Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold – As a bona fide New Journalism legend and the author of “The Year of Magical Thinking,” Joan Didion is a woman who has some serious stories to tell, especially about life in the U.S. during the tumultuous 1960s and 1970s. In this documentary, her own nephew gets us closer to both the woman and the myth, giving us a chance to get to know Didion’s real life and her work. This is the documentary that lovers of journalism and U.S. history buffs won’t want to miss.
Seeing Allred – Meet Gloria Allred, who is arguably the most famous women’s rights attorney in the United States. You might know her from representing Nicole Brown’s family in the case against O. J Simpson, but also because she’s been taking on big-name Hollywood sex offenders and has joined hands in solidarity with Trump’s own accusers. In this documentary, we get a better look at the woman behind the media personality and hear her talk frankly about sexual abuse, race, and gender like nobody else can.
Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise – “Still I Rise,” one of the most well-known poems by poet, writer, and activist Maya Angelou, is a piece on the difficulties in overcoming prejudice and injustice. It’s also the title that the directors have chosen for this documentary that celebrates the story of a woman who truly persevered in the face of adversity — including being a victim of sexual assault as a minor and dealing with encounters with the Ku Klax Klan while living in the South — to become a hugely important activist for black people and women.
Mission Blue – Oceanographer Sylvia Earle was the first female chief scientist of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, but there’s more to her than that. Her life mission: to save the oceans from its greatest threats, including toxic waste and overfishing. In this award-winning 2014 documentary, we come to know the woman who turned ocean environmentalism on its head at a time when the field was dominated by men.
Ladies First – Growing up, Deepika Kumari was told that girls belong at home, not on a sports field. And despite being born into poverty in rural India where women’s rights are severely limited, she went on to become the the best female archer in the world at just 18 years of age. This documentary chronicles her journey and triumph.
The Bleeding Edge (2018) – “The Bleeding Edge” exposes the sordid underbelly of the medical device market that convinces approximately 70 million Americans yearly that they need some kind of apparatus implanted into their body. The multi-billion dollar industry does some good, but a whole lot of harm, shilling products and procedures that, in many cases, haven’t even been properly tested. Revealing the complicity between the medical device industry and the community of healthcare practitioners and even the FDA, who refused to be interviewed for the film, “The Bleeding Edge” offers, if nothing else, a good reason to take better care of yourself.
13th (2016) – A searing work from director Ava DuVernay, “13th” shines a Klieg light on a twisted interpretation of the Constitution’s 13th amendment. It turns out the amendment that abolished slavery included a loophole. It actually permits the practice of slavery in certain contexts, including while in prison confinement. Taken together with the fact that American prisons are overwhelmingly populated by African-American men, it might be a good idea to have a notepad next to you as you watch this film to take down choice phrases for inclusion in a strongly worded letter to your elected officials.
The Toys That Made Us(2018) – While this docuseries will most definitely revive some beloved memories of playing with Legos and G.I. Joes, “The Toys That Made Us” builds some very non-schmaltzy nuance around those memories by telling you how, why, and by whom those toys were made. He-Man and Battle Cat were invented by a marketing team on the verge of a breakdown; Barbie was based on a German comic strip. It’s a great way to beef up your nostalgia with some meaningful nerdery. It’s like watching Saturday morning cartoons, except it will make you feel smarter.
The Trader (Sovdagari) (2018) – Clocking in at just 25 minutes, this portrait of daily life in the Republic of Georgia might be the shortest distance between entitlement and gratitude you’ll encounter all year. “The Trader” follows Gela, an old man who scavenges his neighborhood for potatoes, the principal currency of his poverty-stricken community, and trades them for other necessities. A winner of the Sundance Film Festival’s short film jury award for non-fiction in 2018, this documentary will at least get your mind off all the things you don’t have; at best, it may inspire you to share more with those in need.
Icarus (2017) – Thrilling, funny, and completely unpredictable, “Icarus” had an award-winning debut at the Sundance Film Festival in 2017, wowed audiences around the world, and took home an Oscar. The film starts off as one of those personal experimentation docs in which filmmaker Bryan Fogel goes all Morgan Spurlock in the competitive cycling world. In other words, he shoots himself full of performance-enhancing drugs. That would have been interesting enough, but then Fogel stumbles across Grigory Rodchenkov, the guy who oversees the state-sanctioned doping program for the Russian Olympic team. In other words, you go from personal experiment to inside sports to political conspiracy exposé, all in just two very quick hours.
The Nightmare – Do you know what sleep paralysis is? Because you’re about to — and maybe also never sleep again? In this documentary, eight people share their experiences with the phenomenon, and it’s all illustrated with some very frightening, surrealist scenes. We have to warn you: don’t watch it alone.
I am Jane Doe – In the United States, a group of young women were turned into sex slaves through classified ads published on the website, Backpage. The documentary follows these women as they recount the horrors they lived through at the same time that they try to find justice.
Holy Hell – Recorded over a 20-year period, this documentary follows a sect in California and Michel, its eccentric guru. What seemed like a loving space for meditation, practicing yoga, hugging each other, swimming, and working becomes unraveled years later when former members of the sect reveal very dark secrets about their leader.
Tyke Elephant Outlaw – In 1994, a circus elephant in Honolulu attacked and killed its trainer during a live show and escaped, rambling through the streets and terrifying the citizens. The event sparked a very important conversation around animals in captivity and their desire for freedom. Disturbing but it also ends up being very touching.
Hostage to the Devil – A documentary about real exorcist, Malachi Martin. Director Marty Stalker attempts to profile the man through interviews with believers as well as critics. Martin is the Catholic priest who inspired the story for “The Exorcist.”
