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Beyonce Homecoming
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The 30 best documentaries on Netflix in the UK

From true-crime horrors to Beyoncé and Taylor, Netflix‘s best documentaries offer a true story for everyone.

Sarah Cohen
Written by
Andy Kryza
Written by
Sarah Cohen
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We’re not saying that Netflix made the documentary cool. But there’s no denying that the streaming giant’s dedication to nonfiction has captured audience hunger for real stories in a way the typical arthouse cimenas simply can’t. Over the years, Netflix has expanded its original programming to include hundreds of meticulously crafted docs ranging from wildly popular true-crime series to invigorating sports dramas, explorations of nature and even concert films.

The 30 docs below represent the best of real life on Netflix, offering up a chance to learn about the world while being wholly entertained, frightened and moved.

The best documentaries on Netflix

13th (2016)
  • Film
  • Documentaries

Director: Ava DuVernay

In this chilling, unmissable doc, Selma director Ava DuVernay explores racial inequality and the mass incarceration of African American men (one in three black men can expect to find themselves in prison at some point in their life). Armed with facts and impressive talking heads, DuVernay makes her case that slavery didn’t end with slavery. 

Watch it if you liked: Making a Murderer

Making a Murderer (2015)
  • Film
  • Film

Directors: Laura Ricciardi, Moira Demos

It's the docu-series that launched 1,000 true-crime sagas on Netflix, and f you somehow haven’t already, block out a weekend and binge-watch this series about the Steven Avery case. Avery was convicted in 2005 of murdering 25-year-old photographer Teresa Halbach only two years after DNA evidence cleared him of a rape for which he spent 18 years in prison. Making a Murderer turns us into armchair detectives, as filmmakers Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos take us behind the scenes of the investigation and trial. The series launched a forgettable second season in 2017, but the original run is essential viewing for even any fan of true-crime documentaries. 

Watch if you liked: The People vs OJ Simpson

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  • Film

Directors: Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, Ed Burke

In April 2018, Beyoncé became the first African-American woman to headline Coachella, bringing with her 200 performers – from gospel singers to baton-twirlers to a marching band. She rinsed her back catalogue, playing 26 songs from Destiny’s Child bangers onwards, interspersed with empowering affirmations. It was a spectacle like no other and the festival was swiftly dubbed Beychella. Homecoming, written and directed by the star, captures all the on-stage and backstage activity of this lightning-in-a-bottle extravaganza with exhilarating verve. 

Watch if you liked: In Bed with Madonna

The Last Dance (2020)
Photograph: Netflix

4. The Last Dance (2020)

Director: Jason Hehir

You’ll believe that man can fly – at least, that Michael Jordan can – in this high-octane, fly-on-the-wall account of the closing phase of the great Chicago Bulls NBA team of the 1990s. Produced by ESPN (it’s available on Netflix outside the US) using plenty of unseen locker room footage, it puts you courtside as monumental sportsmen, canny execs and ginormous egos combine, clash and come apart in all sorts of entralling ways. Do you need to love basketball to love The Last Dance? Not even a little. 

Watch if you liked: Diego Maradona

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Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness (2020)
Photograph: Netflix

5. Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness (2020)

Directors: Eric Goode, Rebecca Chaiklin

The seven episodes that make up the true crime documentary tell the story of Joe Exotic (birth name: Joseph Schreibvogel), who purchased a horse farm in the 1990s in Oklahoma – which eventually turned into a big cats zoo. As the tale unfolds, the story becomes odder and more sensational, involving drugs, a murder-for-hire plot and more. When it launched, it practically set fire to the internet, and it’s showing no sign of stopping: There are dueling Hollywood adaptations in the works, plus a second season set to air on Netflix beginning Nov 17, 2021. 

Watch if you likedThe King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters 

  • Film

Directors: Lotje Sodderland and Sophie Robinson

Londoner Lotje Sodderland was 34 when she survived a brain haemorrhage. After waking up, she was forced to start all over again in a world that felt foreign, with brighter colours, strange sensations and unfathomable challenges. Unable to communicate like she had before, producer Sodderland started filming herself and her journey towards recovery. The resulting doc, produced by Twin Peaks creator David Lynch, is moving, confusing and utterly fascinating. 

Watch it if you liked: Twin Peaks

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  • Film

Directors: Rod Blackhurst and Brian McGinn

One year after American exchange student Amanda Knox was acquitted of the murder of Meredith Kercher in the Supreme Court came this Netflix documentary, featuring interviews with Knox and her former boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito. The documentary fails to reach any sort of definitive conclusion and reveals no new information, instead examining the intense media coverage, the sensationalist headlines and the apparent failings of the investigation. 

