The Best Documentaries on Netflix Will Change How You See the World
Food, murder, music festivals, and yes, tigers
The documentary style will get a bad rap, sometimes—there’s a notion that docs may be usually boring, dense, dry. But when anyone deserves credit for respiratory new life and intrigue again into the style, it’s Netflix. The streamer has served up a number of the most wild, compelling, and complex deep dives on real-life tales previously few years. They did not invent the shape, however damn if they have not leaned in and offered some essential perspectives of our weird world. Netflix’s documentaries are so widespread and influential that they’ve reignited curiosity—and made developments—in a number of the most high profile and complex prison and murder cases of the previous few decades.
However with greater than 36,000 hours of content on Netflix to select from, it may be exhausting to resolve what to dive into it. That will help you out, we have narrowed down the best documentaries, when you’re itching to develop your mind or your trivia knowledge.
Get Me Roger Stone
Before he was indicted in the Mueller Probe, Roger Stone had a long career as a right-wing dirty trickster, dating back to his work with Richard Nixon. “I live a pretty Machiavellian life and I’m a skeptic. I tend to believe the worst of people because I understand human nature,” Stone says in the doc. “That’s why one of Stone’s Rules is that ‘Hate is a stronger motivator than love.’”
The woman at the center of one of the most gripping international true crime stories in recent memory, Amanda Knox tells her story—of her murdered roommate, her arrest and conviction of the crime, her time in an Italian prison, and ultimate exoneration.
Director Bryan Fogel intended to experiment with doping in order to win a cycling competition—only his investigations into the practice opened up a bigger, more sinister scandal in this Oscar-winning doc.
Period. End of Sentence.
In this award-winning 2018 short film, a group of women in India fight the stigma against menstruation and champion the making low-cost sanitary pads.
Ava DuVernay examines the legacy of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution—which officially ended slavery—and the ensuing Jim Crow era, the mass incarceration of African Americans, and the modern-day prison industrial complex that acts as slavery-as-punishment.
This doc is not about the infamous Jack, but another British murderer. The Yorkshire Ripper, Peter William Sutcliffe, terrorized Northern England through the ’70s and ’80s, evading capture for years largely due to the sexism and classism of the police at the time.
This truly wild documentary is a journey exploring the possibility of life after death—from near death experiences, to mediums, to reincarnation. It’s a spooky, ghost-filled series with a fascinating cast of characters, but whether you leave convinced is up to you.
Night Stalker: The Hunt For a Serial Killer
Night Stalker: The Hunt For a Serial Killer chronicles the crimes of notorious California killer Richard Ramirez in the ’80s. Told primarily from the perspectives of the homicide detectives on the case, this doc focuses on the frustrating investigation that dragged on for months before Ramirez was finally captured.
The Last Dance
The 10-part Michael Jordan docuseries united the quarantined world in ways few other things have. But if you missed the weekly cultural moments (and memes), binge it all now in one go.
Don’t F**k With Cats: Hunting An Internet Killer
Deeply disturbing and incredibly wild, Don’t F**k With Cats: Hunting An Internet Killer tells a tale that begins when a video of a cat murder is posted online. While the sleuths of the internet set out to find the killer, the attention he receives leads him to post even more gruesome videos. It’s a dark and twisted binge.
Practically every true crime podcast has covered the legendary, haunting case of Kathleen Peterson, but if you aren’t a junkie yet and you’re looking to get into true crime, The Staircase is the place to start.
Fear City: New York vs. The Mafia
This new three-part documentary dives into the underground New York of the mob in the ’70s and ’80s, and the FBI agents who infiltrated the crime organization. It’s gory, suspenseful, and enlightening. And here’s some light reading about the current president for when you’re finished.
Pretend It’s a City
Explore New York City with the wit and humor of legendary writer Fran Lebowitz, who charms in a series of conversations with Martin Scorsese.
American Murder: The Family Next Door
In case you’re one of the few who does not know about the Watt family murders (Don’t feel bad! You’re not alone), this 90ish minute documentary uses found footage to unravel the devastating deaths of Shannan Watt and her two daughters. What starts out as a heartbreaking disappearance quickly takes an even more gruesome turn, especially when you consider that it’s Shannan’s social media videos that narrate a large part of the documentary.
