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Best Netflix documentaries to watch right now

From murder, mayhem, madness and tigers to a sex-trafficking scandal that hit the headlines, Netflix has a huge list of documentaries you need to watch.

The Cecil Hotel
Published: Monday, 6th December 2021 at 5:41 pm
26 items

Over the years, Netflix has made a name for itself as one of the go-to places for some of the best documentaries around – with films and series covering everything from true crime to sporting legends.

Last year, Tiger King – which recently returned for its second run – broke records and became part of pop culture during the first lockdown, while shows like Making a Murderer set the trend for all others to follow.

Documentaries such as The Last Dance captured the attention of sport fans and showed that there was much more to what Netflix has to offer than just true crime, while additions such as The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel have had everybody talking.

There are also gripping and thought-provoking movie-length documentaries such as The Social Dilemma, alongside important and timely features such as Trans representation film Disclosure.

Basically, there's no shortage of documentaries to watch on Netflix and we've rounded up 25 of the best for you below.

Showing items 1 to 24 of 26

  • Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel

    • 2021
    • Documentary and factual
    • News and current affairs
    • 15

    Summary:

    College student and tourist Elisa Lam vanishes, leaving behind all of her possessions in her hotel room. The Cecil Hotel grows in infamy.

    Why watch Crime Scene: the Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel?:

    One of the more recent docuseries to air on Netflix, The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel is also one of the most chilling. Elisa Lam, on holiday from Canada, disappeared at the hotel and was last seen acting strangely in the lift in footage that has been circulating since 2013.

    With so many possible explanations as to what happened to her, from the sinister to evil forces taking control of her, this show looks at them all and does its best to come up with a conclusion as to what happened. It actually ends up being a sad, tragic story rather than a sensational one and this mini-series is all the better for it. It also recounts the history of the hotel that was known as a dangerous place long before Elisa ever checked in.

    How to watch
  • Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer

    • 2021
    • Documentary and factual
    • News and current affairs
    • 18

    Summary:

    This limited docu-series tells the true story of how one of the most notorious serial killers in American history was hunted down and brought to justice.

    Why watch Night Stalker: the Hunt for a Serial Killer?:

    Los Angeles in the mid-80s was a particularly dangerous place to be and one of those reasons was the Night Stalker murders that took place for over a year from the spring of 1984. The crimes were gruesome and barbaric, the police had no idea who they were looking for, and the public was making it known how unsafe they felt. A gripping recounting of the events, this documentary talks to the people that helped track the killer down, and shows us what can happen when the public unite.

    How to watch
  • The Ripper

    • 2020
    • Documentary and factual
    • News and current affairs
    • 15

    Summary:

    When her peers begin to disappear on the anniversary of an unsolved family's murder, a small-town high school newspaper editor works to solve the mystery and save her friends.

    Why watch The Ripper?:

    From a serial killer in Los Angeles in the 80s to one who struck in the midlands her in the UK, The Ripper is the story of the murders and crimes committed by Peter Sutcliffe – otherwise known as the Yorkshire Ripper. Sutcliffe murdered 13 people and harmed many more during his reign of terror and this is a look at those affected by his actions and those who were hellbent on seeing him brought to justice.

    How to watch
  • Operation Varsity Blues

    • Crime/detective
    • Documentary and factual
    • 2021
    • Chris Smith
    • 100 mins
    • 12

    Summary:

    Reenactments drive this documentary investigating the mastermind behind a scam to sneak the kids of rich and famous families into top US universities.

    Why watch Operation Varsity Blues?:

    This documentary explores the college admissions scandal that rocked the headlines in 2019, when it emerged that several wealthy families had gone to extreme – and rather questionable – lengths to get their children into elite colleges.

    The feature-length film digs into the role of Rick Singer, the man who was able to persuade his wealthy clients to cheat the educational system, through a combination of interviews with people involved in the scandal and reenactments starring Matthew Modine as Singer.

    How to watch
  • The Social Dilemma

    • Documentary and factual
    • Drama
    • 2020
    • Jeff Orlowski
    • 94 mins
    • 12

    Summary:

    Explores the dangerous human impact of social networking, with tech experts sounding the alarm on their own creations.

