The 25 best documentaries on Netflix (November 2019)

Gem Seddon
Best Netflix documentaries

More often than not, there’s a reason we’re steered toward the best documentaries on Netflix. A recommendation from an excited colleague who simply *cannot* believe you’ve not seen the likes of Making a Murderer, the bingewatch sensation of 2015, or  their insistence that you absolutely must watch Virunga, perhaps. Underneath, it’s easy to see why this type of storytelling compels us time and time again, making us eager to share these shows and features. There’s a feeling that all good docs carry at their heart, an intimacy, an unshaking belief that yanks us into the filmmaker’s world.

Question is: where will you turn to first to commence your trip into the best documentaries on Netflix? Because, like all things on the ‘flix, narrowing down your choices isn’t something that happens quickly. These crackin’ docs hail from every corner of the globe, telling inspirational tales to rival the latest movies to hit the multiplex. At times, these are stranger than fiction, drawing you into their intriguing stories all the more closely, unraveling in ways you’d never imagine. Whether you delight in a historical dive or a true crime expose, one of the titles in this list will appeal to your documentary tastebuds. 

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25. Catwalk: Tales from the Cat Show Circuit (2018)

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Region: Worldwide

The documentary: For a minute, forget about all oh-so-serious documentaries and join us in becoming obsessed with Catwalk: Tales from the Cat Show Circuit. Yes, you read that correctly. This documentary is all about Canada's competitive cat show circuit and it’s as entertaining as it sounds. Whether you love cats or not, you’ll revel in this look at what can only be described as one of the oddest animal competitions around – two owners and their prima donna pussys fighting tooth and nail to be crowned Canada’s next top cat. 

Why it’s worth a watch: Did we mention that this is a documentary about the competitive cat show circuit? Imagine Toddlers and Tiaras except you don’t have to feel bad about watching it because, if the cats don’t want to perform, they’ll just scratch and hiss instead of crying and growing up emotionally scarred. Although the phrase "crazy cat lady" definitely comes to mind more than once while watching Catwalk, there are some genuinely heart-warming moments. It’s perfect for taking your mind off the other interesting but often disturbing documentaries you’ve probably been watching. 

24. Mercury 13 (2018)

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Region: Worldwide

The documentary: Tackling a topic that sadly still permeates our culture, Mercury 13 is nevertheless a must-see, diving into the reality of being a female astronaut in the '60s. Don’t remember them? This film explores why that’s the case, revealing the truth behind their absence in history. Dubbed the Mercury 13 – after the first US space mission, Mercury – these women underwent the same rigorous testing as their male counterparts, and yet were denied the chance to take flight.

Why it’s worth a watch: A piece of history that many of us just don’t know about, this is one of many examples of sexism that’s so ingrained in our collective past, we don’t realise it. If you’re a fan of untold backstories, you’ll be both enthralled and, at times, enraged by the story of these remarkable women and how their dreams were backburnered because of their gender. Told via interviews with the remaining members of the group, this is a fascinating cultural document. 

23. The Bleeding Edge (2018)

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Region: Worldwide

The documentary: Healthcare. Anyone who’s been shocked to hear their pharmacist utter the words “that’ll be $800, please” for a 30-day prescription knows this is a lucrative industry. That’s what make The Bleeding Edge such a succulent topic for a documentary, as delves into one another medical avenue, the $400 billion medical device industry. You heard. Exploring five devices and the havoc they’ve caused patients, this is jaw-dropping – and very necessary – viewing.

Why it’s worth a watch: Whether you live in a country with free healthcare or not, the sheer gall of some companies in rushing out products prior to being thoroughly vetted is astonishing. Which, of course, makes for compelling viewing.

22. Pumping Iron (1977)

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(Image credit: Netflix)

Region: UK

The documentary: Before he was busting out one-liners with varying degrees of believability, Arnold Schwarzenegger was down the gym busting a gut in order to achieve an Adonis-like bod. Pumping Iron was filmed during the heydey of bodybuilding – the 1970s. Many consider that era to be the golden age of bodybuilding, which is what makes this such an intriguing watch. The film chronicles the lives of several bodybuilders desperate to win the Mr. Universe and Mr. Olympia titles, including Arnie and Lou Ferrigno. 

