Netflix has been the home to some of the best documentaries and docu-series of recent years — some of them produced in-house, some picked up for distribution at prestigious film festivals and some licensed from the top independent production companies. Below is our regularly updated guide to the must-see docs currently on Netflix, subdivided by genre. (Note: Netflix sometimes removes titles without notice.)
New to Netflix
“Pretend It’s a City” (2020)
Fans of the director Martin Scorsese and the humorist Fran Lebowitz should have a blast with this seven-part series, in which Scorsese and his crew cut freely between lovely shots of New York City, amusing clips from old movies and footage of Lebowitz expounding at length about the annoyances of modern life. Even viewers who are generally resistant to the charms of Lebowitz’s curmudgeonly rants may appreciate the poignancy of “Pretend It’s a City,” which is mostly about the New York these two old friends remember, and how it has evolved and endured through multiple tragedies in their lifetimes.
“Crack: Cocaine, Corruption and Conspiracy” (2020)
More than just a crime story, Stanley Nelson’s feature documentary “Crack” also serves as an analysis of the narcotics trade in the 1980s and 1990s, during a time when cocaine became cheaper and more plentiful. The proliferation of crack and crack-dealers in Black neighborhoods gave politicians a new talking point; and it ultimately led to an escalation of the war on crime that savaged America’s poor. Nelson’s film considers the roots of the epidemic. It also features persuasive arguments that the nation’s rich and powerful exploited the public’s fears to cover up their own covert dealings with the drug-producing Central American countries.
“The Ripper” (2020)
The best true-crime stories are as much about the time and place they’re set as they are about the grim details of death and degradation. The four-part “The Ripper” mostly covers West Yorkshire in the late 1970s, when a serial killer murdered and mutilated over a dozen women. Because most of the Yorkshire Ripper’s prey were prostitutes, the attacks may not have received as much attention as they should have from the police. This docu-series is about the crime-spree; but it’s also about how England’s changing socioeconomic conditions affected women’s lives in ways the authorities failed to acknowledge.
“Break It All: The History of Rock in Latin America” (2020)
Even pop culture connoisseurs are likely to learn something new from “Break It All,” a six-part exploration of how rock ’n’ roll swept across Latin America — from Mexico to Argentina — throughout the latter half of the 20th century. The music thrived through multiple political revolutions, many of which left the bands facing censorship at home. Some also struggled to find audiences abroad for their fiery, personal, Spanish-language records. This series charts the evolution of these various movements, showing how wave after wave of brilliant musicians incorporated modern trends into catchy, provocative songs.
‘Making a Murderer’ (2015-2018)
When this complicated true-crime story became a sensation on Netflix at the end of 2015, its success helped establish the template for a more podcast-like kind of docu-series, aiming for serious investigative reporting over sensationalism. Across two ten-episode seasons, the filmmakers Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos follow the saga of Steven Avery, a Wisconsin man freed from prison after 18 years thanks to DNA evidence, only to be charged later with another murder. “Making a Murderer” is both an engrossing courtroom drama and an examination of how the criminal justice system often resists accepting its own errors.
‘Strong Island’ (2017)
The filmmaker Yance Ford digs into his own history for the Oscar-nominated “Strong Island,” a nonfiction murder-mystery covering the events surrounding the shooting death of Ford’s brother, William Ford Jr., in 1992 in Long Island. The Black, middle-class Ford family expected justice in what looked like an open-and-shut case. Instead, law enforcement questioned William’s character, while his alleged white assailant was given the benefit of the doubt. Yance Ford draws on poignant home-movie footage and probing interviews to confront the ways racism limits how free some American citizens can be.
‘The Staircase’ (2004-2018)
Off-and-on over the past 16 years, the filmmaker Jean-Xavier de Lestrade has been following the case of the crime novelist Michael Peterson, who was accused of murdering his wife in 2001. During the course of the investigation, attorneys from both sides have turned up surprising evidence — some of which seems to point to Peterson’s innocence and some of which makes him look guilty as sin. “The Staircase” is an informative and at-times chilling criminal procedural, which keeps returning to the idea that what a lawyer can prove in court is sometimes more essential to the cause of justice than “the truth.”
‘Tell Me Who I Am’ (2019)
This fascinating and heartbreaking film tells the story of Alex Lewis, who had an accident at age 18 that put him in a coma and wiped out most of memories. When Alex woke up, his twin brother Marcus helped him piece together the facts of his life. But Marcus chose to omit their shared childhood traumas, creating a much rosier alternate history. As adults, the brothers finally face the truth together — on camera, sometimes — and consider whether it’s better for people to be honest about a regrettable past or to bury it way down deep.
