The streaming landscape can feel endless. It’s not and we’re here to help. Netflix has hundreds of documentaries in its streaming library, but they’re not all created equal, and we’ve narrowed down the options for you with 25 of our top picks for the best documentary movies currently available to watch on the streaming platform. If you’re looking for something light and visually stunning, you’ve come to the right place. If you’re looking for something gruesome yet fascinating, there are options for you below. If you only have half an hour or 40 minutes to kill, Netflix has something for you.
So peruse our list below, and get watching!
One of the best documentaries in recent years, “Athlete A” works on multiple fronts: First, it effectively chronicles the abuse perpetrated by Larry Nassar, a former sports medicine physician who used his position at USA Gymnastics to sexually abuse hundreds of children and young women. Second, it contextualizes how the elite gymnastics culture and the leadership of USA Gymnastics, including former CEO Steve Penny, allowed the abuse to continue for years. Finally, it shows the vital importance of investigative journalism, as it follows the team of Indianapolis Star journalists who broke and continued to cover the story.
“The Great Hack”
With how quickly the age of information and technology is moving, the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal, which broke in 2018, may seem like ancient history, but it is not. In this 2019 film, directors Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer use interviews with former Cambridge Analytica employee Brittany Kaiser, investigative journalist Carole Cadwalladr, and Professor David Carroll to explain how British consulting firm Cambridge Analytica used personal data collected from tens of millions of Facebook users for political advertising, including in the 2016 presidential campaigns of Ted Cruz and Donald Trump.
“Blackpink: Light Up the Sky”
If you’re interested in learning more about the global cultural phenomenon that is K-pop, Netflix has a documentary for you. In this 79-minute film, “Salt Fat Acid Heat” director Caroline Suh gets incredible access to the four members of Blackpink to tell the behind-the-scenes story of one of the most popular music groups of all time. The documentary doesn’t get too deep (like Morgan Spurlock’s “One Direction: This Is Us,” there are often limits to music documentaries produced at the height of a group’s active fame), but features moments of vulnerability with Jisoo, Jennie, Rosé, and Lisa that get to some of the joys and pressures of life as a K-pop idol.
“The Speed Cubers”
Clocking in at only 40 minutes, “The Speed Cubers” is a great watch option if you’re looking for something quick and uplifting. In this 2020 documentary, director Sue Kim delves into the world of competitive Rubik’s Cube speed solving, following two of the leading solvers in the world: 21-year-old Max Park and 27-year-old Feliks Zemdegs. While the two young men are rivals, they are also friends, and this documentary’s focus on the latter makes it a heartwarming watch.
“The Black Godfather”
Clarence “The Black Godfather” Avant is a music executive, film producer, and businessman who has had a hand in many of the Black American musician success stories of the last 50 years. This 2019 documentary, directed by Reginald Hudlin, interviews dozens of the people Avant has worked with over the years—including Barack Obama, Snoop Dogg, Kamala Harris, Hank Aaron, and Jamie Foxx—to tell his story in just under two hours.
“A Secret Love”
When director Chris Bolan went to visit his two great aunts, Terry and Pat, he didn’t expect to hear a story that would be the start of his next documentary film project. In this 2020 film, Bolan tells the story of former All-American Girls Professional Baseball League player Terry Donahue and Pat Henschel, partners who have been together for over 70 years but kept the romantic nature of their relationship secret from their family until 2009. “A Secret Love” uses archival home videos and All-American Girls League newsreels to illustrate the story of Pat and Terry’s loving lesbian relationship through the years. The 83-minute film is a testament to love, but it’s also an infuriating history of American homophobia.
An Academy Award winner for Best Documentary Feature, this 2019 film is set in Moraine, Ohio, a working class town not far from Dayton where a General Motors plant once thrived, then shuttered. When a Chinese company run by billionaire Cao Dewang decides to open a facility in the abandoned factory, it seems like a win for everyone. The new glass manufacturing company brings 2,000 American jobs to the depressed region, along with the opportunity for 200 Chinese workers to move to America to work in the factory. What follows is a story of a culture clash between working-class America and high-tech China that, thanks to directors Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert, never loses its empathy or complexity.
“Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution” is a story about a community of teens with disabilities who meet at Upstate New York’s Camp Jened in the summer of 1971, and it’s also a story about the power of solidarity in political organizing. The 2020 documentary, directed by James Lebrecht and Nicole Newnham, chronicles the development of the disabilities rights movement in the 20th century, from the sweaty joy and acceptance of the Camp Jened community to the signing of the Section 504, an American law that guarantees a public education to children with disabilities.
A 2019 concert film about the superstar’s iconic 2018 Coachella performance, “Homecoming” isn’t just about Beyoncé, it is by Beyoncé. Queen Bey wrote, directed and produced the 137-minute film that takes viewers behind the scenes of “Beychella,” from the performance’s conception to its coming together to its execution. Like “Lemonade” before it, “Homecoming” proved that Beyoncé isn’t just a singer, performer, and businesswoman—she’s also a filmmaker.
“Period. End of Sentence”
A documentary short clocking it at only 26 minutes, “Period. End of the Sentence” is a quick yet impactful glimpse into a vital topic: period poverty, aka a lack of access to menstrual products. In this 2018 doc, director Rayka Zehtabchi follows a group of local women living in a Kathikera village in the Hapur district of India, as they learn how to work a machine designed to make low-cost, biodegradable sanitary pads. The short is about the implementation of this machine, but it is also about the cultural taboo around menstruation—a taboo that exists in some form in most cultures around the world.
“Is That Black Enough For You?”
It can be difficult to make a good documentary on a broad subject, but director and culture critic Elvis Mitchell does it with “Is That Black Enough For You?,” which tells the history of Black American cinema in a cool 135 minutes. The 2022 documentary spends much of its time focusing on the “Blaxploitation” films of the 1970s, but puts the period in a larger context of how Black Americans have been depicted throughout the history of cinema—mostly by White directors and writers. Featuring talking head interviews with people like Laurence Fishburne, Samuel L. Jackson, and Whoopi Goldberg, “Is That Black Enough For You?” is a must-watch for any cinephile.
“White Hot: The Rise of Abercrombie & Fitch”
Millennials who were alive and shopping during the 90s or naughts might find particular nostalgia interest in “White Hot: The Rise of Abercrombie & Fitch,” but this documentary is a must-watch for anyone who is interested in the cycles of systemic discrimination that plague American culture. Alison Klayman’s 2022 doc breaks down the successes and failures of the retail brand, and how its commitment to white, rich, thin beauty standards not only in its advertisements but in its hiring policies led to its fall from cool-kid grace. While the talking head interviews with former A&F employees and journalists are insightful, the film may be most effective in its soundtrack, which conjures up turn-of-the-millennials vibes with hits like Lit’s “My Own Worst Enemy” and The Offspring’s “Self Esteem.”
Directed by Kristine Stolakis, “Pray Away” is a bold and vital film about conversion therapy, the pseudo-scientific practice embraced by some conservative Christian communities under the false belief that it is possible to “cure” someone’s queerness. The film employs interviews with survivors of conversion therapy, as well as former leaders in the evangelical conversion therapy communities to explore the damage these camps have done—and continue to do. The documentary won the 2022 GLAAD Media Award for “Outstanding Documentary.”
In 2019, the wreckage of the Clotilda, the last known U.S. slave ship to bring captives from Africa to America (40 years after slavery had been deemed a capital offense), was found in Alabama’s Mobile River. In “Descendant,” director Margaret Brown uses that moment as a jumping off point to tell the thoroughly American story of Africatown, a community three miles from Mobile that was formed by 32 of the West Africans who were on the Clotilda. Many of their descendants still live in Africatown today. Brown tells their story, as well as the story of other people in the community, stitching together an oral history of systemic racism and collective resilience.
“The Elephant Whisperers”
Director Kartiki Gonsalves spent five years following an indigenous couple named Bomman and Bellie, as they cared for elephants in the Mudumalai National Park in the mountains of southern India. While Bomman, Bellie, and elephants Raghu and Ammukutty are the character foci of this 40-minute feature, “The Elephant Whisperers” is as interested in communicating a sense of place as much as plot. Gorgeous shots of the countryside, as well as other animals (including leopards, tigers and monkeys) living in the reserve, make “The Elephant Whisperers” a lush, immersive experience.