David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet
Just that name alone should sell this film. Attenborough has been doing environmentally-focused documentary work for years, and in a time where we really could be paying more attention to our environment, his Netflix documentary is a must watch. Not only does it offer some keen perspective on Attenborough’s life, but it highlights just how much nature has changed since the natural historian has been alive.
I Am a Killer: Released
I Am a Killer: Released tells the story of a convict who is released from prison 30 years after being sentenced to death for murder. Then, once he’s a free man, his version of events changes dramatically. If you like true crime, this one is a quick binge.
The Speed Cubers
If you’re looking for something more lighthearted, The Speed Cubers will open you up to the wonderful world of competitive Rubix cubing. You might even get a new hobby out of it, too!
Who doesn’t like falling down the rabbit hole of a cold case? This July, Netflix rebooted the long-running network TV staple, which was the zenith of the true crime, interviews-and-re-enactments genre. Netflix’s Unsolved Mysteries was a huge success, having fans playing couchside detective all over again.
Over 500 women have accused Larry Nassar, a former trainer for USA Gymnastics, of assault. In Athlete A, directors Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk seek justice for those women. The documentary hones in on the story of Maggie Nichols, who came forward about Nassar’s abuse in 2015—as well as the local newspaper reporters who made Nassar’s crimes a national story.
Bill Nye: Science Guy
If you’re a ’90s kid, you probably have foggy memories of Bill Nye quipping and science-experimenting on PBS. (Whether or not you retained any of the actual lessons, TBD.) If you don’t know much more about Nye, watch the 2017 PBS documentary, Bill Nye: Science Guy, where the scientist grapples with—and schools, of course—the climate change deniers of the world.
Here’s a general rule of thumb: If culinary legend David Chang digs a restaurant, chef, or anything edible, really—best to put it on your radar. Follow Chang’s adventures in Ugly Delicious, where he adds some Food World 101 lessons along with visits with his favorite chefs and trips to out-of-the-way spots. (Plus one excursion at Outback Steakhouse.)
A Secret Love
In 1947, two women fell in love and began a relationship that would last seven decades, which they kept a secret throughout the vast majority of their lives.
This Oscar-winning film profiles an abandoned Ohio plant reopened as a factory by a Chinese billionaire. What begins as hope and optimism soon turns to culture clashes between high-tech China and working-class America.
Murder to Mercy: The Cyntoia Brown Story
As a sixteen-year-old, Cyntoia Brown was charged with murder and robbery, tried as an adult, found guilty, and sent to prison for life. However, her case proved to be more complicated than that.
Pandemic: How to Prevent an Outbreak
The limited series profiles the doctors, researchers, and scientists on the frontlines of the battle against influenza, and how they’re ensuring the world can avoid a global outbreak.
Last Chance U
Before Greg Whiteley brought Cheer to the world, he already had four seasons of Last Chance U under his belt. His profiles of junior college football teams—where guys really are one mistake away from hanging up their pads for good—are some of the best portraits of small-town America and young men we’ve seen this decade.
Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich
There were few 2019 news stories bigger than the arrest and suicide of Jeffrey Epstein, one-time high-society financier and convicted sexual offender. And while this four-part docuseries includes interviews with Epstein’s former colleagues and associates—and particularly chilling deposition footage of Epstein himself—director Lisa Bryant focuses on the stories of the survivors, women who were drawn into Epstein’s circle and are brave enough to share their accounts with the world. –Gabrielle Bruney
Michelle Obama turned her life into a bestselling memoir back in 2017, and in 2020 Netflix released a documentary following the former First Lady on her book tour. The film shows glimpses of the tour, as well as moments from Obama’s life detailed in the book, such as her Chicago childhood, campaigning with her husband, and life in the White House.
Abstract: The Art of Design
Eight artists and designers, ranging from architectures to footwear designers, show a window into their problem-solving worlds through this docuseries.
Hot Girls Wanted
This film earned the 2015 Sundance breakout documentary selection and inspired a miniseries from Netflix. The doc follows eighteen and nineteen-year-old girls into the amateur porn industry while showing how damaging the career can be.
Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness
Hey all you cool cats and kittens, you think you’re about to watch a documentary about the treatment of animals? Not so fast. What starts out as a documentary looking into America’s roadside zoos turns into an absurd tale of polygamy, feuds, and a murder-for-hire plot. There’s a reason 34 million people watched Tiger King in its first 10 days on Netflix.
Trixie Mattel: Moving Parts
For anyone entranced by the world of Drag Race, Trixie Mattel: Moving Parts is required viewing. While the documentary absolutely scratches the itch of RuPaul fans looking for bonus content, the film also offers a thoughtful look into the ramifications of addiction, growing up gay in the Midwest, and the new type of celebrity that comes with drag fame.
This docuseries chronicles the history and science of sex, reproduction, and sexuality. Janelle Monáe’s smooth narration voice is far more interesting than your middle school sex-ed teacher’s monotonous lesson plan.
The Accountant of Auschwitz
Seventy years after World War II, Oskar Gröning, an SS officer, goes on trial for the murder of 300,000 people at the Auschwitz concentration camp.
Even if you have no interest in cheerleading, this docuseries will take hold of your heart and never let go. It follows the story of the Navarro College competitive cheer squad as they go through the emotional highs and lows of being part of a longstanding legacy. Here’s to hoping you make it on mat.
Taylor Swift’s long anticipated documentary shows the Grammy winner behind the scenes. Bonus: it also contains proof that she has one of those cat backpacks that make them look like astronauts in a tiny rocket.
Crip Camp takes a look into a summer camp that revolutionized the disability movement. Focusing on a group of teens attending the camp, the deeply affecting documentary explores an era when disability rights were tragically ignored.
Salt Fat Acid Heat
American chef Samin Nosrat travels the world to explore and drive home the importance of the four basic tenants of cooking. As interesting as it is relaxing, come for the complexity of culinary science, stay for Samin’s intoxicating personality.
This is a docuseries that follows the story of Cathy Cesnik, a nun and Catholic teacher who went missing and was later discovered murdered.
This docu-series is about corporate greed and corruption; in other words, it’s about America.
Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez
The Netflix docuseries covers the downfall and conviction of New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez, but it also goes into some unexpected places, including speculation of his mental health and sexuality. The documentary features interviews with friends, NFL players, and insiders that tell the story of how a football player turned into a deadly criminal.
The Disappearance of Madeleine McCann
Often regarded as the British counterpart to America’s Jon Benet Ramsey, the documentary limited series traces over the baffling disappearance of 3-year-old Madeleine McCann, who went missing while on vacation in Portugal with her family. Unlike Ramsey though, McCann was never found, prompting an onslaught of theories that targeted everyone in the area, all the way down to McCann’s parents.
Fyre: The Greatest Party that Never Happened
In 2019, there were two documentaries released about the disaster that was the Fyre Festival. The Netflix version looks at the fallout for mastermind Billy McFarland and the effect this festival had on the people in the Bahamas who helped put it all together. In one of the more memorable moments, McFarland’s business partner, Andy King, explains how he offered to go far and beyond the call of duty to get some boxes of Evian water bottles past customs.
Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond
Chris Smith directs this behind-the-scenes look at Milos Forman’s 1999 biopic Man on the Moon, for which Jim Carrey won a Golden Globe for playing celebrated entertainer Andy Kaufman. The doc looks at Carrey’s process, a sometimes laborious Method Acting effort to capture Kaufman’s spirit in his performance.
Wild Wild Country
A look at the Rajneeshpuram community that was started in the Oregon desert by guru Bhagwan Shree and his right-hand Ma Anand Sheela. While Shree died in 1990, Sheela sits for riveting interviews with the filmmakers.
The Pixar Story
Pixar changed animated movies forever with the release of Toy Story, which ushered in a new generation of family films that were fun for kids and compelling for adults. This doc offers a look at the team of designers and creatives who made it happen.
Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes
Before creating Zac Efron’s portrayal of serial killer Ted Bundy in Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, filmmaker Joe Berlinger interviewed journalist Stephen Michaud about his revealing conversations with Bundy while he was in prison.
