The best Netflix documentaries often surprise us in ways we never expect. You might not think you could ever find yourself invested in the fortunes of a cheerleading squad, a 30-year old basketball team or rich idiots throwing the worst music festival in existence, but we guarantee you that the informative features included in the below list will challenge at least some of those presumptions.
In fact, many of the best Netflix documentaries are as gripping as the best Netflix movies and best Netflix shows, and excellent new investigative stories seem to appear on the streamer every week. We're updating our recommendations with the latest Netflix documentaries as and when they appear on the service, and recent additions to our list include Madoff: The Monster of Wall Street, Break Point and Our Father.
Below, you'll find our pick of the best Netflix documentaries to add to your watchlist in 2023. To keep things simple, we've only picked Netflix originals, so you can enjoy these titles wherever you are in the world (and there's also no risk of them leaving the streamer any time soon).
The best Netflix documentaries in January 2023
Madoff: The Monster of Wall Street
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Love watching the bad guys get in too deep? Then look no further than Madoff: The Monster of Wall Street for your next fix of schadenfreude. A four-part look at the life of Ponzi schemer Bernie Madoff, this Joe Berlinger-directed docuseries – which critics described as "grubby and jaw-dropping" – features the usual combo of talking heads, real-life footage and fictional reconstructions to illustrate how Madoff managed to defraud investors of a whopping $64.8 billion.
Hailing from the same producers as mega-popular sports docuseries F1: Drive to Survive (which also features on this list), Break Point gives viewers a fly-on-the-wall insight into the euphoric highs and crushing lows of the tennis world, featuring commentary from players including Nick Kyrgios, Taylor Fritz and Ons Jabeur. Critics hailed Break Point as “riveting almost from the first point" when its first few episodes were released in January 2023, and we expect the series to remain a fixture of Netflix's documentary offering in years to come.
Most people are familiar with the face, voice and charm of Robert Downey Jr., but less is known about the filmmaking father who lent the Marvel movie megastar his name. From Fyre director Chris Smith comes Sr., an intimate portrait of the life and career of underground filmmaker Robert Downey Sr. Iron Man himself features prominently throughout this feature-length family story, which is less about Downey Jr. and more concerned with the fragile-but-powerful bonds between a father and son. Our advice? Have tissues at the ready.
Prepare yourself: Our Father is downright shocking. Director Lucie Jourdan's feature-length documentary centers on former Indianapolis fertility doctor Donald Cline, who used his own sperm to secretly impregnate dozens of patients between 1974 and 1987. Decades later, several of Cline's 94 “children” band together to expose his crimes, and their commitment to pursuing justice is nothing short of inspiring. Our Father, then, is both sickening and uplifting in equal measure – a rare combination among the best Netflix documentaries.
Conversations With a Killer: The Jeffrey Dahmer Tapes
For all its shortcomings, Netflix sure knows how to drum up interest in its content. One of the streamer’s biggest recent successes, Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story, was catapulted to popularity after a spate of pre-release controversy – and just two weeks later, Netflix tapped the same morbid curiosity with Conversations With a Killer: The Jeffrey Dahmer Tapes.
This three-part documentary series from director Joe Berlinger (Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile) recounts Dahmer’s heinous crimes through real-life footage and newly-unearthed interviews with his legal team. As with Monster, The Jeffrey Dahmer Tapes is far from a pleasant watch – but you knew that already.
White Hot: The Rise & Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch
Netflix's searing look at the seemingly unstoppable rise (and equally hard fall) of clothing brand Abercrombie & Fitch is a truly jaw-dropping watch. The film details the brand's extraordinary success in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and the subsequent revelations about its hiring practises that led to a 2003 class-action lawsuit (which alleged racial discrimination).
As a result, the fallout – lots of which centered around CEO Mike Jeffries – revealed the toxic culture at the heart of the company and how endemic its discrimination had become. Truly, this documentary has to be seen to be believed.
I Just Killed My Dad
Most of the documentaries on this list concern some pretty gruesome subject matter, and, as its title suggests, I Just Killed My Dad is chief among that number.
This three-parter, from director Skye Borgman (who helmed another true crime Netflix documentary, Girl In The Picture), details the true story of Anthony Templet, a Louisiana teenager who shot dead his father in 2019. More a whydunit than a whodunit, I Just Killed My Dad features more twists than a hedge maze, and the mystery surrounding Templet's evidently unconventional upbringing will have you glued to the screen. A word of advice: don't watch this one with the whole family (seriously!).
