If we look at the history of documentaries, media houses like BBC, Discovery, National Geographic etc. have been making documentaries since time immemorial and many of these films are regarded as timeless classics. While mainstream movies possess infinite possibilities, documentaries mostly are the depictions of facts or proven hypotheses, historical anomalies, scientific breakthroughs or criminal mindsets. Sometimes, they also tend to involve nature, accidents, happenstances, empires, buildings, countries, wars, etc.
Fortunately, Netflix is a treasure pit as far as good documentaries are concerned and one can spend weeks on the streaming service if you are a documentary aficionado like me. The really good documentaries will stay with you for life, just like a good fiction film; they can make you cry, rethink your like or even change your habits. The streaming giant’s collection of documentaries is perfect for binge watching. Here is the list of really good documentaries on Netflix that are available to stream right now. The list includes following types of films: Serial Killer Documentaries, Music Documentaries, Scary Documentaries, Health Documentaries, Vegan Documentaries, History Documentaries, 911 Documentaries, Nature Documentaries, War Documentaries, Political Documentaries, Holocaust Documentaries, Animal Documentaries, Medical Documentaries, Prison Documentaries, Paranormal Documentaries and Cult Documentaries.
40. Casting JonBenet (2017)
Unsolved crimes can be influential factors for the pick of one documentary or another. However, it doesn’t give us the answer to the crime committed in 1990, we are given a different way of crafting a documentary. In this Kitty Green film, various actors are being cast for the roles of important individuals involved in the murder of 6-year-old beauty pageant JonBenét Ramsey. The mother, the father, the brother, police officers and more are all respectively dressed the same way and given the freedom to act, express and speculate on the murder that moved a whole country. Emotive, fascinating and intriguing at all times, it’s a work of art unique on its own.
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39. Out of Thin Air (2017)
This is a shocking story about a crime with no evidence. “When murder is just a memory”, says the slogan of the film, it surely means something isn’t right. If we rewind back some decades, we’ll find ourselves in 1976 in the mesmerising landscapes of Iceland. In that year, two men disappeared leaving no trace behind. What to do when a case needs assailants to be accused? Soon, six individuals confessed to the crimes, but we already know there’s a trap in this simple-looking story. Be ready to become disturbed and strangely amazed by this scandalous event.
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38. Amanda Knox (2016)
This Netflix-distributed documentary dives into the complex case of Meredith Kircher’s murder in 2007 while focusing on Amanda Knox, an American exchange student who was roommates with the victim and therefore a serious suspect. At only 20 years of age, she was convicted and spent four years in an Italian prison for a murder she did not commit. With a suspenseful combination of archive footage and interviews of the people connected to the occurrence, Amanda is ready to tell her story to the world — a disastrous incident that’ll grab your attention without a doubt.
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37. The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson (2017)
As the title suggests, here we are with a documentary full of rich content concerning an important theme and individual who goes by the name of Marsha P. Johnson. Marsha was an African American drag queen and activist for gay and transvestite rights. Although facing difficult situations and downgrading forces, she was always full of life and the memories her friends have of her are joyful and pleasant. On July 6, 1992, she was found dead in a river, opening a mysterious case ready to be investigated. In between archive materials and interviews, activist Victoria Cruz takes the lead and opens doors into the death of Marsha P. Johnson.
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36. Aileen: Life and Death of A Serial Killer (2003)
Aileen Wuornos is the notorious serial killer that has left this planet with a story that can perhaps never be fully understood and cleared up to its true facts. Portrayed by Charlize Theron in ‘Monster’, Aileen was a prostitute living on the road who murdered 7 men. After being apprehended, she lived 10 long years on death row before being executed in 2002. Nick Broomfield took a special interest in this unusual persona and followed her case which ended up in a 1992 documentary and this 2003 follow-up. With an authentic approach that deals with close-up facts and investigations, this documentary takes us right into the courtroom and gives us a troubling insight into the life and death of Aileen Wuornos.
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35. Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010)
Werner Herzog’s ‘Cave of Forgotten Dreams’ is the story of humanity’s oldest surviving pieces of artwork located in the Chauvet caves of Southern France. We learn the stories and historical perspective behind the oldest cave paintings, estimated at 32,000 years old. The caves’ walls depict vivid impressions of their surroundings—and maybe their imaginations. Despite having only a three-person crew that filmed the whole thing because of the restrictions of the French law, Herzog creates a fascinating and intimidating look at the artwork of the beginning of modern humans. Films like these remind you that there is a whole world of beauty and mystery to explore.
