100 Must-See Documentaries Streaming on Netflix This January

100 Must-See Documentaries Streaming on Netflix This Month

Because people say there are no good movies on Netflix anymore.

This month, an old favorite rejoins the Netflix 100, as the underrated music doc Justin Bieber: Never Say Never is once again streaming. Two other titles are back on Netflix at the start of the new year: the innovative and personal and Oscar-nominated Khmer Rouge doc The Missing Picture and Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story. They will later be joined by two of 2017’s best films, Unrest and The Force (pictured above), the latter not arriving until the very end of January.

Speaking of shortlisted films and best of 2017 in general, as determined by our annual poll, there are some docs that we’re not huge fans of (or haven’t seen for ourselves) that should be pointed out as being on Netflix: Icarus, Chasing Coral, and Voyeur. And also arriving late in the month worth attention is the original series Dirty Money, which is produced and co-directed by Alex Gibney. Another series new to Netflix this month, to go along with the first, is Planet Earth II.

With five new features added to the Netflix 100 this month, five have been removed. And all five have actually expired from streaming. There’s Moana with Sound (taken off to stop confusing people looking for Disney’s Moana?), Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, We Were Here, How to Survive a Plague (weird since Netflix just debuted David France’s latest, The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson) and Jesus Camp (weird since Netflix just debuted Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s latest, One of Us).

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).

