The 13 Best Documentaries on Netflix Right Now (December 2020)

Stuck on the couch? Get your real-world fix with a little inspiration mixed in

A documentary can open our eyes to the wonders and atrocities of the real world. There are so many these days that we decided to watch as many as we could for you and select our favorites to help you learn more about what's happening beyond the couches we're all stuck on these days. Get ready to be inspired, horrified, amused, and entertained.

01
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Alien Worlds (2020): Combining Science Fact With Science Fiction

An alien sits on a strange planet in the Netflix documentary 'Alien Worlds.'

Netflix

IMDb Rating: n/a

Genre: Documentary Series

Starring: Sophie Okonedo

Director: n/a

TV Rating: n/a

Seasons: 1

The new Netflix documentary series Alien Worlds tries to imagine what life is like on other planets by extrapolating new life forms based on what we know about the ones on Earth. By studying birds, we can make some educated guesses on how a flying alien species would act, for example. How would alien life adapt to other planets? Is a species on its way to Earth now? This speculative series tries to answer those questions and more.

02
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The Ripper (2020): One of England's Most Notorious Killing Sprees

A crime scene from one of the Yorkshire Ripper's cases in 'The Ripper.'

Netflix

IMDb Rating: n/a

Genre: Documentary Series

Starring: n/a

Director: Ellena Wood, Jesse Vile

TV Rating: TV-MA

Seasons: 1

The Ripper is a limited docuseries about one of England's most notorious serial killers. But it's probably not the one you're thinking of. Peter William Sutcliffe terrorized the country in the late 1970s, murdering thirteen women and attempting to kill seven others. The media dubbed him the Yorkshire Ripper. The Netflix series takes a look at the years-long process of finding and catching Sutcliffe and the effect his crimes had on the nation.

03
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The Surgeon’s Cut (2020): A Unique Window into the World of Surgery

A surgeon operates on a patient in 'The Surgeon's Cut'

BBC Studios

IMDb Rating: n/a

Genre: Documentary Series

Starring: Professor Kypros Nicolaides, Dr. Alfredo Quinones-Hinojosa, Dr. Nancy Ascher, Dr. Devi Shetty

Director: James Newton, Lucy Blakstad, Sophie Robinson, Stephen Cooter

TV Rating: n/a

Seasons: 1

This four-part documentary series from the BBC follows four ground-breaking surgeons as they practice their respective crafts around the world. The first episode focuses on a pioneer of fetal surgery. Subsequent episodes tell stories about a neurosurgeon who operates on more than 250 brains a year, a doctor who specializes in organ transplants, and a renowned cardiac surgeon. The BBC calls this series a "profoundly touching insight into surgery in the 21stcentury." It's probably not for the squeamish, though.

04
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Minimalism (2015): Best Flick To Remind You That You're (Almost) a Hoarder

Minimalism title screen

IMDB Rating: 6.7/10

Starring: Joshua Fields Millburn, Ryan Nicodemus

Genre: Inspirational Documentary

Director: Matt D'Avella

Motion Picture Rating: TV-14

Running Time: 1 hour, 18 minutes

If you've ever looked around your home and thought, "Do I need all this stuff?" then you're ripe for the message of Minimalism. The two leads (Millburn and Nicodemus) are calm, engaging, thoughtful best friends who slowly come to the realization that their lives are caught up in too many dramas and dreams that have nothing to do with what they actually want in life: happiness.

It's a gentle (sometimes excruciatingly slow) ride as they guide you through the concept that less is more, but if you can hang on and listen, you'll walk away inspired to take a good look at your own life to see where you can pare it down.

05
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My Octopus Teacher (2020): Best Heartstring-Tugging Underwater Friendship Adventure

My Octopus Teacher

IMDb Rating: 8.4/10

Genre: Science and Nature

Starring: Craig Foster, Tom Foster

Director: Pippa Ehrlich, James Reed

Motion Picture Rating: Not rated

Running Time: 1 hour, 25 minutes

If you're looking for a deep, emotional connection to wildlife, particularly sea life, then this is the film you've been waiting for. The narrator begins the journey by searching for external validation and winds up discovering it internally through his connection to a curious octopus who changes his outlook on life.

