Five Of The Best Documentaries On Netflix

500 Days Of Film Reviews Five Brilliant Documentary Films On Netflix

Netflix is one of the best (online) places to go if you fancy watching a documentary (film or series, feature-length or short). However, the streaming service doesn’t often flag up the docs it offers. 


As a result, many documentary film gems could slip through the net. Just don’t let that happen to these five awesome movies... 



Senna follows Ayrton Senna’s racing career from the very beginning of his involvement in Formula One (F1). Asif Kapadia’s film takes us through Senna’s meteoric rise to the very top of his sport - despite the politics that often got in the way.


The documentary also looks at how much Senna’s success meant to the people in his home country of Brazil - many of whom were living in extreme poverty and deprivation at the time. 


There is high, high drama here and controversy on top of controversy. The film is just so incredibly powerful and compelling - it is a masterclass in storytelling. Each piece of archive footage is perfectly balanced. Each segment of commentary (from all of the key players) takes the story forward towards the inevitable, tragic end. 


Indeed, the conclusion of Senna’s story looms large over every scene. It offers a glimpse into a world where such high risks are taken in the name of sport. Every driver appears more than aware of the potential for accidents and injuries. None more so than Senna who was often the first to speak up about issues of safety. However, each man is driven to compete - and to push themselves past the very limits of racing. 


As the film approaches its end, I always find myself desperately wishing for a different outcome. Of course, that was not to be. 



On 1st August 1966, a sniper opened fire from the top floor of the University of Texas Tower, holding the campus hostage for 96 minutes. When the gunshots finally ended, 16 people were dead and three dozen were left wounded.


Moving, innovative and terrifying, Keith Maitland’s superb documentary, Tower, tells the untold stories of the witnesses, heroes and survivors of America’s first mass school shooting.


The film combines archival footage with rotoscopic animation - the action performed by a cast of young actors, based on the actual interviews of living survivors. The use of rotoscopic animation is extremely effective - drawing you into an even more intimate relationship with the people on screen.


Strong Island

Strong Island chronicles the arc of a family across history, geography and tragedy - from the racial segregation of the Jim Crow South to the promise of New York City; from the presumed safety of middle class suburbs, to the maelstrom of an unexpected, violent death. 


This is the story of the Ford family: Barbara Dunmore, William Ford and their three children and how their lives were shaped by the enduring shadow of race in America. 


In April 1992, on Long Island NY, William Jr., the Ford’s eldest child, a black 24 year-old teacher, was killed by Mark Reilly, a white 19-year-old mechanic. Although Ford was unarmed, he became the prime suspect in his own murder. 


Strong Island asks what one can do when the grief of loss is entwined with historical injustice, and how one grapples with the complicity of silence, which can bind a family in an imitation of life, and a nation with a false sense of justice.


I defy anyone not to be gripped by Yance Ford’s documentary. Within minutes, I certainly was. While films exploring racism and injustice are (sadly) no longer rare, this feels different. Strong Island’s raw emotional intensity (driven by Ford’s uncompromising to camera interviews) is incredibly powerful, thought-provoking and deeply moving.



Restrepo chronicles the deployment of a platoon of US soldiers in Afghanistan's Korengal Valley. The movie focuses on a remote 15-man outpost, “Restrepo,” named after a platoon medic who was killed in action. It was considered one of the most dangerous postings in the US military. 


Over the course of 15 months filmmakers, Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger (author of The Perfect Storm), lived with the unit and shadowed their every move. As a result, Restrepo features some truly extraordinary footage.


Restrepo is a film that attacks your senses. You feel the danger and the dust of the valley and you also see how beautiful the location can be when the fighting stops. The sound during the gun battles is breathtaking. The sound is real, the fighting is real - the loss is all too real.



In 13th, director, Ava DuVernay, explores the issue of mass incarceration in the United States and the insidious evolution of slavery.


13th starts by addressing a truly stunning statistic. The US - often called the land of the free - has the highest incarceration rate in the world. Even more shocking is the fact that one in three black males in America will go to prison at some point during their lives. That's compared to one in 17 white men.  


DuVernay’s documentary looks at what lies behind this discrepancy. A series of fascinating experts and academics explain how, after years of fighting for freedom and equality, black communities are still waiting for change.


Over To You...

What do you think of this list of documentary films on Netflix?


What is your favourite?


Let me know in the comments section below or over on Twitter. You can find me @500DaysOfFilm.


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Jane Douglas-Jones
Jane Douglas-Jones



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