100 Must-See Documentaries Streaming on Netflix This September

100 Must-See Documentaries Streaming on Netflix This Month

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

After taking a short hiatus this summer, we’re back with your monthly essentials. And we’re going to try something out since the Netflix 100 continues to be our most popular feature. We’re going to make it a members-only feature.

All that means is that you need a Medium login to read it and you can view it free if it’s one of three member-only pieces you read in a given month. Or you can help support Nonfics by becoming a paid Medium member. We thank you very much either way.

Since our last edition, six documentary features and one documentary short we regularly include expired from Netflix. The former: Touching the Void, Stevie, In the Basement, Inside Job, Particle Fever, and Casting By. The latter: White Earth (fortunately some exciting original short docs are coming soon).

Fortunately, some recent favorites have been added to Netflix. I Called Him Morgan, Karl Marx City, All These Sleepless Nights, and My Scientology Movie are all on Christopher Campbell’s list of the best docs of the year so far over at Thrillist. And there’s the new Errol Morris feature The B-Side: Elsa Dorman’s Portrait Photography. Rounding up the additions, we’re putting back the problematic Welcome to Leith because it’s so timely now.

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 (Super Size Me and Super High Me and Chasing Coral and Chasing Ice, for two example sets) 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 and The Look of Silence is sort of a sequel to The Act of Killing, for two example sets).

