The element that most viewers tend to gravitate toward when it comes to documentaries is the essence of real life that one gleans from the assemblages of historical footage, photographs, talking heads, pre-recorded audio, and sequences of physical excursion or simple quotidian tasks. There’s an undeniable feeling of authenticity even when you’re watching something clearly biased, such as a Michael Moore joint. Even in cases where the film’s overall focus is narrowed to fit a pre-conceived narrative, there’s an unmistakable feeling of intimacy, of being let into a filmmaker’s brain for a quick flash. In using snippets of the real world, in a variety of forms, great documentaries use images of universal, familiar existence to impart something tremendously personal, even intimate.
As entertaining and informative as he can be, Moore’s template of sardonic political outrage is certainly not the only (or most fruitful) way to connect with an audience.
And yet, all these films remain under this same rubric, and Netflix has a bountiful of great ones that passes well beyond the aforementioned, essential titles. Here are the best documentaries currently on Netflix.
They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead
Director: Morgan Neville
When Netflix finally released the long lost Orson Welles film The Other Side of the Wind in November 2018, they simultaneously dropped a documentary about the making of the notorious film. The result, They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, is utterly fascinating as it not only chronicles the decades-long journey of working on, shooting, reshooting, editing, reshooting, re-editing, etc. of The Other Side of the Wind, but it also gives insight into Welles’ career in the shadow of Citizen Kane. If you’re somewhat unfamiliar with Welles’ work outside that masterpiece, The Other Side of the Wind is a must-watch, as it explains why and how he kind of faded in his later years. But beyond that, the making of The Other Side of the Wind is simply insane.
Blue Planet II
The docuseries Blue Planet II is so visually tantalizing that it really demands visceral reactions. Joy, terror, confusion, and celebration are commonplace when watching these stunning sea stories, thanks to things like bubble-less diving equipment that allows the camera operators to get closer to their subjects than ever before.
Blue Planet II is a follow-up to 2001’s seminal documentary series. The new chapter took over 4 years to film (you can learn more about that filming here), and the results are stunning. Airing on BBC America in the U.S., Blue Planet II is again (and of course) narrated by Sir David Attenborough, and takes us on dives across and deep into all of the world’s oceans. But the real trick of Blue Planet II is that despite its deluge of amazing facts and oceanic education, it never feels like homework. It is stunning, delightful, and even terrifying. There really cannot be enough praise for the series, which knows how important it is to engage viewers on both an emotional and intellectual level. The results are a riveting, often heartbreaking look at both the strength and fragility of the world’s oceans. It is a series that cannot be missed, and one that will leave you breathless given the scope of its fascinating but urgent message. Basically, it’ll f— you up real good.
Directors: Noah Baumabch and Jake Paltrow
De Palma is an absolute must-watch for any and all cinephiles, whether you’re a fan of Brian De Palma’s work or not. The film’s conceit is basically that filmmakers and De Palma fans Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow sit the legendary director in front of a camera and pepper him with a litany of questions that cover his entire career, for which De Palma is more than happy to be absolutely candid. Hear stories about the making of films like Scarface, Blow Out, and Untouchables, his friendship with filmmakers like Martin Scorsese and George Lucas (and subsequent jealousy when their careers went stratospheric and his didn’t), and the creative tensions on the set of Mission: Impossible. You’ll walk away wanting Baumbach and Paltow to turn this into a series of documentaries about various filmmakers running through their entire filmographies.
Audrie & Daisy
Directors: Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk
Audrie & Daisy is a tough watch, but also a necessary one—especially in 2018. The documentary chronicles the stories of two high school students who were sexually assaulted. Audrie, 15, was subjected to such intense cyberbullying after the incident that she committed suicide. Daisy, 14 at the time of her assault, hears about Audrie’s story and tries to reach out, only to discover she’s already gone. The film tracks the events of both traumatic events while also chronicling how the institutions meant to protect citizens failed both of these victims. And while this is an intensely emotional film, the courage of Daisy’s story instills hope, and Cohen and Shenk conclude the film by focusing on the efforts being made to stop assault before it begins.
