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From killer whales and dinosaurs to Banksy and Cobain, UK Netflix has a lot of treasure in its documentary vaults. Empire have chosen (in no particular order) the best 20 to delve into.
1. Blackfish (2013)
A damning exposé of SeaWorld and those who sail within her, Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s documentary focuses on killer whale, Tilikum. Dragging trainer Dawn Brancheau into a pool and killing her (after two previous, similar incidents), the ‘nature or nurture’ question is given some serious heft - was the floppy-finned, 12,000 pound Tilikum born a killer, or is his cramped captivity to blame? It’s not hard to see why thousands felt the need to boycott SeaWorld upon the film’s release.
2. Cobain: Montage Of Heck (2015)
Illustrations, voice recordings and personal photos are just part of the fabric that forms Brett Morgen’s documentary. From troubled youth to tortured teen to rock idol, Morgen keeps things intimate, focusing much more on the man than the icon. Executive produced by Kurt’s daughter Frances Bean, we are given access to unheard songs and even anecdotes from girlfriends pre-Courtney. Dave Grohl may be missing, but Cobain’s parents, sister and Krist Novoselic are all very much front and centre, making this an absolute must-watch for anyone with even the slightest interest in the Nirvana frontman.
3. Exit Through The Gift Shop (2010)
The Keyser Söze of street art, Banksy remains a pretty mercurial presence in a documentary that’s ostensibly about another creative type, wannabe documentary maker Thierry Guetta, and his efforts to track down – you guessed it – Banksy. Considering Banksy is behind the film itself, this shouldn’t be too hard, but therein lies the rub. Imagine Labyrinth directed by the Goblin King himself. Is it a mockumentary? A serious statement on modern art? An elaborate April fool? Whatever it is, it’s an edgy doc worth revisiting.
4. Catfish (2010)
If you come to this hoping for whiskery river fish, you’ll be disappointed. There aren’t any. But if you’re looking for a bumpy ride through the minefield that is modern online interaction, Catfish will hit the spot. New York photographer Nev Schulman meets and bonds with an eight-year-old artist, Abby Pierce, via Facebook. From there, he falls for Abby's older half-sister, Megan, over the same medium, only to find her suspiciously reluctant to meet. It turns out she’s not quite who she claims to be. But is he being played or are we?
5. The Look Of Silence (2014)
If you’ve not seen 2012’s The Act Of Killing, return to this when you have. Seen it now? Good. Joshua Oppenheimer’s follow-up to his critically-lauded and genuinely harrowing documentary is just as acclaimed and just as painful. This time Oppenheimer’s focus turns to a specific family who were affected by the 1965 Indonesian communist genocide and now live their life in silence. Not for the easily upset.
6. West Of Memphis (2012)
Aided and abetted by Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh under their WingNut Films marque, this stunning documentary sets about righting some pretty grevious wrongs. The title refers to teenagers Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, Jr., who were convicted of murdering three children in 1993. Wrongly, as Amy J. Berg's doc establishes, as it shows up one miscarriage of justice after another. One of very few docs to garner five Empire stars and richly deserving of them all.
7. Nas: Time Is Illmatic (2014)
"Life’s a bitch and then you die,” rapped Nas on his 1994 record Illmatic. The hip-hop icon might not have been so gloomy if they'd had Netflix back in 1994 – not with docs like this fan-pleasing homage to a classic LP to enjoy. It’s also an engaging origin story for Nasir bin Olu Dara Jones, a nuggety young rapper who emerged with remarkable self-assurance from the projects of Queens to conquer the Billboard chart.
8. The Queen Of Versailles (2012)
One of those stories that feels too far-fetched to be anything other than true, this modern-day fable is Citizen Kane by way of The Big Short. Greed, hubris and epic delusions of grandeur collide with the economic downturn as Jackie Seigel tries to create a vast Xanadu in the Florida swamplands and ends up with the world's biggest ruin instead. As the Seigels survey their broken down behemoth and try to derive some meaning from a life that's deprived them of the three indoor swimming pools and two bowling alleys they'd planned, it's hard to know whether to laugh, cry or send money.
9. The Square (2013)
Netflix's first ever Oscar nominee, The Square peels back the news headlines and TV reportage to document the human side of 2011's Arab Spring in Cairo's Tahrir Square. It's as hard-hitting and visceral as you'd expect from footage recorded by the young revolutionaries protesting against Hosni Mubarak. It's an enthralling front row seat in these young people's battle to topple a corrupt and decaying regime.
10. The Central Park Five (2012)
Ken Burns – rightly acclaimed as a master documentarian for his work on landmark PBS films like The Civil War and Prohibition – here turns his focus to more recent history. In 1989, a female jogger in New York City’s Central Park was assaulted and raped. The mass public outrage that followed, fuelled by the press, led to five black teenangers being wrongly convicted. Burns explores mob mentality and an inflammatory media at a turbulent time in New York’s history; his film led to the city settling with the defendants for $41m.
11. The Thin Blue Line (1988)
This gripping documentary focuses on the murder of police officer Robert W. Wood and the man convicted of the crime, Randall Dale Adams. Sentenced to life in prison, the doc used re-enactments and interviews in an attempt to discover the real killer. Who was responsible for Wood’s murder? We won’t spoil it for you. Making A Murderer is currently stirring the Netflix and judicial waters, but director Errol Morris got there long before it.
