When we’re spending all our time on a good Netflix binge, we’d like to at least give our minds a decent workout. If, like us, you’d like to emerge from hibernation a little more educated than you started, choose from our list of the best documentaries on Netflix for your next binge-watching sesh. These docs are entertaining, but also edifying. For your convenience, we’ve broken them up into categories.
Craving something more culinary? Check out the best food documentaries and series on Netflix right now. We’ve also rounded up the best adventure films, crime docs, and action flicks. Our brother site, Digital Trends, has an overall guide on the best movies and shows.
ReMastered: The Two Killings of Sam Cooke (2019)
The latest installment of Netflix’s ReMastered series explores the shady details behind the soul singer’s murder in a seedy Los Angeles motel. More Unsolved Mysteries than Behind the Music, the film looks into Cooke’s controversial side hustles as an artist’s advocate and Civil Rights activist, featuring interviews with musical legends such as Quincy Jones and Dionne Warwick. It’s an engrossing look into a time (which we assume has passed…right?) when making the wrong move in the record industry could cost someone their life.
In a word: riveting
The Staircase (2018)
This 2001 docuseries may be the original from which springs the panoply of true crime stories we enjoy today. The Staircase centers upon Michael Peterson, a novelist who called the police to report the sudden injury of his wife Kathleen. Suspicion almost immediately settles on Peterson himself, and the resulting investigation only makes the whole case weirder. But rather than simply dwell on sordid speculation while we wait for a resolution, the series focuses on the meticulous work of Peterson’s defense team. Imagine the suspense film What Lies Beneath crossed with a chess match between two masters of the game, and you’ll have an idea of what you’re in for. You’ll finish the series understanding a lot more about how murder trials work, even if the issues of guilt and innocence end up seeming a lot murkier.
In one word: enlightening
Evil Genius: The True Story of America’s Most Diabolical Bank Heist (2018)
A humble pizza guy is hijacked by a group of criminals and forced to perform a bank robbery on their behalf with a bomb tied around his neck. It sounds like a dark comedy that the Coen Brothers might make. In fact, it’s a series of events that took place in 2003 in Erie, Pennsylvania and forms the basis of Evil Genius. This four-part docuseries investigates this stranger-than-fiction tale, with its unbelievable escalation and the aggravation supplied by the resulting media circus.
In one word: riveting
Politics and Wrongdoing
Murder Mountain (2018)
This six-part docuseries looks at the perils of the pot industry through the lens of a cold case … or, rather, a case that law enforcement seemed singularly uninterested in pursuing. The dangers faced by growers on both sides of the law make your ho-hum job seem cush by comparison. Keep that vape pen close by — you’ll need it.
In one word: lawless
Dirty Money (2018)
This six-part docuseries examines some of the most flagrant examples of corporate corruption in the last several decades. Martin Shkreli, Scott Tucker, even our current president are put under the microscope, their movements examined and their motivations analyzed. Each episode of Dirty Money is helmed by a different director, spiking the series with an intriguing range of voices and styles. This keeps the stories fresh and engaging, where they could otherwise just pile up and harden like a lead ball in the pit of your stomach. It’s fascinating, and a little nausea-inducing, to see how those at the top of the capitalist food chain look at the law as just another hurdle on the way to the next big payday. It’s satisfying to see justice fall heavy on those guilty of such extreme greed … that is, when it does.
In one word: gratifying
The Bleeding Edge (2018)
You know those class action lawsuit commercials that play between The View segments? This documentary will give you a new respect for them. The Bleeding Edge exposes the sordid underbelly of the medical device market that convinces about 70 million American per year that they need some kind of apparatus implanted into their body. This multi-billion-dollar industry does some good, but a whole lot of harm, shilling products, and procedures that, in many cases, haven’t even been properly tested. Revealing the complicity between the medical device industry and the community of healthcare practitioners and even the FDA, who refused to be interviewed for this film, The Bleeding Edge offers, if nothing else, a good reason to take better care of yourself.
In one word: outrageous
A searing work from Ava DuVernay, 13th shines a Klieg light on a twisted interpretation of the Constitution’s thirteenth amendment. Turns out that the amendment that abolished slavery included a little loophole. It actually permits the practice of slavery in certain contexts, including — ready for this? — prison confinement. Taken together with the fact that American prisons are overwhelmingly populated by African-American men, it may be a good idea to have a notepad and a rag next to you as you watch this film: one to take down choice phrases for inclusion in a strongly worded letter to your congressman, the other to chew on as the injustice gets your blood boiling. Don’t just take our word for it; the National Review called 13th “politically correct” and “cowardly,” which may be all the endorsement this film needs.
In one word: galvanizing
Thrilling, funny, and completely unpredictable, Icarus had an award-winning debut at the Sundance Film Festival in 2017, wowed audiences around the world, and took home an Oscar. The film starts off as one of those personal experimentation docs, in which filmmaker Bryan Fogel goes all Morgan Spurlock on the competitive cycling world. That is to say, he shoots himself full of performance-enhancing drugs. That would have been interesting enough, but then Fogel stumbles into contact with the guy who oversees state-sanctioned doping for the Russian Olympic team. In other words, you go from personal experiment to inside sports to political conspiracy expose, all in just two very quick hours.
In one word: unpredictable
With his legend refreshed by a series of scandalous pull quotes circulated around the internet, the time was just right for a documentary on iconic musician and producer Quincy Jones. Despite a running time of two hours, this film barely manages to pack in Jones’ full curriculum vitae. Watching a workaholic in action has never been so compelling, nor so joy-inducing.
