We love documentaries at WIRED and, as this list proves, there are dozens of great ones worthy of your attention. Here we’ve collected some of the best documentaries on Netflix UK, YouTube and elsewhere, including BBC iPlayer.
If you decide you’re not in a documentary kind of mood after all, try our lists of the best TV shows on Netflix or the best films on Netflix UK. We also have a handy list of best podcasts for curious minds if you need something new for your daily commute.
We’ve split this list categories for each service, starting with Netflix. Scroll down for the best documentaries on YouTube and BBC iPlayer. But first, here’s our current featured documentary.
Featured Documentary: HyperNormalisation
Produced by renowned documentarian Adam Curtis and available on iPlayer, HyperNormalisation explores how the uncertain world we have now came to be. Drawing parallels to the later years of Soviet rule in Russia, Curtis posits that our feeling of unease derives from the fact we know the system is failing, but we can’t imagine an alternative and so continue to live the lie.
The documentary traces our current state from the unintended consequences of Kissinger’s foreign policy in the Middle East, through the technological revolution and charts the rise of Donald Trump from wannabe casino owner to political figurehead.
Curtis’ signature style of off-beat editing and music weaves an engrossing tale that justifies its three-hour run time. Watch it on BBC iPlayer
Best documentaries on Netflix
Documentaries like Making a Murderer and 13th have established Netflix as one of the best sources of high-quality, thought-provoking documentaries around. This is our ever growing collection of recommendations, all of which offer something a little bit different.
If you don’t know the story of Ross Ulbricht and the Silk Road, this 2015 offering is what you need to watch. The 90-minute documentary looks at how the deep web’s original drugs market place was created, rose to prominence, and then, at the hands of authorities, fell. Director Alex Winter explores the unseen web through the lends of encryption, decentralisation, and how law enforcement handles investigations into the deep web. Watch it on Netflix
Blackfish helped to change how orcas are treated at SeaWorld. In March 2016, three years after the harrowing documentary was released, the theme park agreed to stop breeding killer whales immediately. Blackfish, directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, tells the story of Tilikum, a killer whale that has been involved in numerous aggressive incidents towards humans. During the 90 minute show, its creators reveal how the powerful animals are badly kept, their handlers aren’t properly trained, and a growing body of evidence showing why orcas shouldn’t be held in captivity. Watch it on Netflix
This Netflix original documentary explores the United States’ history and relationship with racial inequality. The show is named after the Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution, which resulted in the prohibition of slavery and freed all those who were held captive. However, the documentary shows how black people are disproportionately affected by the country’s prison system and how inequality is still rife. Directed by Ava DuVernay and an incredibly powerful film, 13th won a Critic’s Choice award for Best Political documentary. Watch it on Netflix
The Barkley Marathons
For some, running is a way of life. Those taking on the Barkley Marathons definitely fall into this category. The 2014 documentary charts the journey of 35-40 runners who take on one of the most gruelling races in existence. Over a maximum of 60 hours, competitors are tasked with completing a 100-mile race – a generous time for most ultra-marathons of that distance. What makes the race standout is that competitors have to run through brambles, alongside a prison and climb around 54,200 feet (Everest is 29,030 ft). In the first 25 years of the race just 10 people finished. The documentary goes alongside those brave enough to take the course on and sees if anyone can last the distance. Watch it on Netflix
Get Me Roger Stone
Exploring the life of Republican political strategist Roger Stone, this Netflix documentary is one for fans of House of Cards, or spectators to the current real-life twists and turns within American politics. Netflix has filed Get Me Roger Stone under ‘provocative’, ‘controversial’, ‘scandalous’ and ‘dark’ – a description that fits a little too perfectly. It is suggested he is heavily responsible for creating Trump as a political figure and encouraging him to run for the United States’ Presidency. This story is almost stranger than fiction, and is both engrossing and deeply troubling. Watch it on Netflix
Making a Murderer was one of the most popular Netflix originals of last year, Casting JonBenet is cut from the same cloth. In 1996, Boulder, Colorado was rocked by the mysterious death of six-year-old pageant queen, JonBenet Ramsey. Her death was ruled as a homicide by police and received widespread media attention, but the killer was never identified – although suspicions still run wild as to who could have committed such a heinous crime. From the very first moments, Casting JonBenet leaves you with a steady sense of horror, not just at the story of JonBenet, but for the interwoven threads of tragedy connecting those who watched her story play out from afar. Watch it on Netflix
Lo And Behold: Reveries Of The Connected World
Produced and edited by Werner Herzog, this 98-minute documentary from the German writer explores where the internet came from and where it’s going next. The upfront confrontations see Herzog seek out hermits who avoid the internet, those who have been trolled online, robotic footballer players and how artificial intelligence is changing everything. Oh, and there’s an interview with Elon Musk where Herzog commits to going to Mars. Watch it on Netflix
Jim: The James Foley Story
This in-depth documentary focuses on the life and work of American conflict journalist James Foley, killed by ISIS terrorists in 2014. Foley’s childhood friend Brian Oakes directs compiling stories from Foley’s family, friends and those he was held in captivity with during his time as a prisoner of IS. It is a heart-wrenching, though-provoking look into the nature of conflict, the bonds between people in impossible circumstances and the overarching question of freedom. Watch it on Netflix
Fire in the Blood
Fire in the Blood describes itself as a tale of ‘medicine, monopoly and malice’. It charts the Western pharmaceutical industry’s aggressive blocking of access to low-cost AIDS drugs for the countries of Africa and the global south in the years after 1996, offering up a stark contrast between treatments in America compared to the rest of the world. The epidemic of AIDS has not yet gone away and continues to dominate lower income countries, despite the availability of cheap antiretroviral drugs. Watch it on Netflix
Having taken home the Oscar for best documentary in 2017, White Helmets is firmly one of the best things you’ll watch this year. Focusing on a group of volunteer rescue workers in Syria, the film follows them as they attempt to rescue left trapped in the wake of airstrikes. The 40-minute film charts these rescue workers from Syria’s Civil Defence, marking their heroism in the face of conflict and destruction. These people put their lives on the line everyday to help those in need; strangers come together in defence of human life. It’s truly inspiring and heart-wrenching to witness the level of devastation these first responders brave through, and their tireless belief in each other and the people who will stay with you long after the final scene. Watch it on Netflix
The best documentaries on YouTube
You can find almost anything on YouTube, including a huge number of in-depth and completely free documentaries. Here are a few of the best documentaries on YouTube WIRED thinks are worth a watch.
