100 Must-See Documentaries Streaming on Netflix This December

This month's most notable addition is an adaptation of John Grisham's nonfiction book 'The Innocent Man.'

The Innocent Man

If you couldn’t get enough documentaries about filmmaking last month, Netflix also added De Palma, about director Brian De Palma, and the Walt Disney doc Walt: The Man Behind the Myth recently, so they’ve been added to the Netflix 100 for December. They will soon be joined by the Michael Jackson concert film This Is It, which is set to begin streaming on December 10th.

The two most notable additions this month, however, are not features. First, for the true crime junkies, Ross M. Dinnerstein and Netflix favorite Clay Tweel (Finders Keepers, Print the Legend) have a new series based on the John Grisham book The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town. That drops December 14th. Two days earlier, Nanfu Wang (Hooligan Sparrow) and John Hoffman (Rancher, Farmer, Fisherman) bring a new immigration doc short titled Out of Many, One to the streaming service.

Sadly, a whole bunch of docs expired from Netflix since last month’s list, including three Errol Morris classics: The Thin Blue Line, Gates of Heaven, and Vernon, Florida, which now seem unavailable anywhere. That’d be a huge loss on its own, but also Vitaliy Manskiy‘s Under the Sun and the election doc 11/8/16 are gone, too. Because that’s more features than I’ve mentioned for addition, I’ve also slipped Oscar winner Icarus and recent Netflix Original Reversing Roe back into the mix.

Here is a reminder of how the Netflix 100 titles are numerically arranged:

They are mostly ranked in order of my 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, I see this whole list as being best watched in order of the rankings.

There are a few double features in the bunch (Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer and Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer, for one example set) and some groupings where I 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).

First up, though, are the three new additions.

