Netflix
Netflix

The 25 Best Documentaries You Can Stream Right Now

Netflix
Netflix

The great filmmaker Albert Maysles once explained the power of nonfiction moviemaking by saying, “When you see somebody on the screen in a documentary, you’re really engaged with a person going through real life experiences, so for that period of time, as you watch the film, you are, in effect, in the shoes of another individual. What a privilege to have that experience.”

A privilege, yes, and a privilege that’s outsized for us today. We now have access to thousands of documentaries online, allowing us all kinds of shapes and sizes of shoes to step into. To extend our personal knowledge of human experience. Thousands of little empathy machines. Small windows into lives that aren’t our own.

Here are 25 of the best documentaries that you can stream right now.

1. 13TH (2016)

Following the breakout prestige of Selma, Ava DuVernay constructed an exploration of the criminalization of black individuals in the United States, crafting a throughline from slavery to the modern private prison boom. Eschewing an overdramatized style, DuVernay calmly, patiently lays out facts and figures that will drop your jaw only until you start clenching it.

Where to watch it: Netflix

2. AILEEN: LIFE AND DEATH OF A SERIAL KILLER (2003)

For those only familiar with Aileen Wuornos through Charlize Theron’s portrayal in Monster, Nick Broomfield’s documentary offers a considered portrait of the human being behind the murderer. In his first film about Wuornos, The Selling of a Serial Killer, Broomfield considered her as a victim of abuse and betrayal, with her image commodified. In this follow-up, he takes us all the way to the day of her execution, wondering how anyone would think she was of sound mind.

Where to watch it: Netflix and Amazon Prime

3. ABACUS: SMALL ENOUGH TO JAIL (2017)

“Too big to fail” entered the lexicon following 2008’s bursting housing bubble, but while the world’s largest banks skated through, Abacus Federal Savings Bank was deemed small enough to prosecute. Steve James (of Hoop Dreams fame) has crafted an intimate, Oscar-nominated look at the Chinatown bank that became the only financial institution to face criminal charges in the wake of the subprime mortgage crisis, starting at the family level before zooming out to the community and country.

Where to watch it: Amazon Prime

4. STOLEN SEAS (2013)

Constructed using real audio and found footage of the 2008 hostage negotiation aboard a Danish shipping vessel, filmmaker Thymaya Payne’s film isn’t content to simply shine a light on the horrific reality of a Somali pirate attack; it strikes to build a contextual understanding of what these attacks mean for the rest of the world. For all of us.

Where to watch it: Amazon Prime

5. BEST OF ENEMIES (2015)

Both quaint and prescient, the televised debates between William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal during the 1968 Republican National Convention show us a midpoint between idealized civic discussion and the worst instincts of modern punditry. This sly documentary explains the force of this rivalry, its ironic popularity as televised circus, and the aftermath of all the clever insults.

Where to watch it: Netflix

6. CALIFORNIA TYPEWRITER (2017)

A bright palate cleanser that shouldn’t be overlooked just because it isn’t emotionally devastating. The success of this film is its ability to transfer other people’s obsessions to the viewer. Tom Hanks, John Mayer, historians, collectors, and repairmen all share their abiding love for the click-clack of a device that defies obsolescence. You may crave a Smith Corona when it’s all over.

Where to watch it: Amazon Prime

7. CAMERAPERSON (2016)

Patience is rewarded in this thoughtful, dazzling cinematic quilt of footage collected from 25 years of Kirsten Johnson’s career as a cinematographer. Her lens takes us to Brooklyn for boxing, Bosnia for post-war life, Nigeria for midwifery, and more.

Where to watch it: Amazon Prime

8. CARTEL LAND (2015)

Raw and fearsome, Matthew Heineman’s documentary puts you in the boots on the ground of the Mexican Drug War. This gripping look at Arizona Border Recon and the Autodefensas of Michoacán shows what happens when governments fail citizens who are in the line of fire.

Where to watch it: Netflix and Amazon Prime

9. CASTING JONBENET (2017)

This isn’t the documentary you’d expect it to be. Kitty Green took an experimental approach that’s less about rehashing the true crime sensationalism of the headline-owning murder of a child beauty queen and more about how many stories can be contained in a single story. Green auditioned actors from JonBenét Ramsey’s hometown and, in the process of making several dramatizations, interviewed them about what it was like living in the area during the 1996 investigations (and what they think really happened).

Where to watch it: Netflix

10. CAVE OF FORGOTTEN DREAMS (2011)

There’s nothing like hanging out with Werner Herzog in an ancient cave. Herzog filmed in the Chauvet Cave in southern France to document the oldest known human-painted images, which is fortunate for us because the cave isn’t open to the public. It’s a wondrous nature documentary about us.