Trainwreck: Woodstock '99
Arriving one year after a similar HBO-produced documentary, Trainwreck: Woodstock '99 tells the utterly unbelievable story of how a supposedly peaceful revival of the titular New York music festival went horribly, horribly wrong.
In 1999, the event descended into a melting pot of corruption, greed and mob mentality that left three people dead, thousands injured and countless more scarred for life. Across three episodes, Trainwreck: Woodstock '99 reveals how everything went to s**t, featuring previously unseen footage and interviews with attendees, as well as commentary from two of the festival's promoters, Michael Lang and John Scher.
Trust No One: The Hunt for the Crypto King
The likes of Inventing Anna, The Tinder Swindler (also on this list) and Bad Vegan have all seen Netflix take a microscope to various schemers in recent times – but Trust No One: The Hunt for the Crypto King tells the streamer's most shocking story of potential deception yet.
We say 'potential deception' because the criminality of its subject, Gerald Cotten, remains unproven to this day. The film charts the rise and fall of Cotten’s cryptocurrency exchange, QuadrigaCX, which collapsed – along with $190 million of customer holdings – following its founder's unexplained death in 2018. Was Cotten murdered? Did he fake his own death and steal the money? Does his wife have something to do with the case? These are all questions Trust No One tries (and, ultimately, fails) to answer, which make its mere 90-minute runtime so absorbing.
Jimmy Savile: A British Horror Story
One of the more harrowing recent documentaries on Netflix, Jimmy Savile: A British Horror Story chronicles the heyday of the infamous British TV host and, in particular, examines how the establishment allowed him to get away with sexually abusing hundreds of children throughout the 1970s and 1980s.
Rowan Deacon’s feature-length film clocks in at just over three hours, but was described as “a welter of devastating detail” by critics upon release in April 2022. In our book, too, Jimmy Savile: A British Horror Story is absolutely worth the time investment – just don’t expect to leave this one feeling particularly uplifted.
Downfall: The Case Against Boeing
Adapted from the New Yorker article of the same name, Downfall: The Case Against Boeing takes a microscope to two Boeing 737 Max crashes that killed 346 people within the space of five months in March 2019. Experts and investigators reveal how the airline’s alleged priority of profit over safety could have contributed to the incidents, which went relatively under the radar at the time.
Rory Kennedy’s exposé film is an easy recommendation for those who like their corporate crime documentaries – it’s essentially a high-budget version of Air Crash Investigation. One piece of advice, though: don't watch this one before boarding a flight.
Jeen-yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy
Jeen-yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy is a three-part documentary film focusing on the life of artist, record producer, businessman, fashion designer (and marketing guru?) Kanye West. Directed by filmmaking duo and frequent Kanye collaborators Coodie & Chike, Jeen-yuhs charts the rise of one of popular culture's most divisive and alluring figures, using unseen archival footage (in the vein of Asif Kapadia's Diego Maradona) from the past two decades.
As well as shining a light on the artist's creative process, the film covers West's reaction to the death of his mother, as well as the events of his unsuccessful 2020 presidential campaign. Jeen-yuhs is necessary viewing for die-hard Kanye fans, then, but those interested in documentaries that pick apart controversial characters will find lots to love here, too.
The Tinder Swindler
If you're in the market for romance, The Tinder Swindler may make you think twice about reaching for the dating apps. Based on the months-long investigation by Norwegian newspaper Verdens Gang, this feature-length documentary – which comes from the creators of the excellent Don't F**K with Cats – takes a microscope to the extraordinary case of an alleged billionaire playboy who extorted millions from unsuspecting women through Tinder.
It isn't all doom and gloom, though. After realising that they've all been tricked by the same titular crook, three woman band together to give him a taste of his own medicine. The Tinder Swindler has been described by some critics as the best documentary Netflix has ever produced, and while there's plenty more on this list that are equally deserving of that title, we'd agree that it's certainly up there. The film also sat atop the list of the streamer's most popular features for three weeks running, so it's certainly worth the 90-minute investment.
For our money, Icarus is still the best Netflix documentary. Even if it hadn't taken home the Oscar for Best Documentary feature in 2018, Bryan Fogel’s exposé of the Russian doping scandal would nevertheless rank among the best whistleblower films ever made.
What begins as a fairly run-of-the-mill investigation into the effects of performance-enhancing drugs soon becomes an unexpected and downright thrilling journey into the violence, corruption and betrayal surrounding professional athletics – and Icarus expertly combines talking heads, undercover footage and smart animation to ensure it stands out from the documentary crowd. Necessary viewing.
Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, and Madness
It had to be here, didn't it? Big cat owners come in all shapes and sizes – well, stripes – but nobody is quite like Joe Exotic, the Tiger King. This polygamist, gun-wielding animal-lover is properly larger-than-life, and for the majority of 2020 he was the most talked about character on Netflix.
In Tiger King, what starts out for Exotic as a humane enterprise descends into cruelty, madness and vanity as he engages in a protracted spat with an animal rights activist who may not be all she seems. Things get pretty crazy, to say the least – Exotic's humble zoo becomes a home for murder planning, electoral runs and suicide. It's unpredictable, seemingly-impossible and it'll have you open-mouthed for all seven of its episodes.
This is one to watch. Avoid both the sequel and Peacock's tame dramatization of the story.
American Factory took home Best Documentary Feature at the 2020 Oscars, and marks the first film from Barack and Michelle Obama’s production studio Higher Ground Productions. It follows the working lives of US and Chinese employees in the Fuyao Glass factory in Ohio.
While the concept of saving a shuttered General Motors factory and thousands of jobs seems like a Hollywood dream, the reality of the stark differences in attitudes to socializing and day-to-day work becomes a serious challenge for everyone involved. Handled deftly by the directors, the human side of this story is never lost, and American Factory is as eye-opening as it is entertaining. Just mind the culture gap.
Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal
Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal delves into the fraudulent methods used by Rick Singer to get the children of rich and famous families into top US universities.
The feature-length documentary uses a clever combination of talking heads and acted sequences – headed by Matthew Modine as Singer – to great effect, and provides an insightful account of the very recent, very public scandal in which actresses Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman were involved.
Cocaine Cowboys: The Kings of Miami
There have been a lot of films called Cocaine Cowboys. There’s the 1979 crime drama directed by Ulli Lommel, a 2006 documentary of the same name and a 2008 sequel documentary called (unsurprisingly) Cocaine Cowboys 2. In 2021, Cowboys: The Kings of Miami arrived on Netflix to continue the trend.
This six-episode series remains one of the best Netflix documentaries and chronicles the rise of Miami drug kingpins Sal Magluta and Willy Falcon, who would become two of the most prolific cocaine dealers in US history. It delivers all the drama we’ve come to expect from the streamer’s exposé documentaries while also adding a layer of tongue-in-cheek humor to paint a boozy picture of two Tony Montana wannabes. Expect jealousy and jet-skis aplenty.
Myth & Mogul: John DeLorean
Thanks to the Back to the Future franchise, everyone knows the cultural impact of the DMC DeLorean – but what about the man behind the name? This Netflix docuseries charts the rise and fall of automaker John DeLorean, combining interviews and exclusive footage to paint a dark portrait of a man who made it all the way to the top, before it all came crashing down.
Don’t F*ck With Cats: Hunting an Internet Killer
There is, apparently, one rule on the Dark Web. You can show whatever you want – murder, violence – just don’t f*ck with cats. This controversial and disturbing three-part documentary (which comes from the same production team as the aforementioned The Tinder Swindler) is what happened when someone flouted that rule and a group of armchair detectives got together to take them down. Built from the visual internet lexicon of Google Maps images and notifications, this is smart storytelling with a purposeful sting in its tail.
The Last Dance
Like Tiger King before it, The Last Dance arrived on Netflix just in time to abate our lockdown-induced blues. In fact, it probably got millions more people into basketball, too. The ten-part docuseries chronicles the rise of the Chicago Bulls throughout the 1990s and, in particular, superstar Michael Jordan as he traverses fortune and fame.
Never-before-seen footage makes this one a must-watch for basketball fans, and for everyone else, The Last Dance is a case study in how to present sport as the thrilling, emotional business that it is. The soundtrack is pretty great, too.
Formula One: Drive to Survive
Sticking with the sports theme, Formula One: Drive to Survive can probably claim to have done more for the publicity of F1 than any driver before it. Seriously, it makes the idea of 20 race cars driving around a track for 60 laps seem like a Hollywood movie – it’s genuinely thrilling to behold.
Across four seasons, Drive to Survive focuses on the plight and politics of all 10 teams competing on the grid, and will leave you yearning for the next instalment of burning rubber and aggressively-shaken champagne. Or, if you wanted, you could just watch F1.
Nail Bomber: Manhunt
If you’re looking to add some doom and gloom to your watchlist, Nail Bomber: Manhunt tells the story of how one right-wing extremist held London to ransom for 13 days in 1999. It's thought that 150 people suffered injuries at the hands of David Copeland, who targeted minority groups using heinous nail bombs.
