20 Best Documentaries Streaming on Netflix Now [January 2020]
There’s plenty of films on Netflix, from comedies and dramas to action-adventure, superhero, and so much more. Whether you’re looking for something that keeps you glued to the edge of your seat, makes you hide your face behind your hands in fear, or grab the box of tissues to keep from crying, there’s no shortage of works of fiction on the streaming service. Of course, documentaries can provide much of that same experience, all while challenging your worldview or teaching you about something you never knew.
Whether you like your documentaries about history, nature, entertainment, biography, or social issues, Netflix has you covered. Netflix has a broad selection of great documentaries for everyone. Here are some of the ones we like best, streaming on Netflix now. You may also want to check out our separate list of Netflix’s best crime documentaries.
In 2016, the popular gossip site Gawker shuttered, after years of being unable to maintain the financial costs of a lawsuit brought on by wrestler Hulk Hogan. The film follows the entire saga of this lawsuit, from the original sex tape publication by Gawker to the financial backing of Peter Thiel, all the way through the closure of Gawker Media after filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Much of the narrative follows Thiel’s attempt to take down Gawker after they published an article nine years prior outing him as a gay man. The film then switches narratives, focusing on Sheldon Adelson’s purchase of the Las Vegas Review-Journal while keeping his identity under wraps, eventually being revealed by his own journalists who called their own contacts. The film is timely, if a bit scattershot between the two narratives, but well-worth a watch.
Nina Simone lived an incredible life, one you can find out about in the documentary What Happened, Miss Simone?. The film chronicles her life after becoming a civil rights activist and moving to Liberia following the political unrest of the 1960s. The documentary combines previously unreleased archival footage and interviews with Simone’s daughter and friends. The title of the film was taken from a Maya Angelou quote, and the film was praised by critics following its release.
Roger Stone, known as a master in the dark arts of politics, plants the seeds that allow businessmen and moguls such as Donald Trump to enter the political arena and upend the establishment.Bank, DiMauro and Pehme began filming with Roger Stone in late 2011 after Pehme had met Stone at a political function. Inspired by a New Yorker article by writer Jeffrey Toobin, the filmmakers embarked on a five-year journey to make a documentary about Stone in order to tell the story of his transformative effect on modern politics–which reaches its climax in 2016 with the election of Donald Trump to the Presidency of the United States of America.
The first Netflix Original film to win an Oscar, Icarus is directed by filmmaker Bryan Fogel, following the director as he explores the option to compete in a cycling race while doping. While researching illegal doping, he becomes friends with the Russian doctor that is helping him take performance-enhancing drugs that will prevent him from being caught using them. The doctor, Dr. Rodchenkov, eventually grows to trust Fogel enough to let it slip that Russia is planning on using a state-sponsored Olympic doping program that will allow their athletes to compete at higher levels than other nations. When word slips out to the public about the program, Fogel realizes his friend is in danger, leading to Rodchenkov giving a testimony in the United States once he is flown outside of Russia. The film is thrilling and eye-opening at the world of doping, and is great for fans of documentaries and political thrillers alike.
Marsha P. Johnson earned her place in the activism hall of rights. As an outspoken gay rights activist, Johnson—a self-identified drag queen well before transgender individuals were recognized for their identities, Johnson was a prominent figure in the Stonewall uprising in 1969, and never stopped fighting for the rights of LGBTQ people everywhere. The film, a Netflix original documentary, follows activist Victoria Cruz as she dives into the details and history surrounding the mysterious death of Johnson in 1992, when Johnson was found in the Hudson River after the 1992 Pride Parade. Initially closed as a suicide, the case was reopened by the NYPD in 2012 as a possible homicide following efforts by fellow activist Mariah Lopez. Though the film dedicates a good portion of its running time to identifying how important Johnson is to the movement, the film does a great job at highlighting the efforts of activism in the 1970s through today.
Though originally released in 2017 to little attention or fanfare, Abducted in Plain Sight gained notoriety in early 2019 when it was added to Netflix, exploding in popularity in just a few weeks. The film tells the story of the Broberg family, who experienced a tragedy when 12-year-old Jan was abducted in 1974 after the family was manipulated by a pedophile, Robert “B” Berchtold, who befriended the family. When Jan went missing, the family failed to alert the police for days, assuming that Robert was still a family friend. Making matters worse, when Jan was returned five weeks later, she lied to her parents, explaining nothing happened while she was missing. The film is a tough watch, but if you can stomach it, it’s a gripping documentary that will leave you haunted.