Where to watch it: Netflix

11. CITY OF GHOSTS (2017)

Another brutal hit from Matthew Heineman, this documentary carries the audience into the Syrian conflict through the eyes of citizen journalist collective Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently, which both reports on war news and acts as a counter to propaganda efforts from Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Some documentaries are interesting, but this one is also necessary. 

Where to watch it: Amazon Prime

12. DARK DAYS (2000)

Before Humans of New York there was Dark Days. This delicate, funny, mournful project is a true blend of reality and art. Marc Singer made it after befriending and living among the squatter community living in the Freedom Tunnel section of the New York City subway. Despite never making a movie before, he decided that shining a light on these homeless neighbors would be the best way to help them.

Where to watch it: Amazon Prime

13. EXIT THROUGH THE GIFT SHOP (2010)

Covered in spray paint and questionable facial hair decisions, this documentary displays the transformation of Thierry Guetta from clothing shop owner to celebrated street artist, but since Banksy directed it, it’ll never shake the question of its authenticity. Real doc? Elaborate prank? Entertaining either way.

Where to watch it: Netflix

14. GAGA: FIVE FOOT TWO (2017)

It’s incredibly honest. As much as an inside look into the life of a global pop superstar can be. Lady Gaga (real name Stefani Germanotta) spends a healthy amount of the movie standing around without makeup, waxing wise and humorously before jumping face-first into her work and fanbase. The film focuses on her time crafting her Joanne album and her Super Bowl halftime show, but they could make one of these every few years without it getting stale because Gaga is a tower of magnetism.

Where to watch it: Netflix

15. THE INTERRUPTERS (2012)

In the middle of gang violence in Chicago, CeaseFire attempts to use members’ direct experiences to ward off new brutalities. Dubbed “violence interrupters,” Ameena Matthews, Cobe Williams, and Eddie Bocanegra are at the heart of this vital film about ending community violence by employing disease-control strategies, and the Herculean task of reversing systemic criminal activity without losing sight of the humanity of the people affected.

Where to watch it: Amazon Prime

16. JIRO DREAMS OF SUSHI (2012)

Let’s hope that this meditative, sumptuous documentary never leaves Netflix’s shores. The portrait of then-85-year-old Sukiyabashi Jiro’s quest for unattainable perfection is both food porn and a somber-sweet consideration of the satisfaction and disquiet of becoming the best in the world at something and, somehow, striving for better.

Where to watch it: Netflix

17. JOSHUA: TEENAGER VS SUPERPOWER (2017)

When someone tells you it can’t be done, show them this. The simple title both celebrates and belies the smallness of one person fighting a system. Joe Piscatella’s doc follows the explosive growth of the Hong Kong protest movement engaged by teen activist Joshua Wong when the Chinese government refused to act on its promise of granting autonomy to the region, and it is a dose of pure inspiration.

Where to watch it: Netflix

18. THE LOOK OF SILENCE (2014)

Joshua Oppenheimer and Anonymous’s sequel to the Oscar-nominated The Act of Killing features an Indonesian man whose brother was murdered during the 1965 purge of Communists talking to his brother’s killers while literally checking their vision. His bravery and composure are astonishing, as is the insight into the many rationalities unrepentant men use to shield their psyches from their own heinous acts. A peerless piece of investigative art.

Where to watch it: Netflix

19. MY SCIENTOLOGY MOVIE (2017)

An absurdist rabbit chase and a deliberate provocation, writer/star Louis Theroux’s punk documentary poked the bear of the infamous religion in order to get access to it. They auditioned young actors to recreate real-life events described by ex-members, got denounced by the church, and even got into a “Who’s On First”-style argument with a member (“You tell him to turn the camera off then I’ll tell him to turn the camera off!”). Serious subject matter by way of Borat.

Where to watch it: Netflix

20. THE NIGHTMARE (2015)

This documentary by Rodney Ascher should be seen by everyone and somehow be banned from being seen. Not content to profile people suffering from sleep paralysis—the condition where you can’t move or speak while falling asleep or awakening, yeah—Ascher riffs on the hallucinations that sometimes accompany the ailment. As if being frozen weren’t enough. The result is a true story that’s just as effective as a horror film.

Where to watch it: Netflix

21. PUMPING IRON (1977)

A landmark docudrama about the Mr. Olympia competition, this is the film that launched a wannabe actor from Austria into the public conscious. Arnold Schwarzenegger is brash and beautiful in this celebration of body perfection which finds a balance between joy and the teeth-gritting agony of endurance. Great back then, it’s now a fascinating artifact of the soon-to-be action star/politician.

