Top 50 Documentaries on Netflix: April 2018
In the mood for a great documentary? Look no further.
It’s no secret I love documentaries. Documentaries are the hidden gems of the movie world. Not as many people watch them, but those who do know their greatness and become addicted. Frankly, the hardest part of compiling a list is narrowing it down. I have tried to find some from every category for every taste, from food to sports to just plain nutty. The list isn’t really ranked. If it made the list it means it’s worth watching, but the best will always be closer to number one. It’s full of interesting picks.
I’ve seen every movie on the list, but I’m always looking for more. Have you watched a great doc lately? Please let me know in the comments!
Updated April 3, 2018
50. Making a Murderer Netflix Original
Exonerated after spending nearly two decades in prison for a crime he did not commit, Steven Avery filed suit against Manitowoc County, Wis., and several individuals involved with his arrest. Shortly after, however, Avery found himself behind bars again, this time accused of the murder of 25-year-old photographer Teresa Halbach. She was last seen on Avery’s property, where she was to photograph a vehicle. Avery and nephew Brendan Dassey were tried and convicted of the crime, but that’s not the end of the story. You will be riveted by this too-strange-to-be-true story. (The saga continues today. There will soon be a follow-up documentary.)
49. Pervert Park
This is a film about the people nobody wants as their neighbors. This shocking documentary follows the residents of Florida Justice Transitions trailer park, founded by the mother of a convicted sex offender and home to 120 convicted sex offenders whose living requirements force them to commune. The residents discuss their experiences living in the outside world.
48. The Hunting Ground
A film about sexual assault on college campuses, The Hunting Ground focuses on the story of two former students of University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who filed a Title IX complaint against UNC in response to their rapes while enrolled. This issue has become a huge problem in the United States, and the film looks at how administrators often ignore or minimize claims, suppressing statistics for the sake of the universities’ reputation.
47. Who Took Johnny
This film examines the infamous 30-year-old cold case of Johnny Gosch, an Iowa paperboy who disappeared and is the first missing child to appear on a milk carton. It focuses on the relentless drive of his mother and the mishandled case that has been fraught with bizarre clues, confrontations, and a sighting you won’t believe.
46. Elizabeth at 90: A Family Tribute
Made to commemorate the 90th birthday of Queen Elizabeth II, members of the royal family offer personal insights and memories of the Queen while watching personal home movies. Aside from archive footage, it features film shot by the Queen, Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, Princess Margaret, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother that has never been publicly shown and came from the Queen’s private archive of homemade films. If you’re a fan of Netflix Original series The Crown, you are really going to enjoy this behind the scenes look into the life of Her Majesty.
Probably one of the most recognizable documentaries in recent years, Blackfish broke down barriers and prompted real change after its release. It follows the controversial captivity of killer whales, and the dangers it poses for both whales and the humans working with them. It not only provoked a drastic change in Sea World policies, it brought documentaries to the forefront again.
44. The Seventies and The Eighties
This docuseries from CNN explores different aspects of the decades, from television to politics to crime. Executive produced by Tom Hanks in association with HBO, it’s filled with interviews and touches on different topics in each hour. It’s fun and informative. (Did that sound like a commercial? Well, it’s true.)
43. Best of Enemies
In 1968, ABC, struggling and dead last behind CBS and NBC, didn’t have the resources for the kind of convention coverage that their competitors did. So they devised a plan to get eyes on their network — arrange debates between two men who truly despise each other. One liberal, one conservative. It was unlike anything America had seen before and it made for great TV. It revealed the very real ugliness bubbling and boiling off-camera for the length of ABC’s attempt at spicing up the otherwise sedate world of political commentary.
The slick documentary recounts the debates and the men themselves. And the debate footage itself is plentiful and quite entertaining. It’s fast, filled with talking heads, historical footage, engrossing. The subject of debate is one that hasn’t and will never go away: the state of our Nation. Best of Enemies skillfully explores the debates within the framework of their era, but the film is more concerned about how much they’ve echoed through the years. The mood of Buckley’s meetings with Vidal is felt in every inch of our society’s contemporary political machine, from the speech of our crop of wannabe commanders-in-chief to the language used by our televised critics. Prevalent and absorbing, it’s worth your time.
