Netflix has really ramped up its production of original TV series over the past few years, but one could argue that the real cornerstone of Netflix is its massive library of documentaries. Informative, emotional, provocative — you name it, Netflix has it. As this list of the best Netflix documentaries of 2016 proves.
Indeed, Netflix really knows what people want to watch, and high-quality documentaries are surprisingly in demand. And it’s this attention to viewer habits that keeps Netflix ahead of its competitors.
With hundreds of documentaries added to Netflix every year, it can be tough to find time to watch them all. So we’ve picked the 12 best Netflix documentaries of 2016, all to save you the time and trouble of sorting the wheat from the chaff.
Charming original animated sequences blend with interviews and archive footage to chronicle the unique career of Disney animator Floyd Norman.
Hired back in 1956 as the first African-American at Disney, Floyd Norman solidified himself as an animator legend through his work on Sleeping Beauty, 101 Dalmatians, and The Jungle Book. Despite forced retirement at age 65, Norman still works at Disney without pay out of sheer love for the drawing board.
This wonderful documentary takes you through the ups and downs of Norman’s life, a journey of overcoming struggles and leaving a lasting impact on an entire industry.
2. Keepers of the Game [No Longer Available]
IMDb: 8.6/10 | Rotten Tomatoes: N/A
As they set their eyes on a championship, an all-Native American girls’ lacrosse team seeks to change their tribe’s attitudes about gender roles.
Did you know that the sport of lacrosse can be traced back to a Native American tradition among the Iroquois? It began as a ritual symbolic of warfare with heavy spiritual significance — and it was a ritual only for men.
Keepers of the Game explores the story of an all-female team of Native American players and the obstacles they face — both personal and societal — on their road towards winning a Section Championship. Moving, inspiring, and thought-provoking.
This documentary takes a hard look at how indigenous peoples clashed violently with the Peruvian government over land and economics in the Amazon.
There are those out there who will exploit every last inch of land for personal gain, and the conflicts over the Amazon are prime examples of this. But when your homeland is threatened by invasion, what can you do? Run. Or fight.
Indigenous leader Alberto Pizango chose the latter, standing up to the invasive goals of President Alan Garcia — and in doing so sparked a violent war. The real kicker, though, is how much there is to glean from this film about the state and nature of humanity as a whole.
Indomitable activist Ye Haiyan faces increasingly hostile government harassment as she exposes the case of six schoolgirls raped by their headmaster.
Hooligan Sparrow is another documentary that shows how much power can rest in the hands of activists and protesters. In order to bring justice to a rapist principal, Ye Haiyan must overcome the police, the government, and angry community mobs.
It’s a dark story that’s made palatable by the courage and conviction shown by Ye Haiyan. How much would you be willing to sacrifice and endure to stand your ground against insurmountable odds?
With stunning views of eruptions and lava flows, Werner Herzog captures the raw power of volcanoes and their ties to indigenous spiritual practices.
Nature documentaries: you either love ’em or hate ’em. But Into the Inferno is a nature documentary like you’ve never seen. Werner Herzog takes you across the world, visiting and exploring the world’s most mythical volcanoes.
And not just the volcanoes, but the indigenous cultures that live around them. We’re talking Indonesia, Ethiopia, and even North Korea. What kind of spiritual connections and relationships have humans developed with these natural wonders?
IMDb: 7.5/10 | Rotten Tomatoes: N/A
Witness the wrenching emotions that accompany end-of-life decisions as doctors, patients, and families in a hospital ICU face harrowing choices.
Extremis has a runtime under 30 minutes, but that’s more than enough time to break your heart into pieces. I’ve never had to deal with a decision as tough as whether a life should be ended or not, but this documentary made me feel like I now have.
How would you react? What would your decisions be? Could you pull the metaphorical trigger? Be warned: this is a heavy and sad watch, but insightful and eye-opening all the same. Keep a few tissues nearby.
In this wrenching documentary, two teens are sexually assaulted by boys they considered friends, humiliated online and harassed by their communities.
The effects of sexual assault reach farther than we tend to realize. It can absolutely shatter the lives of the victims, and by no means am I downplaying their trauma, but they aren’t the only ones who suffer either. Friends, families, communities. We’re all affected, many times in hidden ways.
Audrie & Daisy explores the lives of two underage sexual assault victims and how everything changed for them — not only because of the crime itself, but from the bullying and social pressure that resulted from it.
Known for his spectacular pyrotechnic displays, Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang creates his most ambitious project yet in this breathtaking documentary.
What does art look like when gunpowder is the medium of expression? It’s hard to imagine if you’ve never experienced it before, which is why Sky Ladder is such an engrossing watch. Cai Guo-Qiang’s use of fire as art is the perfect kiss of artistry and engineering. Visually stunning and emotionally satisfying.
Scientists and baseball greats analyze what a batter faces when a pitcher hurls a fastball, which takes less than half a second to reach home plate.
I find baseball to be the dullest of all sports — so you can imagine my surprise when a documentary about baseball took hold of my attention and refused to let me go. Fastball is, as you might’ve guessed, an 87-minute exploration of the fastball.
It may not seem that fast on a TV screen, but a fastball only takes 396 milliseconds to leave the pitcher’s mound and arrive at home plate. This documentary not only pays homage to all the greatest fastball pitchers, but shows you all you need to know about the fastball’s history.
10. The Art of Organized Noize [No Longer Available]
IMDb: 7.3/10 | Rotten Tomatoes: N/A
The documentary charts the rise of Organized Noize, the influential producers behind megahits from Outkast, Goodie Mob, TLC, and more.
The music industry has a lot of unsung heroes. You think an artist’s or a group’s success depends on the artist’s or group’s performance and image, but there are a lot of hidden details and machinations that go on behind the scenes.
Atlanta-based hip hop production company Organized Noize deserves more credit than they get. Dive into this documentary and find out exactly what they do, how they shaped the entire American hip hop industry, and continue to influence the scene today.
IMDb: 7.2/10 | Rotten Tomatoes: N/A
After suffering a stroke at age 34, a woman documents her struggles, setbacks, and eventual breakthrough as she relearns to speak, read, and write.
It’s terrifying to think of how much your life can change with a single brain injury — and worse yet, not a physical injury but one caused by an event as unexpected as a stroke. But practical impact aside, have you ever wondered what a post-stroke life feels like?
Lotje Sodderland helps us experience what she did, at least to the extent that she can express, and this documentary sheds light on her road to recovery. Brain trauma is a dark subject, but this film is hopeful, positive, and ultimately transformative.
12. Amanda Knox
She was twice convicted and acquitted of murder. Amanda Knox and the people closest to her case speak out in this illuminating documentary.
Don’t go into this one expecting big answers. What you can expect, however, is a compelling and labyrinthine investigation that will make your question the preexisting assumptions you had as you entered the film.
Is it the most exciting documentary? No, but it’s up there, and it has its thrilling and suspenseful moments, all leading to a surprisingly emotional end. If you’re a fan of “true crime” stories, you’ll enjoy this watch.
Netflix Is the Last Bastion of Documentaries
Netflix is home to some of the best documentaries on the planet, ranging from those about Earth and the universe to more techy topics like hardware and software, and even has a few hacker-related documentaries.
But of course, documentaries aren’t the be-all-end-all of Netflix. Be sure to check out these nifty tools for finding new content to watch as well as these key tools for maximizing your Netflix experience.
What are your favorite documentaries on Netflix? Do you think these documentaries are reason enough to justify a Netflix subscription? Please share your thoughts with us in the comments below!