15. The Staircase (2018)
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)
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)
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? 46-year-old Brian Wells walked into the PNC Bank with a bomb strapped to his chest, and walked out with a load of cash and 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)
The documentary: A Netflix Original docuseries, The Toys That Made Us dives into the past to explore how certain toys shaped our childhoods. I know, I know. It sounds like perfect fodder for an angry sub-Reddit, but honestly, 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 I am a big fan) 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)
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 grassroot 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 watching each and every one of them fight for what they believe in against seemingly insurmountable odds, 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.
9. 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.
8. 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, sociopathy, and sheer deluded sense of desperation.
7. Dirty John, the Dirty Truth (2019)
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 in a documentary called 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 wonder whether or not you’d have seen through Meehan’s charms to the Dirty John beneath...
6. Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2011)
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.
Why it's worth a watch: 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.