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10 best nature documentaries on Netflix

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Sam Diss
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Nothing soothes a hangover quite like taking in the majesty of the natural world. “Lions don’t get hangovers,” you tell yourself, taking strength from their strength, heart from theirs. “Lions are great, whereas I am a piece of trash.” And there is no month quite as hangover-likely as December, where all of your days are taken up by parties for people you don’t really know or like but, in a show of solidarity for the Little Baby Jesus, you go and get mashed every time.

Thankfully, Netflix is laden with great Netflix documentaries about Mother Earth, with all her bells and whistles and parrots. Here are the ten best to get your laughing gear around this Non-Denominative Festive Period:

The Blue Planet

The wonder of the ocean, cradling you in its wavy arms, is always a worthy way to spend a few hours. So what if series producer Alastair Fothergill admitted 2 per cent of the show was filmed at aquariums? This is premium television: episode one won a Primetime Emmy for its lingering shots off the coast of California when a whale and her calf are targeted by a pod of orcas. The orcas circle, hunt down, and then kill the calf as the mother looks on, helpless, before drifting off into the navy Pacific alone.

Suddenly your hangover seems quite small-fry, doesn’t it?

Watch it here

Tyke: Elephant Outlaw

A heartbreaking account of Tyke, the circus elephant, who went on a rampage in 1994 in Honolulu, killing her trainer before bursting out the tent and causing carnage on the streets of Hawaii, before being shot 86 times by police and eventually succumbing to its wounds. Not a laugh-riot, admittedly, more a thought-provoking story of what happens when you force an animal to perform for the enjoyment of gawking idiots for years. (See also: Blackfish)

Watch it here

Blackfish

So yeah, Blackfish: Rotten Tomatoes called it “an aggressive, impassioned documentary that will change the way you look at performance killer whales” and it is both aggressive and impassioned in its depiction of the mental abuse suffered by performing whales, the isolation, the desperation of these three-tonne gymnasts. While criticised by some for its biased filmmaking – pretty much everyone interviewed in the film eventually disowned it – it is still a gripping tale and was evidently based in enough truth that, under the weight of public pressure, Sea World buckled to its demands, ceasing killer whale shows and its killer whale breeding programs early this year. 

Watch it here

Virunga

A love story: boy meets gorillas, gorillas are mostly ambivalent to boy’s presence, boy continues to hang out with gorillas to earn their trust, gets it, and then a bunch of Congolese rebels tries to murder everyone and boy, now man, is the gorilla reserves only hope. Get your tissues at the ready, lads. We’re going crying. 

Watch it here

Life

More from Dave, Life showed the length and breadth of nature in all its forms – plants, primates, weirdos of the deep, hunting orcas, birds, insects, and komodo dragons – with the usual majestic cinematography you’ve come to expect from the BBC’s nature output. And there is a moment, in the last episode, where some Japanese macaque monkeys smash open some nuts with a rock, realisation spreading over their little macaque faces, and you realise: man, that was us. Not so long ago, really. 

Then when the boy macaque hands the stone to a girl macaque so she can open the tough shell of a nut too, you realise: man, them monkeys are gonna fuck! 

Watch it here

RELATED: The best films on Netflix you haven’t already seen

Project Nim

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Named for Noam Chomsky, a leading theorist on human language and grammar, chimpanzee Nim was the subject of an extended study into animal language at Columbia University which is interesting in-and-of itself, with the little lad “learning” how to communicate using American Sign Language. The question of imitation versus language plays second fiddle to a genuinely, shakingly sad end where, after being released from the study, Nim, like a primate Flowers For Algernon, struggles to adapt to normal chimp life once more. 

(Note: scare-quotes used around “learning” owing to some of the quotes attributed to Nim being “Banana me Nim me” and “Me gum me gum” – so, you know…)

Watch it here

Frozen Planet

It’s The Blue Planet but with snow and ice. Yes. Yeah. Yeah, go on then.

Watch it now

The Ivory Game

A new-ish doc about an old enemy, this Leo DiCaprio-produced film is about poachers and the ivory trade shot, to quote The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw, “little too excitab[ly] and enamoured of its own narc-thriller style, with mannerisms that reminded me of Paul Greengrass or Michael Mann” but its sugary cinematographer help push along a story we’ve sadly heard so many times before: endangered elephants are being slaughtered for their ivory and there’s very little anyone’s willing to do about it.

The Life Of Birds

No trailer for this one but if your appetite is not suitably whet – dripping, even – at the thought of lovely David Attenborough looking lovingly at the majesty of the only living dinosaur group, birds, for ten episodes of 4:3 format animal goodness then we don’t know why you’re here. You must be lost.

Watch it here

Into The Inferno

Werner Herzog, the Don Dada of bleakly comic non-fiction film-making, ventures to Indonesia, Iceland, North Korea, and Ethiopia in search of volcanoes and the life that exists around them. Under a typically elegiac score, Herzog deadpans philosophical nonsense about the indiscriminate hatred molten lava has for all forms of life – the film closes on a five-star Herzog monologue, but gets most interesting when he ventures to the tiny Pacific island of Vanuatu where he meets the peoples who believe in mythical messianic figure named John Frum and its resulting ‘cargo cult’ (basically the a movement that hopes to obtain imported goods via magic) as well as its ties to the country’s multiple, ever-present volcanos, where total destruction is never far away.

As the village elder says: “Everything will melt, the stones, the trees, everything, like water…”

Watch it here

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Sam Diss

The Associate Editor of New Projects at ShortList, Sam enjoys making up words to annoy editors, writing features about sports, music, weird things, and cool people, and listening to Mark Morrison's 'Return Of The Mack'. He's also a fairly capable centreback. Follow Sam on Twitter: @SamDiss

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