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.
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Trainwreck: Woodstock ’99
The original Woodstock in 1969 was billed as ‘three days of peace and music’, but when the festival returned 30 years later it quickly descended into an absolute horrorshow – and we don’t just mean that the Red Hot Chili Peppers performed.
Variously compared by those who were there to the Fall of Saigon, William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, and the Battle of Jericho, Woodstock ‘99 was a perfect storm of poor facilities, high prices, oppressive heat, and a line-up that attracted an overwhelmingly macho and aggressive crowd, with Limp Bizkit’s Fred Durst as a kind of pied piper of anarchy.
Netflix’s three-parter is real car-crash TV – and not always an easy watch – but perhaps the most shocking part is how, even when presented with the evidence 23 years later, the organisers are unwilling to shoulder any blame for what happened.
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 3000-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. Nearly 30 years 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.
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.
Street Food (S1-3)
A recent series from the minds behind Chef’s Table, Street Food focuses 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 dishes portrayed are guaranteed to have your tummy rumbling by the time the credits roll.
The second and third seasons, focusing on Latin America and the USA, are now available too.
The Chef Show (S1-4)
A cooking show spun 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 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.
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.
Has there been a more high-profile murder case this millennium than that of “Foxy Knoxy” – the American student arrested as a 20-year-old in Perugia for the murder of her British flatmate Meredith Kercher?
Nearly a decade on, she’s back home in Seattle having been acquitted by an Italian court. But if she didn’t do it, who did? Considering the amount of coverage the case received at the time – coverage that this film is keen to criticise for being sexist, crass, sensationalist and exploitative – it’s probably not surprising that it doesn’t reveal anything particularly new, although it does introduce us to tabloid journalist Nick Pisa, a smarmy hack who makes Piers Morgan look like a shining example of his profession.
Knox’s one-to-one interviews are the most compelling part of the film, revealing a thoughtful, articulate woman who’s had plenty of time to think about what happened that day. It’s just a shame the film spends so long retreading old ground, rather than examining what it’s like to live in the shadow of such a horrifying crime.
Wild Wild Country (S1)
This slick, stylish six-part Netflix series will gleefully suck in anyone with more than a passing interest in cults, utopian visionaries, counterculture and power struggles.
It tells the story – by turns comedic and unsettling – of Indian religious leader Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh who brought his band of red-robed followers to a Manhattan-sized tract of land in the Oregon wilderness with the intention of founding a self-sustaining city based on “love and sharing” rather than ownership and individualism.
Unsurprisingly, this band of free love-advocating New Age nudists immediately come into conflict with the handful of local townspeople – God-fearing, conservative and mostly old – and the amazing true story of this rapidly escalating butting of heads is told masterfully through new talking heads interviews and hours of archive footage. With the tale taking incredible twists and turns (Germ warfare! Arson! Attempted murder! The FBI! The co-founder of Nike!), this is among the most compelling original documentary series in Netflix’s library.
Ugly Delicious (S1-2)
Reckon Chef’s Table is a little too sedate and respectful for your tastes? Netflix has another, newer food show that might be more your speed: Ugly Delicious.
Fronted by award-winning chef David Chang and food writer Peter Meehan, it plunges face first into comfort food rather than venerating fine dining. Each episode focusses on a type of grub – pizza, tacos, fried chicken, home cooking, BBQ, etc – exploring its history and traditions and taking a deep, delicious dive into how different cooks and chefs around the world have developed it. For instance, did you know the best Neapolitan pizza in the world might just be in Tokyo?
Chang, Meehan and the succession of guest hosts make it a casual, irreverent and enjoyable watch, as well as an engrossing exploration of everyday eating. One note of advice, though: don’t view it on an empty stomach.
Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond
Much of the footage that makes up this raw, funny and touching behind-the-scenes doc was only recently unsealed by Universal Pictures. Apparently, studio executives didn’t want Joe Public thinking star Jim Carrey was, in his own words, “an asshole”.
Because Carrey insisted on staying in character while filming Andy Kauffman biopic Man on the Moon, either as the misunderstood funny man himself, or his obnoxious lounge singer alter ego Tony Clifton – something that baffled, infuriated and entertained his co-stars in equal measure.
It’s a fascinating insight to Carrey’s state of mind at the time, when he seemed to genuinely believe he was channeling Kauffman throughout filming – leading to a news-making bust up with professional wrestler Jerry Lawler, private reconciliation with Kauffman’s estranged daughter, and on-set antics that genuinely made life hell for the filmmakers.
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.
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 two spin-offs 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 on the remote.
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 – and it’s now available for free on YouTube.
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.