A well-made documentary film or series can be as entertaining and gripping as any piece of big budget celluloid fiction – and there’s the added bonus of it actually making you smarter to boot, filling your brain with tons of facts (some useful, some less so) with which you can regale your friends in the pub.
Netflix is absolutely stacked with documentaries, some of which are fantastic and many of which are little more than schlocky trash TV. But fear not: we’ve picked through the detritus to bring you our definitive list of the best pieces of fact-based film and TV on the streaming service.
Whether you’re interested in towering sporting achievement, tech history, true crime or culinary exploration, there’s something here for you.
The Innocent Man (S1)
If you’ve already binged your way to an injustice-fuelled heart attack by watching Making a Murderer and The Staircase, you may want to avoid The Innocent Man, another documentary series concerning a decidedly dodgy murder conviction in god-fearing small town America.
Inspired by executive producer John Grisham’s book of the same name (the prolific author’s only foray into non-fiction), this Oklahoma-set tale of brutal murders, tampered-with evidence, coerced confessions and law enforcement malfeasance is guaranteed to dig its hooks into anyone with more than a passing interest in true crime and the failings of the US justice system. If you’ve already had your fill of this type of series, however, you should probably look elsewhere – it doesn’t quite manage to offer up the fresh twist you might be hoping for.
Sunderland ’Til I Die (S1)
If the fly-on-the-wall documentary series seems to have fallen out of fashion of late, this all-access account of Sunderland Athletic FC’s disastrous 2017/2018 season – in which the one-time Premiership stalwart languishes perilously in the third tier of English football, its coffers dry and its star players having been replaced by willing (and some not-so-willing) kids and past-their-prime journeymen – should do wonders to revive the format.
While Amazon’s filmmakers may have had access to Manchester City during the club’s record-breaking Premiership-winning season for the glossy All or Nothing series, Netflix’s warts-and-all look at a struggling club in a deprived town, its fanatical supporters and the co-dependant relationship enjoyed (or should that be endured?) by the two parties makes for far more interesting TV. Rumour has it the cameras are currently rolling for a second season – and we hope they’re true.
Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown (S1-8)
The sorely missed Anthony Bourdain has never been more watchable than in this long-running CNN series – part travelogue, part culinary culture guide – in which he journeys to hitherto overlooked parts of the world in search of interesting things to munch on, but always finds much more than a few tasty tilapia tacos or deep-fried sea urchins to chew on.
If the format sounds a bit “Rick Stein on a gap year”, the actual results are far more enjoyable. Bourdain’s warmth, empathy, inquisitiveness and adventurous spirit shine through over the course of 64 episodes – now that’s a true feast of informative, eye-opening and mouth-watering television.
The Vietnam War
When it comes to American documentary makers – and documentary makers concerned specifically with America – Ken Burns stands apart. In the past he’s taken on such weighty US-centric subjects as World War II, the Civil War, prohibition, jazz, race and baseball – and this, his latest project, tackles a subject of similar weight, in the Vietnam War.
Made with frequent collaborator Lynn Novick for broadcaster PBS, this is highly detailed overview of the 20-year conflict (and its origins) spread over 10 feature-length episodes (yes, it’s really, really long). Each is packed with talking head interviews and archival footage, and soundtracked both with contemporary music and a brand new score by Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor.
The undertaking took Burns and Novick a decade to complete; the result is an authoritative, nuanced and utterly compelling portrait of a war that dominated American political and social discourse for a generation, but remains poorly understood and difficult to discuss even today.
ReMastered: Who Shot the Sheriff?
On the night of 3rd December 1976, a group of gunmen entered Bob Marley’s home in Kingston, Jamaica and wounded the reggae star, his wife Rita and his manager Don Taylor. Marley quickly recovered – in fact, he headlined a huge concert a couple of days later – but the identity and motives of the would-be assassins has never been revealed.
There are many theories, some of which are explored in this excellent hour-long Netflix Original documentary, which brings together many of Marley’s friends and associates to talk about the attack and the political climate in Jamaica that seems to be the root cause of it. The Cold War, the CIA, Cuba, gang violence, drug traffickers, even horse-racing – all of it weaves together into a fascinating portrait of a fraught time in the island’s history.
The Staircase (S1)
Already blazed through Making A Murderer? Binged on Evil Genius? Consumed The Keepers? Then allow us to direct you to The Staircase, another Netflix true crime documentary series that’ll get its hooks in you by showing the inner workings of a US murder case.
An exploration of the American legal process, a portrait of an unconventional family and a mystery story rolled into 14 episodes filmed over more than a decade, this series is based around the strange case of Kathleen Peterson, discovered in a pool of blood at the bottom of her North Carolina mansion’s staircase. The filmmakers follow the progress of the ensuing trial, in which Kathleen’s novelist husband Michael is the accused. Full of shocks and surprises and likely to leave you with plenty of questions to ponder come its end, The Staircase is a must-see for any documentary fan.
Outraged by the federal government’s actions at the Ruby Ridge and Waco sieges, an intelligent, thoughtful Gulf War veteran felt driven to action, resulting in his building a truck bomb and driving it up to the doors of the Alfred P Murrah building in downtown Oklahoma City.
The deadliest act of domestic terrorism ever committed in the United States, the bombing killed 168 people – and was perpetrated by anti-government radical Timothy McVeigh, whose motives and methods are explored by this compelling feature-length documentary. For anyone fascinated by the rise of the radical anti-establishment right in America, Oklahoma City represents an intriguing overview of its early emergence.
Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck
This officially-sanctioned documentary on the life of Nirvana's enigmatic frontman is a must for fans of the band and the uninitiated alike.
The cooperation of Kurt's family (the documentary was apparently instigated by his widow, Courtney Love) is the usual mixed blessing. On the one hand, access to never-before-seen material sheds new light on the extent of Cobain's genius; on the other, it's hard to believe that this retelling isn't skewed at least a little by the agendas of Kurt's parents and Love herself. The fact that Dave Grohl was interviewed but not included is also a big disappointment.
But if you're prepared to accept that every documentary has some kind of agenda, angle or compromise, Montage of Heck is superb. Even the most dedicated Nirvana fan will be blown away by Kurt's endless lyrical and artistic scribbles, and the animation of these makes for a clever storytelling tool. This almost certainly isn't the whole story of Kurt Cobain, but it's a brilliant film in its own right.
The Defiant Ones (S1)
Ever wanted to know how Dr Dre made his name on the L.A. scene? Or how his Beats partner Jimmy Iovine became pals with Bruce Springsteen and John Lennon almost by accident? Then this Grammy-winning HBO documentary series, which tells the story of the pair’s rise from working class strivers to music millionaires to tech billionaires, will go down smoother than a G-Funk beat on a warm South Central day.
Brilliantly edited, with illuminating contributions from some of the tech and recording industries’ biggest figures and tons of previously unseen footage, The Defiant Ones will swiftly snare any music fan in its jaws.
Evil Genius (S1)
Recounting the unbelievable events of what later came to be called the “pizza bomber heist” (and, let’s face it, those three words alone should be enough to pique your interest), this four-part Netflix miniseries starts with a dazed man walking into a small town Pennsylvania bank with a ticking bomb fixed around his neck and finishes… well, that would be telling too much.
Madness, murder, prostitution, drugs, cancer, greed, robbery, narcissism, hoarding, law enforcement dysfunction and, yes, pizza all weave together in this compelling true story, which would likely be dismissed as too far-fetched were it fictional. It’s great true crime stuff with a human edge.