Nine times out of 10, when I'm not sure what I want to watch on Netflix, I go to the documentaries section. This is because it's one of the most varied categories that the service offers, and because I know that no matter what I might be feeling like, I'm always going to be engrossed by a true story about something happening in the very real world around me. And while there are fascinating nonfiction stories of all kind, some of my favorites are the ones that really get you thinking: the super smart documentaries on Netflix that make me want to go down a million Wikipedia rabbit holes and come out a more informed citizen.
Documentary filmmaking is one of the most remarkable challenges in all of entertainment: you must take reality and mold it into an engaging story. While you're never able to achieve objectivity, you are obligated to rely on truth, and in fact, there is value both artistic and scientific in the subjectivity that you provide with your mere presence as a filmmaker. From the obscure and niche to the enormous and planet altering, there are stories everywhere, and the list below gives you some of the smartest documentaries, made by some of the smartest folks, so that your brain always has something to chew on.
By far the smartest documentary — and even movie — on Netflix right now, Ava Duvernay's Oscar-nominated 13th examines the history of racial inequality in America, particularly as it relates to the criminal justice system. You will be moved to action.
2'What Our Fathers Did: A Nazi Legacy'
With blatant antisemitism, white nationalism, and authoritarian behavior on the rise in the ranks of our government, this film, which features the sons of Nazi war criminals traveling Europe and confronting the horrors committed by their fathers, is a must-watch.
3'We Were Here'
We Were Here explores the HIV/AIDS crisis that began in the early 1980s, highlighting, with deep humanity, those who suffered and those in the community who took action as the Reagan administration turned a blind eye.
4'What Happened, Miss Simone?'
This film brilliantly fuses music journalism, civil rights history, mental health, and domestic violence issues all as it tells the story of its incredible subject, Nina Simone, from her early years all the way through to her final days.
This incisive look into the mistreatment of Orca whales in captivity will open your eyes to truths you may never have realized. It's brutal at times, and has prompted large-scale responses from Seaworld and animal rights groups.
6'The Look Of Silence'
In The Look of Silence, an artfully made and powerful documentary by the makes of the acclaimed The Act of Killing, a unnamed Indonesian man confronts, under the pretense of an eye exam, the men who killed his brother during Indonesia's 1965 communist purge.
7'Matt Shepard Is A Friend Of Mine'
This film takes an intimate and heartbreak look at the life of Matthew Shepard, murdered in Laramie, WY in 1998 for being gay, through interviews with Shepard's loved ones and video footage of his tragically short life.
Nominated for an Academy Award for best documentary film, Cartel Land follows vigilante groups fighting drug cartels in Mexico and offers no easy answers.
Thoroughly researched and expertly organized, Inside Job deconstructs the financial crisis of the late 2000s and the banks and bankers that built the bubble and watched it burst, causing financial ruin for millions.
Less political and more thriller, The Imposter tells the gripping tale of a missing boy who turns up looking and sounding quite a bit different that when he was last seen, but whose family is willing to accept that the person in question is certainly their son. A fascinating examination of human psychology.
11'(Dis)Honesty: The Truth About Lies'
In a country where our government calls genuine reporting "fake news" and blatant lies "alternative facts," a deep dive into the science and psychology of lies is worth everyone's time.
Trapped examines the legal battles to keep abortion accessible and the consequences of limiting abortion access.
Nature photographer and former climate change skeptic James Balog using time-lapse video technology to film glaciers rapidly eroding and melting.
A smart film about a very smart man, Life Itself chronicles the life of iconic film critic Roger Ebert.
15'Gravity Is Just A Habit'
For a lighthearted take on smarts, check out Gravity Is Just A Habit, which chronicles the band OK GO's adventures as they challenge the laws of nature and film a zero-gravity music video.
16'Ai Wei Wei: Never Sorry'
Chinese artist and activist Ai Wei Wei is the subject of this fascinating and enlightening documentary that explores the nature of protest art, as well as the relationship between art and an oppressive government regime.
17'Man On Wire'
Man On Wire takes you inside all the planning and scheming that led to the death defying and highly illegal high-wire walk done by Philippe Petit in 1974 between the two Twin Towers.
18'From Caligari To Hitler'
This documentary about Weimar Cinema explores the ways that cinema conveys the anxiety of an age, focusing its lens on the years leading up to the Nazi Regime.
19'The Hunting Ground'
This film tackles the problem of sexual assault on college campuses, shining a light on institutional cover ups as well as the personal tragedies of the victims and their loved ones.
All of these documentaries will not only open your mind, but also dump some good old fashioned facts in there.