The number of documentaries on Netflix has exploded in recent years. From classic features to original documentary series, there’s enough content to keep your evenings educational for months. However, finding the best documentaries on Netflix can be difficult due to its notoriously finicky algorithm and interface. To help, we’ve compiled a list of the 10 best Netflix documentaries currently available on the platform.
We have included both documentary features and series covering a wide variety of topics. Whether you’re a political junkie, a nature lover, or a true crime fan, there is sure to be something for you.
The best documentaries on Netflix:
- Wild Wild Country
- Casting JonBenet
- Strong Island
- Planet Earth II
- Making a Murderer
- 20 Feet from Stardom
- They’ll Love Me when I’m Dead
Editor’s note – This list will be updated as documentaries leave and other new arrivals make their debut on Netflix.
1. Wild Wild Country
This first item on our list of the best documentaries on Netflix is an original docuseries from the platform. It tells the story of the followers of Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (A.K.A. Osho), who moved en masse to a rural community in Oregon. As the group grew in power and wealth, they began to assert their control in strange and increasingly illegal ways. What makes this series stand out is the extensive use of footage and interviews from the community itself, which were initially created as promotional materials.
There are six hour-long episodes in total, but at no point does it feel long. It’s engaging and binge-worthy, which is no small feat for a documentary.
2. Casting JonBenet
Casting JonBenet makes our list of the best Netflix documentaries not because of its topic, but rather because of the way it tells its story. It deals with the death of American child beauty starlet JonBeney Ramsey, who was found strangled in her home at age six. Instead of simply telling the story and playing existing footage, the filmmakers put out a casting call for a fictional film in Ramsey’s hometown.
The result is a strangely intimate look at how the story evolved in the minds of everyday people once the media got hold of it.
Shirkers isn’t about a global conspiracy or maniacal serial killer. It’s just a simple story of a group of young filmmakers in Singapore and their encounter with a strange man who would eventually run off with their film. That’s not a spoiler, it’s the premise of the entire documentary. What this documentary lacks in gravitas it makes up for in charm. Seeing how the group developed into adults and how it affected their professional and personal lives is fascinating.
If you’re looking for a lighthearted Netflix documentary that won’t leave you in tears, this is the one.
4. Strong Island
Strong Island is yet another documentary focused on racial injustices in the United States. This time, the victim is the filmmaker’s brother, a 24-year-old African-American teacher, who was killed in 1992 by a white mechanic. The all-white jury ultimately accepted his claim of self-defense, leading to questions around the efficacy of the justice system.
The documentary relies heavily on pulling your emotional strings, so if you’re the analytical type it might not be for you. That said, the production quality alone merits a spot among the best documentaries on Netflix.
5. Planet Earth II
Sir David Attenborough is back with more stunning footage of the natural world. This time the production values are even higher with full 4K shots that will leave you breathless. That is, assuming your subscription plan gives you access to 4K streaming.
Planet Earth II follows the same patterns set by the first series, with each episode focusing on a specific type of environment. Even if you’re not a nature lover, check this one out while it’s still available because it’s not only one of the best documentaries on Netflix, it’s one of the best documentaries period.
Icarus starts out as a simple documentary about how easy it is to fool doping tests in professional sports, but it quickly spirals out of control when the filmmaker enlists the help of head of Russia’s anti-doping laboratory Grigory Rodchenkov. Grigory is quite the character, and through his friendship with the filmmaker, he reveals the secrets of Russia’s state-sponsored doping program at great risk to his own life.
This thrilling Netflix documentary won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 2017.
13th is easily the heaviest and most timely film on our list of the best documentaries on Netflix. The title is a reference to the 13th amendment to the Constitution of the United States, which freed the slaves and prohibited slavery. While this was a major step forward at the time, it included an elephant-sized loophole by excluding criminals. This documentary outlines how that loophole was exploited by those in power to keep African Americans and other minorities powerless and imprisoned.
This is not a feelgood Netflix documentary for a weekday evening, but it’s an important issue that continues to plague communities all around the country. It was nominated for an Oscar and took home several other awards, including an Emmy for Best Documentary.
8. Making a Murderer
Making a Murderer is one of the first original Netflix documentaries to gain popularity in the general public. It has a lot in common with other true-crime series like Serial and HBO’s The Jinx, so if you enjoyed those then this one is for you.
The two-season docuseries tells the story of Stephen Avery, who was a frequent target of local law officials in a rural country in Wisconsin. A concerted effort was made to convict Avery for a murder despite a lack of strong evidence connecting him to the crime.
9. 20 Feet from Stardom
There are plenty of documentaries about famous singers and rock stars, but have you ever wondered about the lives of the background singers? Of course you haven’t. That’s what makes this Academy Award-winning feature documentary so interesting.
20 Feet from Stardom turns the spotlight to the back of the stage and highlights the careers of Darlene Love, Judith Hill, and several other backup singers. It’s tempting to assume this documentary is about unfulfilled potential, but in fact, the opposite is true. These women are often more than happy to stay in the shadows and do what they love to do: sing.
10. They’ll Love Me when I’m Dead
Released in tandem with the film it covers, They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead focuses on the making of The Other Side of The Wind, legendary filmmaker Orson Welles’ final film.
That project, The Other Side of The Wind, is about a respected (fictional) filmmaker (played by Jon Huston) who has fallen out of favor in Hollywood as he tries to make a film that will propel him back into the limelight.
They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead chronicles the chaotic production, reconstructed in interviews with people who worked on it, including famous director Peter Bogdanovich. It’s a striking portrait of one of Hollywood’s most important filmmakers, and a pretty wild ride, to boot.
Best documentaries on Netflix – Honorable mentions
There are countless great documentaries on Netflix that just didn’t make the cut. Here’s a look at a few other Netflix documentaries worth watching:
- Evil Genius – The story of a bank heist gone wrong featuring some truly fascinating characters. From the producers of Wild Wild Country.
- Quincy – A biography of influential music producer and composer Quincy Jones. Directed by his daughter Rashida Jones, the film provides an intimate view of his daily life.
- Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World – This documentary feature from Werner Herzog explores the impact of new technologies on society and the human condition.
- What Happened, Miss Simone? – A biography of Nina Simone, one of the most famous singers of her era. Features previously unreleased footage.
- The Vietnam War – Ken Burns tackles the United States war in Vietnam in his particularly exhaustive style. This 10-part documentary series focuses on the experiences of veterans of both sides of the war, covering everything from the initial draft to the anti-war movement.
These are our picks for the best documentaries on Netflix, as of right now. We’ll add more as new documentaries come to the streaming platform.
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