The 50 Best Documentaries on Netflix

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The 50 Best Documentaries on Netflix

Here, we’ll point it out before you can: The best documentaries on Netflix are mostly assembled from movies released after 2010. Whether due to licensing fees, a lack of interest or both, Netflix continues, as is the case every single month, to substantially scale back on its pre-Y2K catalog, featuring only 26 documentaries from before the turn of the Millennium, and a whopping 14 docs to be released before 1990. In the past couple months it’s lost quite a bit of excellent documentaries, too, like Pumping Iron and The Thin Blue Line.

One thing Netflix does well is bring the latest and most groundbreaking in critically lauded documentary films to the service, be it Oscar-nominated Netflix original Strong Island, or their championing of such semi-obscure essentials as Casting JonBenet and Faces Places. If you’re looking to find new, essential documentaries, there is still plenty to peruse here.

For other genres and types, check out Paste’s many, many Best Movies lists, and then make your way through the following—remembering that truth is only relative.

Here are the 50 best documentaries currently streaming on Netflix:

marsha-p.jpg 50. The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson
Year: 2017
Director: David France
Director David France’s documentary portrait of “the Rosa Parks of the LGBT movement” has come under fire from trans filmmaker Reina Gossett, who accuses France of purloining the idea for the film from a grant application she submitted to secure funding for her own film about the pioneering trans activist. Still, in bringing wider attention to Johnson’s life and work, the film is a worthwhile reminder that trans women of color were and remain queer revolutionaries—and that they were and remain disproportionately likely to be murdered, often in cases that are never solved. Following trans activist Victoria Cruz as she tries to find the truth behind Johnson’s 1992 death—which the police swiftly ruled a suicide despite indications of foul play—France blends true crime and the biopic into an illuminating treatment of a true American heroine. —Matt Brennan


miss-sharon-jones-poster.jpg 49. Miss Sharon Jones!
Year: 2016
Director: Barbara Kopple
In 2013, Sharon Jones was diagnosed with Stage 2 pancreatic cancer—in itself a depressing development, but not without a lot of optimism attached to the prognosis. Except for a by-the-book opening segment, in which director Barbara Kopple seems to grind through all of her blandest tendencies to make room for the grist of what’s important, the film filters Jones’s life and career through her illness. We meet Jones’s band, the Dap-Kings, through that lens, getting to know each musician in light of how their friend’s illness has unfortunately affected their livelihoods. They have mortgages and alimony to pay, children to support, a record label to run. That all of this, already precariously balanced due to the nature of the music-making business, is so dependent on Jones’s health becomes a shadow hanging over every interview. When band practices are occupied by 10+ people sitting patiently in a room waiting for Jones to get back into her groove or helping the singer remember the lyrics to her songs, Kopple’s film is heartbreaking, walking that tragic line between hopelessness and optimism, encapsulating so clearly what it’s like to be close to someone who’s so sick.

But the real thrill of Miss Sharon Jones! is in its concert footage, Kopple letting Jones’s performances, old and new, suffice as the best testament to the singer’s power and—unbeknonwst to anyone at the time, though the thought must have crossed their minds incessantly—the most immediate eulogy we’ve got. If you ever had the chance to behold her on stage, then you know how exhilarating she can be. If you hadn’t? Despite recent tragedy, Kopple has some seriously life-affirming stuff you need to see. —Dom Sinacola