Where to watch it: Netflix

22. BEING ELMO (2011)

Narrated by Whoopi Goldberg, puppeteer Kevin Clash shares his childhood growing up in Baltimore and the road to a career as a furry red monster on Sesame Street. It’s a delightful peek behind the curtain to see how magic is made, featuring interviews with legends like Frank Oz and Kermit Love. Pairs well with I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story (which is available to rent on Amazon).

Where to watch it: Netflix

23. STORIES WE TELL (2013)

An absolute personal stunner, actress Sarah Polley directed this docudrama about the scariest thing you can reveal to the world: your family. It’s an emotional, gamut-spanning search for identity that requires reconciling conflicting views about your parents and digging through buried secrets. Polley bringing them into full view, for all of us to see, is a selfless act that resulted in an outstanding piece of art.

Where to watch it: Amazon Prime

24. THE THIN BLUE LINE (1988)

A modern classic of nonfiction storytelling. Through archival footage, interviews, and reenactments, documentary royalty Errol Morris used this film to argue the innocence of a man destined for lethal injection. It tells the story of Randall Dale Adams, who was sentenced to death for killing a police officer in 1976, despite evidence that the real killer—a minor at the time—had committed the crime. A must-see for fans of Making a Murderer.

Where to watch it: Netflix

25. TIG (2015)

When you get diagnosed with cancer, the natural thing is to perform a stand-up act about it the same day, right? Comedian Tig Notaro became famous overnight when her set confronting her same-day diagnosis went viral, and this documentary from Kristina Goolsby and Ashley York focuses on the year that followed. A rocky year that deals with death, a new career chapter, a new relationship, and possibly a new child. It’s okay to laugh through the tears.

Where to watch it: Netflix

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Karl Walter, Getty Images
When the FBI Investigated the 'Murder' of Nine Inch Nails's Trent Reznor
Karl Walter, Getty Images
Karl Walter, Getty Images

The two people standing over the body, Michigan State Police detective Paul Wood told the Hard Copy cameras, “had a distinctive-type uniform on. As I recall: black pants, some type of leather jacket with a design on it, and one was wearing combat boots. The other was wearing what looked like patent leather shoes. So if it was a homicide, I was thinking it was possibly a gang-type homicide.”

Wood was describing a puzzling case local police, state police, and eventually the FBI had worked hard to solve for over a year. The mystery began in 1989, when farmer Robert Reed spotted a circular group of objects floating over his farm just outside of rural Burr Oak, Michigan; it turned out to be a cluster of weather balloons attached to a Super 8 camera.

When the camera landed on his property, the surprised farmer didn't develop the footage—he turned it over to the police. Some local farmers had recently gotten into trouble for letting wild marijuana grow on the edges of their properties, and Reed thought the balloons and camera were a possible surveillance technique. But no state or local jurisdictions used such rudimentary methods, so the state police in East Lansing decided to develop the film. What they saw shocked them.

A city street at night; a lifeless male body with a mysterious substance strewn across his face; two black-clad men standing over the body as the camera swirled away up into the sky, with a third individual seen at the edge of the frame running away, seemingly as fast as possible. Michigan police immediately began analyzing the footage for clues, and noticed the lights of Chicago’s elevated train system, which was over 100 miles away.

It was the first clue in what would become a year-long investigation into what they believed was either a cult killing or gang murder. When they solved the “crime” of what they believed was a real-life snuff film, they were more shocked than when the investigation began: The footage was from the music video for “Down In It,” the debut single from industrial rock band Nine Inch Nails, and the supposed dead body was the group's very-much-alive lead singer, Trent Reznor.

 
 

In 1989, Nine Inch Nails was about to release their debut album, Pretty Hate Machine, which would go on to be certified triple platinum in the United States. The record would define the emerging industrial rock sound that Reznor and his rotating cast of bandmates would experiment with throughout the 1990s and even today on albums like The Downward Spiral and The Slip.

The band chose the song “Down In It”—a track with piercing vocals, pulsing electronic drums, sampled sound effects, and twisted nursery rhyme-inspired lyrics—as Pretty Hate Machine's first single. They began working with H-Gun, a Chicago-based multimedia team led by filmmakers Eric Zimmerman and Benjamin Stokes (who had created videos for such bands as Ministry and Revolting Cocks), and sketched out a rough idea for the music video.

