The best documentaries aren't just the ones you hear about during Academy Award season. Every day, filmmakers across the world are setting out to tell real life stories, onces that will uplift you, inspire you, or break your heart. The great thing about the documentary genre is that it overlaps with a lot of your other favorites, like drama, comedy, romance, and even horror. True crime pieces like Amanda Knox and The Keepers take you inside some of the most egregious stories of our time. Ava Duvernay's 13th continues to serve as an educational tool for those who are unaware of the many injustices this country continues to inflict on the black community. And films like Amy and Gaga: Five Foot Two tell the stories of powerful women in entertainment, and how the press, their fans, and their personal lives have impacted their work. Without further ado, these are the best documentaries on Netflix.
Director: Robert Greene
Runtime: 1h 56m
Rotten Tomatoes: 97% (Critics) 89% (Audience)
While not an easy watch by any means (it’s easily one of the most upsetting films Netflix has ever released), Procession is one of the most fascinating documentaries of the year. It follows six men who’ve suffered sexual abuse by Catholic priests as they create filmed re-enactments of their trauma with the help of a film crew. While the synopsis seems exploitative at first glance, director Robert Greene has an expert eye for documentary filmmaking, and focuses on the catharsis of the re-enactments, and how they can help these men heal from their unimaginable trauma. It’s a radically empathetic film that posits that performance can be the ultimate form of therapy and can even help people open up and understand themselves in ways they never have before. Procession is a testament to the power of human companionship and truth telling in the face of formidable darkness. It’s also one of the very best documentaries of the year.
My Octopus Teacher (2020)
Director: Pippa Ehrlich, James Reed
Runtime: 1h 25m
Rotten Tomatoes: 100% (Critics) 92% (Audience)
A newly minted Best Documentary Oscar winner, My Octopus Teacher is one of the most unique documentaries you’ll ever see. The documentary centers on filmmaker Craig Foster as he forms a bond with a wild common octopus living in a South African kelp forest, and learns about the mysterious world it inhabits. Despite the obvious communication barrier, the relationship between Foster and the octopus is surprisingly moving and captured in an engrossing way. While the relationship may at first seem a bit weird to the average viewer, it becomes genuinely heartwarming as the film progresses. If you have even the vaguest interest in animals and nature, My Octopus Teacher is sure to capture your heart.
The Last Blockbuster (2020)
Director: Taylor Morden
Runtime: 1h 26m
Rotten Tomatoes: 69% (Critics) 66% (Audience)
Remember Blockbuster? If you’re Gen Z, you probably don’t, but we millennials have plenty of treasured memories of traversing the aisles of our local video store for the latest title fresh from theaters. While streaming services have driven the video store chain out of business, there still remains one last Blockbuster—in Oregon of all places. The Last Blockbuster centers on the last remaining Blockbuster in Bend, Oregon, while also chronicling the history and business practices of Blockbuster in its heyday. Clerks director Kevin Smith is a prominent focus in the documentary, explaining how the chain worked and how it influenced his cult classic directorial debut. Other comedians are featured in the documentary as well, including Ron Funches, Paul Scheer, and Doug Benson. A must for any fans nostalgic for the heyday of Blockbuster, The Last Blockbuster is a sweet ode to a chain that turned many of us into movie lovers.
Gaga: Five Foot Two (2017)
Director: Chris Moukarbel
Runtime: 1h 40m
Rotten Tomatoes: 73% (Critics) 80% (Audience)
It’s surprising that Lady Gaga only just had a documentary made about her in 2017, after a nearly decade-long career, but it’s more than worth the wait. Gaga: Five Foot Two follows the production and release of her fifth studio album, Joanne, as well as her performance at Super Bowl LI. The documentary is an unfiltered look at her life, in both professional and personal capacity, as it examines the production behind her Super Bowl performance, as well as her experiences with her fans, family, and chronic health issues. The documentary is notable for its humanization of Gaga, who’s often regarded as a larger-than-life diva. Gaga: Five Foot Two is an illuminating look at a woman who is equal parts ordinary and extraordinary.
