The Netflix catalogue contains a vast treasure trove of documentary films on a wide ranging list of topics. With in this in mind, it goes without saying that this list is just a small slice of the excellent choices you’ll find when you’re in the mood for some non-fiction. As this list will be updated as Netflix’s catalogue changes, I’ve decided to throw in a few classics as well as newer pieces that are important to our current socio-political zeitgeist.
Paris is Burning
Given the recent rise and mainstreaming of the drag world in popular culture, it is only fitting to return to the groundbreaking documentary that details the 80s drag scene in New York City.
With deep pathos and a focus on class and race, as much as gender roles and sexuality, Paris is Burning is an incredible snapshot of defiance against norms, and the power of community. It is also an entry on my 10 Best LGTBQ Movies on Netflix list.
The Thin Blue Line
Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line is a must-see classic of documentary filmmaking.The film recounts the forced confession and death row sentencing of an innocent man, Randall Dale Adams, accused of killing a police officer. The popularity of the film helped urge the release of Adams after a review investigation. With a heavy reliance on stylized re-enactments based on witness accounts, Morris’s film is considered the seminal work in crime docudrama and the production style that has become a mainstay of the genre.
The Vietnam War
Most documentaries on Netflix are shorter affairs, coming in at well under two hours. Even the documentary series that are presented are usually only about ten hours long. But most of these selections simply don’t have the breadth and depth of Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s latest undertaking. Basically a videographic dissertation on the entire history of the Vietnam War, the 17-hour masterwork traces the US involvement in the conflict back to the 1800’s. With hours of footage and interviews that faithfully attempt to present all the realities of the incredibly complex situation, The Vietnam War may be the most ambitious documentary ever made.
Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond
Jim Carrey has always been an over-the-top entertainer. Whether you loved or hated his physical comedy, no one could deny his commitment to perform every bit with absolute abandon. Some might think that his transition to serious roles also meant a change in work style, but Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond show that nothing could be further from the truth. The film uses footage recorded during the filming of the 1999 biopic Man on the Moon in which Carrey portrayed his longtime idol, Andy Kaufman. For the role, Carrey went full-method, using his knowledge of Kaufman and interviews with friends and family to basically bring the late comedian back from the dead. By inhabiting Kaufman’s brash, outlandish, and polarizing personality, Carrey lost himself – and maybe a bit of his professionalism and a few friends – to the passionate portrayal he felt he owed his comedic hero. With an equal measure of revelation about Carrey then and now, as well a look into Kaufman’s life that Man on the Moon did not portray, Jim & Andy, The Great Beyond is a moving, strange, and unique look behind the curtain of one actor’s approach to character creation.
The Keepers is one of Netflix’s follow ups to their incredibly popular Making of a Murderer docuseries. It details the death and subsequent investigation of Sister Catherine Cesnik. That murder, though, is only the tip of the iceberg of what the film uncovers as it details years of abuse of young women at an all girls school by priests and community leaders. Particularly timely in the wake of the recent Pittsburgh church scandal and the continuing evolution of the #MeToo movement,The Keepers is a powerful series that, hopefully, will help keep the situations that it portrays from happening again.
Sometimes, a filmmaker just gets lucky. The light does something amazing, an actor hits a mark in a new way that works well, or an adlib becomes the line of the film. For Bryan Fogel, luck came in the form of his documented quest to test today’s modern doping methods in a sanctioned cycling race turing into a long-term relationship with the mastermind behind the Russian doping system that ended up in the country’s athletes being uninvited from competing in the Olympics. Betweens the film’s sly wit and the knowledge that what you are watching unfold was as unexpected to the producers as it is to us, Icarus makes for a truly compelling watch. (Side note, if you want to see more about doping in professional cycling, Netflix also has Stop at Nothing: The Lance Armstrong Story, which will provide a decent amount of background into the importance of Fogel’s initial project.)
Cartel Land documents the story of vigilante groups on both sides of the US-Mexico border who battle the cartels. It is also the story of how those groups battle national politics, systemic corruption, and even internal power struggles that constantly threaten to undermine any positive work that they might be able to do. With real-life footage that rivals anything Hollywood can dream up, Cartel Land is at once thrilling, illuminating, and depressing.