If you’ve ever heard rumblings about a bank heist that resulted in a pizza guy being blown up with a collar bomb, Evil Genius tells the full, insane story about what happened back in 2003. If you haven’t heard about this case, process that first sentence and read on. Evil Genius is the four-part documentary that unwraps all the mystery behind the murder of Brian Wells and the string of events that led him to become involved in a deadly Pennsylvania bank robbery that made headlines across the nation.
Homecoming: A Film By Beyoncé
A behind-the-scenes look at Beyoncé’s 2018 Coachella performance, which was written, directed and executive produced by Beyoncé herself.
Abducted in Plain Sight
It’s a story nearly too outlandish to believe. The Broberg family was torn apart by their neighbor, Robert Berchtold, who manipulated the parents and groomed their daughter, Jan, ultimately kidnapping her at the age of 12 and once again two years later.
The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson
Dubbed “the Rosa Parks of the LGBT movement,” trans icon Marsha P. Johnson was a New York City fixture whose life was cut tragically short in 1992 when her body was discovered in the Hudson River. Though police deemed her death a suicide, this outstanding documentary argues otherwise, following Anti-Violence Project activist Victoria Cruz as she reopens Johnson’s cold case.
They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead
The famed director Orson Welles changed cinema forever with his prestigious career, but his final film—The Other Side of the Wind—was unfinished and unseen for decades. Here’s the behind-the-scenes story of one of the most infamous movies in film history.
Director Yance Ford’s Oscar nominated feature looks into the 1992 murder of his brother William and the ensuing case, which saw an all-white grand jury chosing not to indict the white man who killed him.
Knock Down the House
An award-winning, behind-the-scenes view of the campaigns of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Amy Vilela, Cori Bush, and Paula Jean Swearengin—four women with no political experience or corporate money.
Decades after the still-unsolved murder of JonBenét Ramsey, director Kitty Green goes to Boulder, Colorado to cast local actors in a film about the murder—only to discover the lasting impact the little girl’s murder has left on the area’s residents.
What Happened, Miss Simone?
This film examines the career of Nina Simone, the acclaimed singer, songwriter, and activist whose tumultuous life influenced her fierce and dynamic artistry—but, at times, proved too intense for Simone herself.
I Called Him Morgan
The turbulent relationship between jazz saxophonist Lee Morgan and his wife Helen is the subject of this fiery documentary. Told through Helen’s own narration from an interview before her death in 1996, the film is a somber recollection of an artist whose career was cut short in a tragic act of violence.
Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened
Lonny Price reexamines the 1981 Broadway production of the Stephen Sondheim musical Merrily We Roll Along, forming a reunion for its cast, largely made up of teenage actors, who saw their first chance at stardom squashed when the show closed after 16 performances.
Rashida Jones produced this look at her father, the renown musician, composer, and producer Quincy Jones, which reveals the personal side of the music icon.
One of Us
Three former members of Brooklyn’s Hasidic community open up about their past lives, their faith, and their complex relationship to their families and former community in this emotional and provocative feature.
Twenty-five years after the Rodney King trial, LA 92 looks at the emotional firebomb that detonated in Los Angeles—when the violent clashes between the police and citizens brought long-simmering racial tension to a national awareness.
Audrie & Daisy
The social ramifications of sexual assault is the subject of this harrowing film, which follows the cases of victims of abuse and the impact their accusations have had on their families and friends when faced with cyberbullying attacks.
Prelude to War
Hollywood director Frank Capra produced this propaganda film on behalf of the Office of War Information, part of a larger series of pro-American films called Why We Fight, which picked up the 1943 Oscar for Best Documentary.
Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold
Actor-director Griffin Dunne turns his camera lens to his very famous aunt, journalist and novelist Joan Didion. This biographical documentary examines the woman whose voice captured the complicated and messy collective American identity in the ’60s and ’70s.
The Black Godfather
Clarence Avant grew up in the segregated south and went on to become a hugely influential behind-the-scenes figure in the entertainment industry. Director Reginald Hudlin interviewed more than 75 people over three years, including Quincy Jones, Kamala Harris, Bill Clinton, Bill Withers, and Barack Obama.