The film is beautifully shot, and the message is hands-down inspirational; if you've been feeling burned out between the pandemic and life in general, My Octopus Teacher will remind you that we have far more to learn and discover beyond our own limited worlds.

06
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Fear City (New York vs. The Mafia) (2020): Best Game of Cat and Mouse

Fear City
 

IMDb Rating: 7.1/10

Genre: Investigative, Crime

Starring: Multiple government agents and former Mafia members

Director: Sam Hobkinson

Motion Picture Rating: TV-MA

Seasons: 1

Whether or not you remember the bloody nightly news headlines of American Mafia killings in New York City in the 1970s and 80s, this docu-series will have you on the edge of your seat for all three episodes. NYC was effectively under the complete control of five "families" in those days; this documentary unveils how the organizations gained control and explores how law enforcement and government agencies combined forces to finally bring down the Mob.

While reenactments are sometimes a bit messy, the interviews with both law enforcement and former Mob members are as entertaining as they are illuminating at times. "Here, hold my flashlight" will make you laugh out loud until you realize later that the man holding the flashlight would be willing to squash you with the flick of a wrist. It's a cat-and-mouse game played over decades that will sometimes have you wondering which side is which.

07
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No Direction Home – Bob Dylan (2005): Best Rockumentary Featuring an Elusive Musician

No Direction Home title slide

IMDb Rating: 8.5/10

Genre: Music & Musicals

Starring: Bob Dylan

Director: Martin Scorsese

Motion Picture Rating: TV-MA

Running Time: 3 hours, 28 minutes

Bob Dylan is known for his eccentric, aloof approach to allowing fans into his life, so it's great this film offers an in-depth portrait of the rock star over a 5-year period, from 1961 to 1966. Directed by Martin Scorsese, a legend in his own right, the 2005 film relies heavily on commentary from those who knew Dylan during the early '60s, such as Allen Ginsberg and former girlfriend Suze Rotolo.

Dylan himself, of course, only appears briefly in the film from a current perspective. Otherwise, the film focuses on ancient interviews or concert footage. That actually lends credibility to the flick since the musician's own mantra of "don't look back" is never compromised. The rest of us can look back and see how it all happened; Dylan lived it and is already several moves ahead of the rest of us by now. We expect nothing less from the extraordinary man behind the gently pulled back curtain we are fortunate enough to see him through with this film.

08
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Franca (Chaos and Creation) (2016): Best Fashion History Class You Didn't Know You Needed

Franca: Chaos and Creation

IMDb Rating: 7.6/10

Genre: Biography

Starring: Franca Sozzani

Director: Francesco Carrozzini

Motion Picture Rating: TV-MA

Running Time: 1 hour, 19 minutes

If you've ever thumbed through a copy of a fashion magazine, you will be riveted by this revealing look at the woman behind the magic of Vogue Italia. Forget about Anna Wintour; Franca Sozzani is the real legend who turned the fashion world upside down and managed to change the way the entire world viewed fashion in general.

This fascinating look at the powerhouse who first brought domestic violence and other dangerous or provocative issues to the pages of a high-end fashion magazine is even more interesting because she is speaking to the one person who knows her true colors: her son, director Francesco Carrozzini. Fashion aficionados will find this documentary a riveting lesson in history, perseverance, and fearlessness.

09
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American Murder (The Family Next Door) (2020): Best Police Procedural Handbook for Solving Crime

An American Murder

IMDb Rating: 7.2/10

Genre: True Crime

Starring: Shanann Watts, Chris Watts, Nickole Atkinson

Director: Jenny Popplewell

Motion Picture Rating: TV-MA

Running Time: 1 hour, 23 minutes

Even the most hardened true crime fan will find this one difficult to watch. The entire country knows how the husband killed his wife and children, but this film's exploration of the case through the unique perspective of bodycams, police interviews, and news clips deftly pulls the viewer into the world of the killer and the victim to learn the answers to most of the questions that still linger regarding the deaths of Shannan Watts and her two daughters.