42. Jiro Dreams of Sushi
“Meticulous” is the word that comes to mind when I think of this doc. David Gelb delves into one of the most acclaimed kitchens in the world, that of Jiro Ono an 85-year-old sushi master. His tiny sushi-only restaurant located in a Tokyo subway station has 3 Michelin stars and is booked months in advance. He is possessed by his trade and the quest of perfecting the art of sushi. We get a fascinating glimpse of his family and the life that pushed him to obsessively strive for perfection.
Remember when I said some of my picks were nutty? This film by Errol Morris (The Thin Blue Line, Wormwood) tells the bizarre tale of a former beauty queen charged with abducting and imprisoning a young Missionary. It’s a complicated, fantastic, unbelievable saga all the while being told by Miss Wyoming herself, Joyce McKinney. Sex. Mormons. Sensationalism. Is she a dumb blonde or a criminal genius?
40. Little Dieter Needs To Fly
This is the true story upon which the feature film Rescue Dawn, starring Christian Bale, is based. Both are from documentary
madman veteran Werner Herzog. It’s the story of Dieter Dengler, the son of a Nazi slain during World War ll, who dreamed of becoming a pilot. At 18, he immigrated to the U.S. where he worked odd jobs until he was accepted into the Navy and began pilot training. Sent to Vietnam, he was shot down on his first mission and taken prisoner by the Vietcong. They tortured and starved him until Dengler managed to make a hair-raising escape. True to form, Herzog is deeply involved in the film. A large amount of the footage is from a trip Herzog took with Dengler back to Laos and Thailand to recreate his ordeal. Herzog even hired locals to play the part of his captors and had Dengler retrace his steps while describing his experiences. It’s an unforgettable tale of survival.
39. Audrie and Daisy Netflix Original
In the age of social media, online harassment has become disturbingly common. Acclaimed documentarians Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk explore the experiences of strangers with parallel stories. Audrie and Daisy were both were with classmates and, while unconscious, sexually assaulted by boys they thought were friends. The public shame and judgments they experienced from classmates and adults in the town are quite shocking. This examination of rape culture and how common and accepted the attitudes toward victims is quite emotional and a worthy watch.
38. Finding Vivian Maier
In 2007, John Maloof was rummaging through items at a local thrift auction house on Chicago’s Northwest Side. What he discovered would eventually impact the world over and change the life of the man who championed her work and brought it to the public eye. Thinking he had just uncovered a treasure trove of priceless photography, what really began unraveling was a mystery. A mystery even more interesting than the work itself. It’s absorbing.
37. The Roosevelts: An Intimate History
The Roosevelts come alive in this Award Winning Documentary. It covers the lives and times of the Roosevelt family, including Theodore Roosevelt, a Republican and the 26th President of the United States; Franklin D. Roosevelt, a Democrat and the 32nd President of the United States, a cousin of Theodore; and Eleanor Roosevelt, the longest-serving First Lady of the United States, a niece of Theodore who had wed Franklin. As a result of the influence of Theodore and Franklin as Presidents, as well as Eleanor as First Lady, a modern democratic state of equal opportunity was begun in the United States. It weaves together the stories of three members of one of the most prominent and influential families in American politics. Narrated by Peter Coyote, actors read lines of various historical figures and a series of noted commentators give background information. Including Paul Giamatti, Meryl Streep, and Patricia Clarkson. This is biographical binge-watching at its best.
36. Batkid Begins: The Wish Heard Around The World
If this doc doesn’t melt your heart, I don’t know what will. One child. One wish. Millions touched. Who would have thought a 5-year-old boy who fought leukemia would transform a city and a nation for a day? No one. Not his family. Not his friends. Not the thousands of volunteers who came from near and far to help make his wish come true. But it did. What happens when an event goes unintentionally viral and reveals surprising truths about what happens when a nerve is touched in our digital society? It may just restore your faith in humanity.
35. Happy Valley
What happens to your small, idyllic town with a fiercely loyal sports following when the unthinkable happens? When a coach and revered community member is suddenly in the nation’s spotlight and you’re left to make sense of it all. This film attempts to filter through the chaos and look through the lens of the townspeople. How it affected them personally when the facade cracked and a heinous secret came to light.
34. The Imposter
A young man in Spain claims to a grieving Texas family that he is their 16-year-old son who has been missing for 3 years. If that doesn’t sound cuckoo enough, they not only believe him but are insisting he is. As this story unfolds we begin to understand something very sinister is at work here.
