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 Last Dance (S1)
Arguably the greatest sporting icon of all time, Michael Jordan led the Chicago Bulls to a string of NBA championship victories in the 1990s. By 1998, however, it seemed like the team’s era of dominance was in the balance. Amidst backroom acrimony, personality clashes, disgruntled teammates and a head coach on borrowed time, Jordan looked set to take off his jersey and give up the game for good.
This masterful 10-part documentary tells the story not just of that fateful season but of Jordan’s rise from green rookie to globe-spanning superstar, and of how the Bulls built their hegemony after years of underachievement. The Last Dance will appeal not only to basketball and sport fans, but to anybody who appreciates a story well told and a glimpse into the strangely singular mind of highly driven individuals such as Jordan. Those looking for a nostalgic trip back to the 90s won’t be disappointed either, with a superb soundtrack of classic tunes accompanying grainy archive footage.
Sunderland ’Til I Die (S1-2)
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the one-time Premiership stalwart languishes perilously in the third tier of English football, its star players having been replaced by untried kids and past-their-prime journeymen – will do wonders to revive the format.
Rival Amazon’s filmmakers may have had access to ultra-rich Manchester City during the club’s Premiership-winning season for its glossy All or Nothing series, but Netflix’s no-holds-barred 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 a far more interesting watch.
A second season has also landed on Netflix as of April 2020 – fantastic news if you’re keen on binging on more misery, failure and the bizarre day to day goings-on at a club in crisis.
Tiger King (S1)
Quite likely Netflix’s surprise documentary hit of 2020, Tiger King is a wild ride into the world of America’s roadside zoos, big cat sanctuaries and what might charitably be called the “strong personalities” seemingly drawn to them.
Told mainly through interviews and archive footage, it focusses on Oklahoma zoo owner Joe Exotic, a gay polygamist country singer with dozens of big cats, an abortive presidential campaign, an internet TV show and a string of felony convictions to his name. How did Joe end up in prison? Does he deserve to be there or was he set up by his rivals? Does he really love animals or are they merely a means to an end for him? These are just some of the questions explored by this series, which often strays into grubby sensationalism – but given the subject matter and the people involved, it’d be difficult not to.
Don’t F**k with Cats (S1)
A finely crafted three-part series about an internet killer and the plucky group of nerds determined to track him down, this isn’t a watch for the faint-hearted. While the attention-seeking videos this individual made – which begin with animal cruelty and get progressively more extreme – are not shown in full on screen, they’re described in detail and a reminder that, even outside of the dark web, the internet’s open nature means it can play host to some seriously grim stuff.
It’s a case that couldn’t have happened in a pre-internet world, making this a story that goes beyond the mere retelling of a series of horrific crimes; it’s also about the nature of technology, the dark side of social media and how the forging of a more connected world doesn’t bring just positive things.
Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez (S1)
American football player Aaron Hernandez had it all: a multi-million dollar contract for the New England Patriots, a Super Bowl appearance, a fiancée and a daughter. So how did one of the NFL’s most promising rising stars end up jailed for life for a brutal gangland-style murder – and on trial for two more?
That’s the question posed by this three-part series, and the answers aren’t as simple as one might think. What starts as a character portrait swiftly turns into an examination of wider issues: masculinity, the college football system and the NFL’s attitude towards player safety. It's grimly fascinating stuff.
Tell Me Who I Am
A gripping feature-length documentary about the nature of memory, trauma, truth and brotherhood, Tell Me Who I Am begins with a terrible motorcycle accident and ends with an uplifting catharsis – taking some truly shocking twists and turns along the way. Based entirely on interviews with a pair of identical twins, now in their 50s and one of whom lost almost his entire memory in the aforementioned crash, it’s a well-crafted look into the dark underbelly of family life. To reveal any more would be to do it an injustice.
20 Feet From Stardom
This Oscar-winning film turns the spotlight onto a key – and all too often overlooked – contributor to music: the humble backing singer. Based entirely around interviews with performers, producers and the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Mick Jagger and Sting, 20 Feet From Stardom is an affecting and enlightening exploration of the life of some of the most hardworking and talented professionals in the music industry – people who share a stage with global superstars night after night without a single audience member knowing their name.