Why it’s worth a watch: It was filmed when its subjects were at their peak! Years prior to Arnie’s superstardom, we get to go behind the scenes, in what’s an in-depth and very amusing glimpse at his day-to-day life and aspirations. 

21. Planet Earth 1 and 2 (2006/2016)

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Region: UK, US, Canada

The documentary: When Planet Earth 2 came out, the interweb lost its cool over a host of meme-worthy snippets. The one featuring an iguana being taunted by snakes in particular captured everyone's attention… and the less said about the turtles the better. Sorry, got something in my eye. Both Planet Earth and its decade-later sequel series focuses on life all across the planet, and how animals are connected to their natural surroundings.

Why it’s worth a watch: By shooting some awe-inspiring sights and showing communities of species that are still thriving today in remote and urban parts of the globe, this is a fascinating, heart-wrenching and humbling look at the world and how we humans have affected the lives of so many beautiful creatures. Narrated by the legendary David Attenborough, the series looks absolutely gorgeous and will have you ready to book that backpacking trip asap.

20. Hot Girls Wanted (2015)

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Region: Worldwide

The documentary: Porn is something that none of us feels 100% comfortable talking about, but, if we're honest, we're all familiar with it one way or another. If you've ever wondered what it's like to work in the multi-million dollar porn industry, American documentary film Hot Girls Wanted is for you. Directed by filmmakers Jill Bauer and Ronna Gradus, the documentary follows the lives of several 18- to 19-year-old pornographic actresses and premiered at Sundance Film Festival 2015 before being snapped up by Netflix.

Why it’s worth a watch: This documentary doesn't pull any punches and shows some of the best and worst aspects of working in the porn industry. Netflix was obviously please with its reception as it released an accompanying documentary TV show called Hot Girls Wanted: Turned On to further explore the story.

19. Jim and Andy: The Great Beyond (2017)

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Region: Worldwide

The documentary: If you're a fan of comedian Andy Kaufman, Jim Carrey, or the 1999 biopic which starred Carrey as Kaufman, Man on the Moon, this is the documentary for you. Director Chris Smith focuses on Carrey during the filming of Man on the Moon in which he stayed in character as Kaufman throughout production, using contemporary interviews with Carrey and never-before-seen footage of the making of Man on the Moon. 

Why it's worth a watch: It's almost scary how easily Carrey brings his idol Kaufman back to life. The studio reportedly didn't want the behind-the-scenes footage to ever be released and, once you see it, you'll understand why. It's clear that Carrey's commitment to the role caused problems on set, but Jim and Andy is a compelling story about two of the world's biggest comedians and why they do what they do. 

18. Wild Wild Country (2018)

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Region: Worldwide

The documentary: You might remember the controversial Rajneeshpuram community, which set up shop in Wasco County, Oregon in the '80s... or you might not. Either way, you're going to want to watch Wild Wild Country, which premiered at Sundance Film Festival and is one of the best documentaries on Netflix right now. Brothers Maclain Way and Chapman Way dissect one of the biggest stories in America at the time as they try and explain how Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh convinced thousands of people to follow him. 

Why it's worth a watch: A documentary that's not just about the community itself, but also the conflict which grew between them and the surrounding towns and people. This is an incredibly interesting look at the "good vs evil" narrative that sprung up in the media at the time. You won't be able to stop watching. 

17. Icarus (2017)

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Region: Worldwide

The documentary: Icarus is definitive proof that twists and turns aren't reserved for the fictions of Hollywood. Filmmaker and cyclist Bryan Fogel planned to make a film about doping in the sports industry, choosing to load himself up on steroids and document the experience. Think of it like Super Size Me, but with pharmaceutical-grade meds instead of Big Macs. His plan was to see how easy it is to get away with doping in professional sport. 

Why it's worth a watch: That concept – of trying to get away with doping in sport – is an intriguing enough premise in light of Lance Armstrong's shenanigans. However, what he winds up discovering after speaking with a Russian doctor completely changes the purpose of the doc turning Icarus into a powerful, political thriller.

