Best Netflix Documentaries: Top 5 True Stories, According To Streaming Experts

Documentaries can enlighten, educate, and entertain. As they typically deal in nonfiction as well as real-life occurrences, documentaries top the list for many audiences. Whether focused on crime, history, or wildlife, documentaries offer engaging content that can leave viewers clamoring for more. Netflix offers some of the most noteworthy documentary content available for streaming. That’s why we turned to our sources to draw out the top five best documentaries on Netflix.

There are numerous streaming platforms, and it can be difficult to commit to a new program. The average person has 13 TV shows and 16 movies on their watch list to get through — averaging a total of 104 hours. According to a recent survey of 2,000 adults, 68 percent of Americans have a TV show and movie watch list so long, it’s “nearly impossible” for them to get through it.

In all, 73 percent of respondents have a list of shows and films they’ve been meaning to watch. Yet only 58 percent of them have made it through their entire list. Of the 42 percent who have failed to make it through their list, many claim the biggest obstacles are dealing with the list getting longer (43%), thinking it’s already too long (29%) or thinking that it’s overwhelming to watch all that TV (25%). This could be a major contributing factor to the appeal of documentaries as many of them are self-contained narratives.

A more limited content format with fewer episodes as compared to larger multi-season shows could be particularly attractive for viewers. This is in contrast to many other content options that  are often dominated by series, franchises, and shared cinematic universes. There’s no shortage of options when it comes to television and streaming these days. Most of these services offer exclusive content at an affordable monthly rate, but subscribe to more than a few and the cost can add up quickly. Consequently, a fascinating new survey reports more than two in five Americans (44%) plan on canceling at least one of their TV subscriptions over the next six months due to budgetary concerns. This data coupled with some unpopular changes to Netflix’s password sharing policy could spell trouble for them in the future.

Ready to add some titles to your watch list? For the curious viewer as well as the documentary aficionado, please consider our list of the top five best Netflix documentaries. Let us know your favorites in the comments below!

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Someone watching Netflix (Photo by freestocks on Unsplash)

The List: Best Netflix Documentaries, According to Streamers

1. “Making a Murderer” (2015)

This series became a nationwide phenomenon spawning numerous copycat programs and podcasts. “A true Netflix sensation, ‘Making a Murderer’ is responsible for awakening as many true crime obsessions as podcast super-hit ‘Serial’. Series one asks, did Steven Avery really kill Teresa Halbach? And was his nephew Breandan Dassey an accessory? It finds holes in the evidence used in the real-world trial, and almost saw one of the defendant’s prison sentences overturned. It’s worth a watch for all comers, particularly crime fans,” offers ShortList.

“With the swath of true crime documentaries and podcasts that came in its wake, it’s easy to forget that the world once lost its collective mind over ‘Making a Murderer’. In a lot of ways it created the template that many Netflix documentaries now follow. A real original,” according to CNET.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you will have heard about Steven Avery, a Wisconsin man who served 18 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. Two years after his exoneration he was found guilty of murder. So, did he do it? This docuseries covers his life extensively, beginning with his first brush with crime right up until the present day,” states Total Film.

2. “13th” (2016)

Thought-proving non-fiction film-making has great potential to foster change and understanding. “Ava DuVernay’s documentary, ‘The 13th‘, explores the history of racial inequality in the U.S. The main message is that while slavery, in its most recognized sense, might be gone, the struggles of Black people continue. Mass incarceration, dehumanization, and judicial corruption are glaring issues in today’s American society. It opens with the famous Barack Obama quote, ‘The U.S. is home to 5 percent of the world’s population, but 25 percent of the world’s prisoners’. ’13th‘ received several accolades, including a BAFTA Award. It is a troubling and thought-provoking documentary that continues to be essential in modern America,” claims ScreenRant.

“The story of race in America is a long, bloody, systemically inequitable one. And that systemic inequality seems hellbent on perpetuating itself, as illustrated in Ava DuVernay’s Oscar-nominated ‘13th‘. This doc tells the story of post-slavery America by drawing attention to the 13th Amendment, which — on its surface — appears to abolish slavery. There’s a loophole, however, that permits slavery as punishment for a crime. DuVernay argues, through meticulous statistical research and archival evidence, that the criminal justice system and mass incarceration have become a modern, more insidious means of perpetuating racial inequality and bolstering racial biases, both culturally and systemically. In today’s turbulent political environment, ‘13th’ should be mandatory viewing for all Americans,” claims Digital Trends.