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34. Cartel Land (2015)
‘Cartel Land’ is a complex, upsetting documentary about drug gangs in Mexico and the Mexican-American borders. It is a portrait of the difficulties of popular revolutionary movements. We follow Dr José Mireles, who decided to fight back against the cartels by forming a vigilante group, Autodefensas. This group was a response to both the cartels and to the corrupt government. Director Matthew Heineman’s film is a bold documentary but also a beautiful one because of its cinematography and music score.
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33. Finding Vivian Maier (2013)
Vivian Maier was a nanny whose previously unknown storage of 100,000 photographs earned her a posthumous reputation as one of the most accomplished street photographers. We follow real estate agent John Maloof as he explains how a trip to a local auction house resulted in him bidding and winning a box full of old negatives that belonged to a master of photography. By trying to make sense of the reasons why this photographer kept her work a secret, Siskel and Maloof create an incredible, suspenseful film. This intriguing and fascinating documentary about a mysterious woman is a delight for art lovers.
32. The Confession Tapes (2017)
‘The Confession Tapes’ focuses on the false confessions which have led to innocent people being convicted of murders. It consists of seven episodes, with one episode representing a case each, closely examining how a crime could’ve happened and what led everyone to think the featured person is the murderer or the perpetrator of the crime. Based on bone-chilling true stories, some of which are really hard to believe to have happened, ‘The Confession Tapes’ would intrigue you to the core and at the same time, would make you question the way the law takes its course (including investigations etc.) and why it shouldn’t have taken a normal course.
31. Afghanistan: The Great Game (2012)
Written and presented by Rory Stewart, a revered British politician and writer, ‘Afghanistan: The Great Game’ is a fact-based documentary series based out on the British invasion of Afghanistan in the 19th century while the British feared an attack by Russia, their rival at the time. The first part covers the anglo-afghan wars as well as the ousted Afghan King Amanullah Khan. The second and final part covers the beginning of the second world war, followed by its aftermath and the cold-war era when there was a power struggle between the USSR and the USA with respect to their mutual interests in Afghanistan. The movie concludes with a grueling civil war caused due to the Soviet troops and the CIA infighting on the Afghan soil, followed by the rise of Taliban, the imposition of Sharia law and the attacks of 9/11.
30. The True Cost (2015)
A documentary focused on the fashion industry and the fads it deals with on a regular basis, ‘The True Cost’ covers the lifecycle of a garment – from production to processing to trendy models who don it in catwalks and fashion shows. The documentary covers all the collateral damage in vivid detail – the impact on the lives of workers in third world countries, the pollution, diseases, socio-economic effects, psychological and traumatic effects etc. One can also see many interviews with the panels having environmentalists, human rights activists, reporters, workers, corporates and other people associated with this multi-billion dollar industry.
29. Hiroshima (2005)
A BBC documentary released via Netflix, ‘Hiroshima’ covers in ample detail, the historic and infamous nuclear bombing of Hiroshima, Japan, by the United States of America during the second world war – an event which also marked the conclusion of the war but not the casualties and after effects which could be seen to this day. The reenactments and the official description of the day of the incident by eyewitnesses bring forth chilling details on how it would’ve happened and what endured upon the general public as a result. ‘Hiroshima’ is one of the most comprehensive docudramas produced by BBC.
28. What the Health (2017)
A documentary which claims to thwart all the conspiracies surrounding the consumption of meat, eggs, and dairy products and which aims at diversifying and promoting a diet originating completely from plants, ‘What the Health’ made a lot of news and sparked quite a lot of controversies back in the day. The underlying idea behind the documentary is that the corporates and pharma companies have been keeping everyone in the dark by promoting meat and dairy products and offering cures to diseases emanating as a result. ‘What the Health’ definitely raised a lot of eyebrows.
27. Food, Inc. (2008)
Basically, ‘Food, Inc.’ concludes that most of the food the American public is consuming right now is uneconomical, industrially and environmentally unsustainable. The three-part series is focused on agricultural output, the meat industry and the legalities and corporate lobbying respectively and clearly underlines the fact that what has been propagated all over the world as healthy and good in the long run for the human body is actually pure junk and not suitable for human consumption. ‘Food, Inc.’ is a defining eye-opener for sure!