a-river-below-movie-poster copy.jpg 48. A River Below
Year: 2017
Director: Mark Grieco
If you, like me, fear the inky depths of bodies of water as the last unknown, the last place unfathomable monsters could be on our planet, A River Below will fuck you up—and not just because it shows us that fishermen are the real monsters. Mark Grieco’s documentary isn’t afraid to use graphic images to get what it wants, and what it wants is an end to the hunt of the endangered Amazon pink river dolphin, an exotic and alien creature, like a bright blue tiger or a polka-dotted bear. They naturally buck against our expectations about what we know we know about Nature, and they’re so wondrously weird as to be the source of hearsay and mystical rumor. Featuring the shaky handheld style common to films documenting the clash between humanity and nature, as well as a slick Planet Earth-like aesthetic flying overhead the ever-winding mocha of the Amazon river, the film engages with the long-beaked and otherworldly dolphin through two conservationists: biologist Fernando Trujillo, a scientist so devoted to the animal that the people indigenous to the area believe him to be a dolphin in human form, and Richard Rasmussen, a Brazilian National Geographic TV superstar, the Steve Irwin of South America. But A River Below’s core focus is the killing of the dolphins as bait for a highly profitable Amazon seafood, the Piracatinga, whose business is a huge industry being quashed and forced into illegality (poaching and smuggling) by the laws and measures put in place by conservationists. Until recently, the practice had been commonplace among local fishermen. It’s all these people have to make money—but, then again, they’re wantonly killing a protected species. A River Below is pure investigative journalism. It trusts no one and questions every side of the story—even the possible coercion of illegal activities by one of its stars while those he coerced have threatened to shoot him in the head if he ever turns up again. It sometimes gets caught up in its own sort of alt-cult of celebrity, and, like most documentaries, it is enraptured with its own interviews, and could use some smarter editing. However, there’s enough self-referentiality—regarding the cameras, the process of gaining access to native populations, the act of shooting itself—that the director open acknowledges that the film inherently taints its subject by its very existence. It can’t help but have an agenda. —Jacob Oller


team-foxcatcher.jpg 47. Team Foxcatcher
Year: 2016
Director: John Greenhalgh
Netflix released this original documentary just two years after Bennett Miller’s film on the same subject, but where Miller’s film stretched the truth into melodrama, Team Foxcatcher plays it straight. Working closely with Dave Schultz’s widow, Greenhalgh recounts the events leading up to Schultz’s murder at the hands of eccentric millionaire John du Pont. Even for the rare viewer unaware of the story’s tragic ending, Team Foxcatcher offers plenty of insight. In revealing home video footage and interviews with Schultz’s fellow wrestlers and friends, the film depicts life at the Foxcatcher estate, where champion wrestlers lived and trained together under du Pont’s financial support, a generosity fueled by a desperate desire for love and belonging. What begins as an athletes’ utopia becomes a strained, dysfunctional family: As du Pont’s paranoia grows, the wrestlers—concerned with their careers and livelihoods—do their best to placate him. Because in the end, Team Foxcatcher’s greatest asset is its heart—even in the face of bizarre and tragic events, the love this large, makeshift family has for each other (du Pont included) is incredibly moving. —Maura McAndrew


iverson.jpg 46. Iverson
Year: 2014
Director: Zatella Beatty
For some of us, a great sports documentary is the kind of film that makes you forget you’re not that interested in sports—or better yet, the kind of film that makes you wonder why you’re not that into sports. Iverson starts out as a portrait of a young black man nearly lost to a criminal justice system that seemed determined to derail his life. Allen Iverson would go on to survive this attempt on his life and become one of the greatest basketball players of all time, as well as a representative of the dangers of respectability politics, which seep into all American organizations, including the NBA. Iverson invites you to sit with the complexities of fame, especially for black men and women who are expected to represent much more than their individual selves, and it also demands that—even if you don’t fall in love with the great Allen Iverson by the end, you have to respect his game. —Shannon M. Houston


