Looking to invest your fandom into a niche sport? Or are you in need of some knowledge to drop on some unsuspecting guests at a dinner party? Well grab your friends, put some extra butter on that popcorn and get ready to learn some stuff—these are the best documentaries streaming on Netflix right now:
Unlike many TV shows and documentaries about youth sports, Top Spin is not a story of overbearing parents living vicariously through their talented children. The word-class table tennis players profiled here are obsessed with their craft—and fully aware of the sacrifices they must make in exchange for a shot at Olympic glory.
The movie follows Ariel Hsing, Michael Landers and Lily Zhang on their journeys through the 2012 North American Olympic Team Trials. If you thought your teenage years were hectic (schoolwork, friendships, learning how to drive, etc.), imagine having to train for the Olympics at the same time. By the end of the movie, you’ll be living and dying with every point in the competition, rooting for the families who worked so hard to get to that point. 4.5 stars
NO NO: A DOCKUMENTARY
To our knowledge, only one man has the words “no-hitter” and “LSD” in his obituary: Dock Ellis.
Inspired by Dock’s absurd retelling of his most infamous story, No No: A Dockumentary goes beyond that game in 1970 and paints a fuller portrait of the man who considered himself the Muhammad Ali of baseball. A must for any baseball buff. 4.5 stars
ALL WORK ALL PLAY
You’ve probably spent more time reading headlines about the explosion of esports than actually watching any events. All Work All Play is a great illustration of that rise from cramped internet cafes in alleyways to sold-out arenas for events like the 2015 Intel Extreme Masters Championship.
Some of the gamers in their early twenties have incomes anywhere between the low six figures and more than a million dollars. Competition is so fierce at the highest level that teams poach top players like it’s pro wrestling in the 1990s.
While the character development isn’t on the same level as Top Spin, All Work All Play worth a watch even if you have only a passing interest in video games. 3.5 stars
Yours truly is not a fan of heights. Just thinking about that one scene in Vegas Vacation where Clark is holding onto the Hoover Dam for dear life makes my toes tingle. As such, I consider rock climbers to be complete maniacs. Most of the ones in this movie tend to agree.
Valley Uprising serves as a breathtaking oral history of the evolution of rock climbing in Yosemite Valley, from the careful pioneers of the 1950s through the wild days of the 1970s to the fearless free solo artists of today. Along the way, competitive rivalries are born, conflicts with park rangers take center stage and recent restrictions change the way climbers chase their next adrenaline rush. Plus, the production level is top-notch. This one is not to be missed. 5 stars
Chasing Coral represents the culmination of a years-long effort from marine biologists to document the destruction of the world’s coral reefs, including stunning loss of life along Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. As former ad executive and current reef advocate Richard Vevers put it, if 60% of the world’s rainforests turned bleach white overnight, we’d do something about it. With this documentary, Vevers hopes to solve the lack of “advertisement” for this issue by bringing the problem out from under the water and into our living rooms.
Of all the documentaries on this list, Chasing Coral is by far the most informative—and frightening—of them all. 4 stars
MINIMALISM: A DOCUMENTARY ABOUT THE IMPORTANT THINGS
In Minimalism, we’re introduced to The Minimalists (naturally), two guys who gave up lucrative careers as corporate executives to pursue more fulfilling lives. For them, this means owning about six shirts.
While it may seem drastic to get rid of absolutely everything that doesn’t add significant value to your life, the testimonies in this movie are very compelling. Will watching this documentary change your life? Probably not. But you may end up getting rid of some unneeded clutter, and that alone is worth 80 minutes of your time. 3.5 stars
THE LAST MAN ON THE MOON
Gene Cernan, the last astronaut to make a footprint in lunar dust back in 1972, passed away earlier this year. With The Last Man On The Moon, we’re lucky to have a robust biography that also serves as a history lesson for the last of the Apollo missions.
The decades-old video footage brings life to Gene’s story, but what gives this movie an emotional pull is the way Gene’s profession put a strain on his home and family life. As his ex-wife Barbara famously said, "If you think going to the moon is hard, try staying at home."
Space nerds (such as me) will love The Last Man On The Moon, but anyone with an interest in American history would also be wise to add this to their list. 4 stars
We love grilling as much as anyone, but make no mistake: Barbecue isn’t all about meat. The filmmakers traveled to a dozen countries—from Mongolia and Mexico to Sweden and Syria—to show not only the unusual ways people cook over flames, but also to highlight how the simple act unites us across class, culture, politics and generations. All over the world, barbecuing is truly an event. Watch this one and you’ll soon be craving a food you didn’t know existed two hours earlier. 3 stars
JIRO DREAMS OF SUSHI
For my money, there is no better documentary on Netflix than 2011’s Jiro Dreams of Sushi.
The world’s greatest sushi chef, Jiro Ono, runs his restaurant in a Tokyo subway station. He’s dedicated most of his now 91 years on this planet to perfecting the art of sushi and sharing his creations with visitors from all over the globe, including Barack Obama. Jiro’s standards are almost impossibly high, and his demanding style strains relationships with his apprentices, one of whom happens to be his adult son. The result is an unmatched dining experience for his guests. Worth revisiting even if you’ve already seen it. 5 stars