Netflix may be best known as the place to go to binge-watch quality TV series and must-watch movies, but the streaming service is also home to a vast swathe of incredible documentary films, shorts, and “docuseries” (a word, surely, that only ever used by three of four pretentious TV critics before the birth of streaming).
Many of them prove that old saying, “Fact is stranger than fiction.” Certainly, anyone who’s watched Netflix’s biggest documentary hit, Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, and Madness, will agree to that. But while Tiger King and Making A Murderer have been the big popular hits for Netflix, there are many more fascinating documentaries on countless different and diverse subjects that deserve your attention. Some are uplifting.
Some are dark. Some are funny. Some are revealing. Some are shocking. Some are Oscar-winning. Some are obscure. But the best of them all have human stories that draw you in – even the ones about animals – and give thought-provoking glimpses into worlds that are usually far beyond our own experience.
What are the best documentaries on Netflix?
- My Octopus Teacher
- Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond
- Wild, Wild Country
- David Attenborough: A Life on our Planet
- Fyre: The Greatest Party that Never Happened
- Formula 1: Drive to Survive
- Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat
- The Keepers
- Crip Camp
- Don’t F**k with Cats: Hunting an Internet Killer
There’s a big twist in Icarus. The kind of twist that, if it had been written for a Hollywood film script, critics would slam for being contrived. It begins as a kind of Supersize Me: The Drug Edit, with US writer and cyclist Bryan Fogel trying to show how easily athletes can secretly dope by using the drugs on himself, then trying to enter a major bike race without getting caught.
To do this, he consults some experts on doping, including a shady Russian who, it transpires, was one of the masterminds behind Russia’s doping regime at the 2014 Sochi Olympics. Suddenly the documentary goes off in a whole new, darker direction, raising some serious issues about the scope of international doping, even if at times it plays as much like a dark comedy as a political thriller.
My Octopus Teacher (2020)
The touching tale of the friendship between a snorkeller and an octopus… er, sounds a bit like Disney movie, doesn’t it? But this Oscar-winner isn’t schmaltzy, and the stunning underwater photography is arguably more beautiful than anything in Finding Dory.
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Off the coast of South Africa, diver Craig Foster forms a bond with a curious octopus, which allows him to learn about its habits and lifestyle in amazing detail. The octopus proves to be highly intelligent, but the film wisely avoids anthropomorphising the creature; this is us entering its world, not it entering ours.
Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond (2017)
“Most people felt that the movie was happening behind the camera,” says Jim Carrey, referring to the extraordinary behind-the-scenes shenanigans on his 1999 movie, Man on the Moon.
He’s not wrong. The film was a biography of controversial US entertainer Andy Kaufman – not so much a comedian as an anarchic performance artist who rubbed people up the wrong way. And in deciding to portray him, Carrey went full method, spending the entire shoot in the persona of Kaufman, or Kaufman’s obnoxious, lounge singer alter ego Tony Clifton.
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The resulting on-set tensions and disruptions were caught on a camera by a film crew making an electronic press kit intended to promote the movie, but the film company suppressed the resulting footage for fear that it made Carrey look like an “asshole”. They were right – he does.
The footage finally revealed in this documentary is painful to watch at times. And yet you can also see what Carrey was trying to do, and his commitment to the experiment is impressive, even if it is clearly taking its toll mentally. Interspersed with all this is a new interview with a philosophical, rambling and slightly creepy Carrey (he wonders what would have happened has he been asked to play Jesus).
A primal scream of a movie, channelling 400 years of righteous indignation in documentary form. The main thrust of Ava DuVernay’s documentary diatribe is that while the Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution, which ostensibly abolished slavery, was passed in 1865, black Americans have just swapped overt slavery for a more subtle, insidious kind.
They are slaves to a system rife with inequality, in which they’re disproportionately convicted of minor crimes and locked up. And this is partly, the documentary claims, because of a loophole in the Thirteenth Amendment itself. All of which feels even more relevant in light of recent events in the States.
Wild, Wild Country (2018)
Weird cults always make for great documentaries, don’t they? But this one isn’t all about some creepy guru having sex with a queue of followers. In fact, the sect members here largely seem like harmless, organic farmer types. Until they become bioterrorists involved in an attempted political assassination.
