12 Best Non-Netflix-Original Documentaries on Netflix

UPDATED June 13, 2019

“When I watch a doc, at least once, I want my head to explode and my heart to feel. I want to see the world differently. Know something I didn’t know before. Engage me but most of all surprise me. Let there be an image, a person or a moment that never leaves.” Academy Award winner Susan Sarandon on the beauty of documentaries.
For most of us when we hear the word ‘documentary’ we almost always think of one film – that one time we gave the genre a chance. More often than not that one time turned out to be great, but it didn’t refer us to any other ones. That is because we believe that documentaries would only suit a particular mood, one we are almost never in.

Not only is this wrong given the variety of approaches to documentaries, but it is making us miss on some of the best films out there.

Make the decision to watch a documentary, and trust us, what follows will not disappoint. Below are the best documentaries available to stream on Netflix, like all other movies on agoodmovietowatch.com they are handpicked, highly-rated on IMDb and Rotten Tomatoes, and

“As fragile as she was strong, as vulnerable as she was dynamic, she was African royalty. How does royalty stomp around in the mud and still walk with grace?”. What Happened, Miss Simone? will surprise you no matter how much you thought you knew about the soul singer – not only in its exploration of Nina Simone’s personal life and complexities, but by being both a personal and political documentary. As you discover an original singer with talents that reach all the way to performance art, you will also learn about a Civil Rights activist’s journey and an unstable woman’s struggle. The documentary is not about answering the question of what happened, Miss Simone? – it’s an exploration of why that question is so important.

User rating: 88/100. Staff rating: 79/100.

How to Change the World is an insightful and candid documentary about the formation of Greenpeace in 1971 by a small group of environmentalists and activists in Vancouver, British Columbia. Beginning with their attempt to disrupt U.S. nuclear testing in Amchitka, Alaska, the film follows their subsequent efforts to thwart commercial whaling in the Pacific, their anti-sealing campaign in Newfoundland, and their ongoing efforts to defend the natural world against what they perceive as excessive human intervention and abuse. How to Change the World is as much a poignant tale of inspired activism as it is an interesting study of the organization’s early tribulations: idealism vs. anarchy, social movement vs. organizational structure (or lack thereof) and leadership vs. disunity. The voice of co-founder Robert Hunter (de facto leader of Greenpeace from inception) is heard posthumously throughout via narrator Barry Pepper, and it adds an impassioned air of gravitas to the film, detailing the many complexities Greenpeace experienced over the course of its early years of growth and development. A compelling and educational viewing experience.

User rating: 83/100. Staff rating: 80/100.
10.

Undefeated

2011

Undefeated won an Oscar but since it’s a documentary, few sadly paid attention to it. It tells the story of a football team in a poor area in Tennessee. Kids without a bright future, until the new coach arrives. Yes, that sounds like a very old, cliché tale. But keep in mind it is a documentary, and the story it tells is powerful, gripping, and any familiarity quickly becomes irrelevant. Even if you have no interest in American football, or in sports in general, you will love it and more than likely find yourself reaching for the Kleenex at least a few times before the credits roll.

User rating: 80/100. Staff rating: 84/100.

This surprising documentary follows Jiro, an 85 year old Japanese chef, his Michelin-starred restaurant in the Tokyo underground, and his eager sons. While ostensibly about sushi – and believe me, you’ll learn about sushi and see absolutely gorgeous images of the raw-fish creations – the film’s dramatic impetus is carried by the weight of tradition, the beauty of a labor of love, obsession, and the relationship between father and son. Truly a must-watch.

User rating: 90/100. Staff rating: 88/100.

This is an amazing documentary but be warned, the main character has some weird characteristics.

By coincidence, an art collector stumbles upon an undiscovered collection of sculptures and paintings that can only be described as the work of a genius. There was almost no reference to the artist, but upon research the collector finds that they are by a man called Stanislav Szukalski. He traces him down and finally locates him living anonymously in a California suburb. 

The documentary, Struggle: The Life And Lost Art Of Szukalski, is a collection of tapes from numerous interviews in the 1980s between the collector and Szukalski. He was helped by George DiCaprio, who would later produce this movie with his son Leonardo (!). 

In these interviews it becomes clear that Szukalski is pure genius. The funny thing is that he seemed to be well aware of this fact himself. 

Remember the weird characteristics I mentioned in that first sentence? Here we go. Szukalski’s past is full of a lot of antisemitism, sexism and bigotry. 

The question that lingers is how exactly can this forgotten-genius story be reshaped by the discovery of his twisted opinions. Can the artist be separated from the art? It’s a personal matter for the people who found Szukalski and later made this movie. It might never get as personal for you, but this movie will sure try to provoke an answer.

User rating: 80/100. Staff rating: 88/100.
7.

