Cooked – The original 2016 Netflix series “Cooked,” based on the best-selling book of the same name is a gem waiting to be discovered. Food author Michael Pollan shows the audience how cooking, braising, and baking changes the chemical makeup of food. The purpose of the series is to make the point that we must start cooking for ourselves in order to avoid future food-related health problems such as diabetes, obesity, and heart disease.
That Sugar Film – “That Sugar Film” is perfect for the person with the major sweet-tooth. But beware that the truth of your late-night candy binges might be harming you more than you think. Damon Gameau experiments by eating only foods that are “healthy” but are really packed with sugar. Audiences will get to see the drastic effect of the sugars on his healthy body and shows just how dangerous sugar can be.
Bite Size – The film made waves for its reporting about childhood obesity and its dangers. “Bite Size” shows how childhood obesity affects kids, their families, and society. It also explains how obesity not only diminishes a child’s health but can be a catalyst for bullying, teasing, and low self-esteem.
Why Are We Getting So Fat? – This BBC documentary introduces audiences to new methods that are being experimented with in order to reduce the remarkably high cases of obesity in both children and adults all over the world. It might sound odd, but it seems that the old diet and exercise method just isn’t working for everyone.
Sustainable – The featured character of “Sustainable” is Marty Travis, who is a 7th-generation farmer and food supplier. Travis, who resides in rural Illinois, witnesses his long-running farm fall victim to big-business agriculture sweeping the nation and destroying the sustainability of food in America. This motivates Travis to transform his farm with a bigger picture in mind and start the sustainable food movement in Chicago.
Our Planet (2019) – Created by the same team responsible for BBC’s Planet Earth series, “Our Planet” is Netflix’s first foray into the nature documentary genre. Sir David Attenborough narrates the eight-part docuseries, making it feel like a natural extension of the original films. Shot in 50 countries over four years, the series honors the wildlife on Earth through amazing footage while bringing to light the effects that humans have had on the planet, and what is needed to combat climate change.
Do You Trust This Computer? (2018) – ” Do You Trust This Computer?” discusses the potential outcomes — both positive and negative — related to our growing dependence on technology — specifically the rise of artificial intelligence. It includes a host of prominent futurists including Elon Musk, who strongly promoted the film’s release by sponsoring free streaming for a limited time on Vimeo and Ray Kurzweil, a strong proponent of the transhumanism movement.
Before the Flood (2016) – Mostly remembered as “that climate change documentary with Leonardo DiCaprio,” “Before the Flood” explores the impacts of global warming and what we can do to turn things around. With a particular focus on why politicians and lobbyists continue to deny the effects of climate change — more relevant now than ever — it also covers alternative energy sources and the proposal of a carbon tax. Where it succeeds is highlighting problems while suggesting workable solutions.
Print the Legend (2014) – “Print the Legend” profiles the 3D printing industry. Focusing on a range of businesses from small manufacturer to larger companies such as Stratasys, 3D Systems, and Printform, the documentary sheds light on how the industry has developed and the potential risks it’s encountering — namely 3D printed guns.
Food, Inc. (2008) – There have been a lot of documentaries about the food industry and quite a few since “Food, Inc.” was released, but most just simply aren’t as good as this one. Taking on corporate farming in the United States, “Food, Inc.” uncovers corruption in agribusiness to government policies put in place to protect corporations. It concludes that the system is inhumane to both animals and employees within the industry, and unsustainable for the environment – something we’re much more aware of now, thanks in part to documentaries like this one.
The Biggest Little Farm (In Theaters) – Mature and brimming with uneasy hope, “The Biggest Little Farm” tells the years-long story of a senselessly optimistic couple who exit their Los Angeles life to start a farm from scratch 50 miles from the city. The pair and their team’s commitment is tireless, while their insecurities going into the endeavor are refreshingly bare. The life arc of the farm’s animals — a rooster named Greasy, some shaggy pups, a big pregnant pig, hungry ducks, and coyotes, even its fish — will have you more invested in life or death than the Snap did in the Avengers movies.
One Child Nation (Premieres Aug 9 on Amazon) – Through a personal, unflinching lens, directors Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang walk viewers through China’s now defunct one-child policy. Chinese interviewees recall the steep penalties for parents who bore a second child without permission—forced sterilizations, abandonment, forced abortions, the killing of babies (the majority of which were female) — in short, infanticide and neonaticide.
United Skates (HBO) – A beautiful film about a critical slice of Americana — roller skating rinks — and how they reflect the past and present of race relations in America.
General Magic(In Theaters) – If you have lightning and you have a bottle – are you guaranteed to capture that lightning in the bottle? This fascinating film has a visceral and playful way of laying out how the invention of the smartphone — years before the first iPhone — didn’t pan out for the creators at startup General Magic.
Hail Satan? (In Theaters) – To many, this primer on the Satanic Temple religious organization will be the feel-good story of the year. Think less fire and blood, and more community, culture hacking, and social activism. The Temple was recently granted tax-exempt religious status by the IRS.
1. Shoah (1985) – “I don’t ask the big questions, for I fear getting small answers,” claims a historian in Claude Lanzmann’s epic, exhaustive chronicle of the Holocaust. “I concentrate on details, minutiae.” Just over nine hours long, Shoah is the filmmaker’s own attempt to examine the unfathomable by obsessively cataloging fractured testimonies and tiny fragments of information. Survivors and former SS officers recount how concentration-camp inmates were transported, gassed and herded into crematoriums. Cameras peer around the ruins of Chelmno, Birkenau and Treblinka as first-person narration discusses corpse disposal and crowd control.