In one word: toe-tapping
Studio 54 (2018)
If you like looks behind the curtain, there’s no curtain more tantalizing than the epicenter of 1970s hedonism. Framed by interviews of club co-owner Ian Schrager, speaking about his club for the first time ever, and featuring never-before-seen footage from inside the notoriously exclusive club, there’s one thing prominently missing from this otherwise comprehensive history of the storied disco club: disco music. Thank goodness. While not a “feel-good” in the strictest sense, this doc is the guiltiest of guilty pleasures.
In one word: debaucherous
Expedition Happiness (2017)
Determined cynics need not apply. Expedition Happiness follows the journey of an artsy young couple and their dog across North America in a refurbished school bus. Best watched during a cold winter morning while eating brunch under an afghan with your significant other, the doc leads viewers through breathtaking natural settings from Banff National Park to Death Valley, but the real heart of the story centers around Rudi, the dog, whose story arc shapes what would otherwise be just a millennial couple’s vacation vlog.
In one word: heartwarming
The Toys That Made Us (2018)
While this docuseries will most definitely revive some beloved memories of playing with Legos, G.I. Joes and My Little Pony, The Toys That Made Us builds some very non-schmaltzy nuance around those memories by telling you how, why and by whom those toys were made. (He-Man and Battle Cat were invented by a marketing team on the verge of a breakdown; Barbie was based on a German comic strip.) It’s a great way to beef up your nostalgia with some meaningful nerdery. It’s like watching Saturday morning cartoons, except it makes you feel smarter.
In one word: nostalgic
Religion and Conspiracy
One of Us (2017)
It should be noted that One of Us is not exactly sympathetic to the culture of Hasidim, the branch of Orthodox Judaism known best among the outside world for its round beaver hats and its ubiquity around Williamsburg. Another major feature of Hasidism, according to this film, is its insistence that those within the community stay there. The documentary follows three defectors from the religion — one a housewife, one a would-be actor, one a teenager — with special attention to the discoveries they make (cheeseburgers, cocaine, the Bee Gees) and the things they leave behind (families, personal history, legal rights).
In one word: empathetic
Behind the Curve (2018)
The snarky title of this documentary says it all: Flat Earthers (i.e., people who opine that the Earth is flat, rather than round) defend their beliefs; laughter ensues. Highlights include the explanation of a conspiracy theory that science is out to fool us all, and referring to astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson as “He Who Must Not Be Named.”
In one word: head-scratching
Holy Hell (2016)
Variety called this insider portrait of West Hollywood’s Buddhafield cult “one of the decade’s strangest and most unsettling documentaries.” It’s an apt description for Holy Hell, in that it’s a documentary made by a guy who was not only a member of the cult but even served as its official videographer. (Why do these organizations always want someone to film them? Haven’t they learned by now that never works out in their favor?) More than just another scandalous inside look at where spiritual manipulation can take the human spirit, the documentary offers a real understanding of how otherwise rational humans can let themselves be taken there.
In one word: disturbing
Wild Wild Country (2018)
This Emmy-winning Wild Wild Country traces the growth of a happy little cult in India into a manipulative juggernaut based in rural Oregon. You have to keep reminding yourself while watching that no, this group doesn’t end up taking over the world … because it definitely seems like they could. The weirdest part is that life in this cult doesn’t seem half bad — at the same time, it’s hard to square the organic farming and the free love with an attempt to poison Oregon’s municipal water supply. Perfectly described by the New Yorker as “a tabloid epic,” this one will keep you up way past your bedtime for just one more episode.
In one word: trippy
De Palma (2015)
Most of the time, films about filmmakers are the type of documentaries that only the most devoted cinephile could love — a series of celebrity talking heads telling assorted “here’s what it was like on set” stories. De Palma, by contrast, is simply Brian De Palma explaining Brian De Palma. Filmed by nostalgic quirkmaster Noah Baumbach, the legendary director walks the audience one by one through his legendary film canon (Carrie, The Untouchables, Scarface) while reflecting on being the oft-forgotten name amongst a school of Hollywood’s most luminous directors.
In a word: definitive
The Trader (Sovdagari) (2018)
Clocking in at just 25 minutes, this portrait of daily life in the Republic of Georgia might be the shortest distance between entitlement and gratitude you’ll encounter all year. The Trader follows Gela, an old man who scavenges his neighborhood for potatoes, the principal currency of this poverty-stricken community, and trades them for other necessities. (A woman offers him money for potatoes; he turns her down.) Winner of Sundance’s short film jury award, this documentary will at least get your mind off all the things you don’t have; at best, it may inspire you to share with those in need.
In one word: gut-wrenching
Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond (2017)
If you’ve been wondering what the hell happened to Jim Carrey over the last 10 years or so (the beard! the incomprehensible ideology!), you obviously haven’t seen Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond. What happened to him is that he played surreal 1970s comic Andy Kaufman in Milos Forman’s 1999 film Man On the Moon, and it seems to have irrevocably altered his state of mind. Perhaps aware of the effect this role was having on his psyche, Carrey commissioned a film crew to take some behind-the-scenes footage during shooting. That footage was discovered by yet another filmmaker (it’s starting to feel like a hall of mirrors in here) and turned into a documentary that features interviews with the cast and crew of Man On the Moon, including Carrey himself, whose meticulous explanation of his own madness reads as simultaneously creepy and pitiful.
In one word: enlightening
Follow This (2018)
If, like me, you’ve been fascinated by Buzzfeed’s rise from a clickbait wormhole into a, like, pretty legitimate news site, Follow This will pique your interest. The series follows Buzzfeed reporters as they delve into weird pockets of the internet: ASMR videos, black survivalists, men’s rights activists, etc. The 20-minute episodes don’t allow for the deepest probing, but that’s part of the charm. It’s less about getting to the bottom of any niche topic and more of a fascinating look at stuff that’s out there that you’d never otherwise know about.
In one word: intriguing
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