47 documentaries on Netflix right now that will make you smarter

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“Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond.”
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Francois Duhamel/Netflix

One of the great things about Netflix is that it has brought thoughtful, compelling documentaries to a much wider audience – something filmmakers could only dream of a decade ago.

And with binge-worthy titles like Netflix original “Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond” and Oscar-nominated “Last Men in Aleppo” a click away, you can get a lot of great nonfiction viewing any night of the week.

You’ll learn a lot more about the world, but don’t worry – you’ll also be entertained.

Here are 47 documentaries we think you should stream right away on Netflix.

Note: Numerous Netflix titles drop off the streaming service monthly, so the availability of titles below may change.


1. “13th”

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Netflix

Director Ava DuVernay looks at the history of the US prison system and how it relates to the nation’s history of racial inequality.


2. “Amanda Knox”

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Netflix

The murder trial in Italy of the American exchange student Amanda Knox, who is now free, captivated the world in the early 2000s. This Netflix original looks back at the case and gets the perspective of Knox and others closely involved.


3. “The Battered Bastards of Baseball”

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A young Kurt Russell on his dad’s independent-league baseball team.
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Netflix

In a fascinating look at one of the more colorful stories in baseball lore, directors Chapman and Maclain Way follow the Portland Mavericks, an independent baseball team owned by the movie star Bing Russell (Kurt Russell’s father) who threw out all the conventions of the national pastime to build a regional sensation in the late 1970s.


4. “Big Men”

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Abramorama

This documentary looks at two sides of the profitable oil business: the company that has developed the first-ever commercial oil field in Ghana, and the militant gangs who aren’t going to wait for the money to trickle down to them and take steps to cash in now. With incredible access to both sides, we observe global capitalism at work.


5. “Biggie & Tupac”

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Roxy Releasing

A look at the East Coast/West Coast hip-hop rivalry that resulted in the deaths of two icons.


6. “Blackfish”

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Magnolia Pictures

Why is SeaWorld ending its killer-whale shows? Partly because of this incredible movie that looks at the abuse these magnificent creatures have endured for decades.


7. “Cartel Land”

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The Orchard

Director Matthew Heineman’s Oscar-nominated movie explores the current drug war in Mexico as well as the overwhelmed Americans who protect our southern boarder. Heineman doesn’t just embed himself with the cartels, here’s there for shoot outs and members who are on the run from rivals.


8. “Casting JonBenet”

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Michael Latham/Sundance Institute

One of the most unique pieces of non-fiction you’ll find on Netflix, director Kitty Green looks at the death of JonBenet Ramsey and the effect it’s had on her hometown, as Green casts actors from the area Ramsey grew up in to reenact key moments of the murder and investigation of this famous unsolved crime.


9. “Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films”

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Cannon Films

During the 1980s, Cannon Films was responsible for some of the best action movies (later becoming B-movie classics) ever made. From “Death Wish” to “Missing In Action” to “American Ninja,” they had the genre movie on lock down before anyone knew it was possible to make money. Well, only so much. This documentary shows the company’s rise as Hollywood bad boys, and fall when they tried to get too big time by making the He-Man movie “Masters of the Universe” and Tobe Hooper’s failure “Lifeforce.”


10, “Elstree 1976”

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Vimeo/Lucasfilms

When the actors cast to work on a movie called “Star Wars” got to Elstree Studios just outside London in 1976, they had no idea it would change their lives. And that includes the actors not named Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, and Carrie Fisher. This documentary looks at those actors from the original trilogy who didn’t get much screen time (some of them where even behind masks) but they became iconic fixtures to fans of the “Star Wars” saga. From Biggs (Garrick Hagon) to Greedo (Paul Blake) to Boba Fett (Jeremy Bulloch), they all tell their unique journey through life as memorable characters of “Star Wars.”


11. “Exit Through the Gift Shop”

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FilmBuff

This story of a French immigrant obsessed with street art who searches for the reclusive artist Bansky, only to have the legend turn the camera back on him, is a fascinating look at the street-art scene. To this day, it’s unclear if the story is authentic or a Bansky prank.


12. “Finders Keepers’

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The Orchard

Sometimes documentaries can be stranger than fiction, and Exhibit A is this movie right here.

