The 100 Most Necessary Documentaries to Stream on Netflix This December

Brothers Keeper DVD image

Rather than update our original list of the 100 Best Documentaries on Netflix whenever a film expires or is added, we’d like to post a new version each month to keep things tidy and less confusing. And to make it even nicer for all of you, we’re going to note everything that has joined or left the guide.

One modern classic, Los Angeles Plays Itself, joins the ranks this month after (seemingly miraculously) becoming legally available on home video for the first time ever — more than 10 years since its initial release. And it replaces, unfortunately, another modern classic that has been dropped from Netflix Watch Instantly: Gary Hustwit’s Helvetica. Because there were two other necessary titles to add this month, I decided to remove the other two films in Hustwit’s design trilogy, Objectified and Urbanized. They’re still highly recommended, but you should see all three, so if Netflix isn’t going to complete the trio, just go buy the bunch (I’m unsure if there are any limited edition box sets available, but that’s a good holiday gift for this month if so!).

One of those two new necessities to take their place are Claude Lanzmann’s new film, The Last of the Unjust, which may tide everyone over until they inevitably throw Shoah onto the streaming service (maybe after SundanceNow’s exclusive). It fits in with the section of the Netflix 100 involving genocides. The other is Out of the Clear Blue Sky, which not everyone here loves but which I think is an important look at a mostly unknown angle on the aftermath of both 9/11 specifically and disasters and tragedies in general. Please give it a shot.

As you may notice if you’ve been looking at this list as it’s changed over the months, I’ve finally added some text beneath the titles — some of them, that is. Where I could find writings on the docs by myself here or elsewhere, I’ve quoted descriptive sections for a slightly random bunch among the 100. One or two are quoted from things written by other contributors to this site here.

Now a reminder of how the 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 — 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.