Crip Camp (2020)
Director: James Lebrecht, Nicole Newnham
Runtime: 1h 47m
Rotten Tomatoes: 100% (Critics) 92% (Audience)
As ableism becomes more understood by the popular culture, the history of disability advocacy has to become more well known, which is what Crip Camp sets out to do. Produced by the Obamas, Crip Camp takes a look at the attendees of Camp Jened in 1971, a summer camp catering to teenagers with disabilities, and how many of those attendees grew up to be major advocates for the disability rights movement. The documentary is effective in how it’s as much a personal story (co-director James Lebrecht attended Camp Jened himself) as it is a story about how movements and experience-based ideologies spring up in the face of disenfranchisement, and how these movements have changed everyday life, especially in the case of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Crip Camp is a stirring ode to the activism and resilience that should be as well known as every other historic civil rights struggle.
American Murder: The Family Next Door (2020)
Director: Jenny Popplewell
Runtime: 1h 23m
Rotten Tomatoes: 85% (Critics) 77% (Audience)
For fans of true crime, Netflix’s American Murder: The Family Next Door is undoubtedly your next obsession. American Murder explores the disappearance of Shannon Watts and her children, as well as the devastating consequences. The documentary uses real footage that makes you think you understand the story, only to further complicate it, turning it into something much more dark and disturbing. Ostensibly a documentary about a marriage gone wrong, American Murder also digs into social-media-based deception and how easily domestic abuse can be concealed or even outright ignored. As hard as it can be to watch, American Murder: The Family Next Door is sobering and effective in telling an all too common story.
Dick Johnson Is Dead (2020)
Director: Kirsten Johnson
Runtime: 1h 29m
Rotten Tomatoes: 100% (Critics) 81% (Audience)
Famous for her successful 2016 documentary Cameraperson, director Kirsten Johnson is back with a personal doc about a much more difficult topic. Dick Johnson Is Dead follows Kirsten and her father, Richard, who suffers from dementia, as they playfully repeatedly re-enact ways in which he could die. What sounds almost too morbid or too irreverent in theory actually becomes artful behind Johnson’s directorial eye. The film understands that death can be just as beautiful as life and that being reminded of our own mortality only means that we’re ultimately human. The documentary’s complex and moving views of death perfectly complement Kirsten and Richard’s own dark humor, making sure the tone is never too dark or too lighthearted. Dick Johnson Is Dead is almost unclassifiable, other than that it’s one of the best documentaries of 2020.
Travis Scott: Look Mom I Can Fly (2019)
Director: White Trash Tyler
Runtime: 1h 25m
Rotten Tomatoes: N/A (Critics) N/A (Audience)
With the 2018 that Travis Scott had—including the birth of his first child and the release of his critically-acclaimed third studio album Astroworld—we’re glad that he had the foresight to have some capturing all of the madness of his journey, and that Netflix decided to purchase the documentary that came out of it. In Look Mom I Can Fly, we get to see Travis through a number of moments on this journey: Drake finally sending the “Sicko Mode” vocals, the birth of Stormi, when he learned of his Grammy nominations, and even some behind the scenes footage of his Super Bowl performance. Interspersed are clips from home videos, showing young Travis at the old Astroworld theme park, as well as clips of him performing for a handful of people early in his career. It’s a dope peak into Travis’ life and helps fans appreciate the success he has achieved even more.
Everybody’s Everything (2019)
Mucho Mucho Amor: The Legend of Walter Mercado (2020)
Director: Kareem Tabsch, Cristina Costantini
Runtime: 1h 36m
Rotten Tomatoes: 100% (Critics) 93% (Audience)
Walter Mercado is a multi-hyphenate Latinx icon: actor, dancer, writer, but he’s best known for his skills as a television astrologer, with his shows airing for decades on television in Puerto Rico, Latin America, and the US. He made a name for himself thanks to his theatrical personality and flamboyant, gender nonconforming outfits, making him instantly memorable to an audience of millions. Mucho Mucho Amor takes a look at the long life and career of Mercado, leading up to his recent death in late 2019. The documentary examines the impact that his life has had on many people in the Latinx entertainment industry to this day, including Lin Manuel-Miranda and Eugenio Derbez. Beloved by many and understood by few, the documentary takes a deep, fascinating look into the personal life of a man who seemed all too larger than life, granting us a better understanding of an extraordinary figure. Mucho Much Amor is a delightful look into one of the best and most interesting entertainers of the past couple of decades.
