Check out this pretty hilarious YouTube video of a couple’s top 5 of the best documentaries on Netflix, Instant-Watch. The doc choices are mostly quite good, but their idiosyncratic presentation is loads of fun.
The documentary is not exactly a mass medium. Though there certainly has been many more reaching wide audiences, in recent years, it remains something of a niche taste. As a consequence, most docs don’t see wide theatrical distribution. What not so long ago though would have been a major obstacle for documentary lovers, thanks to the rise of Netflix, is no longer. More than any other genre of feature film, the doc and its audience has benefited the most from the rise of Netflix.
Indeed, so many options have been made available that some suggestions may prove valuable. Hence, here is our list of favorites among the best documentaries on Netflix. All such lists, of course, are subjective: the opinion of the reviewer. In this case to “subjective” must also be added the qualification of “contingent.” After all, as large as the selection may be, Netflix doesn’t have everything! They do move films in and out of rotation. Hopefully the one’s recommended here will endure.
5. The Imposter
Director: Bart Layton
One of the most compelling films of 2012 (not just doc, but film) was this dark and somewhat sinister documentary about a Texas family’s exploits in attempting to find a lost son. The 13 year old has been missing for three years at the time of the story. The family, not having given up hope, gets a lead suggesting that their son is living in Spain. When they venture to retrieve him, they seem oddly oblivious to what seems obvious to the viewer: what is supposed to be a 16 year old Texan boy is in fact a mid-20s French man. What is going on, here? Trying to get a grasp on these bizarre developments is the heart of this compelling documentary. No spoilers here: you’ll have to watch to see if in the end it makes sense to you. Whatever your verdict, it is an intriguing ride.
4. Room 237
Okay, clearly, this one isn’t going to be for everyone, but if you’re a fan of Stanley Kubrick, Jack Nicholson and especially if a fan of The Shining, and have a theoretical bone in your body, this is a must-see. It is essentially a collage of film theorists exploring their explanations of the film’s various narrative and aesthetic themes and tropes. The theories, it’s true, range from the obvious to the absurd (e.g., Kubrick working through his guilt for participating in the faking of the American moon landing). That is though part of the fun. No doubt a bit self-indulgent for the fans, but if you’re one, you’re in for a treat.
3. This Film Is Not Yet Rated
Director: Kirby Dick
This one is a bit older, but still well worth your time. Kirby Dick is fed up with the secretive moralizing of the MPAA, which assigns rankings to U.S. films. Such rankings dictate who may legally see the film in a theater. This not only affects the financial viability of films, it impacts the culture, bending it in the direction of the moral preferences of the censors/regulators. Admittedly, in the years since the film was released much has changed and the MPAA has decreasing capacity to control who gets to sees what. I suspect though, as long as it exists as a pretense of moral gate keeping, Kirby would disapprove. Further, the essential message remains relevant, as efforts to regulate the Internet remind us.
2. The Thin Blue Line
An even older film, here, but it is one that endures. If you know your Kafka, you might be prepared a bit for what is to come. A bungled investigation almost as comic as it is tragic landed Randall Dale Adams in jail. This amazingly acute, atmospheric film, with haunting realism, sparse almost dream-like visuals and foreboding Phillip Glass score draws you into this nightmare world of justice gone all to hell. Errol Morris is without doubt the greatest documentarian in the business and this 1988 film remains his foremost master work.
1. The Art of the Steal
Director: Don Argott
Not to be confused with the 2013 Jonathan Sobol heist feature film, this one too though is very much the story of a heist. It burns me up to no end. In Argott’s documentary, the thieves were not small time crooks, as in the Sobol film, but the real, big time crooks, the government. The story of a violation of one man’s will, resulting in the theft of his $25 billion art collection, may not sound like a nail biter or a tear jerker, but you might be surprised. Fundamental issues about respect for personal choice, private property and legitimized theft by the state are revealingly explored. There have been reports of theatrical showings resulting in angry shouting matches among the audience members.
In his review of the film, Roger Ebert summed it up pretty succinctly: “It is perfectly clear exactly what Barnes specified in his will. It was drawn up by the best legal minds. It is clear that what happened to his collection was against his wishes. It is clear that the city fathers acted in obviation of those wishes, and were upheld in a court of appeals. What is finally clear: It doesn’t matter a damn what your will says if you have $25 billion, and politicians and the establishment want it.” Ain’t it so?
So, that’s our top 5 of the current crop of the best documentaries on Netflix. Give them a view and let us know what you think.