Whether they're educational, investigative, or just plain entertaining, documentaries are a great way to sit down in front of the television and feel like your brain isn't totally turning into mush. The genre is massively expansive, as well. Some are funny, some are heartbreaking, and some are inspiring, and if you're a fan of music, sports, politics, social issues, animals, or literally anything, there's a documentary out there for you.
We've put together a list of some of the best documentaries that are currently available on Netflix.
Abducted in Plain Sight
You've probably heard of Abducted in Plain Sight as one of the leaders in the documentary subgenre known as "Whoa, that's f---ed up!" The story of 12-year-old Jan Broberg's abduction by family friend Robert Berchtold is full of twists and shocking developments, at one point even involving aliens. It's a documentary that only covers past details rather than bringing to light new information, but with a tale as unusual as this, it's all it needs.
Catwalk: Tales from the Cat Show Circuit
Pardon my choice of words, but things get "catty" in this purr-fect doc about cat shows and the wild animals who inhabit them. I'm not talking about the cats; I'm talking about the kooky cat owners. Documentaries tend to be on the heavier side of things, but this is a light movie about seriously competitive people in an odd sport that will leave you smiling. It's worth it alone to meet the gorgeous Red Persian "Ooh La La," who is a stunning flat-faced furball.
Nightlife nowadays is finicky. Shifting tastes means you could be at the party of the year while it already starts to be uncool, but in the disco-drenched days of the late 1970s, the legendary club Studio 54 stood tall as the best place to be in the world for years. This documentary talks to the people who created, attended and adored the star-studded club, and lets them tell their personal stories of the beloved haven for disco, sex and drugs. The doc's music is also understandably boogielicious.
Ava DuVernay's Oscar-nominated documentary explores racial inequality in the United States from the ground up and top down, making a brilliant case for America to right the wrongs that have been institutionalized since the horrific days of slavery. Using alarming statistics, interviews with scholars, and more, 13th is an eye-opening documentary that serves as a blueprint for change.
Look, it's about death and terminally ill patients, but it's a beautiful short film (40 minutes long) about changing our perception of dying. The Oscar nominee traces the work of medical practitioners who specialize in palliative care — treating pain, stress and other symptoms rather than the disease itself — in a San Francisco hospital. You'll also get to meet some of the patients who need to make the decision between quality of life and duration of life, which can be difficult, but their experience serves as an important subject that's best learned by everyone now. It's more spiritual than medical, and incredibly important.
Period. End of Sentence.
The 2019 Academy Award winner for Best Documentary Short Film follows an effort to give sanitary pads to women in India, where menstruation is stigmatized and misunderstood. It focuses on a group of Indian women who learn to use a machine that produces biodegradable sanitary pads and improve the lives of the women in the country.
Journalist and cyclist Bryan Fogel dabbles with illegally doping in order to get through a rigorous race, in what's partly a steroid version of Super Size Me. But the main and revelatory part of the documentary — the 2017 Academy Award winner for Best Documentary — comes from Fogel's interactions with Russian anti-doping scientist and fascinating oddball Grigory Rodchenkov, who teaches him how to properly dope and also becomes a whistleblower for Russia's widespread doping practices. It's a two-tiered documentary that covers the subject of doping and uncovers illegal practices in professional sports, and it's riveting as a real-time exposé of one of the greatest sports scandals ever.
20 Feet From Stardom
Lead singers get the all the fame, but if you need to add depth to a track, you need a good squad of backup singers. 20 Feet From Stardom, which shines a light on some of the most prolific backup singers from legendary tracks, stepped up from the back to win the 2014 Academy Award for Best Documentary. In addition to being loaded with impressive tunes, it finally gives these instrumental pieces to the classics the attention they deserve.
Anvil! The Story of Anvil
Are you ready to rock? Well, the band Anvil is, too, but they're finding it pretty hard to do that these days. Once considered a building block of the growing metal movement of the 1970s, Anvil went from next legendary band alongside The Scorpions and Whitesnake to taking day jobs and playing small sports bars in front of a small but loyal fanbase in Canada. The film catches up with the affable band today, who still chase their dreams. It's uplifting and, thanks to the band's attitude on life, a great perspective check.
File this one under "difficult but extremely necessary." The 2011 film came out when bullying was a national topic, and is an unflinching look at how bullying affects children and their families. It follows a handful of children who deal with abuse at school during their most impressionable times, and the intimate footage draws viewers into their world and helps us understand how impactful bullying is.
This 2010 film about the life of Brazilian Formula One driver Ayrton Senna is riveting even if you're unfamiliar with the sport. From the humble beginnings of his life as a kart racer to becoming one of the all-time greats car racing has ever known, Senna sizzles with old footage that'll blow your hair back with the sheer speed of these four-wheeled rockets. Parts of the film show the unfair political practices Senna had to overcome and his rivalry with Alain Prost, but Senna's legacy comes from the safety protocols he instilled in the sport after a deadly accident.
Need a great underdog sports doc? Undefeated — which won the Academy Award for Best Documentary in 2012 — follows a Tennessee high school football team with a legacy of losing and the coach, Bill Courtney, who turns them around. You'll get a good look at the kids on the team, especially a group of seniors who decided to band together and help build the program, and how they overcame odds to get where they are today. But the real heart in the movie is Courtney, who instills a sense of discipline, responsibility, and hope in these kids who have been abandoned by everyone else. It's Friday Night Lights but with even greater odds against them.