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26. Drugs, Inc. (2010)
A Nat Geo documentary that revolves around the drug production/manufacturing, smuggling and trafficking around the world, ‘Drugs, Inc.’ elaborately features the top have-been and the present drug dealers, smugglers, addicts and those who’re recovering after a withdrawal. The documentary series also covers the legalities of drug abuse, how rehab facilities help in recuperating the menace and how the pop culture in the western world, especially in the US has been influenced by the variety of drugs. ‘Drugs, Inc.’ is a moving tale of what a small quantity of weed or drugs can do to a large populace on a scale one cannot even imagine.
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25. Icarus (2017)
‘Icarus’ is one of those rare documentaries on sports, specifically, the one that explores the case of doping and how the anti-doping testing mechanism in the current sporting world is not only insufficient but are also very dangerous for those who resort to such malpractices. As a method to prove his hypothesis, Bryan Fogel collaborates with the national anti-doping lab of Russia to create a program which involves experimenting with performance-enhancing drugs while avoiding detection in any of the doping tests. As there’s a furore over Russia’s admittance of such a program, there are also speculations that Russia’s Olympic teams have been resorting to such malpractices from quite some time. ‘Icarus’ went on to win an Academy Award for the Best Documentary Feature in the year of its release.
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24. Secrets of Great British Castles (2015)
British historian Dan Jones shows us the greatest castles of Great Britain – notably the following six of them – Warwick, Dover, Caernarfon, the Tower of London, Carrickfergus, and Stirling. Not only with their glorious history, their majesty and the purpose for which most of them were built, but also the rich ties the people of Britain still have with them and why they are called the greatest. The documentary series was equally appreciated and panned for being too focused on the technicalities on how the castles were built and ignoring their legacy altogether.
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23. Tower (2016)
This documentary took a different approach in depicting the horrors of an unforgettable crime. Through rotoscopic animation combined with archival footage, we are given an innovative perspective on historical storytelling. It was August 1st 1966, when a man opened fire from the University of Texas Tower, killing 16 people and wounding many more. From the victims to the saviours, we are told this unforgettable disaster with striking energetic illustrations, that might be strange to some and amazing to others. Give it a chance and experience this cinematic route in between the documentary world.
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22. Blackfish (2013)
‘Blackfish’ shows the shocking consequences of keeping such bright and sensitive creatures in captivity. It begins with the example of the killer whale Tilikum who is responsible for the deaths of three individuals, including a top killer whale trainer. A thought-provoking documentary, this film tells a marvelous story that will have you as tearful as the trainers that sincerely care for the well-being of the creatures. Besides being very well executed, the film is extremely effective and direct. Between the gripping footage and the distressing interviews, ‘Blackfish’ effectively proves its point.
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21. The Square (2013)
‘The Square’ looks at the 2011 Egyptian Revolution from the perspective of those who were on the front lines, risking their lives to build a new society. Director Jehane Noujaim delivers a snapshot of a political movement over two years and demonstrates that systemic change does not come easily. By portraying the emotional complexity that has made their road to democracy so difficult, the director transforms a real and raw insight into a complex, heartbreaking documentary that will stay in your mind for a long time.
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20. Chasing Coral (2017)
As is evident from its name, ‘Chasing Coral’ amply covers the coral reefs around the world, how they form, nurture and sustain a diverse ecosystem and the threats that loom around them, lately which have led to their destruction altogether. The point that the documentary strives to highlight is the “coral bleaching” – a phenomenon underseas which is leading to their large-scale destruction and that the outside world is unaware of what’s transpiring beneath them. The impeccable cinematography, the colour palette and the significant research put into the documentary vividly turns into a rewarding experience.
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19. 13th (2016)
’13th’ takes an in-depth look at the prison system in the USA and how it reveals the nation’s history of racial inequality. The documentary touches on slavery, the civil rights movement, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Richard M. Nixon, Reagan’s declaration of the war on drugs and much more. This documentary is an excellent summary of American History. Although it interviews a lot of experts and gives you a massive amount of facts and statistics, it never feels like a lecture. Besides being highly informative, it is entertaining and is also quite inspiring. Despite your political view or nationality, this documentary should be watched by everyone.
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18. Dirty Money (2018)
This is an intriguing coming-of-age documentary series that essentially highlights the levels of corruption among the big corporates and the way “dirty money” is being pumped into the economy, without even the Governments or law enforcement agencies knowing it. The various issues covered in each episode range from emission scandals to pharma, from money laundering, drug cartels to large-scale corruption in the corporate sector. Notably, Donald Trump is also covered in the final episode of the series. ‘Dirty Money’ had a 100% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes and provides a powerful outlook on the ethical dark-side of the economy we live in.