12. Bill Cunningham New York (2010)
“I’ve said many times that we all get dressed for Bill,” purrs Vogue editor and fire-breathing Devil Wears Prada inspiration Anna Wintour, in this unexpected treat. Lanky of frame and goofy of smile, photographer Bill Cunningham has roamed the streets of Manhattan for decades, snapping any street styles that take his fancy. Richard Press’ charming film is as much an intimate portrait of an immensely likeable eccentric as it is an all-encompassing study of the fashion industry (and the New York streets that define it).
13. Life Itself (2014)
Roger Ebert was the ultimate film critic. Read and trusted by millions of readers, he starred in his own film-reviewing TV show, earned a star on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame, and was the only film journalist to win a Pulitzer. Life Itself takes an affectionate approach, but also takes care not to pull any punches, depicting the sometimes frosty relationship with his co-critic Gene Siskel, and his painful battle with cancer. Steve James – whose earlier documentary, Hoop Dreams, Ebert once declared “one of the best films about American life that I have ever seen” (see #19, below) – is behind the camera here.
14. Food, Inc. (2008)
Food is delicious, right? But did you know that 47% of that deliciousness is artificially injected into it by mad scientists working out of a bunker in Wisconsin? No? Okay, that's not entirely true but Morgan Spurlock and Fast Food Nation author Eric Schlosser’s penetrating snoop through America’s vast agribusiness sector is only a mite less scary. Unless you love the distinctive tang of pesticide, this will have you looking nervously under your dinner.
15. The House I Live In (2012)
Confusingly not about his house at all, Eugene Jarecki’s (Freakonomics) documentary actually tackles America’s attempts to keep narcotics from tearing the country apart from within. Like Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic, the US government’s war on drugs comes out looking a lot like it’s already lost that conflict and is currently at the giving up and going home stage. Jarecki's conclusions, as Empire’s review notes, are “a devastating denunciation” of policy failings. Gripping, powerful and as topical as ever, it's an essential watch.
16. Indie Game: The Movie (2012)
Video gaming is now a multi-billion dollar industry, but there are still pockets of dedicated self-reliant nerds, in garages, bedrooms and basements, crafting handmade offerings for a crowded marketplace. This eye-opening film follows four developers as they struggle through the creative process, pouring their hearts, souls, and whatever scraps of money they can find into their games. For a film about pixels and coding, it’s a surprisingly emotional journey.
17. Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey (2011)
Narrated by Whoopi Goldberg, this impossibly likeable film tells the story of Kevin Clash: a puppet-obsessed kid who grew up to join the cast of Sesame Street in 1984, creating the huggable character Elmo “to represent love”. It’s a heartwarming tale, only slightly tainted by Clash’s hasty exit from the series in 2012, following (ultimately unproven) allegations of ‘sexual impropriety’. Still, as an island of goggle-eyed innocence and joy, the film stands on its own.
18. Dinosaur 13 (2014)
$8 million. The FBI. A T-Rex called Sue. Todd Douglas Miller’s Emmy Award-winning dino doc focuses on American paeleontologists Pete Larson and Sue Hendrickson (from whom the Rex took its nickname) and their 10-year battle with the FBI and museums over the biggest and most complete Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton ever discovered. Tragic and inspiring, this is a must-watch for those who want to embrace their inner Alan Grant or Ellie Sattler.
19. Hoop Dreams (1994)
William Gates and Arthur Agee dream of the NBA big leagues in this Oscar-nominated documentary. Both from dilapidated areas of Chicago, the pair are scouted by a private school in Westchester, Illinois. School work and injuries threaten to get in the way, but the boys' dreams never falter. Winning the Audience Award at Sundance and filmed over five years, if you’re ever in desperate need of a jolt of inspiration, look no further.
20. Chasing Ice (2012)
At first glance, glaciers – bodies of ice which move, lest we forget, at a glacial pace – do not seem like a particularly exciting or cinematic subject matter. But they form the centrepiece of this important and challenging polemic, in which an intrepid and certifiably mad team of photographers attempt to document the climate changing, in real time. Their astonishing photography, which sees enormous blocks of ice breaking into the sea like explosions, is at once visually thrilling and a devastating prognosis for the planet.
21. Supermensch (2013)
Yes, it's so far past hagiography it's basically a love letter, but there's something infectious about Mike Myers' kinda-biopic of music industry impresario and PR wizard Shep Gordon. It's impossible not to be swept up in his outsized life as recounted by the one-time Wayne Campbell and former pals like Alice Cooper. The chicken, unsurprisingly, proved unavailable for comment.
22. Muscle Shoals (2013)
This joyride along the humid, mosquito-buzzing banks of the Tennessee River ponders the massive impact of a tiny recording studio squirrelled away in the town of Sheffield, Alabama. The Muscle Shoals Sound informed the music of everyone from Arethra Franklin to Wilson Pickett – the Stones owed them a huge debt, too – and many of their secrets are laid bare in a rocking potted history that’s soul food for the eyes.