The 50 Best Documentaries on Netflix (2016)

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The 50 Best Documentaries on Netflix (2016)

Before you fill the comments here and/or on Facebook with pissed-off missives about how—dear god how??—we could have missed this or that pick off a list of the best documentaries on Netflix, a quick caveat: There are no 30 for 30 picks on this list. We left them off because we could probably just make a list of the Top 25 30 for 30 specials on Netflix (say, there’s an idea…), plus they exist within their own vacuum of influence, stature and length, each segment in essence defining what a “documentary” can and should be—so just check them out.

One thing Netflix does exceedingly well is capture the latest and most groundbreaking in documentary films, be it their early adoption of Robert Greene’s Actress to the service, the seemingly oneiric appearance of the Ross brothers’ Western, or their championing of such obscure essentials as Los Angeles Plays itself, The Epic of Everest and Biggie & Tupac. The streaming giant’s devotion to the art of the documentary is often overshadowed by its increasingly voracious appetite for original programming or by how many Criterion titles it loses by the day, so we’re here to declare: Netflix has a lot of wonderful documentaries on it. We live in exciting times.

Of course, most of these titles skew towards release dates occurring within the past ten years, but that’s a matter of distribution rights and audience preference and even the filmmakers’ access to available technology—in other words: We’re not ignoring old titles and probably neither is Netflix. This is just how the streaming game goes.

For other genres and types, check out Paste’s many, many Best Movies lists, and then make your way through the following. Can you handle the truth? Find out with the 50 Best Documentaries currently streaming on Netflix:


madonna-truth-dare-cover.jpg 50. Madonna: Truth or Dare
Director: Alex Keshishian
Year: 1991
Twenty-five years ago, Madonna’s self-celebrating documentary was released. Madonna: Truth or Dare, which joins Madonna on her blockbuster 1990 Blonde Ambition tour, promised a “backstage” look at the world-famous pop star “as she really is,” but with its staged “confessions” and cheekily pretentious, black-and-white art-house style (likely an homage to D.A. Pennebaker’s famous Bob Dylan study Dont Look Back), the film challenged expectations. It did not introduce audiences to a more down-to-earth star. It did not present a likable Madonna. Instead, Truth or Dare provided a portrait of Madonna the constant performer, at times abrasive and demanding, in control of every aspect of her career. Criticized upon its release for being “contrived” and “manipulated” by its subject—for its failure to reveal what audiences conceived to be a hidden “real Madonna”—the film is often gleefully phony. It is fascinating to watch for precisely the reason it was criticized—it is Madonna’s story told completely on Madonna’s terms, and challenges the idea of what is acceptably “real” when it comes to female celebrities. Twenty-five years on, the film still feels refreshing, boldly refusing to perpetuate the image of yet another vulnerable female star tossed on the turbulent seas of fame and steadied by the hands of so many managers and handlers. In Truth or Dare, Madonna refuses to diminish herself for our affection. She doesn’t care that she’ll be called “calculating”—in fact, she’d probably take it as a compliment. —Maura McAndrew


47-Netflix-Docs_2015-queen-versailles.jpg 49. The Queen of Versailles
Director: Lauren Greenfield
Year: 2012
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-wrenchingly cautionary tale about the excesses of the American dream. —Tyler Chase


wolfpack.jpg 48. The Wolfpack
Director: Crystal Moselle
Year: 2015
Imagine a small, dingy Manhattan apartment; imagine you can’t leave; and imagine: The only contact you have with the outside world is through movies. Growing up like this, anyone could imagine that things could get pretty weird—and the Angulo family, a literal band of brothers raised in isolation by their paranoid parents, are indeed an interesting bunch. Their only outlet for creativity, undertaken as a way to basically stave off boredom, is to recreate their favorite films (like Reservoir Dogs, The Dark Knight and The Grand Budapest Hotel), crafting costumes out of cereal boxes, yoga mats and whatever other resources they can get their pale hands on. In The Wolfpack, director Crystal Moselle has nearly unlimited access to the Angulo brothers; at one point they inform her that she is the only person who has ever been invited over to their home, and is the only guest they’ve ever had. Sad and strange, funny and touching, powerful and unsettling, it is so wholly unusual, The Wolfpack may be like no truth you’ve ever seen before. —Brent McKnight


