Best documentaries on Netflix
Director: Errol Morris
Very likely the only movie ever made to result in the release of a wrongly convicted murderer, this mesmerizing exploration of the 1976 shooting of a Texas police officer is among the greatest documentaries ever released (and therefore did not receive an Oscar nomination).
Watch if you liked: Room 237
Director: Yance Ford
A furious expression of justice botched, Yance Ford’s achingly personal documentary details the 1992 Long Island murder of the director’s brother—a decent 24-year-old African American struggling his way toward a steady job—by a white car mechanic claiming self-defense. Calamitously for the Ford family, the crime went untried. The spirit of the movie is mournful and enraged.
Watch if you liked: O.J.: Made in America
Director: Barak Goodman
In a crucial piece of historical excavation, Barak Goodman’s thorough, ominous documentary delves into Timothy McVeigh’s planning: his collection of explosive fertilizer and his habitual visits to gun shows and sites of wacko, tin-foil–hat conspiracy like Area 51. But the film’s real value, placing it in the same admirable category as O.J.: Made in America, is the full hour Goodman spends before McVeigh even shows up. During this prologue—a minihistory of homegrown hatred—you might find Oklahoma City poorly titled, but you won’t find it boring.
Watch if you liked: American History X
Director: Chris Smith
Indulge that title; the spirit here is intentionally provocative. When Jim Carrey took his deep Method plunge into the psyche of Andy Kaufman for Man on the Moon, he came close to dissolving his own identity. This doc is composed of on-set footage (stashed away in secret for decades for fear that it would irreparably damage Carrey’s career) that amounts to a scary psychodrama.
Watch if you liked: Man on the Moon
Director: Griffin Dunne
The fiercest moment of any movie from last year doesn’t come in a horror flick or a superheroic smackdown but via author Joan Didion in this brainy, unflinching profile. Asked about the two-year old on acid she saw during her research for her classic 1968 account of the hippie counterculture, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Didion pauses, milking the moment, and remarks, “It was gold—you live for moments like that when you’re doing a piece.” Her response is disquieting, capturing the whole of Didion’s awesome observational instincts, as well as the emotional detachment that figured deeply in her family relations.
Watch if you liked: The Panic in Needle Park
Director: Bart Layton
Blessed with an improbable-but-true story that functions on many ironic levels, this clever doc begins in low-lit despair. An angelic 13-year-old boy goes missing from his San Antonio home in 1994. You brace for the worst, even as we hear news from Spain coming a few years after the boy’s disappearance: He’s been found and wants to come home. We meet this swarthy black-bearded sham—not a teenager, not even American. He’s serial imposter Frédéric Bourdin.
Watch if you liked: The Talented Mr. Ripley
Director: Laurent Bouzereau
When America went to war in 1941 after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Hollywood did too: Marquee film directors, struck by patriotism, became officers overnight and shipped out to the front lines with cameras, mounting their own propaganda campaigns. Mark Harris’s 2014 historical book of criticism has become an even better documentary, built out of harrowing battle footage and the testimony of several modern-day directors including Steven Spielberg and Guillermo del Toro.
Watch if you liked: Apocalypse Now
Directors: Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky
The world’s biggest metal band suffers through member defection, group therapy and rehab stints while its lucrative future hangs in the balance. This rockumentary is the funniest, most daringly exposed profile of a music group ever captured on film, fictional or otherwise.
Watch if you liked: This Is Spinal Tap
Who cares whether this documentary on the burgeoning guerrilla street-art scene (including the work of the film’s credited director, Banksy) is a hoax or not? It still rips the art world a new one as it turns an idiot savant with a camera into a gallery-crowd sensation. Genius.
Watch if you liked: My Kid Could Paint That
Director: David Gelb
Gelb’s documentary on the world’s greatest sushi chef not only traces Jiro Ono’s legacy; it also utilizes a spare, elegant style that perfectly complements its subject’s monastic devotion to purity. Eat beforehand, or this might be nearly impossible to sit through.
Watch if you liked: The Birth of Saké