33. The Wolfpack
The Angulos is your typical New York Family. Several brothers and a sister. Hard-working father with a stay-at-home mom. Did I mention they have never left their apartment? Locked away on the Lower East Side of Manhattan for fourteen years, the Angulo family’s seven children learned about the world through watching films. They also re-enact scenes from their favorite movies. They were homeschooled by their mother and confined to their sixteenth story four-bedroom apartment. Their father, Oscar, had the only door key and prohibited the kids and their mother from leaving the apartment. Everything changed for them when, against their father’s instructions, 15-year-old Mukunda decided to walk around the neighborhood.
32. The First Monday in May
An unprecedented look behind the scenes of two of New York’s premier cultural events, follow the creation of “China: Through The Looking Glass,” the most attended fashion exhibition in the history of The Costume Institute at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the 2015 Met Gala, the star-studded fundraiser. Follow Anna Wintour, editor-in-chief of Vogue magazine and Met Gala chair, and Andrew Bolton, the curator who conceived the groundbreaking show, as they prepare for an unforgettable evening.
31. Finders Keepers
When Shannon Whisnant purchased a grill at an auction, he had no idea the bizarre turn his life was about to take. Inside the grill was an amputated leg. What follows is a story centered on the enterprising Whisnant and John Wood, the man whose leg wound up in the grill due to an odd chain of events. What starts out as a freak show ends up a poignant tale of tragedy and redemption.
30. Life Itself
Based on Ebert’s 2011 memoir of the same name, Life Itself recounts the inspiring and entertaining life of world-renowned film critic and social commentator Roger Ebert. Through archival footage, interviews, and clips his legacy is explored. Roger Ebert, from his Pulitzer Prize-winning film criticism at the Chicago Sun-Times to becoming one of the most influential cultural voices in America, truly is an icon.
29. Paris is Burning
This film is considered an invaluable documentary of the end of the “Golden Age” of New York City drag balls, and a thoughtful exploration of race, class, gender, and sexuality in America. Focusing on drag queens and their “house” culture, which provides a sense of community and support for the flamboyant and often socially shunned performers, groups from each house compete in elaborate balls that take cues from the world of fashion.
28. What Happened Miss Simone Netflix Original
A Netflix original, Nina Simone lived a life of brutal honesty, musical genius, and tortured melancholy. Classically trained pianist, dive-bar chanteuse, black power icon and legendary recording artist, the documentary combines previously unreleased archival footage and interviews with Simone’s daughter and friends.
27. Voyeur Netflix Original
This creepy Netflix Original is the tale of peeper meets journalist. Once upon a time, Gay Talese was perhaps the most notable of celebrity journalists. He became almost as famous as the people featured in his work. But his career took a disastrous turn, he became irrelevant, and he didn’t take it well. Enter motel owner Gerald Foos. He spent decades spying on guests from the building’s attic. What follows is a most twisted relationship.
26. The Winding Stream
The Winding Stream is the tale of the dynasty at the very heart of country music. It traces the history of the original Carter Family singers — Maybelle Carter, her cousin Sara, and Sara’s husband A.P.– and their influence on American music. Punctuated with studio performances by celebrated roots music practitioners like Johnny and June Carter Cash, George Jones, Rosanne Cash, Sheryl Crow, and others, the film illuminates the foundation-forming history of this multi-generational musical family. Country music would not be what is without them.
25. The Thin Blue Line
This movie is often said to be one of the best crime docs ever made. One night in November 1976, after his car breaks down on a road outside Dallas, Randall Dale Adams accepts a ride from teenager David Harris. Harris is driving a stolen vehicle and, later that night, when Dallas police officer Robert Wood pulls the car over to check its headlights, he is shot and killed. A jury believes Adams is the killer, but Errol Morris’ classic documentary explores the role of Harris’ perjured testimony, misleading witness accounts and police misconduct in the verdict.
24. Tig Netflix Original
Not everyone would respond to a cancer diagnosis with a comedy set about it. Tig isn’t everyone. Take an unflinching look at comedian Tig Notaro, who underwent a double mastectomy after being diagnosed with breast cancer in 2012. She has continued to tour rigorously while inspiring a new generation of survivors with humor and grace.
