The 21 Best Documentaries on Netflix
We go from cartel kingpins to Olympic-sized scandals in this list of the best documentaries on Netflix.
Documentary filmmakers travel to the ends of the Earth and into the innermost recesses of the things that make us human, and they emerge with no less than tales of human truth. In the past, I've uncovered the the best Netflix movies and shows to watch when you're stoned, the best action movies and best comedies on Netflix, movies to watch when you're tripping, the best movies to watch when you're heartbroken, the finest Oscar-nominated movies new to Netflix, and movies on Netflix that pass the Bechdel test. Here’s a look at the absolute best documentaries on Netflix (US) right now:
Has artificial intelligence finally become smarter than humanity? Well, it can already beat us at our own games. Greg Kohs’s 2017 documentary basically picks up where the infamous Garry Kasparov–Deep Blue chess matches left off, as the Google-designed computer program AlphaGo squares off against the world-champions of Go, one of the world’s oldest board games.
Aaron Rose and Joshua Leonard’s soft-spoken, often heart-wrenching timepiece captures the fleeting moments of some of today’s most pronounced visual artists. Meet a young Harmony Korine, Margaret Kilgallen, Mike Mills, and more, way back when they were still fucked up and unspoiled by acclaim.
Perhaps the biggest achievement of a documentary film is when it catalyzes social change. First it was Titicut Follies and mental institutions in the United States. Later, it was Super Size Me and McDonald’s menu options (I wasn’t stoked about that one, personally). In 2013, it was the brutal Blackfish and the sea-park industry. If you're the kind of person who "can't handle" witnessing suffering, maybe skip this one.
Shot on the front lines, Matthew Heineman’s award-winning documentary gets you as up-close-and-personal to the pitifully failed War on Drugs and the human beings wrapped up in it. Be prepared to consider your next key bump muy deprimente.
It takes a village to raise a child, and a nation to mulch her memory through the identity-grinder that is tabloid celebrity. By combining reenactments with recorded interviews of Boulder, Colorado actors vying to play roles of members of the Ramsey family, Casting JonBenet takes a wildly different approach to the documentary format. It opens a unique window into the case itself and into the fragile American psyche. In my not-so-humble opinion, Kitty Green is one of the most interesting documentary filmmakers working today.
Cocaine Cowboys 2
You know why everybody loves Cocaine Cowboys? Because it fucking rules. The original documentary isn’t currently on Netflix, but its sequel, detailing the life and times of “The Godmother” Griselda Blanco, sure is. Larger-than-life stories, unbelievable exploits, and wild wardrobes abound—all without having to rely on voiceover narration—in the way only Miami documentary filmmaking studio Rakontur knows how. (Full disclosure: I interned for them in high school and it was awesome.)
Exit Through the Gift Shop
I like to think the artist known as Banksy is actually a tightly-knit cabal made up of individual artists, dealers, and graffitos around the world. That’s probably not the case, and Exit Through the Gift Shop is less a true story than an unintentional presentation of street art’s cornball European sense of self-importance, courtesy of Thierry Guetta, a.k.a., Mr. Brainwash. But it’s still got pretty great footage of vandals fucking shit up.
Finding Vivian Maier
The most fascinating people are always the ones who don’t spend their lives telling people about themselves. As the story goes, after her death, a mysterious housekeeper was discovered to have taken 100,000 stunning photographs of a nation in flux. Immediately, people recognized her talent—what Finding Vivian Maier captures is the complicated legacy left in her wake.
Get Me Roger Stone
I’m gonna walk that last statement back a little bit, because Roger Stone walks a fine line between unabashed self-promoter and shadowy, secretive puppeteer. While Get Me Roger Stone won’t leave you with a firm grasp on the motives or the endgame of the conservative political consultant, it definitely paints a fascinating portrait of one of the most bizarre figures in contemporary American politics.
