50 Must-See Documentaries Streaming on Netflix This April

We recommend the very best in nonfiction content streaming on Netflix this month.

The Legend of Cocaine Island

We are conflicted this month about the state of documentaries on Netflix. On the one hand, the just-released feature The Legend of Cocaine Island is one of their most entertaining acquisitions yet. On the other hand, it’s the only new documentary feature of note that we’ve seen that’s worthy of inclusion on our list of essentials.

Meanwhile, more great films are being purged from Netflix’s library. This month we’ve lost Finders Keepers, Sunshine Superman, Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, and Werner Herzog‘s Lessons of Darkness and Little Dieter Needs to Fly. Because of the imbalance, we’ve decided to cut the Netflix 100 down to a Netflix 50, paring our picks down to the very best.

We’ve also cut back the titles on the short film and series sections, though we still recommend the recent true crime series release The Disappearance of Madeleine McCann and also look forward to the upcoming David Attenborough-narrated nature series Our Planet, the latest in the tradition of Blue Planet, Planet Earth, etc.

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. 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
  2. Brother’s Keeper (Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, 1992)
  3. 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
  4. Encounters at the End of the World (Werner Herzog, 2007) * OSCAR NOMINEE
  5. Into the Inferno (Werner Herzog, 2016)
    “Herzog delivers yet another essential doc on par with his best.” — Christopher Campbell
  6. Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Werner Herzog, 2010)
  7. 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
  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. Notes on Blindness (Peter Middleton and James Spinney, 2016)
    “A fascinating stylistic endeavor, one that takes flight from the many detailed observations that fill the audio tapes. It is not, however, inspiring. And that’s something to be thankful for.” — Daniel Walber
  11. My Beautiful Broken Brain (Sophie Robinson and Lotje Sodderland, 2014)
    “The film, which also involves David Lynch on screen and off (he gets a producer credit), puts us in Sodderland’s mind to the best of nonfiction cinema’s capabilities. In addition to candidly sharing the struggles and insights of its subject, Brain also represents her newly enhanced sensory perception through augmented POV shots, using visual effects that could have been cheesy in a lesser work.” — Christopher Campbell
  12. Why We Fight: Prelude to War (Frank Capra and Anatole Litvak, 1942) * OSCAR WINNER
  13. Why We Fight: The Battle of Russia (Frank Capra and Anatole Litvak, 1943) * OSCAR NOMINEE
  14. Report from the Aleutians (John Huston, 1943) * OSCAR NOMINEE
  15. How to Operate Behind Enemy Lines (John Ford, 1943)
  16. Tunisian Victory (Frank Capra, Hugh Stewart, and John Huston, 1944)
  17. Know Your Enemy (Frank Capra and Joris Ivens, 1945)
  18. Nazi Concentration Camps (George Stevens, 1945)
  19. Let There Be Light (John Huston, 1946)
  20. 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
  21. 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
  22. 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
  23. GLOW: The Story of the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling (Brett Whitcomb, 2012)
    “Not just a doc that caters to nostalgia, fandom and the spectacle of this ridiculous concept and program (this is no extended episode of I Love the 80s). It’s about an era of excess and exploitation and extreme entertainment that now looks rather silly and tame decades later. It’ll make you wonder about the real, human side of every piece of forgettable pop culture and hope it could be tackled smartly and with as much sensitivity as a doc like, as opposed to via another sensational or fluff-driven TV show of today.” — Christopher Campbell
  24. 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
  25. Senna (Asif Kapadia, 2010)
    “Blows apart all conventional ideas about a documentary’s ability to convey action.” – Dan Schindel
  26. Street Fight (Marshall Curry, 2005) * OSCAR NOMINEE
  27. The Square (Jehane Noujaim, 2013) * OSCAR NOMINEE
  28. Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom (Evgeny Afineevsky, 2015) * OSCAR NOMINEE
  29. 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
  30. Fire at Sea (Gianfranco Rosi, 2016)* OSCAR NOMINEE
  31. 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
  32. Oklahoma City (Barak Goodman, 2017)
  33. (T)error (Lyric R. Cabral and David Felix Sutcliffe, 2015)
  34. 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
  35. Let It Fall: Los Angeles 1982–1992 (John Ridley, 2017)
  36. 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
  37. 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
  38. The Rachel Divide (Laura Brownson, 2018)
    “One of the most fascinating and complicated documentaries of the year. Diallo’s self-proclaimed trans-racial identity is only one part of the bizarre puzzle; there’s also her fraught family history, her attempts to regain a livelihood following the 2015 scandal, the actual racism that motivated her outing, and her deep but self-centered love for her put-upon sons. Brownson is in no way overly sympathetic to Diallo, but she succeeds in capturing each and every one of her subject’s dizzying dimensions.” – Valerie Ettenhofer
  39. 20 Feet From Stardom (Morgan Neville, 2013) * OSCAR WINNER
  40. 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
  41. Justin Bieber: Never Say Never (Jon M. Chu, 2011)
  42. Presenting Princess Shaw (Ido Haar, 2015)
  43. Kurt & Courtney (Nick Broomfield, 1998)
  44. I Called Him Morgan (Kasper Collin, 2016)
    “A uniquely captivating music doc…[it] might be the most pulpy biographical film ever.” — Christopher Campbell
  45. 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
  46. Faces Places (Agnes Varda and JR, 2017) * OSCAR NOMINEE
    Faces Places is many things — a meditation on art and memory, a road trip movie, a portrait of a charming intergenerational friendship. Even with its many layers, the film remains light and playful, a wonderful reminder that documentaries can be both joyous and deep at the same time.” — Ciara Wardlow
  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. Evil Genius: The True Story of America’s Most Diabolical Bank Heist (Trey Borzillieri and Barbara Schroeder, 2018)
  4. Wild Wild Country (Chapman Way and Maclain Way, 2018)
  5. 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
  6. 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
  7. The Keepers (Ryan White, 2017)
  8. November 13: Attack on Paris (Gedeon Naudet and Jules Naudet, 2018)
  9. The Civil War (Ken Burns, 1990)
  10. The War (Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, 2007)
  11. The Vietnam War (Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, 2017)
  12. Prohibition (Ken Burns, 2011)
  13. The Roosevelts: An Intimate History (Ken Burns, 2014)
  14. Planet Earth (Alastair Fothergill, 2006)
  15. Planet Earth II (Justin Anderson, Ed Charles, Fredi Devas, Chadden Hunter, Emma Napper, and Elizabeth White, 2016)

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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