Best 2023 Documentaries Available on HBO and Netflix
The arrival of HBO, and latterly Netflix has changed the way documentaries are viewed across the world. What could sometimes appear to be niche programming, has become must-see television, with an equal buzz for documentaries as the latest mini-series. Documentaries or factual television is being given premium billing, and budgets never dreamed of a couple of decades ago.
Riding on the back of successful dramas such as The Crown and Stranger Things, Netflix has been able to reinvest in the non-scripted market for documentaries and created new categories of box sets ready for binge-watching.
Series such as Making A Murderer or Evil Genius is just as compelling as any of the hit dramas. In fact, last year’s second series of Making A Murderer was the second most binge-watched program on Netflix in the US, ahead of hit dramas like Orange Is The New Black and The Bodyguard. With single stories delivered over a series of episodes, the latest offerings from HBO and Netflix are some of the most watched television.
Needless to say, 2019 is likely to be another great year for documentaries on both HBO and Netflix. There have already been some great examples of the documentary makers’ art, and there are more to come. Here are some of the best you can see now on HBO and Netflix, and also others scheduled for later in the year.
1. Leaving Neverland (HBO)
This original HBO documentary has probably had the biggest impact of the year so far. The disturbing and explosive story focuses on two men who claim Michael Jackson sexually abused them for years when they were just kids.
Documentary maker Dan reed shifts the spotlight onto the alleged victims showing the power and influence Michael Jackson had at his fingertips. The singer could control, not just the children, but their whole families with ease as money flowed. The descriptions of the alleged abuse are depicted in shocking clinical detail.
The documentary details how people close to Michael Jackson became so enamored with the pop star they were either blind to what was going on chose to ignore it rather than rock the boat. The film is a testament to the power money and celebrity can have, and how it can become all pervasive.
2. Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes (Netflix)
The director Joel Berlinger made his name with the iconic Paradise Lost trilogy about the miscarriages of justice surrounding the West Memphis 3 case. The three boys who were convicted of murder in the mid-1990s only to have their convictions overturned after a long legal battle.
In Conversations with a Killer, there is no doubt in the guilt of Ted Bundy, but the documentary series still manages to slyly criticize the US justice system and law enforcement for allowing the serial killer to escape twice. The tapes mentioned in the title were recorded by a journalist talking with Ted Bundy when he was on death row. However they become only secondary to the archival material and first-person testimony of someone who survived a Bundy attack.
The conventional style four-part docu-series offers no new insights into Ted Bundy the man as his interviews shed little light on what was going on his mind when he killed his victims. However, it does show how the killer could be witty and charming and put anyone off their guard around such a heinous individual.
3. Running With Beto (HBO)
Nobody can say politics is dry these days. With Donald Trump in the White House, you never know what’s going to happen next. So, David Modigliani’s HBO documentary on Beto O’Rourke’s fun for the Senate in Texas has all the makings of a thriller. We know now of course that O’Rourke failed to win by a slim margin, but this series brings all the drama of the 2018 mid-terms to life.
It’s a fascinating study of how a liberal came within a whisker of winning a Senate seat in the conservative stronghold of Texas. It’s a fascinating insight into how a total outsider, whose name meant nothing at the beginning of the campaign grew in popularity and almost toppled the incumbent Republican Ted Cruz.
In twelve months the film crew shot nearly 700 hours of footage following the candidate on his door-to-door campaigning. The transparent approach by Beto O’Rourke to the film crew meant they had access to all aspects of the campaign as well as his private life. It really is a spotlight on how modern politics is going.
4. Our Planet (Netflix)
After the huge influential success of the BBC’s Planet Earth series, the team behind the documentary series have teamed up with Netflix to lift the lid on global warming.
Our Planet is just as visually stunning as the other natural history epics fronted by David Attenborough, although this one has a more urgent and dramatic backdrop. The production team have traveled the globe to capture some of the most devastating evidence global warming is doing to our planet.