mercury-13.jpg 45. Mercury 13
Year: 2018
Directors: David Sington, Heather Walsh
One of the most gutting facts underscored in Hidden Figures was how much creativity and intellectual excellence a society loses when it lets its prejudices set the limits on its ambition. The United States’ inability to beat the USSR in getting a man into space, Hidden Figures made clear, was a direct result of the implicitly biased perspectives of the white men in charge of the program. Netflix’s Mercury 13, which tells the story of the 13 female pilots who, following the whizbang excellence of the Women Airforce Service Pilots in World War II (full disclosure, my grandmother was among them), were put through the exact same physical and psychological tests as the first set of male astronauts and matched (and sometimes exceeded!) their results but who were nevertheless shut out by lawmakers from becoming astronauts themselves, takes this clarity a step further: Because of the explicitly biased perspectives of the white men in charge (and in the Hero Astronaut spotlight), the USSR beat the US in getting the first woman into space. Many of the women who made up the Mercury 13 are no longer alive, but the ones who are and who participated in this documentary have lost none of the sharpness of purpose that made them such crackerjack pilots, and that would have made them equally crackerjack astronauts. So while it would be nice if Mercury 13 showed a bit more about the transition from an all-male astronaut program to a co-ed one (it skips straight from the 1962 testimonies before Congress to Eileen Collins in the early 1990s) and addressed the social and political forces that kept the astronaut program so white for so long (Mae Jemison makes a single appearance in archival footage, but otherwise there is no reference is made to the forces that made the both the Mercury 13 and John Glenn’s cohort universally white), the very fact that it is making available to millions of people a part of history that is not well known makes it more than worth your time the next night you feel a hankering to stream a documentary. —Alexis Gunderson


chasing-coral.jpg 44. Chasing Coral
Year: 2017
Director: Jeff Orlowski
Folks, I don’t care what you happen to believe. Sure, global climate change events happened in the past, before the Industrial Revolution. We refer to them as the “Great Extinctions.” You might not believe we’re experiencing one now. Coral begs to differ with you. You might say, “OK, it’s happening, but it’s not being generated or accelerated by humans.” Coral begs to differ with you. Coral would like you to know it is time to be terrified. So would the folks who made Chasing Coral. The film tracks a crew of dedicated coral-nerds who are trying to capture a “coral bleaching” event (mass death from overheated water) so they can start making the public pay attention to what’s going on beneath the ocean’s surface. There’s some beautiful underwater photography, both still and moving, of corals—healthy coral reefs look like they were drawn by a Finding Nemo animator at Pixar, and they are stunning. On the whole, the documentary is not a blazing artistic groundbreaker. And it isn’t meant to be. It’s meant to get you tuned in to the fact that while everyone’s talking about the impact of global warming as if it were something still in the future, ocean temperatures are now regularly experiencing what used to be extremely exceptional random events—namely, “fever” temps that cause coral to die. And corals are the foundation species of insanely diverse symbiotic ecosystems, ranking only with rainforests for sheer species diversity. Chasing Coral is not intended to be an artwork, though elements of it are artful enough. It is explicitly a public service announcement, and a call to action. We tend not to spend much time thinking about things like corals, because they live in a place we don’t usually see (unless we’re lucky enough to live near a reef). What goes on under the surface of the ocean might not seem that connected to what’s going on here on land, but that’s an illusion. Corals would like you to know that you and they are connected far more directly than you imagine, and that without them, you face a radically destabilized environment. —Amy Glynn


wendy-whelan-poster.jpg 43. Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan
Year: 2017
Directors: Adam Schlesinger, Linda Saffire
Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan isn’t a “dance movie,” per se. Except during the last 10 minutes (and even then, in what looks like a truncated form), there aren’t really any sustained ballet sequences in which to marvel at the former New York City Ballet principal dancer’s legendary physicality. It’s doubtful that neophytes will come away from Adam Schlesinger and Linda Saffire’s documentary with a deeper appreciation of the art form. Instead, this is a portrait of an artist at a professional and personal crossroads, as Whelan faces the potential death of the creative livelihood that has sustained her for so many decades, one that has given her life joy and meaning. Whelan’s process of trying to rediscover herself after a personal setback would not have been half as involving as it is if she hadn’t been so generous with the access she granted the filmmakers. She isn’t afraid to lay bare her vulnerabilities for the camera, and Schlesinger and Saffire are able to capture their subject in occasional private moments that make their subject seem poignantly human. It’s that intimacy that makes Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan an artist documentary that will play movingly—inspiringly, even—for those who aren’t already fans. —Kenji Fujishima


