When you think of Netflix, you might think of movies or TV shows, but there's lots of informative and educational content on the streamer, too. So, what are the best documentaries on Netflix? That's where we come in to help. From true crime to the world of sports, Netflix leads the way with a whole host of original documentaries. One even won an Oscar at this year's Academy Awards – My Octopus Teacher, about the bond between a filmmaker and a young octopus.
Other big names also make an appearance – the king of nature docs himself, David Attenborough, presents A Life on Our Planet, while Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez takes center stage in Knock Down the House. Plus, the good news is that everything in this list is available to watch on both sides of the pond, whether you're in the US or the UK. So, keep scrolling to find out our picks for the 25 best documentaries on Netflix.
David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet (2020)
The documentary: Renowned documentary maker David Attenborough takes a step back from looking at nature to see how humanity has wreaked havoc on the animal kingdom and the environment, all while describing first-hand how the world has changed since he began his career in the '50s.
Why it’s worth a watch: David Attenborough’s nature documentaries are often jaw-dropping. A Life on Our Planet does so for very different reasons. Acting as a wake-up call for a planet sleepwalking towards global disaster, Attenborough’s message is a sharp shock to the system, yet an essential one if we want to keep marvelling out the creatures that continue to amaze us.
Athlete A (2020)
The documentary: Athlete A follows the journalists who helped break one of the biggest stories in US sport: the sex abuse scandal that tore through American gymnastics and ruined countless lives.
Why it’s worth a watch: Netflix is fast becoming the place to watch some of the most gut-wrenching, yet necessary, stories of our time. Not only is Athlete A an eye-opening look into the continued brilliance and hard work of investigative journalists, but it’s also a grim reminder of the evil that often hides in plain sight.
High Score (2020)
The documentary: Video games, as you might know, are part of the most lucrative entertainment industry in the world. It’s probably why you’re here on GamesRadar+ right now. High Score charts its history, cultural legacy, and ever-evolving future in a six-part series.
Why it’s worth a watch: Ever wondered how close video games came to going the way of the dodo? Or how Sega and Nintendo helped cause a schism in the '90s? Whether you’re a dyed-in-the-wool gamer or someone new to picking up a controller, High Score will help catch you up on the history of the beloved pastime, from industry rivalries, to deep retrospectives, and so much more.
The Social Dilemma (2020)
The documentary: A deep dive into social media and how it’s used as a tool of misinformation and corruption in a world where everyone is almost always online.
Why it’s worth a watch: Not many documentaries will make you rethink having a Facebook account, let’s put it that way. Social media continues to dominate our lives but not many have put much thought into the impact of that – until now. The Social Dilemma is a captivating, chilling watch on how everything from algorithms to A.I. are secretly controlling and manipulating our lives.
Formula 1 Drive to Survive (2019-2020)
The documentary: Go behind the scenes on the 2018 and 2019 Formula 1 World Championships as tensions boil over across two seasons in one of the world’s most popular sports.
Why it’s worth a watch: It not only scratches that Last Dance itch but, unlike Amazon’s sometimes restrictive All or Nothing series, you get some serious access here: fireworks are never too far away as young egos collide, tragedy strikes, and new drama is only ever just around the corner. One for sports and non-sports fans alike.
The Last Dance (2020)
The documentary: Charting the Chicago Bulls' 1997/98 season, The Last Dance frames that fateful year with archival footage and interviews with Michael Jordan and some of his closest allies and enemies. The ups, the downs, and the slam dunks all feature.
Why it’s worth a watch: You don't need to be a basketball fan to get the most out of The Last Dance. The joint ESPN/Netflix production dives deep into what makes one of the biggest icons of the 20th Century tick: the feuds, the fights with front office, and the family stories all feature heavily here. It's all presented in a way that lets you learn as you go, without being condescending. Plus, if you are into b-ball, then you can rest easy in the knowledge that you're seeing a hidden side of one of the sport's greatest dynasties. Hundreds of hours of previously unseen footage were used for The Last Dance, and it offers a unique, complex take on the man they once called "Air."
Mercury 13 (2018)
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.
The Bleeding Edge (2018)
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.
Tiger King (2020)
The documentary: Tiger King's as bonkers as they say. The seven-part limited series follows Joe Exotic – a gay, gun-toting, mulleted, all-American zookeeper who despises a big cat activist named Carole Baskin. We're introduced to a host of colourful characters, including another zookeeper who allegedly has a harem, a man who claims to be the influence for Scarface, and a reality-show producer who's tried to document the whole thing but... well, we won't spoil it here. Oh, and there's a murder mystery as well.
Why it’s worth a watch: There's absolutely no knowing what's coming next in Tiger King. Each episode adds another twist, and it's almost impossible to stop watching. Plus, after you're done, you can do some armchair detective work and find out where they all are now. Because, yes, this really a true-crime documentary, and not another season of American Vandal.
Hot Girls Wanted (2015)
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.
Jim and Andy: The Great Beyond (2017)
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.
Wild Wild Country (2018)
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.
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.
Mission Control: The Unsung Heroes of Apollo (2017)
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.
The Staircase (2018)
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.
Amanda Knox (2016)
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...
My Octopus Teacher (2020)
The documentary: A cross-species friendship like this is something you'd probably expect to see in an animated movie rather than a documentary. My Octopus Teacher chronicles the bond between an intrepid young octopus and filmmaker Craig Foster. Foster not only earns the octopus' trust, but is also given the opportunity to learn about the ins and outs of her life, while picking up some more profound lessons along the way.
Why it's worth a watch: This doc scored an Oscars nomination for Best Documentary Feature, and has scooped plenty of wins and nominations for other awards, as well as critical acclaim, since its 2020 release. It's not your average nature documentary, with its close focus on one subject and the relationship between octopus and filmmaker, and there's much to reflect on about humanity and nature by the time the credits roll.
The Toys That Made Us (2017)
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.
Knock Down the House (2019)
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.
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.
Chef's Table (2015)
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.
Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened
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.
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 versus 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.
Making a Murderer (2016)
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.
Behind the Curve (2018)
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.