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The 40 Best Documentaries on Netflix Instant

September 25, 2013  |  9:17am

Netflix Instant has more than 1,000 different documentaries available for streaming, covering politics, nature, sports, music, food, religion and just about every other topic imaginable. But an interesting topic doesn’t always lead to a compelling documentary. It all depends on the story the filmmaker is able to tell. We’ve compiled 40 of our favorite documentaries, where the people on either side of the camera proved particularly adept at weaving a good tale. The subjects here include race-car drivers, daredevils, musicians, politicians, one of the worst movies of all time and even an iconic font.

So if you’re in the mood for something real, scroll through our list of the 40 Best Documentaries on Netflix Instant, and let us know what you enjoyed—or what we missed—in the comments section below. (And check out our list of the 100 Best Movies on Netflix Instant.)

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40. The Island President
Director: Jon Shenk
Year: 2012
For the tiny island country of Maldives and its President Mohamed Nasheed, global warming isn’t an abstract concept but a matter of life and death. The Indian Ocean nation peaks at an elevation of 2.5 meters above sea level, and with 80 percent of its land at less than one meter, a rise of three meters in sea level would submerge its 1,200 islands enough to make them uninhabitable—a fate some scientists believe is possible as early as this century. After leading a 20-year pro-democracy movement to wrest control of Maldives from brutal dictator Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, during which time he survived 12 arrests and two bouts of torture, Nasheed took control of the country only to face its biggest challenge yet: its very survival. With unprecedented access, documentarian Jon Shenk (Lost Boys of Sudan) captures the ambitious first year of Nasheed’s short-lived presidency, revisiting his ascent to power via social uprising by interviewing those who were there. The film begins and culminates with the 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen. In Shenk’s and editor Pedro Kos’ hands, these developments play like a real-life natural-disaster movie.—Annlee Ellingson

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39. Helvetica
Year: 2007
Director: Gary Hustwit
For his documentary-directing debut, Gary Hustwit did not follow the local basketball team through its championship tournament. He did not dissect a pressing political issue. And he sure as hell didn’t eat exclusively Big Macs for a month.
Instead, Hustwit created a documentary on a font: Helvetica, to be specific. Go ahead, pull it up in your word processor of choice. How compelling does it look to you? The fact that Hustwit and cinematographer Luke Geissbuhler turned this benign typeface into a rather well-received film says a lot about their sense of style and passion for the concepts of graphic design.—Jeremy Goldmeier

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38. Cave of Forgotten Dreams
Year: 2010
Director: Werner Herzog
3-D skeptics might have to rethink their stance after witnessing Werner Herzog’s stunning tour of the oldest cave drawings ever found. Herzog’s cameras were the first to document the 30,000-year-old cave in France and leave you to ponder the meaning. —Josh Jackson

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37. Best Worst Movie
Year: 2009
Director: Michael Paul Stephenson
The 1990 horror flick Troll 2 features listless acting, klutzy special effects and not a single troll. It stars a whiny 10-year-old named Michael Paul Stephenson—who, two decades after the movie’s release and titanic flop, is still grappling with that disastrous first brush with stardom. Only a few years ago did Stephenson—by then an aspiring filmmaker—realize how oddly popular the movie had become, winning the strange hearts of B-movie aficionados worldwide. They’d thrown costume parties, hosted public screenings, even dubbed it the “best worst movie of all time.” This unlikely cult following is part of what Stephenson chronicles in his directorial debut, a kind of laughing-with approach to reconciling Troll 2’s disastrous beginnings and unlikely cult following. He also tracks down a number of his co-stars to gauge their enduring relationship to the film; obscurity, thwarted ego and general mental illness plague some, but George Hardy—the actor turned small-town dentist who played Stephenson’s father in Troll 2—becomes the documentary’s de facto star with his guileless, picket-fence grin. It’s a tale of despair, redemption and transcendence—like all the best movies, and all the worst.—Rachael Maddux

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36. Ken Burns: Baseball
Year: 1994
Director: Ken Burns
Burns’ documentaries on the Civil War, the Brooklyn Bridge, the National Parks, the West, the Shakers, Congress, Huey Long, Thomas Jefferson, Lewis and Clark, Mark Twain, Frank Lloyd Wright, radio and the Statue of Liberty are also available on Netflix Instant, but the playoffs are looming. It’s once again time for 22 hours of baseball history, plus his follow-up The Tenth Inning. —Josh Jackson

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35. Page One: Inside the New York Times
Year: 2011
Director: Andrew Rossi
The always entertaining Times reporter David Carr could easily have been the focus of the entire film but director Andrew Rossi smartly uses Carr as an appropriate voice of experience, albeit an unabashed defender of the paper. The grizzled, ex-drug addict journalist is a film editor’s dream as he speaks in sharp, insightful and seemingly effortless sound bites.—Tim Basham

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34. The Art of the Steal
Year: 2009
Director: Don Argott
In the early 20th century, Albert Barnes rose from his blue-collar beginnings to considerable wealth, assembling what would become the most impressive collection of post-impressionist art in the world (181 Renoirs, 59 Matisses), currently valued at over $25 billion. He housed it all in an impeccably civilized foundation on private property outside the city of Philadelphia as an act of defiance against his lifelong enemies, the Philadelphia art establishment and city government. Then, as a final middle finger to those forces, he clearly demanded in his will that the collection never be sold, loaned or moved, and specifically never to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. You can guess from the title what happened next. An infuriating look at a government’s brazen attempt to steal a priceless collection from a foundation that Matisse called “the only sane place to see art in America.”—Michael Dunaway

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33. Tabloid
Year: 2010
Director: Errol Morris
Since his breakthrough feature, 1988’s The Thin Blue Line, every one of Errol Morris’ features has essentially been about searching for the truth. It’s been a wide-ranging exploration, one that’s been equally fruitful delving into the mysteries of the universe and displacing common beliefs about Vietnam. With Tabloid, Morris continues probing into this theme, but here he’s found a case in which everyone is lying and the truth itself may be unobtainable—which is likely why its story fascinated him so much.—Sean Gandert

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32. Freakonomics
Year:
Directors: 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

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31. American: The Bill Hicks Story
Year: 2010
Directors: Matt Harlock, Paul Thomas
Some say that real humor is usually fueled by strong emotions. That may help explain why Bill Hicks was one of the best comedians our country’s ever seen, since at his best his comedy was fueled by his rage, ripping apart a world he saw as full of inescapable stupidity and laziness. One of the main questions being asked by American: The Bill Hicks Story is how exactly Hicks became so angry, not to mention how much of the anger was an act and how much was genuinely who he was. There’s more than a touch of hagiography in American, which isn’t surprising since the film is made for fans. But there’s also enough of Hicks’ actual material to illustrate why he’s so well-regarded, and while the film occasionally skims through years of his life a little quickly, it’s simply because what needs to be said about that period is said best through his jokes.—Sean Gandert

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