jim-andy.jpg 42. Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond
Year: 2017
Director: Chris Smith
The porous boundaries between storytellers and their stories are the linchpin of Netflix’s Chris Smith-directed, Spike Jonze-produced Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond, a fragmentary, yet compelling, look at the extreme lengths to which Jim Carrey went to portray his idol, singular entertainer Andy Kaufman, in the late Milos Forman’s 1999 biopic Man on the Moon. The film’s narrative hook is immediate: Jim & Andy draws from hours of behind-the-scenes footage that Universal had mothballed so viewers wouldn’t think Carrey, then one of Hollywood’s biggest and brightest stars, was “an asshole.” As we see some 18 years later, Carrey embodied Kaufman both on camera and off, his method acting antics begging meaningful questions about what drives performers to give themselves over to fantasy as well as how warped reality can get with such immersion. Jim & Andy is as moving as it is thought-provoking, a reminder that often in art there is no great joy without great pain. —Scott Russell


holy-hell-movie-poster.jpg 41. Holy Hell
Year: 2014
Director: Will Allen
A documentary equal parts memoir and exposé, Holy Hell focuses on the Buddhafield, a mysterious spiritual group—aka cult—that blossomed in West Hollywood and later in Austin, Texas, in the 1980s and ’90s. The film begins with director Will Allen’s story: A young film-school graduate in 1985 finds himself lost among the yuppies of the Reagan era. In voiceover that accompanies family pictures, home movies and archival film clips of Buddhafield members alternating between states of agony and ecstasy, he says, “This is what happened to me on my 22-year search for the truth.” But as Allen and many of his fellow members learn throughout their respective journeys, the truth is often elusive. Allen served as the Buddhafield’s de facto in-house videographer, capturing the group’s activities over the course of two decades. His inner-circle standing provides access to its leader Michel, the Teacher, a South American transplant and ballet-loving guru who prefers going shirtless and wearing Ray-Bans and Speedos to the long-flowing robes favored by other cult leaders. In crafting his first feature, Allen intersperses insider footage with more recent interviews with former members: What begins as a video memoir evolves into a much larger portrait of betrayal, grief and healing. While Allen inserts his presence on occasion, mostly through voiceover and brief film segments, he lets his fellow Buddhafield members do much of the talking and criticizing of their former guru. It’s a wise choice to not put himself at the center of his own documentary, but this avoidance of the spotlight also indirectly reveals that the filmmaker’s own psyche hasn’t fully recovered from two decades under Michel’s spell. —Christine N. Ziemba


lo-and-behold-poster.jpg 40. Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World
Year: 2016
Director: Werner Herzog 
You didn’t expect a Werner Herzog documentary about the significance of the internet in our daily lives, and how it might alter our future, to fall in the ballpark of “cheerful,” did you? It’s probably too much to hope for the film to be playful, or cheeky, though it is both of these things when not engaged with bleaker affairs, like internet addiction, embodied via obsessive World of Warcraft play, or the incident around Nikki Catsouras’s death. “But who is going to be liable in case of an accident?” Herzog muses on the topic of self-driving cars. “The onboard computer? Its designer? The GPS system? The internet? Or the driver, who eats his breakfast?” Classic Herzog.

Lo and Behold wants you to feel unsafe in your digital habitat, or at least it wants you to reconsider the status of your relative safety. The film suggests terrors on a sliding scale that goes from “no sweat” to “apocalypse” for the purpose of curing us of said terrors. Think of Herzog not as Biblical prophet, hoisting a sign proclaiming the end times, but as the family cat, presenting you with the lifeless form of a slain household pest as a trophy. He’s trying to reassure us, but his reassurances aren’t all that reassuring. But by confronting with his trademark curiosity and intellectual rigor the uncomfortable truths of what disasters might befall a global society grown so accustomed to occupying virtual space, Herzog’s observations are more factual than alarmist. —Andy Crump


