culture

The 25 Best Documentaries on Netflix

fear city netflix
‘Fear City: New York vs. The Mafia’ / Netflix

Welcome to what feels like day 932729292 of quarantine/social distancing/slowly unraveling in our apartments and parents’ homes! Whether your body has melted into the couch and now you are living as one entity or you’ve avoided the TV to do more active things (you weirdos), this is your reminder that there are a million great documentaries still waiting for you on Netflix!  Many of these were just released this year so put your food order into UberEats, put on your learning pants, and let’s go! 

1. ‘Immigration Nation’

Trump’s 2016 campaign promise hinged around the construction of a wall on the border of the United States and Mexico, quickly catapulting the issue of immigration into the forefront of the news, yet the actual duties and responsibilities of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) have remained shadowy, at best. The directors, Christina Clusiau and Shaul Schwarz used their prior relationship with an ICE spokesperson to give us inside access into the world of assaults and attacks on undocumented immigrants, from enforcement techniques, filling arrest quotas, racial profiling, and (sometimes) illegal tactics that ICE officers employ. Immigration Nation reveals a heart-wrenching look at families who have experienced trauma and loss at the hands of some of the cruelest policies that the U.S. has in place. 

2. ‘Fear City: New York vs. The Mafia’

Told through a multitude of interviews, Fear City examines the five major New York crime families during the 70s and 80s (Genovese, Gambino, Bonanno, Lucchese, and Colombo) but with a major focus on the FBI agents who sought to remove them from power. If you’re looking for a sexy and glamorized view of the mafia, Sopranos-style, you won’t find it here. The focal point of this documentary is the minutiae of police work, from painstaking research to setting up wiretaps to unpacking surveillance transcripts.  It all leads up to the Mafia Commission Trial, the 1985-1986 trial that brought down the heads of these ruling families, and referred to as the “Case of All Cases”.

3. ‘Love on the Spectrum’

If you’re tired of shows like Love is Blind and Too Hot to Handle, let me introduce you to a much kinder Love on the Spectrum. Exploring the world of dating and love for adults with autism, viewers get to experience first dates and relationships that celebrate love and acceptance. It doesn’t do much to educate the watcher on autism, nor does it feature a particularly diverse cast (it’s super white, but does have one queer relationship), but it is free of the snark and condescending comments that usually accompany reality dating shows. 

4. 'Unwell'

I’ve never met a health and wellness trend I didn’t love.  Okay, that’s not entirely true, but I’ve never met a health and wellness trend that didn’t at least interest me.  CBD, air purifying devices, collagen powders, crystals...all of it is my jam.  The global wellness industry is currently valued at $4.5 trillion so it seems as if it’s many people’s jams. (Un)well was an immediate must-watch for me but should come with a warning: while the task of the documentary is to investigate wellness trends and debunk misleading claims, we don’t walk away exactly clear on where we stand. It does cover some pretty interesting subjects like intermittent fasting and essential oils so if you have even a passing interest in wellness, it’s an engaging watch.

5. 'Athlete A'

For over 20 years, there have been hundreds upon hundreds of allegations of sexual abuse in gymnastic programs across the United States. The IndyStar has reported that ‘at least 368 child gymnasts have alleged sexual assault by gym owners, coaches, and staff working for gymnastics programs across the country’ which has been a ‘rate of one every 20 days.’  This gut-wrenching documentary explores the USA Gymnastics sexual abuse scandal, concentrating on Larry Nassar, the team doctor that was named in hundreds of lawsuits. Athlete A applauds the countless brave women who spoke out and brings the focus on the culture that allowed this abuse to remain unchecked for years.

6. 'The Last Dance'

You’ve most likely heard of this sports documentary that recounts Michael Jordan’s time with the Chicago Bulls and their final championship during the ‘97-’98 NBA season. There are interviews with over 100 people connected to the team (including many notable basketball players) and never-before-aired footage, making it an enjoyable and captivating watch. The best interviews are the ones with Jordan himself; his sheer willpower and dedication to winning are on display, but it’s the transparency and honesty in his answers that make this a must-watch.

7. 'The Speed Cuber'

The Rubik’s Cube is a surprisingly newer toy; it was released on the market in 1980, with the World Cube Organization forming over 20 years later, in 2004. Sue Kim, the director of The Speed Cuber wasn’t even aware of this world until her son picked one up a few years ago and was instantly obsessed. A fun and surprisingly emotional film, we are even introduced to Feliks Zemdegs and Max Park, the “Michael Jordan of cubers…[with the later] possibly the Lebron James.”