The Legend of Cocaine Island
This breezily enjoyable movie recounts a real-life hunt for buried Caribbean treasure (several kilos of illegal narcotics with a street value of a few million dollars) and its consequences – a tall tale with a twist in its tail, indeed.
Retold through interviews with and reconstructions starring the various real-life players, including a very unlikely Florida drug lord, his opiate-addicted associate and the frightening street dealer they enlist in an advisory role, this film functions both as cautionary tale and call to action – because the illicit loot may well still be out there…
Street Food (S1)
A recent series from the minds behind Chef’s Table, Street Food focusses on an entirely different form of catering than fine dining. No prizes for guessing what that might be!
Each half-hour episode offers up a beautifully shot look at a different Asian city and the stalls, trucks and holes-in-the-wall responsible for the current wave of world-class street food. From Bangkok’s Michelin-starred crab omelettes to Taiwanese goat stew and Singaporean chicken rice, the simple dished portrayed are guaranteed to have your tummy rumbling by the time the credits roll.
The Chef Show (S1-3)
A cooking show span off from the Jon Favreau movie Chef, The Chef Show features Favreau whipping up dishes with a bunch of celebrity guests – so if you’d ever wanted to see Gwyneth Paltrow’s caesar salad or Seth Rogen’s ultimate hangover cure, this’ll be right up your alley.
Joking aside, it’s the near-constant presence of legendary street food pioneer Roy Choi that makes this series so enjoyable. Choi served as a consultant on the movie, so bringing him on-camera here makes a lot of sense – and seeing how he creates everything from cheese toasties to Korean tacos is a mouth-watering joy.
Assuming you’re not sick and tired of ogling the breathtaking beauty of the natural world by now, Netflix’s own Our Planet is here to enchant your eyeballs with more utterly amazing footage of animals, plants and biomes narrated, of course, by Sir David Attenborough.
With its forceful eco-minded approach, Our Planet’s purpose seems to be to raise awareness of the fragility of the planet’s ecosystem and the effect human activity has had and is having on it. While you could make the argument that viewers know all this already – polling evidence suggests that the vast majority of people accept that climate change is man-made, and want to arrest and reverse it – perhaps they don’t quite understand the scale of damage and the alarming rate at which it’s occurring. Watch this to see the incredible diversity and beauty that’s at stake if governments keep sitting on their hands.
Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes (S1)
One of America’s most prolific serial killers, Ted Bundy remains a mysterious, near-mythical figure decades after his execution in a Florida prison. This four-part series sets out to dispel some preconceptions, leaving the viewer in no doubt of Bundy’s true nature: callous, unfeeling and motivated almost solely by murderous desire.
His charm, wit, good looks and chameleon-like ability to change his personality and appearance allowed him to get away with murder for years, and even when captured and convicted he managed to convince many people – a surprising amount of them the very sort of young women he targeted – that he was not responsible for his horrific crimes.
Bundy eventually admitted to dozens of murders, albeit in an unusual way: by referring to the killer in the third person, so as not to directly implicate himself. He did this in a series of taped interviews that form the basis for this gripping series that looks at Bundy’s youth, his relationships, his crimes, his arrests, his escapes and his eventual trial, imprisonment and death. A comprehensive look at what drove a true monster.
Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened
A merciless post-mortem of 2017’s doomed Fyre Festival – an event that promised to fly thousands of twenty-somethings to an idyllic tropical island for a weekend of luxury and excess in the company of supermodels and hip musical acts, but turned out to be little more than an elaborate ponzi scheme – this documentary pulls no punches in its depiction of sociopathic entrepreneurs, naive rubes, dead-eyed social media influencers and, er, Ja Rule.
The catalogue of disaster inflicted on the festival’s organisers and attendees would have elicited sympathy in other circumstances, but here there’s a curious enjoyment to be had at what befalls these hubristic chancers. A thoroughly modern tale of what can unfurl when social media, celebrity and money collide.
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.