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.
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.
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.
A Netflix Original series directed by documentary maker Errol Morris (responsible for the likes of The Thin Blue Line and The Fog of War), Wormwood is a six-part series mixing Morris’ staple of one-on-one talking head interviews with dramatised scenes. Being a bid budget production, those dramatised scenes are a cut above any we’ve seen in other docudramas, with superb special effects and big name actors like Peter Sarsgaard and Tim Blake Nelson playing the roles.
The series concerns a the supposed suicide of a biological warfare scientist after his involvement in a secret CIA programme, and his family’s attempts to find out the truth about his death and about what he was working on for the US government.
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
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.
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.
This series (now three seasons 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.
Indie Game: The Movie
This 2012 film puts the spotlight on three independent game developers – the creators of Super Meat Boy, Fez and Braid – as it peeks behind the scenes at a creative process that, even if you’re an avid gamer, you probably don’t spend too much time thinking about.
In hindsight, game fans will know that all three of these titles turned out to be successful with both critics and consumers, but make no mistake: the life of a developer, particularly in the indie scene, is one of back-breaking technical work and financial stress that can wreak a heavy toll on one’s personal life – and that’s all on show here.
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.