The Best Documentaries Streaming on Netflix

By Phill Powell

Documentary films have gained a bigger audience during recent years, largely thanks to streaming video services like Netflix, where consumers enjoy an endless movie “buffet” and can audition a wider number of films than they might normally be interested in.

Here’s a selection of five documentaries now available for streaming on Netflix. They range in subject matter, but all share something in common: Each is very watchable. And several are worth viewing more than once.

Check ’em out! You’ll be as informed as you are entertained:

MAIDENTRIP


For you-are-there filmmaking, it’s hard to top the wild voyage depicted in Maidentrip.

Year: 2014
Director: Jillian Schlesinger
Most Tension-Packed Moment: A 16-year-old navigating a 38-ft-long boat through 60-ft-high waves.

Sometimes documentaries aren’t often thought of as being really exciting, but they sure can be. Maidentrip tells what can happen when a teenage Dutch girl decides she wants to sail around the world…by herself.

First, she has to get permission to undertake the crazy-sounding adventure from the Dutch Courts, who are sure that young Laura Dekker will kill herself in the attempt. (Keep in mind that she did this without any other boats trailing her to offer support. It’s truly just her, her small vessel and the sea.)

Dekker starts her trek in New Zealand. At first, it’s some kind of great trip, with the Dutch girl showing she’s got the sea in her blood. (She was literally born on a boat and lived the first four years of her life at sea.)

But, as you might expect, things don’t stay so sunny. Soon she’s battling worsening storms and constant loneliness and Maidentrip becomes as riveting as any filmgoer could hope.

THE THIN BLUE LINE

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Documentaries really do matter. The Thin Blue Line got this convicted murderer freed from prison.

Year: 1988
Director: Errol Morris
Most Chilling Moment: Visuals: Micro-cassette recorder, wheels slowly turning. Audio: Man confessing to murder.

Anybody who wants to learn how to make documentaries needs to know the work of Errol Morris. One of the greatest filmmakers of any type, Morris’ epic The Thin Blue Line retraces how justice got blindsided in the Texas case of an innocent man railroaded for the 1976 murder of a police officer.

The Thin Blue Line presents compelling evidence (including a tape-recorded phone conversation with the other key suspect, who confesses to the killing) that got Randall Adams freed after 12 years in prison. It’s a great movie that presently holds a perfect, 100-percent Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

It’s fascinating beyond just the information presented. There’s real cinematic poetry from director Morris, as well as a hypnotic soundtrack by minimalist composer Philip Glass. The result is a stunning film that pulses with reality, because it knows how to capture small details perfectly.

DECEPTIVE PRACTICE: THE MYSTERIES AND MENTORS OF RICKY JAY


He looks humdrum, but amazing Ricky Jay is the best card-trick magician ever. Just watch this…

Year: 2012
Director: Molly Bernstein
Most Dazzling Moment: Jay throwing a card like a spinning blade of death, and piercing a watermelon rind.

An older, heavyset guy with a beard, Ricky Jay doesn’t come on like the world’s greatest showman. But this magician and card-trick genius exists in a class by himself.

Jay is a magic historian as well as a fantastic entertainer, and Deceptive Practice profiles him from his start as a child prodigy (first public performance: age 4) through his apprenticeship with some of the all-time greats of sleight-of-hand.

His magic shows are now sell-out events that draw celebrity fans. One review talked about how a lady at one New York show was so amazed by Jay’s magic that she didn’t even realize she happened to be sitting next to Al Pacino!

You won’t be able to figure out Jay’s tricks, nearly all of them astounding. You will know you’re in the hands of the master, and they are very quick hands indeed.

ENRON: THE SMARTEST GUYS IN THE ROOM


One of the worst corporate scandals in U.S. history becomes very entertaining movie fare in Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room.

Year: 2005
Director: Alex Gibney
Most Ominous Moment: Revealing the first hint of trouble, Enron’s CEO loses it in a 2001 phone call with investors.

Documentaries are great at helping us sort out complicated events and showing us what really happened. Take the collapse of Enron, once the fastest-soaring company on the stock exchange.

Around 2000, Enron appeared to be the most innovative energy company ever. Really, though, it was a corporation fueled on lies as it tried to hide monumental debts beneath phony subsidiary schemes.

When it was all over, thousands of employees, shareholders and others had been cheated out of more than $11 billion – while trampled in a stampede of Enron executives running away with huge bags of cash.

Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room untangles all the twists in the scandal. It’s a chilling portrait of corporate greed, and how fast it can spread. On the positive side, the documentary shows what can happen when one plucky reporter (Fortune‘s Bethany McLean) sticks to her guns and repeats one simple question that Enron can’t honestly answer: How does this company make money?

BEST OF ENEMIES: BUCKLEY VS. VIDAL

The_Best_of_Enemies_2015
Like battling puppets, Vidal and Buckley fought for years, first on TV. Then magazines. Then lawsuits.

Year: 2015
Directors: Robert Gordon & Morgan Neville
Most Explosive Moment: Buttoned-down Buckley has a Christian-Bale-sized meltdown mid-debate.

We live in amazing times, but also amazingly divisive times, with much heated political debate between Americans. Best of Enemies proves this is nothing new.

Flash backwards nearly 50 years. The U.S. is trying to pick a President, while ABC News searches for a gimmick for its 1968 convention coverage. Brilliant Idea: Take two political writers who absolutely hate each other, put ’em in a cage and let the sparks fly.

This was no “pretend” show-biz feud, like we often see today. Ultra-conservative William F. Buckley, Jr. truly loathed ultra-liberal writer Gore Vidal, and the feeling was mutual. Each super-intellectual felt the other was dangerous, with ideas that could bring down the country. Their verbal dueling plays like a boxing match and almost turns into a real slugfest at one point.

Rife with comic moments and rich with 60s history, Best of Enemies is shockingly entertaining and very smart. It also shows exactly where and when today’s in-your-face media style began. (It’s not, however, for children and will best be appreciated by older, more mature viewers.)

MAKE DOCUMENTARIES WITH US!

Documentary filmmaking can change lives and enrich our culture. And you can learn it this summer at Digital Media Academy’s tech camps at Stanford, during the week of July 18 through 22.

Of course, documentary filmmaking is only one of the great filmmaking and visual effects courses taught at DMA.

For 15 years, we’ve been putting people just like you behind the camera. This summer, it’s your turn, at DMA.