welcome-leith-cover.jpg 47. Welcome to Leith
Directors: Michael Beach Nichols, Christopher K. Walker
Year: 2015
In a nondescript corner of America, members of a community of 24 know well and look out for one another. Welcome to the small town of Leith. A nice-enough stranger takes an interest in their town. He quickly buys up tracts of land and becomes one of the biggest stakeholders in the area. But Craig Cobb is not just a dowdy loner—he’s a white supremacist instigating an Aryan coup in the American heartland. What recourse do the locals have to oust the interloper? The answer: shockingly, not much. Welcome to Leith poses the question of where tolerance and intolerance begin. How quiet do we get when the Dutton family espouses their beliefs as “white separatists” around their young children? How do we feel about individual rights when the will of that individual is essentially to terrorize a community and repurpose their homes for hatred? With an eerie sense of timeliness and excellent storytelling to match its ambitious themes, Welcome to Leith is a must-watch document of the unfettered feelings coursing through the veins of America right now that might just, someday soon, pull it apart from the inside. —Monica Castillo


45-Netflix-Docs_2015-no-no.jpg 46. No No: A Dockumentary
Director: Jeffrey Radice
Year: 2014
If you’ve ever heard of Dock Ellis, then you know the story: in 1970, pitching professional ball for the Pittsburgh Pirates, he threw a no hitter (a “no no”) while high on LSD. It’s a great story, especially told from Dock’s point of view—replete with crucial tidbits about how the catcher wore tape on his fingers so that the tripping Dock could see the signals, or how the level of Dock’s intoxication wasn’t exactly a rarity—but that story is only one page in the much broader account of Dock Ellis’s iconic tenure on this earth. A true-blue weirdo with an admirable proclivity to give practically zero fucks (not to mention becoming, in retrospect, an unheralded civil rights firebrand), Dock was a man of both radical shallowness and progressive steadfastness—one of addiction, salvation, dedication and devotion. And the story went: In 1970, pitching professional ball for the Pittsburgh Pirates, Dock Ellis threw a no hitter while high on LSD—it was a sad reminder of how far out of control his life had swerved. —Dom Sinacola


44-Netflix-Docs_2015-keepin-on.jpg 45. Keep On Keepin’ On
Director: Alan Hicks
Year: 2014
Shot over the course of almost five years by debut director Alan Hicks, Keep On Keepin’ On pitches a genuinely heartwarming tale about positivity in the face of adversity, and the many divides—racial, cultural, generational—that music can help bridge. It’s ostensibly a biopic of legendary, 93-year-old jazz trumpeter Clark Terry told via his mentorship of an affable, mid-20s piano prodigy stricken with debilitating nerves and near-complete blindness, but it quietly reveals itself to be so much more: an affectionate valentine to the tenacity of the human spirit which never once dips over into the maudlin. —Brent Simon


43-Netflix-Docs_2015-miss-simone.jpg 44. What Happened, Miss Simone?
Director: Liz Garbus
Year: 2015
Liz Garbus’s What Happened, Miss Simone? probably errs too far towards a thesis that Nina Simone’s mental health was the cause of her genius, rather than a factor that complicated it. But what saves the film, and what makes it engaging, is that I’m not sure Garbus wholly believes that thesis, because many moments in the film betray it. So even though there are times where Garbus elides aspects of Simone’s life and career to represent her decline as inevitable and linear (and even though she problematically chooses to use interviews with Simone’s abusive ex-husband to narrate Simone’s life), the parts of the film where Simone is allowed to speak for herself—from her diary, from interviews, while performing onstage—are utterly compelling. They portray an artist in the late-1960s at the height of her powers and skill, in complete control of her piano and her voice, and brashly embracing radical politics and Black Power in a way that most contemporary popular musicians were far too scared to do. Sure they also portray an artist who was clearly struggling with fame, responsibility, politics, anger, and self-worth—but, especially in performance, the sheer scope of Simone’s technical skill and artistic sensibilities often escape the imposed rise-and-fall narrative. Even footage from late in Simone’s career provides evidence of her insane musical skill: her reinterpretation of early hit “My Baby Just Cares for Me” over a piano arrangement that sounds like one of Bach’s Inventions is astounding in about 30 different ways at once. Though I can only recommend this film with the caveat that it feels overly storyboarded to exploit a tired old idea of the tortured artist in order to answer its titular question—as in, “Q. What happened?; A. The very qualities that made her great also haunted her”—the concert footage alone makes this documentary worth digging into. —Mark Abraham


