You don't have to be a sports fan to enjoy this must-watch doping exposé.
Icarus is effectively two documentaries in one, with the first third of the film a kind of Super Size Me for performance-enhancing drugs. The filmmaker, a semi-pro cyclist, embarks on a hardcore doping program to show how flawed the drugs-testing process is.
But when his advisor, Russian scientist Gregory Rodchenkov, suddenly finds himself in the eye of an international storm over Russia's state-sponsored doping program, Icarus handbrake turns into an enthralling fly-on-the-wall thriller about being a whistleblower in Putin's Russia.
Cue mysterious deaths, chilling interviews and a lots of hand-wringing as Rodchenkov goes into hiding from the new KGB.
Making a Murderer (S1-2)
Rural Minnesotan Steven Avery served 18 years in prison for a horrible crime that he didn't commit, and the revelations about the police handling of that case could be a 10-part series of their own – but here they're just the prologue to a far wider-reaching story.
That's because, a scant two years after his exoneration and release, Avery is charged with another crime: the brutal murder of a young woman. Given the circumstances surrounding the previous case, the local sheriff department's involvement comes under serious scrutiny, and to say there are troubling inconsistencies in the state's case against him would be a huge understatement.
Making a Murderer is a long, sometimes slow-moving series, but it's also compelling, deeply troubling, and constantly capable of sending shivers down your spine – and now there's a entire second series, in which Avery enlists a famed appelate lawyer to throw fresh eyes on his case, to get your teeth into.
Arguably among of the BBC’s greatest series ever, Planet Earth is beloved worldwide for its glorious camera work (achieved through sheer skill, graft and bloody-minded patience rather than fancy CGI tricks), which offers an unprecedented look into dozens of aspects of the natural world, spread all over the globe. From polar bears to killer whales to birds of paradise, the viewer is shown a gorgeous greatest hits collection of our planet's flora and fauna.
It’s all accompanied, of course, by narration from Sir David Attenborough (unquestionably another of the planet’s treasures), which lends the whole series an air of homely authority. Whether you’re seeking high drama or breathtaking photography, Planet Earth (both seasons of which are available on Netflix, the second in 4K) has both in plentiful supply.
We can’t get enough of true crime documentaries and podcasts these days - and if you've already worked your way through Making a Murderer, Netflix’s seven-part documentary series The Keepers is well worth chucking on your watchlist.
Concerning the unsolved murder of a nun in 1960s Baltimore, it delves deep into the lives of many of those around her in an attempt to get to the truth – and ultimately, reveal the killer’s identity. It’s quickly discovered that what was initially viewed as a random “wrong place, wrong time” killing may be part of a wider-reaching conspiracy, and from then on the series doesn’t slow down as it pulls out thread after thread. Enthralling, dismaying stuff.
Chef's Table (S1-6)
This series (now six seasons plus a France-based spin-off season strong) shadows several world-renowned chefs as they take viewers on a personal journey through their culinary evolution - providing an intimate, informative glimpse into what gets their creative juices flowing.
Lovingly shot in razor-sharp Ultra HD quality (for those with the necessary Netflix subscription), Chef's Table lets you almost smell the aromas seeping through your screen and tickling your nostrils. From glistening, perfectly-cooked pieces of meat to mouth-watering steaming pasta dishes, this is food porn of the highest order. Just try not to drool too much.
There’s a sequence from this Netflix original documentary that went viral shortly after the USA elected Donald Trump as its new president. It shows the commander-in-chief eulogising the “good old days”, while clips of protestors getting roughed up at his rallies play next to old footage of African-American citizens being beaten in the streets.
It’s a powerful summary of 13th, a film that lays bare the realities of being black in modern-day America, and shows exactly how far the country has - or hasn't - come since the abolition of slavery. A must-watch for anyone who thinks systemic racism has been consigned to history's dustbin.
If you’ve seen the movie Foxcatcher, you might be surprised by how much it differs to this documentary, which explores the same sad events. For starters Mark Schultz (played by Channing Tatum in the Hollywood retelling) doesn’t show up in this non-fiction account at all because he wasn’t even at “the farm” at the same time as his brother Dave.
If you’ve seen neither film, this is a story about an apparently benevolent benefactor who set out to enable the US wrestling team’s quest for sporting glory by housing and training the athletes in top quality facilities on his vast private estate. The twist? Said benevolent benefactor, John du Pont, turned out to be extremely strange and increasingly paranoid.
Told through touching interviews with ex-Foxcatcher wrestlers, archive footage of du Pont and charming home recordings from the time, the Team Foxcatcher documentary actually hits harder than Hollywood’s version.
Despite their name, killer whales are highly intelligent social animals that ordinarily pose little danger to humans – so what made one orca attack and kill its trainer? That’s the question posed by Blackfish, which takes a deep dive into the world of show whales and the psychological damage that captivity might be inflicting upon them.
As usual, it’s big business’ pursuit of the mighty dollar that appears to be the true culprit here, but the documentary’s assured storytelling and the view it offers into a cruel industry that may seem benign to outsiders make it an absolutely engrossing watch.
This feature-length documentary doesn’t hit the salacious heights its title suggests, but rather ends up an intriguing look into the lives and characters of two very different men: legendary New York journalist Gay Talese and Gerald Foos, the titular voyeur.
The subject of a major book by Talese, who has kept in contact with him for decades, Foos once owned a motel which he’d modified in order to snoop on guests unseen, subsequently documenting the things they did when they thought nobody was watching.
Both Talese and Foos turn out to be fascinating characters, and their opaque relationship – Foos believes they are friends, Talese sees Foos as a journalistic source and subject – proves the source of much of the film’s pull.
Louis Theroux's Weird Weekends
Before he spent time with the likes of Jimmy Savile, Paul Daniels and Max Clifford, Louis Theroux specialised in meeting, interviewing and often living with what you could politely call "controversial" groups.
Over the course of two BBC series he hangs out with swingers, wrestlers, hardline Christians, black nationalists, UFO watchers and more, using his disarming personality to gain the sort of access and insight that a more “serious” journalist couldn't (or perhaps wouldn't) get.
This is brilliant stuff: funny, troubling and regularly moving - and a fine primer for all of Theroux’s other films and TV shows on Netflix and beyond.
The 1996 case of six-year old JonBenet Ramsey’s murder is embued with a near-mythical quality in America, due to its salacious circumstances, its media prominence (it coincided with the rise of 24-hour cable news) – and, of course, the fact that it has never been solved.
Rather than conduct a convention examination of the murder and its aftermath, this documentary explores it via the means of dramatic recreation using actors from the Ramseys’ home town of Boulder, Colorado. It’s a method that reveals more about the actors’ (and thus the wider public’s) views of the case and of who may have been responsible than it does of the police’s or the family’s – and that’s why it’s such an interesting piece of filmmaking.
Bobby Kennedy for President
This four-part series explores the life, career and untimely death of Robert F. Kennedy, seventh of the Kennedy children and looking likely to follow in his brother’s footsteps as American president, until he followed in his footsteps in another way – by being assassinated in mysterious circumstances.
For those who know a little about RFK but want to get a clearer picture of his political journey, this series makes for a fantastic primer, packed with new interviews with people who knew the man and contemporary footage examining how he became one of the foremost proponents of American liberalism and racial and economic justice – a stance that many conspiracy theorists resulted in him being murdered by his own government.