Directors Bryan Carberry and Clay Tweel look at the unusual journey John Wood goes through to get his leg back. You did not read that wrong. After surviving a plane crash, in which Wood’s leg is amputated, Wood asks the hospital for the leg back and they give it to him. In the process of mummifying it on his own, Wood spirals into drug addiction and the leg – resting inside a grill that’s in Wood’s storage shed – finds its way into the hands of Shannon Whisnant after he buys the shed once Wood can no longer pay rent on it.

And things get even more bizarre after that.


13. “Food, Inc.”

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Magnolia Pictures

A movie that is still as powerful today as it was when it was released a decade ago, director Robert Kenner looks at the corporate controlled food industry. Keep an eye out for the things that might have improved since 2008. It’s still likely you won’t look at your local grocery store the same after watching.


14. “The Force”

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Sundance Institute

A gripping look inside the efforts by the Oakland Police Department to rebound and gain the community’s trust after police misconduct and scandals.


15. “Gaga: Five Foot Two”

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Netflix

Here we get an intimate look behind the Gaga glam as she prepares for a new album and performing the halftime show at the Super Bowl.


16. “The Hunting Ground”

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Radius

An emotionally powerful account of rape on US campuses and how the schools work to save face.


17. “Happy Valley”

Director Amir Bar-Lev (“Long Strange Trip”) looks at Penn State a year after the football program’s assistant coach, Jerry Sandusky, is arrested on child sex abuse charges.


18. “Heronin(e)”

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Netflix

Nominated for an Oscar in the documentary shorts category, director Elaine McMillion Sheldon highlights three women in Huntington, West Virginia who are trying to break the cycle of addiction that has crippled this Appalachian city.


19. “Icarus”

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Netflix

Director Bryan Fogel sets out to do a movie about doping and ends up uncovering one of the biggest doping scandals in Olympics history. Nominated for an Oscar this year, this movie goes beyond sports and into how far Russia will go to get what they want.


20. “Into the Inferno”

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Netflix

Herzog travels around the world, including to North Korea, to examine the beauty and danger of active volcanoes.


21. “Janis: Little Girl Blue”

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Jess Mills/FilmRise

A portrait of the legendary singer Janis Joplin, with help from the many letters she wrote amid her sudden rise to fame.


22. “Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond – Featuring a Very Special, Contractually Obligated Mention by Tony Clifton”

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Francois Duhamel/Netflix

Jim Carrey unearths the videos of him in character as Andy Kaufman the entire time while making 1999’s “Man on the Moon,” and it’s quite remarkable. The dedication, the madness, the hilarity – this showcases the greatness of Carrey and the insanity of what is tolerated on a movie set.


23. “Killing Them Safely”

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Courtesy of Nick Berardini

A movie that is increasingly topical, this doc from director Nick Berardini examines the use of the Taser stun gun by US police departments.


24. “Last Days in Vietnam”

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PBS

This Oscar-nominated doc by director Rory Kennedy looks at the final weeks of the Vietnam War and the exodus in Saigon of not just American soldiers and diplomats, but also the South Vietnamese, who helped the US during the war.


25. “Last Men in Aleppo”

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Grasshopper Films

Nominated for an Oscar this year, the first-ever nomination for a documentary directed and produced by Syrians, the movie looks at the volunteers of The White Helmets, a group that saves people from the rubble following bombings during the Syrian civil war.


26. “Life Itself”

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Magnolia/Life Itself trailer

Steve James gives a touching portrayal of the life and work of film critic Roger Ebert, capturing his final months.


27. “Little Dieter Needs to Fly”

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Werner Herzog Productions

Werner Herzog has always had a knack of finding interesting subjects to cover for his documentaries, but this is one of his all-time best. Pilot Dieter Dengler, who was shot down during Vietnam and was prisoner of war before escaping, returns to Laos with Herzog to recreate his experience. Herzog even hires locals to play his captors as Dengler reenacts the torture he went through and how he escaped.


28. “Making a Murderer”

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Netflix

This true-crime tale about the murder case of Steven Avery became an instant Netflix binge hit when it landed on the streaming service in December 2015. Filmed over 10 years, it will no doubt prompt you to come up with your own theory about what’s really true.


29. “Man on Wire”

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Magnolia Pictures

The winner of the Oscar for best documentary in 2009, this doc is a powerful retelling of Philippe Petit’s illegal high-wire walk between the Twin Towers in 1974.


