The 100 Most Necessary Documentaries to Stream on Netflix Right Now

The Thin Blue Line Reenactment

Note: This original list was compiled in June 2014. For the latest update, check here.

Along with our guide to the best places to watch documentaries online, we figured it’s important to emphasize that Netflix is still one of the greatest resources for easy nonfiction film viewing. And it’s a service that is still filled with high-quality content. In my related post at Film School Rejects, I claimed that I could quickly recommend at least 50 worthwhile docs on Netflix Watch Instantly. But while perusing the more than 1200 titles I realized that there’s a lot more of value than that. I’d personally vouch for hundreds of films in their streaming catalog at any given time. To make it seem less daunting to you all, though, I’ve limited my picks of the most necessary docs on Netflix to a mere 100 titles. And yes, I consider these all to be must-sees for anyone who enjoys nonfiction cinema.

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 — the Up installments are of varied quality, for instance, but they should be seen in order. 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 (Dogtown and Z-Boys and This Ain’t California and The Act of Killing and Camp 14, for two example sets) and some grouping where I truly think the higher ranking title is best watched before a certain title or titles below it.

Rather than redoing the list every month, this post will be updated as titles expire and are added.* For instance, we already know that all of Ken Burns’s docs will be gone from Netflix Watch Instantly on July 1st. Because of that, we should include all of them on this list, but that’s a lot to get through in a month, so we’ve stuck to the real essentials. We will also add and subtract as I attempt to see more and more of the 1200+ docs available (keep that in mind, by the way, that I haven’t seen everything already). So let’s get started, and if you find yourself getting through all 100, drop us a line and we’ll recommend some more.

