Documentaries exploded in popularity after the success of several high-profile titles in the 2000s, including Fahrenheit 9/11, Super Size Me, and An Inconvenient Truth.
In 2015, Netflix foresaw just how popular documentaries would become and began churning out their own original productions: My Own Man, Hot Girls Wanted, My Beautiful Broken Brain, etc. Some even went viral, like Amanda Knox, which spurred documentary fever further.
Netflix now has hundreds of original documentaries—but not all of them are worth watching. The worst ones are poorly made snoozefests with heavy-handed agendas. The best ones know how to toe the line just enough to change how you think about things.
Here are our picks for the best Netflix documentaries that are interesting, eye-opening, and may even alter your outlook on life.
16. Extremis (2016)
Directed by Dan Krauss
Starring Monica Bhargava and Jessica Zitter
Documentary, Short (24m)
Extremis follows Dr. Jessica Zitter, a physician who specializes in ICU and palliative care, as she helps families make end-of-life decisions for patients dealing with terminal illnesses.
Extremis only has a 24-minute runtime, but it packs a lot of emotional content in that short time as it invites you into the final moments of three patients. You may be surprised by how your own views of end-of-life decisions change—or don't.
15. The Great Hack (2019)
Directed by Karim Amer and Jehane Noujaim
Starring Brittany Kaiser, David Carroll, Paul-Olivier Dehaye
Documentary, Biography, History (1h 54m)
As if we all didn't hate Facebook enough already, The Great Hack will really make you want to delete your account.
Remember the Cambridge Analytica scandal that came to light in 2018? The one where Cambridge Analytica collected the personal data of millions of Facebook users to influence the US election?
The Great Hack is a thorough examination of the Cambridge Analytica scandal and the experiences of people who were affected by it. The fact that tech giants have been taking advantage of your personal information is a tough realization to swallow.
14. Girl in the Picture (2022)
Directed by Skye Borgman
Starring Karen Parsley, Charles Engles, Merle Bean
Documentary, Crime, Mystery (1h 41m)
Girl in the Picture is a true crime documentary that investigates the identity of a mysterious girl whom nobody knows. The only one who does know who she is? Her father, as seen in the titular picture.
The thing is, her father was a federal fugitive who's been on the run from the law for decades. And as it turns out, he didn't just abduct the girl and steal her away—he made her do unspeakable things.
13. The Volcano: Rescue From Whakaari (2022)
Directed by Rory Kennedy
Starring Mark Inman, Hazel Osborne, Pouroto Ngaropo
Documentary (1h 38m)
Whakaari (also known as White Island) is an active volcanic island in New Zealand's Bay of Plenty. Back in 2019, Whakaari exploded while 47 tourists were on the island, killing dozens and injuring many more.
The Volcano: Rescue From Whakaari is an edge-of-your-seat documentary that takes you through that entire day, compiling all kinds of footage with shared accounts by survivors and rescuers.
It's one of the most thrilling documentaries ever produced by Netflix, and a visceral reminder of how abruptly chaotic life can be.
12. Shirkers (2018)
Directed by Sandi Tan
Starring Jasmine Kin Kia Ng, Philip Cheah, Sophia Siddique Harvey
Documentary (1h 37m)
Back in 1992, a teenage girl named Sandi Tan shot an independent film with her two friends and her film teacher.
She left the footage with her teacher and went to study abroad—but when she returned, the teacher had disappeared along with the footage, never to be seen again. But this isn't a true crime documentary.
Some years later, Tan receives a copy of her old footage from her former film teacher's ex-wife, except without the audio tracks. So, she pivots and turns it into a documentary about the creation of her old film.
Shirkers is a beautifully introspective exploration on themes of loss, creativity, disappointment, and coming to terms with such disappointments. It's unique in today's world of documentaries.
11. The Push (2016)
Directed by Jon Richards
Starring Derren Brown and Chris Kingston
Documentary, Reality (1h 8m)
Derren Brown is a performer who specializes in mentalism and often "tricks" people into believing things that aren't real via hypnosis, illusions, persuasion, suggestion, misdirection, etc.
The Push (also titled Pushed to the Edge) is an intricate and complex social experiment that he devised, where he and his team of actors set up a complete Truman Show-esque scenario to see whether or not a person can be manipulated into pushing someone off a building.
I won't spoil the ending, but suffice it to say that The Push may disturb you—if for no other reason than the realization that humans are extremely susceptible to psychological influences, and we aren't always acting within our full control.
10. Tell Me Who I Am (2019)
Directed by Ed Perkins
Starring Andrew Caley, Alex Lewis, Marcus Lewis
Documentary, Drama, Mystery (1h 26m)
At the age of 18, Alex Lewis gets into a bad motorcycle accident and loses all of his memories. The only thing he still remembers? That he has a twin brother named Marcus.
Over the course of many years, Marcus helps Alex recreate his lost memories, but something seems off. It's clear that Marcus is hiding details from him—dark details about his family and his past.
Tell Me Who I Am is less on the thrilling side and more on the intimate side of documentaries, as these two brothers spend years working through all the difficulties and trauma they've suffered together.
9. Athlete A (2020)
Directed by Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk
Starring Maggie Nichols, Gina Nichols, John Nichols
Documentary, Crime, Sport (1h 43m)
Athlete A is an investigative documentary that looks into the harsh realities of sexual assault faced by young female gymnasts in the United States.
Spearheaded by a team of The Indianapolis Star journalists, the investigation leads up to Steve Penny, president of USA Gymnastics, who's been covering up sexually abusive behaviors perpetrated by gymnastics coaches and doctors.
