Sometimes you’re just not feeling that next episode of the latest binge-worthy Netflix series. Maybe you want something more thoughtful, enlightening, impactful. Or perhaps you just want a glimpse into someone else’s captivating true story instead of getting immersed in fiction. Whatever the reason for seeking out a stellar documentary film, Netflix certainly delivers.
The streaming platform is brimming with docuseries, biopics, haunting exposes, and startling investigations into everything from cults to corruption. While some aim to surprise, shock or shed light on an unsettling truth, others uplift the human experience through profound relationships between people, animals or the natural world. A number still allow viewers to live vicariously through the creativity, resilience and struggles of famed figures in arts and entertainment.
But with so many options, it’s tricky to know where to start diving in without recommendations from friends (or helpful film critics). Lucky for you, we’ve combed through the best of the best from Netflix’s documentary catalog so you don’t have to. Whether you’re craving a thought-provoking analysis of a deep-rooted societal issue, an emotional character study, jaw-dropping cinematography or just a wildly bizarre ride, there’s a documentary here perfectly suited for any mood. So sit back, pick a title and get ready for Netflix to tell you a true story.
10. Fyre (2019)
Before failed music festivals and internet scams were commonplace, there was Fyre – the luxury experience in the Bahamas that captured the attention of models and influencers but ultimately left attendees stranded with no food, water, or shelter. This 2019 Netflix documentary provides an inside look into the disastrous event and the key players who orchestrated the entire charade.
Through revealing interviews and behind-the-scenes footage, Fyre chronicles the lead-up to the 2017 festival dreamed up by entrepreneur Billy McFarland and promoted on social media by rapper Ja Rule and models like Kendall Jenner. We witness the controlled chaos as the event goes off the rails, with stunned production crews scrambling to deal with mass disorganization and lack of essential festival elements – no stage build, few performers booked, minimal food or housing secured.
Reviews praised Fyre for its wild ride through influencer culture and the empathetic yet critical lens it casts on McFarland amidst his web of lies. Called “an outrageous illustration of gross negligence” by RogerEbert.com yet also “surprisingly moving” in its humanization of its villain, Fyre may epitomize theinternet scam genre, but still shocks with fresh reveals and cringeworthy details. It lands at number 10 for providing relic-esque insight into one of social media’s first real cons – before we became so numb to the next internet sham.
9. Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution (2020)
2020’s Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution takes viewers back to the early days of the disability rights movement by spotlighting Camp Jened, a revolutionary summer camp for teens with disabilities in the late 1960s/early 1970s. With vibrant archival footage and present-day interviews, directors James LeBrecht and Nicole Newnham illustrate how this special community fostered confidence in marginalized youth, propelling many to become activists and pave the way for monumental societal change.
The Obamas’ Higher Ground Productions backed this Sundance winner that critics called both a “case study in activism” and a “badly needed history lesson.” We meet teen campers relishing freedom and play but soon facing harsh realities like inaccessible school bathrooms or denied restaurant service post-Camp Jened. With light shed on these rampant indignities, many spearheaded national action from organizing sit-ins to cementing foundational disability legislation.
Crip Camp insightfully chronicles an essential yet overlooked civil rights movement, earning its rank for proving why “there was no historical precedent for the disability community coming together for their civil rights” until Camp Jened showed what creating an inclusive space could spark. It remains an inspiring call to action to keep advancing access and opportunities for all.
8. My Octopus Teacher (2020)
If Blue Planet met Amélie in an aquatic romance of sorts, you’d get My Octopus Teacher – the unique 2020 documentary charting a complex bond between a man and one of Earth’s most mystifying creatures. The film follows Craig Foster, a South African diver who forms an astonishing connection with an octopus as he swims the kelp forests off the Western Cape coast daily for a year.
Through their breathtaking underwater photography, directors Pippa Ehrlich and James Reed reveal not just an alien-like animal exhibiting shocking intelligence, emotional capacity and personality, but a luminous, hidden wonderland right under the ocean’s surface. We witness ingenious octopus hunting strategies, protective measures for her eggs and ultimately tragedy when the death of this short-lived cephalopod arrives.