  1. De Palma (Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow, 2015)
  2. Walt: The Man Behind the Myth (Jean-Pierre Isbouts, 2001)
    “An interesting case study in how Disney spins its own mythology…Though it purports to go ‘behind the myth,’ it instead actually builds Walt Disney up as a mythological being. Events like the invention of Mickey Mouse are elevated to titanic importance.” — Dan Schindel
  3. This Is It (Kenny Ortega, 2009)
    “As a blend of backstage footage, a few testimonials praising Michael, sharply-produced show elements, and the musical performances – This Is It is a stunning look at something that’s both epic and personal. Beautiful. Thrilling. Revealing. This film is a great documentary that delivers a larger-than-life figure in his natural environment as both a mega-celebrity and just a man standing alone on a stage.” – Scott Beggs
  4. Brother’s Keeper (Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, 1992)
  5. Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer (Nick Broomfield, 1992)
  6. Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer (Nick Broomfield, 2003)
    “The most intense depiction of the complicated relationship between documentary filmmaker and subject of all time.” — Christopher Campbell
  7. 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
  8. The Look of Silence (Joshua Opppenheimer, 2014)
    “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
  9. The Missing Picture (Rithy Panh, 2013)
  10. Karl Marx City (Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker, 2016)
    “The feat of editing that Karl Marx Citypulls off is all the more remarkable when one rethinks the narrative through-line of the film and realizes that Epperlein’s actual quest is fairly straightforward.” — Dan Schindel
  11. Encounters at the End of the World (Werner Herzog, 2007)
  12. Into the Inferno (Werner Herzog, 2016)
    “As a whole, Herzog delivers yet another essential doc on par with his best.” — Christopher Campbell
  13. Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Werner Herzog, 2010)
  14. Lessons of Darkness (Werner Herzog, 1992)
    “Using truly breathtaking 16mm images (many of them aerial shots), a sweeping orchestral score (Mahler, for example) and sparse but heavily biblical voice over, Herzog creates an apocalyptic opera of observation on war, environmental calamity and absurd human folly.” — Robert Greene
  15. Finders Keepers (Bryan Carberry and J. Clay Tweel, 2015)
    “Lays it on us hard that this isn’t just some fool’s folly where we laugh at the yokels…the initial comical stuff suddenly gains a new perspective, as this whole ridiculous tale is revealed to be a comedy rooted in disaster.” — Christopher Campbell
  16. 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
  17. 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
  18. 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
  19. 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, Brainalso represents her newly enhanced sensory perception through augmented POV shots, using visual effects that could have been cheesy in a lesser work.” — Christopher Campbell
  20. Unrest (Jennifer Brea, 2017)
  21. Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond — Featuring A Very Special, Contractually Obligated Mention of Tony Clifton (Chris Smith, 2017)
  22. Shirkers (Sandi Tan, 2018)
  23. Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story (Alexandra Dean, 2017)
    “Lamarr’s story is so important today because uncovering women who defied definition rewrites the history that never included them when they influenced the world…Lamarr should’ve been a celebrated scientist as well as a beautiful movie star. She could’ve been a role model for girls while she was alive. But telling her story now allows her to be more than that.” — Emily Kubincanek
  24. The Pixar Story (Leslie Iwerks, 2007)
  25. Filmworker (Tony Zierra, 2017)
  26. They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead (Morgan Neville, 2018)
  27. The Last Laugh (Ferne Pearlstein, 2016)
    “A movie partially interested in Jewish comedians making jokes about the Holocaust…When it floats away from its star talent, The Last Laugh becomes a viciously humane work, on a journey as vigorous as any contemplated by D.A. Pennebaker.” — Andrew Karpan
  28. One Of Us (Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, 2017)
    “The duo behind the Oscar-nominated documentary Jesus Camp take another jab at religious fundamentalism, this time turning their cameras on the Hasidic Jewish community….a woman escaping an abusive husband and now fighting an impossible custody battle for their many children is not only the standout subject of the triptych, but her courage and the film’s portrayal of her transition into general society makes the whole thing a must-see.” — Christopher Campbell
  29. My Scientology Movie (John Dower, 2015)
    “As journalism, it’s a goof, but the film uses a conceit where actors are cast as Miscavige and Cruise for staged studies of Scientology’s processes and productions that offers a curious consideration of the Church’s theatrics.” — Christopher Campbell
  30. Why We Fight: Prelude to War (Frank Capra and Anatole Litvak, 1942)
  31. Why We Fight: The Battle of Russia (Frank Capra and Anatole Litvak, 1943)
  32. How to Operate Behind Enemy Lines(John Ford, 1943)
  33. Report from the Aleutians (John Huston, 1943)
  34. Tunisian Victory (Frank Capra, Hugh Stewart, and John Huston, 1944)
  35. The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress (William Wyler, 1944)
  36. Know Your Enemy (Frank Capra and Joris Ivens, 1945)
  37. Nazi Concentration Camps (George Stevens, 1945)
  38. Let There Be Light (John Huston, 1946)
  39. 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
  40. Little Dieter Needs to Fly (Werner Herzog, 1997)
  41. 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
  42. Let It Fall: Los Angeles 1982–1992 (John Ridley, 2017)
  43. The Force (Peter Nicks, 2017)
  44. Strong Island (Yance Ford, 2017)
    “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
  45. 13th (Ava DuVernay, 2016)
    “With such an ambitious goal, it’s frankly miraculous that 13thmoves as assuredly as it does…13thcrams an astonishing amount of historical material into less than two hours of informative, emotionally potent segments.” — Daniel Walber
  46. The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution (Stanley Nelson, 2015)
    “In certain sections, this doc manages to shine. A sequence about the tragically brief work of Fred Hampton…truly conveys the hope he inspired in the community and how crushed they were by his death.” — Dan Schindel
  47. Winnie (Pascale Lamche, 2017)
