It’s getting cooler outside and the holidays are approaching, which means it’s the perfect time to curl up on the couch and watch a movie.
If you’re looking for something entertaining and beautiful that’ll also inform you, there’s an incredible variety of science- and nature-focused documentaries and TV shows on Netflix right now.
You can stream compelling documentaries that’ll captivate you with the beauty of the planet, you can delve into the details of how food arrives on your plate, or you can explore the mysterious and alien world that exists in oceans around the globe.
But there’s a downside to all of those options: It’s a lot to choose from. So to make it easier, we’ve asked our colleagues to pick out some of their favorites from the Netflix documentary selection.
Films come and go from Netflix every month, but as of the date of publication, all these films should be available. We’ll update this list periodically to reflect currently available documentaries.
Here are our favorites, listed in no particular order:
What it’s about: In this four-part docu-series, journalist and food expert Michael Pollan explores the evolutionary history of food and its preparation through the lens of the four essential elements: fire, water, air, and earth.
Why you should see it: Americans as a whole are cooking less and relying more on unhealthy, processed, and prepared foods. Pollan aims to bring viewers back to the kitchen by forging a meaningful connection to food and the joys of cooking. [Click to watch]
What it’s about: This film highlights abuses in the sea park industry through the tale of Tilikum, an orca in captivity at SeaWorld in Orlando, Florida. Tilikum has killed or been involved in the deaths of three people while living in the park.
Why you should see it: This documentary opens your eyes to the troubles of keeping wild animals in captivity through shocking footage and emotional interviews. It highlights the potential issues of animal cruelty and abuse involved with using highly intelligent animals as entertainment. Sea parks have historically made billions of dollars by keeping animals captive, often at the expense of the health and well-being of animals. This documentary played a huge role in convincing SeaWorld to stop their theatrical “Shamu” killer whale shows. [Click to watch]
“Chasing Coral” (2017)
What it’s about:Step into the alien world that teems with life beneath the sea. This film, by the team behind the film “Chasing Ice,” is an attempt to document the transformation and loss of coral reefs around the globe. The filmmakers face rough oceans as they dive underwater to plant cameras and document the changes to reefs. What they reveal is both fascinating and tragic.
Why you should see it:Coral reefs cover less than 2% of the sea floor, but a quarter of marine life depends on them to exist. Without these fascinating and complicated creatures, much of the ocean as we know it wouldn’t exist. The filmmakers reveal the otherworldly beauty of these underwater creatures, and capture just how fragile their existence is at this point. [Click to watch]
“Planet Earth” (2006)
- BBC Video
What it’s about: David Attenborough narrates this dazzling high-definition documentary series, which offers incredible footage of the world’s breathtaking natural wonders – oceans, deserts, ice caps, and more.
Why you should see it:“Planet Earth is why HDTV was invented. It has some of the most amazing visuals ever. And when you learn the lengths the crew went to for the footage, such as camping out for days on end in camouflage, you’ll have a great appreciation for the people behind the show. They truly want to give you a one of a kind experience,” said Sam Rega, the former producer and director for Business Insider Films.
“You’ve never seen nature like this. I’d argue that Planet Earth, with its high definition footage that took five years to shoot, changed the way nature documentaries were made – all for the better.”
It’s a journey around the globe to the incredibly varied environments that make up our world. Every episode shows you things you’ve never seen: caves with their eyeless creatures, jungles brimming with life, and to the mountains which tower over us. [Click to watch]
“The Blue Planet” (2001)
What it’s about: This critically-acclaimed series plunges into the mysterious depths of the world’s oceans by traveling to a variety of coasts and poles to examine creatures big and small. It’s narrated by Sir David Attenborough, one of the most famous voices in documentary filmmaking.
Why you should see it: Our planet is covered by water, yet the mysteries and alien creatures in the oceans seem like they’re from another world. The next-best thing to exploring that yourself is watching footage of those incredible environments with David Attenborough’s narration. You’ll see fragile and colorful coral reefs, the dark abyss of the deep ocean, and the lives of the powerful creatures of the open sea. [Click to watch]
“Bigger, Stronger, Faster” (2008)
- BSF Film
What it’s about: This documentary sucks you into the bizarre yet pervasive world of performance-enhancing drugs in sports. Through interviews with bodybuilders, doctors, coaches, and politicians, you get an intimate sense of the American obsession with doing whatever it takes to win.
Why you should see it:Christopher Bell’s documentary about steroid use focuses on himself and his two brothers, but it’s really a story about what it means to be a ‘better’ or science-augmented human. The film also takes a philosophical look at the American psychological obsession with being the best – biggest, strongest, and fastest.