Rare Earth is a series of videos from Evan Hadfield, son of famous astronaut Chris Hadfield, about untold stories:
“Our world is endlessly complicated, with millions of unique and interesting truths hiding just out of sight, waiting to be discovered.
“From the chemical weapons of the Uzbek Aral Sea to the Buddhist untouchables of Japan – Rare Earth looks to find the stories that aren’t being told, but deserve to be seen.”
The first series is set in Japan and starts with the story of the 47 Ronin.
Here’s one for the gamers out there, especially Zelda fans. Boss Keys, a series from Mark Brown of Game Maker’s Toolkit, takes a fascinating deep dive into the dungeon design of each game in the series. He reveals how the classic formula has evolved over time in both good and bad ways.
Crash Course: World History
Want to learn about the history of the world in easily digestible 11-minute chunks? John Green has got you covered. His 42 episodes on the dawn of human civilisation show how the events of the distant past still have an impact on the world we live in today.
Free to Play
Professional gaming is now one of the most widely-watched sports around the world. Valve Software’s documentary about the players competing for a life-changing million dollar prize in the first Dota 2 International tournament, and the real-world battles they fought to be there, is concise, compelling and well worth a watch. No foreknowledge of Dota 2 is necessary. WIRED review
3D Printed Guns
Vice’s technology channel Motherboard put together a fascinating documentary last year on Cody Wilson – the law student who figured out how to print a semi-automatic rifle in the comfort of his own home. This documentary follows him as he builds and test-fires a 3D printed gun.
WIRED’s ‘Holy Land: Startup Nations’
With the most tech startups and venture capital per capita in the world, Israel has long been hailed as the ‘startup nation’. WIRED’s feature-length documentary looks beyond Tel Aviv’s vibrant, liberal tech epicenter to the Palestinian territories, where a parallel ‘startup nation’ story is emerging in East Jerusalem, Nazareth, Ramallah and other parts of the West Bank, as well as in the Israeli cybersecurity hub of Be’er Sheva. We learn how the fertile innovation ecosystem of Silicon Wadi has evolved as a result of its unique political, geographical and cultural situation and explore the future challenges – and solutions – these nations are facing.
WIRED’s ‘Shenzhen: The Silicon Valley of hardware’
We examine the unique manufacturing ecosystem that has emerged and gain access to the world’s leading hardware-prototyping culture, while challenging misconceptions from the west. The film looks at how the evolution of “Shanzhai” – or copycat manufacturing – has transformed traditional models of business, distribution and innovation, and asks what the rest of the world can learn from this so-called “Silicon Valley of hardware”.
World’s Scariest Drug
VICE’s documentary explores a strange and powerful drug called Scopolamine, also known as “The Devil’s Breath”. The effects of this drug are so potent that is has been described as rendering a person incapable of exercising free will. The film explores the unimaginable horror stories of those affected by Scopolamine, and after listening to only a few firsthand experiences, it takes an even darker turn than you could have originally anticipated.
Best documentaries on BBC iPlayer
iPlayer is a lot more than a catch-up service these days and there’s a healthy library of documentaries, including many from the BBC’s huge back catalogue. Here are some of the best.
Smash & Grab: The Story of the Pink Panthers
The Pink Panthers are an infamous criminal gang responsible for hundreds of millions worth of diamond, gold and art theft. Smash & Grab interviews members of the gang, thought to number 30 to 60 people mainly from Balkan states, and investigators from Interpol, revealing how geo-politics, economics and the shady parts of the diamond industry intersect to allow the gang to thrive. Watch it on BBC iPlayer
Exposed: Magicians, Psychics and Frauds
Long before Derren Brown, there was James ‘The Amazing’ Randi. A famously accomplished magician, Randi made it his life’s work to expose psychics, mediums and evangelists as frauds, regularly appearing on late night talk shows to explain and debunk their methods. This fascinating exploration of his life’s work, and the extraordinary schemes he deployed to expose people, also reveals a hidden deception of Randi’s making. Watch it on BBC iPlayer