Strong Island (2017)
Director: Yance Ford
Runtime: 1h 47m
Rotten Tomatoes: 100% (Critics) 57% (Audience)
One of Netflix’s most recent critically acclaimed original documentaries, Strong Island dives into a harrowingly personal story with urgency and boldness. Strong Island is partially an account of director Yance Ford’s brother Fred’s murder in 1992 by a white man, and how an all-white jury would later decline to indict him, citing self-defense. From there, Ford examines the racialized perception of the legal system and the repercussions the court decision had on a public and personal scale. Strong Island uses its many interviews and even first-person confessions from Ford himself to make the incident in question feel stunningly real and emphasize the horrific normalcy of tragedies like these. It’s a hard watch, but Strong Island finds ingenious ways of navigating the grief behind systemic racism and how it radiates through families and communities.
Director: Ava DuVernay
Runtime: 1h 40m
Rotten Tomatoes: 97% (Critics) 90% (Audience)
This harrowing political documentary from A Wrinkle In Time director Ava DuVernay examines the titular 13th amendment of the United States Constitution, which prohibits slavery except as a punishment for a crime. 13th examines the ways in which the American prison system upholds systemic racism. Through the film, DuVernay contends that the prison-industrial complex itself is somewhat of a continuation of slavery despite the 13th amendment, and she proves this point through harrowing anecdotes. 13th also features interviews from a number of political figures, including Angela Davis, Van Jones, Cory Booker, and others. 13th was nominated for Best Documentary Film at the 2017 Academy Awards.
Amanda Knox (2016)
Director: Rod Blackhurst, Brian McGinn
Runtime: 1h 32m
Rotten Tomatoes: 82% (Critics) 71% (Audience)
Netflix has a good selection of screwed-up crime/murder documentaries, but Amanda Knox is special because chances are you’ll come into the doc with one idea of the infamous crime but come out of it has done a full 180. Amanda Knox is an American exchange student who went to jail after being accused of brutally murdering her roommate and fellow British exchange student in Bologna, Italy in 2007. She was eventually acquitted of the crime, but the insane media frenzy that fueled an insatiable public curiosity for her personal life is irreversible, and Knox herself is involved in this documentary in an attempt to clear her name. This documentary gets exclusive interviews with the Daily Mail reporter that led the media’s obsession with her life, and his explanations are fascinating; perhaps even more interesting are the reasons the lead Italian investigator gives for why he believes Knox is guilty.
Get Me Roger Stone (2017)
Director: Dylan Bank, Daniel DiMauro, Morgan Pehme
Runtime: 1h 41m
Rotten Tomatoes: 88% (Critics) 82% (Audience)
It’s hard to keep track of all the evil people involved with politics nowadays, but one name should definitely stand out: Roger Stone. Get Me Roger Stone is a documentary centering on the Republican political strategist and lobbyist who describes himself as an “agent provocateur.” He is also, of course, a longtime advisor to Donald Trump. The film tersely sums up this man, who looks, acts, and talks like a supervillain, over five years, as he gets steadily more involved in politics and then plays a pivotal role in the 2016 election. Get Me Roger Stone is a fascinating and hard-to-watch portrait of a uniquely terrible man who nonetheless has become somewhat of a political rock star among the far right.
Into the Abyss (2011)
Director: Werner Herzog
Runtime: 1h 47m
Rotten Tomatoes: 92% (Critics) 76% (Audience)
Werner Herzog, the director behind Grizzly Man, sets his sight on prison with Into the Abyss, a chronicle of two men convicted of a triple homicide. Michael Perry received a death sentence; Jason Burkett is serving a life sentence. The Huntsville “Walls” Unit in Texas is America’s most efficient death row, and Herzog conducts interviews with Perry up until just eight days before his execution. Into the Abyss is essential viewing if you’ve ever wondered about the death penalty and if you’ve ever considered the value of human life.
Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold (2017)
Director: Griffin Dunne
Runtime: 1h 38m
Rotten Tomatoes: 89% (Critics) 80% (Audience)
Directed by her nephew Griffin Dunne, Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold is a clear-eyed look at the life and influence of famed journalist and writer Joan Didion. Didion’s career spans nearly fifty years and includes essays, novels, plays, and films. As The Center Will Not Hold notes, Didion has had a large influence on popular culture as a whole, with her writing now having influenced at least two generations of writers and essayists. The documentary is a loving look at her life and personality, seen through the eyes of family members. Didion is a singular figure, and Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold is a kind and extensive look at all that she’s accomplished in her long career.
