Documentaries can offer a fascinating break from the usual fare of scripted shows that Netflix has to offer. Whether you’re looking to learn something new or just delve into a world of drama and intrigue, Netflix has something for everyone by offering with a wide range of critically acclaimed documentaries. Whether it’s crime or nature, scandal or science, there’s bound to be something to draw your fancy with these 31 best documentaries available now on Netflix.
Everyone with a Netflix subscription has probably seen Tiger King by now after it shot to social media heights during the start of the pandemic last year. But on the off chance your one of the five people that didn’t catch it the first time around, it’s still available and simply must be seen to be believed.
What begins as an exposé on the illegal, or at best semi-legal, sale of exotic animals, devolves into something else entirely when the filmmakers meet the customers. Centering around Joe Exotic, Tiger King ends up telling the tale of rival private zoos, their appalling conditions for both animals and staff and their bitter hatred of each other and it just spirals out from there.
Hot Girls Wanted
Comedy actress Rashida Jones turns documentary filmmaker following an online exchange about the pornification of pop culture. Jones looks to dive deeper into the porn industry with this documentary speaking to the people behind it and the girls who choose to do it. What’s uncovered is a dangerously unregulated industry that chews up and spits out hundreds of 18-year-old girls a year.
Exploring the abuse towards women that has become the basis for some of the most popular porn on the internet and sometimes borders on forced consent behind the scenes. Jones re-visits the industry in follow up series Hot Girls Wanted: Turned On which explores other facets of the industry including women who do porn for empowerment, also available on Netflix.
Bob Lazar: Area 51 & Flying Saucers
Ever wonder if we’re not alone in the universe? Bob Lazar claims to have the proof you’re looking for in one of the most compelling conspiracy efforts around. Lazar claims to have been employed by Area 51 during the 1980s and claims he was brought in to reverse engineer alien technology.
Lazar is a known whistle-blower, who also has a couple of criminal convictions to his name prior to the documentary but he does make some convincing arguments that warrant questioning. In particular his reference to an alien fuel source named element 115 that the government were allegedly trying to synthesize.
Probably the most hard-hitting documentary about the food industry since the infamous Food Inc, Seaspiracy is now turning a new generation of viewers vegetarian. One of the most recent entries on this list, only being released in March this year, Seaspiracy takes aim specifically at the fishing industry and how it’s destroying our oceans.
The film covers a broad range of environmental issues including plastic pollution, ghost nets and of course, overfishing. Pointing the finger somewhat at its audience and advocating for an end to marine life consumption altogether. The producer’s first film Cowspiracy is also available on Netflix, focusing more on the agricultural industry.
Louis Theroux: Savile
Louis Theroux has become something of a cult figure for his intense documentaries, several of which are available on Netflix. Whilst any of his offerings provide adequate food for thought it’s his investigation on infamous TV host Jimmy Savile that’s probably the most impactful. In it, Theroux interviews a number of the victims who were abused by Savile during his life.
Theroux had already interviewed Savile fifteen years earlier, a long time before any allegations came to light, where Theroux touched on Savile’s ‘enigmatic sex life’ without getting to the core of anything. Louis Theroux: Savile, therefore, serves almost as a catharsis for Theroux, although he has stated he has no regrets about his earlier work, he just wished he had more to go on at the time.
The Last Dance
One of the more uplifting documentaries on Netflix and a must-watch for all basketball fans. The Last Dance follows the career of legendary baller Michael Jordan with a particular focus on his last season with the Chicago Bulls in 1997-1998. Featuring interviews with other icons of the era and never before seen footage of a highly successful season for Jordan, for which he was awarded his fifth and final, Most Valuable Player Award.
Another social media darling, Fyre tells the tale of the infamous Fyre Festival that promised travelers the experience of a lifetime only to leave them stranded in emergency relief tents on an empty island. Convicted conman Billy McFarland pulls off one of the grifts of the century all captured on film. Convincing rapper Ja Rule to co-organize and a host of top influencers like Emily Ratajkowski and Kendall Jenner to promote the ultimate festival on a private island. McFarland even manages to book major acts like Disclosure, Pusha T and Blink 182.