In 1974, two unrelated men disappeared ten months apart from each other in Iceland. One, an 18-year-old man named Guðmundur Einarsson, first disappeared in January, last seen by a motorist. The second, Geirfinnur Einarsson, disappeared in November of the same year after receiving a phone call and driving to a cafe, where he parked his car and wasn’t seen again. Their bodies were never found, but with the police force in Iceland under intense public pressure to solve the case, a group of six young men confessed to the crimes of murder. Despite having no memory of the crimes, the men were arrested, kept in isolation, tortured, denied food and water, and kept from their lawyers. Out of Thin Air follows what happens when the police are desperate enough to find the culprits for crimes that they use techniques to make those crimes come true. It’s shocking, terrifying, and will leave you breathless.
It’s a story you’ve likely seen dramatized before, but told through the light of a Netflix original documentary, becomes far more bone chilling. Taking place in two separate cities in California and Missouri, the film follows Audrie Pott and Daisy Coleman, two teenage girls who were sexually assaulted by people they considered friends after becoming intoxicated at a party. The film follows the aftermath, as both girls endure online harassment in the age of social media, along with bullying from nearly everyone in their towns. The harassment becomes too much for both girls to handle; when they both try to attempt suicide, one of them tragically dies. The film explores sexual assault and the use of social media in bullying and cyberbullying, and what can be done to combat this issues moving forward. It’s a tough watch, but essential in the age of #MeToo.
Most true crime documentaries revolve around murder or other similarly-grim crimes. In the truest sense of that definition of the genre, Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened is not a true crime documentary. There’s no murder to solve, no kidnapping involved in the film. Yet from a certain sense, Fyre tells the story of a white collar crime often not shown in true crime documentaries. Following a scam-filled music festival that preyed on rich millennials on Instagram, the film follows the building of the Fyre Festival, from its induction to the nightmare of its downfall. It’s gained a ton of popularity on social media, and as a Netflix Original, you can catch it anytime streaming on Netflix.
Released two years after the Hollywood-ization of the Foxcatcher tale, Team Foxcatcher is a more-straightforward retelling of the tale, walking through the life of Dave Schultz, the professional wrestler who was part of Team Foxcatcher, originally played by Mark Ruffalo in the film. The film takes a more direct look at the life and death of Schultz, using interviews, news footage, and home video reportings to look at how Schultz’s coach, John du Pont, murdered him in the 1990s. Unfortunately, the creators of this doc were unable to get Mark Schultz (played by Channing Tatum in the film) to appear in the documentary, but the tale is still riveting and great for anyone who loved the 2014 film but wanted something more honest and thorough.
A Netflix original film released in 2017, Casting JonBenet is one of the more unique documentaries featured on this list. While the film does feature and tell the story behind the murder of JonBenet Ramsey, a child beauty queen who was found dead in the basement of her parents’ home eight hours after she was reported missing on Christmas 1996, the film presents the story while featuring the casting of a fictional JonBenet Ramsey film, testing various Colorado-based actors to fill the roles of John and Patsy Ramsey, brother Burke Ramsey, John Mark Karr, a teacher who falsely confessed to the murder, several Boulder police officers and officials and JonBenet herself. Throughout the audition process, the actors reveal their own emotion about the case, offering speculation around who killed JonBenet.
The Pixar Story tells the story of Pixar’s founding and success, from the late 1980s to 2007 when the film was made and released. The Pixar Story follows exactly the story you’d expect it to, acting as a retrospective of Pixar as a humble company pushing the envelope for both animation and technology working together. From creating short films that went on to win Oscars, to releasing the first theatrical-length CGI-animated film in Toy Story, the documentary explores the critical and commercial success of the company leading up to the release of Ratatouille. While Pixar’s 2010s output hasn’t been as highly-rated as their past work, there’s plenty to love above the company—and their films. Any creative-minded youngster will love following the story of this company.
The story of Amanda Knox and the murder of Meredith Kercher is known around the world, and for good reason. The saga, which began when Knox was studying abroad in 2007 as a 20 year old student, took eight years of Knox’s life and irreparably changed her reputation around the world. After being arrested and jailed in Italy for the murder of her roommate, Knox and her boyfriend faced trial against the Italian court system in 2009, convicted for murder and sentenced to twenty-six years in prison. The film follows Knox and her parents’ fight against not just the Italian courts, but the Italian police who are convinced of her guilt from moment one based on assumptions about her behavior and nationality, and the tabloid journalism that adds fuel to the fire of public opinion. Amanda Knox is a haunting documentary on what happens when the entire system turns against you; it’s a must-watch, but will leave you shaken.