Scientifically, you see the physical and mental effects of common performance-enhancing drugs. At the same time you consider what it means to use technology and science to be a better athlete – how do we decide what’s fair? [Click to watch]
What it’s about: This 11-episode British animated series was made over four years and filmed on every continent and in every type of habitat in the world. It chronicles some of the most unusual and bizarre behaviors that plants and animals adopt to survive.
Why you should see it: “Each episode is unique, but they all have these “whoa” moments, like when the chimpanzees share their tools. The fact that they know how to share makes you think about how we’re not so different from animals. Overall, the theme of the series is that life is this insane system of creatures adapting any way they can to survive.” -Steve Kovach, senior correspondent. [Click to watch]
“Fed Up” (2014)
- Atlas Films
What it’s about: An investigation into the American food industry and a first-hand look at how processed foods – particularly sugar – contribute to deadly diseases like obesity.
Why you should see it: “Obesity is typically thought of as a matter of will power. It’s something you avoid by willfully eating well and exercising. Fed Up argues that big corporations, via intense lobbying, have convinced the federal government to put sugar into everything … Kids don’t have a chance even if they wanted to take action.” -Chris Weller, senior innovation reporter. [Click to watch]
“Into the Abyss” (2011)
- IFC Films
What it’s about: A Werner Herzog masterpiece, this documentary tells the story of death row inmate Michael Perry, who was convicted of a triple murder in 2001.
Why you should see it: This film delves into the fraught realm of capitol punishment through interviews with convicted killers and their families, as well as members of the Texas criminal justice system. It explores the psychology of why people – and states that enforce the death penalty – kill. [Click to watch]
“Chasing Ice” (2012)
- National Geographic
What it’s about: Environmental photographer James Balog wanted to understand just how serious an impact climate change was having on the world’s glaciers. So he set up an expedition to photograph and survey the ice around the world. In this film by Jeff Orlowski, we see Balog carry out his mission – which reveals how precarious a position our glaciers are in.
Why you should see it: Visually breathtaking but also devastating, this film shows the challenges that come with filming the most stunning and extreme environments in the world. And it shows how at-risk those environments are. [Click to watch]
“The Ivory Game” (2016)
- The Ivory Game
What it’s about: Richard Ladkani and Kief Davidson document the struggle to protect elephants. They follow armed law enforcement officers who fight poaching in Africa and try to infiltrate the black market for ivory in China.
Why you should see it: Persistently sad, thrilling, and beautifully shot, this film shines a light on one of the biggest criminal enterprises on the planet. It’s tragic to watch these intelligent, social, majestic animals get slaughtered for their teeth, and this film shows the scope of the problem. It also offers a glimpse of what it would take to prevent these animals from being hunted to extinction. [Click to watch]
What it’s about: Documentary filmmakers Kip Andersen and Keegan Kuhn reveal the eye-opening environmental impacts that meat production has had on our planet – including global warming, habitat loss, pollution, and more.
Why you should see it: The US is one of the biggest consumers and producers of meat, yet most people rarely understand how their food choices tie in to larger problems like climate change, drought, habitat loss, and pollution. As meat consumption continues to rise, so too will its negative effects on the environment. [Click to watch]
What it’s about: In the midst of a civil war and fight over the Congo’s natural resources, a team of embattled and devoted park rangers risk their lives to protect eastern Congo’s Virunga National Park from poachers and armed militia.
Why you should see it: This film has a dynamic and impressive mix of investigative journalism and nature. It brings to light the troubles of protecting one of the most biodiverse places on the planet, which is home to the few remaining mountain gorillas in Africa’s forgotten national park. [Click to watch]
“Valley Uprising” (2014)
- Sender Films
What it’s about: When it comes to adventure that’s connected to nature, there’s little that compares to the sport of rock climbing. “Valley Uprising” is a historical – and fun – look at the evolution of the sport. The film focuses on the climbers that popularized Yosemite Valley, following a journey from the “Golden Age” climbers of the 1950s and 60s through the “Stonemasters” era in the 1970s all the way up to the climbers of the present, like Alex Honnold, who recently became the first to climb all the way up El Capitan without ropes.
Why you should see it: The story of climbing and the people who helped make the sport what it is today is an amazing and entertaining one. There’s a lot of nostalgia and human drama in the film – enough that some climbers have criticized the focus on personality and on some characters to the exclusion of less exciting but equally historically important ones – but none of that changes the fact that this is a fascinating tale. Plus, it’s beautiful. [Click to watch]
“Human Planet” (2011)
- BBC Earth
What it’s about: From the Arctic to the desert, and coasts to jungles, this awe-inspiring, jaw-dropping series explores humankind’s adaptation to and relationship with nature.
