It is hard to figure out what the best documentaries on Netflix are, and that is a shame. It is easy to get overwhelmed by the countless hours of content, none of us have enough time to watch it all. Documentaries, more than any other format, help us to learn about the world. Because of this, documentaries are more than just mere entertainment.
To help you with your pursuit of knowledge, Netflix’s best documentaries are here to expand your mind. When choosing which documentaries are the cream of the crop, you must consider the overall quality, as well as the originality, and resonance of the subject. The best documentaries also tend to be relatively objective, and not too sensational. Of course, they still have to be entertaining. Your mileage may vary based on how interested you are in any given topic, but a good documentary should engage you regardless. These certainly kept us watching.
“The Last Laugh”
Should you be able to make jokes about anything? Some of you might already have set opinions on this question. Humor is a great vessel to talk about taboo subjects. But where does one person’s laughter end, and another person’s offense begin? Using a topic as touchy as the Holocaust, this documentary sets out to explore the limits of humor and trauma. Comedians such as Mel Brooks, Sarah Silverman, and Gilbert Gottfried examine this very question.
At the same time, “The Last Laugh” explores the experience of the Jewish Holocaust survivors and how they managed to find the punchline in the worst experience of their lives. As such, it is also a documentary about the beginning of the Jewish humor that dominated comedy in the 20th century. It’s awful, its funny, it is awfully funny.
Sometimes you start small and end up in places you never dreamed of. “Icarus” began as a modest documentary about doping in sports. Documentarian Bryan Fogel wanted to find out if he could dope himself to win an amateur bike race. Increasing his performance, while trying to figure out ways to hide it. To achieve his goals, Fogel contacted the head of the Russian anti-doping laboratory Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov.
As the two become friends, Rodchenkov reveals that he is overseeing a state-wide hidden doping operation for the Russian government. What follows are twists and turns that make even the best spy thriller blush. “Icarus” won an Academy Award for best documentary.
“What Happened, Miss Simone?”
Nina Simone is one the most prolific and influential jazz, gospel, R&B, blues and pop musicians of the 20th century. She is also one of the most notorious ones. Simone, despite her classical music aspirations, found success in the Jazz scene of the 50s. What followed was a skyrocketing career, albeit one that was influenced by her temper. As the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s began to gain momentum, she got politicised herself. Eventually, after aligning herself with more militant ideas, Simone had to decide to leave everything behind.
Executive produced by her daughter, this documentary is rare in its honesty. An unflinching look behind the curtain of the fame.
Following up her acclaimed film Selma, director Ava Duverny decided to tackle another issue at the heart of racism in America. Taking on the titular 13th Amendment to the Constitution, “13th” is a damning look at the mass incarceration of minorities. It tracks the rise of the American prison population, and the disproportionate jailing of African-Americans, starting at the end of slavery. At the same time, the documentary shows the perversity of a privatized prison system, in which it is good business to keep as many people locked up for as long as possible. And it shows how the media systematically changed how we perceive crime and minorities.
This documentary will make you angry, it will depress you, and that is good. How is it possible that the “land of the free” locks more people behind bars than any other nation on the planet?
“Accidental Courtesy” tells the surreal story of African-America musician Daryl Davis. Davis has the unusual hobby of befriending KKK members, convincing them to leave behind their white supremacy. He even has a collection of klan-robes from friends who left the klan. It turns out we are not all that different.
Building his collection, robe by robe, piece by piece, racist memorabilia by racist memorabilia, he dreams of eventually opening up a museum. “Accidental Courtesy” is both heartwarming and thought-provoking. And it begs the question of why racism has to be a problem.
“One of Us”
Dealing with one of the most complicated aspects of Judaism, “One of Us” delves into the world of Hasidic Jews. Following the lives of three ex-Hasidic Jews, the documentary chronicles their struggles living in that community. And the reason why they needed to get out, despite the fallout created by their actions.
The Hasidic community partially lives by its own rules. Domestic and sexual abuse based on religious dogma has been a regular occurrence in the protagonist’s lives. And now trying to navigate the secular world of regular New York, “One of Us” shows the fascinating contrasts of a backward community living within one of the most open cities in the world.
“Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond”
Jim Carrey is one of the most beloved comedians of his generation. Known for his energetic slapstick comedy and impossible contortions of his face, Carrey became one of the biggest stars in the world. What is less known, however, is that despite his fame, he is unhappy and lost. And he has a low opinion on celebrity. Jim & Andy focuses on his experience playing notorious alternative comedian Andy Kaufman during the filming of Man on the Moon.
Being his idol, Carrey gave everything to his portrayal of Kaufman, losing himself in the process. And as a result, he was abusive to the crew on set, impossible to work with, and affected everyone around him. The documentary centers around an extended interview with Carrey, as well as unseen footage from behind the scenes. But one thing is for sure; the film will change the way you look at Jim Carrey.