Watch it if you liked: The Face of an Angel

Rolling Thunder Revue (2019)
  • Film
  • Documentaries

Director: Martin Scorsese

Back in 1975, Bob Dylan’s The Rolling Thunder Revue reinvented the idea of a music tour in a flurry of tricksy showmanship, sleight of hand and ‘wha?’ cameos. Four decades on, Martin Scorsese digs into the archives to give us an equally freewheelin’ documentary about it, throwing in some new interviews for good measure. There’s a lot of playfulness here – it’s high-level Dylan Studies. Just as the singer often wore a magician’s white face on this tour (or even a plastic mask), Scorsese is having fun infusing his flow with subtle fictionalisations that may outfox you.

Watch if you liked: The Last Waltz

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Blackfish (2013)
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  • Documentaries

Director: Gabriela Cowperthwaite

How many films have changed an entire culture? In the wake of Blackfish, a graphic, heartbreaking look at the life of a captive killer whale called Tilikum, a wave of protests and petitions – and a drop in ticket sales – forced the Sea World chain to drastically rethink its practices. It’s hardly surprising – this is nature doc as polemic, a powerful, upsetting film with troubling ramifications. 

Watch it if you liked: Free Willy

  • Film

Directors: Richard Ladkani and Kief Davidson

This gripping, heartbreaking doc, produced by Leonardo DiCaprio, uncovers the plight of African elephants, brought to the brink of extinction by ivory trafficking. The filmmakers take us undercover inside this illegal world, which has led to more than 150,000 elephants being killed for their ivory in the past five years. 

Watch it if you liked: Blackfish

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Notes on Blindness (2016)
  • Film
  • Documentaries

Director: Peter Middleton & James Spinney

This remarkable doc follows the story of Aussie academic John Hull, who decided to record, on tape, his four-year-long experience of how it felt to go blind. The film uses his original tapes and dramatises them with actors mouthing his words. It sounds a bit odd but it works perfectly. The brilliant sound design combines these crackly tapes with a gentle, ambient score and the heightened sounds (like rainfall) you hear when one of your senses is fading into black. Nominated for three Baftas, it’s a must-watch. 

Watch it if you liked: Black Sun 

  • Film
  • Documentaries

Director: Sandi Tan

Sandi Tan’s gloriously personal documentary is a nostalgic throwback to ’80s and ’90s Singapore, where the filmmaker and her teenage friends set out to make an indie movie. But their unprocessed footage was mysteriously stolen. Twenty-five years later, the rolls of film materialised as puzzlingly as they had vanished. Propelled by this decades-spanning mystery, Shirkers is a compelling mélange of original 16-millimetre clips from the would-be cult classic and present-day interviews with its crew. And it pulls off something magical: allowing Tan an emotional reconciliation with her past. 

Watch if you liked: Gone Girl

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Hot Girls Wanted (2015)
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Directors: Jill Bauer, Ronna Gradus

This film tells the stories of some of the many young girls who move to Miami to become glamorous porn stars and end up stuck in the industry’s lowest ranks: as the stars of ‘amateur’ videos. We watch as their lines of consent are blurred and their short careers dwindle away. It’s a bleak, disturbing look at an industry that’s increasingly normalised.  

Watch if you liked: Boogie Nights

  • Film

Director: Ed Perkins

This enthralling, hard-to-watch doc asks similar questions to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: namely, if you could expunge bad memories or traumatic experiences, would you? And how would that impact your sense of identity? When Alex Lewis lost his memory in a motorbike accident aged 18, his twin brother Marcus helped him piece it back together, omitting some harrowing details about their childhood. Inevitably, the truth emerges over the film’s three chapters, and it becomes apparent that Marcus’s account is a fictional version of events. As the facts are revealed, you’ll wish it hadn’t been. 

Watch if you liked: Three Identical Strangers 

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Athlete A (2020)
Photograph: Netflix

15. Athlete A (2020)

Directors: Bonni Cohen, Jon Shen

A skin-crawling look at the horrors of institutional abuses and bureaucracy’s ability to allow monsters to lurk in broad daylight, this searing doc chronicles the Indianapolis Star’s investigation into disgraced doctor Larry Nassar’s decades of sexual abuse while working with USA Gymnastics. It’s a sickening, expansive examination of  the horrors perpetrated by Nasser, and a condemnation of those who refused to end the cycle of abuse.

