The 25 Best Documentaries You Can Stream Right Now

Netflix
Netflix

The great filmmaker Albert Maysles once explained the power of nonfiction moviemaking by saying, “When you see somebody on the screen in a documentary, you’re really engaged with a person going through real life experiences, so for that period of time, as you watch the film, you are, in effect, in the shoes of another individual. What a privilege to have that experience.”

A privilege, yes, and a privilege that’s outsized for us today. We now have access to thousands of documentaries online, allowing us all kinds of shapes and sizes of shoes to step into. To extend our personal knowledge of human experience. Thousands of little empathy machines. Small windows into lives that aren’t our own.

Here are 25 of the best documentaries that you can stream right now.

1. 13TH (2016)

Following the breakout prestige of Selma, Ava DuVernay constructed an exploration of the criminalization of black individuals in the United States, crafting a throughline from slavery to the modern private prison boom. Eschewing an overdramatized style, DuVernay calmly, patiently lays out facts and figures that will drop your jaw only until you start clenching it.

Where to watch it: Netflix

2. AILEEN: LIFE AND DEATH OF A SERIAL KILLER (2003)

For those only familiar with Aileen Wuornos through Charlize Theron’s portrayal in Monster, Nick Broomfield’s documentary offers a considered portrait of the human being behind the murderer. In his first film about Wuornos, The Selling of a Serial Killer, Broomfield considered her as a victim of abuse and betrayal, with her image commodified. In this follow-up, he takes us all the way to the day of her execution, wondering how anyone would think she was of sound mind.

Where to watch it: Netflix and Amazon Prime

3. ABACUS: SMALL ENOUGH TO JAIL (2017)

“Too big to fail” entered the lexicon following 2008’s bursting housing bubble, but while the world’s largest banks skated through, Abacus Federal Savings Bank was deemed small enough to prosecute. Steve James (of Hoop Dreams fame) has crafted an intimate, Oscar-nominated look at the Chinatown bank that became the only financial institution to face criminal charges in the wake of the subprime mortgage crisis, starting at the family level before zooming out to the community and country.

Where to watch it: Amazon Prime

4. STOLEN SEAS (2013)

Constructed using real audio and found footage of the 2008 hostage negotiation aboard a Danish shipping vessel, filmmaker Thymaya Payne’s film isn’t content to simply shine a light on the horrific reality of a Somali pirate attack; it strikes to build a contextual understanding of what these attacks mean for the rest of the world. For all of us.

Where to watch it: Amazon Prime

5. BEST OF ENEMIES (2015)

Both quaint and prescient, the televised debates between William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal during the 1968 Republican National Convention show us a midpoint between idealized civic discussion and the worst instincts of modern punditry. This sly documentary explains the force of this rivalry, its ironic popularity as televised circus, and the aftermath of all the clever insults.

Where to watch it: Netflix

6. CALIFORNIA TYPEWRITER (2017)

A bright palate cleanser that shouldn’t be overlooked just because it isn’t emotionally devastating. The success of this film is its ability to transfer other people’s obsessions to the viewer. Tom Hanks, John Mayer, historians, collectors, and repairmen all share their abiding love for the click-clack of a device that defies obsolescence. You may crave a Smith Corona when it’s all over.

Where to watch it: Amazon Prime

7. CAMERAPERSON (2016)

Patience is rewarded in this thoughtful, dazzling cinematic quilt of footage collected from 25 years of Kirsten Johnson’s career as a cinematographer. Her lens takes us to Brooklyn for boxing, Bosnia for post-war life, Nigeria for midwifery, and more.

Where to watch it: Amazon Prime

8. CARTEL LAND (2015)

Raw and fearsome, Matthew Heineman’s documentary puts you in the boots on the ground of the Mexican Drug War. This gripping look at Arizona Border Recon and the Autodefensas of Michoacán shows what happens when governments fail citizens who are in the line of fire.

Where to watch it: Netflix and Amazon Prime

9. CASTING JONBENET (2017)

This isn’t the documentary you’d expect it to be. Kitty Green took an experimental approach that’s less about rehashing the true crime sensationalism of the headline-owning murder of a child beauty queen and more about how many stories can be contained in a single story. Green auditioned actors from JonBenét Ramsey’s hometown and, in the process of making several dramatizations, interviewed them about what it was like living in the area during the 1996 investigations (and what they think really happened).

Where to watch it: Netflix

10. CAVE OF FORGOTTEN DREAMS (2011)

There’s nothing like hanging out with Werner Herzog in an ancient cave. Herzog filmed in the Chauvet Cave in southern France to document the oldest known human-painted images, which is fortunate for us because the cave isn’t open to the public. It’s a wondrous nature documentary about us.