  1. The Missing Picture (Rithy Panh, 2013)
  2. Justin Bieber: Never Say Never (Jon M. Chu, 2011)
  3. Capitalism: A Love Story (Michael Moore, 2009)
  4. Unrest (Jennifer Brea, 2017)
  5. The Force (Peter Nicks, 2017)
  6. The Thin Blue Line (Errol Morris, 1988)
    “We should be looking at all documentaries with consideration of the other sides and points of view. Morris’s execution of the concept here, however, is exquisite. He doesn’t leave much up to the imagination but makes it up to us with sensational ‘reenactments’, maybe the most constructive use of the device ever.” — Christopher Campbell
  7. Gates of Heaven (Errol Morris, 1978)
  8. Life Itself (Steve James, 2014)
    “Lovingly and brutally honest…a portrait with edges both soft and rough, an endearing tribute but not without recognition that this beloved and prize-winning man of letters was just a man through and true.” — Christopher Campbell
  9. Brother’s Keeper (Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, 1992)
  10. Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer (Nick Broomfield, 1992)
  11. 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
  12. 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
  13. 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
  14. Under the Sun (Vitaly Mansky, 2015)
    “A quietly chilling document of what is added and subtracted from citizens when they are reshaped into the role models of a totalitarian system.” — Daniel Walber
  15. Karl Marx City (Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker, 2016)
    “The feat of editing that Karl Marx City pulls 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
  16. Encounters at the End of the World (Werner Herzog, 2007)
  17. Into the Inferno (Werner Herzog, 2016)
    “As a whole, Herzog delivers yet another essential doc on par with his best.” — Christopher Campbell
  18. Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Werner Herzog, 2010)
  19. 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
  20. 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
  21. 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
  22. 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
  23. 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
  24. 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
  25. Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond — Featuring A Very Special, Contractually Obligated Mention of Tony Clifton (Chris Smith, 2017)
  26. The Imposter (Bart Layton, 2012)
    “This highly engaging and suspenseful reenactment-heavy thriller is about a young French man who assumes the identity of a missing child in Texas, and it’s the best kind of evidence of the “truth is stranger than fiction” idea…it also presents a very pre-9/11 story that’s even more unbelievable and impossible by today’s standards.” — Christopher Campbell
  27. 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
  28. 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
  29. Why We Fight: Prelude to War (Frank Capra and Anatole Litvak, 1942)
  30. Why We Fight: The Battle of Russia (Frank Capra and Anatole Litvak, 1943)
  31. How to Operate Behind Enemy Lines (John Ford, 1943)
  32. Report from the Aleutians (John Huston, 1943)
  33. Tunisian Victory (Frank Capra, Hugh Stewart, and John Huston, 1944)
  34. The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress (William Wyler, 1944)
  35. Know Your Enemy (Frank Capra and Joris Ivens, 1945)
  36. Nazi Concentration Camps (George Stevens, 1945)
  37. Let There Be Light (John Huston, 1946)
  38. 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
  39. Little Dieter Needs to Fly (Werner Herzog, 1997)
  40. Last Days in Vietnam (Rory Kennedy, 2014)
    “Transcends its basic setup through the sheer strength of a great story that’s told well…an incredibly pleasant surprise. It is a prime example of how documentaries can illuminate our shared memory’s gaps, and how nonfiction can frequently outdo the best thrills Hollywood has to offer.” — Dan Schindel
  41. The Trials of Muhammad Ali (Bill Siegel, 2013)
    “This isn’t a portrait of Ali as much as it is a telling of certain events and how they fit into a bigger picture, as well as how that picture fits into his story…it’s a look at a history by way of Ali, and it’s a look at Ali by way of history, and it’s one of the best docs I’d claim to have learned something from.” — Christopher Campbell
  42. Let It Fall: Los Angeles 1982–1992 (John Ridley, 2017)
  43. 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
  44. 13th (Ava DuVernay, 2016)
    “With such an ambitious goal, it’s frankly miraculous that 13th moves as assuredly as it does…13th crams an astonishing amount of historical material into less than two hours of informative, emotionally potent segments.” — Daniel Walber
  45. 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
  46. 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
  47. The Ivory Game (Kief Davidson and Richard Ladkani, 2016)
  48. 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
  49. 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
  50. 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
  51. Rich Hill (Andrew Droz Palermo and Tracy Droz Tragos, 2014)
    “The most immediate aspect of Palermo and Tragos’s filmmaking is their palpable empathy. They are committed to showing the dignity of their subjects without idealizing their disadvantages or exploiting them. The chaos and occasional violence in Appachey’s home can be jarring, but it is also a space that contains a great deal of love and tenderness.” — Daniel Walber
  52. The Overnighters (Jesse Moss, 2014)
    “A perceptive portrait of the best and worst of human nature. More than an illustration of individual situations and the sum of its parts, The Overnighters is a modern moral tale for our times.” — Christopher Campbell
  53. Detropia (Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, 2012)
  54. Vernon, Florida (Errol Morris, 1981)
  55. The Chinese Mayor (Hao Zhou, 2015)
  56. Street Fight (Marshall Curry, 2005)
  57. Get Me Roger Stone (Dylan Bank, Daniel DiMauro, Morgan Pehme, 2017)
  58. 11/8/16 (Duane Andersen, Don Argott, Yung Chang, Garth Donovan, Petra Epperlein, Vikram Gandhi, Raul Gasteazoro, J. Gonçalves, Andrew Grace, Alma Har’el, Sheena M. Joyce, Daniel Junge, Alison Klayman, Ciara Lacy, Martha Shane, Elaine McMillion Sheldon, Bassam Tariq, Michael Tucker, 2017)
  59. Democrats (Camilla Nielsson, 2014)
  60. The Square (Jehane Noujaim, 2013)
  61. Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom (Evgeny Afineevsky, 2015)
  62. 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
  63. Fire at Sea (Gianfranco Rosi, 2016)
  64. 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
  65. Cuba and the Cameraman (Jon Alpert, 2017)
  66. Saving Capitalism (Sari Gelman and Jacob Kornbluth, 2017)
  67. Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (Alex Gibney, 2005)
  68. Oklahoma City (Barak Goodman, 2017)
  69. (T)error (Lyric R. Cabral and David Felix Sutcliffe, 2015)
  70. Dirty Wars (Rick Rowley, 2013)
  71. Of Men and War (Laurent Becue-Renard, 2014)
  72. Homeland: Iraq Year Zero (Abbas Fahdel, 2016)
  73. Trapped (Dawn Porter, 2016)
  74. The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson (David France, 2017)
  75. 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
  76. Presenting Princess Shaw (Ido Haar, 2015)
  77. What Happened, Miss Simone? (Liz Garbus, 2015)
  78. Miss Sharon Jones! (Barbara Kopple, 2015)
  79. 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
  80. 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
  81. I Called Him Morgan (Kasper Collin, 2016)
    “A uniquely captivating music doc…[it] might be the most pulpy biographical film ever.” — Christopher Campbell
  82. Beware of Mr. Baker (Jay Bulger, 2012)
  83. Kurt & Courtney (Nick Broomfield, 1998)
  84. Pumping Iron (George Butler and Robert Fiore, 1977)
  85. Bigger, Stronger, Faster (Chris Bell, 2008)
  86. Print the Legend (Luis Lopez and J. Clay Tweel, 2014)
  87. Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold (Griffin Dunne, 2017)
  88. 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
  89. Finding Vivian Maier (John Maloof and Charlie Siskel, 2013)
  90. 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
  91. Exit Through the Gift Shop (Banksy, 2010)
  92. Hooligan Sparrow (Nanfu Wang, 2016)
  93. 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
  94. Jiro Dreams of Sushi (David Gelb, 2011)
  95. LoveTrue (Alma Har’el, 2016)
  96. Tabloid (Errol Morris, 2010)
  97. Amanda Knox (Rod Blackhurst and Brian McGinn, 2016)
  98. The Witness (James D. Solomon, 2015)
  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

And here are the 10 must-see documentary miniseries and series:

  1. Wormwood (Errol Morris, 2017)
  2. The Keepers (Ryan White, 2017)
  3. The Civil War (Ken Burns, 1990)
  4. Prohibition (Ken Burns, 2011)
  5. The Roosevelts: An Intimate History (Ken Burns, 2014)
  6. Making a Murderer (Moira Demos and Laura Ricciardi, 2015)
  7. Planet Earth (Alastair Fothergill, 2006)
  8. Planet Earth II (Justin Anderson, Ed Charles, Fredi Devas, Chadden Hunter, Emma Napper, and Elizabeth White, 2016)
  9. Five Came Back (Laurent Bouzereau, 2017)
  10. Dirty Money (2018)

And here are the seven must-see documentary shorts:

  1. The Battle of Midway (John Ford, 1942)
  2. The Negro Soldier (Stuart Heisler, 1944)
  3. San Pietro (John Ford, 1945)
  4. Thunderbolt (John Sturges and William Wyler, 1947)
  5. The White Helmets (Orlando von Einsiedel, 2016)
  6. Extremis (Dan Krauss, 2016)
  7. Heroin(e) (Elaine McMillion Sheldon, 2017)

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