Filmed on location among warehouses and parking garages in Chicago, the video was supposed to culminate in a shot with a leather-jacketed Reznor running to the top of a building, while two then-members of the band followed him wearing studded jumpsuits; the video would fade out with an epic floating zoom shot to imply that Reznor's cornstarch-for-blood-covered character had fallen off the building and died in the street. Because the cash-strapped upstarts didn’t have enough money for a fancy crane to achieve the shot for their video, they opted to tie weather balloons to the camera and let it float up from Reznor, who was lying in the street surrounded by his bandmates. They eventually hoped to play the footage backward to get the shot in the final video.

Instead, the Windy City lived up to its name and quickly whisked the balloons and camera away. With Reznor playing dead and his bandmates looking down at him, only one of the filmmakers noticed. He tried to chase down the runaway camera—which captured his pursuit—but it was lost, forcing them to finish shooting the rest of the video and release it without the planned shot from the missing footage in September of 1989.

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to the band, a drama involving their lost camera was unfolding in southwest Michigan. Police there eventually involved the Chicago police, whose detectives determined that the footage had been filmed in an alley in the city's Fulton River District. After Chicago authorities found no homicide reports matching the footage for the neighborhood and that particular time frame, they handed the video over to the FBI, whose pathologists reportedly said that, based on the substance on the individual, the body in the video was rotting.

 
 

The "substance" in question was actually the result of the low-quality film and the color of the cornstarch on the singer’s face, which had also been incorporated into the press photos for Pretty Hate Machine. It was a nod to the band's early live shows, in which Reznor would spew cornstarch and chocolate syrup on his band members and the audience. “It looks really great under the lights, grungey, a sort of anti-Bon Jovi and the whole glamour thing,” Reznor said in a 1991 interview.

With no other easy options, and in order to generate any leads that might help them identify the victim seen in the video, the authorities distributed flyers to Chicago schools asking if anyone knew any details behind the strange “killing.”

The tactic worked. A local art student was watching MTV in 1991 and saw the distinctive video for “Down In It,” which reminded him of one of the flyers he had seen at school. He contacted the Chicago police to tip them off to who their supposed "murder victim" really was. Nine Inch Nails’s manager was notified, and he told Reznor and the filmmakers what had really happened to their lost footage.

“It’s interesting that our top federal agency, the Federal Bureau of [Investigation], couldn’t crack the Super 8 code,” co-director Zimmerman said in an interview. As for Wood and any embarrassment law enforcement had after the investigation: “I thought it was our duty, one way or the other, to determine what was on that film,” he said.

“My initial reaction was that it was really funny that something could be that blown out of proportion with this many people worked up about it,” Reznor said, and later told an interviewer, “There was talk that I would have to appear and talk to prove that I was alive.” Even though—in the eyes of state, local, and federal authorities—he was reportedly dead for over a year, Reznor didn’t seem to be bothered by it: “Somebody at the FBI had been watching too much Hitchcock or David Lynch or something,” he reasoned.

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Courtesy of Park Circus and MGM
West Side Story Is Returning to Theaters This Weekend
Courtesy of Park Circus and MGM
Courtesy of Park Circus and MGM

As Chris Pratt and a gang of prehistoric creatures get ready to face off against some animated superheroes for this weekend’s box office dominance, an old rivalry is brewing once again on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. West Side Story—Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins’s classic big-screen rendering of Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s Broadway musical—is returning to cinemas for the first time in nearly 30 years.

As part of TCM’s Big Screen Classics Series, West Side Story will have special screening engagements at more than 600 theaters across the country on Sunday, June 24 at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. If you can’t make it this weekend, encores will screen at the same time on Wednesday, June 27. The film—which is being re-released courtesy of TCM, Fathom Events, Park Circus, and Metro Goldwyn Mayer—will be presented in its original widescreen format, and include its original mid-film intermission. (Though its 2.5-hour runtime is practically standard nowadays, that wasn’t the case a half-century ago.) The screening will include an introduction and some post-credit commentary by TCM’s Ben Mankiewicz.

West Side Story, which was named Best Picture of 1961, is a musical retelling of Romeo and Juliet that sees star-crossed lovers Maria (Natalie Wood) and Tony (Richard Beymer) navigate the challenges of immigration, racial tension, and inner-city life in mid-century Manhattan—but with lots of singing and dancing. In addition to being named Best Picture, the beloved film took home another nine Oscars, including Best Director, Best Supporting Actor and Actress (for George Chakiris and Rita Moreno, respectively), and Best Music—obviously.

To find out if West Side Story is screening near you, and to purchase tickets, visit Fathom Events’s website.

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