  1. “A personal documentary that primarily sources memories — rather than footage — of events in the actress turned filmmaker’s family life. Interviewing her brothers, sisters, father and their friends, Polley winds up with a brilliant exploration of both identity and the documentary form as each is shaped through different versions of truth and points of view, as well as our trust in what and how we are seeing things on-screen.” []
  1. “Paris is Burning 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.” [Nonfics]
  1. “Beginning in 1964, the first part profiles a number of children throughout England, all from different backgrounds. Each subsequent part presents these children as they grow seven years older.” [Cinematical/Moviefone]
  • 7 Plus Seven (Michael Apted, 1970)
  • 21 Up (Michael Apted, 1977)
  • 28 Up (Michael Apted, 1985)
  • 35 Up (Michael Apted, 1991)
  • 42 Up (Michael Apted, 1998)
  • 49 Up (Michael Apted, 2005)
  • 56 Up (Michael Apted, 2012)
  1. “Now they’re 56, and understandably most of the subjects (the number of which has dwindled surprisingly only slightly over the decades) are at a point where little is different compared to seven years earlier. At least personally. For some, the story has sort of moved on to how their kids and grandkids are doing, as their own course is rather static. One thing that is notable about 56 Up, therefore, is that it focuses more on how the world and England have changed over the course of 50 years. Rural areas are becoming urbanized, the East End of London is now filled with immigrants and the Olympic Park and, less locally, there’s the weakened economy.” [Film School Rejects]
  1. “The film begins as a simple video diary of Iranian auteur Jafar Panahi, who is under house arrest awaiting appeal on a prison sentence and is also forbidden to write or direct movies, and it turns into a multi-faceted story of physical and creative confinement and the power and simplicity of cinematic protest. Co-directed by Mojtaba Mirthahmasb, this relatively short feature will surprise you with just how interesting and entertaining a film about one man in one space (plus an iguana, some garbage, a dog, fireworks and a script reading) can be.” []
  1. “This partially animated documentary is the slowest film ever to have me completely on the edge of my seat. The pace isn’t so much lagging as unhurried, since it shares the unbelievable and chilling story of Shin Dong-huyk, a young man who was born into a North Korean prison camp. It’s a great struggle for him to tell of what went on there, as well as how he miraculously escaped and how difficult it is to live in the “real” and “free” world, which is anything but to him. Wiese leaves in lengthy pauses and silent moments that are incredibly intense and allow both the subject and the viewer to think deeply about what’s been said and what’s coming next.” []
  1. “The concept of an archival documentary can often suggest stale historical “objectivity,” a straightforward presentation of events unimpeded by the voice of the filmmaker. But Jason Osder’s Let the Fire Burn — an assemblage of occurrences before and after the Philadelphia Police Department set an activist group’s house aflame in 1985 — makes a case for the rich and affecting testimony that the archive alone can uniquely attest to. Meticulously constructing the film from news coverage, home videos, court testimonies and a passionate series of town council meetings, Osder presents a profound chronicle of the MOVE Organization that makes an intensely troubling historical moment feel like it’s unfolding right in front of you.” [Landon Palmer, Nonfics]
  1. “This time [Grady and Ewing] took on the challenge of making a doc about Detroit. The whole city. And not only that, it’s being viewed as really a doc about the whole country right now. I actually don’t know about the microcosm aspect, but I do know it’s a gorgeous city symphony film that just so happens to share some bits and pieces in the way of characters as well. It’s also surprisingly uplifting, and if you’re a regular Doc Talk reader you know I’m on a hopeful doc kick lately. The brilliance with this one is pretty subtle, which ought to make it a film you want to watch over and over again.” []
  1. “Unlike most issue docs and most first-person films, it brings us through a comprehensive history and contemporary look at the systemic problem of illegal drugs. It’s both a brilliant investigative piece that somewhat controversially relates the War on Drugs to the Holocaust and a true nonfiction complement to The Wire, complete with extensive commentary from that series’ creator, David Simon.” []
  1. “This 2010 doc is based on Bjorn Lomberg‘s books The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the State of the World and Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist’s Guide to Global Warming and features Lomberg explaining his highly controversial theories on climate change. He directly responds to Al Gore‘s points from An Inconvenient Truth with his own facts on sea level rise and super storms and even polar bear endangerment. Lomberg isn’t a global warming denier from the other side of the political spectrum, though. He just is saying to “cool it” with all the fear-mongering rhetoric as well as all the wasting of money for solutions that aren’t working and maybe aren’t necessary. A movie like this should be able to bridge the extreme sides regarding climate change, though I’m not that surprised it didn’t seem appealing for either audience. And the regular climate change crowd were worried he’d hurt their cause.” [Nonfics]
  1. “Rick Rowley’s film is hardly new to home video, having been on Netflix Watch Instantly for nearly two months now. But last week it was included on the shortlist for the Academy Award, so I finally gave it a spin. And unexpectedly it’s now one of my favorite docs of the year. The film follows journalist Jeremy Scahill around the world as he investigates connected stories involving a covert U.S. military branch called the Joint Special Operations Command. It’s a doc that pulls us through the narrative journey with Scahill, as he retrospectively yet matter-of-factly narrates throughout, not knowing where we’re being led or how different parts will fit into a greater puzzle. I mostly love how it ends somewhat abruptly with a sign that there is no ending, so it’s like the first chapter in a history that is still being written. But that doesn’t mean we need continuous sequels, either, because leaving us with the horizon ahead is very much the point.” [Nonfics]
  1. “A 9/11 doc that chronicles the days and then years following the tragedy from the perspective of the investment firm Cantor Fitzgerald, which saw 658 employees killed in the destruction of the World Trade Center. How does a company immediately continue in such a disaster, and why must it? These are just two of the difficult questions people like surviving CEO Howard Lutnick had to respond to. Gardner, whose brother was one of the employees lost, compiles a decade-long record of grief and commemoration that’s understandably very sad. Yet more-interestingly, it’s a complex work that explores the peripheral sides of death and tragedy that aren’t often addressed even in smaller scale incidents.” [Documentary Channel Blog]
  1. “This doc looks into the debate about anabolic steroids with emphasis on their use by athletes for performance enhancement, and it’s centered around Bell’s own brothers’ experiences with and abuses of such drugs to benefit their wrestling careers.” [Spout]
  1. “Quite calculated and remarkably, at times humorously self-aware in its layout of the legend of Bieber Fever: the prodigious drummer, singer and songwriter discovered on YouTube, built up through Twitter and overall remembered as the epitome of the social-networking Dream. The enthusiastic, angelic boy from a broken home who now brings other families closer together through the joys of bubblegum music and safe, wholesome concerts.” [Spout]
  1. “A history of the environmentalism movement from the 1960s through to the present, tackling and chronicling such chapters as conservation, pollution and climate change. I trust that the finished film will be a good influence on viewers who will be reminded and convinced that action has been successful in the past and is on the right track moving forward.” []

(Editor in Chief)

Christopher Campbell is the founding editor of Nonfics.