kasper Collin, 2016)
    “A uniquely captivating music doc…[it] might be the most pulpy biographical film ever.” — Christopher Campbell
  46. 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
  47. 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
  48. Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (Alison Klayman, 2012)
  49. Hooligan Sparrow (Nanfu Wang, 2016)
  50. Jiro Dreams of Sushi (David Gelb, 2011)
    “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 15 most essential documentary miniseries and series:

  1. The Staircase (Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, 2004–2018)
  2. 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
  3. Wild Wild Country (Chapman Way and Maclain Way, 2018)
  4. Ugly Delicious (Eddie Schmidt, Morgan Neville, Jason Zeldes and Laura Gabbert, 2018)
    “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
  5. Flint Town (Zackary Canepari, Drea Cooper and Jessica Dimmock, 2018)
    “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
  6. The Keepers (Ryan White, 2017)
  7. November 13: Attack on Paris (Gedeon Naudet and Jules Naudet, 2018)
  8. The Civil War (Ken Burns, 1990)
  9. The War (Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, 2007)
  10. The Vietnam War (Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, 2017)
  11. Prohibition (Ken Burns, 2011)
  12. The Roosevelts: An Intimate History (Ken Burns, 2014)
  13. Planet Earth (Alastair Fothergill, 2006)
  14. Planet Earth II (Justin Anderson, Ed Charles, Fredi Devas, Chadden Hunter, Emma Napper, and Elizabeth White, 2016)
  15. 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 10 most essential documentary shorts:

  1. 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
  2. End Game (Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, 2018) * OSCAR NOMINEE
  3. The White Helmets (Orlando von Einsiedel, 2016) * OSCAR WINNER
  4. Extremis (Dan Krauss, 2016) * OSCAR NOMINEE
  5. Heroin(e) (Elaine McMillion Sheldon, 2017) * OSCAR NOMINEE
  6. The Battle of Midway (John Ford, 1942)* OSCAR WINNER
  7. The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress (William Wyler, 1944)
  8. The Negro Soldier (Stuart Heisler, 1944)
  9. San Pietro (John Ford, 1945)
  10. Thunderbolt (John Sturges and William Wyler, 1947)

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