Documentaries, which were once a niche genre, have grown to enjoy mainstream popularity in recent years. And thanks to the Netflix acquisition team, subscribers have hundreds of them at their fingertips that chronicle everything from riveting tales of true crime to stories about sports scandals. To help you sort through their collection, we’ve selected 20 films in their library that will either make your jaw drop, bring a tear to your eye, or both.
1. Is That Black Enough for You?!? (2022)
Film critic Elvis Mitchell takes a closer look at the history and evolution of Black representation in cinema, from the early days of Hollywood to the ‘70s explosion of genre pictures. Mitchell originally envisioned the project as a book before embarking on the film.
2. Capturing the Killer Nurse (2022)
In early 2000s New Jersey, nurse Amy Loughren begins to suspect her colleague, Charles Cullen, may be sending patients to an early grave. Paired with the 2022 Netflix original film The Good Nurse, this documentary would make for one part of a chilling double feature: Both are based on the 2013 book The Good Nurse: A True Story of Medicine, Madness, and Murder by Charles Graeber.
The life of actress and EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony) winner Rita Moreno (West Side Story) is chronicled in this winning documentary narrated by Moreno herself, who has spent more than 70 years in show business. (Her two Emmys came by way of appearances on The Muppet Show.)
4. My Octopus Teacher (2020)
This Oscar winner for Best Documentary is a bittersweet tale of a friendship forged between a filmmaker (Craig Foster) and an octopus near Cape Town, South Africa. Slowly, the two begin to understand one another. Foster spent years with directors Pippa Ehrlich and James Reed making the film.
5. The Battered Bastards of Baseball (2014)
Kurt Russell is featured in this documentary looking back at the Portland Mavericks, a rag-tag sports club that briefly shook up the world of baseball in the 1970s. Russell’s father, Bing, headed up the organization. Though the elder Russell was also an actor, he grew up near the New York Yankees’ training facility and held a lifelong love of the game.
America suffered another crisis not long after 9/11 when anthrax spores were disseminated throughout the postal system. This documentary takes a closer look at the mysterious attacks. Clark Gregg (The Avengers) portrays prime suspect Dr. Bruce Ivins in reenactments.
7. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (2018)
The legendary life of television mentor Fred Rogers is detailed in this documentary from Morgan Neville that examines the host of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. Rogers' mother, Nancy, knitted all of his famous sweaters.
Prepare for a twist-laden tale of a cryptocurrency czar named Gerry Cotten that takes some dark and surprising turns. The case was pored over by Reddit users before getting national media attention.
Sun. Models. Booze. Would-be mogul Billy McFarland promised a lot and delivered little more than cold cheese sandwiches at his 2017 music festival debacle, which collected a small fortune in admission and ancillary profits and then wound up leaving hundreds of guests stranded on an island to fend for themselves. Pairing Netflix’s examination of the fiasco and its fallout with Hulu’s version of events makes for a fine double feature (even if you might be left with more questions than answers).
10. Mercury 13 (2018)
At the height of the 1960s space race, a private program was implemented to train women to be astronauts. Even though women often performed better than men in cardiopulmonary and sensory deprivation tests, it wasn’t to be: The chauvinistic attitudes of the era had different ideas. This documentary takes a close look at this little known chapter in space history.
The cultural influence of one of the mall scene’s biggest success stories is the focus of this documentary, which examines how A&F won the hearts of young fashionistas with questionable marketing tactics and discriminatory staffing practices. (The store once lacked women’s jeans over size 10.)
12. Crack: Cocaine, Corruption & Conspiracy (2021)
The devastating consequences of the urban crack cocaine epidemic of the 1980s are recounted in detail from the dealers, users, cops, and community leaders who lived it. So did director Stanley Nelson, who was a Harlem resident and has first-hand memories of the emerging crisis.
13. Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond (2017)
When Jim Carrey stepped into the role of the late comedian Andy Kaufman for director Miloš Forman’s 1999 biopic Man on the Moon, he didn’t so much as imitate Kaufman as become him. That process was documented in behind-the-scenes footage that was buried in studio vaults for years and revealed here for the first time. Executives feared people would consider Carrey—who alternately charms and antagonizes people on the set by never behaving as “Jim”—as being exceptionally difficult to work with. Perhaps, but Carrey’s modern-day reflections on inhabiting the eccentric Kaufman, even when the film cameras weren’t rolling, are a fascinating study of both the performer’s commitment and the nature of identity.
14. Wham! (2023)
The ascent of superstar pop duo Wham! is chronicled in this surprisingly warmhearted retrospective, which features narration by partners Andrew Ridgeley and the late George Michael. With tunes like “Last Christmas” and ”Careless Whisper,” Michael and Ridgeley were the toast of pop music, but Michael’s inevitable solo career loomed large.
15. Icarus (2017)
The cat-and-mouse game between drug testing agencies and cheating athletes is put under a microscope in director Bryan Fogel’s Oscar-winning documentary, which uncovers the lengths competitors will go to in order to push past their physical limits. As Fogel digs deeper into the world of pro cycling and its high-ranking political influences, you may discover that drugs are so pervasive that athletes aren’t necessarily looking to cheat—they’re simply looking to even the playing field.
16. Team Foxcatcher (2016)
John du Pont, heir to the du Pont fortune, spent much of his time and some of his wealth on his passion for amateur wrestling. But when he feels betrayed by standout Olympian Dave Schultz, du Pont’s obsession with the sport and its athletes turns fatal. (Steve Carell portrayed du Pont and Mark Ruffalo co-starred as Dave Schultz in Foxcatcher, a 2014 dramatization of the story.)
17. 13th (2016)
Director Ava DuVernay delivers a powerful (and Oscar-nominated) indictment of the U.S. justice system and takes a closer look at how incarceration and sentencing feeds into widespread inequality. Peering through DuVernay’s lens, viewers may feel the scales of justice are tipped in favor of privatized and profiteering prisons.
18. The Martha Mitchell Effect (2022)
This 2022 Oscar-nominated film follows Martha Mitchell, a Cabinet member’s wife who dared speak out during the height of the Richard Nixon Watergate scandal.
19. Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution (2020)
Barack and Michelle Obama executive-produced this tale of a ‘70s summer camp in New York that catered to people with disabilities and helped foster a sense of inclusivity—one that ultimately resulted in campers growing up to become advocates.
20. They Shall Not Grow Old (2018)
Peter Jackson (The Lord of the Rings series) directs this stunning retrospective of World War I, which uses colorized footage to bring a fresh perspective. Jackson received more than 100 hours of footage from the Imperial War Museums: Although he needed less than two hours of it, he wound up restoring the entire library for archival purposes.
A version of this story was published in 2019; it has been updated for 2023.