8. 'Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich'

Do you ever feel like it’s too late in the game to ask a question about something that you feel like you should know already? That exact sentiment is what led me to watch this documentary on Jeffrey Epstein. I knew he was a rich sex offender who had a reportedly suspicious death while in jail, but that was about the extent of my knowledge. The real story is so much worse.  We meet some of his victims and hear the truly heinous acts of this well-connected yet almost untouchable man. Although the story is highly captivating, expect to leave with a million more questions and a nauseous feeling in your stomach.

9. 'High Score'

If you played video games growing as a kid (or even now) High Score feels like an addicting hit of nostalgia. Narrated by Charles Martinet, the voice behind Nintendo’s Mario, we explore the history of video games; from the visionaries and designers who conceived some of the most loved games like Pacman, Mortal Kombat, and Sonic to the designers who treat each visual and audio element as a work of art. Witnessing the beginning of this multi-billion dollar industry and seeing how video games have evolved over the years is a colorful adventure in storytelling. 

10. 'Holy Hell'

I am fascinated by cults.  Not in a creepy “will-join-once-I-find-one-that- ”feels right” type deal, but I’ve always been curious about how sane and logical people decide to give up everything to follow leaders that I, personally, never found too charismatic. Holy Hell investigates the Buddafield cult, which started in Hollywood in the 19080’s, led by “a vaguely Ramon Novarro-Esque failed actor named Michel”. What’s most unique about this documentary is that the director, Will Allen, is uniquely situated to do this exposé, as he was a member of the cult for over 20 years, and can offer an insider’s look.

11. ‘Connected: The Hidden Science of Everything’

If you’re a fan of passionate storytelling (possibly on subjects you don’t know too much about), science journalist Latif Nasser has got a show for you. Exploring the connections of a vast array of subjects to each other and the universe, Nasser’s infectious enthusiasm and goal to be a lifelong learner makes complex subjects downright enjoyable.

12. ‘Lil Peep: Everybody’s Everything”

The rise of singer/rapper Gustav Elijah Åhr, more commonly known as “Lil Peep” was cut short due to a tragic accidental overdose in 2017 on his tour bus. Everybody’s Everything recounts the life of Lil Peep, as he made his way from Long Beach, NY to Hollywood. This is a heartbreaking look at a young artist who was so much more than a “SoundCloud rapper” whose music connected with so many people across the globe.

13. 'Knock Down the House'

If you were wondering where the political documentaries were, here’s the only one you need to watch this year. Knock Down the House chronicles Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s journey from the Bronx to politics. The hardworking and charismatic AOC isn’t the only woman featured; we also meet three other Democratic mainstays: Missouri’s Cori Bush, Nevada’s Amy Vilela, and West Virginia's Paula Jean Sweareng. 

14. 'Becoming'

Based on the bestselling memoir of the same title, Becoming follows former First Lady Michelle Obama on her 34-day city book tour.  Through her warm demeanor, genuine interactions with others, and stories about her first date with Barack or her “high school guidance counselor who didn’t think she was Princeton University material”, it’s hard not to fangirl Michelle Obama.  She’s motivational, a strong champion of women, and just a lady I’d like to grab drinks with. 

15. 'Night on Earth'

Narrated by Samira Wiley, Night on Earth uses state-of-the-art new technology to follow nocturnal animals around in their natural habitat. You get to see some unique creatures and learn interesting tidbits, but what’s truly astonishing is the beautiful footage. It’s nature porn in all its glory, and sometimes real porn, with clips of animals mating and ya know, sometimes killing each other. Watch for the visuals alone.

16. 'Rise of Empires: Ottoman'

For any history buffs out there, Rise of Empires: Ottoman unpacks the Ottoman Empire’s rise to power with a documentary-meet-over-the-top-reenactment lens. Tywin Lannister does the narration (I mean, actor Charles Dance) as we follow Mehmed II, Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, engage in some cool kickass battles. I’m not sure how true to history this doc remains, but I’m half Turkish (Turkey = modern-day Ottoman Empire) so I’m a little biased. Okay, a lot biased. ​​​​​

17. '20 Feet from Stardom'

20 Feet from Stardom won an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature and currently has a 99% on Rotten Tomatoes, and for good reason: the background singers featured are all phenomenal. Singing backup for some of the most influential musical legends in history, these (mostly) women all deserves to be known and celebrated. Full of intimate interviews, we learn about their lives and careers and amazing vocal abilities through raw and enthusiastic storytelling. You can’t help but root for each and every one of them. 