    Winnie assumes quite a simplistic form. Chronological archive footage is intercut with talking heads interviews. Biographers and journalists, as well as Apartheid government figures and even one of the Mandela daughters all shed light on the titular woman. But most rousing of all in the film is Winnie herself. She’s still going strong and is a vibrant presence through a number of interviews.” — Benedict Seal
  48. City of Joy (Madeleine Gavin, 2018)
  49. Virunga (Orlando von Einsiedel, 2014)
    “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
  50. The Ivory Game (Kief Davidson and Richard Ladkani, 2016)
  51. 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
  52. Meru (Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, 2015)
    “The film has a built-in arc revolving around Meru as a recurrent, Moby Dick-like obsession looming over the characters’ lives. With the two expeditions to Meru as bookends, it peels apart both the appeal and the supreme danger in mountain climbing.” — Dan Schindel
  53. Mountain (Jennifer Peedom, 2017)
  54. Sunshine Superman (Marah Strauch, 2014)
    “More than just a chronicle of Carl Boenish as he popularizes the extreme sport of BASE jumping in the early 1980s…[it has] the flare to compare to any fictional action movie found at your local multiplex. Plus it’s got a pretty hot classic rock soundtrack.” — Christopher Campbell
  55. Jackass: Number Two (Jeff Tremaine, 2006)
  56. 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
  57. Undefeated (Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin, 2011)
    “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
  58. Street Fight (Marshall Curry, 2005)
  59. Get Me Roger Stone (Dylan Bank, Daniel DiMauro, Morgan Pehme, 2017)
  60. Democrats (Camilla Nielsson, 2014)
  61. The Square (Jehane Noujaim, 2013)
  62. Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom (Evgeny Afineevsky, 2015)
  63. Last Men in Aleppo (Firas Fayyad, Steen Johannessen, and Hasan Kattan, 2017)
    “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
  64. Fire at Sea (Gianfranco Rosi, 2016)
  65. Sacro GRA (Gianfranco Rosi, 2013)
    “The attitude of Sacro GRAis 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
  66. Abacus: Small Enough to Jail (Steve James, 2017)
  67. Capitalism: A Love Story (Michael Moore, 2009)
  68. Saving Capitalism (Sari Gelman and Jacob Kornbluth, 2017)
  69. Oklahoma City (Barak Goodman, 2017)
  70. (T)error (Lyric R. Cabral and David Felix Sutcliffe, 2015)
  71. Homeland: Iraq Year Zero (Abbas Fahdel, 2016)
  72. Mercury 13 (David Sington and Heather Walsh, 2018)
  73. Reversing Roe (Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg, 2018)
  74. 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
  75. Presenting Princess Shaw (Ido Haar, 2015)
  76. 20 Feet From Stardom (Morgan Neville, 2013)
  77. What Happened, Miss Simone? (Liz Garbus, 2015)
  78. Miss Sharon Jones! (Barbara Kopple, 2015)
  79. Amy (Asif Kapadia, 2015)
    “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
  80. Gaga: Five Foot Two (Chris Moukarbel, 2017)
    “Something the documentary consistently reinforces is the humanity behind the superstar…At the end of the day, the larger than life musician writes music for her family, looking to share a cathartic experience with her grandmother, which emphasizes the human part of the superhuman she is. Her grandmother calling her Stefani is also a nice reminder that there is indeed a woman behind the icon.” — Natalie Mokry
  81. Justin Bieber: Never Say Never (Jon M. Chu, 2011)
  82. Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown (Alex Gibney, 2014)
    “This is a rather conventional affair, with talking heads telling the history supplemented by a valuable bunch of archival clips, but it’s edited perfectly by Geeta Gandbhir (When the Levees Broke) and Maya Mumma (Moms Mabley: I Got Somethin’ to Tell You) and does what it needs to do very effectively…this doc produced by Mick Jagger will make you feel good.” — Christopher Campbell
  83. I Called Him Morgan (Kasper Collin, 2016)
    “A uniquely captivating music doc…[it] might be the most pulpy biographical film ever.” — Christopher Campbell
  84. ReMastered Track 2: Tricky Dick & the Man in Black (Barbara Kopple, 2018)
  85. 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
  86. Pumping Iron (George Butler and Robert Fiore, 1977)
  87. Icarus (Bryan Fogel, 2017)
  88. 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
  89. Print the Legend (Luis Lopez and J. Clay Tweel, 2014)
  90. Look & See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry (Laura Dunn and Jef Sewell, 2016)
    “Very few documentary filmmakers have burst onto the scene as extraordinarily as Laura Dunn.” — Daniel Clarkson Fisher
  91. Finding Vivian Maier (John Maloof and Charlie Siskel, 2013)
  92. The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography (Errol Morris, 2016)
    “The fact that Morris made a small film about a friend and turned her into a sort of archetypical vector for musings on art and life is a testament to his skill…even at his most relaxed, he’s inspired.” — Dan Schindel
  93. Faces Places (Agnes Varda and JR, 2017)
    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
  94. Cutie and the Boxer (Zachary Heinzerling, 2013)
    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
  95. Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (Alison Klayman, 2012)
  96. Hooligan Sparrow (Nanfu Wang, 2016)
  97. Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower (Joe Piscatella, 2017)
    “Once you realize Joshua Wong is a tough egg to crack, this straightforward yet comprehensive chronicle of his triumphs is more than engrossing enough.” — Christopher Campbell
  98. 42 Grams (Jack C. Newell, 2017)
    42 Grams offers a look at what it means to fully live your passion. This film should appeal to anyone who has meditated on how to define their success and what it truly costs to be an “overnight” sensation.” — William Dass
  99. Casting JonBenet (Kitty Green, 2017)
    “While the 1996 murder of the 6-year-old pageant queen, an incident that dominates tabloids even today, has been the subject of countless documentaries and dramatized films, the latest investigation subverts expectations by investigating the mythology that surrounds the tragic case. Casting JonBenet is barely a film about the case, offering instead a unique perspective on the legacy of a 20-year-old mystery and how onlookers perceive murders.” — Christopher Campbell
  100. All These Sleepless Nights (Michael Marczak, 2016)
    “The film is cut with a vengeance…its ideas don’t really stick out, but some of its mood may wander into your dreams.” — Daniel Walber