30. “Meet the Patels”

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Alchemy

Actor Ravi Patel allows his sister Geeta to film his dating situation, which isn’t good so he allows their parents to embark on the Indian tradition to find him a wife. The movie is both eye-opening and hilarious.


31. “Metallica: Some Kind of Monster”

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IFC Films

The directors Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky are allowed to film the making of Metallica’s first album in six years, “St. Anger,” and find themselves instead filming the band on the brink of collapse after the departure of longtime bassist, Jason Newsted. What unfolds is one of the best rock-and-roll documentaries of all time.


32. “Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown”

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HBO

Using archival footage and incredibly entertaining interviews from people who were there, Alex Gibney looks back on the early years of James Brown’s career.


33. “My Life Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn”

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Radius

Taking a page from Eleanor Coppola making a movie about her husband on the set of “Apocalypse Now,” Liv Corfixen grabs the camera to look at her husband, Nicolas Winding Refn, as he makes “Only God Forgives.” Similar to what Eleanor found when she filmed Francis, Liv captures Nicolas struggling to figure out his movie while pressured to live up to his popular past work.


34. “My Scientology Movie”

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Magnolia Pictures

Louis Theroux dives head first into Scientology and what he finds is a lot of screaming, intimidation, and arguments about if a road he’s filming on is private or not. If you’re looking for a very different kind of movie about Scientology, this is it.


35. “Nobody Speak: Trails of the Free Press”

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John Pendygraft/Sundance Institute

Director Brian Knappenberger uses the landmark trail of Hulk Hogan versus Gawker to examine how freedom of the press is being silenced by the deep pockets of billionaires.


36. “One of Us”

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Netflix

Heidi Ewing and Rachael Grady’s (“Jesus Camp”) latest movie looks at the insular world of New York City’s Hasidic community to spotlight the people who have left the community and the retaliation that occurs because of it.


37. “Pumping Iron”

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Cinema 5

Before Arnold Schwarzenegger was the biggest action star in the world, he was a Mr. Olympia champion starving for fame. This documentary shows an Arnold on the cusp of stardom.


38. “Rats”

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Discovery Channel

Morgan Spurlock (of “Super Size Me” fame) mixes horror and documentary to create this frightening look at the movements and habits of rats – and yes, they are all around us.


39. “Seeing Allred”

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Sundance Institute

You might have a certain opinion about attorney Gloria Allred due to how she’s perceived in the media, but this documentary proves there’s a lot you don’t know about her. From her tough early life before becoming a lawyer to being a voice for abused women (having been raped herself), this movie may make you think differently about Allred.


40. “Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine”

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Magnolia Pictures

If the star-studded biopic “Steve Jobs” didn’t give you the insight you wanted, give this Gibney doc a try. Gibney uses archival footage and interviews with those who knew Jobs best to examine his life, which was, in many ways, his work.


41. “Street Fight”

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Argot Pictures

Before Cory Booker became a senator, he was an unknown running for mayor in Newark, New Jersey. Marshall Curry’s documentary chronicles his run for office.


42. “Strong Island”

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Netflix

This powerful Oscar-nominated doc looks into the death of director Yance Ford’s brother and why his killer was allowed to go free.


43. “The Thin Blue Line”

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The Criterion Collection

Before “The Jinx” and “Making a Murderer,” there was Errol Morris’ groundbreaking investigation of a man wrongly convicted of the murder of a police officer in Texas. The new findings in the movie led to the release of the man.


44. “Trophy”

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The Orchard

A movie that’s hard to watch, but is so engaging you can’t look away, directors Christina Clusiau and Shaul Schwarz examine both sides of the complex big game hunting debate and highlight the vocal main players.


45. “What Happened, Miss Simone?”

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Netflix

This Oscar-nominated doc by Liz Garbus looks at the powerful career of Nina Simone, who went from chart-topping singer to civil-rights activist.


46. “The Wolfpack”

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Magnolia Pictures

Confined to their apartment for most of their childhood, six brothers learned everything they knew about the outside world through the movies they watched and then reenacted with homemade costumes.


47. “Wormwood”

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Zach Dilgard/Netflix

Legendary director Errol Morris gives his most deep-dive on a subject yet, as Netflix gives him six episodes to delve into the CIA’s Project MKUltra, specifically the death of scientist Frank Olson and a potential government cover-up. Using reenactments far beyond what he’s done before, Morris weaves a powerful psychedelic tale.