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Best Netflix documentaries in August 2021

Best Netflix Documentaries: Murder Among the Mormons, Fantastic Fungi, Athlete A
(Image credit: Netflix; Moving Art via YouTube; Melissa J. Perenson for AP and Netflix)

When fictional shows and films aren't real enough, the best Netflix documentaries are there for something meatier. Pulled from actual events, these fact-based films and series give us plenty of pathos and beautiful moments of nature to dive into. And, thankfully, Netflix has plenty of documentaries and docuseries to educate and entertain us for hours. 

Whether you're a fan of true crime and murder mysteries or are more intrigued by the natural world, you're set with options at Netflix. This is why it's one of the best streaming services: it's got one of the largest documentary selections of any streaming platform, practically guaranteed to have something you'll love. 

Some of our top picks include true crime classics like Making a Murderer and The Staircase, as well as celebrations of the natural world such as My Octopus Teacher and David Attenborough: Life on Our Planet. Step outside your comfort zone and give something new a try — you just might come away with knowledge and appreciation of an entirely new topic.

The best Netflix documentaries are:

Athlete A

Best Netflix documentaries: Athlete A

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While there's no repairing the damage done on dozens if not hundreds of athletes over the years by former USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar, Athlete A offers many of those he victimized an opportunity to tell their story and expose the truth depths of his horrific crimes. It's a heartbreaking watch at times but an important one, empowering the women previously in his care and proving that the truth will always come out. 

Rotten Tomatoes score: 100%
Cast: Maggie Nichols, Jamie Dantzscher, Jennifer Sey, Rachael Denhollander, Laurie Hernandez
Directors: Bonni Cohen, Jon Shenk
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Seaspiracy

Best Netflix documentaries: Seaspiracy

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You’ve probably heard loads of people saying they’ll never eat seafood again after watching Seaspiracy, and with good reason. This 2021 documentary delves into the environmental impact of mass fishing and highlights the damage and destruction caused on marine life by human beings. While there's obviously a certain level of propaganda involved — Seaspiracy's underlying message is about ending fish consumption — it makes some convincing arguments for why doing so might be a very good idea. 

Rotten Tomatoes score: 75% 
Cast: Sylvia Earle, Paul Watson, Ric O'Barry
Director: Ali Tabrizi
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American Murder: The Family Next Door

Best Netflix documentaries: American Murder: The Family Next Door

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Sadly, domestic violence and even murder between romantic partners isn’t all that uncommon, so the fact that Chris Watts killed his wife Shannan believing it would enable him to move on with his mistress is depressing but not all that surprising. Where this story does take a turn for the incredible, however, is when we learn that not only was Shannan pregnant, meaning Chris killed his unborn child, but that he also killed his two young daughters as well. American Murder: The Family Next Door tells the story of their tragic deaths as well as the web of lies and deceit Chris Watts weaved in an attempt to get away with it. It’s harrowing to say the least.

Rotten Tomatoes score: 86%
Cast: Nichol Kessinger, Jim Benemann, Marcelo Kopcow, Michael Rourke, Nickhole Atkinson
Director: Jenny Popplewell
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The Social Dilemma 

Best Netflix documentaries: The Social Dilemma

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With a seeming-majority of society spending more time on phones than connecting with people face-to-face, it’s important to take a critical look at modern socio-interactive implications. The Social Dilemma interviews a variety of tech experts who expose plenty of industry secrets, many of which aren’t all that well-kept to begin with. However, this is one of the best Netflix documentaries because its discussion about the harm social media is doing to us as individuals and as a collective human race is posed with nuance and will certainly leave viewers with food for thought. 

Rotten Tomatoes score: 86%
Cast: Tristan Harris, Skyler Gisondo, Jaron Lanier, Kara Hayward, Vincent Kartheiser
Director: Jeff Orlowski
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Abducted in Plain Sight

Best Netflix documentaries: Abducted in Plain Sight

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When 12-year-old Jan Broberg was abducted in 1974 by a close family friend, her family and wider community were incredibly relieved when she was eventually returned safely. Then the same man, Robert Berchtold, kidnapped Broberg again, leaving many wondering how on earth such a crime could have been allowed to happen once, let alone twice. Abducted in Plain Sight has many moments that will make you wonder what on earth people are thinking, as much of the story beggars belief. However, that’s part of what makes this one one of the best Netflix documentaries. 

Rotten Tomatoes score: 74%
Cast: Jan Broberg Felt, Bog Broberg, Susan Broberg, Cor Hoffman, Danielle Holjeson
Director: Skye Borgman
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Sophie: A Murder In West Cork

Best Netflix documentaries: Sophie: A Murder In West Cork

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If you’re a fan of dark, moody murder mysteries, this one is for you. A French woman who visited her holiday home in West Cork, Ireland over the Christmas holidays in 1996 was murdered, her dead body left on the rocky path leading to her secluded property. To this day, no one has been convicted for the murder of Sophie Toscan du Plantier. That is unless you count Ian Bailey, a local journalist who was sentenced to 25 years for the crime in France, but has avoided extradition. Bailey is an active part of the documentary, making the whole story that much more bizarre and entrancing.