While the story of John du Pont was already told in the 2014 Oscar-nominated film Foxcatcher, the documentary “Team Foxcatcher” takes a different approach. Less dramatized and more personal, the film follows the life and downward spiral of the relation between philanthropist John du Pont and Olympic wrestler Dave Schultz. It was a relationship that eventually shocked the world with the murder of Schultz at the hand of Du Pont.
Following the lives of the two men, we see the beginnings of du Ponts interest in supporting American wrestling efforts. And how slowly his bizarre behavior started to become a concern for everyone involved. A riveting look at the limits of loyalty and competitiveness.
“The Vietnam War”
In this 10-episode behemoth of a documentary, famous documentarian Ken Burns follows every facet of the Vietnam War. With a run-time of over 17 hours, the series follows the personal experience of both the Americans and Vietnamese. At the same time, as the war escalates, the series chronicles the impact and fundamental changes it has on American society.
Interviews with contemporary witnesses are interspersed with photographs and hours of archival footage. It brings us closer to an era in our history which is still felt to this day.
“The Battered Bastards of Baseball”
Everyone loves a good underdog story. Nothing is as moving as an unexpected success, especially in sports. “The Battered Bastards of Baseball” is a real-life underdog story of an unlikely team making baseball history. Annoyed and disillusioned with the corporate nature of Major League baseball, actor Bing Russel (father of Kurt Russel) had a plan. He decides to buy the defunct independent Minor League team the Portland Mavericks.
Holding try-outs open to the public, Russel was able to build a team of Major League rejects. And to the surprise of everyone involved, the Mavericks began to succeed. Shattering attendance records and making the careers of several people, “The Battered Bastards of Baseball” is one of the most inspiring stories of sports history.
In an incredibly cinematic and compelling piece of documentary filmmaking, “Cartel Land” tells the story of the Mexican drug cartels from both sides of the border. On one side there is the Arizona Border Recon and on the other side the rebel group of Michoacán. But even though they both fight against the same problems, the conflict slowly escalates.
Showing how fighting in a corrupt system, despite best intentions, breeds its own corruption, “Cartel Land” is a deeply unsettling piece of filmmaking. Seemingly no way out, this documentary is not for the faint of heart. It is violent, hopeless and it makes you wonder if there is ever a way out of armed conflict.
Of all the best documentaries on Netflix, “Finders Keepers” is the most surreal one. The film is the story of amputee John Wood’s quest to reclaim his mummified leg. But he is not alone, as entrepreneur Shannon Whisnant, who found the leg in a grill he bought at auction, has no intention of giving it back.
A stranger-than-fiction tale as one man tries to reclaim his life after tragedy, while another man is trying to fulfill his long-lived dream of being someone. “Finders Keepers” is too strange to be explained and has to be seen to be believed.
There is no shared currency between humans quite like stories. They are a powerful way of connecting with each other — of gaining a glimpse into another life.”The Wolfpack” is a strange and unique look about how our childhood shapes our reality and how we perceive the world around us.
It is the story of seven homeschooled children, locked in their New York apartment. Consequently, they learned about the world through movies. And to keep themselves occupied, they began to reenact their favorite films and scenes. Until one of them decides to go outside.
You may already know the story of Amanda Knox. The American exchange student in Italy, whose roommate got murdered, and who then spent four years in prison before she was finally found not guilty.
The documentary follows the lead up to the murder, and the following investigation and conviction of Knox. “Amanda Knox” is more than a mere true crime story, however. This documentary is about the media, its inherently sexist treatment of Knox, and the twisted turns of skewing sex into a narrative that sells newspapers. Framed through exclusive interviews with Knox herself, the film gives a detailed and personal look into this story.
“Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films”
Electric Boogaloo follows the rise and fall of notorious film company Cannon Films, which is the company responsible for making Chuck Norris a star. The documentary is more than a chronicle of a group of filmmakers desperate to make it big in Hollywood. With remarkable honesty, we hear not just the story of how to make a profit out of cheap movies, but also of dealing with unbridled ambition and hubris.
Selling unproduced movies based on posters alone, they made a handful of masterpieces. But their demise was inevitable. It is an entertaining piece of movie history. And a testament to a style of filmmaking that is all but dead and gone. Truly one of the best documentaries on Netflix.
The Best Documentaries on Netflix Are Here for You
From a quest to reclaim a severed leg, to the rise and fall of a B-movie studio, to a war that shaped American identity, Netflix is a treasure trove of knowledge and insight into the human condition. And it does not matter where your interest lies. There are films about every topic you can imagine. The best documentaries on Netflix will keep you on the edge of your seat, all while teaching you new things.
Featured image: Screenshot via embedded YouTube video