“Few documentaries hit the raw emotional highs that ‘13th’ does, and most of them have some level of artificial manipulation to them. 13th does it by presenting the cold, hard facts about the abhorrent injustice of parts of the incarceration system. The film, which gets its name from the 13th Amendment, is extremely important considering the history of race relations in the United States (while stacking on the added benefit of being directed by Ava DuVernay, the woman who made Selma and one of the best modern directors we’ve ever seen),” adds Cool Material.

3. “The Tinder Swindler” (2022)

Salacious stories of true crime and fraud are prime content for documentaries. “As the name suggests, ‘The Tinder Swindler’ is about a man who pretends to be a wealthy man on Tinder and then dupes women out of millions of dollars. This documentary Netflix series was released in 2022 and opened to a positive response. This series will make you want to be careful about people as it is based on a true story and is about a man who poses to be an affluent man on the famous dating application Tinder to connect with women, woo them, and then ask them for money saying that he needed it to escape his enemies. But, soon his manipulation is exposed and women make a plan to get him arrested,” writes PinkVilla.

“’The Tinder Swindler’ is Netflix’s latest must-watch documentary, revealing the havoc left by Simon Leviev, a man who took outrageous sums of money from women as he travelled across Europe. All it took was getting them to fall in love with him, and these women were practically handing over their check books,” writes tom’s guide.

Truth is stranger than fiction in this well-reviewed documentary. “If you fancy a jaw-dropper of a documentary, then ‘The Tinder Swindler’ is for you. It’s about a group of women who are duped on a dating app, believing that they are all dating a wealthy diamond mogul. As you can guess from the name of the doc, though, things couldn’t be further from the truth,” details ShortList.

4. “Athlete A” (2020)

Documentaries can be most impactful when they draw large audiences and expose dire problems that can be addressed. “Everyone remembers the investigation surrounding USA Gymnastics and various sexual assault allegations that were made – this is documented by ‘Athlete A’. Directed by Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk, the sports documentary tackles deep issues and follows a team of journalists from The Indianapolis Star as they broke the story that gripped the nation by its throat,” explains Collider.

“Athlete A” also has an impressive 100% score on Rotten Tomatoes. “While there’s no repairing the damage done on dozens if not hundreds of athletes over the years by former USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar, ‘Athlete A’ offers many of those he victimized an opportunity to tell their story and expose the truth(sic) depths of his horrific crimes. It’s a heartbreaking watch at times but an important one, empowering the women previously in his care and proving that the truth will always come out,” adds tom’s guide.

“’Athlete A’ follows a team of reporters from The Indianapolis Star as they investigate claims of abuse at USA Gymnastics, one of America’s most prominent Olympic organizations. Two years later, Olympic doctor Larry Nassar is behind bars, the US Congress is demanding answers and hundreds of survivors are speaking out. Equal parts devastating and inspiring, the doco reveals the culture of cruelty that was allowed to thrive within elite-level gymnastics, the attorney fighting the institutions, and most importantly, the brave athletes who refuse to be silenced, fought the system and triumphed. Keep the tissues close for this one,” offers Urban:List.

5. “My Octopus Teacher” (2020)

Nature documentaries have the potential to educate and delight audiences of all ages. “The best documentaries on Netflix offer a lot of movies and series exploring animals, but few feature a friendship like in ‘My Octopus Teacher’. The movie tells the story of Craig Foster who, after spending years swimming in the waters of Africa, encountered an octopus and befriended the curious intelligent creature. ‘My Octopus Teacher’ is an incredibly calming watch and will stir up some emotions. It’s one of the best documentaries about the ocean and its inhabitants, as well as one of the most uplifting documentaries people are likely to find,” writes ScreenRant.

“’My Octopus Teacher’ follows Craig Foster, a filmmaker who spent a year snorkeling and interacting with an octopus off the coast of South Africa. It’s a nature film, sure, but it’s simultaneously a documentary designed to inspire awe in the viewer. In short, octopuses are incredible. Little aliens on Earth, essentially. This is the story of a relationship between humans and nature, but it’s also an inspiring call to action: Don’t ignore the wonder that exists all around you,” states CNET.

With so many documentaries to choose from “My Octopus Teacher” is a uniquely original film. “This doc scored an Oscars nomination for Best Documentary Feature, and has scooped plenty of wins and nominations for other awards, as well as critical acclaim, since its 2020 release. It’s not your average nature documentary, with its close focus on one subject and the relationship between octopus and filmmaker, and there’s much to reflect on about humanity and nature by the time the credits roll,” claims Total Film.

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