‘The Keepers’ (2017)
A band of amateur sleuths try to crack a cold case in “The Keepers,” a seven-part series about a brutal murder that the authorities — somewhat suspiciously — didn’t seem that eager to solve. When several alumni of a Baltimore Catholic high school try to get to the bottom of what happened to a popular young nun who was found dead in 1970, their detective work sheds light on another scandal at the school, involving sexual assault and an institutional cover-up. The director Ryan White lets these women tell the stories that the powers-that-be spent decades either ignoring or suppressing.
‘The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez’ (2020)
In 2013, an 8-year-old Los Angeles County boy named Gabriel Fernandez died from injuries after months of physical torture and assault at the hands of his mother and her boyfriend. This six-part series focuses on the subsequent public outcry and how it exposed some of the bad habits and systemic weaknesses of the local social service agencies. “The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez” alternates between a macro and a micro take on this tragedy, as a way to explain how threats to society’s most vulnerable are too often de-prioritized.
‘Wild Wild Country’ (2018)
Anyone who watched the nightly news in the 1980s may remember the stories about Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, a guru whose small Oregon cult briefly made national news because of his followers’ alleged involvement with bioterror and an attempted political assassination. For this six-part series, the filmmakers Maclain and Chapman Way use rare archival footage and recent interviews to help explain where Rajneesh’s movement came from, how it took hold in America and how it all came to a violent end. Though set over 30 years ago, this tale of faith and fanaticism still resonates.
‘Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness’ (2020)
As addictive as it is bizarre, “Tiger King” is about the oddball American entrepreneurs who run private zoos — and about the many laws some of them violate in order to exhibit their exotic critters to paying guests. At the center of this hugely popular docu-series is the twisted tale of a bitter rivalry between a conservationist named Carole Baskin and a libertine who calls himself “Joe Exotic.” As the co-directors Rebecca Chaiklin and Eric Goode dig deeper into a strange subculture, they find criminal syndicates, sex cults and unsolved murders.
‘Trial 4’ (2020)
One of the most popular sub-genres of the true crime documentary is the “innocent man, wrongly accused” story. These are especially popular when — as is the case with “Trial 4” — the tale of injustice reflects a deeper societal problem. This eight-part series is ostensibly about Sean Ellis, who as a teenager in 1993 was arrested and imprisoned for the murder of a Boston policeman. During the long and fitful appeals process, the accused’s legal team found that Ellis might have been railroaded; some within the criminal justice system seemed eager to throw the book at anyone they could credibly pin the killing to. Ultimately, this project isn’t about one convict’s troubles but rather about how in some communities, some law enforcement officers don’t think twice about callously trashing an ordinary person’s life.
‘The Last Dance’ (2020)
During their 1990s run to six NBA titles, the Michael Jordan-era Chicago Bulls were often just as entertaining off the court as they were during games. For the 10-part “The Last Dance,” the director Jason Hehir uses the hours of behind-the-scenes footage shot during Jordan’s final season with the team, combined with archival clips and new interviews. The anecdotes, the gossip and the bitter memories of old beefs give this series plenty of juice; but the real story remains the remarkable skills of these players, who dominated the sports world during a more carefree time.
‘Last Chance U’ (2016-20)
The title of “Last Chance U” refers to three community colleges where former football stars try to get their lives back on track, after washing out at major universities — usually due to academic, discipline or injury problems. The first two seasons were shot at East Mississippi Community College, the third and fourth at Independence Community College in Kansas and the fifth at Laney College in Oakland, Calif. The circumstances change slightly from location to location, but in each case there’s an emphasis on how these complex individuals — players, coaches and teachers alike — have been let down by a system geared toward exploiting the athletes’ talent, not nurturing their dreams.
The filmmaker and amateur cyclist Bryan Fogel is his own main character in the first half of “Icarus,” as he investigates the effectiveness of performance-enhancing drugs by testing them on himself. But when finding the best dope puts Fogel in contact with shady Russian doctors and dealers, he changes his movie’s focus, going after the international crime syndicates and official government sanctioning bodies who’ve colluded to influence the outcomes of Olympic-level sporting events. What starts as an entertaining exercise in participatory journalism evolves into an alarming exposé of deep-rooted corruption. The film won the best documentary Oscar in 2018.