1. The Thin Blue Line (Errol Morris, 1988)
2. Hoop Dreams (Steve James, 1994)
3. Sherman’s March (Ross McElwee, 1986)
4. Bright Leaves (Ross McElwee, 2003)
5. Brother’s Keeper (Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, 1992)
6. Encounters at the End of the World (Werner Herzog, 2007)
7. Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Werner Herzog, 2010)
8. Pina (Wim Wenders, 2011)
9. Paris is Burning (Jennie Livington, 1990)
10. Man on Wire (James Marsh, 2008)
11. Senna (Asif Kapadia, 2010)
12. Foreign Parts (Verena Paravel and J.P. Sniadecki, 2010)
13. Leviathan (Verena Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor, 2012)
14. Seven Up (Paul Almond, 1964)
15. 7 Plus Seven (Michael Apted, 1970)
16. 21 Up (Michael Apted, 1977)
17. 28 Up (Michael Apted, 1985)
18. 35 Up (Michael Apted, 1991)
19. 42 Up (Michael Apted, 1998)
20. 49 Up (Michael Apted, 2005)
21. 56 Up (Michael Apted, 2012)
22. The Civil War (Ken Burns, 1990)
23. The Dust Bowl (Ken Burns, 2012)
24. The Central Park Five (Ken Burns, 2012)
25. Aileen Wuornos: Selling of a Serial Killer (Nick Broomfield, 1993)
26. Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer (Nick Broomfield, 2003)
27. This Is Not a Film (Jafar Panahi, 2011)
28. The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer, 2012)
29. Camp 14: Total Control Zone (Marc Wiese, 2012)
30. The Red Chapel (Mads Brugger, 2009)
31. The Ambassador (Mads Brugger, 2011)
32. The Imposter (Bart Layton, 2012)
33. Winged Migration (Jacques Perrin, Jacques Cluzaud and Michel Debats, 2001)
34. Vivan las Antipodas (Victor Kossakovsky, 2011)
35. Samsara (Ron Fricke, 2011)
36. Life in a Day (Kevin MacDonald and Natalia Andreadis, 2011)
37. Touching the Void (Kevin MacDonald, 2003)
38. Let the Fire Burn (Jason Osder, 2013)
39. How to Survive a Plague (David France, 2012)
40. We Were Here (David Weissman and Bill Weber, 2011)
41. Cutie and the Boxer (Zachary Heinzerling, 2013)
42. Crazy Love (Dan Klores, 2007)
43. Monica & David (Alexandra Codina, 2009)
44. Jesus Camp (Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing, 2006)
45. Detropia (Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing, 2012)
46. Iraq in Fragments (James Longley, 2006)
47. No End in Sight (Charles Ferguson, 2007)
48. Control Room (Jehane Noujaim, 2004)
49. The Square (Jehane Noujaim, 2013)
50. 5 Broken Cameras (Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi, 2012)
51. Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (Alex Gibney, 2005)
52. Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer (Alex Gibney, 2010)
53. The House I Live In (Eugene Jarecki, 2012)
54. Into the Abyss (Werner Herzog, 2011)
55. The Interrupters (Steve James, 2011)
56. Which Way Home (Rebecca Cammisa, 2009)
57. Girl Model (David Redmon and Ashley Sabin, 2011)
58. Radio Bikini (Robert Stone, 1988)
59. Pandora’s Promise (Robert Stone, 2013)
60. Countdown to Zero (Lucy Walker, 2009)
61. Gasland (Josh Fox, 2010)
62. Dirty Wars (Rick Rowley, 2013)
63. Call Me Kuchu (Katherine Fairfax Wright and Malika Zouhali-Worrall, 2012)
64. The Black Power Mixtape 1967–1975 (Goran Olsson, 2011)
65. Armadillo (Janus Metz Pedersen, 2010)
66. Restrepo (Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington, 2010)
67. Hell and Back Again (Danfung Dennis, 2011)
68. Dogtown and Z-Boys (Stacy Peralta, 2002)
69. This Ain’t California (Marten Persiel, 2012)
70. Style Wars (Tony Silver, 1983)
71. The Invisible War (Kirby Dick, 2012)
72. 20 Feet From Stardom (Morgan Neville, 2013)
73. Bigger, Stronger, Faster (Chris Bell, 2008)
74. Hit So Hard (P. David Ebersole, 2011)
75. Beware Mr. Baker (Jay Bulger, 2012)
76. Joan Rivers: Piece of Work (Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg, 2010)
77. Far Out Isn’t Far Enough: The Tomi Ungerer Story (Brad Bernstein, 2012)
78. The Art of the Steal (Don Argott, 2009)
79. Helvetica (Gary Hustwit, 2007)
80. Objectified (Gary Hustwit, 2009)
81. Urbanized (Gary Hustwit, 2011)
82. Exit Through the Gift Shop (Bansky, 2010)
83. Marwencol (Jeff Malmberg, 2010)
84. Her Master’s Voice (Nina Conti, 2012)
85. First Position (Bess Kargman, 2011)
86. Make Believe (J. Clay Tweel, 2010)
87. Brooklyn Castle (Katie Dellamaggiore, 2012)
88. Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (Alison Klayman, 2012)
89. 1428 (Du Haibin, 2009)
90. Blackfish (Gabriela Cowperthwaite, 2013)
91. The Whale (Suzanne Chisholm and Michael Parfit, 2011)
92. Berkeley in the Sixties (Mark Kitchell, 1990)
93. A Fierce Green Fire (Mark Kitchell, 2012)
94. Last Call at the Oasis (Jessica Yu, 2011)
95. How to Grow a Band (Mark Meatto, 2011)
96. Last Days Here (Don Argott and Demian Fenton, 2011)
97. Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father (Kurt Kuenne, 2008)
98. The Queen of Versailles (Lauren Greenfield, 2012)
99. Tabloid (Errol Morris, 2010)
100. Vernon, Florida (Errol Morris, 1981)

*Actually, we decided to keep these posts clean, so you can find the latest updated version here.

(Editor in Chief)

Christopher Campbell is the founding editor of Nonfics.