18. 'Rotten'

The description Netflix put out for Rotten is pretty intense for a show about food supply and production: “Local farming is fading as profit margins decide what food makes it to our plates. The new Netflix documentary series Rotten exposes the fraud, corruption, and the consequences on our health of today’s global food industry. Nobody’s hands are clean.” Each episode focuses on a different food industry issue with the main takeaway being that everything is corrupt. If you want to know more about the secret dangers of chicken harvesting and bee pollination, this is a good place to start.

19. 'A Secret Love'

How long could you keep your relationship a secret? For Terry Donahue and Pat Henschel, try 7 decades. After meeting in 1947, these two ladies met and fell in love in Chicago, where Donahue played catcher for the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League...yup, the same team that was the inspiration for the movie A League of Their Own. What followed was a 72-year love story, with neither of their families knowing a thing until both women were in their 80’s.  A super sweet and heartfelt relationship will make you smile and bring you hope (and can’t we all use some more of that right now?) 

20. 'Brené Brown: The Call to Courage'

Are we still obsessed with TED Talks?  I hope so because The Call to Courage which depicts Brené Brown’s work on vulnerability and shame should be mandatory watching.  A research professor in social work at the University of Houston, Brown shares what she’s learned about relationships, difficult and uncomfortable situations, and bridging the divide and why being vulnerable is the bravest thing we can do and why we should choose courage over comfort.  

21. 'Senna'

This eight-episode series is a poignant documentary focusing on the life and death of Aryton Senna. Senna covers the time period from the beginning of Artyon's racing career, all the way up to his tragic death in a 1994 crash at the San Marino Grand Prix in Italy. Senna's family was heavily involved in the production of the mini-series, giving it that authentic feeling (nobody knows you better than your family). The documentary also gives a deeper look into Senna's life and career, showing us that while some people are only here for a short time, what they accomplish in those few years are worth a lifetime.

22. 'Miss Americana'

When you think of Taylor Swift, your brain automatically goes to her career as a singer. So it would be natural to assume that a music documentary about her would be like a lot of the other music documentaries we've seen over the years. Except it's not. Produced by Swift herself, Miss Americana is actually focused more-so on the singer's life as opposed to her music career. The documentary includes Swift's journey of growth, self-reflection, and her decision to publicly express her political opinions. Miss Americana shows Swift in a different light, allowing viewers to connect to Taylor Swift the person and not the "brand."

23. 'American Factory'

The first production under Higher Ground (a production company formed by Barack and Michelle Obama), American Factory gives a look at the cold hard truth of the factory industry. The documentary focuses specifically on the now-defunct General Motors plant in Dayton, Ohio. The film walks viewers through the manual labor and working conditions required of employees, and details how workers often fell victim to the rich and powerful in hopes of achieving "The American Dream." The documentary also covers the transition of General Motors, as a Chinese billionaire went through the process of personally investing in it for his company Fuyao. If you ever wanted to learn more about the factory industry during that time period, this is the film for you.

24. 'Abducted in Plain Sight'

Abducted in Plain Sight is a documentary based on the real-life story of the Broberg family, whose daughter, Jan, was abducted twice by their neighbor Robert Berchtold. Director Skye Borgman tells the disturbing story of how Berchtold single-handedly disrupted the Broberg family in the attempt to kidnap Jan not once, but twice. Borgman goes into each specific abduction detailing the sick and twisted methods used by Berchtold in both kidnappings. It's rare that you hear the story of somebody getting abducted by the same person twice, and while the documentary is indeed dark, it's certainly an informative piece one should watch. 

25. 'Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, and Madness'

Whether you've watched Tiger King or not, chances are you have at least heard of this popular documentary. Tiger King was the talk of "early quarantine," and now interest has surged again with the recent appearance of Carole Baskin (another "character" in this story) on Dancing with the Stars. The seven-episode series follows the strange and crazy tale of Joe Exotic as his zookeeper job somehow leads him into a whirlwind life full of crime, and well, more crime. Murder, Mayhem, and Madness are definitely the right words to describe Tiger King, and viewers should check it out if they haven't already had the chance.

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