Updated on 09.16.14

Netflix Streaming

Trent Hamm

Ten Thought-Provoking Things to Watch

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.

There are 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 ten 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.

10 Netflix Documentaries Worth Watching


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

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.

Food Inc.

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.

Hoop Dreams

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.

Jesus Camp

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!

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  1. If you enjoyed Food, Inc., try Earthlings. It’s free streaming at earthlings dot com.

  2. marta says:

    “Below are fifteen that succeed on both sides of the matter ”

    You may want to fix that…

  3. Food Inc was very eye opening. I recommend ‘For Liberty’.

  4. kristine says:

    I recommend: Fast Food Nation, The Corporation, and Manufacturing Consent. That last one is by Chomsky-definitely a single point of view, but thought provoking-for the fiction version watch Wag the Dog. None of these are appropriate for kids. Delighted to see Super Size Me on the list- I have one of the original, now contraband, posters with an obese Ronald McDonald- one my co-workers at the publishing house was a writer on the movie. He now does stand-up all over the country and on TV.

    If you like Cosmos, try A Brief History of Time, by Hawking.

  5. Briana says:

    What a coincidence. We just recently signed up for Netflix and I am watching Babies right now. Snagfilms.com also streams quite a few documentaries for free (with commercials).

  6. SavingFreak says:

    We loved Babies and found Super Size Me to be disturbing. Overall Netflix is amazing and is the best deal for what you spend. The picture quality on the streaming is awesome using our laptop and an HDMI cable to connect it to the television.

  7. SwingCheese says:

    My husband and I have watched several of these, and I agree with your analysis of Jesus Camp. He and I are in agreement with respect to the place of religion in child raising, but we were raised with differing degrees of church involvement (he never set foot in one, I went to Catholic school for several years) and our respective comfort levels with religion were quite evident in the…discussions…that followed our viewing of the movie. It was a discussion starter, to say the least :)

  8. Amanda says:

    Or be really frugal and just get it at the library … ha ha ha. I just put about 6 of them on hold. Thanks, Trent.

  9. Leigh says:

    We loved babies, as did our toddler. I also just finished Ken Burns Civil War, which taught me a lot while being balanced and full of first hand accounts.

  10. karishma says:

    I recommend Fathead as a counterpoint to Supersize Me. Very thought provoking, and good points about nutrition in general.

  11. Holly says:

    The Business of Being Born is also available streaming- a good thing to watch for any parents-to-be.

  12. jorgenman says:

    +1 for Fat Head.

  13. Alex W says:

    So glad Jesus Camp made your list!

  14. Bob S. says:

    All great newer docs…well, except for Cosmos which is 26 years old! Yikes, can’t believe its that old! And of course the Seven Up series is excellent!

    I recommend exploring some older docs, such as “Salesman” and just about anything by the Maysles.

    Also “Night and Fog” by Resnais.

    Most of the older ones are just as relevant now as they were when they were first made.

  15. Merinda says:

    I’d second “The Civil War”. I saw it when it first aired in the early nineties and found it just as good now, especially being a history buff.

    “We shall Remain” is about native Americans and is also very informative.

    “Pole to Pole” is a somewhat dated documentary, but it’s a fascinating time capsule. Michael Palin left Russia a day before the revolution.

    And finally my favorite doc I’ve seen is “My Architect”, done by the son of Louis Kahn. Surprisingly touching.

    okay, one more, and it’s not streaming. “Step into liquid”. It’s about surfing.

  16. Kathy F says:

    Ones that left an impression on me, although they are not new releases:
    Grey Gardens
    Brother’s Keeper
    Harlan County USA
    The Farmer’s Wife (series)

  17. Michelle says:

    2nd “We Shall Remain”. Fantastic, especially if you don’t know much about Native people.

  18. borealis says:

    Documentary movies are great for expanding the mind, both for what they say and for finding holes in their arguments.

    It is very interesting to watch films on both sides of an argument — both are very convincing because they clearly leave out contrary facts and evoke emotions only for one side.

    The food documentaries are probably the most interesting. Supersize Me is very entertaining, but the guy clearly was purposely trying to make himself sick — gotta admire his willingness to sacrifice his health to get his argument out there.

  19. vern says:

    Super Size Me was full of baloney! Check out the documentary “Fat Head” for a terrific rebuke.

    In Fat Head Tom Naughton eats nothing but McDonald’s and junk food for a month and LOOSES weight. He takes SSM apart piece by piece. It’s a really good show.

  20. vern says:

    My favorite documentary has to be “Little Dieter Needs to Fly” about the only American to escape from Laos during the war.

    It’s a Werner Herzog film and follows Dieter from his childhood during WWII through his being shot down and captured by the Pathet Lao during the Vietnam war.

    What an amazing person!

  21. Sarah says:


    “Or be really frugal and just get it at the library … ha ha ha. I just put about 6 of them on hold. Thanks, Trent.”

    Haha great, frugal minds thinks alike. I did the exact same thing. I’m fortunate to live near 2 great library systems. The dvds that one library did not have, I requested at the other. About 6 in all.

  22. guinness416 says:

    Yes, I’ve rented a good few of these from the (Toronto) library over the past few years, worth checking anyway.

  23. Chad says:

    If you haven’t seen “Dear Zachary: A Letter to a son about his father” go grab something wipe your tears and then hit play. This movie is absolutely devastating emotionally.. heart wrenching and crushing. It really is a movie that changed the way I see the world.