‘The Battered Bastards of Baseball’ (2014)
There’s something about the culture of baseball itself that inspires rousing, real-life tall tales like the one in this documentary. “The Battered Bastards of Baseball” is about a short-lived A-level minor league team, the Portland Mavericks, which spent five years in the mid-1970s bringing fun and innovation to the game in the Pacific Northwest. Unaffiliated with any major league farm system, the Mavericks attracted castoffs and amateurs — including actor Kurt Russell, the son of the team’s owner, Bing Rusell — who all had big personalities and a sense of adventure, well-captured in this breezy film. ‘Screwball’ (2018)
The steroid scandal that rocked Major League Baseball in in the 1990s and the early 2000s may have faded from the headlines, but Billy Corben’s raucous documentary “Screwball” shows why the story remains relevant. The film is mostly about the rise and fall of the Florida-based Biogenesis clinic, which supplied multiple pro athletes with performance enhancers before the law came calling. Corben treats the case as a kooky caper comedy, highlighting the absurdity of it all — while still criticizing the moral failings of sports stars and businessmen willing to break the rules to get rich and famous more quickly.
Formula One racing fans and neophytes alike can learn a lot from this biographical documentary about the feisty and innovative Brazilian driver Ayrton Senna. Before he died in a wreck in 1994, Senna clashed with the European racing establishment, which disdained his aggressive style and disadvantaged him by tweaking their own regulations. The film’s director, Asif Kapadia, covers the controversies surrounding Senna and the excitement he brought to the sport, making a movie that’s not just about Formula One but also about how institutions sometimes stupidly resist change.
‘Chasing Coral’ (2017)
Jeff Orlowski’s nature documentary “Chasing Coral” doesn’t skimp on the pretty pictures. If you want to see colorful, luminous underwater footage of tropical fish swimming around stunning-looking reefs, this movie has the goods. But those images are also disturbing, especially when combined with data that shows how rising ocean temperatures have been “bleaching” coral reefs, upsetting the entire ecosystem. Orlowski’s film also covers the efforts of oceanographers to get people to notice what’s happening under the sea and to understand why it matters.
‘Our Planet’ (2019)
One of the most ambitious of David Attenborough’s nature documentaries, the eight-part “Our Planet” serves as a sort of State of the Earth address, hopping around the globe to show how ecosystems like jungles, deserts and oceans are doing these days. The answer? While they’re still teeming with amazing plants and animals — all well-photographed by Attenborough’s crew — their situation is more precarious than ever. This series is partly an appreciation of our wonderful world and partly a warning that some parts of it may not survive much longer.
‘Night on Earth’ (2020)
With the help of special lowlight cameras, the crew for this six-episode series were able to gather images unlike anything previously seen in films like these. As the narrator Samira Wiley softly describes the habits of nocturnal animals, “Night on Earth” shows how our planet’s diverse population of critters eats, mates and frolics under the stars. As with most modern nature docs, this one delivers a lesson, about the disruptions affecting our delicate ecological balance.
‘Hip-Hop Evolution’ (2016-20)
With episodes that range from the origins of rap in the 1970s to the rise of the mixtape in the 2000s, this 16-part series goes deeper into the history and the complexity of hip-hop culture than any other documentary of its kind. All the major artists get covered: from DJ Kool Herc to 50 Cent. But the Canadian creative team behind “Hip-Hop Evolution” are less interested in straight biographies than in making connections between subgenres, and in describing how one piece of music inspires another, until an entire scene is born.
‘Miss Americana’ (2020)
Like many modern pop stars, Taylor Swift is at once protective of her public image and resigned to the fact that few details about her personal life won’t get splashed across the internet. That tension between the genuinely private and the carefully stage-managed animates Lana Wilson’s documentary “Miss Americana,” which was shot over the course of a few years, as Swift struggled with whether she should change her approach to music and fame. This film is about the difficulties of wielding a strong voice in an era when celebrities are scrutinized so intensely.
‘Song Exploder’ (2020)
Musicians analyze their own work in this enlightening and often unexpectedly touching docu-series, based on the podcast of the same name. In each episode, the host Hrishikesh Hirway listens closely to songs while sitting across from the people who wrote and performed them, as they talk about everything from their inspirations to the nuts-and-bolts creative decisions they made during the recording process. The roster of guests is eclectic: The first batch includes R.E.M., Alicia Keys, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Ty Dolla Sign (with more episodes on the horizon). But although the drift of the conversations changes depending on who’s talking, everyone involved is committed to celebrating both the mysteries and the practical how-tos of music-making.
