Once again, Netflix is an My Octopus Teacher won, but Netflix also won with Icarus a few years back. Which all serves to highlight one fact: has the best documentaries in the game. We’ve decided to highlight some of our favourites.. This year
They’re in no particular order, and it’s impossible to represent the broad spectrum of what’s available. We’ve just called out the documentaries we think you can’t miss.
My Octopus Teacher
My Octopus Teacher follows Craig Foster, a filmmaker who spent a year snorkelling and interacting with an octopus off the coast of South Africa. It’s a nature film, sure, but it’s simultaneously a documentary designed to inspire awe in the viewer. In short, octopi are incredible. Little aliens on Earth, essentially. This is the story of a relationship between humans and nature but it’s also an inspiring call to action: Don’t ignore the wonder that exists all around you.
This Is A Robbery
This Is A Robbery is about Netflix as it gets. A four-part series focusing on the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, this is essentially a documentary about an art heist. Remember Evil Genius? (Which is also on this list.) This Is A Robbery is very much in that style. The first episode takes a while to get going, but be patient — this one has a pay off.
Murder Among the Mormons
Some of Netflix’s more recent true crime documentaries have been a bit bloated and… sorta bad?
Thankfully Murder Among the Mormons is a return to form. Definitely watch this one.
Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal
Recently released, Operations Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal has a name as long as some of Netflix’s recent documentaries. Thankfully, this isn’t as bloated as, say, the recent Cecil Hotel docu, but it could still use some trimming.
Operation Varsity Blues focused on the FBI investigation into college admissions that put actress Felicity Huffman into jail. Its director Chris Smith previously worked on the Fyre Festival documentary. This isn’t quite as compelling, but is still well worth watching.
The Last Dance
In 2020, in the midst of a pandemic, Netflix dropped this piece of sports doc perfection.
The Last Dance focuses on the Chicago Bulls during their 97-98 NBA title winning season, but really it’s a jumping off point for a documentary that tells the life story of its central star, Michael Jordan.
As a result, many criticized it for being a little too Jordan-focused, but The Last Dance was an event documentary that lived up to the hype.
Time may dull its impact, but when Tiger King was first released on Netflix, the entire world couldn’t stop talking about it.
It’s a show that moves rapidly from the bizarre to the downright unbelievable. Tiger King explores the strange underbelly of big cat breeding, focusing on a cast of unforgettable (and ultimately dangerous) characters. It drags its audience to weird places. Completely unforgettable.
This Oscar-winning documentary is an absolute belter.
Icarus starts out as an expose on the impact performance-enhancing drugs have on sports performance, but a sequence of events drags director Bryan Fogel into a web of geopolitics and conspiracies. To say more would spoil it, but Fogel ultimately has created a documentary that had a very real impact on our perception of sports as a whole. In that respect, Icarus is a literal game changer.
Released in Feb 2021, Pele is a fantastic look at the World Cup run of one of the most celebrated soccer players in all of history.
Best of all, this is a documentary that doesn’t pull punches. It asks hard questions of Pele, including his silence during a military coup that transformed Brazil into a dictatorship for decades. It’s about soccer, for sure, but Pele’s history is the history of an entire country, this documentary understands that.
Knock Down the House
Regardless of your views on Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Knock Down The House is an incredible underdog story that cannot be missed. Focusing on progressive female candidates during the 2018 congressional primary campaigns, it’s an insightful look at the democratic process. It’s an inspiring reminder that we need to fight in order to make the voices of ordinary people count.
The true crime documentary genre is utterly saturated at this point, but The Staircase stands out.
Focusing on Michael Peterson and the death of his wife Kathleen, The Staircase is more than just a murder mystery. It’s a drawn-out epic that takes place over literal decades, a documentary that follows Peterson and examines his every move, but somehow still remains objective.
David Attenborough nature documentaries are so ubiquitous they’re vulnerable to self parody, but Our Planet is — I believe — the high watermark. Only Planet Earth, another Attenborough docu, comes close. But I prefer this one.
Wild Wild Country
Overlong and bloated, Wild Wild Country is nevertheless one of the most fascinating documentaries I’ve ever watched on Netflix.
It tells the story of Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajnees, who attempted to build a gigantic sprawling commune, for what was essentially a sex cult, in the United States. It’s a strange story that somehow becomes stranger with age. Much like Tiger King the story plumbs depths you won’t believe. At times it’s a slog, but Wild Wild Country is absolutely worthwhile.