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17. Cowspiracy (2014)
In this documentary, we follow Kip Andersen, an aspiring environmentalist, as he boldly seeks to find the real solution to the most pressing environmental issues and true path to sustainability. He soon discovers that the world’s largest environmental organizations are failing to address the most destructive force facing the planet today. Supporting its claims in scientific and evident evidence, ‘Cowspiracy’ is an eye-opening, heartbreaking film that will certainly make you think about the way you lead your life. By being audacious and funny at times, Andersen and Kuhn created a long overdue film that is captivating and eye opening.
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16. The Look of Silence (2014)
‘The Look of Silence’ deals with the mass murder of communists in Indonesia between 1965 and 1966. This serious crime resulted in millions of deaths at the hands of militia hired by the government. These tragic events have gone unnoticed in the public eye, and the perpetrators are still at large, hailed as national heroes. Adi, the brother of an Indonesian man murdered in this context, decides to revisit this tragic incident that strongly affected his family and visit the men who were responsible for the killings. A raw, powerful documentary that will move you.
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15. Colombia Wild Magic (2015)
A defining viewing experience, this extremely significant documentary highlights the hidden wonder Colombia always was, is and has been, with the biodiversity, the varied habitats, the flora and fauna and home to one of the largest butterfly and hummingbird population in the world. The disparities showed with respect to the climate and with respect to the battles between the hummingbirds in slo-mo are incredible and I don’t think any other movie or documentary has ever showcased that. Watch this visual extravaganza now!
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14. Wild Wild Country (2018)
This is a moving documentary surrounding the life of Osho, alias Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, an Indian spiritual leader and guru who relocated to the US in the early ’80s and established a township called Rajneeshpuram in Wasco County, Oregon and preached peace, love, hope, meditation, mindfulness, courage etc. His followers were known as the “Rajneeshes”. The movement was one of the latest prominent religious movements of the west. Osho was later deported from the US after being embroiled in many controversies and he passed away in the year 1990. ‘Wild Wild Country’ is one of the few official accounts of what transpired in Oregon and how his small preachings garnered fame and outreach.
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13. Winter on Fire (2015)
‘Winter on Fire’ is a documentary on the unrest in Ukraine during 2013 and 2014, as student demonstrations supporting European integration grew into a violent revolution calling for the resignation of President Viktor F. Yanukovich. The film is beautifully crafted, deeply involving, with great music. ‘Winter on Fire’ showcases how social media can have a positive impact on society, by facilitating communication and protests. A must-watch!
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12. Terra (2015)
The only documentary on this list which effectively highlights the troubled nature of the relationship between the humanity and mother nature, beginning from the evolutionary concepts, creationism, beings living symbiotically, followed by the advent of humanity and the slow and steady depletion of natural resources as we know it. The movie touches upon issues like meat consumption, carbon footprint, humanity’s isolation from nature and natural places, and the heavy price mother nature has been paying because of the evolution of humans as we know it. The immense scale of destruction humans have caused on the planet is appalling.
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11. Auschwitz: The Nazis and the Final Solution (2005)
One of the best documentaries made about the atrocities committed by Hitler on the Jews during WWII and the importance of Auschwitz as a place and why the gas chambers were not meant for mass murder of the Jews, ‘Auschwitz: The Nazis and the Final Solution’ is a heart-wrenching tale of persecution, abuse of power and selective hatred propagated by a tyrannical leader and murderer against a peace-loving community. The horrifying tales of the infamous Auschwitz Concentration Camp and the gassing of men, women, and children is a difficult watch. The documentary also includes real, first-hand accounts of how brutal Nazis were in their ways, how there was a constant environment of fear that was created and how Hitler and his henchmen left no stone unturned in proving themselves above all.
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10. Making a Murderer (2015)
‘Making a Murderer’ documents the true story of Steven Avery, who was sent to prison under questionable circumstances, exonerated on DNA evidence 18 years later, and accused of murder shortly after. Avery’s story is a horrifying tale that will leave you questioning (and maybe be infuriated with) law enforcement, politicians, and news media. Although a bit lengthy, this documentary is extremely entertaining, and even sometimes unbelievable. Winner of four Emmys, including Outstanding Documentary, it is a must watch for those who enjoy true crime documentaries.
