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The 20 best documentaries on Netflix in 2021
Netflix has hit it out of the park with original productions like Jim & Andy, The White Helmets, Tiger King and a trove of quality feature documentaries.
If you’re after some guilt-free edutainment to wash away the shame from your Too Hot to Handle viewing, we’re happy to report that Netflix delivers on the documentary front as well.
There are sobering documentaries like The White Helmets or the terrifying series Don’t F**k with Cats. If they sound a little heavy, you can sit back and relax with the soothing Chef’s Table or the bonkers Tiger King.
Below we’ve listed our top picks from Netflix’s vast selection of both feature documentaries and docu-series. There’s literally something for everyone, whether you’re looking to find out more about your favorite pop artist or about one of America’s most notorious killers.
1. Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness
Cast: Joe Exotic, Carole Baskin, Rick Kirkham, John Reinke
A true crime documentary about the life of zookeeper Joe Exotic, Tiger King is also an exploration of big cat breeding and its bizarre underworld, which is populated by eccentric characters. Add a crime into the mix and you’ve got yourself a surefire recipe for disaster. Sometimes, reality is stranger than fiction and this is the kind of docu-series you have to see to believe.
Cast: Monica Aldama, Lexi Brumback, Gabi Butler, Jerry Harris
Cheer takes place in the small town of Corsicana, Texas, where hard-driving head coach Monica Aldama demands perfection from her squad of competitive college athletes. As the team work to win a coveted national title, the docu-series chronicles their ups and downs. The result? A gripping and engrossing story that keeps viewers rooting for these talented athletes to see their dreams come true.
3. Knock Down the House
Cast: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Cori Bush, Joe Crowley, Paula Jean Swearengin
Everyone loves an underdog story and Knock Down the House delivers big time. The documentary follows four women who, at a moment of historic volatility in American politics, decide to fight back, challenging powerful incumbents in Congress. The fact that this would lead to one of the biggest political upsets in recent US history is just the icing on the cake.
Cast: Thomas Bach, Scott Brandt, Don Catlin
Here’s something that doesn’t happen every day: a major Olympic cheating scandal is uncovered by accident by an American documentary filmmaker and a Russian scientist. That’s the premise behind Icarus, which follows filmmaker Bryan Fogel as he sets out to uncover the truth about doping. The documentary is essential viewing for anyone interested in competitive sport, revealing the complicated and fascinating reasons behind why cheating happens.
5. Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond
Cast: Jim Carrey, Danny DeVito, Milos Forman
Get ready for a bizarre behind-the-scenes look at the incredible lengths actor Jim Carrey went to in order to portray his idol, the late, great Andy Kaufmann. Using 100 hours of footage from the set of Man on the Moon, filmmaker Chris Smith documents Carrey’s transformation into his character. If you were ever curious to see method acting in action, now’s your chance.
6. The White Helmets
Cast: Khalid Farah, Mohammed Farah, Abu Omar
The White Helmets is a riveting documentary centered on a crack team of selfless Syrian first responders who run the gauntlet of daily air strikes in order to rescue victims from the rubble. Inspiring and heartbreaking, it’s the kind of documentary that showcases a tragedy while also finding pockets of hope. Even if you don’t fully understand the context of the conflicts in Syria, you’ll be pulled in immediately.
7. Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened
Cast: Billy McFarland, Jason Bell, Gabrielle Bluestone
The failed Fyre Festival is something that we’ll likely be talking about for years to come, so it’s interesting to see how the whole event came to be. The documentary explores the history of the event, from its creation to its unraveling. It showcases what happens when a party in paradise doesn’t quite go as planned, while also making some thoughtful observations about the dangers of greed and wealth. All in all, it’s pretty spectacular.
8. The Great Hack
Cast: Brittany Kaiser, David Carroll, Paul-Olivier Dehaye, Ravi Naik
If you haven’t been living under a rock, you’re probably already somewhat familiar with the Cambridge Analytica scandal. The Great Hack aims to explore exactly how a data company came to symbolize the dark side of social media, showcasing the dangerous ways in which data can be used for political gain. It’s both sobering and scary, to the point where you might be tempted to re-evaluate your own online habits once the end credits roll.
9. Don’t F**k with Cats: Hunting an Internet Killer
Cast: Deanna Thompson, John Green, Claudette Hamlin
Don’t let the title fool you, this compelling docu-series is less about kittens and more about hunting for a killer. When a criminal’s gruesome videos drive a group of amateur online sleuths to launch a risky manhunt, they enter a dark underworld. The series might make for an uncomfortable watch, but it also showcases how ordinary people can expose a killer using the same tools available to everyone with Internet access.
