The 100 Most Necessary Documentaries to Stream on Netflix This January

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 of the best documentaries of last year has been added to the first edition of the Netflix 100 of this year. In fact, Nonfics critic Daniel Walber put Joaquim Pinto’s What Now? Remind Me at the top of his list of the best of 2014. One other film joins the ranks this month: Medora, an under-seen doc about smalltown America through the narrative of the worst high school basksetball team in Indiana.

Those two titles replace two that have expired from Netflix. There’s Senna, which I guess you can go catch on ESPN Classic seemingly any day of the week, and there’s The Black Power Mixtape 1967–1975, which will hopefully return to the streaming service soon, maybe along with Goran Olsson’s new film (another of our favorites of 2014), Concerning Violence.

Again, the Netflix 100 now has captions affixed to some of the titles. I’ve swapped the ones featured last week with different blurbs for different films in this edition.

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 lot of documentaries are reflexively about their own making, yet none so much as this film that playfully reminds us how far nonfiction cinema manipulates reality. More docs could use the occasional reverse-motion shot.” [Sight & Sound]
  1. “Herzog’s film takes us into an inaccessible museum of sorts, which holds the oldest known man-made art works in the world, the primitive paintings of Chauvet Cave. []
  1. “The directors went to Nepal to film, choosing the mountain temple of Manakamana as their subject. Specifically, their focus is the cable car that takes pilgrims over the foothills on their way to pay tribute to the goddess Bhagwati. Their method? Stick a 16mm camera on one of the cable cars, staring directly at those riding up (or d0wn), and see what happens. Repeat. The duration of a single trip in the cable car is about 9 minutes. Manakamana is an assembly of eleven of these trips, each of which is presented in its entirety.” [Daniel Walber, Nonfics]
  1. “An epic essay film. Directed by CalArts film professor Thom Andersen, the 169-minute work was initially going to be part of a lecture on the depiction of L.A. in cinema, but it went much longer than expected.” [Nonfics]
  1. “The Imposter immediately sets us up for trouble by introducing its main subject, con-artist Frederic Bourdin, as one of the film’s primary narrators. At first he’s pretty dependable, confessing to the crime in focus, in which the then-23-year-old European passed himself off as a missing teenager from Texas, even fooling the kid’s family for months before eventually being exposed as a fraud and put away for six years. But as his story progresses and is intertwined with testimonial interviews with the boy’s sister and mother, an FBI agent and a private detective, among others, what he’s saying should be put into doubt more and more.” []
  1. “Much has been made of Joaquim Pinto’s What Now? Remind Me as an all-encompassing documentary about life as it is lived by one man, and to a large extent that’s true. It’s an epic in miniature, a film built from a year of clinical trials and medically required rest, watching television and flipping through books, relaxing in the sun and hanging out with gigantic dogs. Pinto has been living with HIV for two decades. Yet his conception of the virus’s metaphysical implications is one of the many departure points from which Pinto leaps into the cosmos. More than a film about a single man’s experience, What Now? Remind Me is about life itself, well beyond even the single-species perspective of humankind. Pinto places AIDS at once in the specific context of Portuguese colonialism and the history of human evolution at large. Cartoons, piano sonatas, Freud, the murder of David Kato, Facebook and Portuguese Renaissance humanist Francisco de Holanda drift on and off the screen with remarkable equality of influence. Resting on a heartfelt, deep sensuality and flying into the stars with an age-old, spiritual wisdom, What Now? Remind Me is the best documentary of [2014].” [Nonfics]
  1. “The film is about a small Indiana town and the high school basketball team that has the dishonor of being the worst in the state. Directors Andrew Cohn and Davy Rothbart seem to only use the basketball story as a means to show smalltown America as an underdog against the rest of the world, though not exactly positively. We’ve seen countless movies stressing the poverty and the hopelessness of areas like this, and a lot of them wind up peddling inspiration. Medora is at times quite moving, perhaps even crowd-pleasing, but it can’t really be called uplifting, even when its subjects are at their most triumphant. The endurance of the town and the team is more respectable than rousing.” [Film School Rejects]
  1. “Particle Fever is not necessarily a film about what the Large Hadron Collider does or might prove or disprove. It’s a film about the people involved in its creation and/or with the scientific theories it will impact, such as the young post-doc Monica Dunford and the patient physicist Savas Dimopoulos, who’s been waiting three decades to test out his theories, and even the great hero of particle physics himself, Peter Higgs. And as this, it’s among the very best portrayals of passion and excitement ever put on screen.” [Nonfics]
  1. “A work of propaganda that directly and overstatedly responds to another work of propaganda, Josh Fox’s Oscar-nominated documentary Gasland, which warns against the process of hydraulic fracturing (aka “fracking”) used for natural gas extraction. Through the media coverage, Academy recognition and HBO’s airing of that film, it became a phenomenal influence on an issue that many of us weren’t even conscious of until Fox made it his raison d’etre (he continues to lead activists and document the cause with short films and an upcoming sequel). In fact, Gasland has had such a major effect on the awareness and business of fracking that the directors of FrackNation have implied that their side is now that of the underdog.” []
  1. “One of the worst unknown issues in America: sexual assault in the U.S. armed forces. And yes, it is sometimes a difficult doc to get through with all the tears being shed on screen as victims (one of them male) talk about their rapes and how their troubles didn’t end with the actual incident. Too often their stories made me think I was watching an Irish period drama about Catholic ‘fallen’ women being punished for having ‘tempted’ their violators.” []
  1. “Spellbound with junior magicians. One thing the film has going for it is the age group of its subjects. As with Spellbound, the best of the comp-doc genre involve kids, usually teenagers. Tweel doesn’t capture the pressures of these years as well as Blitz does, especially considering how unconventional the dream of being a pro illusionist is for a young person, but he also benefits from a broader range of personality types and global representation, including a slapstick pair from South Africa and a spiritual kid from Japan. Make Believe doesn’t depend so much on awkwardness and eccentricity, either, at least not to capitalize on the strangeness of its young competitors. I can’t recall any moments calling for laughter at a character’s expense.” [Spout]
  1. “An outrageous, despicable, guiltily hilarious and appropriately superficial good time. This doc follows an extremely rich family as they attempt to build the largest home in America, but then the economy collapses and turns their lifestyle upside down like a heroin addict dropped into a world without poppies. The drug withdrawal analogy is fitting, since patriarch David Siegel likens bankers to pushers and admits that making millions is addictive. I completely despised everyone in this spoiled clan, right down to the innocent children. It’s not all their fault, but I preemptively hate who they’ll become anyway.” []

(Editor in Chief)

Christopher Campbell is the founding editor of Nonfics.