Where to watch it: Netflix

11. CITY OF GHOSTS (2017)

Another brutal hit from Matthew Heineman, this documentary carries the audience into the Syrian conflict through the eyes of citizen journalist collective Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently, which both reports on war news and acts as a counter to propaganda efforts from Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Some documentaries are interesting, but this one is also necessary. 

Where to watch it: Amazon Prime

12. DARK DAYS (2000)

Before Humans of New York there was Dark Days. This delicate, funny, mournful project is a true blend of reality and art. Marc Singer made it after befriending and living among the squatter community living in the Freedom Tunnel section of the New York City subway. Despite never making a movie before, he decided that shining a light on these homeless neighbors would be the best way to help them.

Where to watch it: Amazon Prime

13. EXIT THROUGH THE GIFT SHOP (2010)

Covered in spray paint and questionable facial hair decisions, this documentary displays the transformation of Thierry Guetta from clothing shop owner to celebrated street artist, but since Banksy directed it, it’ll never shake the question of its authenticity. Real doc? Elaborate prank? Entertaining either way.

Where to watch it: Netflix

14. GAGA: FIVE FOOT TWO (2017)

It’s incredibly honest. As much as an inside look into the life of a global pop superstar can be. Lady Gaga (real name Stefani Germanotta) spends a healthy amount of the movie standing around without makeup, waxing wise and humorously before jumping face-first into her work and fanbase. The film focuses on her time crafting her Joanne album and her Super Bowl halftime show, but they could make one of these every few years without it getting stale because Gaga is a tower of magnetism.

Where to watch it: Netflix

15. THE INTERRUPTERS (2012)

In the middle of gang violence in Chicago, CeaseFire attempts to use members’ direct experiences to ward off new brutalities. Dubbed “violence interrupters,” Ameena Matthews, Cobe Williams, and Eddie Bocanegra are at the heart of this vital film about ending community violence by employing disease-control strategies, and the Herculean task of reversing systemic criminal activity without losing sight of the humanity of the people affected.

Where to watch it: Amazon Prime

16. JIRO DREAMS OF SUSHI (2012)

Let’s hope that this meditative, sumptuous documentary never leaves Netflix’s shores. The portrait of then-85-year-old Sukiyabashi Jiro’s quest for unattainable perfection is both food porn and a somber-sweet consideration of the satisfaction and disquiet of becoming the best in the world at something and, somehow, striving for better.

Where to watch it: Netflix

17. JOSHUA: TEENAGER VS SUPERPOWER (2017)

When someone tells you it can’t be done, show them this. The simple title both celebrates and belies the smallness of one person fighting a system. Joe Piscatella’s doc follows the explosive growth of the Hong Kong protest movement engaged by teen activist Joshua Wong when the Chinese government refused to act on its promise of granting autonomy to the region, and it is a dose of pure inspiration.

Where to watch it: Netflix

18. THE LOOK OF SILENCE (2014)

Joshua Oppenheimer and Anonymous’s sequel to the Oscar-nominated The Act of Killing features an Indonesian man whose brother was murdered during the 1965 purge of Communists talking to his brother’s killers while literally checking their vision. His bravery and composure are astonishing, as is the insight into the many rationalities unrepentant men use to shield their psyches from their own heinous acts. A peerless piece of investigative art.

Where to watch it: Netflix

19. MY SCIENTOLOGY MOVIE (2017)

An absurdist rabbit chase and a deliberate provocation, writer/star Louis Theroux’s punk documentary poked the bear of the infamous religion in order to get access to it. They auditioned young actors to recreate real-life events described by ex-members, got denounced by the church, and even got into a “Who’s On First”-style argument with a member (“You tell him to turn the camera off then I’ll tell him to turn the camera off!”). Serious subject matter by way of Borat.

Where to watch it: Netflix

20. THE NIGHTMARE (2015)

This documentary by Rodney Ascher should be seen by everyone and somehow be banned from being seen. Not content to profile people suffering from sleep paralysis—the condition where you can’t move or speak while falling asleep or awakening, yeah—Ascher riffs on the hallucinations that sometimes accompany the ailment. As if being frozen weren’t enough. The result is a true story that’s just as effective as a horror film.

Where to watch it: Netflix

21. PUMPING IRON (1977)

A landmark docudrama about the Mr. Olympia competition, this is the film that launched a wannabe actor from Austria into the public conscious. Arnold Schwarzenegger is brash and beautiful in this celebration of body perfection which finds a balance between joy and the teeth-gritting agony of endurance. Great back then, it’s now a fascinating artifact of the soon-to-be action star/politician.

Where to watch it: Netflix

22. BEING ELMO (2011)

Narrated by Whoopi Goldberg, puppeteer Kevin Clash shares his childhood growing up in Baltimore and the road to a career as a furry red monster on Sesame Street. It’s a delightful peek behind the curtain to see how magic is made, featuring interviews with legends like Frank Oz and Kermit Love. Pairs well with I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story (which is available to rent on Amazon).

