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.
High Score (S1)
A six-part documentary series exploring the evolution of early video games, High Score should strike a sweet note with joystick-wielders everywhere – or indeed anybody with a hankering to learn more about how gaming developed from a kids’ pastime into a multi-billion-pound global industry.
Slickly presented (the pixel art animations are a particular highlight) and full of interesting interviews and previously untold tales, it’s both a powerful nostalgia injection and a reminder of how swiftly gaming has grown in a relatively short expanse of time. Oh, and it’s narrated by Charles Martinet, best known as the voice of Mario.
Salt Fat Acid Heat (S1)
Chef and author Samin Nosrat brings the principals of her award-winning cookbook of the same name to this four-part series, each episode of which closely explores one of the aforementioned elements. She believes that salt, fat, acid and heat are the key components in preparing delicious food, and that creating superb cuisine doesn’t have to be complicated.
Nosrat travels around the world to find out why Italians prize olive oil so greatly, or why miso is used in so many Japanese dishes. Her convivial presenting style and obvious enthusiasm for food of all kinds, plus the number of home cooks she talks to, makes this a warm and charming celebration of cooking rather than a science-heavy info-drop. And it’s all the better for it.
Night on Earth (S1)
Advances in video camera tech makes this wildlife series possible – and a standout. Netflix has no shortage of great natural world showcases, but Night on Earth’s pioneering techniques use super-sensitive equipment to essentially turn night into day, revealing the nocturnal habits of a host of animals and plants in a way we’ve never seen before. If you want to see cheetahs hunting at night or what goes on in the deepest, darkest depths of the ocean after the sun has gone down, don’t hesitate to watch.
Fear City: New York vs The Mafia (S1)
This stylish three-part series recounts the struggle between the Italian mob and US authorities in 1970s and 1980s New York. The city had been under the thumb of the so-called Five Families for years, local and federal law enforcement seemingly powerless to stop activities that ranged from bookmaking and prostitution to drug trafficking, robbery and murder. Then the FBI cottoned on to a little-known law: the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO for short. RICO handed them powers of widespread surveillance and the ability to go directly after the bosses of the crime syndicates rather than the low-level wise guys – and so began the toppling of the Cosa Nostra.
Packed with great archive footage, evocative period music and new interviews, this series is a great primer about how the mafia was brought to book.
Unsolved Mysteries (S1)
A modern-day reimagining of the classic 1980s show, this docuseries delves into the unexplained, the bizarre and the plain old baffling: disappearances, deaths and seemingly supernatural occurrences. Journalists, detectives, friends and family members offer theories and insights – but the real hope is that a Netflix viewer might hold the key to finding the truth.
One word of warning: the show’s title is accurate, and if you’re hoping for resolution to these brain-mangling stories you’ll be sorely disappointed. These mysteries, quite simply, are unsolved!
Three Identical Strangers
This film tells the story of identical triplets, separated at birth and adopted by three different families, who found each other by accident. Despite growing up with very different backgrounds, the three brothers – who become minor celebrities in 1980s America – seem to share all sorts of mannerisms, tastes and interests, and quickly end up running a business together. That in itself would be an incredible tale, but this one takes a sinister twist along the way that makes it all the more unlikely – and all the more compelling.
For readers of a certain age, this film about the rise and fall of Oasis will feel like nothing short of a nostalgia onslaught. 25 years or so on from the release of Definitely Maybe, it’s hard to think of another band that dominated mainstream British culture like the frères Gallagher – even if that dominance lasted just a few short years. Soon enough, egos and excess put an end to the band’s “classic” line-up, the tunes dried up and Noel and Liam decided to expend their energy sniping at each other in the media rather than attempt any sort of return to form.
Even if you've never been a fan of their music, there’s so much to enjoy here. The brothers are on typically candid form in the present-day interviews, which play over reels and reels of fantastic archive footage.
Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown (S1-12)
The much 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 countries and regions in search of interesting things to munch on, but generally finds much more than just tasty tacos or deep-fried sea urchins.
If the format sounds a bit “Rick Stein on a gap year”, the actual results are far more enjoyable. Bourdain’s empathy, inquisitiveness and adventurous spirit shine through over the course of 12 whole series – now that’s a true feast of eye-opening and mouth-watering TV.
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.