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20 Great Documentaries to Watch on Netflix Instant

April 14, 2011  |  7:00am
15. Freakonomics (2010)
Director: Heidi Ewing, Alex Gibney, Seth Gordon, Rachel Grady, Eugene Jarecki and Morgan Spurlock
A book on economics by two dweeby guys with six different directors and no stars shouldn’t have worked. But it crackles with energy and intelligence, and the different directorial visions provide infectious energy. Alex Gibney’s “chapter” on fixing sumo wrestling matches is the best overall, and Morgan Spurlock’s on baby names is the most entertaining. But the whole film is fascinating, and it flies by before you know it. Entertainment and education in one fell swoop.—Michael Dunaway

14. Who is Harry Nilsson (And Why is Everybody Talkin’ About Him)? (2010)
Director: John Scheinfeld
Lennon and McCartney allegedly said that Nilsson was their favorite group, thinking he was a band, not a man. That sums up well the enigma of Harry Nilsson—always there but always missing. With rare footage and frank interviews, director John Scheinfeld fills in much of the missing parts on one of popular music’s greatest and strangest talents. For example, in 1972 Nilsson followed up his commercially successful Nilsson Schmilsson (containing the Grammy winning “Without You”) with the more self-indulgent album Son of Schmilsson containing one of the greatest break-up songs of all time, “You’re Breakin’ My Heart” (“…you’re tearing me apart, so fuck you.”)—Tim Basham

13. No End In Sight (2007)
Director: Charles Ferguson
Starring: Campbell Scott
Studio: Magnolia Pictures

After several years of fine and varied documentaries on Iraq, Ferguson came along to sum up the American side of the debacle—the fear, hubris and missed opportunities—with great efficiency. It’s an especially good, if infuriating primer for those who’ve grown exhausted of following daily reports from the Persian Gulf. Robert Davis

12. The Lottery (2010)
Director: Madeleine Sackler
Waiting for “Superman” was the most intellectually rigorous argument of 2010 in favor of school reform, but The Lottery was undoubtedly its most emotionally compelling. Rather than touch all the bases of the debate, Madeleine Sackler chooses to focus primarily on four Harlem kids hoping to win the lottery… to enter Harlem Success Academy, a charter school. Demand is so great at many charter schools that a lottery is required to choose which children have a shot at a better life. Why don’t school systems move those schools into some of the echoing buildings of the failing schools all those students are fleeing? The New York Public School System tries just that, but is foiled by crusading parents bamboozled by sloganeering propaganda artists. It all seems too good guy/bad guy, but it’s typical of situations in large cities all over the country. When the final names are announced, you’ll find yourself on the edge of your seat.—Michael Dunaway

11. No Direction Home (2005)
Director: Martin Scorsese
Starring: Bob Dylan
Studio: Paramount Pictures

Borrowing D.A. Pennebaker’s and Andy Warhol’s Best Dylan footage from 1961 to 1966—the most important, influential period in the master songwriter’s career—and combining it with a series of informal mid-’90s interviews with everyone from Allen Ginsberg and Dave Van Ronk to otherwise tight-lipped ex-girlfriend Suze Rotole and even Dylan himself, Scorsese creates an immersive filmic collage that does as much to create further intrigue around its shadowy subject as peel back the curtain and offer a glimpse of the mysterious man pulling the strings. Steve LaBate

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