Top documentaries on Netflix UK
Ivan Radford | On 13, Mar 2018Reading time: 9 mins
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 – and even, in 2018, an Academy Award win for sports doping doc Icarus. 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 documentary movies on Netflix UK:
If you don’t want to have the results spoiled for you, look away now. An eye-opening demonstration of how athletes, cyclists and Olympians can take performance-enhancing drugs without being detected, Icarus should come with a warning: you’ll never be able to look at professional sports in the same way again.
Before the Flood
Leonardo DiCaprio trots the globe to investigate the consequences of manmade climate change in this urgent, important documentary.
In December 1996, six-year-old JonBenet Ramsey was found dead in her home. The young beauty pageant queen had been strangled, her skull crushed. Which makes it all the more unnerving when a young girl looking just like her appears on camera – then, after introducing herself, asks if we know who did it. 20 years on, nobody does. Kitty Green’s true crime documentary deconstructs the true crime trend to mesmerising effect.
The Hard Stop
If you don’t know what the title of The Hard Stop is referring to, you need to see this film. The term is the procedure used by police to force a suspect’s car to stop, by surrounding it on three sides with other vehicles. That is what was used to stop Mark Duggan in 2011, who was then shot by police – despite not carrying a gun.
The killing sparked anger in Tottenham, which erupted into a riot and a period of unrest, with a number of loots and protests occurring. George Amponsah’s powerful documentary examines the build-up and aftermath of the incident.
A powerful deconstruction of race and grief, this bracingly subjective documentary will stay with you for days.
Kingdom of Us
There’s nothing in life as personal or as private as grief. The idea of spending almost two hours watching a family go through the loss of their father, then, sounds like an unthinkable intrusion. It’s testament to Kingdom of Us, though, that it never feels like that.
Get Me Roger Stone
This profile of the political player behind the US President is a disturbing, important insight into rise of Donald Trump. Warning: This will make you angry.
One of Us
One of Us is a film where the title becomes more painful the more you watch. The documentary, directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, is a spiritual follow-up to Jesus Camp, portraying the complex existence of three people who live as part of a Hasidic Judiasm community in New York – until they find its embrace smothering to the point of suffocation. A powerful, heart-wrenching study of a life where the only thing harder than being in a community is leaving it.
Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond
Jim Carrey’s profound behind-the-scenes doc about his portrayal of Andy Kaufman in Man on the Moon is a bizarre study of art, artist, life, the universe and what anything even means.
Bowling for Columbine
Michael Moore’s powerful documentary about the 1999 Columbine High School massacre is important, provocative and tragically still relevant.
What Happened, Miss Simone?
A masterfully assembled portrait of an iconic performer.
Jiro Dreams of Sushi
David Gelb’s underseen classic profiles sushi chef Jiro Ono, an 85-year-old master whose 10-seat, $300-a-plate restaurant is legendary among Tokyo foodies.
Ava DuVernay’s superbly made documentary explores the indisputable connection between the US constitution’s 13th Amendment and America’s astronomical incarceration rates.
Scandal-plagued congressman Anthony Weiner attempts to run for Mayor of New York City in this gripping and timely documentary.
The Fear of 13
In 1982, Nick Yarris was convicted of the rape and murder of a woman. He maintained that he was innocent. How often have you heard a TV show or film begin like that? In today’s true-crime-obsessed age, tales of wrongly-jailed suspects have become sadly familiar, from Making a Murderer to Serial. The Fear of 13, though, is something entirely unique. David Sington’s documentary starts at the end – the point at which Yarris petitioned the court, not asking for release, but asking to be executed. It’s a gripping hook and one that draws you in further, thanks to a smartly deployed non-linear structure: we jump back and forth through Nick’s experiences, gradually unfolding the many wrongs done against him.
He Named Me Malala
This inspiring documenary tells the story of a teenage Pakistani girl shot for her advocacy of women’s education, her survival and her continued efforts.
Combining archival footage, animation and interviews, this innovative, powerful film explores the 1966 mass shooting from the University of Texas’ clock tower.
Jim: The James Foley Story
This personal tribute to American journalist James Foley, who was beheaded by Islamic State militants in 2014, rescues a man’s life from the narrative his killers imposed upon him.
GLOW: The Story of the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling
Enjoyed Netflix’s series GLOW? Get in the ring with this engaging portrait of the real 1980s phenomenon that inspired it.
Paris Is Burning
This landmark Sundance-winning documentary is an intimate portrait of 1980s Harlem drag balls – a world of competition, sustenance and survival.
Amber Fares’ winning documentary charts the success – and occasional losses – of its eponymous racing squad, the first all-woman driving team in the Middle East. Fast, furious and heartwarming film-making.
Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey
Whoopi Goldberg narrates Elmo creator Kevin Clash’s remarkable journey from a working-class Baltimore neighbourhood to Jim Henson’s Sesame Street. Cute, warm, fuzzy stuff.
The Ivory Game
An elephant is killed every 15 minutes. It sounds senseless, but that’s the shocking truth of the ivory trade in the modern world. It has grown to become a profitable, illegal, global business and a major threat to the animals’ existence. The Ivory Game is a window into that reality. It doesn’t just show us the facts; it makes sense of them with an urgent logic.
“I have accepted to give the best of myself, so that wildlife can be safeguarded beyond all pressure,” says Rodrigue Mugaruka Katembo, a warden of Virunga National Park. The park is one of the only refuges in the world for the remaining population of mountain gorillas. Virunga follows the people who work to keep this sanctuary safe. Over 100 rangers have so far died doing so. Powerful, passionate and important filmmaking.
“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.
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.
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.
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. The sequel Chasing Coral is equally powerful and also on Netflix.
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.
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.
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.
What are your favourite documentaries on Netflix UK? Did we miss anything?