It’s been three years since Netflix made the controversial announcement about separating subscription plans between instant streaming and delivered DVDs. But the culture-changing company survived temporary backlash to become a dominant source of video content for entertainment consumers.
And now they basically own our entertainment streaming brains.
While a lot of my friends devour TV shows, movies, books, and whatever fiction they can get their hands on, I am a lover of nonfiction. Fiction is certainly marvelous, but I’ve watched hundreds of documentaries over the years too.
Recently, Netflix has added documentaries from PBS and The Smithsonian Channel not to mention TEDTalks playlists. ESPN Films are also onboard now, so fans of sport can catch all those fab 30 for 30 documentaries.
While you can certainly find a lot of BAD documentaries just as there are hundreds of terrible movies, Netflix offers a slew of quality docs. Nay, some of these are even amazing and worth recommending at every turn. Here are the best I’ve identified currently available to make your brain bigger and heart fuller.
1. Secrets: Richard III Revealed
One of the most fascinating and significant archaeological discoveries of modern history took place in a parking lot in 2013. Not only is the story of the find amazing, you won’t believe where the analysis took these researchers. Incredibly well done. A true 5-star show.
2. Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle
When this originally aired in the fall of 2013 on PBS I couldn’t rave about it enough. The three parter chronicles the rise of comic books in America with commentary by many of the creative legends who drove the industry.
3. How Sherlock Change the World
If you’re already even marginally interested in any iteration of Sherlock Holmes just click PLAY right now. An amazing production narrated by British Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln), this brilliant two-parter shows how a fictional character from the mind of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle actually pioneered forensic science and criminal investigations even into the 21st century. And it’s got a true crime element for those of you into such things.
4. That Guy… Who Was in That Thing
Ever wonder what it’s like to be a character actor in Hollywood? What’s it like to be a recognizable face for years, working with the biggest names in show biz, yet rarely get your own name recognition? This one goes into the lives of a dozen or so such men, and you’ll probably recognize almost all of them.
5. Lincoln @Gettysburg
Another great effort from PBS made for the sequicentennial (150th anniversary) of the most important speech in American history–Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.
6. Trek Nation
Eugene Roddenberry, son of “Star Trek” creator Gene, tries to figure out why and how his father’s show has touched the lives of countless viewers. It’s as much about a son’s search to understand his father as it is a fun look into sci-fi royalty.
7. The Blue Planet
Granted, my list may be history and pop culture heavy at the expense of science, but we can all get down with the mesmerizing cinematography (in HD) of the earth’s oceans. What an amazing undiscovered frontier. Though more than a decade old, these eight episodes still rock. I’m especially keen on episode 2 “The Deep.”
8. Inside: Lego
You’ll find a couple 21 minute quickies like this gem. Not long ago Lego was losing one million dollars A DAY. Now it’s the leading toy maker in the world. Anyone involved in business needs to see this. But if you just love Legos or want to see how they’re made, check this out.
9. Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson
I first learned about Hunter S. Thompson in college which makes me one of a bazillion others who are exactly the same. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas starring Johnny Depp (who narrates this one) made Thompson bigger than ever. Then the troubled writer known for his antics shot himself one day in 2005.
10. With Great Power: The Stan Lee Story
Can you say charming? I dare you to watch this one and not like Stan Lee more. Explore the life of the comic book legend and pop culture icon from his Depression-era upbringing through the Marvel age of comics.
11. The Monarchy
In the absence of anything from the greatest British history documentarian Simon Schama (can we fix that Netflix?), I offer this six part series for anyone who finally wants to nail down 1,500 years of British rule. Yes, some of us watch this stuff for enjoyment. Yes, we know it’s uber nerdy.
12. Best Worst Movie
Troll 2 is considered the best worst movie ever made. What does that mean? Check this one out. At times hilarious while at others painfully sad, this will be one of the most quirky documentaries you’ll likely ever see.
13. Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects Titan
Stop-motion animation pioneer Ray Harryhausen inspired a generation of directors and special effects experts, as this documentary illustrates.
14. African-Americans: Many Rivers to Cross
Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. recounts African-American history in full, exploring a range of cultural, religious and social perspectives.
15. The Real Story: Indiana Jones
Dig beneath the glamour of five of the world’s most beautiful cities to reveal their secrets and discover how Indiana Jones came from real adventures.
16. Inside: Pixar
Another of the Inside 20 minute featurettes, if you like Pixar and want to see a bit of Steve Lassiter’s world take a peek at this one during your next lunch break at your desk.
17. Food Inc.
Probably the only Oscar-nominated doc on this list, Food Inc. is still a remarkable look at what we eat. I didn’t become a vegetarian or anything after watching this one (twice), but I did become a (hopefully) more savvy consumer.
18. Stephen Fry In America
It’s quirky history so I’m a fan. Written and presented by Stephen Fry, he travels America with a keen British eye, making observations a native from the U.S. would never make. Fry is better known by Europeans as one half of the comedy team he once formed with a pre-House Hugh Laurie. More recently his most famous role is that of Mycroft Holmes, the brother of Robert Downey Jr.’s Sherlock Holmes.
19. Unlocking Sherlock
Speaking of modern renditions of the world’s greatest fictional detective, modern Sherlock fans of the BBC/Benedict Cumberbatch/Martin Freeman variety absolutely must watch this look behind the scenes of the hit show. The stars and writers give great interviews.
20. Paper Clips
Struggling to understand the enormity of the Holocaust, students at a Tennessee middle school collect 6 million paper clips to grasp the concept.