What's perhaps most interesting about this documentary is the slow reveal of how police almost immediately understood that the husband was behind the disappearance of his family and their methodical pace through the investigation to elicit a confession and expose the father's horrific, selfish deeds to the world. This is not just another run-of-the-mill, true-crime documentary; it's a lesson in how painstaking police work and gut instincts solve crimes.

10
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Kiss the Ground (2020): Best Reminder That Climate Change Doesn't Just Involve the Weather

Kiss the Ground

IMDb Rating: 8.3/10

Genre: Science, Nature, Ecology

Starring: Woody Harrelson

Directors: Joshua Tickell, Rebecca Harrell Tickell

Motion Picture Rating: TV-G

Running Time: 1 hour, 24 minutes

Don't go into this movie thinking it will be funny just because Woody Harrelson is narrating it. It's actually a pretty serious flick about climate change and the impact of human actions on the soil we need to grow the foods we eat. Flooded with Hollywood stars intent on helping the rest of us understand that when dirt is transformed into soil, we all win; and when it's not, well, we've done it to ourselves.

Not everyone agrees with the arguments the film raises; the reason this documentary is worth watching is because humans rarely consider the impact industrialization and population growth has on the ground beneath our feet. Watch and decide for yourself: Maybe Tom Brady or David Arquette's thoughts ring more true than you expect.

11
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The Social Dilemma (2020): Best Reminder of the Dangers of Social Media

The Social Dilemma

IMDb Rating: 7.7

Genre: Science

Starring: Skyler Gisondo, Kara Hayward, Vincent Kartheiser

Director: Jeff Orlowski

Motion Picture Rating: PG-13

Running Time: 1 hr, 34 minutes

Whether you've been hanging around a real or virtual water cooler lately, someone's been wound up about The Social Dilemma. That social media can be addictive is not a new topic; what separates this documentary from the pack is its unflinching behind-the-scenes look at exactly how social media companies manipulate human behavior for profit.

While a bit heavy-handed in some ways, the film does a good job of helping viewers see how social media influences today's world and how destructive it can be when it runs unchecked. The alarm has sounded; will anyone really raise their eyes from the smartphone screen to listen?

12
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The White Helmets (2016): Best War Documentary (That Won an Oscar)

The White Helmets

IMDb rating: 7.5/10

Genre: Social & Cultural

Starring: Khalid Farah, Mohammed Farah, Abu Omar

Director: Orlando von Einsiedel

Motion Picture Rating: TV-PG

Running Time: 40 minutes

Who is it, exactly, that dares to go into a war zone to rescue victims from the rubble? The White Helmets explores this question by following three Syria Civil Defence volunteers at work in Syria and as they train in Turkey. Regardless of which side you're on regarding the years of war in Syria, there's no denying that first responders have a beyond-dangerous mission to accomplish.

Don't close your eyes at the gore and atrocities. This could be the most frightening and illuminating look at both the good and bad in humankind you might ever see.

13
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FYRE (2019): Best Cocky Entrepreneur-Goes-to-Prison Story

FYRE title screen

IMDb Rating: 7.2/10

Genre: Investigative

Starring: Billy McFarland, multiple celebrities

Director: Chris Smith

Motion Picture Rating: TV-MA

Running Time: 1 Hr, 37 minutes

If you're into stories about fame, excess, and the pitfalls that follow when an entrepreneur has an idea but no ability to follow through, this is the film for you. It places a wildly bright light on the way a pre-pandemic society chased a good time without a care in the world. When the party proved to be a phantom, and the curtains fell down on an adoring crowd blindly believing in social media influencers, the end result was a devastating display of how ignorance and money can destroy lives.

The Fyre Festival is a bit reminiscent of the Dotcom bubble days, where smooth-talking entrepreneurs manipulated human greed beyond the lines of common sense. For anyone who didn't attend, it's a head-scratcher. For anyone who did, it's a reminder of the dangers of wealth.