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The best documentary films on Netflix (November 2018)

By Brie Barbee

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Netflix has plenty of great films and TV shows of the fictional variety, but what if you’re in the mood for something more educational? Thankfully, the popular streaming service has you covered in that regard as well, with documentary films covering a wide range of topics. Not all of them are great, so we’ve assembled a list of the best documentaries on Netflix. Whether you’re looking for a shocking true-crime story or an ode to sake, something educational or something heartwarming, you’ll find it here.

Chasing Coral‘ (2017)

Although they only cover less than 2 percent of the ocean floor, coral reefs are essential to marine ecosystems, providing support for nearly 25 percent of ocean species. It’s disturbing, then, to see the vibrant reefs of the world turn bone-white and die. Director Jeff Orlowski’s latest documentary, Chasing Coral, follows a team of researchers as they try to document the slow death of the world’s reefs. The documentary is informative, laying out for viewers why coral reefs are important in maintaining healthy oceans, and how increasing ocean temperatures are destroying them. Chasing Coral provides a human element, too. The researchers involved display a great passion for their work, and their zeal may be more persuasive than any facts or figures.

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Fire At Sea‘ (2016)

Gianfranco Rosi’s 2016 documentary examines the refugee crisis in Europe through a narrow lens, zeroing in on the small island of Lampedusa, which lies between Sicily and Tunisia. The film follows two disparate stories: That of a group of refugees crossing the sea to Lampedusa, and that of the islanders, including a young boy named Samuele. Although many have criticized the film’s structure, citing a lack of connection between the two stories, Rosi’s approach is striking. The refugees, crammed onto rafts, thin with hunger, make for a shocking juxtaposition to the story of the islander’s, living in innocent solitude. Fire At Sea takes a bold approach to documentary filmmaking, regardless of one’s political views.

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Amanda Knox‘ (2016)

Amanda Knox is a controversial figure — and a well-known one at that. In 2007, the foreign-language student and her boyfriend were wrongly convicted of murdering her fellow flatmate while in Italy, resulting in an eight-year legal battle that saw rampant misogyny, shaky forensic evidence, and shoddy journalism placed at the forefront. In the aptly titled Amanda Knox, directors Brian McGinn and Rod Blackhurst don’t so much recount the events as much as they examine the web of incompetence pervading the sexualized tabloid narrative, thus creating a riveting procedural that’s chock-full of enlightening interviews with Knox and those closest to her.

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Batkid Begins: The Wish Heard Around the World‘ (2015)

When Miles Scott was diagnosed with leukemia at just 18 months old, the boy and his family became embroiled in a battle for survival. As he grew up living with the disease, Scott became fascinated by Batman, who was a symbol of hope while he was undergoing his difficult treatment. After years battling the disease, his parents teamed up with the Make-A-Wish Foundation in order to give their son a chance to be Batman for a day. What began as a simple event quickly blossomed into a massive campaign that brought together people from all over the globe — including iconic Batman actor Adam West and President Barack Obama — and turned San Francisco into Gotham City.

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Miss Sharon Jones!‘ (2015)

The late, great Sharon Jones was a force to be reckoned with, particularly when at the helm of her fellow Dap-Kings. The singer’s undeniable penchant for ‘60s-style soul and classic R&B isn’t the central force behind this heartrending documentary, however. Oscar-winning director Barbara Kopple’s film functions as a no-holds-barred examination of Jones’ more recent triumphs and lifelong hardships, one that opens with her being diagnosed with the same pancreatic cancer that would kill her three years later. The rest of it plays out with a healthy mix of interviews and candid observations, each punctured with invigorating concert footage that serves as a testament to the unflinching strength of her perseverance.

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Finding Vivian Maier‘ (2013)

Sometimes the most fascinating mysteries stem from the unlikeliest of places. Historian John Maloof, for instance, purchased a box of negatives at a Chicago auction for a mere $400. The work turned out to be that of a Vivian Maier, a former nanny who spent her much of her time capturing exquisite photos in the bustling streets of Chicago in the late- 950s and ’60s. The discovery of Maier’s work upon her death eventually paved the way for a Kickstarter-backed film, Finding Vivian Maier, which centers on Maloof’s search for the unknown talent. The breezy narrative introduces Maier and her candid photography through an assortment of intriguing interviews with those who remember her, many of which shed light on a recluse who, for one reason or another, decided to stow away more than 150,000 photos before her death.