43-Netflix-Docs_2015-miss-simone.jpg 39. What Happened, Miss Simone?
Year: 2015
Director: Liz Garbus
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 38. Best of Enemies
Year: 2015
Directors: Robert Gordon, Morgan Neville
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


fire-in-the-blood.jpg 37. Fire in the Blood
Year: 2012
Director: Dylan Mohan Gray
Narrated by William Hurt, Fire in the Blood paints a damning portrait of how government corruption and corporate greed resulted in the deaths of tens of millions of people in developing countries. Filmmaker Dylan Mohan Gray asserts that beginning in 1996, Western pharmaceutical companies as well as the governments of many countries in Africa and on other southern continents prevented low-cost AIDS medicines from reaching the people who needed them. It took the combined efforts of global figures like Bill Clinton and Desmond Tutu, as well as lesser-known ones such as Columbia University economist Joseph Stiglitz, to turn the tide on the AIDS epidemic. Ultimately, Gray’s film gives us hope that individual good can overcome institutionalized evil. —Allison Gorman


sunshine-superman-cover.jpg 36. Sunshine Superman
Year: 2015
Director: Marah Strauch
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. —Dom Sinacola


george-harrison-scorsese-movie-poster.jpg 35. George Harrison: Living in the Material World
Year: 2011
Director: Martin Scorsese 
Martin Scorsese’s 2011 documentary meticulously recounts George Harrison’s life story, from his birth in 1943 in a war-ravaged Liverpool, to the maelstrom that was the Beatles, to his solo artist years, to his later life until it ended way too soon when he died of cancer (although, as you’ll see when you watch the film, Harrison probably wouldn’t have believed that he died before his time). He was in many ways the most mysterious of the four Beatles, “the quiet one.” No one really had a clue what he was truly about until his amazing triple solo album, All Things Must Pass, was released in 1970. The interviews in the film (Eric Clapton, Terry Gilliam, Ringo Starr, Paul McCartney, Phil Spector, Eric Idle, George Martin, Yoko Ono, Tom Petty, Jackie Stewart and others) are stellar, as is the archival material, with a lot of rare clips that will delight any Beatles or Harrison fan, as well as plenty of reveals that will keep any viewer enthralled. The Beatles were only a very small part of Harrison’s story—and probably not what he considered the most important part at all, clearly evidenced by a 1969 diary entry we are shown in which he writes casually that he woke up, rehearsed at Twickenham (the tension-filled Let it Be sessions) “and in the evening did King of Fuh at Trident studio, had chips later.” One of the most important things any documentary about someone can give us is a totally new and unique look at a life—Living in the Material World is all that and more. —Holly Cara Price


amy-poster.jpg 34. Amy
Year: 2015
Director: Asif Kapadia
Director Asif Kapadia wisely puts his subject front-and-center; friends, family members and music industry associates are all interviewed for the film, but nearly all of them are presented as voiceovers rather than talking heads. Even when others are speaking, it’s impossible to take your eyes off Winehouse in Amy. He has a way of making her reality feel cinematic, lingering in slow motion as she looks back at the paparazzi and rolls her eyes after rushing into a car amid a flurry of camera flashes. When she wins the Grammy for Record of the Year and gazes up at a screen broadcasting the ceremony, the way her eyes light up will make you briefly think you’re not watching a documentary, but rather an awards-season biopic with some actress in a beehive wig trying to earn her Oscar. Then you’ll pity anyone dumb enough to try to top Amy with something scripted—there’s nothing like the real thing. —Bonnie Stiernberg


for-grace-cover.jpg 33. For Grace
Year: 2015
Director: Mark Helenowski, Kevin Pang
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


fear-13.jpg 32. The Fear of 13
Year: 2015
Director: David Sington
Sington’s The Fear of 13 has a unique vision often not associated with (though probably well suited for) true crime, applying a stark, poetic narrative style to a fairly run-of-the-mill criminal justice story. Death row inmate Nick Yarris sits in a dark room, like in a black box theater, and recounts his story. The film relies almost entirely on Yarris’s charisma and gift for storytelling—developed during the years he spent educating himself in prison—with just the occasional visual or sonic flourish. It’s a risky strategy, but it pays off: The delights of The Fear of 13 lie in Yarris’s elegantly rendered anecdotes in which death row inmates sing in the dark, a bathroom break provides an opportunity for a nail-biting escape and how there’s palpable joy in learning new words like “triskaidekaphobia.” Though Sington leaves the viewer context-less for most of his film—Is Yarris telling the truth? Is he really on death row? Is he guilty or not?—he answers all in due time, but not before taking viewers on a pleasure of a ride. —Maura McAndrew