This documentary from filmmaker Ava DuVernay promises to explore “the intersection of race, justice and mass incarceration in the United States,” and it sticks the landing. Taking its name from the 13th amendment, which freed the slaves in the United States and prohibited slavery unless as punishment for a crime, the film takes a long, hard look at how the prison system in the United States was built to continue the idea of slavery through the enablement of white police officers to more easily arrest black persons in the USA to force them to work under convict leasing. The result is a chilling documentary that covers Jim Crow laws, the suppression of African Americans by disenfranchisement, and the war on drugs created to target minority communities. The film won an Emmy, and was nominated for an Oscar for Best Documentary.
Using more than 100 interviews with Winehouse’s friends and family, along with extensive, never-before-seen archive footage of the artist, Amy follows the life of singer-songwriter Amy Winehouse, from the formation of her career in 1998 when singing at the birthday party of a friend in Southgate, London, through her release of Frank and Back to Black, all the way to her death in 2011 from alcohol poisoning. The film focuses on her troubled relationships, self-harm, bulimia, the media coverage surrounding her, and her ultimate downfall. The film is notable for the footage used, from her being in a cab with her friend Tyler James in January 2001 to a humorous clip of her talking about Dido in 2004. Closing clips end the film with videos of Winehouse from her early years until her death, with Antonio Pinto’s composition, “Amy Forever”.
Critically-acclaimed upon release, Jiro Dreams of Sushi is one of the great food documentaries of our time. The film follows Jiro Ono (小野 二郎 Ono Jirō), an 85-year-old sushi master and owner of Sukiyabashi Jiro, a Michelin three-star restaurant. Sukiyabashi Jiro is a 10-seat, sushi-only restaurant located in a Tokyo subway station. Jiro Ono serves a tasting menu of roughly 20 courses, for a minimum of ¥30,000 (US$270). The film also profiles Jiro’s two sons, both of whom are also sushi chefs. The younger son, Takashi (隆士), left Sukiyabashi Jiro to open a mirror image of his father’s restaurant in Roppongi Hills. The 50-year-old elder son, Yoshikazu (禎一), obliged to succeed his father, still works for Jiro and is faced with the prospect of one day taking over the flagship restaurant.
Period. End of Sentence. is a documentary short film directed by Rayka Zehtabchi about Indian women leading a quiet sexual revolution. The film stars Arunachalam Muruganantham, Shabana Khan, Gouri Choudari, Ajeya, and Anita. The documentary short follows a group of local women in Hapur, India, as they learn how to operate a machine that makes low-cost, biodegradable sanitary pads, which they sell to other women at affordable prices. This not only helps to improve feminine hygiene by providing access to basic products, but also supports and empowers the women to shed the taboos in India surrounding menstruation–all while contributing to the economic future of their community. The film is inspired from the life of Muruganantham, a social activist from Tamil Nadu, India. Period. End of Sentence. was the winner of the Best Documentary Short award at the 2019 Oscars.
Jim & Andy follows actor Jim Carrey as he remains in character as Andy Kaufman during the production of the 1999 film Man on the Moon, directed by Miloš Forman. The film alternates between contemporary interviews with Carrey and firsthand footage of the making of Man on the Moon almost 20 years earlier. Paired best as a partner film to Man on the Moon, Jim & Andy is affecting as it is alienating. Definitely check this one out.
In 2018, Beyoncé took the stage at Coachella for a historic set over two weekends. Her performance marked the first time an African-American woman headlined the festival, and with the performance streamed online, she received critical praise for the set’s use of honoring black history while performing music from across her entire career. In the Netflix original documentary, Homecoming follows both the concert itself and the behind-the-scenes work put in by Beyoncé and her team to make one of the most legendary concerts in history. Homecoming has already been praised as one of the best concert films ever made, and whether you’re a fan of Beyoncé or not, it’s well worth watching.
In 2018, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez made national news while running for Congress in the 14th District in New York, challenging incumbent Democrat Joe Crowley for the seat in the primary season. Knock Down the House follows her campaign, along with the campaigns of Cori Bush in Missouri, Amy Vilela in Nevada, and Paula Jean Swearengin of West Virginia, as all four women attempt to run for Congress during primaries. Being the only women of the four who won her primary, Ocasio-Cortez takes center stage in this documentary, following her fantastic run into Congress, as well as becoming one of the most popular representatives in the current meeting of Congress.