There are heartbreaking moments with walruses so desperate they fling themselves off cliffs to their deaths as glaciers are torn apart. The grave message of the series is presented in a familiar and meaningful way that keeps viewers mesmerized by the destructive power global has on our world.
4. Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened (Netflix)
With two documentaries out at about the same time about the undeliverable Fyre Festival, this one from HBO is the clear winner. The documentary takes a behind the scenes look at plans to put on a mammoth music festival in the Bahamas. The festival was the brainchild of convicted fraudster Billy McFarland and his business partner rapper Ja Rule.
Billed as an exclusive star-studded festival, it was cancelled even as guests were arriving on the island in the Bahamas where it was due to be held. The documentary has an inside look at the spectacularly dumb decision making and ego-inflating fantasy that was meant to be the Fyre Festival.
Described by some as the work project from hell, it’s clear to see in the documentary why it was bound to fail, but nobody expected it to be so spectacular.
5. The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley (HBO)
What if Steve Jobs was a fraudster? Obviously, you say he wasn’t as Apple has produced millions of products people have bought over decades. Well, entrepreneur, Elizabeth Holmes was lauded as ‘the new Steve Jobs’ with her blood-testing startup Theranos, only for it come crashing down in a huge scandal just a few years later.
The film tells the story of CEO Elizabeth Holmes who manages to line up millions of dollars in investment for a blood-testing machine that doesn’t exist. It’s a classic tale of the ‘emperor’s new clothes’, with gullible investors willing to part with money on hope rather a reality.
Documentary maker Alex Gibney uses a lot of Theranos’ own slick publicity material to highlight the smoke and mirrors of the fraud.
6. Knock Down the House (Netflix)
This fly-on-the-wall documentary follows four unlikely candidates as they fight the 2018 mid-terms for a seat in Congress. Filmmaker Rachel Lears must have felt something in the air when she picked four female candidates to follow on the campaign trail.
She focused on Cori Bush looking to get more diverse representation in Missouri’s seats in the House, as well as Nevada’s Amy Vilela looking to reform healthcare following the death of her daughter. In West Virginia she found Paula Jean Swearengin running on an environmental ticket and the undoubted star Bronx bartender Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
This straight-talking documentary looks at the campaigns, and he issues that drive the four women for a seat in Washington. The hand-held camera work goes to the journalistic observation of the subjects. There have been a lot of misconceptions about this new wave of politicians that have reached Capitol Hill.
This documentary goes a long way toward dispelling those myths and prejudices at the same time giving a clear insight into how American politics could change in the future.
7. At the Heart of Gold: Inside the USA Gymnastics Scandal (HBO)
When a respected physician and community figure turns out to be a wolf in sheep’s clothing, you have the makings of a fascinating story. When the doctor in question is also linked to the USA gymnastics team, it becomes more than just a scandal.
Filmmaker Erin Lee Carr uncovers the seedy and troubling way in which Dr Larry Nasser abused young gymnasts over decades pretending to be caring for them as team doctor. Dr Nasser was publically outed as a sexual predator by former gymnast Rachael Denhollander. Once that had happened the floodgates opened, and scores of other female athletes claimed the doctor had molested them.
The physician was revered in his field, and his cheery demeanor meant he could gain the trust of teen athletes who were in an environment dominated by experienced adults.
With firsthand accounts and interviews with people who were oblivious at the time of the doctor’s behavior, it is a chilling look at how one man can wreck so many lives over such a long period of time.
8. Abducted in Plain Sight (Netflix)
After being released in 2017 under a different title, Abducted in Plain Sight has made a stir after being released on Netflix earlier this year. The story surrounds the bizarre true crime kidnapping of a young girl, not once, but twice by the same man.
Jan Broberg gets kidnapped by family friend Robert Berchtold who manages to persuade the young girl’s parents not to have him charged, only to kidnap the girl again a few years later. There has been much outrage against the parents since the documentary was released on Netflix.
However, Jan Broberg who is now a successful actress has defended them. The parents confess in the film to being naive, and audiences will wonder how they were so easily taken in.