Netflix has carved out a niche for itself as the home of true-crime documentaries. It’s far from the only thing the streaming platform is known for, but it’s undoubtedly the case that some of their most popular content has involved crime, including long-form documentaries like Making a Murderer and Tiger King.
It’s important to highlight, though, that the streaming service offers far more than just crime documentaries and that many of those documentaries are equally worthy of your time, maybe even more so. For anyone who feels like there’s too much death and crime in their documentary diet, plenty of palette-cleansers can be found on Netflix that focus on subjects other than breaking the law.
Shirkers has a great and original premise for a documentary, starting with the making of an independent movie made in Singapore by Sandi Tan in 1992. However, Tan’s mentor disappeared with the footage before the film could ever be completed … yet it mysteriously showed up again some 20 years later. Rest Shirkers – also directed by Tan – evolves into a film about trying to track down her mentor and finding out why he did what he did.
It’s a consistently entertaining and surprising film that looks at filmmaking, the fragility of art, creative passion, regret, and nostalgia. It seems to get buried under all the other content on Netflix, so it’s something of a hidden gem that is one of the platform’s best and most interesting documentary films.
‘Dick Johnson Is Dead’ (2020)
Dick Johnson Is Dead is about death, quite obviously, but thankfully not about murder or violent deaths, in contrast to many crime documentaries. In it, director Kirsten Johnson pays tribute to her then 86-year-old father, Dick Johnsoncovering his life and celebrating it while he’s still alive.
Kirsten Johnson fears her father’s passing is imminent, making the documentary an overall bittersweet one, primarily when she details how her mother passed away from Alzheimer’s. But the subject of death is approached in an honest and even humorous way, which helps the film be about enjoying life as much as it’s also about confronting the inevitability of death.
‘The Social Dilemma’ (2020)
The Social Dilemma is an interesting movie and important in many respects. It sheds light on some of the darker aspects of social media in terms of how it can psychologically harm its users, heavily influence young people for better or worse, or socially isolate individuals who use the apps in question instead of bringing people together.
While some people were already aware of some of these problems before 2020, there certainly would be viewers who’d watch this and find out something they did not know before. The message is good, and it is vital to make the downsides of hugely popular social media sites known. Some aspects of the presentation are regrettably a little cheesy, and the documentary’s far from subtle in parts. Still, if an obvious approach is the best way to make its message known to as many as possible, it’s arguably for the best.
‘Django & Django: Sergio Corbucci Unchained’ (2021)
This one’s a must-watch for film buffs or fans of spaghetti Westerns, as it essentially 77 minutes of director / film buff Quentin Tarantino praising Sergio Corbucci, who was one of the most famous Italian directors to tackle the Western genre. It makes sense, as Corbucci directed the original Djangowhich proved to be hugely influential for Tarantino, among other films he made.
Django & Django: Sergio Corbucci Unchained is remarkably straightforward and might admittedly be a little niche. But Tarantino’s passion and the variety of clips from Corbucci’s films that are shown make it worth a watch, as he certainly made some of the wildest and most memorable Westerns of all time.
‘Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool’ (2019)
The life and music of Miles Davis are done justice in Mile Davis: Birth of the Cool, which is a far better than average music documentary. It covers the turbulent and unpredictable life of the iconic jazz musician and details just what made his brand of jazz stand out.
It does not gloss over the darker aspects of Miles Davis’ life, and in doing so, it avoids feeling too sanitized. It feels more direct and honest than most music documentaries and found more than enough interviewees and subjects relating to Davis to explore to fill a nearly two-hour runtime without ever getting dull or repetitive.
‘The Last Blockbuster’ (2020)
The Last Blockbuster is a pretty ironic movie to watch on a streaming service. Blockbuster and other video / DVD rental stores were effectively overtaken by streaming sites some years ago. As the title suggests, this particular documentary sheds light on the final remaining Blockbuster, situated in Oregon, while also providing a history of the rental franchise itself, which once operated thousands of individual stores.
It’s a relatively light affair, and unabashedly nostalgic. Still, it’s a fun watch for any streaming service users who still remember what it felt like to go to a store and rent a physical copy of a movie, instead of just clicking an icon on a screen and watching something straight away.
‘Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese’ (2019)
One of Martin Scorsese‘s lesser-known films, Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story, is far more unusual than your run-of-the-mill music documentary. Parts of it feel like a mockumentary, parts of it play out like a concert film, and other parts are much harder to decipher. If it aimed to make Bob Dylan seem even more mysterious and elusive, it worked.
Scorsese has always been a skilled documentary director on top of being a great filmmaker, so fans of his work will likely find things to appreciate about Rolling Thunder Revue. Similarly, hardcore Dylan fans will surely enjoy much of what it offers, but it may be an occasionally challenging watch for others.
‘They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead’ (2018)
Netflix was partly responsible for finally bringing The Other Side of the Wind to life. It was a film the famed Orson Welles worked on throughout the 1970s but never completed. Decades after his death, it was realized and released in 2018, alongside They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, which is a documentary about the film’s turbulent history and eventual completion.
It’s a great companion piece to the often perplexing film that it’s about. The story of how The Other Side of the Wind eventually came to be is just as interesting – maybe even more so – than the film itself. For anyone who’s a fan of Orson Welles, or just generally interested in film history, They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead makes for an essential documentary.
KEEP READING: The Best Documentaries on Netflix Right Now