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Photograph: Netflix Miss Americana

The 29 best documentaries on Netflix

Get your fix of real-life thrills with our list of the best documentaries to stream on Netflix UK right now

By Time Out London Film and Sarah Cohen
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Netflix has revitalised the documentary industry. 'Making a Murderer' became a global talking point overnight, followed by exclusives like '13th', 'Amanda Knox' and 'Tell Me Who I Am', while the streaming site's archive of great docs has proven enormously popular. But which of these true tales are worth 90 or more minutes of your precious time? From genre-defining classics to intimate personal studies, from sport films to nature stories, these are the 29 best documentaries to stream right now on Netflix UK. 

RECOMMENDED: The 50 best movies on Netflix

The best documentaries on Netflix

Tell Me Who I Am
Tell Me Who I Am
Photograph: Lightbox

11. Tell Me Who I Am

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’ 

12. Rolling Thunder Revue

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...I’m Not There

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13. RBG

Film Documentaries

Directors Julie Cohen, Betsy West

The serene yet forceful presence of tiny, octogenarian US Supreme Court powerhouse Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a spectacle in itself: Ginsburg does push-ups! She appears in an opera production! She watches Kate McKinnon’s SNL impression (‘Oh, that’s a Ginsburn…’) with a rock star’s cool! Upbeat and celebratory, ‘RBG’ sees no reason to throw shade in Ginsburg’s direction, not that much exists anyway. But it’s her landmark 1970s litigation on behalf of women and gender rights that’s the meat of a film that makes a watertight case for her importance. 

Watch if you liked... ‘Knock Down the House’

Photo: Courtesy of Netflix

14. The Great Hack

Film 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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15. Icarus

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’

Dogtown and Z-Boys
Dogtown and Z-Boys
Photograph: Sony Pictures

16. Dogtown and Z-Boys

Film

Director Stacy Peralta

In this infectiously exuberant documentary chronicling the ’70s golden age of US skateboarding, director Peralta, a member of the legendary Z-Boys team operating out of LA’s Zephyr surf and skate shop, cuts between terrific archive footage and interviews with the survivors, chubbier and balder, 25 years on. It's never less than compulsively watchable as it gets under the skin of this aggressively renegade subculture, to a soundtrack of suitably kickass contemporary rock and with a drawling narration from Sean Penn.

Watch if you liked... ‘Lords of Dogtown’

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Photo: Netflix

17. Shirkers

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’

Olhares Lugares
Olhares Lugares
©DR

18. Faces Places

Film Documentaries

Director Agnès Varda

Legendary French director Agnès Varda, then 88, and edgy 33-year-old French artist JR set off on an endearing odd-couple road trip into the remotest corners of France and made this delightful doc along the way. The pair took photos of local characters, blew them up and hung huge murals on buildings in the area, before heading to their next spontaneous stop. Varda explores compassion, ageing, memories and art as she revisits scenes from her youth, not knowing this would be her penultimate film. 

Watch if you liked... ‘Cléo from 5 to 7’

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Evelyn
Evelyn
Photograph: Violet Films

19. Evelyn

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’

American Factory
American Factory
Photograph: Aubrey Keith/Netflix

20. American Factory

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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