Sunderland ‘Til I Die
Prime Video gives you access to the (admittedly) great All or Nothing series, which gives you behind the scenes access to top Premier League clubs like Man City and Spurs, but both of those come across buffed and polished. You never really get true behind the scenes access.
Sunderland ‘Til I Die is different. It’s gritty, brutal and gives you access to the worst parts of what it means to run a soccer team. It almost hurts to watch.
Making A Murderer
With the swathe of true crime documentaries and podcasts that came in its wake, it’s easy to forget that the world once lost its collective mind over Making A Murderer. In a lot of ways it created the template that many Netflix documentaries now follow. A real original.
Five Came Back
I absolutely adore this documentary. Five current acclaimed directors (including Steven Spielberg and Francis Ford Coppola) help tell the story of five famous movie directors from the ’30s and ’40s who did frontline work during the Second World War. It wraps their legacies alongside the impact of the war itself into a truly compelling story of Hollywood’s golden age.
I’ve watched plenty of true crime documentaries on Netflix, but nothing has come close to The Keepers. A staggering story, told across generations, that’s respectful of the victims, yet compelling throughout.
It’s a story about the unsolved murder of Catherine Cesnik, a nun who taught at a Catholic school in Baltimore, but The Keepers goes further than you might expect and exposes a potential cover up of sex abuse allegations.
13th by Ava Duvernay is a staggering documentary that tells the story of American slavery and its long-lasting impacts, many of which still resonate today.
In the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, this should be mandatory viewing.
Challenger: The Final Flight
This look at the explosion of NASA’s Space Shuttle Challenger doesn’t bring anything new to the table, but it is a well-produced, well-made look back at the tragic events of 1986.
It does great work, with great access and some intimate interviews with those left behind. Well worth a watch.
The Speed Cubers
If you’re looking for a slightly more uplifting documentary, you could do far worse than The Speed Cubers, a look at the world of competitive rubix… cubers?
Athlete A is a great feature length expose on Larry Nassar, the team doc of US Gymnastics, who had been sexually abusing female athletes for decades.
Be warned: This one is harrowing.
Who Killed Little Gregory
Who Killed Little Gregory is a documentary focused on the horrific murder of Grégory Villemin. It’s arguably the best true crime documentary on Netflix. It’s about a murder, and attempts to solve that murder, but it’s also a lesson in media representation and the horrific sexism Grégory’s mother had to face in the wake her own son’s murder.
Another Oscar winner for Netflix, this documentary is the first produced by Barack and Michelle Obama’s Higher Ground Productions team.
American Factory tells the story of Fuyao, a Chinese company that built a factory in Ohio that inhabits a now-closed General Motors plant. You have to watch this movie.
American Murder: The Family Next Door
There are a lot of true crime documentaries out there (and on this list) but American Murder: The Family Next Door sticks out.
It tells the story of Chris Watts, a seemingly regular guy who murdered his wife and children. The access to footage is staggering and it’s edited and produced in a unique way, using text messages and social media posts to tell the story. It’s a horrific reminder of the banal, incredibly common existence of domestic violence.
Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich
By this point we all have some sort of understanding of Jeffrey Epstein’s story but Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich does itself a great service by focusing on the stories of the survivors of his abuse.
Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened
Hulu also has a great Fyre festival documentary, but I prefer this Netflix one. Unlike many Netflix documentaries, which are stretched and bloated into multi-part episodes, this documentary is sharp, direct and solid gold the entire way through.
What Happened, Miss Simone?
Not gonna say much here. Nina Simone is a legend and this is maybe one of the best documentaries I’ve ever seen.
A lot of people have forgotten about this documentary but it’s a humdinger. Amanda Knox focuses on the famous murder Knox was accused of. But beyond that, this docu is a great examination of how media reporting can skew a case. The sexism here was fairly brutal.
Telling the bizarre story of the “pizza bomber”, Evil Genius is definitely one of those docu-series that should have been a movie, but it’s compelling nonetheless. It thrives by focusing on the characters behind the crime. Well worth a gander.
The Great Hack
In the wake of the Capitol siege, the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica controversy almost feels like ancient history, but that doesn’t make this documentary any less important. If you haven’t seen it, then watch it.