The Vietnam War
Directors: Ken Burns and Lynn Novick
Writer: Geoffrey C. Ward
While billed as a “film,” Ken Burns’ latest documentary epic The Vietnam War is 17 hours in length, so you’re likely not going to be able to watch this one all in one go. And even if you could, I’m not sure you’d want to. Just like Burns’ other docs like The Roosevelts or The Civil War, The Vietnam War takes a deep dive into crucial moments in American history, but this film is also accompanied by harrowing footage from one of the worst wars in American history. The doc does a phenomenal job of contextualizing exactly how this war began, tracing its roots back to 1858, and also looks towards the future as all sides try to find healing and reconciliation. The film is packed with insightful and emotional interviews with both Americans and those who experienced the war firsthand from both North Vietnam and South Vietnam, as those involved offer candid details about what exactly went on from their point of view. This is a must-watch for every American citizen, and while moments are indeed graphic and troubling, they’re crucial to understanding the mistakes made in the past so that they’re hopefully not repeated in the future.
Director: Will Allen
There are a lot of documentaries about cults, but Holy Hell is certainly one of the most engrossing to tackle this particular subject. The film hails from Will Allen, who documents his personal experience as a member of the Buddhafield cult for 22 years, led by a mysterious man who goes by the name Michel. What makes this particular documentary so fascinating is the fact that Allen served as the group’s official videographer, so there’s a bounty of footage from inside the cult that is contextualized with present day interviews from former members. There are many twists and turns to be found as the story unfolds, and it’s no spoiler to say that Michel is discovered to be quite the megalomaniacal leader. But Holy Hell does a great job of exploring why people were so entranced by Michel’s teachings, and how their own personal experiences in society made them more vulnerable and likely to stick around as things got weirder and weirder.
Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond
Director: Chris Smith
During the making of the 1999 film Man on the Moon, actor Jim Carrey made the decision to go full-method into the character of Andy Kaufman. He asked a couple of Kaufman’s real-life friends to help document the experience, filming Carrey both on and off set during the difficult shoot. But Universal Pictures prevented the footage from ever seeing the light of day, for fear that people would think Carrey was “an asshole.” So Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond unearths this footage for the very first time, and is juxtaposed with an extremely candid interview with Carrey shot in 2017. The result is a fascinating, unflinching chronicle of Carrey’s method acting—which at times was abrasive and infuriating. But the film is also an introspective look at Carrey’s life and career, and what makes him tick. It’s clear that the Man on the Moon experience had a profound experience on Carrey’s life, and forever changed how he saw things. For fans of Carrey’s work, this is bizarre piece of documentary filmmaking a must-see.
Director: Ava DuVernay
Ava DuVernay follows up her acclaimed film Selma with a searing documentary that looks at the mass incarceration of minorities following the passage of the 13th amendment. As the documentary points out, it’s not just ingrained cultural racism that results in the widespread incarceration of African-Americans and other minorities. There’s a financial incentive as well, and it’s good business to lock people up. 13th systematically goes through the decades following the passage of the 13th amendment to show how black people were targeted by the media, by the government, and by businesses to create a new form of slavery. It is a movie that will infuriate you, depress you, and hopefully spur you to action against a system that done egregious harm to our fellow citizens.
Director: Bryan Fogel
This movie is insane. Icarus began as a project from Bryan Fogel in which the documentary filmmaker wanted to go on a doping regimen for the Haute Route to see if he could elude the race’s intense drug testing. But as Fogel makes contact with a Russian expert in doping, he soon becomes embroiled in the biggest athletic scandal in history, as his “expert” turns out to be the mastermind behind Russia’s doping of the Sochi Olympics. Part dark comedy, part thriller, Icarus is an exciting, fascinating, and truly stranger-than fiction watch.
Director: Kim A. Snyder
The documentary Newtown is not an easy film to watch, nor should it be, but it is absolutely essential. The film is a tactful, powerful look at how the community of Newtown, Connecticut came together in the aftermath of the largest mass shooting of schoolchildren in American history. It is a deeply personal film, focusing on the parents, brothers, and sisters who were affected by this act of terrorism, and how it has impacted not just them but the community as a whole. The film forces the viewer to confront the consequences of gun violence in an unflinching, almost overwhelmingly emotional manner. It is not preachy and it has no agenda other than showing human truth. If I had my personal druthers, this film would be required viewing for every single American citizen.
Piyush Pande Films