‘No Direction Home’ (2005)
Bob Dylan arrived in New York’s thriving folk music scene in 1961, and within a few years he’d become its most talked-about young star, thanks to his charisma, talent and willingness to pull from his peers’ work and make it his own, expanding their ideas into the rough forms of pop and rock. Martin Scorsese’s expansive documentary “No Direction Home” covers Dylan’s rise from obscurity to ubiquity, with vintage clips and new interviews shaped into a film that serves as both a salute to one artist’s genius and an apology to the people who got hurt as he muscled his way past them.
Quincy Jones’ own daughter Rashida Jones collaborated with the filmmaker Alan Hicks on this career-spanning retrospective of the EGOT-winning musician and producer. Framed by modern-day scenes of the man coping with his poor health and his busy schedule, “Quincy” winds back through 60 years of American music and movies. The intimacy that Rashida Jones brings to the project allows her dad to be honest about some of his personal failings, even as he accepts other people’s justified adulation.
‘Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened’ (2019)
For a few days in the spring of 2017, social media was abuzz with stories about the massive failures of the Fyre Festival, a multiday pop concert and party that went off the rails almost as soon as crowds started arriving at an island in the Bahamas. Chris Smith’s “what went wrong” post-mortem documentary relies on footage shot by both the organizers and the attendees, alongside interviews laced with apologies and gallows humor.
‘What Happened, Miss Simone?’ (2015)
The brilliant and troubled jazz and R&B singer Nina Simone gets the long-overdue bio-doc treatment in “What Happened, Miss Simone?” The director Liz Garbus talks to friends, family members and collaborators who knew Simone — or at least knew her as well as they could, given her struggles with mental illness. The heart of this movie is its wealth of performance footage, which shows the politically outspoken and confrontational Simone staring down audiences, while singing some of the most thrilling American popular music of the 1960s.
The title of Ava DuVernay’s Oscar-nominated documentary refers to the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which was intended to abolish involuntary servitude. The argument advanced by DuVernay and her interview subjects is that America’s prison system has become a new form of slavery, in which Black inmates are disproportionately punished for relatively minor offenses and exploited for their cheap labor. This film covers the history of the relationship between racial minorities and law enforcement, and details how a great deal of injustice has been done in the name of fighting crime.
‘Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution’ (2020)
James LeBrecht and Nicole Newnham’s film “Crip Camp” takes viewers back to the early 1970s, and to a Catskills summer camp for disabled teens that changed LeBrecht’s life. At Camp Jened, the director and his friends experienced what the world could be like if it were populated with loving and supporting peers, and filled with facilities that accommodate wheelchairs, among other things. The heartwarming footage from those years is combined with new interviews, in which the former campers talk about how, as adults, they tried make the outside world as inviting as those summers.
‘The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson’ (2017)
Part L.G.B.T.Q. history lesson, part murder mystery and part call to action, David France’s heartfelt film uses an amateur investigation into a suspicious death as an examination of the birth of an entire subculture. The activist Marsha P. Johnson died in 1992, in what was officially ruled a suicide. Years later, as the activist Victoria Cruz looks into the curious circumstances of Marsha’s demise, France talks to Johnson’s surviving friends about how she challenged her fellow gay New Yorkers, pushing them to acknowledge how their experiences differed from those of transgender women and men.
‘American Factory’ (2019)
One good way to understand the complexities of the modern global economy is to watch this entertaining and eye-opening Oscar winner, about what happened when a Chinese company opened a glass plant in the U.S. heartland. More than just a culture-clash story, “American Factory” presents a chilling vision of the future of labor, when people’s jobs are meant to consume most of their waking hours and when basic issues of health and safety are minimized or ignored. Throughout, the filmmakers Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert raise some important questions about how much Americans are willing to sacrifice to save their manufacturing sector.
‘I Am Not Your Negro’ (2017)
The words of James Baldwin — heard in vintage interviews, and also read aloud by Samuel L. Jackson — bring life to Raoul Peck’s provocative and probing essay-film “I Am Not Your Negro.” Based loosely on Baldwin’s unfinished memoir “Remember This House,” the movie focuses primarily on the author’s often pessimistic thoughts about the state of American race relations in the wake of the ’60s civil rights movement. As Baldwin talks about his love-hate relationship with American culture — and about his personal memories of Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and Medgar Evers — Peck contrasts images of protest marches from 60 years ago and today, subtly suggesting why Baldwin’s spirit must live on.
