The Most Compelling Documentaries To Watch On Netflix

Photo: Courtesy of PBS.
It’s a Saturday night. You’re warm, fuzzy, under the covers, and have the remote aimed straight for the TV. But — bear with me — maybe instead of going straight for Keeping Up With the Kardashians, you can put your screen time to more productive use. Something that grabs you with a compelling story, provides multifaceted perspective, and introduces you to a corner of the world that you had been unfamiliar with before.
Yes, I'm talking about a documentary. Although I admit that that description also could be true of Keeping Up With the Kardashians, which, perhaps, is a documentary in its own right.
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Documentaries aren’t just the stodgy, stuffy programming you zoom by on PBS. In fact, these films can often be swashbuckling and adventurous (especially when they focus on wildlife and, as you’ll see on this list, killer whales). Who needs movies when you could see the world’s real-life characters so often featured in documentaries?
Often, documentaries occupy the fascinating intersection between journalism and storytelling. In these selections, you’ll see stories told about people, places, and things, in extremely innovative ways.
So, we’ve sold you. While documentaries do provide such crucial glimpses into lesser-known pockets of the universe, rarely do they reach wide distribution. That’s what makes Netflix and other streaming services so crucial. All of these fully streamable documentaries are available with the click of a button. Press play and let the knowledge of octogenarian fashionistas and mysterious photographers, disappeared singers and pent-up killer whales zoom through you.
We promise you’ll find documentaries as interesting, rewarding, and, yes, addictive, as we do.
1 of 17
The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson (2017)

Marsha P (the p stands for "don't pay it any mind") Johnson was a gay rights icon living in New York in '70s. When her body unexpectedly washed ashore in the Hudson River in 1992, police deemed it a suicide — but her friends and fellow members of the gay community weren't convinced. This documentary seeks to explain what happened to Marsha, and revive her lasting legacy on the community.
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2 of 17
Room 237

What did fans of complicated, multi-faceted movies and TV shows do before reddit? Instead of running to online chatrooms to post their theories, I guess, they made documentaries like Room 237, which explores every hidden meaning embedded in Stanley Kubrick's acclaimed horror film The Shining. If you manage not to be spooked, you'll leave Room 237 with a greater appreciation for Kubrick and the cinematic form in general.
3 of 17
13th (2016)

The 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution abolished holding individuals as slaves — except if they're considered criminals. This Ava DuVernay documentary argues that slavery has been perpetuated through a system of mass incarceration. DuVernay peels the lid open on the prison industrial complex, and this revelatory documentary is likely to change the way you think about everything from the systematic disenfranchisement of the Black population, the war on drugs, and the privatization of prisons.
4 of 17
First Position (2011)

Each year, 5,000 aspiring ballet dancers between the ages of 9-19 come to New York for the biggest audition of their lives. The Youth America Grand Prix offers them an opportunity to join an elite company or academy. The film follows six such ballet dancers, including a 12-year-old homeschooled prodigy and an orphan from Sierra Leone, during their preparations.
5 of 17
The Wolfpack (2015)

Six brothers and one sister are raised in a four-bedroom apartment in New York. Sounds cramped, but not completely abnormal, right? Then, add the fact that their parents wouldn't let them leave. The siblings' only knowledge of the outside world comes from movies. When the eldest sibling decides to rebel and leave the apartment, they come in contact with an alien world: Manhattan.
6 of 17
Life Itself (2014)

Calling all cinephiles: This biographical documentary about acclaimed film critic Roger Ebert is not to be missed. Two thumbs up!
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7 of 17
Get Me Roger Stone (2017)

Do you watch the news and feel a general sense of perplexity? Do you want to know how Donald Trump was elected president of the United States? Well, here's an essential piece of the story that you probably haven't heard about already on Pod Save America.