    Why watch The Social Dilemma?:

    Arguably one of 2020’s most talked-about documentaries, The Social Dilemma is an unsettling look at the rise of social media and the damage it has caused, from the spreading of conspiracy theories, its use in political elections and its addictive design.

    Directed by Jeff Orlowski, this film features interviews with a number of technological bosses, from the co-creator of Facebook’s like button to a former Google design ethicist, which are spliced together with dramatised scenes starring Skyler Gisondo (Booksmart), Kara Hayward (Moonrise Kingdom) and Vincent Kartheiser (Mad Men).

    How to watch
  • Fyre

    • Crime/detective
    • Documentary and factual
    • 2019
    • Chris Smith
    • 97 mins
    • 15

    Summary:

    An exclusive behind the scenes look at the infamous unraveling of the Fyre music festival.

    Why watch Fyre: the Greatest Party That Never Happened?:

    Remember when Ja Rule set about organising the best party that the world had ever seen – and it did not go very well? Well, this is a feature-length documentary about that very fiasco where you will learn all about what happened, and what went wrong, with the island based shindig that was far from the perfect getaway for those in attendance.

    How to watch
  • American Murder: The Family Next Door

    • Crime/detective
    • Documentary and factual
    • 2020
    • Jenny Popplewell
    • 83 mins
    • 15

    Summary:

    In 2018, 34-year-old Shanann Watts and her two young daughters disappear in Colorado. With the heartbreaking details emerging, the family's story made headlines around the world.

    Why watch American Murder: the Family Next Door?:

    Despite seeming like they all lived the perfect family life, Shannon Watts and her two children mysteriously vanished and the finger of suspicion ended up pointing at the husband and father. This is not the happiest of stories, obviously, but it is a compelling one that makes you remember that you truly never know for sure what is going on behind closed doors. Chilling stuff.

    How to watch
  • Unsolved Mysteries

    • 2020
    • Crime/detective
    • Documentary and factual
    • 15

    Summary:

    Immersive, character-driven stories are rooted in the experiences of ordinary people who have lived the unthinkable. Families, detectives and journalists hope viewers hold the clues to solving these mysteries.

    Why watch Unsolved Mysteries?:

    Netflix’s reboot of iconic true-crime docuseries Unsolved Mysteries has proved to be immensely popular with subscribers, who have taken it upon themselves to find an answer to these open criminal cases.

    The episodes available on the platform look at various unsolved cases by identifying potential suspects and interviewing friends and family of the deceased.

    From the “unexplained” rooftop death of Rey Rivera and killing of an entire family in France, to the disappearance of a hairdresser in broad daylight and a UFO sighting – every episode of Unsolved Mysteries brings out the amateur detectives amongst viewers and encourages people to come forward with potential leads.

    How to watch
  • A Secret Love

    • Documentary and factual
    • Drama
    • 2020
    • Chris Bolan
    • 81 mins
    • 12

    Summary:

    Falling in love in 1947, two women -- Pat Henschel and pro baseball player Terry Donahue -- begin a 65-year journey of love and overcoming prejudice.

    Why watch A Secret Love?:

    This emotional documentary chronicles the decades long love story between two women, Pat Henschel and Terry Donahue, who first met and fell in love in 1947 but who had to keep their relationship hidden for a long time due to society’s regressive attitudes towards homosexuality at the time.

    The film explores several aspects of their lives, including the successful interior decorating business the pair ran together, Donahue’s earlier career in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League and the fact that they had to keep their relationship a secret from their families for almost seven decades. It’s a moving and heartfelt film, directed sensitively by Donahue’s great-nephew, and will be sure to leave you bawling your eyes out.

    How to watch
  • Wild Wild Country

    • 2018
    • Crime/detective
    • Documentary and factual

    Summary:

    When Osho, the world's most controversial guru, builds an Utopian city deep in the Oregon country, conflict with the locals escalates into a national scandal.

    Why watch Wild Wild Country?:

    True crime has become one of Netflix’s specialist genres, and there are few better examples of it than Wild Wild Country, the bizarre story of an Indian guru, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, who attempts to build a utopian city in the Oregon desert – and soon sees his followers come into conflict with the locals ranchers.

    Released in 2018, the show used extensive archive footage and interviews to chronicle the story, which goes in some pretty unexpected directions that include an attempt at fixing a local election, the first bioterror attack in the United States and a massive case of illegal wiretapping. There are some extremely memorable and beguiling interviewees none more so than that with the candid and charismatic Ma Anand Sheela, who had served as Bhagwan’s right hand woman.