‘Dick Johnson Is Dead’ (2020)
There’s never been a documentary quite like “Dick Johnson Is Dead,” a film about mortality that’s filled with love, joy and imagination. When the director Kristen Johnson realized her sweet-natured father was rapidly declining physically and mentally, she convinced him to let her stage and shoot a series of elaborately morbid scenes with him, so they could get used to the idea that someday he’d be gone. The Johnsons are a fun family to spend time with; and though this movie is ultimately a tear-jerker, along the way it’s witty and wise about human experiences that are both common and inevitable.
‘Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened’ (2016)
Today, the musical “Merrily We Roll Along” is considered a classic, beloved for its innovative reverse-chronological structure, as well as for its catchy and heartbreaking songs about three showbiz pals drifting apart. But when it debuted on Broadway in 1981, the show was such a spectacular flop that it broke up the partnership between the lyricist and composer Stephen Sondheim and the producer/director Hal Prince. The emotional documentary “Best Worst Thing That Ever Happened” looks back at what went wrong, from the perspective of the original cast and crew, including Jason Alexander (“Seinfeld”), who were having a wonderful time up until opening night.
‘De Palma’ (2015)
Unlike his Oscar-winning buddies Martin Scorsese, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, the director Brian De Palma has steadfastly remained a Hollywood misfit, even while making critically acclaimed box office hits like “Carrie,” “The Untouchables” and “Mission: Impossible.” For the documentary “De Palma,” the filmmakers Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow let him talk at length about nearly all of his films, for what becomes an entertaining an enlightening bit of cinema scholarship, blessed with first-person accounts of how De Palma has channeled his personal obsessions into stylish, satirical and often perverse thrillers.
A celebration of youthful creative exuberance — and an explanation of how quickly that can curdle into adult disillusionment and compromise — Sandi Tan’s autobiographical documentary “Shirkers” tells the story of the quirky indie film that Tan and her punky pals made in Singapore as teenagers in the early 1990s. The movie never got released, for reasons that turn out to be surprising and even a little disturbing.
‘Five Came Back’ (2017)
World War II had a profound effect on the handful of Hollywood directors who volunteered to make movies for the government and for the studios that supported the U.S. mission overseas. In Laurent Bouzereau’s three-part docu-series — based on the book of the same name by the film critic and historian Mark Harris — modern filmmakers and scholars look back at the propaganda pictures and newsreels that Frank Capra, John Ford, John Huston, George Stevens and William Wyler made during the war, and analyze how their work later evolved in different ways to reflect their experiences.
‘Mucho Mucho Amor: The Legend of Walter Mercado’ (2020)
A lot of American children who grew up in Spanish-speaking households are familiar with Walter Mercado, a flamboyantly attired Puerto Rican television personality who for decades offered astrological analysis and generally positive vibes on Univision and elsewhere. Before Mercado died, the filmmaking team of Alex Fumero, Cristina Costantini and Kareem Tabsch were granted an audience with the reclusive entertainer, who shared his life story and his philosophies of life. This documentary tells the story of a beloved cultural icon: an inspiration to any viewer who ever yearned to live an unusual life.
‘Immigration Nation’ (2020)
This six-part docu-series covers the tense situation on the Mexican border, offering a close-up examination of how the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency conducts its business. The co-directors Christina Clusiau and Shaul Schwarz spent three years following ICE, with unprecedented access to their agents and operations. What the filmmakers found was a group of men and women overwhelmed by the enormity of their mission, and often cutting corners to compensate. “Immigration Nation” is a gripping and shocking piece of investigative journalism, arguing that one of the government’s youngest law-enforcement arms is floundering.
‘The Square’ (2013)
Jehane Noujaim’s Oscar-nominated documentary already feels a little like a relic from a different era — almost a decade ago — when pro-democracy movements spread across north Africa and the Middle East and captured international headlines. This film is a frontline report from Tahrir Square in Cairo, where a committed generation of activists endured violent crackdowns while realizing that, united, they had real political power. The story this movie tells is incomplete, given what’s happened in the world since then; still, it’s a riveting and urgent depiction of activism in action.
‘The Unknown Known’ (2013)
Throughout his career, the documentarian Errol Morris has made what could be called “explain yourself” films, where he lets widely reviled public figures stare into his camera and tell their stories. One of the most revealing is “The Unknown Known,” a feature-length interrogation of the former U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, focused primarily on the life lessons and personal ideals that guided his decision-making during the Iraq War. Though Rumsfeld dodges many of Morris’s more pointed questions, the documentary remains an insightful study of how politicians sometimes play around with the definitions of words to avoid taking responsibility for their worst mistakes.