16. Mission Control: The Unsung Heroes of Apollo (2017)

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Region: Worldwide

The documentary: Mission Control is an uplifting, compelling piece of filmmaking that goes behind-the-scenes of NASA's biggest achievements: mankind landing on the moon. It's a gorgeous look back at the history of those iconic lunar jaunts, delving into the lives of the astronauts who journeyed to space and those who stayed behind during the Apollo missions. 

Why it's worth a watch: Paying tribute to the men and women who helped keep those astronauts alive during the bungled Apollo 13 mission, this is emotionally-charged stuff that's packed with details historians will love and a beating heart that reminds you of how people discover their calling in life. 

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15. The Staircase (2018)

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Region: UK, US

The documentary: In 2001, a 911 operator receives a call from a distraught husband after discovering his wife’s body at the bottom of the stairs. That individual is author Michael Peterson, who becomes the subject of a documentary that unfurls over the course of a decade. Did Kathleen Peterson really fall? Or was she the victim of domestic violence? The French filmmaking crew who tackle the case began rolling immediately after Michael’s indictment, and are given free rein of the entire Peterson family, which in itself, is surrounded by as many bizarre twists as the murder case. 

Why it’s worth a watch: So you can enjoy spiralling into the vast array of fan theories afterward! This is a compelling true crime series much like Making a Murderer. Unlike that series, The Staircase has a huge biased edge: as the doc was filmed intermittently over the course of a decade, the editor of the documentary grew close to Peterson and ended up dating him. Seriously, get this watched.

14. Amanda Knox (2016)

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Region: Worldwide

The documentary: The case of Amanda Knox is a controversial one. In 2007 the American student was put on trial for the murder of Meredith Kercher. Both had been studying abroad in Perugia, Italy, when Kercher was found brutally butchered. A hotbed of speculation sprang up surrounding Knox's involvement and the media painted her as the villain. She, her boyfriend, and a third party were all tried for murder with the former pair eventually walking free after serving four years behind bars. 

Why it's worth a watch: Told as a story, the case itself is fascinating, however what makes it so compelling are the one-on-one conversations captured on film. Filmmakers draw out many interviews with Knox, whose cold, sterile recitation of facts really makes you wonder...

13. Evil Genius (2018)

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Region: Worldwide

The documentary: This latest Netflix Original is poised to swipe the "best true crime docuseries" mantle from Making a Murderer. A pizza deliveryman is the victim of the infamous “Collar Bomb” bank heist, in Erie, Pennsylvania. Or is he? The 46-year-old Brian Wells walked into the PNC Bank with a bomb strapped to his chest, then walked out with a load of cash with mere moments left to live. Yet, this story continues after his demise. 

Why it's worth a watch: The robbery is just the beginning of what turns out to be a much stranger case, expertly depicted by director Barbara Schroeder who mixes together testimonials and eyewitness accounts, delving into Wells’ recent past to figure out what in the hell really happened. Get ahead of the spoilers and start watching.

12. The Toys That Made Us (2017)

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Region: Worldwide

The documentary: A Netflix Original docuseries, The Toys That Made Us dives into the past to explore how certain toys shaped our childhoods. We know – it sounds like perfect fodder for an angry sub-Reddit. But this isn’t about that. It’s an eye-opening and compelling watch, that chronicles the rise and fall of some of the world’s biggest toy franchises. The first season dips into Star Wars, and features a striking interview with the lawyer from Kenner who brokered that initial deal with George Lucas that made him a billionaire. 

Why it's worth a watch: Even if you have a passing interest in toys, the fact is, movie and TV merchandise (of which we are big fans) is now a huge aspect of the film industry and a large part of that is down to Mr. Lucas. This is a great watch to see how trends have changed and what types of toys, movie-related or not, we dug as kids. 

11. Knock Down the House (2019)

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Region: Worldwide

The documentary: Knock Down the House follows four, progressive female Democrats running in the 2018 midterm elections in the hopes that they will eventually be elected to Congress. Filmmaker Rachel Lears shines a light on Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Amy Vilela, Cori Bush, and Paula Jean Swearengin as they attempt to challenge the status quo and usher in a new era of politics by going up against fellow democrats who they believe have become a part of the problem. Going behind-the-scenes on their various grassroots campaigns and learning why they’ve chosen to fight such seemingly impossible odds, this documentary is as equally entertaining as it is important. 