23. Exit Through the Gift Shop
Directed by street artist Banksy, this film tells the story of Thierry Guetta, a French immigrant in Los Angeles, and how his obsession with street art turned him into a carbon-copy of Banksy overnight. The hook with this film is: “Is it real?” Is this really the story or is the story itself just another of Banksy’s creations?
22. Cartel Land
This Oscar-winning documentary details the epic struggle to overcome the drug cartel that has wreaked havoc for years. It’s a riveting, on-the-ground look at the journeys of two modern-day vigilante groups and their shared enemy – the murderous Mexican drug cartels. On one side a doctor leading uprisings. On the other a veteran desperately trying to prevent the poison from seeping across our borders.
21. I Am Ali
Get unprecedented access to Muhammad Ali’s personal archive of “audio journals” as well as interviews and testimonials from his inner circle. Family and friends tell the extraordinary life story of the legendary boxer along with the never-released material. Included are home movies and personal interviews with the likes of George Foreman, Mike Tyson, and more. It’s an affectionate look at the life of a champion.
This is the true crime series for food. Created by the team that works with Anthony Bourdain on Parts Unknown, these six hour-long episodes feature farmers, fishermen, scientists, and doctors shedding light on the surprising and at times downright disgusting ways that common foodstuffs are brought to market.
19. Blood On The Mountain
This film delves into the devastating effects coal mining has had in West Virginia. The state has been ravaged by the industry, leaving in its wake broken towns and families in despair. With footage, voice-overs, and interviews we are given a hard look at the death and destruction heaped upon the coal miners of West Virginia.
18. Commanding the Table
Ella Brennan is the inspirational matriarch of the rambling Brennan family of New Orleans. A force of nature, she behind the restaurant first called “Brennan’s” and then became known “Commander’s Palace.” A pioneer of the modern American food movement, she pushed her chefs to the forefront helping to launch the celebrity chef phenomenon. Interviews and vérité footage with current and former chefs from Commander’s Palace, restaurateurs, peers, family, and friends provide past and present glimpses into Ella’s unique life and her world. This is the intimate and triumphant story of a groundbreaking American woman.
17. 13th Netflix Original
This film is a Netflix original and Academy Award Nominee for Best Documentary Feature 2017. Filmmaker Ava DuVernay explores the history of racial inequality in the United States, focusing on the fact that the nation’s prisons are disproportionately filled with African-Americans. It explores the “intersection of race, justice and mass incarceration in the United States;” and is titled after the Thirteenth Amendment, which freed the slaves and prohibited slavery. Exploring the link between slavery and the modern-day prison system, the film garnered an overwhelming response. In turn, Netflix has granted public screening access to classrooms, community groups, book clubs, and other educational settings.
16. The Witness
On March 13, 1964, Kitty Genovese was repeatedly attacked on a street in Kew Gardens, Queens. Soon after, The New York Times published a front-page story asserting that 38 witnesses watched her being murdered from their apartment windows—and did nothing to help. Now her brother Bill Genovese looks to uncover the truth buried beneath the story. He is a man that is haunted by and obsessed with this crime. In his search for truth, he makes startling discoveries about the crime that transformed his life, condemned a city, and defined an era. This film was shortlisted with fourteen other documentaries from 145 entries submitted to the 89th Academy Awards in Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature category.
15. Oklahoma City
Hailed as one of the best films of 2017, this film takes an unflinching look at homegrown terror. On April 19, 1995, Timothy McVeigh parked a Ryder truck with a five-ton fertilizer bomb in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal building in Oklahoma City. Moments later, 168 people were killed and 675 were injured in the blast. This film traces the events that led McVeigh to commit the worst act of domestic terrorism in American history. It is both a cautionary tale and an extremely timely warning.
Bryan Fogel starts with a simple goal: He wants to expose the flawed testing process of WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency). His intention is to follow a doping plan designed to beat the tests and see how it enhances his performance in Haute Route, a grueling amateur cycling competition. What he ends up stumbling into in the process is ends up being one of the biggest doping scandals in history.
13. Diana: In Her Own Words
From award-winning filmmaker Tom Jennings, this is an intimate story told entirely in the Princess’s voice through extremely rare recordings, most of which have never before been broadcast. Through her own voice, archival footage, and personal recordings, we get a candid insight into the life of the beloved princess and her world.