Roger Stone is a long-time political operative who, for years, was working to get one of his favorite populist candidates elected president. With Trump, Stone got the presidential candidate he'd always dreamt of. Their partnership would influence the election, big time.
8 of 17
The Hunting Ground (2015)

This acclaimed documentary is an expose on sexual assault on college campuses.
9 of 17
Man on Wire (2008)

In 1974, the French daredevil Philippe Petit secretly staged his greatest stunt yet: Walking between the Twin Towers on a tight rope. Using found footage, this documentary tells the story of this astounding crime.
10 of 17
Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2011)

Most people are just good at eating sushi. Other people, like Jiro Ono, are masters at making sushi. This documentary is replete with beautiful food imagery, father-son dynamics, and, of course, sushi.
11 of 17
The White Helmets (2016)

If you're hungry to learn more about an issue in today's political climate, look no further. Netflix won its first ever Oscar for this short documentary, which focuses on the first responders who risk their lives to rescue victims from the rubble in Syria. These real-life superheroes redefine bravery in the modern age.
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12 of 17
What Happened, Miss Simone? (2015)

Nina Simone achieved fame, fortune, and a legendary career. But, as a singer in the height of the Civil Rights movement, a "good career" wasn't enough. She wanted equality, too. This well-researched documentary portrays Nina as someone who possessed a fierce activist spirit, in addition to an unforgettable singing voice.
13 of 17
Finding Vivian Maier (2013)

Pirates may disagree, but buried treasure doesn’t always have to mean gold coins and sparkling gems. In the case of John Maloof, an unmarked box that he bought in an estate sale contained thousands of photographers by an unnamed photographer. To clarify: thousands of spectacular photographs, each offering a unique portrait of street life in Chicago. The documentary follows Maloof’s journey to piece together the photographer’s identity, which, as all juicy stories go, isn’t as straightforward as it seems.

Her name was Vivian Maier, and for most of her life, she was a nanny and housekeeper to families around Chicago. After putting the kids to sleep, she’d slink around the streets of Chicago, following her true passion of photography. Yet as her legacy went undiscovered over the course of her lifetime, it begs the question: Did Vivian Maier want her photography seen? Is this documentary ethical? What we do know: It’s gripping, award-winning, and it’s Maier’s face that’ll haunt you even more than her photographs.
14 of 17
Twinsters (2015)

If the plot of Twinsters happened in a film, it would be written off as unlikely or too hard to believe. That’s what makes this documentary so utterly wonderful: It did happen! And we have the proof.

Twinsters tracks the story of what happens after Californian Samantha Futerman is put in touch with Anais Bordier, a woman to whom she bears a shockingly similar resemblance. In a surreal Skype session, the two 25-year-olds put together their biographies, which begin to mirror one another’s. Both born in Busan, South Korea on the same day; both adopted by families overseas on the 1980s. The camera rolls throughout the process of two strangers realizing they are not strangers after all. In fact, they’re just as far as one can get from strangers. They’re (spoiler alert!) sisters.
15 of 17
Blackfish (2013)

Honor the killer whale Tilikum’s recent death by watching the film that catapulted him to fame, and brought SeaWorld’s treatment of animals to public attention. In 2010, Tilikum killed his trainer, Dawn Brancheau. But this isn't the aquatic version of Kujo, and Tilikum isn’t the villain of this story. The documentary reveals the conditions and adverse effects that led to the murder.

Blackfish is an example of the real-world effect that documentaries can have. After the film inspired ire and outrage in viewers, attendance at the parks plummeted and SeaWorld lost a lot of money. Since then, SeaWorld has vowed to halt killer whale performances at its park.
16 of 17
Iris (2016)

Calling all fashionistas: You just met your newest style icon. Introducing Iris Apfel, the 95-year-old New York collector who’s always been a fixture of the fashion scene. Since a show at the Metropolitan Museum, which displayed her extensive collection of crazy accessories and ornate clothing, however, she’s reached a new level of fame.

In addition to showing off Iris’s enviable collection, the documentary simply documents what a life well lived looks like. The doc is chock-full of geriatric charm and endearing, quotable sentences Iris utters in each of her interactions, and you’ll come off loving Iris Apfel. The film also depicts Iris’s 61-year marriage with her husband, who turns 100 at the film’s end. Throughout the course of her illustrious career designing interiors of the White House with Jackie O and being the cover of magazines, there Karl was, cheering her on. Talk about real relationship goals.
17 of 17
Dear Zachary: A Letter To A Son About His Father (2008)

In this documentary, the filmmaker explains a complicated, sprawling, and eventually tragic family backstory to his friend's infant boy. Though Kurt Kuenne sets out create a poignant tribute to his fallen friend Andrew Bagby, the documentary becomes a different beast altogether once unforeseen events begin to unfold.

Seriously, don’t watch this without tissues. You’ll be caught alone in your room and left marooned and unable to get up from the bed. It happened to me, and it might well happen to you.

Our advice? Don't look up anything about this film, because spoilers abound. Just watch it.
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