Hailed as “mesmerizing” and “magical” by critics, My Octopus Teacher earned raves for its life-affirming message and sumptuous visuals over fast-paced drama. A “meditative marine nature documentary,” it lands at number 8 for presenting interspecies friendship in surreal beauty while spotlighting the fragility of life that often evades notice. You’ll never look at an octopus the same.
7. Dick Johnson is Dead (2020)
What if you could face impending loss on your own terms, even momentarily? Acclaimed cinematographer Kirsten Johnson confronts her elderly father Richard’s dementia diagnosis by envisioning darkly comedic fictional deaths for him in Dick Johnson is Dead. This inventive 2020 Netflix documentary sees Richard gamely act out over-the-top fatal accidents – from tripping down stairs to a falling air conditioner – granting a brief feeling of control for the Johnson family amidst chaos.
Critics praised the film as “provocative and touching” for spotlighting a difficult disease with levity and love. We witness Kirsten and Richard’s poignant outings picking out coffins and envisoning the afterlife through stunning slow motion architectural renderings. By undergoing imagined tragedy, the duo lean into quality time, coming to treasure their remaining days through open dialogue.
Dick Johnson is Dead stands at number 7 for its pitch-black yet thoughtful examination of loss, proving we can find lightness even in life’s darkest moments when approaching them alongside loved ones. As Kirsten says, “We can’t control much of anything, but we can face what happens at the end of our lives” together.
6. Icarus (2017)
Icarus began as simply a hobbyist’s exploration into sports doping only to stumble onto an international scandal that rocked global athletics. In this twisty, stranger-than-fiction 2017 documentary, director and cycling enthusiast Bryan Fogel connects with renegade Russian scientist Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov for tips on using performance enhancers to improve race times undetected for his own experiment. But their correspondence sets off an explosive series of events neither could predict.
As Fogel becomes embroiled in Rodchenkov’s startling firsthand account of Russia’s state-sponsored doping program for Olympic athletes, we witness the chilling fallout once their illicit partnership gets exposed. Fogel shifts gears from enhancing his own amateur cycling to aiding Rodchenkov in leaking confidential documents that confirm Russia’s cheating operation in Sochi – deceit that led to across-the-board Olympic bans. Hailed as a “real-life thriller,” Icarus earned its number 6 spot for proving truth is often far more shocking than fiction through its stranger-than-fiction twists.
5. Bad Vegan (2022)
Con artist stories inevitably fascinate, but Sarma Melngailis’ case proves particularly perplexing. The celebrity restaurateur had New York’s media elite under her spell with Pure Food and Wine, her acclaimed vegan hot spot. But her empire soon crumbled as she funneled its funds toward supporting lavish whims…all at the manipulative behest of her mysteriously controlling husband, Anthony.
Or so argued Netflix’s sensational docuseries Bad Vegan, released in March 2022. Through candid interviews with those scammed, the series chronicled Melngailis’ bizarre downfall – from successful businesswoman to prison inmate brought down by a man who convinced her he could make her beloved pitbull immortal. Critics praised Bad Vegan’s wild true crime premise while scrutinizing its voyeuristic tendencies.
But between the twisted romance, alleged cult indoctrination, and shock-factor moments (see: a $10,000 Postmates order), it’s an addictive descent guaranteed to captivate. Bad Vegan more than earns its place in the top 5 for spinning strangeness into suspense as only the most unbelievable true stories can.
4. Disclosure (2020)
Representation matters – especially when it comes to marginalized groups rarely humanized on screen. Disclosure spotlights Hollywood’s problematic history depicting transgender people in film and TV through the lens of those very actors themselves. Directed by Sam Feder, this illuminating documentary features Laverne Cox, Lilly Wachowski, MJ Rodriguez and others dissecting embarrassing stereotypes or offensive tropes they’ve endured seeing.
