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The 50 Best Documentaries Streaming on Netflix 2014

July 21, 2014  |  8:30am
The 50 Best Documentaries Streaming on Netflix 2014

One thing Netflix is quietly doing very well is streaming some of the best documentaries of the last few years. Nearly all of our favorite documentaries of 2013 are now available on the streaming service. But it’s not always easy finding the best of Netflix’s broad documentary selection. So here are our updated picks for the 50 Best Documentaries Streaming on Netflix in 2014:

helvetica.jpg50. 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

Enron.jpg49. Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room
Year: 2005
Director: Alex Gibney
In a cautionary tale of corporate greed, negligence and diffusion of responsibility, the leaders of Enron defrauded employees and investors out of millions, encouraging others to stay aboard a sinking ship while they were quietly bailing themselves out. Among the highlights of Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room is Alex Gibney’s montage that cross-cuts footage of Stanley Milgram’s 1961 social experiment with images of the chaos caused by Enron in the 2000 California energy crisis, narrated by phone calls between ruthlessly jovial Enron traders, all set to Los Straightjackets’ “California Sun.” The unexpected wit and verve with which this documentary tells its infuriating tale is what sets it apart. Emily Riemer

best-worst-movie.jpg48. 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

art-of-the-steal.jpg47. 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

tabloid.jpg46. 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

page-one.jpg45. 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

who-is-harry-nilsson.jpg44. Who is Harry Nilsson (And Why is Everybody Talkin’ About Him)?
Year: 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

no-end-in-sight.jpg43. No End In Sight
Year: 2007
Director: Charles Ferguson
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

queen-versailles.jpg42. The Queen of Versailles
Year: 2012
Director: Lauren Greenfield
Lauren Greenfield only meant to take a few pictures of a very wealthy family in the midst of all their opulence. Her subjects were the Siegels—the self-made billionaire, the trophy wife, the eight not-as-maladjusted-as-you-might-think children, the monochromatic menagerie of animals. But once the family began opening up about their lives, the woman behind the camera decided to stick around a little while longer, positing that there might be more to this story than just infinity symbols for account balances. Her perseverance resulted in an alternately hilarious and heart-wrenching cautionary tale about the excesses of the American dream.—Tyler Chase

thunder-soul.jpg41. Thunder Soul
Year: 2010
Director: Mark Landsman
During the early ’70s, there was a group in Houston that was acclaimed by some as the greatest funk band in the world. Amazingly enough, it was made up of high-school students, the Kashmere High School Stage Band. After 35 years, alumni return to give legendary band director Conrad “Prof” Johnson one more concert as he nears the end of his life. Mr. Holland’s Opus meets The Commitments, but real.—Michael Dunaway

waiting-room.jpg40. The Waiting Room
Year: 2012
Director: Peter Nicks
A heart-wrenching wake-up call about the complex problems with our healthcare system in America. Director Peter Nicks chronicles patients who are waiting for treatment in a saftey-net hospital in Oakland, Calif. People living without health insurance talk about their hardships and struggles as they to find relief for their illnesses. A real eye-opener, The Waiting Room beautifully pieces together disparate stories that make us question our current healthcare system, and point us to reform. —Danielle Radin

restrepo.jpg39. Restrepo
Year: 2010
Directors: Tim Hetherington, Sebastian Junger
CNN has called the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan the deadliest place on earth, and that’s where filmmakers spent time embedded with a platoon of U.S. soldiers during heavy combat. Dealing with at least four fire fights per day instills a close comradery among the troops that is especially evident when one of them is killed. The film’s title comes from a fallen comrade.—Tim Basham

semper-fi.jpg38. Semper Fi: Always Faithful
Year: 2011
Directors: Rachel Libert, Tony Hardmon
Just what did they know? And when did they know it? These are two questions that dominate much of the documentary Semper Fi: Always Faithful. The “they” is the U.S. government and more specifically the officials who administered the Camp Lejeune Marine Corps base, located in North Carolina. The “what” is part of the mystery uncovered in this rich film likely to factor into the awards discussion as the year draws to a close.—Jonathan Hickman

brooklyn-castle.jpg37. Brooklyn Castle
Year: 2012
Director: Katie Dellamaggiore
The subject of Brooklyn Castle sounds like the premise for a soppy, Oscar-baiting drama. At I.S. 138 in Brooklyn, New York, a competitive chess program has helped an extraordinary number of lower-income inner city students improve their standings in life. But this documentary is all real, which makes the triumphs and failures of these kids all the more affecting. Featuring a delightful roster of vibrant young people and a timely exploration of how budget cuts are harming extracurricular programs, it may be the best school doc since Resolved.—Dan Schindel

fambul-tok.jpg36. Fambul Tok
Year: 2011
Director: Sara Terry
People of the African nation of Sierra Leone practice an ancient ritual of family talk called Fambul Tok in this incredible documentary. Citizens whose lives were horrifically changed by civil war, where family members became killers of their own families, where torture and cruelty were every day occurrences, demonstrate a remarkable amount of tolerance and forgiveness as they gather to heal the emotional scars of war. Even though the fighting was over, rapists and murderers would walk among the victims and victims’ families with impunity. But instead of imprisonment, the perpetrators would be reconciled with the citizenry through Fambul Tok. Sierra Leone, we learn, has a saying that sums it up best. “There is no place to throw away a bad child.”—Tim Basham

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