The Best Documentaries on Netflix Right Now (February 2021)

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.

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The Last Dance (2020): A Biography of Basketball's Greatest

WASHINGTON, USA - APRIL 14: Michael Jordan of the Washington Wizards in action against Shandon Anderson of the New York Knicks at the MCI Center on April 14th 2003 in Washington DC.

 (Photo by Simon Bruty/Anychance/Getty Images)

IMDb Rating: 9.2/10

Genre: Biography

Starring: Michael Jordan, Scotty Pippin, Dennis Rodman

Director: Jason Hehir

Rating: TV-MA

Episodes: 10

The Last Dance is a compelling look at arguably the greatest basketball player of all time, Michael Jordan. The 10-episode docuseries charts his career with the Chicago Bulls and interviews 90 family members, friends, teammates, and more. Even if you're not a sports fan, you likely know who Michael Jordan is, and watching his meteoric rise from mere athlete to pop culture icon is thrilling.

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Spycraft (2021): For Anyone Who Ever Dreamed of Being James Bond

An agent monitors surveillance feeds in the documentary 'Spycraft.'

Netflix

IMDb Rating: 6.8/10

Genre: Documentary

Starring: n/a

Director: n/a

Rating: TV-MA

Episodes: 8

Spycraft is a documentary series all about the tools and technologies agents use in their subterfuge. It covers satellites, deadly poisons, code-breaking, so-called "sexpionage," and more. If you're a fan of James Bond films, John Le Carre novels, or the TV show The Americans, this is a fascinating glimpse into the work of real-life intelligence experts.

03
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Made You Look: A True Story About Fake Art (2020): America's Biggest Art Scandal

American abstract expressionist painter Jackson Pollock (1912 - 1956) holds a cigarette above and behind one of his paintings in his studio at 'The Springs,' East Hampton, New York, August 23, 1953.

 (Photo by Tony Vaccaro/Getty Images)

IMDb Rating: 7.9/10

Genre: Documentary

Starring: Patty Cohen, Domenico De Sole, José Carlos Bergantiños Díaz 

Director: Barry Avrich

Rating: n/a

Runtime: 1 hour, 34 minutes

Made You Look: A True Story About Fake Art chronicles one of the largest cases of art fraud in American history. Knoedler & Company, a prestigious art gallery in New York City, allegedly made millions selling fraudulent copies of "previously unseen" works by artists like Jackson Pollock, de Koonings, and Rothkos. But they were all fakes that were sold to the gallery by a Long Island crook named Glafira Rosales. The documentary includes interviews from former Knoedler & Company president Ann Freedman and other figures involved in the scandal.

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Pélé (2021): Celebrating One of Soccer's Greatest Players

A black and white photo of soccer star Pele during a match
Pele and Soccer. Credit: Pictorial Parade / Stringer/Getty Images

IMDb Rating: n/a

Genre: Sport

Starring: Pelé

Director: Ben Nicholas, David Tryhorn

Rating: TV-14

Runtime: 1 hour, 48 minutes

Brazilian footballer Pelé is one of the most iconic figures in the sports world, and he's the subject of a new Netflix documentary. The film tracks his career during the 12-year period where he was the only athlete to win three World Cup titles. His rise to superstardom came during a turbulent time in his country's history when the military took over the government in a coup d'etat and enacted new laws stifling freedom of speech and political opposition.

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History of Swear Words (2021): An Education in Your Favorite Expletives

Nicolas Cage in 'History of Swear Words'

Netflix

IMDb Rating: 6.5/10

Genre: Documentary

Starring: Nicolas Cage

Director: n/a

Rating: TV-MA

Episodes: 6

Join actor Nicolas Cage for a deep dive into the history behind some of your favorite cuss words. The series spends each of its six episodes exploring the etymology and modern-day usage of a particular swear. There are interviews with both historians and comedians, so the series is bound to be both educational and light-hearted. Fans of irreverent shows like Drunk History will want to check this out.

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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: 6.5/10

Genre: Documentary Series

Starring: Sophie Okonedo

Directors: Suzie Boyles, Daniel M. Smith

Rating: TV-PG

Episodes: 4

The 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.

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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: 7.1/10

Genre: Documentary Series

Starring: Alan Whitehouse, Keith Hellawell, Andrew Laptew

Director: Ellena Wood, Jesse Vile

Rating: TV-MA

Episodes: 4

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.

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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: 8.5/10

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

Rating: TV-14

Episodes: 4

This 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 21st century." It's probably not for the squeamish, though.

09
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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

Rating: TV-14

Runtime: 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.

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

My Octopus Teacher

IMDb Rating: 8.3/10

Genre: Science and Nature

Starring: Craig Foster, Tom Foster

Director: Pippa Ehrlich, James Reed

Rating: TV-G

Runtime: 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.

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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

Rating: TV-MA

Episodes: 3

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.

12
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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

Runtime: 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.

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

The Social Dilemma

IMDb Rating: 7.7/10

Genre: Science

Starring: Skyler Gisondo, Kara Hayward, Vincent Kartheiser

Director: Jeff Orlowski

Rating: PG-13

Runtime: 1 hour, 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?

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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

Rating: TV-PG

Runtime: 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.

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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

Rating: TV-MA

Runtime: 1 hour, 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.

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