But more crucially, the film contextualizes how broader media depictions fuel real-world discrimination, violence and political attacks against trans communities. Interviews underline the culture-shifting power in finally showcasing authentic trans experiences through projects like Pose and Orange is the New Black. Critics praised Disclosure as an “essential” analysis of pop culture power, earning its number four ranking for insightfully breaking down why seeing oneself represented – or misrepresented – on screen profoundly matters in influencing how society treats marginalized groups.
3. American Factory (2019)
In post-industrial Ohio, a shuttered GM plant reopens under Chinese ownership, kickstarting complex cross-cultural clashes in the working class community around it. This premise sparked American Factory, the first documentary released by Barack and Michelle Obama’s production company Higher Ground. Through an even-handed fly-on-the-wall approach, directors Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert observe tensions rise as Chinese executives impose increased demands on American workers struggling to keep newly regained jobs.
Hailed as a “wonderfully human tale” by critics, American Factory intimately spotlights relatable people coping with wrenching economic shifts beyond their control on both sides of the Pacific. We empathize as managers face headaches adjusting leadership styles abroad and laborers push back against declining benefits and wages. The film scored an Oscar nod for tactfully exploring cultural collisions, earning its number three ranking for humanizing issues around globalization’s winners and losers. It offers no easy answers, only prompting thoughtful debate on reconciling differing values for the greater good.
2. Sr. (2021)
Before Iron Man, before the world knew Robert Downey Jr. as one of Hollywood’s highest paid stars, his father Robert Downey Sr. was a renegade presence who shook up countercultural comedy. The elder Downey pioneered irreverent, taboo-smashing indie films like Putney Swope and Greaser’s Palace in the 1960s/1970s that upended propriety and earned him maverick status amongst peers for better or worse.
Documentary Sr. offers an unfiltered, moving portrait of this defiant creative as the uncompromising director navigates life and career while Parkinson’s disease progresses. Produced by his loyal son, the film intersperses Downey Jr.’s memories and home footage with recent visits capturing his ailing yet still puckish dad in candid, vulnerable moments. A bittersweet father-son story emerges through their humorous bantering and raw conversations about divorce, addiction and family reconciliation.
Reviews raved that Sr. doubles as a “moving elegy and a joyful celebration” of the elder Downey’s legacy — one leaving fans like Mel Brooks and Alan Arkin in awe. We gain sincere insight into the different roads this acting dynasty has traveled while they now try to make up for lost time. Most touchingly, Sr. suggests the movie business may separate even the closest families, but the love still comes through on camera decades later. With its rare glimpse behind tinseltown’s curtain revealing the humanity of icons at their most imperfect and sincere, Sr. earns its number two spot for spotlighting enduring bonds in the face of fame and misfortune’s toll.
1. 13th (2016)
How does the United States, land of the free, also maintain the highest incarceration rates worldwide – with Black Americans jailed at nearly five times the rate of whites? Ava DuVernay’s searing 2016 Netflix documentary 13th pulls no punches in connecting the dots from slavery’s official governmental end to the modern prison industrial complex booming today on the backs of people of color.
Named for the Constitutional amendment that abolished slavery “except as punishment for crime,” DuVernay makes an irrefutable case that systemic racism codified into the criminal justice system has birthed new iterations of bondage. Through archival footage and interviews with activists, politicians and former inmates, 13th guides us on a grim chronological tour from Jim Crow statutes to Nixon’s strategic war on drugs to private prisons earning profits off mass detention.
Hailed as a “masterpiece” and DuVernay’s breakout as a premier documentarian, 13th earned raves for constructing an airtight argument impossible to refute. Her searing indictment contends that corporate interests have long benefited from and encouraged the societal structures promoting Black incarceration today. DuVernay ultimately leaves us with a rallying cry and a challenge: dismantle the laws weaponizing racism so all Americans attain equal justice. For urgently pulling back the curtain on coded exploitation that punishes one group to prosper another, 13th earns its place as the number one must-watch.