  24. Paul says:

    not a comment on the docs, but I recently read 2 thigns about Hulu plus that were great news for those wantingto ditch cable.

    First, the Price may go to $4.50/month, and second, it will be offered to ALL PS3 Network members (not just Plus members that it’s available to now)

  25. Bill says:

    ‘Jesus Camp’ made me sad, I just can’t believe in this day and age people still do this to their children.

  26. Amanda B. says:

    I’ll cosign on Dear Zachary. I have seen 90% of the list and suggested docs in the comments and Dear Zachary evoked the strongest emotional response.

  27. Marcy says:

    I find it fascinating that, to a T, I’ve seen just about all of these same docs. Great minds definitely think alike Trent!

    I also wanted to put in a plug for the PBS series “Indepdent Lens”, where a number of these more recently released docs were available for viewing even before they were released on DVD. There is a diversity of viewpoints on all sorts of topics available on the films presented in the “Independent Lens” series. Check your local TV listings for when it is available in your area.

  28. Jane says:

    I haven’t seen Fathead, but it sounds like I would like it. I found Super Size Me pretty ridiculous. You mean, if you eat a super sized portion of McDonalds, including an extra large regular soda, for three meals a day you will be unhealthy? That’s shocking!

    Interesting that someone mentioned “Night and Fog”, although you should warn people that it is an extremely raw account of the Holocaust – appropriate, of course, in light of the 6 million killed, but nonetheless more than some can handle.

    One documentary that I loved was “People Like Us: Social Class in America.” It was on PBS. I’m also surprised an Iowa resident didn’t mention “King Corn.”

  29. Jane says:

    Oh, and I forgot the most heart wrenching and touching documentary I’ve ever seen – little man. It’s about a couple who deals with taking care of an extremely premature baby and all that entails. I guarantee you it will move and rivet anyone!

  30. Chuck says:

    Hey Trent, I’ll have to watch “Man on Wire” just to see how he “walks between the towers without a rope” :)

  31. Sara says:

    “The Business of Being Born” was interesting (and personal finance-relevant) but be aware that it contains a lot of uncensored childbirth video. I was not really prepared for that.

  32. We love Netflix too! What a great deal, although the choices for instant movies is iffy I agree they have a lot of great documentaries.
    We love the arty ones, always leave me inspired, I highly recommend Art 21 series. As an artist my self I have to say some of these artist are operating on a higher plane I can’t even imagine, truly amazing stuff!

  33. andrew says:

    Man on Wire is one of the best films I’ve ever seen. It’s incredible. Super Size Me is a bit biased and also somewhat obvious.
    Dear Zachary has been in my queue for a while now, I might press play on that one tonight.

  34. andrew says:

    Also forgot to mention that I LOVED Hoop Dreams. A great film.

  35. kc says:

    I watched Jesus Camp based upon this post, and found it nothing less than horrifying. “This is war!!” Yikes. Religious extremism – whatever its form – is scary.

  36. Louise says:

    FYI, Cosmos is available in its entirety on hulu.

  37. Kandace@pantrydiva says:

    Not one of the best documentaries ever, but interesting and entertaining nonetheless is “What Would Jesus Buy?” which takes on the whole Christmas shopping and consumerism of America.

  38. JJ says:

    Ditto for “Man on Wire” and “King of Kong”.

    I combed through my rental history to pick out some other docs I’ve enjoyed:

    I.O.U.S.A. (2008)
    Spellbound (2002)
    Mad Hot Ballroom (2005)
    Grizzly Man (2005)
    In the Shadow of the Moon (2007)
    Murderball (2005)
    The Last Waltz (1978)
    Discounted Dreams (2007)
    The Rape of Europa (2007)
    Heavy Metal Parking Lot (1986) and Neil Diamond Parking Lot (1996), both on the same disc. :-)
    Wordplay (2006)
    The Fog of War (2003)


  39. Jackie says:

    I’ve been watching the 30 Days series streaming on Netflix. It’s a fascinating social documentary series from the maker of Super Size Me.

    I just watched Jesus Camp a few weeks ago and was underwhelmed. I kept waiting for something remarkable or interesting to happen, and it just went along very predictably.

  40. Amanda says:

    There’s plenty of Ken Burns on there for anyone who likes history.

    I’d argue any of the Michael travel films are worth watching.

    You forgot The Cove. A film with an agenda to be sure, but plenty of suspense and intrigue as well.

    I’m not sure if you mentioned if you are using Roku to watch on your TV. That thing is probably the best entertainment dollars I ever spent, as I don’t have a video game system to hook up to the TV.

  41. Amanda says:

    That was meant to read Michael Palin travel films. He’s my favorite Python, so I’m partial.

  42. Kristine says:

    Oooh – thanks for the list, but I have to add “Word Wars”, especially for people who love to play Scrabble. It outlines the lives of some players who are obsessed with it.

  43. Lilly says:

    The Business of Being Born!

  44. Sarah says:

    I was just about to pop in and add The Business of Being Born, but it looks like several other readers beat me to it.

    As someone who hopes to give birth to at least one child in the future, this gave me a lot to think about. Since most people in my family think hospital births are the only option, I never even knew about many of the issues brought up in the film. It definitely prompted me to do more research into and talking about birth since seeing it.

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