15 Best Documentaries on Netflix That Will Make You Feel So Smart
Movies you can feel good about binge-watching
Growing up, you might have thought documentaries were a snore. After all, there’s only so much recreated footage of the Civil War or late British monarchs you can watch before you actually start to fall asleep. But don’t worry, the documentaries that follow don’t fall into either of those categories.
As the best documentaries on Netflix right now, they’re fresh and inspired. Plus, most of them prove that the truth is way, way more entertaining than fiction. Whether they’re thrilling true-crime features or biopics on your favorite stars, you won’t want to miss these must-see films.
The 2018 Oscar-winner for Best Documentary Feature, Icarus follows filmmaker Bryan Fogel as he explores the issue of illegal performance-enhancing drugs in sports. During his investigation, Fogel uncovered Russia’s state-sponsored Olympic doping program and found himself involved in one of the biggest international sports conspiracies in history. When filming wrapped, accusations of murder had been brought forward, at least one person was in protective custody, and Russia was eventually banned from competing in the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Games. Suffice it to say, this one’s pretty gripping.
Titled after the 13th Amendment, which freed slaves and outlawed slavery, this 2016 documentary by director Ava Duvernay explores the state of race, justice, and mass incarceration in America.”By the time her movie ends, Ms. DuVernay has delivered a stirring treatise on the prison industrial complex through a nexus of racism, capitalism, policies, and politics. It sounds exhausting, but it’s electrifying,” wrote Manohla Dargis of the New York Times. You’ll also want to watch the documentary’s Netflix companion, 13TH: A Conversation With Oprah Winfrey and Ava Duvernay. And as one of the best documentaries on Netflix, the film was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary and won the Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Special.
Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond (2017)
It’s been 20 years since Jim Carrey played the legendary late comedian Andy Kaufman in 1999’s Man on the Moon. And in Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond, filmmaker Chris Smith uses 100 hours of revealing behind-the-scenes footage (that was never supposed to be seen by the public) from the set of the original film to show fans how one great performer transformed into another, nearly losing himself in the process. “He blew my mind,” Carrey says of his idol in the documentary. “When I heard I had the part, I was looking at the ocean and that’s the moment when Andy came back to make his movie. What happened after was out of my control.”
They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead (2018)
During the last 15 years of his life, director Orson Welles attempted to make his Hollywood comeback with the film The Other Side of the Wind, a movie he felt would surpass Citizen Kane, Welles’ earlier work that is often considered the best film of all time. Netflix’s 2018 documentary They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead tells the story behind this grand pursuit while presenting an unflinching look at the “ultimate independent filmmaker” whose final project was in development for almost 50 years before it was finally released in 2018, more than 30 years after Welles’ death.
Amanda Knox (2016)
Almost a decade after the 2007 murder of Meredith Kercher, Netflix released Amanda Knox, a documentary that delves into the American exchange student’s death. It focuses on the trial, conviction, and eventual acquittal of her accused killer, Amanda Knox, and invites Knox, who still lives under a cloud of suspicion, to tell her side of the story. Living abroad in Italy at the time of the murder, Knox’s trial gained international attention. And thanks to questionable evidence, accusations of misconduct, and disagreements between Italian and American investigators, the case still has people wondering if Knox was guilty and got away with it or if she was wrongly portrayed as a cold-blooded killer.
Gaga: Five Foot Two (2017)
Lady Gaga may be one of the most famous women on the planet, but this documentary from filmmaker Chris Moukarbel brings fans behind the scenes of the superstar’s life. “Paranoia, fear, body pain, anxiety,” Gaga says, listing off the issues she’s been dealing with over the past five years. However, as she records her Joanne album and preps for her 2017 Super Bowl performance, we also see Gaga’s determination to move forward. “I can always bring my past with me, but I can never go back,” she says. “You gotta leave yourself behind.” It’s one of the best documentaries on Netflix to watch when you need a bit of inspiration to keep on keeping on.
Tilikum, who passed away on January 6, 2017, was a killer whale that was responsible for the deaths of three people while being forced to perform at SeaWorld. Blackfish, which was released in 2013, puts a new lens on Tilikum’s life, as well as the lives of other creatures kept in captivity for human entertainment. The documentary sparked strong reactions from viewers who were outraged on the animals’ behalves, all while SeaWorld denied claims of mistreatment. However, after a sharp decline in attendance following the documentary’s release, SeaWorld announced in 2016 that it would be ending its orca breeding program and phasing out all live performances using the massive whales.
