The 100 Most Necessary Documentaries to Stream on Netflix This March

'Life Itself' (Magnolia Pictures)

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 another special addition to the Netflix 100, another documentary that won’t actually be available to stream on the service until later in the month: Life Itself. That’s right, the film that topped my list of the best docs of 2014 and was democratically named 7th best of the year by this site. That will become available just in time for (a day before) my birthday, on March 19th.

That is joined by a recent newcomer to Netflix Watch Instantly, the abortion doc Vessel, which of course I’ve slotted right next to After Tiller. And while it’s not a new addition, I’ve realized that I’ve been linking to the shorter version of The Act of Killing instead of the Director’s Cut, which is also available and the actual essential.

The two new entries to the list aren’t knocking out anything this time, as two of our longtime picks have become unavailable to stream. One is Winged Migration and the other is Dogtown and Z-Boys (I didn’t add it, mostly because I haven’t personally seen it, but Stacy Peralta’s Crips and Bloods: Made in America, which has been recommended before on this site, is available).

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 (Expedition to the End of the World and Encounters at the End of the World 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. “This is one of the most difficult documentaries for people to approach objectively, and that’s not just for fellow film critics who either knew or were influenced by or simply related to subject Roger Ebert. He was the most famous person in his field, and just about everyone has an opinion of the man whose own opinions were his bread and butter. Or at least on the importance or lack thereof of criticism in general. Life Itself may as well be a political doc for all the easy love or hesitancy I’ve seen from others regarding the film. But as a film it’s a masterpiece of biographical adaptation (it’s based on Ebert’s memoir of the same name) and documentary portraiture from director Steve James. It’s a work that aligns the making of a film about a life to reviewing a movie (or other artform) in a fair and balanced way, enough that a documentary subject or scrutinized artist (such as Martin Scorsese, who executive produced and appears in the film) respects the product even when it’s negative. Above the meta themes, though, is also the most emotional story on film this year. Never mind your subjective feelings about Ebert, you can’t not be choked up about his death by the end, for the sake of the heartbreak it causes his loved ones on screen, particularly his wife, Chaz Ebert. One last thing: the brassy score by Joshua Abrams is a wonderful extra layer of bittersweetness, far and away the best doc soundtrack of the year.” [Nonfics]
  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. “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 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. “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. “Joshua Oppenheimer’s staging of interrogations and killings by members of Indonesian death squads makes this perhaps the most provocative documentary concept to come about since The Thin Blue Line. The genius of the film lies not in its buzz-generating conceit, but in the opportunity that its scenario provides for exploring “the act”‘s fraught relationship to its mediated depictions. The Act of Killing is neither singularly about mass murder nor about movie violence, but about the interminable gap between the horror of the act itself and our strained ability to truly comprehend that horror through its representation.” [Landon Palmer, Nonfics]
  1. “The tearjerking San Franciso AIDS history We Were Here is a doc that gets a lot of mileage out of its dependency and focus on a handful of talking heads, proving that onscreen interviews aren’t in fact as antiquated and stale as we sometimes think they are.” [Cinematical/Moviefone]
  1. “A town of only 10,000 permanent residents that houses more theater seats than Broadway, Branson, Missouri, is a strange and uniquely American attraction. AJ Schnack and David Boone Wilson’s We Always Lie to Strangers begins with an overview of Branson’s various musicians and their acts but gradually unfolds into a nuanced look at the revealing contradictions of a town enduring the recession while peddling a nostalgic and romanticized vision of Americana. Where Branson may lend itself to quirk or knee-jerk dismissal, We Always Lie to Strangers takes seriously within this regional attraction its demonstration of American culture that serves to hide the bubbling tensions of lying at the intersection of economics, religion, and social life.” [Nonfics]
  1. “A singular story about a specific triple homicide in Conroe, Texas, ten years ago, and about those convicted of the crime, their family members and the victims’ family members. Through their versions of the story, we get both clear and muddled details and some defenses regarding the sad backgrounds of these people and the cyclical impact of their environment. To some degree it’s a doc like any other involving a murder case, such as The Thin Blue Line or fellow TIFF film Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, except that this film has no intention of exonerating or even questioning the guilt of the young men found guilty.” []
  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. “I caught this feature debut by Diana Whitten at a few festivals last year, and while I wasn’t initially a huge fan, it has really grown on me. The first time I saw it, I took it for a simple issue film, a lengthy advertisement for the organization Women on Waves. But it’s more a character portrait of the organization’s leader, Dr. Rebecca Gomperts, and how complex her life is as the face and embodiment of her project to provide abortions in international waters to those in nations where the procedure is illegal. The politics and compromises and struggles and failures and successes of and by the organization and how it’s more about an idea and awareness than action is also fascinating, a look at non-profits that turned my cynicism around after such docs as Pink Ribbons, Inc. and Fatal Assistance. Also, with further viewings I’ve really appreciated the music by T. Griffin and Heather McIntosh and the animation by Emily Hubley, Emily Liu and Hsin Pei Liu.” [Nonfics]
  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.