12. The Toys That Made Us Netflix Original
Featuring interviews with the creative forces behind some of our favorite lines and fans that collected them, this series explores some of history’s most iconic toy franchises and discusses them with the minds behind them. They discuss the rise (and occasional fall) of their billion-dollar creations. Season 2 of the series is coming soon.
11. Trump: An American Dream Netflix Original
Donald Trump. You may love him. You may hate him. But you know you’re interested in him. This series focuses on all aspects of Trump’s life from his rise in the ’80s to his political aspirations in the 2000s. Divided into four hour-long episodes, the series includes interviews of people who have worked with Trump over the past 50 years. As far as documentaries go, it’s a pretty neutral look at the man. There are interviews with people who love him and interviews with people that hate him.
10. Five Came Back Netflix Original
Adapted from Mark Harris’s comprehensive book of the same name, docuseries explores the lives of five Hollywood directors who participated in WWll. John Ford, William Wyler, John Huston, Frank Capra, and George Stevens took footage and played pivotal roles in shaping how Americans understood WWII. Interviews with names like Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, and Guillermo del Toro make it a compelling watch, especially for movie lovers.
9. Long Shot Netflix Original
This true-crime tale is truly unbelievable. In May 2003, 16-year-old Martha Puebla was shot in the head on the doorstep of her Los Angeles home, days after testifying in a gangland murder trial. Police arrested 24-year-old Juan Catalan at gunpoint, alleging that he’d carried out the hit for his gangster brother Mario. What follows is an astonishing story involving faith, luck, and Larry David. It’s prettay, prettay, pretttaaay incredible.
8. The Keepers
This haunting docuseries from Netflix is an emotional ride. It explores the unsolved murder of the nun Sister Cathy Cesnik who taught at Baltimore’s Archbishop Keough High School. This series touches on more than murder. It goes deep into the workings of the church and the former students’ belief that there was a cover-up by authorities after Cesnik suspected that the priest at the school, A. Joseph Maskell, was guilty of sexual abuse. After the release of the show, there was even a change in how crimes are reported within the system. It’s a riveting watch
7. Janis: Little Girl Blue
This is a documentary that really captured the person. Through archival footage, private letters, and interviews with family and friends, the life and career of Janis Joplin is highlighted. From her musical rise in the 1960s to her battle with alcohol and heroin addiction it’s a very personal look at her life.
6. The Confession Tapes
This is one that’s actually hard to watch simply because it’s so infuriating. The docuseries highlights cases where murder convicts claim they were coerced into confessions, and are in fact, not guilty. In each case, it presents alternate views of how the crime could have taken place and features experts on false confessions, criminal law, miscarriages of justice and psychology. Each show is fascinating as it unravels and shows just how far law enforcement will go to get their man.
5. Birth of a Movement
In 1915, civil rights activist William Monroe Trotter waged a battle against D.W. Griffith’s notoriously Ku Klux Klan-friendly blockbuster The Birth of a Nation, which unleashed a fight still raging today about race relations and representation, and the power and influence of Hollywood.
4. Mercury 13
In 1961 just as NASA launched its first man into space, a group of women underwent secret testing in the hope of becoming America’s first female astronauts. After rigorous testing, the group of skilled female pilots is asked to step aside when only men are selected for spaceflight.
3. Dirty Money
You’re going to be binging this one. From the creators of Enron, Going Clear, and other award-winning documentaries come this series exposing scandal and corruption in business. Featuring firsthand accounts from the perspectives of both the perpetrators and their victims, this is one addictive series.
2. Planet Earth ll
From the frozen tundra in the north to the dry forests of the equator, Sir David Attenborough narrates this amazing view of the planet. Planet Earth was the first natural history documentary to be filmed in high definition, and now a decade later improved technology has made it possible to capture even more detail, from elusive animal behaviors to previously inaccessible remote landscapes.
1. Wild Wild Country
This is by far the best documentary I have seen in some time, and I do NOT say that lightly. Brought to you by the wonderful Duplass brothers, it’s the story of a controversial cult leader who builds a utopian city in the Oregon desert. From the early beginning of the conflicts with the locals to the shenanigans that escalate into a national scandal, there are several jaw-dropping moments. Just when you think it can’t get any squirrelier, there is another episode. This should go to the top of your list and be watched immediately.