Where to watch it: Netflix

23. STORIES WE TELL (2013)

An absolute personal stunner, actress Sarah Polley directed this docudrama about the scariest thing you can reveal to the world: your family. It’s an emotional, gamut-spanning search for identity that requires reconciling conflicting views about your parents and digging through buried secrets. Polley bringing them into full view, for all of us to see, is a selfless act that resulted in an outstanding piece of art.

Where to watch it: Amazon Prime

24. THE THIN BLUE LINE (1988)

A modern classic of nonfiction storytelling. Through archival footage, interviews, and reenactments, documentary royalty Errol Morris used this film to argue the innocence of a man destined for lethal injection. It tells the story of Randall Dale Adams, who was sentenced to death for killing a police officer in 1976, despite evidence that the real killer—a minor at the time—had committed the crime. A must-see for fans of Making a Murderer.

Where to watch it: Netflix

25. TIG (2015)

When you get diagnosed with cancer, the natural thing is to perform a stand-up act about it the same day, right? Comedian Tig Notaro became famous overnight when her set confronting her same-day diagnosis went viral, and this documentary from Kristina Goolsby and Ashley York focuses on the year that followed. A rocky year that deals with death, a new career chapter, a new relationship, and possibly a new child. It’s okay to laugh through the tears.

Where to watch it: Netflix

10 Dramatic Downton Abbey Fan Theories

Jim Carter as Mr. Carson in Downton Abbey (2019).
Jim Carter as Mr. Carson in Downton Abbey (2019).
Focus Features

Despite its exhaustively polished veneer, Downton Abbey was always a soap opera. Julian Fellowes's historical drama about a family of aristocrats and their many servants could never resist a good shocker, and it deployed plenty of them over the course of six seasons. The valet was suspected of murder (twice). One of the Crawley sisters got knocked up by her older married boyfriend, who promptly went missing. And another sister’s first sexual encounter ended in death. Considering all this, it should come as no surprise that fans have developed similarly wacky theories about the show. These fan theories include secret parentage, undercover spies, and, of course, poison.

Brush up on the best of them before the Downton Abbey movie hits theaters—just in case the whole miscarriage curse comes up.

1. Mr. Carson is Lady Mary’s father.

This theory all comes down to eyes. As you may recall from science class, certain genes are dominant and others are recessive. This is perhaps most easily understood through eye color, where brown eye color, a dominant gene, is expressed as BB and blue eye color, a recessive gene, is expressed as bb. A parent with brown eyes might carry the recessive blue eye gene (i.e. Bb), but if you plot out genetic probabilities on a basic Punnett square, two blue-eyed parents with double bbs have seemingly no shot at producing a Bb baby. Now, what does any of this have to do with Downton Abbey? Both Lord and Lady Grantham have blue eyes, but their eldest daughter, Mary, has brown eyes. This has led some fans to speculate that Lady Mary is actually the daughter of Carson, the family’s beloved butler who has always acted as as sort of second father to Mary. As debunkers have noted, two blue-eyed people can have a brown-eyed child, because recessive genes aren’t that simple. But isn’t it wild to think of Carson and Cora having an affair?

2. Thomas Barrow poisoned Kemal Pamuk.

One of the soapiest subplots of Downton Abbey's first season involved “poor Mr. Pamuk,” the dashing Turkish diplomat who makes a fateful visit to the Abbey. After enjoying a day of fox hunting and an evening of sparkling conversation, Kemal Pamuk drops dead ... right in Lady Mary’s bed. The cause, it is later revealed, was a heart attack, but many viewers suspected something more sinister. Earlier in the episode, the Crawleys’ closeted footman, Thomas Barrow, made a pass at Pamuk, which the diplomat rejected quite forcefully—so much so that he threatened to get Thomas fired. That placed the footman in a tricky situation, but it was nothing a little poison couldn't fix, and that’s exactly why some fans believe Thomas slipped something into Mr. Pamuk’s dinner.

3. Lady Grantham’s miscarriage started a curse.

In the Season 1 finale, tragedy strikes. The newly pregnant Lady Grantham slips on a bar of soap, falling onto the bathroom tiles and inducing a miscarriage. It’s a sad moment, but it’s also, Reddit claims, the source of the house’s future misfortune. According to this theory, the miscarriage kicks off a curse of deadly pregnancies: Lady Sybil dies in childbirth; Matthew Crawley dies in a car accident soon after the birth of his son; and when the maid Ethel Parks becomes pregnant with Major Bryant’s child, he dies, too.