“Circus of Books”
In 1982, Rachel Mason’s parents took over ownership of Circus of Books, a gay porn bookshop in West Hollywood, without telling their children exactly what it is they did for a living. In 2019, Rachel Mason released the documentary “Circus of Books,” a story about the bookshop, what it meant to the local gay community, and how the family secret was eventually revealed. “Circus of Books” is both a deeply personal meditation on family and a snapshot of a gay community during the 1980s and beyond.
Artificial intelligence is becoming an increasing factor in our daily lives, which makes “Coded Bias,” a 2020 documentary about the biases that can be embedded into advanced technology, a must-watch. Directed by filmmaker and environmental activist Shalini Kantayya, “Coded Bias” follows Joy Buolamwini, a computer scientist and digital activist whose MIT research into the limitations of facial-recognition technology brought public attention to the biases that are often built into decision-making software.
“Money Shot: The Porn Hub Story”
One of the most recent documentaries on this list, “Money Shot: The Porn Hub Story” is exactly what it says on the tin: the tale of the Canadian-owned internet porn site, which is the 13th most-trafficked website in the world. Director Suzanne Hilliger uses interviews with sex workers, ex-Pornhub employees, journalists, and anti-sex-trafficking activists to discuss a 2020 Pornhub scandal involving non-consensual pornography on the site, and its aftermath. Rather than taking a “pro” or “con” stance on the website and industry, Hilliger lets her variety of subjects give their opinions and perspective, which makes for a broad, albeit sometimes frustrating watch.
With “13th,” Ava DuVernay set out to answer the question of how the United States became the country with the highest rates of incarceration in the world. The 2016 documentary answers that question by drawing a line from the end of slavery in America (enacted with the 13th Amendment, which is where the film gets its name) to our modern carceral system, where Black Americans are incarcerated at nearly five times the rate of white Americans. The 100-minute documentary does this with a mix of archival footage and interviews with activists, politicians, and historians, including Angela Davis, Cory Booker, and Henry Louis Gates Jr.
“Knock Down the House”
If you’re looking for some hope heading in the American democratic system, look no further than “Knock Down the House,” a 2019 documentary that follows four women Democrats running for Congress in the 2018 elections. In the election, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Amy Vilela of Nevada, Cori Bush of Missouri, and Paula Jean Swearengin of West Virginia all ran grassroots campaigns against long-time incumbents. If you follow U.S. politics at all, you know the outcome of each race, but that doesn’t take away from the energy of Rachel Lears’ 86-minute film.
“My Octopus Teacher”
Come for the breathtaking underwater shots of an underwater kelp forest in a remote bay off the coast of South Africa, stay for the story of an octopus and a human becoming best friends. The human in question is Craig Foster, a filmmaker “My Octopus Teacher” directors Pippa Ehrlich and James Reed spent a year following around in the water (and occasionally on shore). Did they expect for Craig to become best friends with a mollusk? Unclear, and it is only so helpful to project a human relationship context onto their interactions, but you will probably find far more plot and character in this 85-minute documentary than you might expect from a film that is mainly about bopping around in the ocean.
Speaking of natural wonders, “Fantastic Fungi” is a deep dive into the mysterious world of the mycelium network. As you may have heard before, there is so much humans still don’t know or understand about mushrooms, but this 80-minute documentary doesn’t let that stop it. Interviews with American mycologist Paul Stamets walking around the forest are a highlight of this 2019 documentary, but it’s the combination of time-lapse cinematography and CGI used by director Louie Schwartzberg that truly makes this film a must-watch.
We’re still not so good at talking about mental health, but Jonah Hill’s documentary about how much he loves his therapist might be helping. The 2022 documentary could have felt like a trash-grab gimmick, if not for the sincerity and vulnerability of both Hill, who shares some of his own mental health struggles, and Stutz, who offers tips and strategies to viewers who might not have their own therapist. The 96-minute film is by no means a substitute for actual mental health access and support, but does perhaps represent a further erosion of the stigma so many people still have against seeking help.