2. Sans Soleil (1983) – This experimental film by acclaimed French director Chris Marker collects footage recorded in various countries around the world and presents it in collage-like form. The documentary features no synchronized sound, but instead ties the various segments together with music and voice-over narration, which ponders topics such as memory, technology and society.
3. The Thin Blue Line (1988) – We now take it for granted that documentaries employ re-creations of events, borrow the narrative thrust of fiction and tiptoe into the realm of the poetic. When Errol Morris introduced those techniques into his true-crime tale of a murdered Dallas police officer, however, the effect was galvanizing—and undeniably game-changing. Structured like a whodunit thriller, Morris’s case study proved that documentaries could become popular hits, and ended up exonerating an innocent man.
4. Night and Fog (1955) – Any discussion of Holocaust documentaries must include Alain Resnais’s sober, deeply affecting half-hour short. A survivor, Jean Cayrol, authored the omnipresent narration, spoken in detached tones over imagery of an empty and decrepit Auschwitz a decade after the ovens cooled. Resnais’s camera glides over the landscape as if searching for clues to an unsolvable mystery, while photographs of Nazi medical experiments and their sickening results attest to atrocities that can’t possibly be fathomed in full.
5. Harlan County U.S.A. (1976) – Barbara Kopple’s gritty, unabashedly militant 1976 documentary chronicles a 13-month coal miners’ strike in an impoverished eastern Kentucky town, homing in on the heroic struggle of ordinary people to secure basic workplace rights. For four years, Kopple lived with residents of a shanty-town operated by Eastover Mining Co., and bore witness to the hazardous conditions in which death-haunted local men, like generations before them, worked without disability benefits or safety regulations.
1. Woodstock (1970) – It’s sometimes hard to think of Woodstock as anything other than the enshrinement (for better or worse) of the entire 1960s counterculture: its political idealism, communal spirit, and electrifying music. But director Michael Wadleigh always meant Woodstock to be a cinema verité report on an event, not a museum piece. As a result, this film looks better with each passing year as the backlash against the boomer generation fades, and as Wadleigh’s footage ceases to be a lazy way for broadcast journalists and documentarians to sum up an entire decade.
2. The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years (1988) – Because heavy metal isn’t as “cool” as punk rock, the second installment of Penelope Spheeris’s “Decline” trilogy sometimes gets the short shrift from those who prefer the spikier first one. But “The Metal Years” is the more meaningful film: an at-times-painfully-honest portrait of the superstars and wannabes who shared space on the Sunset Strip in the late 1980s. Spheeris captures rich rockers mired in self-loathing (like W.A.S.P. guitarist Chris Holmes, who spends his scenes getting hammered in his pool), and up-and-comers who refuse to believe they won’t make it big some day.
3. Stop Making Sense (1984) – The late Jonathan Demme’s concert film is devoid of interviews and lacks any overt attempts to contextualize the music of the Talking Heads, but it’s still a documentary in its way because it has a narrative, and it frames a reality. The band’s leader David Byrne came up with a highly conceptual stage show for the Heads’ 1983 tour, starting with just himself on the stage and then adding one additional member for each song in the first set, and one prop or striking visual element per song for the second set.
4. Scratch (2001) – Anyone who still somehow doubts that a turntable can be a musical instrument should watch Doug Pray’s brilliant deep dive into the culture of spinning and sampling. Beginning with the origins of hip-hop — and the way innovators like GrandMixer DXT, Jam Master Jay, and Double Dee & Steinski used record players as both percussion and hook-generating machines — “Scratch” proceeds to cover more sophisticated, almost avant-garde modern artists like DJ Shadow and DJ Qbert.
5. Amazing Grace (2018) – Originally shot in 1972, director Sydney Pollack’s film of Aretha Franklin’s two-night live recording session for her gospel album of the same name sat on a shelf for decades, held up first by technical snafus and then by legal disputes. Though it ostensibly just films about a dozen songs that Franklin belted out in a sweltering south Los Angeles church — surrounded by a choir that both supported her and were transported by her — “Amazing Grace” is also a document of a movie crew scrambling to figure out the best way to capture the magic happening right in front of their eyes, and it’s the story of the crowds that packed into the chapel on the second night once they heard about the electric performances happening inside.
Most documentaries strive to teach us about worlds we never knew existed, and the very best of them are even capable of changing our lives for the better.
With so many options to wade through, Highsnobiety carefully selected ten documentaries on Netflix that can help transform your outlook on the world in ways you might not have thought possible.
Chasing Coral (2017) – “Chasing Coral” is a call to activism that encourages viewers to reevaluate humanity’s impact on the environment. While it’s easy to feel powerless in the face of climate change, it’s vital that individuals do everything they can to help on a micro level while also supporting public officials who are fighting to change things for the better.
Audrie & Daisy (2016) – The two women featured in this documentary were both sexually assaulted at high school parties and then subjected to a horrific tirade of online bullying in the weeks and months that followed. Through their stories, the filmmakers explore the trauma such crimes inflict while also investigating how the institutions that were supposed to protect them failed to do so.
Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower (2017) – When the Chinese Communist Party reneged on their promises of autonomy for Hong Kong in 2014, teenager Joshua Wong rallied over 100,000 people to hit the streets in protest. At a time when society continues to take some darker turns, it’s inspiring to see that teenagers can make a real difference.
It’s Not Yet Dark (2016) – Narrated by Colin Farrell, “It’s Not Yet Dark” follows Irish filmmaker Simon Fitzmaurice as he directs his first feature film. Using only his eyes and groundbreaking technology, Fitzmaurice doesn’t let an ALS diagnosis stop him from achieving his goals.
Newtown (2016) – More than just a mere reminder of how gun violence can destroy a community, “Newtown” forces the audience to confront their own beliefs regarding gun control by emphasizing the lasting pain that such attacks can provoke.