Watch if you liked: Spotlight

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  • Documentaries

Directors: Karim Amer, Jehane Noujaim

A comprehensive doc on the Cambridge Analytica scandal, in which a shadowy British consulting firm mined behavioral information from millions of Facebook users to create targeted political propaganda across the social network and beyond. Pondering individual data rights and the sinister side of widespread connectivity, co-directors Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer diligently inspect how our innocent likes and shares became the building blocks of Brexit and Trump, in a film that they have assembled with the discipline of a gripping political procedural.

Watch if you liked: The Social Network 

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Icarus (2017)
  • Film
  • Documentaries

Director: Bryan Fogel

Amateur cyclist-turned-docmaker Bryan Fogel takes us to the heart of the doping scandal by becoming a guinea pig. At first, we see him injecting his tush with thick testosterone, hoping to compete in Switzerland’s Haute Route bicycle race. But in order to execute his plan, he collaborates with Russia’s Grigory Rodchenkov, a disgraced doctor who masterminded his nation’s athletic doping program. Icarus eventually shifts into a fascinating exposé of this trickster: an Orwell-reading whistleblower. Fogel is out of his depth, but he has a killer tale to tell.

Watch if you liked: The Armstrong Lie

  • Film

Director: Orlando von Einsiedel

This really lovely British doc charts the ever-shifting emotional landscape of a family grieving the loss of one of its number. It’s backdropped by landscapes of a more literal nature as the clan embarks on the same rustic trek they used to take on their old family holidays – only this time, it’s a journey full of teary revelations, solace and haunting moments. One passing encounter with a man behind the counter of a remote food hut proves that deep human connection can come when you least expect it. Few films marry real intimacy with a sense of universality as well as this.

Watch if you liked: Manchester by the Sea

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  • Film

Directors: Julia Reichert, Steven Bognar

2020’s Oscar-winning documentary is a film of two halves: the first records the resurrection of a shuttered Ohio car glass factory by Chinese corporation Fuyao; the second takes us to China to see how the company operates on its own turf. Suffice to say there’s more than an ocean between the two working cultures. Co-directors Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar take a gentle, non-polemical approach to this uneasy partnership, but there’s no shortage of ouchy moments – as when the Chinese workers are caught disparaging their American counterparts’ work ethic or the Americans gamely try to join in on the company song. An essential watch.

Watch if you liked: Roger & Me

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Directors: Nicole Newnham, Jim Lebrecht

With a couple of up-and-coming movie producers – Barack and Michelle Obama – behind it, this tale of grassroots activism is the kind of stirring watch that makes you want to head out into the world and make a difference. (Though, obviously, don’t during lockdown.) Camp Jened, a camp for young people with disabilities round the corner from Woodstock in the Catskill Mountains, helped beget the disability rights movement of 1970s America – as co-directors Nicole Newnham and Jim Lebrecht (a camp attendee, himself) show with a beautifully crafted blend of archive footage and modern-day interviews. The result is an inspiring, surprising doc guaranteed to lift your spirits.

Watch if you liked: Milk

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My Octopus Teacher (2020)
Photograph: Netflix

21. My Octopus Teacher (2020)

Directors: Pippa Ehrlich, James Reed

Netflix scored Oscar gold with this gorgeous documentary about a free-diver who forges an unlikely bond with an eight-legged cephalopod over the course of a year. Presented with a zen-like calm, the film offers an emotional look at the ways man and nature can truly coexist in the most unexpected places, and how even the most seemingly autonomous creatures can help us find pieces of ourselves if we open our hearts.

Watch if you liked: Planet Earth

  • Film

Director: Morgan Neville

‘The greatest movie never released’ is how Orson Welles’s The Other Side of the Wind is described in this puzzle box of a documentary. Technically speaking, it was released – you can see it on Netflix – but not in Welles’s lifetime, as Morgan Neville’s (20 Feet from Stardom) film recounts. With its title capturing the great moviemaking maestro’s increasingly extravagant self-doubt, They'll Love Me When I'm Dead painstakingly pieces together the myriad of wranglings, money woes and setbacks that plagued the film over nearly 50 fraught years.

