Last October, I wrote about some movies on Netflix that Christians should consider. I had thought about making that article a monthly or quarterly feature, but the truth is that good movies get added so slowly on Netflix that a list of the best movies this month would not be that different from last month’s list.
Still, I do want to revisit the idea from time to time, so today we’ll take a look at some of the best documentaries on Netflix. In my previous list, I had a couple of these, so there are repeats here (“Grizzly Man” and “The Civil War”), but most of the list below is new, and all of it is worth your consideration. I list them here in alphabetical order, not in order of greatness.
The Civil War. Ken Burns’ epic documentary is worth watching if for no other reason than to hear Shelby Foote. Some have accused Burns of being too “politically correct,” but I find this documentary series to be mostly fair-minded, in part because of the presence of Foote, who understood the issues involved more deeply than any man alive at the time of the documentary’s creation. It is also emotionally resonant, as the story of the “American Aeneid” should be.
Detropia. Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady (the makers of “Jesus Camp,” below) brought us this 2012 dystopian tale of a hollowed-out Detroit. It won a bunch of awards, and it does a great job of illustrating the brokenness of Detroit at a moment in time, specifically the aftermath of the 2008-2009 financial crisis. What I find frustrating about this movie is that it tells only half the story in order to make ideological points. What “Detropia” doesn’t tell you is that even while the filmmakers were there, church leaders and social entrepreneurs were working to bring Detroit back. It is not fully back today, but what has happened in the five years since “Detropia” released is the real story of that city.
Grizzly Man. Filmmaker Werner Herzog is one of our greatest living filmmakers, and he proves it with this story of activist Timothy Treadwell, who lived among grizzlies in Katmai National Park (where I also lived for three years in the 1980s). The difference between Treadwell and me: I’m writing this today. Treadwell was killed by grizzlies in 2003, and this tale of his life and death is a story you will not forget.
Into the Inferno. Herzog does it again with an adventure story involving scientists, the film crew, and Herzog himself traveling to the world’s active volcanoes. But this is not just a nature documentary. What makes it poignant are the interviews Herzog does with people who live in the shadow of these volcanoes. Another interesting aspect of this film: It was produced just for Netflix, a fact that highlights how the streaming service is changing the way we get new content.
Jesus Camp. If you are a Christian, especially if you ever went to a church camp, you will find this documentary by turns deeply frustrating, deeply disturbing, and—we might as well admit it —vaguely familiar. The Jesus Camp of this documentary is NOT, repeat NOT, representative of many of the great Christian camps I know, but neither is what you’ll see here unique. Christians should see this documentary, if for no other reason than to know what the “other side” thinks of us.
Last Days in Vietnam. This film, also nominated for an Oscar, tells the story of America’s final weeks in the Vietnam War. It’s tragic, heroic at times, and necessary viewing for Americans.
Man on Wire. This 2008 film won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature and made the “Top 10” lists of more than 20 critics in the year of its release. I like it, but don’t love it like everyone else seems to. But it is a fun and interesting movie, and in the post-9/11 era, it is a reminder of why the Twin Towers were such iconic structures on the New York skyline and in the world’s imagination.
Muscle Shoals. If you like music, you’ll love this 2013 film. “Muscle Shoals” tells the story of the legendary FAME Studio and its “house band,” The Swampers. They played on albums by the Stones, U2, the Drive-by Truckers, Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan, and literally thousands more. The Swampers eventually made it into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and this movie is a fitting tribute to the contributions a little town in Alabama made to American music.
The Smartest Guys in the Room. Alex Gibney leans left politically, and the targets of his documentaries are often “bad guys” in the worlds of religion and business, which can’t help but leave the false impression that all people in religion and business are bad. Still, Gibney may be the most important documentarian of our time. This look at the Enron scandal won an Oscar nomination.
Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine. The recent biopic of Steve Jobs was okay, but this documentary—another Alex Gibney creation—is closer to the truth and more interesting. Steve Jobs was no “role model for America’s youth,” but if you have a smartphone in your pocket, whether it’s made by Apple or not, he affected your life.
Undefeated. This is for all you sports fans. It’s the story of the football team from Memphis’ Manassas High School. Manassas had been a loser for years, but then Coach Bill Courtney turned the program around, in part by seeing and loving the little boys inside the tough exteriors of his players, and by nurturing the future men in these boys. This documentary is also an Oscar winner (2012) and easily one of the best sports movies I’ve ever seen.
Warren Cole Smith is an investigative journalist and author as well as the Colson Center vice president for mission advancement.