best-of-enemies.jpg 43. Best of Enemies
Directors: Robert Gordon, Morgan Neville
Year: 2015
William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal’s infamously grueling rhetorical slugfest is the subject of Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville’s Best of Enemies. Neville won the hearts and minds of arthouse audiences (as well as of the AMPAS voting body) in 2013 with 20 Feet from Stardom, a film that peers behind curtains in show biz to showcase the unsung performers responsible for buttressing the careers of our favorite singers. In Best of Enemies, Neville has teamed with Gordon to pull back a different curtain, one concealing the very real ugliness bubbling and boiling off-camera for the length of ABC’s attempt at spicing up the otherwise staid world of political commentary. Best of Enemies deftly contextualizes the debates within the framework of their era, but the film is more concerned about how much they’ve echoed through the years. The tenor of Buckley’s meetings with Vidal is felt in every inch of our society’s contemporary political machine, from the speech of our crop of wannabe commanders-in-chief to the language used by our televised cognoscenti. Our ability to speak the same language has long been fractured, and Best of Enemies tracks the faultlines of that social temblor with remarkable precision. —Andy Crump


sunshine-superman-cover.jpg 42. Sunshine Superman
Director: Marah Strauch
Year: 2015

Sunshine Superman can be a problematic film to love. A thorough, intimate and often beautiful documentary about Carl Boenish and the BASE jumping movement that practically sprang single-mindedly from the endless font of his surreal enthusiasm, Sunshine Superman still can’t grasp the full splendor at the hearts of both the person and the extreme sport that serve as the film’s most plangent concern. And that isn’t necessarily the film’s fault—there is only so much excitement that can be conveyed regarding the freezing of a full-body rush into a small, albeit panoramic and easily gorgeous, picture—but it is something the film can’t get over. First-time filmmaker Marah Strauch spent years crafting something of a perfect eulogy to Carl Boenish—and her dedication to investigating his outsized life is palpable. It’s no real spoiler he dies, because although you don’t discover the details of Carl’s fate until the film’s final 20-minute stretch, his absence is heavy. His ghost is present everywhere else, though—in home recordings, in reel to reel recordings and even in answering machine messages, Boenish’s ebullient voice lives on righteously throughout the film. The way in which Strauch is able to weave the choicest moments from Boenish’s recordings into a larger narrative that neither betrays the freedom of what he was doing nor feels too formless speaks to a film that seems well-crafted beyond its years, despite the ghost that haunts it. —DS


finders-keepers.jpg 41. Finders Keepers
Directors: Bryan Carberry, Clay Tweel, Alexander Yellen
Year: 2015
Finders Keepers can boast of having one of the better single-sentence synopses of recent memory when it comes to documentaries: “After a man loses a leg in a plane crash and mummifies it himself, an errant storage locker sale deposits it into the hands of an entrepreneur who refuses to return the body part even after the leg’s original owner demands it back.” That’s the “meat” of Finders Keepers, if you will—a custody battle over a severed body part that really took place between leg-loser John Wood and leg-finder Shannon Whisnant in the years following 2007, when the discovery of the leg and resulting feud made national news. The document of this détente is an absurd, rambling, he-said/he-said story that reveals two fascinating personalities residing in rural North Carolina. At times, just as the story seems headed toward an expected conclusion, just as it feels like things should be wrapping up—some new hurdle arises to be overcome, making for a ever-tragic comedy of real life errors. —Jim Vorel


38-Netflix-Docs_2015-happy-valley.jpg 40. Happy Valley
Director: Amir Bar-Lev
Year: 2014
Why do we pledge allegiance to institutions? Why do we assign positive attributes to unfeeling organizations like sports teams, telling ourselves that our virtue is reflected in their greatness? Amir Bar-Lev’s Happy Valley examines the scandal that engulfed the Penn State Nittany Lions after it was determined that assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky had molested children for years—and that the university (and beloved head coach Joe Paterno) had covered it up. Less a portrait of a sick soul than a chronicling of its repercussions among the Penn State faithful, Happy Valley starkly illustrates what happens when people simply refuse to acknowledge the moral rot in their midst. —Tim Grierson