The Keepers (2017)
Director: Ryan White
Runtime: Limited Series
Rotten Tomatoes: 97% (Critics) 94% (Audience)
In a year where Wonder Woman is such a huge hit at the box office, and in a time when the first Democratic female candidate for president can win the majority vote for president, a documentary about a group of middle-aged ladies trying to find out what happened to their high school teacher, who was mysteriously murdered in 1969 is peak #feminist goals. The Keepers has all of the real-time drama as Making a Murderer – there is still time to discover who killed Sister Cathy! – but has the added excitement of an unlikely yet relentless group of average people acting as detectives as well as a sordid religious sexual abuse storyline that makes it a captivating, heart-racing watch.
Pumping Iron (1977)
Director: George Butler & Robert Fiore
Runtime: 1h 25m
Rotten Tomatoes: 91% (Critics) 84% (Audience)
A 1977 documentary focusing on the 1975 Mr. Universe and Mr. Olympia competitions, Pumping Iron is probably most famous for raising the profile of beloved actor/politician Arnold Schwarzenegger. The documentary focuses on other famous bodybuilders at the time and also highlights the competition between Schwarzenegger and fellow future actor Lou Ferrigno for the title of Mr. Universe. The documentary isn’t only for bodybuilding enthusiasts; it’s an insightful look into the sport as a whole, showcasing why it was (and still is) a worldwide phenomenon.
Director: Alan Hicks & Rashida Jones
Runtime: 2h 4m
Rotten Tomatoes: 82% (Critics) 84% (Audience)
Co-directed by his daughter Rashida Jones, Quincy traces the nearly six-decade-long life and career of legendary producer and musician Quincy Jones. Though he’s perhaps best known for producing Michael Jackson’s Thriller, Jones has done much more, and it’s all outlined here. He counts such stars as Ray Charles, Dinah Washington, and Miles Davis as both friends and collaborators, and has scored numerous films, including In The Heat of the Night and The Color Purple. Rashida Jones proves herself as a canny documentarian, not only succinctly covering her dad’s entire historic career, but also bravely critiquing some of his actions as a young man. Quincy is an extraordinary look at an extraordinary man.
Director: Sandi Tan
Runtime: 1h 37m
Rotten Tomatoes: 100% (Critics) 78% (Audience)
Shirkers is a remarkable documentary made under very unusual circumstances. Director Sandi Tan shot an independent film (one of Singapore’s first) named Shirkers with her friends and her film teacher Georges Cardona. Tan and her friends left the footage for Shirkers with Cardona when they went to study abroad and never saw the footage again, as Cardona had disappeared. 20 years later and 10 years after Cardona’s death, his widow reached out to Tan informing her that the footage was kept in pristine condition all these years. Tan then took that footage and made Shirkers, a documentary about the making of the titular movie. Shirkers transcends its titular subject by becoming a testament to stolen art and time, and how art can survive unseen obstacles and become something new.
They'll Love Me When I'm Dead (2018)
Director: Morgan Neville
Runtime: 1h 38m
Rotten Tomatoes: 92% (Critics) 82% (Audience)
After nearly 40 years of development, Netflix released cinematic legend Orson Welles’ last film The Other Side of the Wind this year. They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead is a documentary (also released by Netflix) that follows the making of said film, featuring interviews with some of Welles’ collaborators. It’s an illuminating look into a notoriously difficult man, as he returns to the United States in the 1970s and attempts to make his comeback with The Other Side of the Wind; the documentary follows him up until his death in 1985. Named after an eerily prophetic comment Welles made to director Peter Bogdanovich, the film explores how far Welles went to produce his art, as his film sadly never came to be during his lifetime. They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead is a melancholy portrait of a master artist trying and failing to create.
What Happened, Miss Simone? (2015)
Director: Liz Garbus
Runtime: 1h 42m
Rotten Tomatoes: 88% (Critics) 85% (Audience)
“How can you be an artist and not reflect the times?” asks Nina Simone during a taped interview about halfway through this documentary. The question is an ideal summary for the doc, and, by extension, Nina Simone’s body of work as a musician. Beginning with her astronomic rise as a jazz singer with a unique voice, the doc traces her involvement with the civil rights movement that led to the making of what she termed “civil rights music” as well as the professional and personal consequences of this involvement, but the entire doc is underpinned by a more urgent matter: Simone’s issues with bipolar syndrome. Narrated by interviews with friends, Nina’s daughter and her abusive husband and punctuated by a predictably stellar soundtrack and Nina’s haunting, gorgeous, iconic voice, including the Kanye-approved “Blood on the Leaves” and “Young, Gifted and Black,” this documentary is a story of a successful if sometimes tormented, Black woman who changed the dynamic of music with her singular talent.