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The Best Documentaries On Netflix Instant Watch

Updated on May 3, 2016

Oh Netflix...

Netflix Instant Watch offers an abundance of great documentaries, but which Netflix documentaries are the best? I have had a lot of people asking me how I find my Netflix picks, considering there are thousands of flicks to choose from.

I tell them that I use Instant Watcher (it's linked). It may not be as outwardly attractive as the Netflix site, but the way it collates and categorizes movies and TV shows is like no other. It is the best of the handful-or-so sites I've found in this niche, and you can even log in to your Netflix account from the website and throw picks into your instant queue, well, instantly. You can find movies by actor, director, Rotten Tomatoes Rating, New York Times Critic Picks, and many other benchmarks. I recommend it, let's leave it at that.

The true point of this hub is for me to do a little collating of my own. After dozens of hours thoroughly analyzing the data -- sitting on some pillows with a family-size bag of Smartfood -- I have come to some solid conclusions. Here's my list of what are in my opinion the current cream of the crop that Netflix Instant has to offer, the most exceptional documentaries that are currently available...

The Thin Blue Line

The documentary The Thin Blue Line makes such a convincing argument that it actually helped to change a court decision. With director Errol Morris at the helm, and a soundtrack from Philip Glass, The Thin Blue Line is a powerful revelation in cinema. It investigates the details surrounding the murder of a police officer in Texas many years ago.

Widely considered as one of the greatest documentaries of all time (just check out its RT Score), Morris’s groundbreaking documentary changed what it meant to capture life on film. The doc is set up as a classic who-done-it: a Texas lawman is murdered, his partner on patrol that night has blanked on some very important details, a local man is interrogated and convicted by local law enforcement intent on bringing the killer to justice, while a troubled juvenile is let off for his quiet complacence in the trial.

Typically a case like this would have been easily forgotten in the dizzying news media cycle. But Morris does not let the audience off so easily. Through in-depth interviews with the convicted, law enforcement officials who led the case, lawyers, and some eccentric eye-witnesses, Morris does an exceptional job of corralling the case and highlighting the mistakes and abuses of power. It is an incredible look into how misplaced passion and the need to "close the case" can sometimes have disastrous consequences.

The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness

A personal favorite of mine, The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness is a doc that follows a year in the working life of the Studio Ghibli animation studio in Tokyo. Enigmatic, highly productive, and yet endlessly personable, Studio Ghibli itself reflects the personalities of its two core visionaries -- artist Hayao Miyazaki and producer Toshio Suzuki, whom are the two main focuses throughout the film. Well into their sixties, both men emanate energy and humor as we watch them work on the various stages of their most current movie project. We see them ask questions about the world as it is today, about their ability to continue on working at their advanced ages, and the studio's future with and without them.

The film takes us through both mens' biographies, gives us an intimate tour of the studio's lesser-known luminaries and its inner work areas, and shares with us small and big moments in the operations of an influential and imaginative world.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Located in a remote hill section of southern France, the Chauvet Cave contains the oldest human-made paintings ever discovered. Understandably, this ancient cavern has been sealed from the public, so as not to be damaged; only specially permitted scientists are allowed in. The tragedy is that most people will never set their eyes on the oldest-known paintings. That is, unless you see this doc.

Filmed in 2010 by Werner Herzog (director of the wildly popular Grizzly Man doc), Cave of Forgotten Dreams gives us a truly rare glimpse into the oldest known symbols of human creativity. In the efforts of protecting the landmark, the French government gives Herzog and his crew permits for only a precious few days of filming, and they are also given very strict rules about how they can film, what kind of equipment they can bring with them, etc. But for all of the work they must go through to shoot a little footage, one can see that it is all worth it once they step inside into the cavern and begin panning the camera around.

The images are nothing short of astounding. The high definition cameras give us an eerily real view of an otherworldly place: paintings on the walls of wild horses and buffalo, the fragile limestone stalagtite that hangs from the cave ceiling, completely undisturbed from thousands of years of emptiness. Most striking of all, there are even human and wolf footprints in the cave silt, from the same incomprehensible era.

Dirty Wars

Journalist Jeremy Scahill's intrepid 2014 doc Dirty Wars is a political trailblazer. It's an in-depth look into Scahill's research on America's covert military operations around the world, mostly focusing on the Middle East.

Scahill never veers into the hackneyed territory of preaching to the choir. The film stays taut as we ride with him in a jeep through Afghanistan, as he interviews a family whose home was hit by a midnight blitz, and as he tries connecting all the leads at his office back in Brooklyn. It's a film with a broad sweep that contains a lot of important information and helps us as Americans to understand all the things that are happening in our names.

If you are interested in geopolitics or modern history, this film goes to the epicenter of America's game-changing dealings.

Fat, Sick, & Nearly Dead

A hugely popular doc that helped rejuvenate the juicing revolution, this film focuses mainly on Joe Cross, an Australian businessman who gives himself a month to radically transform his lifestyle through what he eats. Cross takes a documentary crew and travels through the United States meeting people who are battling their own health issues -- Cross himself was morbidly obese and lived with a slew of strange rashes -- and learns their eating habits and yearning to change.

Through a brash diet of juicing fruits and vegetables and eating -- er, drinking -- only that for thirty days, Cross loses a ton of weight, gets his blood pressure and other figures into normal range, and those strange rashes are suddenly gone. He experiences amazing energy and good mood. Others, motivated by their new friend's success, go through their own radical lifestyle changes. And we the audience get to see all of this and stand aghast by the changes normal people (like you and me) can make, even if it's just in what we eat. This is a well-made doc, and it's one of the most motivational movies out there.

Hoop Dreams

1994's Hoop Dreams was directed by Steve James, and it focuses on the lives of two Chicago teens whose skills on the basketball court are bringing them a great deal of attention. It's a film about life for young athletes on and off the court, how their talent can run in stark contrast to their academic lives and how society in general is set up. It's a film about class, culture, and the fickle nature of the American dream.

This is widely considered to be one of the best docs out there. It won the Audience Award at Sundance, and has garnered a 98% critics' rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Even if you're not very interested in sports, this movie is likely to still be captivating to you. Definitely worth a look-see.

Talk To Me, People

What is the best documentary on Netflix?

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    • DizzyGypsy profile image

      The Dizzy Gypsy 17 months ago from Orlando, FL

      Great list! If you haven't seen then yet you should also check out "India's Daughter" and "The Imposter" if you're a Documentary fan - both on Netflix instant :D

    • mattdigiulio profile image

      mattdigiulio 5 years ago

      diggnet - I appreciate it!

    • diggnet profile image

      diggnet 5 years ago from US

      Great list, thanks for sharing

    • mattdigiulio profile image

      mattdigiulio 5 years ago

      Thanks alocsin. Sorry for the late reply... I'm glad you found something interesting here! Matt

    • alocsin profile image

      alocsin 5 years ago from Orange County, CA

      I love documentaries but have not seen any of these. Thanks for pointing them out. Voting this Up and Interesting.

    • mattdigiulio profile image

      mattdigiulio 5 years ago

      clevercat, instant watcher changed my movie-watching life! Glad you found some good tidbits here. Thanks, Matt

    • theclevercat profile image

      Rachel Vega 5 years ago from Massachusetts

      Instant Watcher?! I never knew of this. Thanks for teaching me something today... and The Art of the Steal sounds really great. Voted up and awesome.

    • mattdigiulio profile image

      mattdigiulio 5 years ago

      Thanks Kochava, happy new year's!

    • KochavaGreene profile image

      KochavaGreene 5 years ago from Cincinnati, Ohio

      Great recommendations--thanks!