amanda-knox.jpg 31. Amanda Knox
Year: 2016
Directors: Rod Blackhurst, Brian McGinn
With the Amanda Knox saga (seemingly) done for good, Netflix recently released a definitive documentary covering it from beginning to end—the murder of Meredith Kercher and subsequent arrest, trials and appeals of Knox and Raffaele Sollecito; the ensuing media frenzy; the quiet, fast-track trial of Rudy Guede, the only party upon whose guilt everyone seems to agree. The film relies mainly on talking head interviews with Knox, Sollecito and two highly entertaining “villains”: boorish prosecutor Giuliano Mignini and smarmy Daily Mail journalist Nick Pisa, the latter wearing a Hugh-Grant-caddishness and a shit-eating grin. While Knox herself is probably the least interesting interview in the film—more fascinating by half are pre-arrest home recordings depicting her as a naïve, giggly teen—Blackhurst and McGinn are clear about where their sympathies lie, and contrasted with the ghastly Mignini and Pisa, it’s hard not to side with these two kids. But still the film feels thoughtful and relatively well-balanced: The media is its true target, and the filmmakers nail the insidious ways that its sensationalism and greed can derail justice and irrevocably ruin lives. —Maura McAndrew


ai-weiwei-never.jpg 30. Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry
Year: 2012
Director: Alison Klayman
Filmmaker Alison Klayman gained an astonishing level of access to the celebrated Chinese artist-activist Ai Weiwei in the years following the opening of Beijing’s Bird’s Nest Stadium in 2008. No sooner was the stadium completed, however, than Ai—a design consultant on the stadium—became both the Games’ and the building’s most vociferous critic, calling them symbols of state propaganda. The criticism immediately made Ai a persona non grata in the eyes of the Chinese state but, to the free world, he was an exciting and shockingly frank artist from a place in sore need of one. Ai’s 2008 brush with state authorities was only the beginning of his escalating agitation with China’s government—something that Klayman compellingly illuminates in her debut documentary, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry. Her portrait of the artist as a witty sociopolitical critic chronicles the challenges of finding justice and transparency in a repressive state. Indeed, the price for Ai’s agitation led to the demolition of his Shanghai studio and his own three-month detention in 2011. Through interviews with Ai, his relatives and art-world colleagues and curators, we get as fully rounded a picture as possible of an artist who—by virtue of his personality and his political realities—maintains a wry, restrained poise. In her aims to paint a picture of a courageous artist, a revolutionary worshipped by his admirers and Twitter followers, Klayman risks turning her documentary into a publicity machine for its subject. Still, Ai Weiwei is too commanding and fascinating a figure to ignore, and Never Sorry is an excellent showcase for why he matters to the world. Whether he’s photographing himself shattering a Neolithic Chinese vase or stenciling the Coca-Cola logo on an ancient urn, Ai’s artwork always manages to provoke, forcing us to consider the individual’s place at the intersection of history and the future, commerce and heritage, the machinery of the state and the creative ingenuity of a single citizen. —Jay Antani