    How to watch
  • Cheer

    • 2020
    • Documentary and factual
    • Sport
    • 15

    Summary:

    In the small town of Corsicana, Texas, hard-driving head cheer coach Monica Aldama demands perfection from her team of competitive college athletes.

    Why watch Cheer?:

    If you thought cheerleading was a light-weight, frivolous activity, this six-part docuseries is looking to prove you wrong.

    Cheer follows the Navarro College Bulldogs Cheer Team in Texas, a nationally ranked cheerleading squad, as they prepare for the National Cheerleading Championship held in Florida. The series looks at the lives of individual cheerleaders, the dedication required to become the best squad in the country and how physically and emotionally intense the competition can get.

    Watching the team shed blood, sweat and tears to make it to the Championship Finals makes for engrossing and educational television – well worth the watch if you’re a fan of sporting documentaries.

    How to watch
  • Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich

    • 2020
    • Crime/detective
    • Documentary and factual
    • 15

    Summary:

    Survivors worldwide reveal the manipulation, abuse and emotional scars suffered at the hands of wealthy convicted pedophile Jeffrey Epstein. Their stories expose a sex trafficking ring of powerful enablers leading up to his 2019 arrest.

    Why watch Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich?:

    Netflix’s hit four-part docu-series Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich brings to life the stories that made newspaper headlines in 2019 when financier Jeffrey Epstein died in prison while facing charges of sex trafficking.

    But what sets this true-crime series aside from many others is that it prioritises the survivors rather than the perpetrator.

    Using footage of Epstein being interviewed for an earlier charge (and disdainfully refusing to answer questions) alongside comments from prosecutors, associates and investigators, plus film of Epstein’s homes (including his private island in the Caribbean), director Lisa Bryant’s documentary is a fascinating and horrifying look at how one man escaped justice for decades, possibly with the help of wealthy connections.

    How to watch
  • The Last Dance

    • 2020
    • Drama
    • Documentary and factual
    • 15

    Summary:

    Charting the rise of the 1990's Chicago Bulls, led by Michael Jordan, one of the most notable dynasties in sports history.

    Why watch The Last Dance?:

    You don’t have to be a b-ball fan to get into The Last Dance, but for those who are, you will get to see a whole new side to the legend and man they called “Air.”

    In the fall of 1997, Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls began their quest to win a sixth NBA title in eight years. But despite all Jordan had achieved since his sensational debut 13 years earlier, “The Last Dance,” as coach Phil Jackson called it, would be shadowed by tension with the club’s front office and the overwhelming sense that this was the last time the world would ever see the greatest player of all time, and his extraordinary teammates, in full flight.

    Reportedly over taking Tiger King as the most in-demand documentary, the 10-part series charts the Chicago Bulls’ 1997/98 season with never-seen-before footage and interviews with Michael Jordan and some of his closest friends and enemies.

    The joint ESPN/Netflix production dives deep into what makes one of the biggest icons of the 20th century tick: the feuds, the fights with front office, and the family stories.

    How to watch
  • Becoming

    • Documentary and factual
    • 2020
    • Nadia Hallgren
    • 89 mins
    • PG

    Summary:

    Join former first lady Michelle Obama in an intimate documentary looking at her life, hopes and connection with others during her 2019 book tour for 'Becoming.'

    Why watch Becoming?:

    If you loved Michelle Obama’s book, then this documentary is right up your street! And even if you haven’t you should watch this anyway, because she’s truly amazing as this film shows.

    Becoming gives us an intimate look at the life of the former FLOTUS, as she embarks on a 34-city tour.

    It highlights the power of community to bridge our divides and the spirit of connection that comes when we openly and honestly share our stories.

    Offering a rare and up-close look at her life, we get to see Mrs Obama in ways we’ve never seen before. You’ll learn all about how she came to be the First Lady – and her extensive academic career before deciding to stand by her husband’s side and mentor him (yes, she did that!) – as well as the media scrutiny she faced during the eight years they served in the White House.