I’m as suspicious of whether the Olympics really matters as I am of our obsession with “doping." 1. They’re sports. 2. Calm down. 3. Repressing what essentially amounts to new technology never ends well. However, there hasn’t been a better year to fear and loathe Russia since 1962, so why not settle into the reality that the year’s Best Documentary Feature winner is a dramatic and scandalizing investigation into the world of super-athletes?
With Grey Gardens and Gimme Shelter, Maysles brothers Albert and David cemented themselves as two of America’s greatest documentary filmmakers. Though David died decades before Albert created this documentary, the gentle spirit of their collaboration lives on in this rich portrait of the consummate fashionista, Iris Apfel.
Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond
Ever wanted a window into an actor’s process? Be careful what you wish for. I’m required by journalistic integrity to tell you that VICE Films produced this intimate portrait of Jim Carrey as he immersed himself in the part of Andy Kaufman for the 1999 film, Man on the Moon. I’m also required, by virtue of having great taste, to tell you not to sleep on this one.
Jiro Dreams of Sushi
Devotionals, knife play, and the sumptuous allure of raw flesh—what else do you need for a food documentary? Chef Jiro Ono dreams of sushi, and soon you will too.
Justin Bieber: Never Say Never
As music documentaries on Netflix go, the selection is surprisingly limited. No Woodstock. No Devil and Daniel Johnston. Nary a single Decline of Western Civilization film. Not even This Is Spinal Tap!! But I was pleasantly surprised to find this fascinating pop-doc about one of the biggest stars in the history of the world. Like, it’s Justin Bieber. But also: It’s Justin Bieber. Love him or hate him, at least you did the research.
Man on Wire
In 2009, Man on Wire won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, introducing many Americans to the greatest exploit of high wire artist Philippe Petit. In 1974, the acrobat staged an elaborate trespassing scenario within the Twin Towers all so that he could tightrope-walk, rope and harness free, between them. Shot like a heist film, Man on Wire is the kind of documentary you want when you would rather be blown away by human feats than challenged by hard facts.
If anyone can change the constitutional rule that requires the President of the United States to be a citizen at birth, it’s Arnold Schwarzenegger, and if any bodybuilder-turned-action-figure-hero-turned-politician can win an election, it’s also Arnold Schwarzenegger. See where it all started in the pulse-pounding saga of the 1975 Mr. Olympia competition, the historic showdown between bodybuilding titans Lou Ferrigno and the man who would become Governator.
Here’s an actual trigger warning: You might find some of the sexual acts depicted herein violent and challenging. This is, after all, a documentary about the hardest working man in hardcore pornography. Perhaps the most compelling, honest, and nuanced look at the industry so far, Thierry Demaizière and Alban Teurlai’s film literally opens on a shot of Rocco Siffredi’s cock. And then it starts getting intimate.
SHOT! The Psycho-Spiritual Mantra of Rock
When it comes to cool cats and downright downtown characters, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better subject than photographer Mick Rock. Here, VICE Documentary Films collaborator Barnaby Clay captures the man who photographed David Bowie, Queen, and Bob Marley, giving you a unique lens into what it takes to hang with the best of them.
My pick for 2017’s Best Documentary Feature—it lost to Icarus—was filmmaker Yance Ford’s no-filters journey into his brother’s brutal murder and the justice system that failed his family. The film is a frank, sobering portrait of systematic racism in America. Watch this if you want to learn and cry.
The Thin Blue Line
How much more can be said about the true-crime documentary they teach you about in film school? Errol Morris was a private detective before becoming one of the most revered documentary filmmakers on Earth, and here’s where it really shows. Netflix’s Morris selection is pretty good—after getting acquainted, check out Tabloid, Gates of Heaven, Vernon, Florida, and Wormwood, in that order.
VICE partnered with Magnolia Pictures to promote this movie in 2015 because it was so good. It follows the Angulo brothers of the Lower East Side, who love movies far more than your run-of-the-mill cinephile. But what makes this jaw-dropping exposé so special is that it is as much about film as it is about family. Director Crystal Moselle’s subjects will captivate you as they craft and costume the story of their severely isolated upbringing.
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