10. Miss Americana
Cast: Taylor Swift, Andrea Swift, Scott Swift
Directed by Lana Wilson, Miss Americana follows Taylor Swift during a transformational time in her life, as she grows more comfortable with using her influence to advocate for causes she cares about. Viewers can see Swift growing as a person over the course of the documentary, but also understand how lonely it is to be at the top. The documentary also has plenty to say about how girls are sometimes taught that it’s important to be liked and struggle with this notion, to the point of denying who they really are.
11. Salt Fat Acid Heat
Cast: Samin Nosrat
Follow chef and food writer Samin Nosrat as she travels the world to demystify and explore the central principles of what makes food delicious. It’s not as hard as it looks, especially since Nosrat highlights the vital ingredients at the heart of a great dish and insists that anyone can easily incorporate these elements to master any recipe. Turns out, it’s all about the basics.
12. Homecoming: A Film by Beyoncé
Cast: Beyoncé, Joe Brown, Marvin Brown, Nirine S. Brown
Written, directed and executive produced by Beyoncé herself, Homecoming is a concert film about the artist and her performance at the 2018 Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. It’s an intimate look at Beyoncé’s iconic set, interspersed with candid footage and interviews detailing the preparation. Even if you’re not a fan, this glorious spectacle is immensely entertaining.
13. Hot Girls Wanted
Cast: Farrah Laurel Abraham, John Anthony, Rachel Bernard
You’d be surprised how easy it is for a web-savvy generation to end up making porn. That’s what Hot Girls Wanted aims to highlight. The documentary sheds light on Florida’s amateur porn industry through the experiences of young women in the business. Whether the documentary will shock or outrage you, one’s things for sure: you won’t be able to look away. Once you’re done, follow-up series Hot Girls Wanted: Turned On is also available to stream.
14. What Happened, Miss Simone?
Cast: Nina Simone, Lisa Simone Kelly, Roger Nupie, Al Schackman
Directed by Liz Garbus, this biographical documentary about Nina Simone is a thing of beauty, showcasing how the talented artist lived a life of brutal honesty, musical genius and tortured melancholy. Using never-before-heard recordings and rare archival footage, What Happened, Miss Simone? tells Simone’s story and comes across as a celebration of both her spirit and her legacy.
15. Chef’s Table
Cast: Dan Barber, Massimo Bottura, Bill Buford
Tune in as some of the most renowned chefs in the world share their deeply personal stories, inspirations and unique styles. Chef’s Table is not only a visual feast of gourmet dining, but also a captivating behind-the-scenes look at how these culinary geniuses work. In other words, it has more to offer than your average cooking show.
16. Conversations With a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes
Cast: Stephen Michaud, Bob Keppel, Kathleen McChesney
Ted Bundy was one of America’s most notorious serial killers. This docu-series, which premiered on the 30th anniversary of Bundy’s execution, aims to offer a look inside his mind via interviews he gave while on death row. If you’re interested in hearing the infamous killer analyze his own life and motives, this is a series you don’t want to miss.
17. Gaga: Five Foot Two
Cast: Lady Gaga, Sandra Amador, Michael Bearden, Tony Bennett
It’s no secret that Lady Gaga is a force of nature. What makes this documentary stand out is that it aims to introduce the woman behind the performer, the costumes and the glamour. Viewers follow the star as she releases a new album and prepares for her Super Bowl half-time show. At the same time, they see her playing with her dogs or cooking, which creates a sense of intimacy viewers will undoubtedly appreciate.
18. The Keepers
Cast: Gemma Hoskins, Abbie Schaub, Virginia Anzengruber, Jean Hargadon Wehner
This absorbing docu-series explores the unsolved murder of nun Sister Cathy Cesnik, who taught English and drama at Baltimore’s Archbishop Keough High School, and her former students’ belief that there was a cover-up by authorities. Sure to appeal to true crime buffs, the series gets darker with each episode, building to a powerful ending.
19. Making a Murderer
Cast: Dolores Avery, Steven Avery, Laura Nirider
One of Netflix’s most successful docu-series so far, Making a Murderer is an unprecedented real-life thriller about a DNA exoneree who, while in the middle of exposing corruption in local law enforcement, finds himself the prime suspect in a grisly new crime. Once you start watching, you’ll find it hard to stop. The series is just as engrossing as it is thought-provoking.
20. Amanda Knox
Cast: Amanda Knox, Meredith Kercher, Raffaele Sollecito, Giuliano Mignini
This documentary is pretty straightforward, aiming to tell the story of the trial, conviction and acquittal of Amanda Knox for the murder of an exchange student in Italy. Along the way, it also highlights the troubling media coverage that surrounded Knox’s arrest and subsequent fight for freedom, enabling the audience to see the bigger picture.
Watched them all already?
If you’re looking for even more documentaries to broaden your mind, check out our complete list of documentaries currently available on Netflix. And for even more content, compare other streaming services.
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