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The series chronicles the rise of Bagwan Shree Rajneesh, aka Osho, an Indian cult leader who moves from India to Oregon, bringing his seemingly idyllic lifestyle programme with him. Using archive footage and eyewitness interviews, this jaw-dropping, deliciously tabloidy documentary show how the cult grew into a sinister organisation that briefly looked like it could take on the world.
David Attenborough: A Life on our Planet (2020)
Consider this a joint entry with the six-part Netflix Attenborough series, Our Planet. Both were produced by the same team behind the BBC’s Planet Earth, but on a far grander scale, with stunning visuals and Attenborough taking an even more political stand about why we must stop climate change than ever before.
While Our Planet is a nature documentary with constant reference to climate change, in A Life on our Planet, Attenborough firmly grabs the issue by the neck and makes his argument personal, delivering a heartfelt to humanity to stop sleepwalking into global disaster.
Fyre: The Greatest Party that Never Happened (2019)
Want to see car crash television in its purest form? Fyre: The Greatest Party that Never Happened is schadenfreude on a grand scale as viewers watch a luxury music festival in the Bahamas, partly created by rapped Ja Rule, descends into utter, utter chaos and lots of rich punters with no yurt to stay in look very pissed off indeed. Told through interviews and archive cell phone footage, it proves that an epic sense of self-delusion always makes great viewing.
Formula 1: Drive to Survive (2019-present)
Let’s face it – Formula 1 bores most people rigid. The same cars repeatedly racing around the same track a zillions times, with the occasional bit of overtaking if you’re lucky. It seems the real excitement is off the track, and this documentary will hook even non-racing fans.
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Formula 1: Drive to Survive shows the compelling soap operas going on behind the scenes, with each episode concentrating on a specific topic, such as a team trying to hang on to a star driver, driver rivalry within teams, or tensions between managers and drivers. It boasts impressive access to all the main players. And if you do like Formula 1, then its pulse-pounding in-race footage, helmet-cam provides all the thrills you could ever want.
Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat (2018)
A globe-trotting gastronomic odyssey, Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat is hosted by the infectiously cheery Samin Nosrat as she looks at the fundamental elements in the creation of great food.
Since there are four episodes, you can probably what out the theme of each from the title: yep, salt, fat, acid, and heat. With locations from California to Mexico to Italy and Japan, it is also beautifully shot and will make your mouth water. This is a real foodie’s food show, that even those of us who struggle to boil an egg will watch with mouthwatering delight.
The Keepers (2017)
The Keepers is essential viewing for anybody wanting to know what to watch after Making A Murderer. However, be warned, the series quickly moves from being a murder mystery into something more disturbing, exploring a stomach-churning issue it uncovers.
Because nun Sister Cathy Cesnik, it seems, may have been killed in 1969 to cover up the fact she had discovered that a priest was sexually abusing children. Some of the details are stomach-churning. In the series, a group of amateur investigators try to piece the evidence that the authorities seemed happy to bury.
Crip Camp (2020)
Michelle and Barrack Obama’s production company, Higher Ground, kicked off with the acclaimed American Factory (2019) about a Chinese billionaire opening a factory in Ohio and clashing with its American workforce (that’s also on Netflix and worth a watch). Next came the eye-opening Crip Camp, a documentary that starts with archive footage from the ‘70s of Camp Jened, a camp for the disabled in the Catskills north of New York.
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The place was almost a mythical idyll for its attendees – a world geared up for the disabled. In contrast, the documentary follows the lives of several of those attendees in the years since as they’ve had to cope in the outside world and have campaigned to see laws introduced to make America more accessible.
Don’t F**k with Cats: Hunting an Internet Killer (2019)
Cute cat pictures are what social media is all about, right? Everybody goes, “Awww!” So imagine the horror when some guy posts images online of him killing kittens using plastic bags and a vacuum cleaner. But when cat-lovers join virtual forces to track down the kitten killer, they uncover a man whose crimes go a lot further.
The central concept is so ludicrous you assume it must all be an elaborate mockumentary, but no. And it’s the sheer bizarreness of the central concept – cat lady turns sleuth! – that makes this compelling and makes it a must-watch despite some rather confused and lurid storytelling at time.