The 100 Most Necessary Documentaries to Stream on Netflix This May

The Last Waltz

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.

Robert Greene’s Actress became available on Netflix Watch Instantly in early April, and I wish I’d added it on last month’s installment. Instead, it’s one of three new additions to the Netflix 100 for May, a month I’m sure will bring even more essentials (such as Mad Hot Ballroom, which I wasn’t aware was hitting the service until after the list had been compiled). The other two are classics: Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz, which is considered by many to be the greatest concert film of all time, and Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man, which is definitely one of the most important nature/animal docs of all time.

As usual, additions mean subtractions. Two of the additions are filling in slots by films that are no longer streaming on Netflix. Jafar Panahi’s This Is Not A Film has already expired, while Du Haibin’s 1428 is gone as of May 6th. For the third substitution, I’ve decided to (probably temporarily) remove Errol Morris’s The Unknown Known, one of his less essential works — especially without it being paired with The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons From the Life of Robert S. McNamara. If that earlier doc ever shows up on Watch Instantly, they’ll both be included together, an essential double feature.

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. “Documents the final 1976 concert of The Band and features, on stage, such guest stars as Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Neil Young and Ringo Starr. Directed by Martin Scorsese, the film represents a kind of closing night for the era of rock and roll that these artists came out of. It’s appropriate that the filmmaker went from working on Woodstock to orchestrating this, because it’s almost its antithesis. The mid-70s was a time of overproduced music, so it makes sense for a concert film to arise out of the period with as much luster as this one does. It’s not a surprise to learn most of the instruments were overdubbed with studio-recorded performances for utmost perfection, or that an equivalent of digitally removing flaws (rotoscoping) was also involved. [Spout]
  1. “Everyone’s favorite German madman makes it a habit to look into the cold, unfeeling depths of the universe. The primordial chaos is a theme that runs through multiple films of his, perhaps most notably in Grizzly Man, which is centered around the circumstances that lead to two horrible deaths in the wilderness. In a marked departure from some of the other films here, Herzog refuses to share the recording that exists of Timothy Treadwell’s demise. In fact, he advises that it be destroyed. Herzog often uses artifice, abstraction and re-creation in his work, so it makes sense that he would want to avoid exposing Treadwell, for whom he admits some respect, in this way. [Nonfics]
  1. “Several critic groups cited Actress subject Brandy Burre in their ‘best actress’ year-end polling. It’s an exceedingly unusual move that makes total sense if you see the film. In one scene, Burre, in the middle of a soliloquy for the camera, pauses and repeats a line several times. The movie explores how much of life is performance by layering purposeful artifice into everything that happens within it. Whereas most docs incorporate some fakery (reenactments of events, actions performed for the camera rather than naturally), they usually attempt to conceal it. Actress does the opposite, stylizing itself shamelessly. The result is one of the most beautifully shot and edited docs of recent memory and one of the most thought-provoking as well. [Nonfics]

(Editor in Chief)

Christopher Campbell is the founding editor of Nonfics.