Rotten Tomatoes score: 89%
Cast: Ian Bailey, Barry Roche, Eugene Gilligan, Bertrand Bouniol, Marie Madeleine Opalka
Director: John Dower
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Fantastic Fungi

Best Netflix documentaries: Fantastic Fungi

(Image credit: YouTube/Moving Art)

Nature lovers won’t be able to resist Fantastic Fungi, an incredibly immersive time-lapse journey into the growth of mushrooms and an in-depth look at their medical and recreational usage. It's hard to believe that such a humble fungi played a huge part of the regeneration of life on Earth more than 3.5 million years ago. But watching this documentary will give viewers a whole new appreciation for those little fungi. 

Rotten Tomatoes score: 100%
Cast: Paul Stamets, Brie Larson, Andrew Weil, Dennis McKenna
Director: Louis Schwartzberg
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My Octopus Teacher

Best Netflix documentaries: My Octopus Teacher

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Octopuses may not seem like the most exciting or endearing animals, but in this 2020 documentary, filmmaker Craig Foster manages to paint them in a much more flattering light. The winner of Best Documentary Feature at the 93rd Academy Awards, My Octopus Teacher follows Foster as he forms a relationship with a wild common octopus while diving in a South African kelp forest. The pair meet by chance but Foster soon begins following her around for close to a year, observing her throughout the ups and downs of her life. It's a moving film and perfectly illustrates the connection between humans and the natural world.

Rotten Tomatoes score: 95%
Cast: Craig Foster, Tom Foster
Directors: Pippa Ehrlich, James Reed
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Pray Away

Best Netflix documentaries: Pray Away

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Former leaders from the "pray the gay away" movement, begun by evangelical group Exodus International, talk about their departure from the church in this heartbreaking, and at times infuriating, documentary. Survivors of conversion therapy are also interviewed, giving them a platform to tell the horrors of the practice while being shown compassion for what they've been through. It's hard to believe that barbaric practices like this are still happening in the world, but the more they're brought to light, the closer we'll be to eradicating them altogether, we can only hope.

Rotten Tomatoes score: 94%
Cast: Kristine Stolakis, Anya Rous, Jessica Devaney
Director: Kristine Stolakis
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High on the Hog: How African American Cuisine Transformed America

Best Netflix documentaries: High on the Hog

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There’s no way we can talk about American cuisine without acknowledging and showing respect for African American recipes and techniques which have deeply informed, influenced, and changed it. Over the course of four episodes, High on Hog travels to various locations around the country including the Carolinas, Texas, and Virginia and traces African American cooking back to its pre-enslavement origins to provide a compelling and educational trip into America's food history. Whether you’re a foodie or simply want to be more knowledgeable about the culture surrounding America’s food scene, this is a must-watch. 

Rotten Tomatoes score: 100%
Cast: Stephen Satterfield
Director: Roger Ross Williams
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Making a Murderer

Best Netflix documentaries: Making a Murderer

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Without a doubt one of Netflix’s most popular documentary offerings is Making A Murderer. It focuses on the case of Steven Avery, a Wisconsin man who was on the cusp of receiving a massive payout from Manitowoc County after spending 18 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. Right before he got his check, he was arrested and charged with the murder of Teresa Halbach, a photographer who had visited the Avery salvage yard on the day she was killed. Over a period of two seasons, the inconsistencies and horrible injustices faced by Avery and his nephew, Brendan Dassey, are explored and exposed, and while there’s no happy ending in sight for those involved, it’s an engrossing story you won’t be able to stop thinking about.

Rotten Tomatoes score: 84%
Cast: Steven Avery, Allan Avery, Dolores Avery, Kathleen Zellner, Laura Nirider, Jerry Bunting, Dean Strang
Directors: Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos
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A Secret Love

Best Netflix documentaries: A Secret Love

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An incredibly touching and romantic story, A Secret Love explores the history of former professional baseball player Terry Donahue and her longtime partner Pat Henschel. The women kept their love affair secret from their respective families for more than 70 years but eventually decided to come out. The documentary follows the fallout from this decision and the deep, abiding love shared by the two women who've spent their lives together but were afraid to let anyone else know how much they cared for one another. 

Rotten Tomatoes score: 100%
Cast: Pat Henschel, Terry Donahue, Diana Bolan, Kim Donahue, Tammy Donahue, Marge Summit, John Byrd
Director: Chris Bolan
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David Attenborough: A Life On Our Planet

Best Netflix documentaries: David Attenborough: A Life On Our Planet

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If you’re a sucker for nature documentaries, then you’re likely already familiar with the work of David Attenborough. His latest offering, 2020's A Life On Our Planet, sees Attenborough reflecting on his life and career and explores the incredible changes — not all of them positive — humans have caused to the world over the past century or so. While many of the realities of the devastation and destruction we've brought about are sad and even depressing to think about, Attenborough's intention here isn't to bring viewers down. Instead, he highlights his hopes for the future and aims to inspire the younger generations to change the course for the better.