Miss Representation (2011)
As if the Netflix cover image of Rosie the Riveter didn’t tip you off to the fact that this documentary is all about girl power, the description will. The film explores “how the mainstream media’s often disparaging portrayals of women contribute to the under-representation of females in positions of leadership.” Directed by filmmaker Jennifer Siebel Newsom, the film includes interviews with teenage girls, as well as big names like Condoleeza Rice, Lisa Ling, Katie Couric, and Gloria Steinem.
Conversations with a Killer (2018)
Ted Bundy was one of America’s most notorious serial killers, convicted of murdering more than 30 women in the 1970s. When he was caught, he still managed to charm people with his broad smile and disarming looks. Much has been said about the infamous figure but in Conversations With a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, led by Oscar-nominated director Joe Berlinger, viewers hear from Bundy himself via archival footage and audio recordings of the condemned man while he awaited his fate on death row before his execution on January 24, 1989. Critics say the film wasn’t as revelatory as some of the other best documentaries on Netflix, but that doesn’t make it any less captivating.
Foo Fighters: Back and Forth (2011)
If you’re in the mood for a rockumentary, then check out Foo Fighters: Back and Forth, which follows the band’s 16-year history using more than 1,000 hours of footage and interviews with current and former members of the group. Lead singer and guitarist Dave Grohl spoke to Billboard about the inspiration behind the project, saying that the band got the idea while recording their 2011 Wasting Light album in the garage of Grohl’s Encino, California home. “After selling out f***ing stadiums and becoming this big rock band, why would you make a garage record?” he asked himself. “To me, the first hour and 20 minutes of the movie is leading up to that moment, where we go from the stadium to the garage … To me, that’s the message of the movie.”
Blue Planet II (2017)
Whether or not you’ve seen the original Blue Planet documentary series from 2001, you’ll still want to check out 2017’s follow-up sequel Blue Planet II. Sir David Attenborough narrates this deep dive from the BBC that explores our oceans and the wondrous creatures living in them—and it’s one of the best documentaries on Netflix to watch when you just need a break from humans. But be prepared: life underwater isn’t always a day at the beach.
What Happened, Miss Simone? (2015)
Nina Simone had an unforgettable voice that was rivaled only by her striking stage presence. And over the course of a career that spanned nearly 20 years and more than 40 albums, she became an icon of American music. However, in 2015’s biographical documentary What Happened, Miss Simone? we’re introduced to another side of the singer. “People think that when she went out on stage she became Nina Simone,” her daughter explains. But instead of being one thing in front of a crowd and another away from the spotlight, she says, “My mother was Nina Simone 24/7—and that’s where it became a problem.”
The Keepers (2017)
Two months after she disappeared on November 7, 1969, the body of Cathy Cesnik, a popular 26-year-old nun and Catholic high school teacher from Baltimore, was discovered. However, her murder was never solved. The case became news again in the 1990s when one of Cesnik’s former students claimed she had been shown the nun’s dead body by an allegedly abusive chaplain. In The Keepers, directed by Ryan White, Sister Cathy’s former students try to unravel the mystery and possible cover-up nearly five decades after their beloved teacher’s tragic death.
Quincy Jones is not only a revered record producer, musician, composer, and movie-maker. According to the man himself, he’s also a survivor. Netflix’s 2018 documentary Quincy tells his entire inspirational story, from his beginnings on the South Side of Chicago and his start in the music business to his decades-long career that saw him become an idol to many of the industry’s biggest and brightest stars. Co-written and co-directed by Alan Hicks and Quincy Jones’ own daughter, actress Rashida Jones, the documentary offers a revealing look at a music legend. And obviously, it’s also got one heck of a soundtrack.
FYRE: The Greatest Party That Never Happened (2019)
It wouldn’t be a complete list of the best documentaries on Netflix without including the one that’s currently captivated the internet. Not every festival can be as epic as Coachella or as historic as Woodstock. But 2017’s Fyre Festival not only failed to reach those heights—but it may also go down as the worst case of festival fraud in history.
And while many of us witnessed the viral tweets documenting the chaos as attendees—who were promised a luxury experience in paradise—showed up to find a disaster zone, FYRE: The Greatest Party That Never Happened shows viewers how things got to that point. It’s a wild ride—filled with top models, Ja Rule, and an island once owned by Pablo Escobar—from the beguiling beginning to the shocking end. Seriously, it’s hard to believe this isn’t a mockumentary. But as the (SPOILER!) six-year prison sentence for Fyre founder Billy McFarland proves, this catastrophe was very, very real. And for more real-life events, check out the 18 Best Movies Ever Made Based on True Stories.
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