Top documentaries on Netflix UK
Ivan Radford | On 28, May 2016
Netflix is great at a number of things, but it’s arguably best at documentaries. Non-fiction films and series alike have been snapped up in huge volumes by the streaming giant, with acquisitions finding wide audiences and its original productions finding several Oscar nominations. The downside is that it’s hard to find the best ones from a big (and largely very good) bunch.
That’s where we come in. Here are the top documentaries on Netflix UK:
“Only we can tell our stories,” the protestors say at the start of Jehane Noujaim’s Oscar-nominated documentary. And The Square does tell their story – as it happened, and as it continues to happen now. Urgent, breathtaking and beautifully rousing, the Netflix original film is a documentary about protest unlike any other. This isn’t just what a revolution looks like – this is what it feels like. It’s chaos. It’s confusion. It’s hope. And it’s not over.
Errol Morris’ film follows former Wyoming beauty queen Joyce McKinney as she kidnaps a mormon she’s in love with and, according to him, does bad things. Picked up by the British media, the sordid true story soon became a spectacle, covering everything from brainwashed religions to – yes – the clonong of Joyce’s dog. This is a tale of love, abduction, scheming newspapers, silly disguises, an evil cult and magic underwear. It’s also a documentary.
20 years after Baraka, Ron Fricke’s back with another non-spoken, non-linear documentary. The unique blend of imagery and music plays out like a cross between a Tate Modern art installation and a BBC wildlife documentary – an acquired taste that automatically brings your inner David Attenborough to life. It’s a 100-minute screensaver, but it just so happens to be the most breathtaking screensaver you’ll ever see in your life. There’s no dialogue to distract you or characters to worry about: shot on 70mm with care and attention, this is cinema in its purest form. An exhilarating, wholly unique experience.
Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God
Silence can be a powerful thing. For the Catholic Church, it’s expected, as a sign of a respect and a form of control. When Reverend Lawrence C. Murphy sexually abused boys in a Milwaukee home, the response was silence – both from the victims and the church. Alex Gibney’s Mea Maxima Culpa breaks that silence. The result is a devastating and vital expose of a cover-up that continues today.
Have you ever seen a glacier the size of Manhattan break off from land and collapse into the ocean? Jeff Orlowski’s Chasing Ice will show it to you. Hired by photographer James Balog to chronicle his efforts to capture global warming on film, the film is a provocative look at one man’s determination to change the world – and a stunning, shocking look at the tragic man-made destruction of our planet.
Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s documentary about Tilikum, an orca captured and separated from his family, is a chilling, provocative film that will leave you angry at the human race – and determined never to go to a SeaWorld in your life.
Film critic Charlie Lyne’s ode to the teen movie legacy covers over 200 movies. To watch an entire genre like this, weaved together as naturally as the braids in a prom queen’s up-do, is to witness the on-screen canonisation of a singular teen experience. That is, a singular teen experience as dictated to ourselves by what we see at the cinema, as we uphold the myth of Hollywood high school as a kind of biblical truth.
It doesn’t matter whether you grew up on The Dreamers or EuroTrip, Beyond Clueless proves you’ll have come to the exact same conclusions about your own teenage life either way.
The Queen of Versailles
Kill them with kindness. That’s the old adage for dealing with not very nice people. Director Lauren Greenfield seems to take it to heart for The Queen of Versailles, a documentary that depicts the lavish lifestyle of David and Jackie Siegel. The property mogul and his wife are at the pinnacle of the housing boom, his timeshare business never better. Their plan? To build a home. Not just any home: the biggest home in the US, modelled after none other than the Palace of Versailles.
The Siegels sued her soon afterwards.
This documentary about the late and legendary film critic Roger Ebert is a moving and inspiring watch, whether you like films, film criticism or not.
Ever since its 1994 premiere, Steve James’ indie documentary about two of Chicago’s top high school basketball prospects – who face pressure on and off the court – has become a legendary examination of sports, family and race. 20 years on, it’s lost none of its impact.
For every four people who reach the summit of K2, one person dies. It’s a sobering, shocking fact revealed early on in The Summit. But it’s nothing compared to 2008, when a disaster killed 11 climbers on the world’s most-feared mountain. What happened up there? The survivors still don’t know. This gripping, heartfelt documentary attempts to find out.
If you were shocked by the Oscar-nominated film about Olympic champion Mark Schultz, who (along with his brother, Mark) became associated with millionaire philanthropist John du Pont, this documentary is a must-watch.
This exposé of the Mexican drug war and the cartels that operate around the Mexico/US border is blisteringly good stuff.
Exit through the Gift Shop
Infamous British graffiti artist Banksy made this documentary. which sees him meet Thierry Guetta, a Los Angeles-based Frenchman who videotapes various underground art escapades – and ultimately transformed into an art phenomenon dubbed “Mr. Brainwash”. Is he genuinely talented, a sham, and does he even exist? This intriguing film blurs the boundary between art and celebrity, not to mention fiction and real life.