It’s almost like a car crash in that you can’t look away as the whole event implodes on itself, but rather than refunding the $1500 tickets, McFarland flies attendees out anyway knowing they’ll be stranded with no event to be seen.
One of the best real-life murder mystery series on Netflix, covering a case that spans 11 years, with three more episodes added by Netflix in 2018. The documentary crew was initially brought in by the defendant Michael Peterson to cover his side of the story as he is paranoid about being railroaded after his wife is mysteriously found dead at the bottom of the staircase whilst they’re home alone.
The case twists and turns with everything from a previous acquaintance of Michael’s who died in exactly the same way years before to some dubious police work and mysterious fire poker. Even by the end of it, the audience is left to make their own mind up about what happened that night, with so much left unanswered. An un-included theory involving an owl that serves as an extra on Netflix certainly provides a compelling new focus as well.
Behind the Curve
Flat-earthers are a surprisingly emerging bunch, with more and more people seemingly moving over to the long disproved conspiracy theory in recent years. Behind the Curve takes a look and some prominent figures within the community and asks why they believe what they do? The documentary even features a couple of budding scientists who design and conduct an elaborate experiment to prove the earth is flat to the film crew, with limited success.
One of the more stylized documentaries on Netflix from acclaimed documentary filmmaker Asif Kapadia the man behind Senna and Amy. Kapadia returns the medium of sport to get an up close and personal look at one of the most recognizable faces it has to offer, Cristiano Ronaldo. It’s a voyeuristic look at the Portuguese superstar exploring his family life and what it takes to remain at the top of such a fiercely competitive sport.
Another devastating look at the way we treat marine life this time with a focus on the entertainment industry. Blackfish shot to critical acclaim when it was first released in 2013 and is still available to watch on Netflix. The film centers on Tilikum a captive Orca who is used to perform at SeaWorld and at the point of filming is responsible for three separate deaths at the park. The film argues the conditions for such a large creature are inhumane, suggesting that’s what’s lead to Tilikum’s aggressive behavior.
My Octopus Teacher
A more humbling story of the sea, My Octopus Teacher features a chance encounter with an octopus and the unlikely friendship that forms as a result of it. Naturalist and documentary filmmaker Craig Foster is recording marine life off the coast of South Africa in what begins as a normal day until a curious octopus draws his attention. Foster revisits the kelp forest every day forming a bond with the octopus and documenting the rest of her life. My Octopus Teacher won the academy award for the best documentary feature in 2021.
Jeffery Epstein: Filthy Rich
Most people probably know the name of Jeffery Epstein after he appeared in the news a lot in 2019. Due to his infamously clandestine nature though, those news stories only scratch the surface of his decades of illicit activities. From allegations of fraud all the way to a child molestation ring, Epstein’s influence runs sickeningly deep.
What makes him such a controversial figure beyond his crimes is his close connections to wealthy elites including Donald Trump, Bill Clinton and Prince Andrew, many of whom he hosted on his private island where he routinely groomed underage girls. Jeffery Epstein: Filthy Rich tells the full story of what he did and how he got away with it for so long.
Netflix has a variety of Explained series’ covering topics such as sex and money. All offer inciteful analysis but the pick of the bunch is probably Mind Explained that covers the human psyche and mental health. Featuring the familiar narration of Oscar-winning actress Emma Stone, Mind Explained looks in depth at the inner workings of our brains, exploring among other things what dreams are? And how anxiety affects us?
Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel
One of the most bizarre mysteries of the 21st century gets the Netflix treatment in Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel. The series explores the death of Elisa Lam and young Canadian women who went mysteriously missing at checking into Cecil Hotel. CCTV footage showed Lam acting strangely in the lift as if she is hiding from someone in the last recorded footage of the 21-year-old. Her body was later found in the water tank on top of the roof. She appeared to have removed all of her clothes inside the tank and left them floating next to her.