If you’ve got true crime fatigue, though, don’t despair – this documentary is a refreshing take on the genre, and an insightful look at how a city came together to take action against a mindless killer. An inspiring story.
As much as Cheer can be viewed as the incredible achievements of an elite cheerleading squad, it can also easily be seen through the lens of a horror movie. Here, in this impressive six-part series from the director of the equally compelling Last Chance U, young men and women risk life and limb as they are tossed skyward, leaving their trust in those left on the ground. Whether you're watching through your fingers or punching the air in victory, Cheer is emotional viewing, and season 2 is also now available on Netflix for those looking to continue the drama.
Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened
If you followed the Fyre Festival hashtag back in 2017 like that popcorn gif you've now put in the bad taste bin, then it's time to settle down for a reality check. The true story from those on the ground of the car crash influencer fest, Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened is just as astounding as those shots of sad cheese sandwiches offered in place of luxurious party food.
One of two documentaries covering the tropical island holiday from hell, this is an expertly woven tale of entrepreneurial villainy, 21st century indulgence and the very real – not to mention dire – consequences faced by Bahamian workers.
Evil Genius: The True Story of America's Most Diabolical Bank Heist
It sounds like the plot of a Saw movie. A pizza delivery man robs a bank with a pipe bomb strapped around his neck, and the subsequent deadly explosion is televised globally as he desperately pleads for surrounding police to remove it.
Evil Genius is the investigation into exactly why Brian Wells did what he did, and the involvement of a woman called Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong and her friend William Rothstein. There's no concrete answer here, but the filmmaker's discussions with the convicted Diehl-Armstrong remain fascinating, if infuriating.
Plenty of the documentaries on this list will, quite rightfully, make you angry. Nowhere, though, is this feeling more potent than in Ava DuVernay's Oscar-nominated investigation into the mass incarceration of black Americans. 13th is a devastating look at the invention of the modern prison system in the US, and the misaligned scales of justice when it comes to race. The mirroring of 21st century politics to the attitudes of pre-American Civil War society is a sobering wake up call.
The Great Hack
The Cambridge Analytica scandal and the widespread use of our data for nefarious purposes isn't huge news anymore, but The Great Hack's informative breakdown of 21st century power and technology is still provocative viewing.
With fascinating talking heads and a truthfully bleak outlook, this documentary explores the insidious nature of the use of data for voter manipulation, marketing and – essentially – global domination. That places The Great Hack firmly in the 'true crimes against humanity' sub-genre.
Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator
The #MeToo movement is not relegated to one industry. This profile of the phenomenally successful yoga teacher Bikram Choudhury is a devastating breakdown of the alleged psychological and sexual abuse from those he worked with. Speaking directly with his accusers, this difficult documentary shows exactly how he managed to leave the country without incident.
Making a Murderer
Our obsession with the true crime genre isn’t new, but Making a Murderer was the first series to make it socially acceptable to have watercooler discussions over diabolical interview techniques, potential police cover ups and the identity of the murderer who killed young photographer Teresa Halbach in Wisconsin.
The story of the guilt or innocence of convicted man Steven Avery and, somehow more tragically, his nephew Brendan Dassey has now had two seasons, with the second seeing high-flying attorney Kathleen Zellner take his case. Combine it with some follow-up reading for further context on the case, and Making a Murderer remains essential viewing.
When it comes to the best reasons to buy a new OLED TV, nothing can come close to the David Attenborough-narrated Our Planet. Taking four years to film across 50 countries, this eight-part wonder of a nature series is led by the brains behind the BBC's Planet Earth.
Just take note that, while it might seem like audiovisual Listerine after the blood and grime of the rest of the entries on this list, nature's plight on a globe that humans have been systematically destroying is as hard-hitting as any true crime documentary.
Not that the world actually needs a reminder of just how villainous the tabloid press can be, but here's another one anyway. In her own words, straight down the lens and into your soul, Amanda Knox, the woman convicted and subsequently cleared of the murder of British exchange student Meredith Kercher in Italy in 2007, explains exactly how she was painted as a nefarious psychopath. Thanks to interviews with key press players and the individuals involved, this remains an absorbing, not to mention infuriating, film.
Pandemic: How to Prevent an Outbreak
The release of Pandemic: How to Prevent an Outbreak was horribly timely, but that doesn't stop this five-part doc from being a fascinating glimpse into the science behind the spread of disease, and a look behind the curtain at those working tirelessly to prevent global outbreaks of influenza. Oh, and prepare to get very, very angry about the anti-vaccine debate. Like, furious.