Watch if you liked: Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse

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Don’t F**k with Cats (2019)
Photograph: Netflix

23. Don’t F**k with Cats (2019)

Director: Mark Lewis

Netflix and podcasts like Serial have helped create a culture of true crime-obsessed internet sleuths, but Don’t F**k With Cats is one of the only docs that show what happens when amateur detectives take on a case. The film focuses on murderer Luka Magnotta, whose habit of provoking outrage by anonymously killing kittens online led the denizens of the internet to track him down, revealing along the way that the man had graduated to humans. It’s horrifying stuff, but also deeply compelling in its depiction of online sleuths putting an end to a reign of terror.

Watch if you liked: I'll Be Gone in the Dark

Wild, Wild Country (2018)
Photograph: Netflix

24. Wild, Wild Country (2018)

Directors: Maclain Way, Chapman Way

Mayhem unfolds across this six-episode doc about guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh’s reign as a cult leader masquerading as a spiritualist in the Oregon wilderness. As the title implies, the series is full of unexpected twists and turns, with the quest to build a desert utopia culminating in bioterrorism, duplicity, indoctrination and much more. Somehow, the story is wilder than you can even imagine.

Watch if you liked: Jonestown: Paradise Lost

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Casting JonBenet (2017)
  • Film
  • Documentaries

Director: Kitty Green

In this film that plunges into the still-unsolved case of murdered beauty-pageant princess JonBenét Ramsey, we meet a bunch of strange actors at auditions for what we presume will be dramatic recreations of the 1996 crime. Who are these people? They’re not the usual suspects, and that’s what makes Casting JonBenét such an off-kilter, thrilling and insightful exploration. Its format, experimental and icky at first, has a weird resonance with the pageants that dominated JonBenét’s short life, even if it makes the film sometimes play like a Christopher Guest mockumentary. 

Watch if you liked: West of Memphis

Chasing Coral (2017)
  • Film
  • Documentaries

Director: Jeff Orlowski

This suspenseful study of the mass death of coral reefs is cine-activism done with panache, and makes environmental catastrophe so heartbreaking you’ll cry an ocean of your own. With breathtaking footage and sophisticated underwater technology, the documentary awakens a childlike sense of adventure in the viewer. By the film’s end, you’ll see corals not only as underwater life forms but as dreamy, endangered neighborhoods inhabited by unspeakably beautiful Nemos and Dorys. 

Watch if you liked: The Blue Planet

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  • Film

Director: Chris Smith

If you google ‘documentaries about disasters’, Fyre comes up top, next to a film about global warming and one about Chernobyl. It may not be on that level, but the influencer-promoted event was, in its own way, a catastrophe – the kind of logistical horrorshow that ends up with its strung-out producer, Andy King, offering sexual favours to a customs official to secure a shipment of Evian. Director Chris Smith (Collapse) pieces together this mess of no-show musical acts, tents sourced from Homeland Security and cheese sandwiches that would go on to launch multiple Vice articles into a truy compelling watch.

Watch if you liked: The Wolf of Wall Street

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  • Documentaries

Director: Todd Douglas Miller

The most perfect movie that will ever be made about its subject, Apollo 11 tells the story of the first journey to the moon using only Nasa footage captured in the moment, an approach that spotlights the thousands of people who toiled in synchronicity to pull off America’s greatest mission. For the main event we see the capsule’s own thrilling cinematography, while the personal backstories of Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin are told in flurries of silent images. This film will bring you to tears. 

Watch if you liked: First Man

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  • Film

Director Lana Wilson

Taylor Swift opened the 2020 Sundance Film Festival with the world premiere of this intimate look at her career. She invited director Lana Wilson into her professional world, allowing her to document the making of her most recent album ‘Lover’. Swift is clearly a talented musician and songwriter, and watching her creative sparks fly is one of the film’s highlights. We see fewer unguarded moments when the camera turns to her personal life, but the star never seems less than warm and welcoming – and there’s a lot of cute pet action.

Watch if you liked... ‘A Star is Born’

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Director: Daniel J Clark

Our planet is a pancake-shaped disc covered by an enormous dome, with the sun and moon rotating above us in circles. Surrounding it is a wall of ice, like in Game of Thrones. And as for what keeps the disc afloat? That’s up for discussion. Yep, this really is the core belief of ‘Flat Earthers’. And if you dismissed the movement as a fringe conspiracy theory, this doc will prove you wrong. Following YouTuber Mark Sargent, it shows how alarmingly popular the movement has become in America. Director Daniel J Clark could have played Sargent and his devotees for laughs, but he goes much deeper to find out why denialism is at an all-time high. Fascinating, worrying stuff.

Watch if you liked: Louis Theroux’s Weird Weekends

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