It remains unclear how she got into the tank but the crime was officially designated accidental death. To make matters more mysterious the hotel has a storied history of bizarre deaths and suicides occurring there leading many to suggest paranormal activity at the site.
If that’s not enough to whet your appetite for mystery Netflix also has two series’ of Unsolved Mysteries available. A revival of the classic format that began in 1987, each episode takes a look at a different crime that remains unsolved to this day and asks anyone with information regarding the events to come forward. Highlights include a man who suffered an impossible fall through a hotel roof after leaving a cryptic handwritten note hidden in his home, seemingly for his spouse. And an enigmatic woman with no identification who appeared to have been assassinated in her hotel room in Oslo.
The Social Dilemma
Social media platforms are at best a mixed blessing and are ever-present in the lives of billions of people worldwide. The Social Dilemma takes a critical stance on tech giants and looks at the way the platforms are designed to exploit the consumers. Covering a wide range of controversies the likes of Facebook have faced including using gambling mechanics to make their platform addictive, unfairly influencing global elections and becoming a hotbed for misinformation and cyberbullying. The film attempts to draw parallels between the rise of social media and teen suicide rates, questioning the impact sites have on our mental health.
The Great Hack
Speaking of social media scandals The Great Hack weaves a thought-provoking narrative about the sheer levels of control sites like Facebook wield, in particular relation to the Cambridge Analytica scandal. The shadowy corporation used consumers data to weaponize political advertising for maximum effect.
Targeting people who had the potential to harbor bias through fear or some other means, the company ran aggressive and often misleading political adverts in a bid to sway voters over to whichever side was paying. The most prominent campaigns ran by the company were two of recent history’s most controversial, the 2016 Presidential Election in which they supported Donald Trump and the Brexit Referendum in which they supported leave. Delivering victory on both counts.
Knock Down The House
The landscape of politics has shifted greatly since the 2008 financial crash with the rise of populist and often authoritarian leaders happening simultaneously worldwide. As it often tends to do, this how also elicited a significant response from the other side with progressive and socialist politics being brought to the forefront of the conversation.
Knock Down The House follows a number of progressive hopefuls as they bid to remove stagnant figures from office and replace them with young voices hoping to once again change the course of politics. The primary focus is of course on Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as against all odds she beats Chair of the House Democratic Caucus Joe Crowley in the election to become the youngest woman ever to serve in Congress.
Surviving R Kelly
Surviving R Kelly documents a cycle of abuse orchestrated by iconic RnB artist R Kelly against a host of women in his life. Interviewing some of R Kelly’s victims and their families as well as R Kelly’s own family, the documentary, unfortunately, leaves large questions hanging over the industry as a whole as it exposes one of its worst-kept secrets.
Employees, producers and record labels are all seemingly complicit as R Kelly grooms underage girls and conditions them for years of abuse. The film crew also do a fair job at humanizing R Kelly covering his own history of abuse and bullying from his childhood, whilst remaining respectful to the damage he does to dozen of others throughout his illustrious career.
Sunderland ‘Till I Die
Behind-the-scenes sports documentaries are a popular medium with plenty of world-class clubs allowing a peek behind the scenes in recent years. One of the most fascinating stories comes from an unlikely source though in English League side Sunderland AFC.
The documentary begins with the club having just been relegated after a decade in the Premier League and follows their journey as they bid for a quick return to arguably the best league in all of world football. What transpires though, is a season of scandal and bad business decisions as the club is laid bare. Tumbling from one disaster to the next, the filmmakers inadvertently caught lighting with this tale as the club ends up suffering a second successive relegation.
The first film from former president Barack Obama’s production company, American Factory tells the tale of a Chinese owned factory that sets up shop in Ohio. People are probably familiar with the concept of outsourcing factories to China but it’s not that often you hear of Chinese billionaires operating the other way.