into-the-inferno.jpg 29. Into the Inferno
Year: 2016
Director: Werner Herzog 
Drawing lines from current events or public moods to the documentaries of Werner Herzog wouldn’t make for a constructive use of time. The only lines Herzog draws are carefully through his own work, the people he’s met and spectacles he’s witnessed and subjects he’s buried deep within him on-call should the spirit move him. In the case of Into the Inferno, Herzog enlists the help of volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer—met while in Antarctica for Encounters at the End of the World—to visit and then gaze into the violent hearts of active volcanoes, a subject he once broached 30 years before in La Soufrière. Shot with the same intensity for long takes he once brought to bear on the Amazon River of Aguirre, the camera in awe of the lava flows, Into the Inferno, like most Herzog documentaries, can’t help but follow symbolic hunches down unexpected tangents. This is how Herzog ends up in North Korea, waxing rhapsodically via voice over about autonomy and artificiality, the mythic spectre of a volcano god hovering in the film’s periphery. As was the case with Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World, and Cave of Forgotten Dreams before it, and Grizzly Man before that, Into the Inferno works as moving, majestic, mind-boggling primer on a director who always has one more movie left in him. —Dom Sinacola


battered-bastards.jpg 28. The Battered Bastards of Baseball
Year: 2013
Directors: Chapman Way, Maclain Way
There’s always been something romantic about independent minor league baseball teams, but that romance has never been quite in full bloom like the story of the Portland Mavericks, a team with no major league affiliation. Owned by actor Bing Russell (Kurt Russell’s dad), Maverickdom spread from Oregon to the nation, beginning with Joe Garagiola’s NBC special. With characters like blackballed Yankees pitcher Jim Bouton, the first woman general manager in baseball (age 24) and the first Asian-American (at 22), the inventor of Big League Chew, batboy Todd Field (Oscar-nominated screenwriter for In the Bedroom), and a ball dog, the antics of the team were as entertaining as the game itself—and yet the their run from 1973-1977 was one of the best in the minor leagues. Bing’s goal was to embody that baseball cliché: For the love of the game. As Bouton says of his fellow $400-a-month teammates, “Our motivation was simple: revenge. We loved whomping fuzzy-cheeked college-bonus babies owned by the Dodgers and Phillies.” The Mavericks’ is an underdog story made for a documentary, and Chapman and Maclain Way have given the team the movie it deserves. —Josh Jackson


cutie-boxer.jpg 27. Cutie and the Boxer
Year: 2013
Director: Zachary Heinzerling
Great artists are often forgiven for personal flaws—as we’ve seen so acutely lately—but such forgiveness usually hinges on success. Cutie and the Boxer, Zachary Heinzerling’s fascinating documentary about Ushio Shinohara and his wife, Noriko, studies the life of a man entering his 80s who still dreams like he’s 20. Ultimately, the audience must decide whether he’s an important mind or a bum: Ushio, who spear-headed the Neo Dadaist movement in the ’60s, is best known for his “boxing paintings,” created by punching the canvas with paint-soaked boxing gloves. (He also makes grotesque cardboard sculptures of motorcycles.) While he’s noteworthy, his work doesn’t inspire many people to pull out their checkbooks, and the documentary follows the passions and struggles of the couple as they live in their small New York City apartment with little income to support their lives and endeavors. Noriko emerges as the heart of the movie, as she recalls her life while writing a graphic novel about her rocky marriage. Heinzerling combines Noriko’s drawings with contemporary footage to create a film that isn’t only a tale of creative minds, but an honest love story. —Jeremy Mathews


peter-farm-movie-poster.jpg 26. Peter and the Farm
Year: 2016
Director: Tony Stone
If the success of a character study can be measured purely by the extent to which the character him-/herself draws one’s attention, then Peter and the Farm is surely one of the most successful of recent years. On the surface, beyond his long white beard, there isn’t anything extraordinarily distinctive about Peter Dunning, a solitary farmer who has devoted 35 years of his life to tending his farm in Vermont, and whose lonely existence masks deep psychological scars underneath. Even his traumas are fairly mundane: estrangement from his ex-wives and kids, curdled hippie idealism, a hand accident that ended his artistic dreams. And yet, once you hear Peter speak in his dramatically galvanizing voice, one can’t help but sit up and pay attention to whatever cantankerous, world-weary, brutally candid statements he utters. However you take Peter Dunning, though, there is something admirable to the way Tony Stone and Co. view their subject with a fascination that’s filled with clear-eyed empathy. It’s the kind of unsentimental compassion that animates the best art. —Kenji Fujishima

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