Why it’s worth a watch: During a time when politics has become more than just a dirty word, Knock Down the House has the potential to make you believe in government again. Yes, the main subjects are all women campaigning in very much a man’s world, but Knock Down the House is more about ordinary people trying to change a world they no longer believe is working for them and their communities. Not only does it make for riveting TV, but it’ll have you asking yourself what you could achieve if given the chance.

10. Virunga

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Region: Worldwide

The documentary: If you thought Gorillas in the Mist was harrowing, then prepare yourself for what the inhabitants of Virunga National Park face. We're not just talking simians, but the brave park rangers whose attempts to rescue these mountain gorillas from extinction is an utterly heart-wrenching feat. The film scored an Oscar nomination for its expose on the Congolese park and the horror of poachers and the devious tactics of oil companies.

Why it's worth a watch: Be prepared to shed absolute buckets at the horrors. But, it isn't entirely bleak though, as the real message here is the lengths that people will go to in order to save a species.

9. Chef's Table (2015)

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Region: Worldwide

The documentary: You've seen Masterchef, you've gobbled up Bake Off, and now it's time to dip into the process of culinary perfection. Profiling six prestigious world-renowned chefs, whose discipline and determination is staggering, the series visits each of them in their own restaurants. It's like watching artists at work. There's no contest here to maintain your interest, no drive to the finish as popularised by most cooking shows. 

Why it's worth a watch: Okay, sure, there's no contest so you might be wondering what the appeal is. While there's no competition; this isn't about the commercialism of the restaurant industry either, it's simply about how the creative process is born in each chef and the joy they derive from plating up their masterpieces.

8. Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened

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Region: Worldwide

The documentary: Chronicles the tale of the infamous Fyre Festival of 2017, which promised a paradisiacal getaway to the Bahamas, but quickly turned it into a scene straight out of Lord of the Flies thanks to the wild mismanagement of its overconfident organisers, and particularly its chief fraudster, Billy McFarland.

Why it's worth a watch: In 2019, nothing gets more cathartic than watching the irresponsible follies and misdeeds of America's elite finally come back to hit them where it hurts. Fyre provides exactly that kind of guilty euphoria, as director Chris Smith (Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond) successfully paints an alarming picture of "entrepreneur" Billy McFarland's arrogance, arguably sociopath tendencies, and sheer deluded sense of desperation. 

7. Dirty John, the Dirty Truth (2019)

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Region: UK

The documentary: A conman and master manipulator, John Meehan already had a disturbing history of abuse when he talked Debra Newell into marrying him just two months after meeting, but he never convince her daughter Terra and eventually met his end attempting to kidnap her. For one reason or another, the world has become obsessed with the story of Meehan, which first came to light thanks to the popular podcast Dirty John by Christopher Goffard and was then turned into a Netflix Original, starring Eric Bana and Connie Britton. Now, Netflix shines further light on this fascinating tale the documentary Dirty John, the Dirty Truth, from director Sara Mast.

Why it’s worth a watch: If you’re a fan of the Dirty John podcast or TV show, it goes without saying that this is one documentary you don’t want to miss. While the Netflix Original went some way to answering the questions over just how Newell fell for Meehan’s lies and manipulations, the documentary features interviews with Newell, her daughter, Goffard, and Meehan’s two daughters, which adds a real life element that really brings home the horror of this story. You’ll likely start the documentary thinking "How could someone fall for this man?" and end it wondering whether or not you’d have seen through Meehan’s charms to the Dirty John beneath...

6. Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2011)

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Region: US

The documentary: It doesn’t matter whether the thought of raw eel drenched in soy sauce makes you gag or drool, the story of Jiro Ono is an absolute joy to watch. One of the world’s greatest sushi chefs, his quest for culinary perfection at the age of 85 is the driving force of this cheerful documentary. It’s hard to not become smitten by his bounding optimism as he dishes out plates that go for $300 a pop at his Tokyo restaurant. Your heart will go out to his son, Yoshikazu, who carries the burden of continuing his father’s legacy.