    How to watch
  • Dig Deeper: The Disappearance of Birgit Meier

    • 2021
    • Drama
    • Crime/detective

    Summary:

    After Birgit Meier vanishes in 1989, police missteps plague the case for years. But her brother never wavers in his tireless quest to find the truth.

    Why watch Dig Deeper: the Disappearance of Birgit Meier?:

    Hardly a month passes by without a hit new Netflix true-crime documentary series, and the latest one to capture subscriber’s imagination is German series Dig Deeper: the Disappearance of Birgit Meier. Including input from the missing woman’s family, the show explores the multiple police missteps that marred the investigation into Meier, who disappeared from her own home in 1989 and her brother’s tireless quest to find the truth.

    How to watch
  • Disclosure

    • Documentary and factual
    • 2020
    • Sam Feder
    • 108 mins
    • 15

    Summary:

    An in-depth look at Hollywood's depiction of transgender people and the impact of those stories on transgender lives and American culture.

    Why watch Disclosure?:

    Get ready to confront society’s unexamined transgender assumptions, as this series doesn’t mince its words. The eye-opening film traces a history that is at once dehumanising, yet also evolving, complex, and sometimes humorous.

    With the help of leading trans thinkers and creatives, including Laverne Cox, Lilly Wachowski, Yance Ford, MJ Rodriguez, Jamie Clayton, and Chaz Bono, reveals how Hollywood simultaneously reflects and manufactures our deepest anxieties about gender.

    How to watch
  • The Staircase

    • 2004
    • Crime/detective
    • Documentary and factual
    • 15

    Summary:

    The high-profile murder trial of American novelist Michael Peterson following the death of his wife in 2001.

    Why watch The Staircase?:

    Focusing on the death of Kathleen Peterson, The Staircase follows the case and the subsequent trial of her husband, Michael, who was accused of pushing her down the stairs and causing her demise. This is actually only half a Netflix original as the first few episodes were made years before the second batch and the additional episodes follow the new investigation that was then under way. This one needs to be seen to be believed as there are many theories and they are all explored; including whether she was killed by an owl and no, we aren’t joking. Gripping stuff.

    How to watch
  • The Disappearance of Madeleine McCann

    • 2019
    • Crime/detective
    • Documentary and factual
    • 15

    Summary:

    The Disappearance of Madeleine McCann takes a detailed look at the disappearance of three-year-old Madeleine McCann, who vanished from the seaside resort of Praia de Luz in Portugal, while on holiday with her family.

    Why watch The Disappearance of Madeleine McCann?:

    Everyone knows the story of little Madeleine McCann who went missing and started a massive search back in 2007 – a search that is still ongoing 14 years later. This Netflix documentary goes into as much detail as it can about not just the night she was last seen, but the investigation afterwards and where we are at with the case today. A gripping watch this that may just change your mind about any preconceived notions you have about what happened.

    How to watch
  • Don't F**k with Cats: Hunting an Internet Killer

    • 2019
    • Crime/detective
    • Documentary and factual
    • 18

    Summary:

    A group of online justice seekers track down a guy who posted a video of himself killing kittens.

    Why watch Don’t F**k with Cats: Hunting an Internet Killer?:

    The limited series actually landed on the streaming site in 2019, but during lockdown, people tuned in in their masses and it’s absolutely cat-astrophic!

    Not one for the faint-hearted, Don’t F**k with Cats, tells the true story of one of Canada’s most infamous murderers, Luka Magnotta.

    The show explores how a group of amateur online sleuths attempted to track him down after he posted a video online killing two kittens. However, as the cat and mouse chase gets deepers, it only encourages Luka to post even more disturbing videos – one of which eventually shows him killing a human.

    How to watch
  • Tiger King

    • 2020
    • Drama
    • Crime/detective
    • 15

    Summary:

    A rivalry between big cat eccentrics takes a dark turn when Joe Exotic, a controversial animal park boss, is caught in a murder-for-hire plot.

    Why watch Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness?:

    You’ve seen the memes, you’ve seen the Tiger King himself, you’ve seen all of the world’s problems being blamed on a lady named Carole Baskin, now it’s probably time you got up to speed.

    The show started life as an exposé on the shady trading of big cats and exotic animals in the US, but very quickly it began to focus on the men and women on the other side of the fence. Introducing roadside zoo owner Joe Exotic.