Cobain: Montage of Heck
“It feels like there has been a very long road getting to this point. With all the tears, recriminations and career reinventions of the people around Kurt Cobain, the idea of an officially authorised documentary about the man even being released is somewhat surprising. However, with input from band mate Krist Novoselic, and with ex-wife Courtney Love and daughter Francis Bean listed as Executive Producer, Montage of Heck is as legitimate a documentary as we are ever going to get. What also helps is its inherently cinematic nature.” Read our full review
David Bowie: Five Years
Inspiring, bold and chameleonic, Bowie’s contribution to music – and influence upon it – is timeless, but this 2013 film portrays it by focusing on five key years in his life. The interviews with collaborators are insightful, but the unseen archive footage is a treat, ranging from talk show appearances to the iconic pop legend playing The Elephant Man on Broadway. Can any programme do justice to all of David Bowie’s remarkable talent within 90 minutes? No, but this is as close as it gets.
This mind-bending film is one of the great modern documentaries that shows just how much you can do with a non-fiction format. We follow photographer Nev as he makes (ahem) special friends with someone on Facebook. Is all as it seems? His journey to meet her in real life is a surprising, gripping and prescient drama that plays out like a B-side to The Social Network. Essential viewing for the Facebook generation.
The Look of Silence
Joshua Oppenheimer delivered one of 2012’s most powerful films with The Act of Killing, which asked the perpetrators of the anti-Communist killings in Indonesia to re-enact their crimes. Now, he has returned to the same subject with The Look of Silence, a documentary that follows Adi, whose brother was killed by one of Indonesia’s death squads, as he confronts those responsible.
Atar: Game Over
Who hasn’t heard the story of the secret buried horde of unsold E.T. game cartridges in a New Mexico landfill? This documentary finally gives us an insight into the decline of the video game titan – and one of the geek world’s most enduring urban legends.
A pastor sparks a controversy in his North Dakota town by opening his church doors to homeless workers who are seeking jobs at nearby oil fields.
Art & Craft
What is art? It’s a question that’s been asked time and time again. What is forgery? That one’s a little easier. Everyone knows what forgery is. Until, that is, you see Art and Craft.
The documentary follows the strange-but-true tale of Mark Landis, a guy who spends his life making copies of existing artwork and passing them off as the originals. There are dozens of galleries and museums up and down the USA with his work – or, to be exact, other people’s work. So when University of Cincinnati employee Matthew Leininger twigs that they have the same painting as somewhere else, he tries to out Landis. The only problem? Mark hasn’t technically committed a crime: he’s been donating all of his pictures. He’s deceived people, yes, but not defrauded them. Fascinating viewing.
Chaos on the Bridge
Star Trek. A TV show that held up the ideals of the human race. Peace. Equality. A lack of greed. You’d expect the making of such a noble sci-fi to be equally trouble-free. You’d be wrong. Chaos on the Bridge reveals the drama, scandal and conflicts that were rife on the set of The Next Generation, as the controversial reboot of the show post-Captain Kirk almost didn’t happen. William Shatner presents, providing an excellent array of shocked facial expressions during each interview, but Patrick Stewart’s anecdotes steal the show.
For die-hard fans, this arrives on Netflix UK alongside Shatner’s other Star Trek documentary, The Captains, for a perfect Trek double-bill.
Wonders of the Solar System / Wonders of the Universe
Professor Brian Cox and his hair present these two science series with all the gloss and class you’d expect. The visuals are stunning, the facts are accessibly presented and Cox’s hair has never looked better. Amazing.
David Attenborough is on Netflix UK is in a big way. Everything from Life to The Blue Planet is available to stream into your brain – including 2013 BBC series, 2013’s Africa. It’s got everything you want from an nature documentary: great cinematography, exotic landscapes and fighting giraffes.
Making a Murderer
Ever since Netflix’s series first premiered, the whole of the Internet has been up in arms about the injustices faced by Steven Avery, who was arrested in 1985 for a sexual assault crime, but came out fighting in 2003, when he was finally exonerated. Saying “what happens next will shock you” sounds like a tabloid headline, but it’s absolutely true – and gripping to watch. If you liked Serial, you’ll love this.
From LA Stories to his eponymous series about extremists, Louis Theroux proves over and over again in his range of series of Netflix UK that he’s one of the most sensitive presenters around – and one of the canniest interviews.
“Think torpedo with teeth.” If the title of the BBC’s new nature series – simply “Shark” – doesn’t grab you by the teeth, the fact that it’s narrated by Paul McGann will have you falling for it hook, line and sinker. Typically beautiful and full of fun names to repeat to your friends, this is Jawsome stuff.
By the time these top six chefs from around the world are done presenting their best dishes – and, more importantly, revealing how they came to run one of the best-ranked food joints on the planet – you’ll be too busy drooling to care. This is food porn, but food porn you want to have sex with, marry and then take home to meet the parents.
What are your favourite documentaries on Netflix UK? Did we miss anything?