The Best Documentaries on Netflix in August 2019

This month's new additions include a wild story involving baseball doping and the first release presented by Barack and Michelle Obama.

One of the most talked-about documentaries of the year is coming to Netflix this month. American Factory is by Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert, who won a directing award when the film premiered at Sundance back in January. It’s also the first Netflix release presented by Barack and Michelle Obama’s Higher Ground Productions.

The doc follows a Chinese company as it reopens an old General Motors factory in Ohio and is pretty much a sequel to Bognar and Reichert’s 2009 Oscar-nominated short The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant. I’m surprised Netflix hasn’t secured screening rights to the earlier film, which is available on Amazon Prime and HBO’s streaming platforms.

Also on Netflix beginning in August 2019 is one of the year’s most creative documentaries: Billy Corben‘s Screwball. The film uses children in reenactment scenes while exploring the wild story of clinician Tony Bosch and his involvement in one of Major League Baseball’s biggest doping scandals. It’s also one of our favorite baseball docs.

None of our usual picks expired in the last month, so to make room for American Factory and Screwball, we’re (temporarily?) removing the marijuana docs Grass is Greener and Weed the People. Netflix is also debuting two new interesting-looking series in August, The Family and Diagnosis, but we can’t vouch for either of them yet.

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 (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. American Factory (Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert, 2019)
  2. 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
  3. 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
  4. Brother’s Keeper (Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, 1992)
  5. 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
  6. Encounters at the End of the World (Werner Herzog, 2007) * OSCAR NOMINEE
  7. Into the Inferno (Werner Herzog, 2016)
    “Herzog delivers yet another essential doc on par with his best.” — Christopher Campbell
  8. 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
  9. 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
  10. 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
  11. Why We Fight: Prelude to War (Frank Capra and Anatole Litvak, 1942) * OSCAR WINNER
  12. Why We Fight: The Battle of Russia (Frank Capra and Anatole Litvak, 1943) * OSCAR NOMINEE
  13. Report from the Aleutians (John Huston, 1943) * OSCAR NOMINEE
  14. How to Operate Behind Enemy Lines (John Ford, 1943)
  15. Tunisian Victory (Frank Capra, Hugh Stewart, and John Huston, 1944)
  16. Know Your Enemy (Frank Capra and Joris Ivens, 1945)
  17. Nazi Concentration Camps (George Stevens, 1945)
  18. Let There Be Light (John Huston, 1946)
  19. 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
  20. 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
  21. 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
  22. Street Fight (Marshall Curry, 2005) * OSCAR NOMINEE
  23. 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
  24. The Edge of Democracy (Petra Costa, 2019)
  25. The Great Hack (Karim Amer and Jehane Noujaim, 2019)
    “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
  26. The Square (Jehane Noujaim, 2013) * OSCAR NOMINEE
  27. Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom (Evgeny Afineevsky, 2015) * OSCAR NOMINEE
  28. 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
  29. Fire at Sea (Gianfranco Rosi, 2016)* OSCAR NOMINEE
  30. 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
  31. Oklahoma City (Barak Goodman, 2017)
  32. (T)error (Lyric R. Cabral and David Felix Sutcliffe, 2015)
  33. 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
  34. Let It Fall: Los Angeles 1982–1992 (John Ridley, 2017)
  35. 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
  36. 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
  37. 20 Feet From Stardom (Morgan Neville, 2013) * OSCAR WINNER
  38. 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
  39. 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
  40. Justin Bieber: Never Say Never (Jon M. Chu, 2011)
  41. 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
  42. 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, re-birth. 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
  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. 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
  2. The Staircase (Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, 2004–2018)
  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 11 most essential documentary shorts:

  1. Life Overtakes Me (Kristine Samuelson, John Haptas, Kristine Samuelson, 2019)
  2. 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
  3. End Game (Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, 2018) * OSCAR NOMINEE
  4. The White Helmets (Orlando von Einsiedel, 2016) * OSCAR WINNER
  5. Extremis (Dan Krauss, 2016) * OSCAR NOMINEE
  6. Heroin(e) (Elaine McMillion Sheldon, 2017) * OSCAR NOMINEE
  7. The Battle of Midway (John Ford, 1942)* OSCAR WINNER
  8. The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress (William Wyler, 1944)
  9. The Negro Soldier (Stuart Heisler, 1944)
  10. San Pietro (John Ford, 1945)
  11. Thunderbolt (John Sturges and William Wyler, 1947)

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