Who killed Sister Cathy? This might be the simple crux at the heart of this investigation, but The Keepers is so much more than the re-opening of a cold case. This galling and honest seven-parter follows the previous students of Cathy Cesnik who, decades on, have come forward with their stories of sexual abuse at the hands of a Baltimore priest who taught at the same high school. It's not an easy story to hear, but the friendships between these women and their drive for justice is truly inspirational.
Wild Wild Country
The thing about cults is that, first of all, no one ever thinks they are in one, and secondly, the people who aren't in a cult never think they would join. Wild Wild Country, a frankly astonishing dive into the Oregon desert commune of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, does a brilliant job of humanizing those who thought they had found the answer. It also has more violent twists and turns than a Tarantino movie, and creates a masterful profile of the controversial figures at the heart of a supposedly peaceful community.
Knock Down the House
Anyone with a vague knowledge of the American political landscape won't be surprised by the denouement of this triumphant doc, but that doesn't take away from its power. Director Rachel Lear's depiction of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her fellow Justice Democrats in their respective races for election is an utterly human underdog story.
Flicking between their professional and personal lives, Lear channels the genuine elation of trusting in hope and the true power of fighting on even when the odds are against you.
If the idea of the eight-hour documentary sagas scattered across this feature fill your to-do list with dread, Long Shot is (ironically) a short hit of a true crime documentary. When Juan Catalan is arrested for a murder he claims he didn't commit, the source of proof of his innocence comes from an entirely unpredictable place. Yes, Larry David is involved in one of the most unexpected cameos of all time. Just watch it. It's shorter than the time you'll spend on social media today.
Let’s get it out of the way first. No, it wasn't an owl that killed Kathleen Peterson in her North Carolina home in 2001. Whether it was her husband Michael, though, is another matter. This is exactly what The Staircase aims to help you decide. Originally a 2004 series from Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, Netflix released new episodes in 2018 following Peterson’s long fight with the law. Whether you believe he is guilty or not, this is a veritable roller coaster through the modern justice system with a family at its heart.
In 1992, when she was 19, filmmaker, critic and novelist Sandi Tan made a movie with her friends in Singapore. Then all of the footage disappeared. For 20 years.
Shirkers is an entirely unique documentary about a movie that never was, an enigma in the shape of the mysterious man who shot the film and then disappeared, who lived with the trauma of pouring your heart, soul, money and friendships into a project that would never come to light. Shot and edited with the wild creativity of a movie-obsessed youth, Shirkers is a heartfelt and joyous experience.
Perhaps out-muscling even Shirkers for dopamine-inducing warmth, Penguin Town follows a colony of endangered African penguins as they wander the beaches and city streets of Cape Town, South Africa.
Patton Oswalt narrates the eight-episode series, which has been praised for its use of humor to tell the stories of its black and white subjects. Like David Attenborough’s best nature docs before it, expect beach bust-ups, flamboyant displays of courtship and a lesson or two in Penguin behavior. It’s free of gore, easy on the mind and a hefty helping of virtual comfort food.
The Devil Next Door
This thought-provoking mini series follows John Demjanjuk, a quiet, simple grandfather living out his retirement in Cleveland, whose life is turned upside-down. That's because he may also be Ivan the Terrible, a notorious Nazi death camp guard. Naturally, it can be a difficult watch, but The Devil Next Door dramatizes the overriding importance of truth amid a whirlwind of emotion and pain.
Shot in the Dark
When it comes to morals, Shot in the Dark has more shades of grey than an AllSaints window display, but that doesn’t make it any less compelling viewing. Following three of Los Angeles’ most successful so-called 'stringers,' the cameramen responsible for finding footage of accidents and tragedies for the rolling 24-hour news cycle, this is a dark look at the seedy underbelly of modern journalism. There’s more humanity at work here than Jake Gyllenhaal’s cold gaze in Nightcrawler, but it's not easy to watch those running in the direction of the blood on the tarmac.
With its unassuming title, The Pharmacist sits quietly as one of the most riveting true crime documentaries on Netflix. This is the story of Dan Schneider, a pharmacist whose son Danny was addicted to crack cocaine and murdered in 1999. Schneider not only took on the investigation when he didn't feel like the police were doing enough, but followed up with a damning look at America’s opioid crisis as a whole. To divulge more would spoil it, but The Pharmacist is just what the doctor ordered.