The 100 Most Necessary Documentaries to Stream on Netflix This February

Michael Moore in Bowling for Columbine

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.

This month, we have a special addition to the Netflix 100, a documentary that won’t actually be available to stream on the service until February 17th: The Overnighters. That’s right, the film that topped our poll results for the best doc of 2014 and was named #2 of the year by us. Another of our list-charters, We Always Lie to Strangers, which is among our picks for must-see music docs of 2014, has also been added.

They are joined by these five recent newcomers to Netflix Watch Instantly: Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine; The Yes Men (in which Moore appears); Kids for Cash; Return to Homs and another doc that made this site’s top 14 list of 2014, Expedition to the End of the World.

Of course, that means a lot of films have fallen off the 100 this month. One was easy, though still a sad one to remove: Foreign Parts is expiring from the service on February 7th. I urge you to watch it while you still can before then. The rest I’ve selected for possibly only temporary removal: Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work; Ondi Timoner’s Cool It; Robert Stone’s Radio Bikini and Pandora’s Promise; and Mark Kitchell’s Berkeley in the Sixties and A Fierce Green Fire.

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. “In theory it’s unnecessary to so literally point out the uncertainty of ‘truth’ as viewed from different perspectives. 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.” [Sight & Sound]
  1. “The title of the film refers to both the edge of the earth as well as its demise, and yet the journey in question is hardly one of alarm. Just as the physical end of the world is an illusion, given that it’s not flat, the temporal terminus is just a point somewhere amidst the infinity. Expedition to the End of the World follows a group of explorers sailing toward the North Pole along the Northeast coast of Greenland, a trip made possible only recently thanks to global warming, in order to study the newly exposed environment on every level. Scientists aboard the schooner Activ include a geologist, a geochemist, a marine biologist, a zoologist, an archaeologist and a geographer. There are also artists along for the adventure, aside from the filmmakers, which provides for some of the doc’s deepest discussions, on art versus science and ultimately how each is important for our understanding the universe.” [Film School Rejects]
  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]
  1. “An ethical dilemma with participatory documentary is displayed quite tragically in Nick Broomfield’s Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer (2003), a sequel to his 1992 first-person doc Aileen: The Selling of a Serial Killer, in which he deals with the problem of getting too close to his subject.” [Cinematical/Moviefone]
  1. “With a title like Samsara, you have to expect content that is both divine and open to the viewer’s interpretation or subjective understanding. The word is Sanskrit and basically means the circle of life, but as a concept it has slightly different functions for different cultures and I take it to be about a larger idea of the continuous flow of existence, beyond yet inclusive of the Hindu’s context of reincarnation. Much of what we see in the movie relates to birth and death but also to the forward progressions of nature and humanity, which can still involve decay and repetition.” []
  1. “The Overnighters has a lot of unforgettable scenes, their number increasing over the course of the thickening plot, but mainly it’s Reinke who makes this a memorable account of men at their wits ends, all standing in for and upon a new American landscape of hope enmeshed with desperation. He is either hero or human, but the film questions whether he can be both. It also had me asking, who saves the savior? Throughout the film, many of the most real downtrodden people you’ll ever meet display and sometimes address the devastating ironies, lies and hypocrisies of this modern boomtown, and the saddest thing in the end may be that there is nowhere to place blame for all the heartbreaking collapses and relapses and just plain lapses — no oil company or angry townspeople or government or financial crisis or greater problem of society — than with the individuals themselves. It’s like an issue film where the issue is merely man’s ability to make wrong choices.” [Nonfics]
  1. “This doc is about a scandal involving corrupt judges in Pennsylvania who sent thousands of youths to a detention center from which they received millions of dollars. The verdict on whether that was kickback money incentivizing the conviction of all those minors is both complicated and, I suppose, kind of a spoiler (never mind that it’s public record). And [director Robert May] was able to interview both of the men, Mark Ciavarella and Michael Conahan, meaning we get to hear their side of the story quite candidly. This is yet another doc that stands out by giving a voice to its villains, although in this case, particularly Ciavarella really tries to make the case that he isn’t a bad guy at all, maybe just someone who ironically lacked good judgement.” [Nonfics]
  1. “The subject is LGBTI rights activists in Uganda and specifically the heroic openly gay movement leader David Kato. He was kind of Uganda’s Harvey Milk. And I’ve previously stated that it’s like that nation’s own Word is Out, Before Stonewall and After Stonewall all wrapped up in one. It’s an important film, of course, but it’s also very well made.” [Nonfics]
  1. “Come for the appearance of late children’s book author Maurice Sendak and you’ll be pulled in by Ungerer, a reluctant yet uncontained subject who is easily the most wildly fascinating artist profiled in a documentary since Crumb. Like his friend Sendak, he’s a legend of picture books, though he became blacklisted and banned after he started also producing works of erotica. Born in Strasbourg in 1931, he experienced life’s darkest absurdities early on and has continued to adapt and be a wise witness of man’s constant cycles of fear, hypocrisy, contradiction and revolution while latching onto a philosophy of ‘coping, not hoping.’ Filled with raunchy humor (‘a behind is like a smile you can hold in your hands’), sheer bursts of humanity and the wonderful drawings, both G- and X-rated, of a deeply imaginative and insightful soul.” []
  1. “If you don’t know much about this documentary, you’re better off going in cold, and that means not even Googling the title because I guarantee one of the top results is a spoiler. That’s if you want to have the optimal experience of the film’s arguably manipulative storytelling and therefore the optimal amount of tears from your eyes by the end. I have never met one person who has been able to or wanted to see the doc again, but it’s something that has to be seen not just for the emotional reminder that you’re a human being and that there are human beings out there capable of the worst acts but also for the legacy of the subjects. It’s one thing that the film’s existence led to important legislation in Canada, but it still deserves to be seen to understand why.” [Nonfics]

(Editor in Chief)

Christopher Campbell is the founding editor of Nonfics.