Sometimes the true stories are even more fascinating than the fictional ones we tell ourselves. The best documentaries on Netflix are a defining example of that timeless maxim, providing insights into all manner of mind-boggling, awe-inspiring topics that elicit as many emotional responses as any great movie or TV show.
Netflix has got a healthy selection of biopics, exposés, and real life case studies to complement all its tall tales, too, and you can find the very best ones in the list of the best documentaries on Netflix below. We've got something for everyone here, from philosophical brain blenders to the kind of startling scandals that'll leave you up at night in bamboozlement. So get stuck in and bring your thinking hat, because these best documentaries on Netflix right now are just waiting to be discovered.
25. Mercury 13 (2018)
Region: UK, US
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 woman astronaut in the 1960s. 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.
24. 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 DOLLAR 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.
23. Pumping Iron (1977)
Region: UK, US
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.
22. Planet Earth 1 and 2 (2006/2016)
Region: UK, US
The documentary: When Planet Earth 2 came out the interweb lost its shit 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.
21. Hot Girls Wanted (2015)
Region: UK, US
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 it 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, but Netflix is obviously please with its reception as it released an accompanying documentary TV show last year called Hot Girls Wanted: Turned On to further explore the story.
20. Jim and Andy: The Great Beyond (2017)
Region: US, UK
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 and the studio reportedly didn't want the behind-the-scenes footage to ever be released (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.
19. Wild Wild Country (2018)
Region: US, UK
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, which sprung up in the media at the time, you won't be able to stop watching.
18. Icarus (2017)
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.
17. 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.
16. 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.