18 must-watch documentaries
While we're all about TV escapism right now, the truth can be more entertaining than fiction. Reclaim the remote and pick from our edit of the best Netflix documentaries.
Michelle Obama unplugged. This is a documentary that is inspiring, informative, and uplifting, as the cameras follow the former FLOTUS on the first leg of her 34-date book tour in 2018-19. On the face of it, she’s selling a book (on steroids) – not many authors embark on a super-sized stadium tour, with interviewers like Oprah Winfrey and Gayle King. The reality of this film is that you get all the backstage moments, with insight into the prejudice she experienced in her life, how she challenged those beliefs, what life was like before and after the White House and much much more. Watch it and you’ll feel like a goddam superwoman. Watch the trailer here.
A must-watch for fashion fans about the man who ripped up the fashion rulebook and brought us the bumster. McQueen had critics in rapture, as director Ian Bonhôte unpicks the seams to Alexander McQueen’s dark brilliance and explosive talent, to reveal a man grappling with ill health and the pressures of fame. Watch the trailer.
A 10-part film about basketball might not be an obvious pick, but it’s a corker. The Last Dance chronicles one of the greatest icons and most successful dynasties in sports history, Michael Jordan and the 1990s Chicago Bulls. The documentary series is packed full of interviews with Jordan, his family, teammates, coach, rivals, sports journos. No stone is left uncovered, no scandal ignored. The man is more than a pair of Nike shoes, he’s a force of nature with a talent, work ethic and celebrity that we may never be seen again, to the same degree. Watch the trailer.
If you love food porn in all its forms, Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat will leave you drooling and raiding the fridge. This documentary series hosted by the delightful US TV chef and writer Samin Nosrat takes us on a culinary world tour exploring the four titular elements that elevate a dish from meh to magnificent. As comforting as a bowl of fresh pasta, this four-parter is beautifully shot, fun and interesting.
Car crash or a fascinating insight into the creative process? You decide. Jim & Andy is a documentary about Jim Carrey’s method-acting in Man on the Moon – a 1999 film about the life of the eccentric comedian Andy Kaufman. Carrey’s insistence on not just playing Kaufman, but actually being him draws the frustration and admiration of everyone working on the film. In fact, Carrey comes across as so cray cray that the footage at the core of this film was suppressed for 20 years over fears that it would make the Hollywood star come across as “an asshole”.
What have the Obamas been up to since leaving the White House? Well, aside from writing books, they’ve also set up a production company (Higher Grounds Productions) and have been busy making documentaries. Crip Camp – a Sundance hit – is moving and uplifting film about how a hippy summer camp for disabled youth launched a generation of activists. A mix of talking-head interviews and a stunning amount of archival footage, it documents the struggle for disabled rights in the US that would eventually lead to the landmark change to the law.
So hotly anticipated was this Taylor Swift doc, that it opened this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Miss Americana carefully curated behind the scenes film about pop star taking control of her life and releasing herself from the schackles of expectation. In her own words, “The muzzle is off”. Don’t expect warts and all. The film is carefully curated, with just enough messiness, vulnerability and shouting to not mess with her multi-million dollar brand. And if she can rattle Donald Trump’s cage while she’s at it, then it’s a job well done.
A Marmite documentary. You’re either intrigued by the 2007 disappearance of Madeleine McCann from her holiday apartment in Portugal or you’re weary of the conspiracies and theories on loop. This eight-part docu-series re-examines the unsolved case while highlighting the many unsolved kidnapping cases that occurred around the same time, pointing out the disparity between the hige sums of money pumped into the McCann case compared to others.
Didn’t make it to Beyoncé’s now iconic 2018 Coachella concert? Slip into that sequin playsuit gathering dust in your wardrobe and settle in for Homecoming. Yes, this is a concert documentary – what’s not to love about Queen Bey belting out Crazy In Love in a blur of bling – but it also gives rare insight into her superstar world: role model, mum and performer.
If you haven’t watched the Netflix docu-ht Fyre, then where have you been? It was the water cooler moment of 2019. The plan was to put on don’t-miss luxury music festival so fabulous, people would sell their granny to snag a ticket to hang out with models, celebs and influencers. The reality? Not enough tents, payments missing, and general chaos. Car crash telly at its best.
Big hair and always fabulously overdressed, drag queens are mainstream now but it wasn’t always the case. Paris is Burning casts an eye over the voguing and drag balls of the 80s in New York. This 1991 film reveals the guts and the glamour of the drag and dance scene at that time and celebrates the communities that pioneered those movements.
If you’ve powered through Unorthodox, then you’ll love One of Us – a documentary that shines a light on the secretive world of Hasidic Judaism. A fascinating and shocking film that rips the lid off the rigid dogma that has sustained a community and the abuse of those who want to leave for a life among the non-religious. “Nobody leaves the Hasidic community unless they’re willing to pay the price.”
Never trust a person wearing fewer clothes than you during an exercise class. Yet no one batted an eye when budgie-smuggler-wearing Bikram Choudry launched his hot yoga, and grew a worldwide following with an army of celeb devotees. Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator exposes deep problems behind the Choudhury’s empire. In recent years he’s been accused of rape, settled law suits against him and fled the US after refusing to pay $6.8 million in legal damages. The film tells the story from the perspective of the victims. It’s harrowing stuff, but most shocking of all, he appears to have got away with it.
Inside Bill’s Brain: Decoding Bill Gates
Always wanted to get inside the head of tech visionary and philanthropist Bill Gates? OK, so it’s not something that’s probably ever crossed your mind, but the man’s worth $105bn, plans to leave very little of it to his kids, and is on a mission to save the world from itself. So, yup, we’re intrigued. This three-part documentary takes viewers through Gates’ upbringing, marriage and the creation of Microsoft.
There are a gazillion films about sporting heroes and success, but not so many (if any) about the losers? Well that box is being ticked right here. Losers tells the story of the individuals and teams that make the headlines for the wrong reasons from the ultrarunner lost in the desert and presumed dead, to the Torquay United football team that owes much of its survival from financial oblivion to a police dog.
The fur is flying as Canada’s competitive cats dig their claws in to win Best in Show. The feline furballs are strutting their stuff and it’s utterly bonkers. Catwalk: Tales from the Cat Show Circuit follows two pedigree pusses and their owners as they enter the world of kitty beauty pageants. There’s no shortage of hilarious moments – Bobby horrifically coughs up a hairball on the judge’s table, while another is made to wear fur-protecing coffee filter, like some sort of mad DIY Elizabethan ruff, but seeing the owners talk so passionately about their pets will warm the coldest cat-hating hearts. Or not.
Loved the film Limitless where Bradley Cooper pops pills that make him awesome at everything, well Adderall is the real-life equivalent of that drug and Take Your Pills documents young people in the US are using it in the hope of benefiting from the performance-enhancing effects. Who’s tasking it? Everyone. College students fearing they’ll be at a disadvantage if they don’t pop a pill before an exam, a programmer who wants to live up to the myth of the coder-genius, and a finance worker whose colleague collapsed after two many Adderall-fuelled all-nighters. Eye-opening stuff.
The truth is stranger than fiction and this docu-series is proof. Take a group of Facebook busybodies, a viral cat-killing video, and, before you know it, you’re hunting down a psycho killer across the world. Don’t F*** With Cats is one of the most talked-about (and disturbing) true-crime shows in recent memory. It starts with a virtual lynching of a cat killer and escalates in real-time to a murder hunt. Rub-necking telly at its best.
Want to add a binge-worthy boxset to your viewing schedule, clickety click here.