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The 20 best documentaries on Netflix, according to critics

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The 15 best documentaries on Netflix, according to critics 1

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.

20. Making a Murderer 

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 an historic murder case and left viewers with a lot of big questions on their lips. Some questions of which are still being answered about the Steven Avery case right now. 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.

Metacritic score of 84

19. Restrepo

This war documentary follows American journalist Sebastian Junger and British photojournalist Tim Hetherington as they spend a year in Afghanistan on assignment for Vanity Fair. Unlike the twisty turny docs that mostly populate this list, this one eschews a “story” and instead focuses on, as Rotten Tomatoes terms it, its “visceral power”. This is a view of war straight from the front line - uncompromising, gritty and entirely harrowing in almost every possible way. What a laugh!

Metacritic score of 85

18. Prohibition

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”.

Metacritic score of 86

17. Strong Island

This powerful crime doc is based on the 1992 racially-charged killing of William Ford Jr. When he was 24-years-old, he was senselessly murdered by white 19-year-old Mark Reilly, a mechanic who claimed that he acted in self-defense. William, who was un-armed when he was shot by Reilly, as a result of a minor traffic dispute.

Of course, the world being what it is, Reilly was acquitted, and this film, directed by Ford Jr’s brother, examines why this was allowed to happen, and the family’s response to the injustice.

Netflix say it’s a “deeply intimate and meditative film,” that “asks what one can do when the grief of loss is entwined with historical injustice, and how one grapples with the complicity of silence, which can bind a family in an imitation of life, and a nation with a false sense of justice.”

Metacritic score of 86

16. Chasing Coral

This is a film about - stay with us - coral. Or more specifically, how quickly the world’s coral reefs are disappearing - it’s a beautiful film, but also an upsetting one. We don’t half like to smash this planet to bits at every given opportunity, don’t we?

Metacritic score of 86

15. Particle Fever

That Large Hadron Collider, eh? What’s all that about? Well, this documentary will tell you - anything you’ve ever wanted to know about the LHC, but were afraid to ask, basically. It was filmed over four years, from first firing to the discovery of the Higgs boson (forgot that was a thing, didn’t you?) - definitely a niche area of interest, this one, but absolutely fascinating all the same.

Metacritic score of 87

14. Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan

This uplifting doc follows famed ballerina Wendy Whelan from mid-2013, a period that signalled a tough-to-overcome hip condition, and ends with her final performance at the age of 47. It’s a bittersweet study of someone who was once top of their game, coming to terms with aging and reaching the end of their career. It’s surely something we’ll all be able to relate to one day. Apart from the “top of their game” part, obviously.

Metacritic score of 87

13. Newtown

Certainly not easy viewing, this film focuses on the aftermath of the Sandy Hook school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. It’s depiction of grief may be too much for some, but if you’ve a strong constitution, then it’s worth an admittedly testing watch.

Metacritic score of 87

12. TIME: The Kalief Browder Story

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]”.

Metacritic score of 88

11. The Roosevelts: An Intimate History

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”.

Metacritic score of 88

10. Tig 

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.”

Metacritic score of 89

9. Big Men

Oil corruption in Africa? If that kind of thing floats your boat, then this documentary with a rare 100% Rotten Tomatoes score will be right up your street. Anyone else, it’s also worth your time because really, when have you ever thought about oil? That thing that makes so many things possible - how are you to know what happens behind the scenes? Now you have no excuse, and it’s worrying viewing…

Metacritic score of 90

8. I Called Him Morgan

This hugely-acclaimed doc focuses on famed jazz trumpeter Lee Morgan and his wife Helen Morgan, and starts as an intimate portrayal of love and a celebration of music. And then things take a dark turn: in 1972 Helen murdered her husband onstage while he was performing with his band. The film examines the whats and whys in the lead up and aftermath of the killing, and is unshakably absorbing from start to end.

Metacritic score of 90

7. 13th

This film, which takes its name from the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution (that freed the slaves and prohibited slavery) focuses on the injustices still present in America to this day, regardless of any so-called amendments. The New York Observer said it “Manages to capture the depth and insidiousness of more than a century of cultural, societal and economic oppression along racial lines and then condenses it into a brisk 100-minute package.”

Metacritic score of 90

6. The Hunt

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. 

Metacritic score of 91

5. Frozen Planet

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.

Metacritic score of 91

4. The Staircase

This documentary series offers a revealing inside look at the high-profile murder case of author Michael Peterson, accused of killing his wife in 2001. And woah does this one take you on a bumpy ride - twists galore, an extremely unsettling (and worrying charismatic) central suspect and all the courtroom to-ing and fro-ing that you loved in Making a Murderer. This is must-watch stuff, regardless of how morbid its subject matter may be…

Metacritic score of 92

3. Tower

This film focuses on the 1966 shootings at the University of Texas, where Charles Whitman opened fire on the campus from the top of the university’s tower, killing 16 and injuring 31. The difference here is that the documentary is mostly animated, in an attempt to piece together what happened that day. Although they may seem peculiar, animated documentaries actually have a unique way of getting a sometimes distressing point across (Waltz With Bashir). A different spin on the genre, and one that’s just as poignant.

Metacritic score of 92

2. Brother’s Keeper

A movie from 1992? What am I, 136 years old? No, you are a human adult capable of watching things from the past, like this extremely affecting documentary about two illiterate brothers living in a dilapidated farmhouse in a rural settlement near Syracuse, New York. Interesting enough, sure, but then one of them is accused of murdering the other - and a battle between the townsfolk and the press thus begins. The film is directed by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, who made the acclaimed Paradise Lost trilogy, so you know you’re in good hands here.

Metacritic score of 92

1. Virunga

Of course a film about gorillas would be number one. Not a nice one about gorillas though, a worrying piece about the work of the park rangers in the Congo’s Virunga National Park during the rise of the violent M23 Rebellion in 2012. It also focuses on the dealings of British oil company Soco International, which were obviously shady - they’re an oil company, of course shade is involved. The film was nominated for best documentary feature at the Oscars, and has the Rotten Tomatoes seal-of-approval - a 100% rating. Watch it, if not the gorilla’s sake, but for yours, too.

Metacritic score of 95

(Images: Netflix)