The film begins optimistically as the abandoned General Motors plant is repurposed, offering thousands of jobs to the local community. But the different cultures are brought to a head as working-class America clashes with the Chinese business in another Academy Award winning feature.
Another major scandal provides another compelling backdrop, this time focused on the Russian doping scandal that marred the Winter Olympic Games in 2014. In the wake of an ongoing doping scandal, Bryan Fogel sets out to discover how easy it would be to get away with cheating in major sporting events. He enlists the help of Russian scientist Grigory Rodchenkov to help him falsify results for an upcoming cycling event.
When Rodchenkov’s life comes under threat for a role he played in the 2014 Winter Olympic scandal, the film pivots as he flees Russia to join up with Fogel in America. Rodchenkov blows the whistle on the whole investigation including the elaborate method which they employed to fool a relentlessly efficient Olympic Committee. The film was another to win the Academy Award for best documentary feature.
Athlete A follows a team of investigative reporters from the Indianapolis Star as they break one of the stories of the century in the USA Gymnastics sex abuse scandal. Uncovering details from the victims of the USA National Team doctor Larry Nassar who was alleged to have assaulted more than 368 people. A deeper dive into how Nassar was able to get away with it for two decades and how predatory coaches were moved from gym to gym also reveals further details of a significant cover-up.
The Lost Pirate Kingdom
A dramatized take on the traditional documentary format using actors to play significant roles but the series is no less fascinating for those wishing to learn more about the golden age of piracy and the real-life pirates of the Caribbean. Following the journey of Benjamin Hornigold and the establishment and subsequent collapse of the pirate republic in Nassau. The series also chronicles key figures of the time such as Black Sam Bellamy, Anne Bonny and Edward ‘Blackbeard’ Thatch.
Hitler’s Circle of Evil
Another dramatized docu-series for history buffs to sink their teeth into this time covering the rise and fall of Hitler and the Third Reich. One of the most infamous figures in all of history, Hitler’s Circle of Evil explains how Hitler rose to power in a still-fledgling German nation, covering the events of World War 2 and Hitler’s deepening descent into madness.
The surprisingly zen format of nature documentaries has made them almost a subgenre of their own and at the pinnacle of that genre in David Attenborough. Our Planet is one of Attenborough’s best works to date as he captures nature at its most awe-inspiring. Attenborough also addresses some hard-hitting topics like climate change other negative humans impacts on the natural environment to provide some food for thought for his audience.
The Disappearance of Madeline McCann
12 years on from the incident, director Chris Smith takes a fresh look at the still unsolved Madeline McCann case. The Disappearance of Madeline McCann also explores the media’s response and the criminal investigation that took place in the aftermath of the incident. As well as revisiting the build-up and events of the night in question that three-year-old Madeline McCann vanishes from her hotel room in Praia Da Luz in Portugal.
Amanda Knox conducts interviews with Amanda as well as her ex-boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito who were both convicted and later acquitted of the murder of Amanda’s roommate Meredith Kercher. The convictions received international attention with forensic experts taking a critical view of the way the case was handled.
Knox and Sollecito both spent four years in prison for the crime. The film allows the pair to tell their side of the story as well as taking a closer look at the way the case was handled both in court and in the media.
Gaga: Five Foot Two
Enigmatic popstar Lady Gaga invites fans in for an intimate look at her life and the production of her fifth studio album Joanna. Gaga: Five Foot Two adopts a cinéma vérité format, allowing Gaga to be the whole allure without feeling the need to push a particular narrative. Fans of the diva will certainly get a kick out of the feature that also documents Gaga’s Super Bowl performance and debut on the hit TV series American Horror Story.
Another that’s probably more for the fans than anything but never the less an interesting look at the history of video games. The series spans several developers and two decades, offering a behind-the-scenes peek at the creation of some of history’s biggest hits and what made those games so compelling. Video games are now one of the largest forms of media and High Score certainly offers a fascinating take on their journey from obscure fad to mainstream media.