TV

The 15 best documentaries on Netflix, according to critics

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Tom Victor
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The 15 best documentaries on Netflix, according to critics

One of the best things about the rise of TV streaming services is the freedom it has given filmmakers to produce intriguing documentaries we might not have encountered otherwise.

Shows that might have originally been self-produced or hidden away on American networks have been brought to a UK audience and those behind the scenes have been given the financial backing to delve deep into interesting subject matter.

UK Netflix has a solid selection of documentaries to go along with the regular TV shows on the platform, ranging from original content to prestige American documentaries.

We’ve picked out the best ones released this decade, based on their Metacritic scores, and given you all you need to know about them.

kalief-browder

Jay Z in TIME: The Kalief Browder Story

15. The Diplomat – Metacritic score of 78

A look at the life and career of Richard Holbrooke, a United States Ambassador during the presidency of Bill Clinton and Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan during Barack Obama’s first term. Told by Holbrooke’s son David, it paints a picture of the diplomat’s career through the places he travelled to during his various assignments and through interviews with journalists who covered the career of a man who did a lot of important work that often went unseen.

14. The Keepers – 78

This gripping look at the unsolved murder of Sister Cathy Cesnik in 1969 is a prime example of the documentary format having the potential to renew interest in old cases and move towards a resolution. Dealing with themes of abuse and alleged cover-ups, it has been likened to iconic podcast Serial for its powerful storytelling around very serious subject-matter.

13. Last Chance U – 79

Following a group of American football players at a community college in the United States, many of whom know it’s their last chance to prove themselves in the sport. It focuses on the pressures and challenges faced not just by the players, but by the coaches and those around them. Last Chance U has two seasons available on UK Netflix, while the third is being filmed this year at a different college to the one featured in seasons one and two.

12. Human Planet – 79

It’s not just American documentaries on this list. The BBC show Human Planet is narrated brilliantly by John Hurt, and features glorious visuals from around the globe. The show’s focus is communities spanning the entire world, with individual episodes looking at the South Pacific, the Arctic Circle and deserts and jungles across multiple continents. 

11. Mr Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown – 79

An HBO documentary about James Brown feels like the perfect match, and Alex Gibney’s two-hour film certainly delivers. The director of Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room has been praised for “an assured threading-of-the-needle” in his depiction of a layered character, with The A.V. Club’s Joshua Alston calling Gibney “the ideal director for a Brown documentary” given his earlier work on The Armstrong Lie and Finding Fela.

10. Five Came Back – 81

Five Hollywood directors – John Ford, William Wyler, John Huston, Frank Capra, and George Stevens – went onto the frontline during World War II to help inform their later depictions of the conflict. Their experiences were turned into a book by Mark Harris, and that book became an intriguing Netflix documentary with the help of contemporary directors Francis Ford Coppola (Huston), Guillermo del Toro, Paul Greengrass, Lawrence Kasdan, Steven Spielberg and Guillermo del Toro.

9. Bobby Fischer Against the World – 81

Chess champion Bobby Fischer has long been a curious and compelling character, rising to fame at a young age before disappearing from public life. There have been fictionalised versions of his life, but nothing quite like this documentary from Liz Garbus which the Boston Globe’s Sam Allis called “addictive television” which “soars on the rich footage [the director] presents of Fischer behaving on the world stage”.

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8. Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey – 83

Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey is Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s attempt to bring astrophysics to a more mainstream audience, acting as a contemporary follow-up to Carl Sagan’s famous ‘80s documentary Cosmos: A Personal Voyage. Comprising 13 episodes, each under an hour in length, it provides both accessibility and high production values from a team backed by – among others – Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane.

7. Making a Murderer – 84

Perhaps the most recognisable documentary under the Netflix Originals banner, the true crime show covers the arrests and convictions of Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey in a historic murder case and left viewers with a lot of big questions on their lips. A second series has been ordered, following up the first season’s deep dive into a controversial prosecution with a look at the appeals process in the United States’ criminal law system.

6. Prohibition – 86

American filmmaker Ken Burns is among the most respected documentary directors around, and his Prohibition miniseries is a fascinating look into the United States before and after the passing of the 18th amendment banning alcohol. The San Francisco Chronicle’s David Wiegand noted the parallels with today’s society, noting that, “Great historical documentaries not only enlighten us about the past, but tell us things about our own times as well, either directly or implicitly”.

5. TIME: The Kalief Browder Story – 88

Plenty of praise has been heaped on this Jay Z-produced documentary looking at the US prison system via the case of a teenager held in prison for years without being convicted of a crime, and it will absolutely knock you for six. Writing for Variety, Maureen Ryan says the conversations documented in the film give “a visceral sense of the fear and brutality that pervaded [Rikers Island]”.

4. The Roosevelts: An Intimate History – 88

Another Ken Burns entry, The Roosevelts features a stellar voice cast including Paul Giamatti and Meryl Streep. Spanning 14 hours of coverage, it has been described by The Hollywood Reporter’s Tim Goodman as “a pleasure to watch” with “a collection of rare videos and pictures that hold this documentary together with real elegance born of extensive research”.

3. Tig – 89

This documentary about comedian Tig Notaro and her response to a breast cancer diagnosis is both funny and powerful, making for a must-watch spectacle. As Jason Zinoman writes for The New York Times: “In a time when there always seems to be a controversy over an offensive joke, these are both love letters to the healing power of stand-up that ventures to dark places.”

2. The Hunt - 91

It’s no surprise to see a David Attenborough-narrated documentary towards the top of this list, and The Hunt is up there with the likes of Blue Planet II in terms of quality and depth. The 2015 show will remain fresh in the memory of many viewers, but for those who need a reminder it looks at battles between predators and prey across arctic, ocean and grassland environments. 

1. Frozen Planet – 91

What else was it going to be, really? The New York Post’s Linda Stasi called the Attenborough-narrated show “perhaps the single greatest accomplishment in nature TV history,” which feels like pretty high praise however you look at it. Zoning in on polar bears, penguins and other denizens of the poles, it really is a phenomenal piece of filmmaking. If you’ve never seen it, change that now. Even if you have, watch it again.

(Images: Netflix)