    Joe is the self-professed Tiger King possesses hundreds of big cats, but it’s his ferocious war with animal rights activist Carole Baskin that dominates the show. The series is a moral quagmire, with few definitive facts, but the vast majority of those documented come out of this tale horribly. The story is progressively more explosive with each passing episode and well worth a visit – and returned for a second season in 2021.

    How to watch
  • Our Planet

    • 2019
    • Documentary and factual

    Summary:

    Documentary series focusing on the breadth of the diversity of habitats around the world, from the remote Arctic wilderness and mysterious deep oceans to the vast landscapes of Africa and diverse jungles of South America.

    Why watch Our Planet?:

    A nature documentary observing the glories of the natural world narrated by David Attenborough. We’ve been here before and Our Planet is similar fare to Planet Earth I + II, Frozen Planet, Africa, Blue Planet or any other Attenborough documentary…and that’s exactly why you should soak up every moment of it.

    It’s the ultimate “if it ain’t broke” series, and that’s not a bad thing, with stunning landscapes explored and breathtaking footage of all manner of creatures we share this big ol’ rock with. There is one difference, however.

    While Planet Earth II moved to boost its eco-conscious narrative, Our Planet makes no apologies about thrusting the topic of climate change directly into your conscience. This may be an instant turn-off for some who simply want a zoo-like observational experience, but it brings greater purpose to the footage on screen having such a narrative behind it. Whatever your motive for watching, you won’t be let down.

    How to watch
  • Pandemic

    • Drama
    • Crime/detective

    Why watch Pandemic?:

    The timing was quite remarkable – Pandemic launched on 22nd January 2020 while the coronavirus was bubbling away in Wuhan, an inconvenience to China as opposed to a shutting down of the world. The six-part series observes the frontline defence against outbreaks of influenza, featuring stories and anecdotes from the health workers tasked with shutting down viruses.

    Coronavirus was yet to emerge on the global stage during filming, meaning the expert predictions that the world is due a fresh pandemic in the very first episode take on a whole new haunting relevance.

    This isn’t a perfect series, it is presented to the layman, those uneducated in exotic diseases, and therefore may not tell the full picture, but it’s still fascinating enough to paint brushstrokes of how outbreaks behave and what may lie ahead.

    How to listen
  • Anelka: Misunderstood

    • Documentary and factual
    • Sport
    • 2020
    • Franck Nataf
    • 94 mins
    • PG

    Summary:

    Bad boy of the French football, arrogant, precocious, misunderstood, scorer, unclassifiable, genius, unmanageable. Despite a having a career of almost 20 years at the highest level, Nicolas Anelka is still hard to define.

    Why watch Anelka: Misunderstood?:

    Former French international striker Nicolas Anelka had a hugely impressive career, playing for the likes of Arsenal, Real Madrid and Chelsea – but his goalscoring exploits were often overshadowed by his controversial off-field behaviour and allegations of a bad attitude.

    This feature-length documentary focuses on the career and legacy of Anelka, with one particularly high profile incident, which saw him excluded from France’s 2010 World Cup squad after directing comments against coach Raymond Domenech, discussed in depth.

    The film includes interviews with some of the finest footballing talent of Anelka’s generation, with former team-mates and managers including Arsène Wenger, Thierry Henry, Didier Drogba, Emmanuel Petit and Paul Pogba having their say – in addition to input from Anelka himself – all asking the question: was he inscrutable, incomparable or both?

    How to watch
  • The 13th

    • Crime/detective
    • Documentary and factual
    • 2016
    • Ava DuVernay
    • 99 mins
    • 15

    Summary:

    An in-depth look at the prison system in the United States and how it reveals the nation's history of racial inequality.

    Why watch 13th?:

    This impactful film is a straight down the line exploration of the racial divide in the US. The 13th Amendment of the Constitution reads: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States.”

    Filmmaker Ava DuVernay hones in on the “except as a punishment for crime” exception for slavery line. She explores the idea that while the 13th was designed to officially criminalise slavery, it has served to turn slavery into a far more subtle, equally exploitative industry given the immensity of the nation’s prison system.

    The documentary opens with the words of former President Barack Obama stating that while the US boasts five per cent of the world’s population, it has 25 per cent of the planet’s prisoners, many of whom have been forced to work and serve a variety of masters…

    How to watch
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