  1. 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
  2. I Called Him Morgan (Kasper Collin, 2016)
    “A uniquely captivating music doc…[it] might be the most pulpy biographical film ever.” — Christopher Campbell
  3. 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
  4. 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
  5. 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
  6. Welcome to Leith (Michael Beach Nichols and Christopher K. Walker, 2015)
    “A complicated narrative in and of itself, one of a town divided by fear and terror from both sides of the street…worth seeing for its subjects and what they offer.” — Christopher Campbell
  7. 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
  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. Super Size Me (Morgan Spurlock, 2004)
  16. Super High Me (Michael Blieden, 2007)
  17. Encounters at the End of the World (Werner Herzog, 2007)
  18. Into the Inferno (Werner Herzog, 2016)
    “As a whole, Herzog delivers yet another essential doc on par with his best.” — Christopher Campbell
  19. Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Werner Herzog, 2010)
  20. 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
  21. Chasing Ice (Jeff Orlowski, 2012)
  22. Chasing Coral (Jeff Orlowski, 2017)
  23. Moana With Sound (Robert J. Flaherty, Frances Hubbard Flaherty and Monica Flaherty, 1926/1980)
    “Gorgeous…Sandalwood, smoke, spray and unsettlingly large crabs become vivid and immersive in this classic of ethnographic nonfiction.” — Daniel Walber
  24. 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
  25. 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
  26. 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
  27. 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
  28. 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
  29. Lost in La Mancha (Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe, 2002)
  30. 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
  31. Jesus Camp (Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, 2006)
  32. Why We Fight: Prelude to War (Frank Capra and Anatole Litvak, 1942)
  33. Why We Fight: The Battle of Russia (Frank Capra and Anatole Litvak, 1943)
  34. How to Operate Behind Enemy Lines (John Ford, 1943)
  35. Report from the Aleutians (John Huston, 1943)
  36. Tunisian Victory (Frank Capra, Hugh Stewart, and John Huston, 1944)
  37. The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress (William Wyler, 1944)
  38. Know Your Enemy (Frank Capra and Joris Ivens, 1945)
  39. Nazi Concentration Camps (George Stevens, 1945)
  40. Let There Be Light (John Huston, 1946)
  41. 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
  42. Stray Dog (Debra Granik, 2014)
    “Vietnam veteran turned biker Ron Hall doesn’t seem on paper like one of the most compelling documentary protagonists of the year. Hell, he might not even seem it while you’re watching the film. But Granik’s casual disregard for convention and easy naturalism flesh out Hall’s many nuances, making his pain wholly sympathetic and his little triumphs into tremendous crowd-pleasers.” — Dan Schindel
  43. Little Dieter Needs to Fly (Werner Herzog, 1997)
  44. 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
  45. 1971 (Johanna Hamilton, 2014)
  46. 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
  47. 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
  48. 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
  49. God Grew Tired of Us: The Story of Lost Boys of Sudan (Christopher Dillon Quinn and Tommy Walker, 2006)
  50. 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
  51. The Ivory Game (Kief Davidson and Richard Ladkani, 2016)
  52. How to Survive a Plague (David France, 2012)
    “David France’s debut feature is a triumph of what Shola Lynch has called “historical verite,” the crafting of a narrative out of archival footage. As a history of ACT UP it is peerless and as a portrait of heroism it is among the best of nonfiction cinema in general.” — Daniel Walber
  53. We Were Here (David Weissman and Bill Weber, 2011)
    “David Weissman and Bill Weber’s chronicle of the early years of the AIDS crisis in San Francisco begins with an invocation of community. The advent of what was then known as a “Gay Plague” was a disaster, but it was mitigated in this particular city in part because of the strength of its institutions and its neighborhoods. We Were Here captures that collective, powerful spirit.” — Daniel Walber
  54. 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
  55. Jackass Number Two (Jeff Tremaine, 2006)
  56. 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
  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. 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
  59. 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
  60. Vernon, Florida (Errol Morris, 1981)
  61. The Chinese Mayor (Hao Zhou, 2015)
  62. Street Fight (Marshall Curry, 2005)
  63. Get Me Roger Stone (Dylan Bank, Daniel DiMauro, Morgan Pehme, 2017)
  64. Democrats (Camilla Nielsson, 2014)
  65. The Square (Jehane Noujaim, 2013)
  66. Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom (Evgeny Afineevsky, 2015)
  67. Fire at Sea (Gianfranco Rosi, 2016)
  68. Sacro GRA (Gianfranco Rosi, 2013)
    Review by Daniel Walber
  69. Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (Alex Gibney, 2005)
  70. Evolution of a Criminal (Darius Clark Monroe, 2014)
  71. Oklahoma City (Barak Goodman, 2017)
  72. (T)error (Lyric R. Cabral and David Felix Sutcliffe, 2015)
  73. Tower (Keith Maitland, 2016)
  74. Dirty Wars (Rick Rowley, 2013)
  75. Of Men and War (Laurent Becue-Renard, 2014)
  76. Homeland: Iraq Year Zero (Abbas Fahdel, 2016)
  77. Trapped (Dawn Porter, 2016)
  78. Growing Up Coy (Eric Juhola, 2016)
  79. Presenting Princess Shaw (Ido Haar, 2015)
  80. What Happened, Miss Simone? (Liz Garbus, 2015)
  81. Miss Sharon Jones! (Barbara Kopple, 2015)
  82. Beware of Mr. Baker (Jay Bulger, 2012)
  83. Anvil! The Story of Anvil (Sacha Gervasi, 2008)
  84. Kurt & Courtney (Nick Broomfield, 1998)
  85. Pumping Iron (George Butler and Robert Fiore, 1977)
  86. Bigger, Stronger, Faster (Chris Bell, 2008)
  87. Print the Legend (Luis Lopez and J. Clay Tweel, 2014)
  88. Finding Vivian Maier (John Maloof and Charlie Siskel, 2013)
  89. Exit Through the Gift Shop (Banksy, 2010)
  90. Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (Alison Klayman, 2012)
  91. Hooligan Sparrow (Nanfu Wang, 2016)
  92. Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower (Joe Piscatella, 2017)
  93. Jiro Dreams of Sushi (David Gelb, 2011)
  94. LoveTrue (Alma Har’el, 2016)
  95. Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press (Brian Knappenberger, 2017)
    Review by Christopher Campbell
  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)
  100. Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father (Kurt Kuenne, 2008)

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

  1. The Keepers (Ryan White, 2017)
  2. The Civil War (Ken Burns, 1990)
  3. Prohibition (Ken Burns, 2011)
  4. The Roosevelts: An Intimate History (Ken Burns, 2014)
  5. Making a Murderer (Moira Demos and Laura Ricciardi, 2015)
  6. Planet Earth (Alastair Fothergill, 2006)
  7. Five Came Back (Laurent Bouzereau, 2017)

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)

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