Why you should see it: “It feels like I’m watching it for the first time, every time. Amazing visuals and excellent narration. I don’t feel like I’m wasting time when I’m watching these documentaries.” -Antonio Villas-Boas, tech reporter. [Click to watch]
“Super Size Me” (2004)
- Roadside Attractions
What it’s about: Have you ever wondered just how bad for you a diet of pure fast food would be? Wonder no more. Morgan Spurlock’s self-experiment with consuming nothing but McDonald’s food for a month shows exactly why you don’t want to do that to your body or mind.
Why you should see it: It’s funny, but also a fascinating and disturbing look at the effects of an unhealthy diet. Critics point out that overeating, which Spurlock clearly does here, is always going to have negative effects (whether it’s fast food or not). But the film had a big impact – shortly after it was released, McDonald’s stopped offering the supersized meal options. [Click to watch]
“Encounters at the End of the World” (2007)
- IMP Awards
What it’s about: Few places are as strange and alien as Antarctica, and iconoclastic director Werner Herzog provides quite the perspective on life at the bottom of the world. This film is a mix of travelogue, anthropological inquiry, and exploration of the unique environments and creatures of the southernmost continent.
Why you should see it: “Encounters at the End of the World” is both beautiful and fascinating. There are few filmmakers better equipped to ask why and how humans live in such an inhospitable environment. And while you learn about the serious environmental issues that are being confronted in Antarctica, it’s also possible to sit back and just be stunned by the scenery. [Click to watch]
“Making a Murderer” (2015)
What it’s about: This true crime series tells the story of Steven Avery, a man who spent 18 years in prison after being wrongfully convicted of a crime.
Why you should see it: If you’ve avoided this captivating series so far because you weren’t sure it would live up the hype, give it a shot. This twisting tale looks into how forensic science can go wrong or be wrongfully used – and asks serious questions about how our justice system treats the vulnerable, whether or not they are guilty. [Click to watch]
“Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey” (2014)
- Cosmos Studios
What it’s about:This documentary series is a spin-off of Carl Sagan’s award-winning and popular 1980 show, “Cosmos: A Personal Voyage.” The illustrious Neil deGrasse Tyson takes viewers on a journey across the universe and planet Earth in a dazzling demonstration of the human quest for knowledge.
Why you should see it: “Neil deGrasse Tyson is great at taking complex science things and making them accessible; he’s very good at making it sound magical.” -Steve Kovach, senior correspondent. [Click to watch]
“Food, Inc.” (2008)
- Magnolia Pictures
What it’s about: Director Robert Kenner offers a deep look into how the food industry has changed drastically since the 1950s, driven mostly by multinational corporations and fast food companies. The film was nominated for an Oscar, and for good reason.
Why you should see it: “Everyone eats food, but very few of us stop to consider where all of it comes from. And when you look as deeply and as widely as author Eric Schlosser did with ‘Fast Food Nation,’ which director Robert Kenner based his documentary on, the picture is shocking and often disturbing.
“There are some political leanings apparent in Food, Inc., and a few facts that seem suspect. But the larger picture – a desperate need for a better, healthier, more humane food system – remains firmly intact. If you eat food in the United States, you must watch this movie. It’s as moving as it is informative.” -Dave Mosher, science and tech correspondent. [Click to watch]
“Into the Inferno” (2016)
What it’s about: Director Werner Herzog and volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer scour the globe, examining the power of active volcanoes.
Why you should see it: This film delves not just into volcanoes themselves, but into the spiritual beliefs and practices that have developed around them. It’s a look at how humanity interacts with dangerous natural phenomena – plus, there’s some stunning imagery. [Click to watch]
- Discovery Channel
What it’s about: You guessed it – it’s about the four-legged survivors that surround humanity and feed off our trash around the globe.
Why you should see it: A horror flick in documentary form, “Super Size Me” director Morgan Spurlock’s Discovery Channel documentary is based on the Robert Sullivan book “Rats: Observations on the History & Habitat of the City’s Most Unwanted Inhabitants.” It’s a bit sensationalized, sure, but it’s captivating. Business Insider’s Jason Guerrasio writes that it’s “one of Spurlock’s best films in years” and that “Spurlock expands the deep dive into the rats that inhabit New York City and shows how the rodents are dealt with – and in some cases worshiped – around the world.” [Click to watch]
Did we miss any of your favorites? Let us know by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
This is an updated version of a post originally by Julia Calderone.