Netflix original documentaries and docuseries have been knocking it out of the park lately. Not only did Netflix win Best Documentary Feature at the Academy Awards this year, they've also racked up six nominations for Best Documentary Feature since 2014. So good!
Metacritic score: 80
My sincerest apologies, because Dirty Money is definitely not a feel-good docuseries. It will probably fill you with rage. But I'm recommending it anyway, because damn if it's not informative. The show focuses on corrupt corporations, and it had me asking important questions like "How on Earth did they get away with that?" while screaming at my TV. You've been warned.
This docuseries on the culinary arts is pure visual poetry. Every episode tells the story of a different world-renowned chef. As a generally stoic person, I've cried maybe three times over a movie or TV show in my entire life. The first episode of Chef's Table, which tells the love story of Massimo Bottura and his wife, had me sobbing on my couch. Make of that what you will.
Update: The fourth season is out and focuses entirely on pastry chefs. It's an entire season of desserts. RIP your diet.
Wild Wild Country
Metacritic score: 79
Holy bananas. Is that even a saying? Because, holy bananas. Wild Wild Country is about the Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and the utopian city of Rajneeshpuram his followers built in the Oregon desert in the early 80s. The local townspeople of Antelope, Oregon, right next to Rajneeshpuram, even voted to disband their own town to try and prevent the Rajneesh's followers from taking over. The story unfolds into utter insanity: from a hotel bombing, to an assassination plot, to illegal wiretapping, and the largest bioterrorism attack in US history. This docuseries had me absolutely hooked in the first 10 minutes. Be prepared to have your mind blown with disbelief that this actually really happened.
The Toys That Made Us
Netflix has only released half of the first season back in December, and I have spent the last three months constantly checking to see if they added the other half. Seriously, I binged watch the first half of the season in a single setting. It's just so fantastically fun to watch. Even the way the He Man and Barbie teams from Mattel talk about each other across both episodes was delightful. Trust me; you should take a few hours out of your day to watch this docuseries and just feel like a kid again.
Abstract: The Art of Design
It's basically Chef's Table, but for designers. The eight artists featured in the first season range from a footwear designer to an car designer, and each episode narrates the story of a single artist (something I find so compelling about Chef's Table). Netflix is so adept at documentaries at this point it's almost mocking us with its constant three-pointers. Abstract is visual candy, perfect for quiet nights when you just want make a cup of tea and sink into yourself.
Hot Girls Wanted: Turned On
Don't shy away from this docuseries, even you are turned off by the clunky title. I'll admit that I initially judged the book by its cover, but once I actually got around to watching the show I found myself utterly delighted by the subject matter. Turned On is as finely crafted as any other Netflix docuseries, both in production and thoughtfulness. And for anyone navigating the world of online dating, the second episode on dating apps is an absolute must watch. The topics for the episodes range from women making female empowering porn to racial bias in porn industry.
Metacritic score: 78
I'm just going to level with you: This docuseries may wreck you emotionally. The Keepers investigates the 1969 unsolved murder of Sister Cathy Cesnik, a Catholic nun and high-school teacher, and how her murder possibly links to a pervasive sexual predator from the school, the priest Joseph Maskill. The seven-part series was nearly impossible for me to turn off, completely and utterly gripping from the onset.
Metacritic score: 82
This documentary tells the story of the 13 female pilots who were tested, in secret, for the space program in the early '60s. For political reasons, these women sadly would never be sent into space. (Though Russia sent a woman into space in 1963, it would be another 20 years before America would follow suit.) But these passionate, eager women were ready to be the first pioneers in space, and the documentary does a wonderful job recognizing a piece of space race history often overlooked.
Seeing Allred (2018)
Metacritic score: 68
You have to have pretty thick skin to be an activist in the public eye. And even thicker skin if you're a female lawyer. But Gloria Allred has championed women's rights for decades, seeming completely immune to the childish taunts thrown her way. This documentary is an utterly fascinating look at the life and motivations of one of America's most known attorneys.
Strong Island (2017)
Metacritic score: 86
Strong Island is an incredibly moving film about a family's history and their struggles with racism in America. The movie is centered around a horrific tragedy in 1992, when William Ford Jr., a 24-year-old black high school teacher on Long Island was murdered by a white 19-year-old. Yance Ford's documentary on his brother's death is a heart-wrenching film that tries to celebrate William's potential.
Metacritic score: 68
Bryan Fogel's documentary Icarus about sports doping may as well be called a thriller; while making this documentary he accidentally uncovers a massive Russian doping scandal after meeting with a Russian scientist. Icarus is an insightful yet scary look at the complex world of sports and the politics surrounding them. Oh, and "Icarus" won Best Documentary Feature at the Academy Awards this year.
Metacritic score: 90
Ava DuVernay's documentary about the mass incarceration and disenfranchisement of African Americans in the United States gets right to the point. 13th has to cover quite a bit of ground and DuVernay's skills as a filmmaker really shine through as she carefully lays out a very complex history of injustice. 13th picked up an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary, won 3 Emmys and won a Peabody award.
Casting JonBenét (2017)
Metacritic score: 74
If you're a true crime fan looking for answers on the JonBenét Ramsey case, this is not the documentary for you. (Don't worry, there are plenty of specials, books and podcasts on this case you can sink your teeth into.) Instead this thought provoking documentary turns the camera onto the actors auditioning for reenactment roles and makes the viewer wonder about how we might project our own experiences onto sensational cases like JonBenét's.
Gaga: Five Foot Two (2017)
Metacritic score: 63
As someone who casually enjoys Lady Gaga's music but knew very little about her, I wasn't expecting much from this documentary. But I found Gaga: Five Foot Two to be an enjoyable easy watch, perfect for a lazy afternoon. Lady Gaga may be a larger than life persona, but the documentary really highlights the dedication and hard work required by the singer to be a superstar and pull off something as grand as a Super Bowl performance.
Metacritic score: 95
Virunga was one of the first documentaries to really put Netflix originals on the map. It received a nomination for Best Documentary at the Oscars, making it the second Academy Award nomination for Netflix. At that point people began to notice that Netflix was picking some real winners. And Virunga is absolutely a winner. The film focuses on the park rangers at the Virunga National Park in the Congo, and their struggle to protect the mountain gorillas who live there. It's a powerful film well worth your time.