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9. World War II in Color (2009)
As the name suggests, ‘World War II in Color’ is a colourised memoir of the WWII footage, along with historical references on how the battle progressed across the world and the implications of it. Mostly, the series remains focused on the German forces and Hitler at its helm, the German war techniques, notably Blitzkrieg, the rise and fall of Japan, the invasions perpetrated by Hitler and the large-scale death of innocents, including soldiers, civilians, women and children. More than its descriptive nature, the documentary raised a lot of eyebrows for its grave historical inaccuracies, some of which have been described in immense detail around the internet. Still, ‘World War II in Color’ makes for an engaging watch for the history buffs.
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8. Africa (2013)
One of the most widely watched BBC documentaries on the continent of Africa, this popular series covers the nature, flora and fauna and the wilderness of the continent in the most comprehensive and breathtaking way one could ever imagine. And why not, for this series took more than four years to film, compile and to be released to the viewers. If you want to experience Africa without having to visit the place, ‘Africa’ is the documentary you should look up to. It really speaks for itself.
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7. The Blue Planet (2001)
From a cinematic point of view, ‘The Blue Planet’ is touted to be one of the most difficult documentaries to make, with countless filming sets below the seas and oceans of planet Earth. Not only the crew came out with an extremely comprehensive documentary on the oceans of the world, but they were also able to observe and report undersea phenomena never seen or heard of before. Phenomena associated with the migration of blue whales, congregations of sharks and dolphins in huge numbers were observed for the first time. A bunch of newly discovered species were named after the series, which became immensely successful upon airing, with millions of viewers watching it.
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6. Frozen Planet (2011)
A BBC documentary based on the unexplored millions of miles on the surface of the earth, more specifically, the polar caps and Antarctica, this film elaborately covers the limited yet widespread fauna like penguins, arctic wolves, albatrosses, seals, killer whales, eider ducks, polar bears, to name a few. The movie highlights the ways of hunting, gathering, reproduction in the icy cold waters and snow-capped terrains — something that has never been accomplished before. Watch it before it melts!
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5. Life (2009)
This BBC and The Open University documentary was held in high regards for its vast expanse, the elaborate coverage of the animal kingdom, with class-specific episodes – like mammals, birds, insects, fish etc., concluding with primates. The idea behind the series was to establish the factors that were responsible for the immense evolutionary success of each class or species of fauna that we know of and how they continue to thrive, endure, reproduce, hunt, eat, and move around while battling their own predators and evolutionary adversaries. For many, this could prove to be a lesson in basic zoology.
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4. The Civil War (1990)
This documentary miniseries revolves around the American Civil War that comprehensively covers the four-year war through vintage photos, expert opinions and excerpts from various journals. Not only this, the movie covers the political, psychological, socio-economic and military impact of the war in great detail. ‘The Civil War’ remains one of the most watched PBS documentaries even today, with a good 9-episode run. It is also a recipient of umpteen awards and honours, most notably Grammy Awards, Emmy Award and PC Award.
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3. The Vietnam War (2017)
Another series which took an excruciatingly long time to make – 10 years to be more specific, ‘The Vietnam War’ is a testament which features interviews from witnesses, including Americans, Vietnamese, belligerents, leaders, combatants and victims, mostly civilians. Each episode of the 10-episode documentary series is a detail on the important events during the war, which later turned out to be the nemesis of American policies and its failed propaganda. The series concludes with the infamous Watergate Scandal and the political downfall of President Richard Nixon.
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2. The Hunt (2015)
Another nature documentary by BBC, this time about the hunting instincts of the wild and the typical predator vs. prey battle that ensues in the wilderness, ‘The Hunt’ highlights the fine ecological balance that once used to exist despite the usual “survival of the fittest” narrative when humans came in, evolved and ready, and the balance went into the drain. Also, it captures in great detail the way the predators hunt their prey in the wild and how the preys are evolving in their own ways to ward off any predators. The beauty of the documentary is that it is as informative as it is thrilling – a rare feat for a documentary feature.
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1. Planet Earth (2006)
And now to the most elaborate, immersive and vivid experience as far as documentaries are concerned. ‘Planet Earth’ is considered to be the most successful documentary of all time, commercially and critically. Released in 2006, the documentary features varied geographical wonders, the poles, the mountains, the oceans, caves, plains, jungles, and forests, to name a few, and is a visual wonder. Not to mention the effort that went into its production. The series also received multiple awards and honours, most notably from Emmy, Royal Television Society and Peabody Awards.
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