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.
My Octopus Teacher
This Oscar-winner documents a year in the conservationist Craig Foster’s life, during which he took a daily dip off the coast of Simon’s Town in South Africa. It’s among the area’s forest of kelp that Foster forms an unlikely inter-species bond with an unnamed female cephalopod and, with the help of a world-class underwater cameraman, captures some of her species' truly mind-blowing skills, characteristics and behaviour on film. It veers towards the saccharine nearing the end, but as a look into the life and world of a creature that wouldn’t be out of place in a sci-fi movie, it’s truly fascinating.
Readers of a certain age will remember the BBC series 999, which reconstructed freak accidents and the dramatic, against-all-odds rescues that followed them. One week somebody would fall out of a plane, the next a schoolboy would catch a javelin through the neck.
Last Breath feels a bit like 999: The Movie. It tells the incredible story of commercial diver Chris Lemons, whose literal lifeline gets cut in bad weather leaving him stranded 100 metres below the North Sea with almost zero visibility and not a lot more oxygen. Where 999 made do with reconstructions, talking heads and newsreader Michael Buerk’s narration, this film includes real footage of the otherworldly environment taken from the divers’ wearable cameras, turning it into an even more tense, claustrophobic watch.
Pretend It’s a City (S1)
Martin Scorsese directs this seven-part profile of humourist Fran Lebowitz, whose acerbic, contrarian takes on modern life have entertained Americans since the 1970s. It’s as much a profile of New York, though – the city in which Lebowitz has lived her whole life and a frequent subject of her work and her ire. Scorsese himself conducts interviews with the writer that covers gentrification, jazz, technology, tourism and more. For anyone who likes their humour served dry, it’s a feast.
The Dawn Wall
Unlikely to be the documentary for vertigo sufferers, this film follows the attempt by professional climbers Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson to be the first people to ascend the Dawn Wall of El Capitan, a 3,000-foot sheer rock face in California’s Yosemite National Park thought to be impossible. Caldwell and Jorgeson’s free climb isn’t just a feat of strength, stamina and technique, but one of absolute endurance – the process of finding a climbable route up the smooth granite slab will take weeks, meaning the pair must live on the wall itself, camping out on portable ledges hanging off the rock face.
The Ripper (S1)
Offering an insightful and thorough examination of the Yorkshire Ripper case through interviews and archive footage, this excellent documentary series isn’t just a look at Peter Sutcliffe’s horrific crimes and the police’s attempts to stop him, but a snapshot of the UK and the wider culture of the late 1970s and early 1980s – and how pervasive sexism and chauvinism played major roles in Sutcliffe eluding capture for so long.
Song Exploder (S1-2)
Spinning off from the beloved long-running podcast series of the same name, this show takes a deep dive into pop music. Covering artists like Dua Lipa, Nine Inch Nails and The Killers, each episode dissects a particular song along with the people who made it, exposing the nuts, bolts, inspiration and perspiration that goes into creating a hit record. Fascinating stuff for anyone with a pop penchant.
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.
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 (S1-2)
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.