The Staircase

And here are 17 must-see documentary miniseries and series:

  1. The Innocent Man (Ross M. Dinerstein and Clay Tweel, 2018)
  2. The Staircase (Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, 2004–2018)
  3. Bobby Kennedy for President (Dawn Porter, 2018)
    Bobby Kennedy for President stokes speculative conclusions about whether or not RFK should have run for president at all, or if the country would have been better if he had lived and won. The real takeaway, however, is a deeper personal understanding of both Robert F. Kennedy, his supporters, and the road to the presidential campaign, which wasn’t as smooth and straight shot as it might have seemed then, or in retrospect today.” — Christopher Campbell
  4. Evil Genius: The True Story of America’s Most Diabolical Bank Heist (Trey Borzillieri and Barbara Schroeder, 2018)
  5. Wild Wild Country (Chapman Way and Maclain Way, 2018)
  6. 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
  7. 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
  8. Wormwood (Errol Morris, 2017)
  9. The Keepers (Ryan White, 2017)
  10. November 13: Attack on Paris (Gedeon Naudet and Jules Naudet, 2018)
  11. The Civil War (Ken Burns, 1990)
  12. The Vietnam War (Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, 2017)
  13. Prohibition (Ken Burns, 2011)
  14. The Roosevelts: An Intimate History (Ken Burns, 2014)
  15. Planet Earth (Alastair Fothergill, 2006)
  16. Planet Earth II (Justin Anderson, Ed Charles, Fredi Devas, Chadden Hunter, Emma Napper, and Elizabeth White, 2016)
  17. Five Came Back (Laurent Bouzereau, 2017)

And here are the eight must-see documentary shorts:

  1. Out of Many, One: The Immigrant’s Story (John Hoffman and Nanfu Wang, 2018)
  2. Heroin(e) (Elaine McMillion Sheldon, 2017)
  3. The Battle of Midway (John Ford, 1942)
  4. The Negro Soldier (Stuart Heisler, 1944)
  5. San Pietro (John Ford, 1945)
  6. Thunderbolt (John Sturges and William Wyler, 1947)
  7. The White Helmets (Orlando von Einsiedel, 2016)
  8. Extremis (Dan Krauss, 2016)

(Editor in Chief)

Christopher Campbell is the founding editor of Nonfics.