37-Netflix-Docs_2015-green-prince.jpg 39. The Green Prince
Director: Nadav Schirman
Year: 2014
Director Nadav Schirman took a gamble when making his third feature: He assumed that his subjects and their intertwining stories were fascinating enough to sustain 90 minutes of what is essentially a documentary about two men talking. He assumed correctly, because The Green Prince builds to the same levels of psychological tension one could find in any spy thriller, all the while offering a rare look into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is informative without being didactic, confident without bias—through only two viewpoints presented clearly, Schirman illustrates a magnificently bigger picture. —Jeremy Mathews


for-grace-cover.jpg 38. For Grace
Director: Mark Helenowski, Kevin Pang
Year: 2015
Those going into For Grace unfamiliar with chef Curtis Duffy might think it another on-trend slice of foodie porn about the latest culinary rockstar—and they’d be right, kind of. Chicago Tribune dining reporter/filmmaker Kevin Pang and filmmaker Mark Helenowski introduce Duffy as a two-Michelin-starred hotshot who sharpened his knives under Charlie Trotter and Grant Achatz before leaving his latest venture (Avenues) to open labor-of-love restaurant Grace. And that’s where the devastating backstory comes into focus. As the even-keeled, hyper-disciplined Duffy describes a troubled upbringing that involves the murder-suicide of his parents, viewers glimpse the moments that shaped the recently divorced father of two young girls. He frets over $1,000-a-pop dining room chairs, but he frets arguably more about an opening night visit from his middle school home-ec teacher, who took on a motherly role following his own mom’s death. Throughout, Duffy holds himself with a quiet dignity and, yes, grace that resonates on the elegant plates he crafts. So too does his staff, helmed by a GM/business partner who understands how important it is to make each diner feel special—Googling and social media searches of that night’s reservations are par for the course. At now $235 per tasting menu, such a personalized experience should go without saying, but the sincerity and gratitude is obvious. And, of course, the food looks nothing short of exquisite. —Amanda Schurr


civil-war-cover.jpg 37. The Civil War
Director: Ken Burns
Year: 1990
Ken Burns’s mammoth, beyond-classic documentary will stuff you so full of detail you’ll be dreaming of muttonchops and mournful fiddle music for weeks. It’s as good an anti-war film as any that’s been made, and you will leave The Civil War overwhelmed, staggered, devastated by the loss of so much blood and innocence, at once glorying in Emancipation and the heroes of the Union cause. Burns has been criticized for letting too much “Lost Cause” mythology seep into the project, but even if you see men like Virginians Robert E. Lee or Stonewall Jackson as morally complex—and morally compromised—figures by the end of the final “episode,” Burns leaves no room for interpretation: The War was fought over slavery, and the South almost burned the country down to ensure that institution’s survival. As a Virginian, and especially as a white Virginian from a rural family, you have to reckon with this knowledge if you want to achieve anything close to an honest view of yourself and where you come from. I’m unspeakably in love with Virginia, and proud of where I’m from in the abstract and arbitrary way most of us are proud of where we’re from, but I also never shake the unspeakable—or as Burns shows us, speakable—horrors inflicted by my home state upon thousands of dead in the name of, to put it simply, utter evil. That’s what being a Virginian is, in the end: coming right up against the worst of the American character, looking it in the eye, and trying for the rest of your intellectual life to come to grips with that. I’ll take it, if it means I’ll always be able to come home. The Civil War takes that feeling and casts it across the entire nation. If we can’t look at what we’ve done, Burns says, we’ll never forge ahead. —Corey Beasley


36-Netflix-Docs_2015-girlhood.jpg 36. Girlhood
Director: Liz Garbus
Year: 2003
Prepared for the worst, especially given the typical tenor most documentaries of Girlhood’s ilk would adopt, anyone approaching Liz Garbus’s third feature might be surprised by the levity—the richness of it, even—at the heart of the film’s story. In closely following two Baltimore girls who each wound up in juvenile detention, Girlhood briskly passes through barely two years of life inside and then, more importantly, out, offering a significantly empathetic glimpse into both a social justice system beyond repair, as well as the people who do their best to keep it patched together. Garbus has forged a prolific body of film since—especially in documenting famously troubled American icons—but with Girlhood she may have made something she’ll never be able to top: a totally self-contained testament to American resilience. —DS


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