Netflix is a nearly endless source of entertainment. Its vast library is full of TV shows and movies for every occasion, from intense dramas to late-night stoner comedies (it’s so much choice that you might need our help to find the best dramas on Netflix or the best comedies on Netflix — you’re welcome). So you’d be forgiven if all you ever used Netflix for was vegging out after work and turning off your brain. But Netflix is also an incredible resource for something a little smarter than your favorite sitcom: documentaries. Netflix has a ton of great documentaries, from educational Nova specials about dinosaurs to intimate examinations of the lives of individuals and families. Here are the best documentaries on Netflix this month.
The Best Documentaries on Netflix
Blackfish became a phenomenon a few years ago by unmasking the sleazy realities of keeping orcas (killer whales) in captivity. A major headache for SeaWorld’s PR department, Blackfish is also a well-made film with a powerful argument to make: that orcas are not suitable for captivity. At the center of the film is Tilikum, a killer whale who earned his name by killing several people during his time in captivity. Blackfish suggests that Tilikum’s behavior can be traced at least in part to his poor treatment and living conditions — and that such conditions have been more the norm than the exception in the history of orcas in captivity.
Before Planet Earth there was The Blue Planet, BBC’s 2001 dive into that blue stuff that covers most of the planet’s surface. The Blue Planet divides its explorations by environment, much as Planet Earth does. There are frozen seas, coasts, and my personal favorite — the deep ocean — among others. Each episode mixes stunning footage with remarkable facts.
Ken Burns is the king of documentary film-making, and The Civil War is perhaps the most impressive work he’s ever done. This comprehensive (nine hour-plus episodes — it is Ken Burns, after all) documentary series mixes firsthand accounts from soldiers on the front lines with high-level discussion of the war’s causes and the fortunes of both sides. The most traumatic event in American history is shown with unflinching honesty with Burns’ eye for telling details. Memorable anecdotes support the march of history as Burns guides his viewers through the entire Civil War, from the prehistory of the war and the institution of slavery to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and the final days of the conflict.
Space, baby! Fox brought back this iconic series by slotting Neil deGrasse Tyson into Carl Sagan’s narration spot. Tyson brings plenty of energy (and, okay, maybe a bit of smarm) to his role, and the updated science and stunning visuals make this a must-watch for fans of space. You’ll learn a lot, too: Cosmos covers the history of space science and exploration while explaining what the big discoveries mean for us.
Enron was a powerful energy company and a giant in its field — until it wasn’t. Reckless mismanagement and hubris led to the dramatic downfall of the company, and investors and employees were among the last to know what was going on. The “smartest guys in the room” weren’t quite so smart as they thought they were, and the result was an economic disaster. This behind-the-scenes documentary takes a look at what happened, why, and who was to blame.
Bob Weir was the guitarist in a little band you might have heard of called the Grateful Dead. And while the late, great Jerry Garcia continues to dominate the group’s public image, Weir’s journey is no less interesting. This documentary follows Weir’s life, including the story of the Grateful Dead from the very beginning. Weir is still alive and making music, and his experiences in the most famous jam band of them all have shaped him as a musician and as a person. This surprisingly personal and well-made documentary is a Netflix original.
Super Size Me made waves when it first came out in 2004, thanks in no small part to its bizarre premise: director Morgan Spurlock filmed himself as he went on a fast food diet: nothing but McDonald’s for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The rules even included a stipulation that he super-size his meal anytime the cashier suggested it. The whole film is built on this gimmick, but it’s a good gimmick — so good that Spurlock got a TV deal to film more month-long transformations. The TV show wasn’t up to the level of this film, though, which delivers super-sized entertainment along with some heavy-handed perspective on our American diets.
Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line is one of the most famous and influential documentaries of all time. The film examines a murder conviction and makes the case that the system got the wrong man — and that some of the people involved may even have known this. Morris’ film was so convincing that it helped prompt a review of the case in question. Randall Dale Adams, the man who was wrongfully convicted, saw his conviction overturned and was released from prison about a year after the release of the film. Not many documentaries can claim to have accomplished that! Fans of Making a Murderer will be particularly interested in this film, which has a clear influence on Netflix’s popular original documentary series.