RGB – This altogether entertaining, if traditional documentary from Betsy West and Julie Cohen chronicles the 85-year-old Supreme Court Justice’s influential life and career, from becoming one of the very few women in her law class to her close friendship with the late conservative judge Antonin Scalia.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? – Even the most taciturn grouch will wind up a blubbering mess after watching this lovely remembrance of Fred Rogers — aka TV’s Mr. Rogers — and how he in subtle and not-so-subtle ways urged us to love and appreciate each other. His voice of calm and reason in this era of bombast and hysteria is refreshing.
Three Identical Strangers – Truth is stranger than fiction, as evidenced by this film about three young men who discover they’re actually triplets separated at birth. Their reunion story made the talk show circuit, but there are shocking turns in their story that director Tim Wardle slowly reveals.
Dark Money – Kimberly Reed’s quietly explosive documentary avoids bipartisan finger pointing as it delves into how big nonprofits are spearheading political campaigns, throwing help and money at them.
The Bleeding Edge – Don’t like visiting the doctor? Then you’ll be freaked out after seeing Kirby Dick’s latest expose, a damning, well-made investigation into how high-tech medical devices have caused great pain to unassuming patients.
What’s Happening! The Beatles in the U.S.A. (1964) – A singular piece of filmmaking where nonfiction talent met transcendent musical genius on the threshold of gargantuan stardom, this is the best Beatles documentary ever produced. Directed by legendary documentarians Albert and David Maysles, the film captures the band’s first frivolous jaunt through America where they raised the screaming decibel level in The Ed Sullivan Show theater and goofed off in hotel rooms. It’s an explosion of youth before they changed music forever.
Don’t Look Back (1967) – Another marriage of style, skill, and subject, “Don’t Look Back” helped shape how the rockumentary genre could provide insights into the people who shape our popular culture. That so many iconic moments emerged from D.A. Pennebaker’s watershed work, which strolled with Bob Dylan through England in 1965, is a testament to the legendary musician’s infinite magnetism. The cue cards, singing with Joan Baez in a hotel room on the edge of breaking up, the Mississippi voter registration rally, and on and on. Since it portrayed fame’s effect on the artist, the art, and the audience, most every other rock doc has been chasing its brilliance.
Gimme Shelter (1970) – The rockumentary has evolved to be as diverse as the sonic landscape itself, which is why “Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping” can send up the current scene just like “This Is Spinal Tap!” did in the 1980s. Still, 1970 feels like the year that defined the rockumentary. Another Maysles joint, this profound doc captured The Rolling Stones touring at a time when they were one of the biggest bands in the world and only getting bigger. The music is powerful and immediate, and the film closes with their appearance at the Altamont Free Concert, which turned deadly when—after a day of skirmishes between concertgoers and the Hell’s Angels acting as security—a fan with a gun was stabbed to death when he tried to get on stage during “Under My Thumb.”
Woodstock (1970) – The other 1970 film that helped define the genre allowed thousands to claim they’d been to the biggest concert event of the generation without actually going. If rock ‘n’ roll emerged from unruly teenage years into conflicted young adulthood in the 1960s, nothing stamped that image in henna ink better than Woodstock and the documentary that accompanied it. The bands that appear are legendary: Crosby, Stills & Nash; The Who; Joe Cocker singing The Beatles; Janis Joplin; Jimi Hendrix; and many more. It’s a fly-by of the three days of peace and music that you could play on repeat with summery ease.
Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1973) – Rock doc royalty D.A. Pennebaker captured David Bowie’s final performance in his red-domed sci-fi persona at London’s Hammersmith Odeon with a flair that captures the frenetic energy of the room. The crowd is as much a part of the moment as the band is as the camera places you in the middle of a transitional moment in music history. To see Bowie that close up now is a wonder. And, naturally, the music is out of this world.
What Happened, Miss Simone? – Nina Simone is one of the most mysterious, ethereal singers of all time. Her music has an almost spiritual quality, especially some of the early 1960s recordings like “Sinnerman” and “Strange Fruit.” As talented as she was, Simone was also beset by demons that left her alienated from friends and family as she moved from America to Europe while also battling an abusive spouse and the crackdown against African-Americans in America in the face of the civil rights movement. “What Happened, Miss Simone?” is a film that captures a full portrait of this one-of-a-kind woman.
The History of the Eagles – This might just be the greatest music documentary of all time. Directed by Alison Ellwood, “The History of the Eagles” tells the full story of the most commercially successful American rock band in history. The documentary is broken up into two parts with the first and far more interesting half dedicated to their heady rise and inevitable combustion, and the second recounting their solo years before ultimately reuniting. It’s a story like no other told in the frankest terms possible.
20 Feet from Stardom – As the name suggests, “20 Feet from Stardom” tells the story of the people onstage who make the rest of the band look incredible. I’m talking of course about the backup singers. Directed by Morgan Neville, this film, which took home the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature at the 86th Academy Awards, profiles the lives and trials of those figures we hear but rarely ever pay attention to onstage.
Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me – A portrait of one of the true titans of country music, Glen Campbell, as he embarked on one final tour after discovering he’d been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. It’s a tough watch for anyone who knows someone who’s been afflicted with this catastrophic disease, but Campbell handles it with the same grace, humor, and grit that endeared him to millions of people around the world throughout his lengthy career.
Gaga: Five Foot Two – Documentaries about pop stars that go beyond fan service propaganda are exceedingly rare. It’s one of the reasons that “Gaga: Five Foot Two” is so compelling. Rarely do we ever really get to see the physical and mental toll it takes to roll out a new album and prepare to perform in front of more than 100 million people at the halftime show at the Super Bowl. Lady Gaga allowed the cameras to film her every move as she did just that for an unflinching and uncompromising look at what it’s really like to be an artist of the highest level in the 21st century.
See the 15 other best music documentaries on Netflix at Uproxx.