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Valley Uprising‘ (2014)

Right in the middle of the counterculture era, a group of brave, young individuals dedicated their lives to rock climbing. Set in Yosemite National Park, Valley Uprising tells the story of these young pioneers, who paved the way for the next generation of climbers. But don’t think you need to be a climbing enthusiast to enjoy this unique historical account. The directors masterfully utilize both vintage footage and digitally-animated archival photography to keep you on the edge of your seat, while incorporating a host of enlightening interviews with climbing legends such as Yvon Chouinard, Royal Robbins, Lynn Hill, and John Long. Many contemporary climbers, such as Dean Potter and Alex Honnold, also make an appearance. With fingers of steel, these scofflaws transformed climbing from a “fringe activity” to the respected sport it is today.

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The Ivory Game‘ (2016)

In this Netflix Original, filmmakers Kief Davidson and Richard Ladkani tell the story of the elephant poaching and the inner workings of the ongoing ivory trade — from the inside out. The film paints a dire picture of the economies, both political and financial, that have emerged as a result of ivory’s value in regions where legal loopholes allow the black-market commodity to move unfettered. From Africa to China to Italy, the film looks to expose the brutality of the ivory trade and help support those looking to make it extinct. It exists in the same vain as heartbreaking documentaries such as Blackfish and The Cove, and as such, it often feels more like a loudspeaker for animal-rights activists than a work of pure journalism.

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The Short Game‘ (2013)

Ever seen the excellent, 2002 documentary Spellbound? Well, The Short Game is kind of like that, though it focuses on eight entrants in the 2012 U.S. Kids Golf World Championship and their overzealous parents, instead of a national spelling bee in Washington D.C. Director Josh Greenbaum’s inspiring film follows the young athletes — five of whom are boys and three of whom are girls — beginning six months prior to the competition, profiling their athletic drive and personal interests in equal measure. Some of the athletes hog more of the spotlight than others, such as tennis superstar Anna Kournikova’s younger brother, but they all wind up participating in a competition that spurs both laughter and tears for the children and their parents.

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Icarus‘ (2017)

Bryan Fogel’s first documentary, Icarus, began as an attempt to document the effects of doping, with Fogel taking drugs to compete in a bicycle race. In an act of journalistic serendipity, Fogel meets a Russian doctor, Grigory Rodchenkov, who leads Fogel to a far bigger story: A Russian, state-sponsored doping program which could cast doubt on the validity of international sports. The story behind Icarus is interesting enough to recommend it; it is essentially a real-life political thriller.

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The Birth of Sake‘ (2015)

Even though Jiro Dreams of Sushi is no longer streaming on Netflix (at least as of right now), there is another excellent food documentary that is, chronicling the lives of a group of sake makers in northern Japan. While less about the actual process of making the brew and more about the group of men who find it their responsibility to keep the 2,000-year-old tradition alive, The Birth of Sake is an immersive and often emotional experience that any foodie should make sure is on their watchlist.

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While you might know her best from one of her hit songs like Back to Black or Rehab, Amy attempts to show you another side of the Grammy award-winning singer, Amy Winehouse. Amy paints a heartbreaking and sympathetic picture of a woman who deeply wanted to be loved and suffered for her art in the process. Director Asif Kapadia conducted more than 100 interviews with Winehouse’s friends and family to provide the most accurate version of the star’s life before her death in 2011.

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Audrie & Daisy ‘(2016)

While at times difficult to watch, Audrie & Daisy is an really important film, especially in a post-#MeToo world. The Netflix original documentary follows the story of two American high school students, Audrie Pott and Daisy Coleman, and the subsequent abuse and cyberbullying that followed their sexual assaults in 2012. Audrie & Daisy combines court documents and police investigations with social media posts and home videos to paint a haunting picture of how toxic social media can be and a legal system that ultimately failed to protect two hurting young women.

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