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20 Great Documentaries To Watch on Netflix Instant (2012)

April 29, 2012  |  5:13pm

Last year, we looked at 20 Great Documentaries to Watch on Netflix Instant, but as the movie service is constantly updating its offerings, we decided to update the list with 20 different documentaries that are available now.

A handful of documentaries from last year’s list are still available as well: Restrepo, God Grew Tired of Us, Client 9, Exit Through the Gift Shop, The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia, No End In Sight and No Direction Home.

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20. Bill Cunningham New York
Director: Richard Press
Half of making a great documentary is finding a great subject, and Richard Press has absolutely done that in this affectionate treatment of the New York Times’ irresistibly charming octogenarian street fashion photographer.—Michael Dunaway

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19. The Black Power Mixtape
Director: Göran Olsson
The Black Power Mixtape offers a steady drumbeat for justice, but it’s more of an introduction than an analysis. The parts never quite coalesce into a complete picture. But this poignant, alternative history will spark a hunger for knowledge.—Craig Detweiler

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18. Last Train Home
Director: Lixin Fan
The world’s largest human migration. First-time filmmaker Lixin Fan looks at the generational and city/rural divides facing many Chinese families, as 130 million migrant workers venture to their home villages to celebrate the New Year.—Josh Jackson

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17. Sweetgrass
Directors: Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Ilisa Barbash
What’s all this nonsense about the “silence” of the lambs? The sheep who populate nearly every frame of Sweetgrass are bleat merchants of a spectacularly boisterous order. That incessant bahhhh, in all its variations, makes a hypnotic soundtrack for this absorbed and absorbing documentary about the end of an era: The camera follows Montana rancher Lawrence Allested, his posse of cowboys and one big-ass herd on its last grazing run across 200 miles of the Rockies in the summer of 2001. There’s no narration. Often, there’s no dialogue, aside from some salty campfire banter, cowboy jokes and all that ovine crosstalk. Sounds a tad dry, right? It’s not. The film’s poetic sweep comes with the territory. The waves of alabaster sheep, the endless blue horizon, the green grassy hills: It’s a pastoral wet dream of American splendor.—Steve Dollar

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16. The Weather Underground
Directors: Sam Green and Bill Siegel
Long before Al-Qaida, the U.S. had its own terrorist factions. But while Osama bin Laden and Timothy McVeigh have been almost universally reviled, the Weathermen were hailed in certain sectors as heroes. A small, radical off-shoot of the ‘60s antiwar group Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the Weathermen were frustrated by the peace movement’s apparent lack of impact and took matters into their own hands. They first attempted to organize the working class and provoke violent protests and disobedience. But when that proved ineffective, they went underground and pulled off a string of spectacular bombings around the nation in the early ‘70s. The documentary The Weather Underground, directed by Sam Green and Bill Siegel, looks at that time by combining old news footage and contemporary interviews with several members of the Weathermen. The former perfectly captures the early ‘70s zeitgeist, when the peace-and-love faction was splintering, cannibalizing itself in its own discord. But it also reminds us of a time when a large segment of the population was willing to take to the streets to protest injustice and oppression thousands of miles away.—J. .Robert Parks

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15. Bowling For Columbine
Director: Michael Moore
Michael Moore can sometimes seem glib and shrill, driving even his supporters nuts. But with 2002’s Columbine, arguably his most important film, he successfully tackles the insanity of America’s gun problem—a problem so insane that Marilyn Manson, in a candid interview, emerges as the voice of reason.—Nick Marino

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14. King Corn
Director: Aaron Woolf
The most subsidized and ubiquitous American crop is explored in this documentary about two friends who plant an acre of corn and follow it from seed to food products. Director Aaron Woolf presents a provocative film about America’s increasingly controversial agricultural staple.—Emily Riemer

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13. Trouble the Water
Directors: Tia Lessin, Carl Deal
Like a Shakespeare adaptation, Trouble the Water’s plot will be unreassuringly familiar: levee breaches, failed bureaucracy, general awfulness. Even without adding to the well-covered Hurricane Katrina narrative, documentarians Tia Lessin and Carl Deal still get it completely right. Edited around home videos by Kimberly Rivers Roberts, a vivacious 24-year-old resident of New Orleans’ 9th Ward, and subsequent footage by Lessin and Deal, Trouble the Water is an intimate, necessary take on Katrina. Roberts shoots instinctively, portentously capturing the first windblown shingle as the storm builds. Though ignoring backstories until the third reel (and thumbnailing rich 9th Ward culture into the reductive bin of “poverty”), the filmmakers learn from the missteps of their sometime collaborator, Michael Moore, and keep the commentary implicit. (Kim’s reference to “this President Bush character, whoever he is,” is as scathing as it needs to get.) Trouble the Water doesn’t make sense of Katrina or the N’awlins diaspora, but it communicates them wholly.—Jesse Jarnow

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12. Howard Zinn: You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train
Directors: Deb Ellis and Denis Mueller
Howard Zinn first heard the crackling truths of Woody Guthrie’s “Ludlow Massacre” on the eve of a cultural revolution. Sprouting from a working-class Brooklyn villa, he latched onto the emerging ethos of anti-Nixonism in the ’60s. After earning a pulpit of his own, he loudly called the American war machine to task. You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train is an end-of-the-road homage to Zinn the historian, professor and activist, a man most likely to be remembered for his book, A People’s History of the United States, and least likely for his arson charges while tenuring at Boston University. Narrated by Matt Damon (who once, as Will Hunting, pointedly namedropped Zinn), the film serves primarily as a time capsule for a towering, albeit aged, leader of the New Left. It occasionally bends from biopic to polemic, but not distractingly so. The clout of Zinn’s worldwide impact still remains intact, begging us moderns to ground our future in the fugitive compassion of the past, rather than the unyielding and cyclical centuries of warfare.—Cameron Bird

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11. Cool It
Director: Ondi Timoner
Talking to Sundance-award-winning documentarian Ondi Timoner is a little like talking to a whirlwind. It’s not just that she’s so accomplished (in documentaries about subjects as far-ranging as rock music, the Internet, cult-like churches and now global warming) and intelligent (she’s a cum laude Yale grad who references Renoir and Mapplethorpe in her first answer). It’s that she jumps to and riffs on topic after topic like a jazz musician, with great little nuggets of insight at every stop along the way. To fully appreciate the interview, look for the audio version coming soon to Paste Culture Club. In the meantime, we did our best to extract a few of the choice morsels for you from our conversation about her new film Cool It! “We need to look at how much money we can put towards R&D right now, because we won’t switch until alternative energy is less expensive than fossil fuels. We just won’t. That’s why it’s not happening yet; it’s pure economics.”—Michael Dunaway

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