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.
THE DEFIANT ONES
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.
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.
WORLD WAR II IN COLOUR
This 13-part documentary series does exactly what it says on the tin: tell the story of the major events of the Second World War using the somewhat unusual medium of colour film. From the war’s origins in worldwide economic depression to the dropping of atom bombs on Japan, it’s all retold in glorious, living colour from newsreels and other contemporary sources. Some of the footage is original, some has been colourised after the fact, but the effect is much the same – by showing us things we’ve previously only seen in monochrome (or in fictional reconstructions), it’s giving us a rare opportunity to view them with fresh eyes.
WILD WILD COUNTRY
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.
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.
Flint, Michigan used to exemplify the American Dream. Like nearby Detroit, the city boomed off the back of the automotive industry, becoming home to a burgeoning middle class and some of the highest median wages in the USA.
Today, it’s a case study for the Dream's decay, one of the nation’s most impoverished cities, with crumbling infrastructure, soaring crime and an underfunded and shorthanded police force. Throw in a deadly (and totally avoidable) water crisis, and Flint starts to look like nothing less than exemplar of systemic failure, a microcosm of forgotten Middle America. Little wonder Michigan, after voting for the Democratic candidate in six consecutive elections, was won over by Donald Trump’s rambling promises to bring prosperity back to the Rust Belt.
It makes for a grimly fascinating subject in Netflix’s original eight-part documentary series, filmed over two years and focussed on the aforementioned police department. With fewer than 100 officers tasked with policing over a thousand times that many people, the department’s overstretched and demoralised, but determined to keep the city from collapsing. If you want a stark portrait of late capitalist America, and an inside view of how a US police department works (or doesn’t), Flint Town is a must watch.
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.