Why it's worth a watch: Everyone loves a good reality cooking show nowadays, so when you mix in the joy of watching a decorated chef create culinary masterpieces with his own unique life story, it’s lightning in a bottle. Savour the amazing cooking skills and feel your heart bounce around at the tale of Jiro himself. 

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5. Blackfish (2013)

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Region: UK, US, Canada

The documentary: The truth behind keeping whales in captivity is chronicled in this Netflix Original, tracing the story of an Orca named Tilikum who killed three humans while at Sea World. While there's no doubt  those deaths were tragic, filmmaker Gabriela Cowperthwaite delves into why the killer whale acted in this way. Is it in his nature? Or was it because he was torn away from his family at two years of age, and kept in isolation and confinement for twenty years? Hearing the testimonies of his former trainers will only further break your heart.

Why it's worth a watch: Both sides of the nature verses nurture coin are explored here in an attempt to make sense of a chewy moral dilemma. This story is one that continues to make waves – should animals be kept in captivity for our entertainment? – making this a must-see Netflix documentary.

4. Making a Murderer (2016)

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Region: Worldwide

The documentary: Unless you've been living under a rock, you will have heard about Steven Avery, a Wisconsin man who served 18 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. Two years after his exoneration he was found guilty of murder. So, did he do it? This docuseries covers his life extensively, beginning with his first brush with crime right up until the present day.

Why it's worth a watch: One of the best documentaries on Netflix – if not, one of the best true crime documentaries ever made – this is utterly compelling storytelling. It's the murder trial episodes that carries the most tension, as his defence team argues he was framed by the Manitowoc police department and back it up with some pretty convincing evidence. There's a reason this show has captured the public's interest.

3. Cartel Land (2015)

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Region: UK

The documentary: Zero Dark Thirty's Kathryn Bigelow executive produces this unflinching look into the Mexican drug trade. The bravery of director Matthew Heineman is commendable, as he troops into areas where two vigilante militia groups fight to reclaim their territory from the country's most notorious drug cartels. These ordinary citizens, the Arizona Border Recon and The Autodefensas, arm themselves in the name of justice. 

Why it's worth a watch: Both groups are desperate to stop the violence – but, in a neat twist – the documentary asks: what happens when these self-appointed do-gooders become just as terrifying as the people they're trying to stop?

2. Behind the Curve (2018)

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Region: Worldwide

The documentary: Behind the Curve focuses on something most of us take for granted, but a growing minority believe is a hoax; that the Earth is round. This documentary from filmmaker Daniel J. Clark offers an in-depth examination of the beliefs of flat-Earthers, including interviews with prominent believers and astrophysicists from Universities including UCLA and CalTech. You might think it’s not possible to create an interesting documentary about something so obviously wrong, but that’s precisely why Behind the Curve is so gripping as it shows the lengths people go to to convince themselves, and others, that the Earth is in fact flat.

Why it’s worth a watch: On the surface, Behind the Curve seems to deal in the ridiculous, but you’ll soon realise that not only do a surprising number of people believe the Earth is flat… but that they’re growing in number too! This documentary delves into why that is and how difficult it is to fight the growing trend (you’d be surprised!). Before you know it, something which sounds so ridiculous suddenly seems very serious and you’ll be racking your brain trying to think of ways to prove once and for all that the Earth is round. Or not… depending on your point of view.

1. Twinsters (2015)

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Region: Worldwide

The documentary: We all have at least one point during the day when we're steered toward YouTube. Usually for a good chuckle at a dog and a ferret that have become the best of friends through an amusing happenstance. But imagine if you clicked onto a video... and you were in it. Except, you don't remember filming it. That's sort of what happened to Samantha, a Parisian fashion student, who found herself watching a video of her doppelganger. Naturally, she went on a quest to find this mysterious YouTube version of herself. 

Why it's worth a watch: Similar to last year's superb Three Identical Strangers documentary, Twinsters charts Samantha's fascinating journey (with a bit of a spoilery title) as she learns about the identical sister she never knew she had.