Top 20 Netflix Documentaries

500 Days Of Film Reviews The Top 20 Documentaries On Netflix

Netflix has upped its content game this year - with greater and, sadly, lesser degrees of success. However, the streaming service truly excels in one movie category - the documentary film genre.


There are, of course, many (many) movies to choose from. To (hopefully) help you narrow down your search, here are my top 20 documentaries (listed in no particular order) currently available on Netflix.   

Top 20 Documentary Films On Netflix

1. Blackfish

Not only is Gabriela Cowperthwaite's Blackfish informative and gripping, but it has also been an impressive force for real change. This powerful documentary follows the story of notorious performing whale, Tilikum. 


2. Cartel Land

Cartel Land is remarkable for the unprecedented (and highly dangerous) access that filmmaker, Matthew Heineman, secured in order to follow two modern-day vigilante groups and their shared enemy – the murderous Mexican drug cartels.


3. Icarus

Icarus is a gripping documentary in two parts. The first follows director Bryan Fogel’s struggle with the prevalence of doping in sport. A committed cycler, the widespread use of performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) makes Fogel question his own cycling performance. Why has he never made it to the top of the cycling pack? Would PEDs have made the crucial difference? 


Fogel’s decision to use himself as a PED guinea pig makes for fascinating and uneasy viewing. In visually stunning scenes, we watch as his performance improves. However, as he injects himself with testosterone, we cannot help but wonder - is this experiment worth the potential cost?


Then, of course, there is the small issue of evading detection. Here, with the arrival of Dr Grigory Rodchenkov (a complex and fascinating character), Icarus changes gear and becomes a shocking expose of statewide doping in Russia.


4. Strong Island

I defy anyone not to be gripped by Yance Ford’s documentary, Strong Island. 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.


5. Unrest

Unrest is a moving and informative documentary about ME/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Director, Jennifer Brea, hopes that by sharing her experiences “we can build a movement to transform the lives of patients with ME; accelerate the search for a cure; and bring a greater level of compassion, awareness, and empathy to the millions upon millions of patients and their loved ones wrestling with chronic illness or invisible disabilities”.


6. Iris

Albert Maysles' documentary, Iris, looks at the life of witty and flamboyant fashionista, Iris Apfel. However, this is much more than just a 'fashion' film. It is about individuality, creativity and passion. Watching Iris look back at her life is fascinating and inspiring.


7. 13th

Ava DuVernay's documentary, 13th, is a thought-provoking film about the criminalisation of African Americans and the US prison boom. 13th traces a line from the US Constitution, to Birth Of A Nation, via The Central Park 5 and Oscar Grant to the distressing scenes that we witness on the news and social media today. DuVernay's film tells an unbelievably powerful story that everyone should see.


8. West Of Memphis

West Of Memphis is an incredible and painful story of loss and injustice. In 1993, three eight year old boys were killed in West Memphis, Arkansas. Following a dubious police investigation, three local teenagers were arrested and then found guilty of the murders. This documentary focuses on one of those teenagers, Damien Echols, as he fights for his life on Death Row.


9. What Happened, Miss Simone?

Featuring never-before-heard recordings, archive footage, diary entries and interviews with family and friends, What Happened, Miss Simone? is the

heartbreaking story of the life of troubled music legend, Nina Simone.


10. Deliver Us From Evil

Ten years before Tom McCarthy's Spotlight won its best picture Oscar, writer/director, Amy Berg, released her documentary: Deliver Us From Evil. This deeply disturbing film looks at clergy sexual abuse in the US with a particular focus on Father Oliver O'Grady - perhaps the most notorious pedophile in the history of the modern Catholic Church. 


11. Janis: Little Girl Blue

Featuring letters and interviews with her family and friends, Janis: Little Girl Blue explores the life of 1960's rock legend, Janis Joplin, and reveals a truly fragile soul.


12. Winter On Fire: Ukraine's Fight For Freedom

Over 93 days in Ukraine, a peaceful student demonstration became a violet revolution and a powerful civil rights movement. Featuring incredible on the ground footage and interviews, Winter On Fire: Ukraine's Fight For Freedom is an utterly gripping film. It is amazing to see hundreds of people (from all walks of life) coming together to fight for what they believe in - despite the real risk of harm.


13. Audrie & Daisy

Audrie & Daisy tells the story of the sexual assault of two teenage girls in America. This disturbing film also highlights the frightening trend of online victim shaming and confronts the role played by social media.


14. The Last Man On The Moon

When Apollo astronaut Eugene Cernan stepped off the moon in 1972 he left his footprints and his daughter's initials in the lunar dust. Over forty years later, he shared his epic but deeply personal story.


15. Speed Sisters

Speed Sisters follows the first all-woman race car driving team in the Middle East. Their fascinating story grabbed headlines as, on improvised tracks across the West Bank, these five inspiring women sped their way into the heart of the gritty, male-dominated Palestinian street car-racing scene. 


16. Tower

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.


Tower gives real insight into the confusion and chaos on campus that day. It shows the amazing acts of bravery both from the policemen on the scene and the civilians who felt compelled to help. However, the film also looks at those who were, understandably, too terrified to act - and the crushing guilt and regret that, all these years on, they still feel.


17. Weiner

With unprecedented access to Anthony Weiner, his family and his campaign team as they mount his New York City mayoral campaign, Weiner documents an impending political meltdown of epic proportions. 


The documentary begins by highlighting the unexpected comeback from the disgraced ex-congressman. However, events take a sharp turn when Weiner is forced to admit to new sexting allegations. 


The media soon descends - eager to tear him apart. Weiner tries desperately to move forward, but the unbearable pressure and crippling 24-hour news coverage halts his political aspirations dead in their tracks.


18. Restrepo

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 U.S. military. 


Restrepo is a truly incredible film. It is tough, tense and upsetting. However, it also feels so important to watch. I was left shaken and heartbroken for all of the people involved. For this is a film that is interested in humans and how they experience war. Each soldier comes across as a person - scared and brave, professional and frustrated, desperate and hopeful.


19. The Hard Stop

In August 2011, 29 year-old Mark Duggan was shot and killed whilst being arrested by armed police in Tottenham. The incident ignited a riot that escalated into a week of the worst civil unrest seen in recent British history.


George Amponsah’s documentary, The Hard Stop, follows two of Mark Duggan’s childhood friends, Marcus and Kurtis, for two years. We watch them struggle with their grief and, in the aftermath of the violence, try to move forward.


20. Notes On Blindness

In the early 1980s, theologian, John Hull, lost his sight. He knew that if he didn’t try to understand his blindness it would destroy him. As a result, in 1983, Hull started an audio diary. Over three years, Hull recorded over 16 hours of material - creating a story of loss, rebirth and transformation. 


In Notes On Blindness, writer/directors Peter Middleton and James Spinney have taken these original recordings and combined them with interviews with John and his wife Marilyn. 

Actors lip-synch to the voices of the family alongside stunning cinematography (by Gerry Floyd) and wonderful sound design. 


Notes On Blindness offers truly fascinating insights into just what it means to lose your vision.


What Is Your Favourite Netflix Documentary?


What are your favourite Netflix documentaries?


Let me know... leave me a comment in the box below or come find me over in Facebook or Twitter (@500DaysOfFilm)! 

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Jane Douglas-Jones
Jane Douglas-Jones



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