Rotten Tomatoes score: 95%
Cast: David Attenborough, Max Hughes
Directors: Alastair Fothergill, Jonathan Hughes, Keith Scholey
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Chef's Table

Best Netflix documentaries: Chef's Table

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An absolute must-watch for all foodies, Chef's Table features some of the world's most renowned chefs as they share their stories, illustrate their culinary styles, and create inspired, at times mesmerizing meals. Over six seasons, innovators including Asma Khan, Christina Tosi, Alex Atala, Enrique Olvera, and Massimo Bottura lift the veil behind the dining room and the kitchen in the most refreshing and fascinating way. 

Rotten Tomatoes score: N/A
Cast: Mashama Bailey, Dario Cecchini, Asma Khan, Sean Brock, Enrique Olivera, Gaggan Anand
Director: Abigail Fuller 
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How to Become a Tyrant

Best Netflix documentaries: How to Become a Tyrant

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While we may assume that dictators like Adolf Hitler, Saddam Hussein, and Joseph Stalin would never come to power in the 21st century, the truth is that abuses of power are as widespread as ever and we're only ever a few steps away from repeating the past. In How to Become a Tyrant, narrator Peter Dinklage explains how deep down, everyone wants absolute power and explores the ways in which individuals who are bold or simply unhinged enough can go about trying to get it. It's slightly terrifying to delve into the stories of some of the world's most notorious dictators, but well-worth the existential dread watching it may cause. 

Rotten Tomatoes score: 100% 
Cast: Peter Dinklage, Waller Newell
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Elize Matsunaga: Once Upon A Crime

Best Netflix documentaries: Elize Matsunaga: Once Upon A Crime

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In 2012, Brazilian woman Elize Matsunaga murdered and dismembered her husband, Marcos Matsunaga, shocking the local community and the country at large. While Elize doesn't deny shooting Marcos dead in their home and then throwing bags full of his limbs onto the side of a road 20 miles from their home in Sao Paulo, she does use Once Upon a Crime as an opportunity to tell her side of the story for the very first time. Also interviewed are Marcos' family members and friends and experts who worked on the original case, which makes the documentary feel much more balanced and well-rounded.

Rotten Tomatoes score: N/A
Cast: Elize Matsunaga, Stephanie Sherry
Director: Eliza Capai
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13th

Best Netflix Documentaries: 13th

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Ava DuVernay's 2016 documentary delves into America's prison-industrial complex and how it disproportionately affects African-Americans. To illustrate and better understand this harsh reality, she explores the "intersection of race, justice, and mass incarceration in the United States" in very matter-of-fact terms, not shying away from the ugly truth of the country's long-standing and continuing problem with racism. It can be hard and even uncomfortable to watch at times, which is all the more reason it needs to be. 

Rotten Tomatoes score: 97%
Cast: Angela Davis, Newt Gingrich, Bryan Stevenson, Michelle Alexander, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Jelani Cobb, Gina Clayton, Van Jones
Director: Ava DuVernay
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The Staircase

Best Netflix documentaries: The Staircase

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When novelist Michael Peterson's wife died in 2001, he claimed that she'd fallen down the stairs in their home. The strange thing is, this isn't the first time one of his romantic partners had lost their lives in that exact fashion. When the medical examiner determined that Peterson's wife had been beaten with a weapon, the writer was no longer a grieving widow but instead a suspect in a potential murder. The Staircase, which spans 13 episodes, follows Peterson all the way through his trial, including the moment when the final verdict is read out. 

Rotten Tomatoes score: 94%
Cast: Michael Peterson, David Rudolph, Ron Guerette, Martha Ratliff
Director: Jean-Xavier de Lestrade 
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Killer Ratings

Best Netflix documentaries: Killer Ratings

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Would a television producer and politician order murders to increase ratings for his TV show? Surely not, right? And yet, that's exactly what many alleged Brazilian Wallace Souza was guilty of doing for more than a decade. The success of his Canal Livre show was largely based on Souza somehow managing to catch and "out" notorious criminals and even allowed him to be elected to public office, but not all was what it seemed. Killer Ratings exposes what just might be one of the most nefarious cover-ups in Brazil's recent history.

Rotten Tomatoes score: 80%
Director: Daniel Bogado
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Murder Among the Mormons

Best Netflix documentaries: Murder Among the Mormons

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In a docuseries that could upend the Mormon church as we know it, Murder Among the Mormons traces the history of Mark Hofmann, one of the world's most notable forgers. Hoffman, by the way, just so happened to create some forgeries related to the Latter Day Saint movement. While he's now in prison after he created an explosive device that killed two people, the journey there is full of twists and turns that make this an interesting watch even for those who are entirely unfamiliar with the Mormon faith.

Rotten Tomatoes score: 88%
Cast: Dorie Hofman Olds, Shannon Flynn, Brent Metcalfe, Richard Turley
Director: Jared Hess
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Jennifer Still

Jennifer is a writer and editor from Brooklyn covering all things entertainment, lifestyle, and tech. She has bylines in Vanity Fair, Business Insider, Glamour, Bon Appetit, Decider, and many more and spends her days writing about all the shows, movies, and music she's obsessed with. She's always fuelled by iced coffee and hates slow walkers.