From documentaries that blur the line between reality and fiction to crowd-pleasing character studies, there’s so many options for documentaries on Netflix it can be hard to pick which title to stream. Major docs like “The Look of Silence,” “Man on Wire,” and “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” are obvious picks, but so are the following 20 titles, all of which deserve more eyeballs.
“All These Sleepless Nights” is a mesmerizing, free-floating odyssey that winds its way through a hazy year in the molten lives of two Polish twentysomethings. It’s an unclassifiable wonder that obscures the divide between fiction and documentary until the distinction is ultimately irrelevant. IndieWire recently named it one of the best documentaries of the 21st century.
“The Armor of Light” follows Reverend Rob Schenck, an anti-abortion Evangelical minister who speaks out against gun violence in America, specifically targeting the enthusiasm that the Christian community has for gun culture. By taking the thoughtful character study approach, director Abigail Disney searches for common ground among opposing views while shining a light on the relationship between religion and the NRA.
Morgan Neville teams with Robert Gordon for this exciting look at the televised debates between Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley in 1968. While the film digs beneath the political climate of the Democratic and Republican national conventions, the directors ultimately triumph by exploring how the debates turned broadcast television into a powerhouse tool for public discourse.
Most music documentaries follow the legends, but not “Breaking a Monster.” Luke Meyer’s insider look at the metal band Unlocking the Truth follows the rise of 14-year-olds Alec Atkins, Malcolm Brickhouse, and Jarad Dawkins as they acquire a manager, land a major record deal, and become the youngest band to ever play Coachella.
Nothing is quite as unsettling as finding something unexpected, but Bryan Carberry and Clay Tweel’s “Finders Keepers” takes this notion to an absurd degree. The doc explores the conflict between John Wood and Shannon Whisnant. Wood’s amputated foot was found in a grill sold to Whisnant at a North Carolina auction. A media frenzy ensued, but things got complicated after Whisnant sued to regain his custody of the leg.
Will Allen’s buzzy cult documentary “Holy Hell” tracks the 20 years he spent living in a California spiritual cult called the Buddha Field. The director recorded his entire two-decade experience and provides an intimate look at the extreme ideals that make up this community, as well as the cracks that begin to unfold as trust is turned into paranoia and truths are revealed about their “enlightened” leader.
Swedish filmmaker Kasper Collin tells the true story of Helen Morgan, who saved her trumpeter husband from heroin only to shoot him to death herself, in this undeniably enthralling character study. The movie is bolstered by the gorgeous 16mm footage shot by “Selma” cinematographer Bradford Young, whose haunted images of a snowbound New York City evocatively summon the night that Morgan died.
Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker’s fascinating and necessary “Karl Marx City” is a vaguely Guy Maddin-esque swan-dive into the mysteries of life behind the Berlin Wall and the traumas of surviving it. Epperlein, who is the subject of the documentary, creates a hypnotic autobiographical study of her own life, using her personal fear to uncover the grand paranoia that defined an entire country.
Sebastian Junger’s “Restrepo” was one of the most acclaimed documentaries of 2010, winning the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and earning an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary, so it’s surprising its sequel, “Korengal,” went as unnoticed as it did. The movie is made up of mostly interviews with soldiers in a platoon stationed at outpost Restrepo, and it provides a more intimate backbone to “Restrepo.”
Alma Ha’rel’s “LoveTrue” is like an intriguingly crafted puzzle. The documentary follows three very different love stories around the country — from Alaska to Hawaii and New York City — to get to the heart of what it really means to love someone. At times it feels like meditative fiction (which it could be) and at others it’s so intimate it must be a documentary. “LoveTrue” offers certain rewards for anyone willing to engage with its curious intentions.
The 1995 Oklahoma City bombing was the deadliest terrorist attack on American soil pre-9/11, and Barak Goodman’s interpretation of its lessons examines how America’s security priorities have shifted since. He powerfully outlines how a burgeoning white supremacist movement resulted in a national tragedy, and in doing so “Oklahoma City” becomes one of the most relative documentaries of the year.
In following the lives of three gay Palestinians living in Tel Aviv over a 15-month period, director Jake Witzenfeld transcends borders to create a universal portrait of the struggles we all face in trying to live our lives as our true-selves.
Jesse Moss’ verite documentary about the impact of the oil boom in Williston, North Dakota on the local job market, and the controversial priest supporting the lives of the newcomers it attracts, contains one of the most remarkable examples of layered non-fiction storytelling to come along in some time. At first galvanizing in its depiction of survival amid dire circumstances, it transforms into a devastating portrait of communal unrest.
Chilean filmmaker Patricio Guzmán delivers a stunning achievement with “The Pearl Button,” an essay film that uses water as its central metaphor in order to weave together historical recollections and poetic reflections, all rendered with breathtaking visual clarity.
“Queen Mimi” follows the 88-year-old Marie “Mimi” Haist, a charming, magnetic homeless woman who lived for 20 years in a Santa Monica laundromat. Sometimes all you need for a winning documentary is an amazing subject, and Haist fits the bill. The movie uncovers Mimi’s troubled history with her family and her inspiring story about maintainingg optimism in the face of dire circumstances.
Tracy Droz Tragos and Andrew Droz Palermo’s “Rich Hill” may have won a Sundance Grand Jury Prize, but it still remains a vastly overlooked triumph. The movie is overwhelmingly gorgeous and deeply sad in its depiction of three young boys fighting through their youth in the trenches of deep poverty in Rich Hill, Missouri.
Directed by first-time feature filmmaker Mariah Strauch, “Sunshine Superman” is a remarkable portrait of Carl Boenish, known as The Father of BASE Jumping. Filled with jaw-dropping footage of people hurling themselves off standing objects, the movie is a death-defying look at one of the world’s most dangerous sports.
Keith Maitland’s intimate look at the 1996 University of Texas shooting won both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award at SXSW last year, and it’s an unforgettable documentary experience in that it takes a deeply painful story and lays it out through inventive and expressive animation. Maitland combines archival footage with rotoscopic animation of the dramatic day to get to the bottom of an American tragedy.
Michael Beach Nichols and Christopher K. Walker’s terrifying and insightful documentary takes a look at a critical moment in the history of Leith, North Dakota. For a few months in 2012 and 2013, white supremacist Craig Cobb made it his goal to take over the entire town and turn it into a haven for his ideological kin. With a population of only 24 people (including kids), his goal was scarily achievable, and that’s what makes “Welcome to Leith” sharply upsetting.
The horrifying murder of Kitty Genovese is given a new look in James D. Solomon’s probing documentary. The film uses hard reporting and deep emotion (it’s narrated by her brother) to peel back misinformation, half-truths, and straight up lies to reveal not just what Kitty Genovese’s death meant, but her life, too.