Virunga

2014

A documentary that is immediate and plays out like a thriller. Beautifully shot in Virunga National Park in the Eastern Congo, the story focuses on the struggles between Park Rangers and a list of adversaries including poachers, oil company goons, and an Islamic revolutionary army. The stories of the endangered gorillas and the people who struggle to protect them will break your heart and at the same time give you hope in humanity. On top of this, the editing is superb and gives the film an intensity that rivals any recent thriller.

User rating: 90/100. Staff rating: 90/100.

A striking and revelatory documentary focused on the behaviour of captive Orcas and their treatment within SeaWorld and other theme parks around the world. At the center of the story is Tilikum, a bull Orca that has been responsible for the death of three individuals, and the legal and ethical challenges that have arisen from apparent cover-ups by officials. What happened to Tilikum to make him adopt such behavior? First-hand accounts by former whale trainers and experts deliver fascinating truths about Tilikum and the species as whole, with particular attention on their remarkable intelligence and advanced social behaviors. Blackfish will undoubtedly change your perspective on whale captivity indefinitely. It’s certainly not to be missed by anyone who appreciates top-notch documentary film-making as honest historical record.

User rating: 91/100. Staff rating: 90/100.

The Look of Silence is an incredible documentary from Director Joshua Oppenheimer, a follow-up/companion piece to his award-winning documentary The Act of Killing. Both films focus on the Indonesian Genocide of 1965-66, where the military government systematically purged up to one million communists. In this film an optician named Adi Rukun meets with various members of the death squad that murdered his brother, under the guise of providing them eye examinations. As he questions them about their participation in the killings, they show little remorse and in fact provide lurid details to the many executions. It’s a stunning and provocative look at the legacy of historical violence, along with the insidious propaganda that provoked it then and continues to justify it to younger generations.

User rating: 89/100. Staff rating: 91/100.

The story of one of the most influential musicians of recent history, George Harrison, told through the eyes of one of the most prominent filmmakers, Martin Scorsese. Director and producer, Scorsese offers one of the most complete documentaries on any artist – ever. And what an artist he was – successful and talented, yes, but also incredibly inspired and spiritual. Through interviews, home movies, and concert footage, this long and intimate film will allow you to travel through the world of The Beatles, and explore the incredible mind of George Harrison. A heartfelt documentary.

User rating: 91/100. Staff rating: 92/100.

When asked to play Andy Kaufman, Jim Carrey decided that he would get into character and never get out, even when the camera was not rolling. This was extremely frustrating to everyone at first, especially the director, who had no way of communicating with Jim Carrey, only Andy Kaufman or Tony Clifton (an alter ego created by Andy Kaufman). At the same time, Carrey had allowed a camera crew to follow him in order to create a behind-the-scenes documentary. The footage was never released because Universal Studios expressed concerns that “people would think Jim Carrey is an asshole”. Jim & Andy is that footage being displayed for the first time since it was recorded 20 years ago, finding Carrey at a very unique point in his life. Sick of fame and almost sick of acting, he displays his true self – an unbelievably smart, fragile, and complex person. His commentary, when it’s not funny impressions, is extremely emotional and grounded – sometimes philosophical. This is one of the best documentaries that Netflix has ever bought the distribution rights for, and certainly a mind-blowing portrayal of a complex mind.

User rating: 84/100. Staff rating: 92/100.
2.

Icarus

2017

Icarus starts with director Bryan Fogel deciding to inject himself with doping substances and participate in a biking race undetected. By accident, he ends up in contact with a Russian scientist. This man transforms the movie from a personal experiment to a highly relevant political thriller. Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov, the scientist is at the center of accusations in Russia of a virtually impossible state-sponsored doping scheme. With links to the Russian president Putin himself, the movie keeps getting more and more interesting as the relationship between Fogel and Rodchenkov develops. Aside from all the madness that unfolds, Rodchenkov’s likeable personality makes the story more relatable and humane, and gives an insight into the pressures of working in the regulatory body in a country like Russia. You will be astonished by how much material this movie has. A must-watch.

User rating: 90/100. Staff rating: 94/100.
1.

Senna

2010

You will be most astonished by this electrifying documentary if you are not a racing fan, and even more if you have never heard of Ayrton Senna. The movie matches this character in being captivating beyond belief; incredibly powerful and sublime. Director Asif Kapadia develops a compelling and exciting picture of F1 and the man that was Ayrton Senna. At a time when F1 cars were +1000hp fire breathing monsters and the grid was stacked with world champions, Senna rose above the rest to take 3 world championships and win the fabled Monaco Grand Prix a record 6 times. Unfortunately Senna’s life was cut short at the age of 34 in a devastating racing crash. By many he is still considered one the best and most exciting racing drivers to have ever stepped into an F1.

User rating: 95/100. Staff rating: 95/100.