As I’ve mentioned before, I consider Netflix to be an excellent low-cost alternative to cable. Having Netflix gives you access not only to almost every DVD known to man (sent to you in the mail), but you also have access to their extensive streaming library. In other words, if you have high speed internet at home, you can watch a lot of movies and TV series (without commercial interruption) at no additional cost with just a button click. Not bad for $9 a month.
So, what do we use it for? In the evenings, we certainly do use it for a bit of entertainment to unwind a couple nights a week (we’re watching Doctor Who seasons right now), but my wife and I often dig deep into the documentaries in order to learn about a new topic and give us some food for thought on a particular subject.
Two big caveats. First, documentaries can definitely be as biased as anything else. I watch a documentary not because I believe it’s hard fact, but because it can often be a very compelling way of introducing an idea or making a case for another idea. A good documentary shouldn’t leave you thinking you now have all the answers, but should encourage you to follow up by finding more facts and different viewpoints.
Second, a good documentary should do just two things: it should make a particular idea or perspective clear to you and it should entertain you along the way. If it fails at either, it’s not a good documentary.
Over the past decade, I’ve watched a lot of documentaries. Some of them have been awful and failed on both the entertaining and clear perspective counts. Some of them have succeeded on one side or the other – they entertain but don’t have a point, or they have a point but are dreadfully boring.
Below are fifteen that succeed on both sides of the matter – and every one of them is available on Netflix streaming. If you have such an account (and I’m basically encouraging people to ditch their cable bill in exchange for it), then you’ll be able to just click any of the links below and either start watching immediately or add it to your instant queue to watch later.
Consider this an encouragement to cancel your expensive cable or satellite bill.
This is, hands down, the best documentary I’ve ever seen. It’s far and away the best science-related documentary I’ve ever seen, but for me, the take-away message was the fragile nature of human life. We are not invincible and the universe around us is very, very large, indeed. There are scenes from this that have stuck in my mind for many years.
Maxed Out covers the nature of overspending in America during the buildup to the 2008 financial crisis incredibly well, digging into the specifics of why it happened and the roles both individual choice and companies played into it. If you want more on this topic, In Debt We Trust is solid but nowhere near as good.
If you’ve ever wondered what the process of moving food from the fields to your local grocery store and onto your dinner plate looks like, this is the show for you. I came out of this with two notable ideas: first, I wanted desperately to change my dietary habits, and second, my opinion of Wal-Mart went up significantly.
Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price
For the flip side on Wal-Mart, this makes the case that Wal-Mart’s business practices in bringing low-priced goods to many towns is often harmful in multiple dimensions. It reduces the quality of work and customer service available in the towns and also forces larger companies into some very shady practices in order to provide the goods at the very low prices that Wal-Mart demands.
This documentary compares how babies are raised in four distinctly different cultures and economic levels. What can be concluded from this is that you don’t really need to give your baby everything – all it really takes to raise a happy and healthy baby is care from the parents. No mountain of stuff will really make a difference if the parents are involved to begin with.
My feelings on college sports changed significantly after watching this film (and, in similar ways, after reading The Blind Side). Individuals from very broken backgrounds are trying very hard to take advantage of the germ of basketball talent that they have so that they can make a new life for themselves, because their background assures them that many other opportunities in life are going to be closed to them. This is why collegiate athletics are important, in my opinion.
Super Size Me
This is a good one to pair with Food Inc. It documents the effects of eating nothing but fast food for a month on a human body, and the results are fairly ugly. Again, it’ll make you question what you eat, which is a powerful question to ask both for your health and for your finances.
This one has provoked more discussion with other people that have watched it than anything else I’ve ever seen, hands down, so it certainly fits here. That being said, it’s going to cause a reaction in you, but that reaction is going to be different depending on who you are and your beliefs. It’s a surprisingly unbiased look at a very conservative Christian youth camp – it almost feels like they turn on the cameras and just let them roll. From my eyes, there are good things and bad things about what’s shown regarding the camp, but some people are going to be much more strongly inclined to see the “good” and others are going to be strongly inclined to see the “bad.” Be prepared for some… discussions if you watch it with others.
Man on Wire
This one stands out to me not just because of a compelling story, but because it shows what can happen if you bring enough passion and repeated effort to the table. It tells the story of a man who walked a tightrope between the twin towers of the World Trade Center in the 1970s without a rope, and how lots and lots of training and planning made such a seemingly impossible stunt possible.
The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters
In many ways, this is similar to Man on Wire in that it documents the result of sustained effort and hard work, as two men compete and train to achieve the highest score in the world at the video game Donkey Kong. I genuinely watched this for a laugh, but it turned out to be incredibly compelling and rather thought-provoking. What drives people to be the best in the world at something? Can I harness that myself?
One last note: the Seven Up! series of documentaries is one of the best things I’ve ever seen, but the series isn’t wholly available on streaming, particularly the first one. However, you can get the disc if you so choose.
Now cut your cable and save yourself some money!