4. Mr. Bates is actually a bad guy.

Brendan Coyle and Joanne Froggatt in Downton Abbey (2019).
Brendan Coyle and Joanne Froggatt in Downton Abbey (2019).
Focus Features

Downton Abbey invests a lot of time and effort in convincing us that John Bates, Lord Grantham's trusty, is a great guy—despite his checkered past and multiple murder allegations. But what if everyone’s assumptions about Bates are exactly right? Some Redditors believe Bates is just a remorseless serial killer, pointing to his intense hatred of his first wife and “creepy vibes” as evidence. Anna had better watch out.

5. Michael Gregson is a spy.

Lady Edith’s boss and lover Michael Gregson is the publisher of a London magazine, The Sketch. Thanks to his job, he knows tons of important people, travels all over the world, and speaks multiple languages. He eventually disappears inside Germany in season 4, and later dispatches to the Crawley family imply that he was a victim of Adolf Hitler’s “thugs.” (The show timeline places Gregson in Munich right around the time of the Beer Hall Putsch.) Or at least, that’s the official story. Another one suggests that Gregson was a British spy gathering intel on the insurgent Nazis—and he might not have died at all. His superiors simply needed to feed Edith a lie that would discourage her from poking around, so they made up a cover story that someone who follows the news would believe.

6. Lady Rosamund Painswick is Lady Edith’s mother.

When Lady Edith becomes pregnant with Michael Gregson’s child, she finds a strong support system in her aunt, Lady Rosamund Painswick. Upon learning Edith’s secret, Rosamund travels to Downton Abbey to help her niece through her pregnancy, and suggests adoption options as the due date draws near. Some fans have interpreted this empathy as a clue that Rosamund, not Lady Grantham, is Edith’s true mother. It could also explain why Edith looks (and behaves) so different from her sisters. Or it could just be a sign that Rosamund cares about her niece.

7. Lady Mary’s “operation” was IVF.

In season 3, Lady Mary claims to have undergone a “small operation” that will help her start a family with Matthew. It’s maddeningly unclear what this operation entails, but one wild guess is that she had an early version of IVF. The complete crackpot theory is that this was a cover for Matthew’s infertility, which the doctors wouldn’t disclose to him, presumably to preserve his 1920s masculinity.

8. Lady Mary’s son George becomes a Royal Air Force pilot in World War II.

Lady Mary’s son George is only five years old in the series finale of Downton Abbey. But that means he would theoretically be 18 in the fall of 1939, which is exactly when World War II broke out in Europe. He would almost certainly enlist, as show creator Julian Fellowes himself has suggested. But Decider has more specifically theorized that George would join the Royal Air Force (RAF), “with a desire to rebel against his emotionally distant mother and find purpose in a greater cause.” Sounds like George would be taking part in some dangerous missions, putting the entire family’s future at risk.

9. Public tours keep the estate alive.

The Crawleys spend much of Downton Abbey fretting about the future management of their estate—partially because Lord Grantham is kind of bad at it. But Lady Mary has taken over when the series ends, and Fellowes believes she’d find savvy ways to keep her family’s home in their hands. “She would probably have opened the house to the public in the 1960s, as so many of them did,” Fellowes told Deadline. “And she’d have retreated to a wing, and maybe only occupied the whole house during the winters. My own belief is that the Crawleys would still be there.”

10. The Dowager Countess keeps Denker and Spratt around for the drama.

Gladys Denker is a maid to the Dowager Countess. Septimus Spratt is her butler. These two do not like each other, and they’re quite public about it. Denker and Spratt’s unprofessional squabbles would’ve gotten plenty of other servants fired, but fans believe the Dowager Countess keeps them employed for her own amusement.

You Can Rent This Wizard of Oz-Themed Cottage in North Carolina

Airbnb
Airbnb

This year marks the 80th anniversary of The Wizard of Oz, the classic 1939 adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s book. In addition to watching the film, you can opt for a more immersive way to celebrate the occasion. As Travel + Leisure reports, a cottage in West Jefferson, North Carolina offered on Airbnb is perfect for any traveling Oz fan—and it’s only $35 a night.

The studio cottage is considered a glamping destination and is slim on amenities—it has a breakfast nook, porch, sofa bed, and a Porta John—but the Oz-themed details more than make up for the lack of luxurious perks.

A pair of stockinged feet are visible under the home, hinting at a witch’s untimely demise; a character mural of Dorothy and her three escorts, the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Cowardly Lion, appears on the side of the cabin; inside, various other decorations pay homage to Baum's books, including a pair of ruby slippers and a few stuffed Totos.

A cottage with a 'Wizard of Oz' theme in West Jefferson, North Carolina is pictured
Airbnb

If you go, you’ll have to act quickly. The cottage is open only in the spring, summer, and fall, as it has no heat.

The Airbnb listing has a perfect score across 16 reviews. You can book it here.

[h/t Travel + Leisure]

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