Athlete A isn't an easy watch, but it's an important one—and certainly one of the most eye-opening documentaries put out by Netflix.
8. The Social Dilemma (2020)
Directed by Jeff Orlowski
Starring Tristan Harris, Jeff Seibert, Bailey Richardson
Documentary, Drama (1h 34m)
The Social Dilemma is a hard-hitting exploration of social media and its effects on people and society. In particular, it looks at the design of social media and how it's optimized for addictiveness, how it can create echo chambers, and how it can poison one's thinking.
Between all the different interviews with employees and executives from high-profile social media companies like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, you'll have the scales peeled from your eyes as the realities of social media engineering come to light.
7. The Bleeding Edge (2018)
Directed by Kirby Dick
Starring Robert Bridges, Angie Firmalino, Rita Redberg
Documentary (1h 39m)
The Bleeding Edge is a documentary that dives into the medical device industry and all the nightmarish activity that happens behind the scenes as far as testing, regulations, corporate cover-ups, and greed-driven decisions are concerned.
Several medical devices with horrific stories are investigated in the film, supplemented by interviews with victims and insiders. Spotlighted devices include the birth control implant Essure, the da Vinci Surgical System, and chrome-cobalt hip replacements.
The most chilling scene in The Bleeding Edge comes right at the end, where we're reminded that nobody from the FDA or any of the companies in the documentary agreed to be interviewed.
6. Diagnosis (2019)
Directed by Various
Starring Lisa Sanders, Hugh Calkins, Crystal Lee
Documentary (5h 25m)
Diagnosis is a seven-episode mini-series based on a medical column in The New York Times Magazine by Dr. Lisa Sanders.
In the episodes of Diagnosis, Dr. Sanders helps take care of real patients who have truly unknown illnesses and tries to find diagnoses for their issues. She just wants to get them answers.
And she does so by writing about her patients in her medical column in order to get feedback from her readers. Using their responses, Dr. Sanders can look into leads—and solve these medical mysteries.
It's real evidence that we can help each other by working together.
5. Icarus (2017)
Directed by Bryan Fogel
Starring Bryan Fogel, Dave Zabriskie, Don Catlin
Documentary, Sport (2h 0m)
Icarus is an incredible (and frightening) documentary that came about by sheer happenstance.
Bryan Fogel originally wanted to record his personal experiences with performance doping in order to win an amateur cycling race. But then he's pulled down the rabbit hole and ends up uncovering Russia's state-sponsored doping program for the Olympics.
It starts off a bit slow, but by the end Icarus ends up being one of the most thrilling documentaries ever made—because this is serious stuff, and Fogel's life is actually on the line when he goes too deep.
4. Don't F**k With Cats: Hunting an Internet Killer (2019)
Directed by Mark Lewis
Starring Deanna Thompson, John Green, Claudette Hamlin
Documentary, Crime, Mystery (3h 7m)
In 2010, a man named Luka Magnotta posted an online video called "1 boy 2 kittens," which showed him trapping two kittens in a vacuum seal bag, sucking all the air out, and suffocating them to death.
After that video went viral, two amateur sleuths—Deanna Thompson and John Green—started a Facebook group in an attempt to identify the man, locate his whereabouts, and bring him to justice.
Don't F**k With Cats: Hunting an Internet Killer is a three-episode true crime docuseries that chronicles their investigation from start to end. It went on to be one of Netflix's most-watched documentaries of the year.
3. My Octopus Teacher (2020)
Directed by Pippa Ehrlich and James Reed
Starring Craig Foster
Documentary (1h 25m)
My Octopus Teacher is one of the most eye-opening documentaries you'll ever watch. Even if you already knew that octopuses were smart, this documentary will blow your mind.
Filmmaker Craig Foster spends a year in South Africa developing a relationship with a wild octopus. The octopus plays with him, eats with him, and lets him study her as she lives and sleeps.
It's incredible to see this relationship develop, and Foster allows us to see how this octopus taught him so many different things about life.
2. 13th (2016)
Directed by Ava DuVernay
Starring Melina Abdullah, Michelle Alexander, Cory Booker
Documentary, Crime, History (1h 40m)
13th is a deep dive into the structures, institutes, and systems of United States prisons. More specifically, it explores how modern prisons are used to suppress, disenfranchise, and enslave black Americans—despite slavery abolishment by the 13th Amendment.
Most Americans aren't aware of how the country's prison-industrial complex operates, and 13th will open your eyes in ways you'd never expect. Then again, by how things have been going since 2020, perhaps the details of this documentary won't be so unexpected.
1. Seaspiracy (2021)
Directed by Ali Tabrizi
Starring Ali Tabrizi, Richard O'Barry, Lucy Tabrizi
Adventure, Documentary (1h 29m)
Seaspiracy is a much-needed wake-up call for the world, bringing to our attention the far-reaching environmental impact of commercial fishing and widespread fish consumption.
The documentary explores several topics that all tie into marine life and the ocean: plastic debris, ghost nets, overfishing, and more. It takes a hard stance—some might even call it extreme—and outright rejects the modern concept of sustainable fishing.
Even if you don't agree with everything presented, Seaspiracy is an important documentary to watch as it sheds light in areas unseen up until now. It's certainly worth chewing on.
Expanding Worldviews With Documentaries
All of these documentaries are well-made, touch on topics that are really interesting, and invite you to change your perspective by presenting eye-opening facts that you may not have known.
Netflix's documentaries—when they're done well—are a great way to expand your own worldview and start seeing the world from different viewpoints. New perspectives can help you grow as a person.
If you're looking for even more eye-opening content, dive into these amazing conspiracy theory documentaries on Netflix: