Into the Inferno/Netflix

21 of the best documentaries to watch over the holidays

You're welcome.

KEVIN LORIA, BUSINESS INSIDER
25 NOV 2016
 

With holidays and cold weather arriving at the same time, it's the perfect time of year to curl up on the couch and lose yourself in a good movie.

And if you're looking for something entertaining and beautiful that'll also make you knowledgeable, there's an incredible variety of science- and nature-focused documentaries and TV episodes streaming on Netflix right now.

 

You can find compelling documentaries that'll captivate you with the beauty of the planet, you can delve into the details of how food arrives on your plate, or you can explore the mysterious and alien world that exists in oceans around the globe.

But there's a downside to all of that choice: It's a lot to choose from. So to make it easier, we've asked our colleagues to pick out some of their favorites from the Netflix documentary selection.

Here are our favorites, listed in no particular order:

Cooked (2016)

"Cooked" (2016)Cooked/Netflix

What it's about: Journalist and food expert Michael Pollan explores the evolutionary history of food and its preparation in this four-part docuseries through the lens of the four essential elements - fire, water, air, and earth. 

 

Why you should see it: Americans as a whole are cooking less and less, relying more on unhealthy, processed, and expensive and prepared foods. Pollan aims to bring viewers back to the kitchen by forging a meaningful connection to food and the joys of preparation. [Click to watch]

Blackfish (2013)

What it's about: This film highlights abuses in the sea park industry through the tale of Tilikum, an orca in captivity at SeaWorld in Orlando, Florida. Tilikum has killed or been involved in the deaths of three people while living in the park. 

Why you should see it: This documentary opens your eyes to the troubles with keeping wild animals in captivity through shocking footage and emotional interviews, highlighting potential issues of animal cruelty and abuse when using highly intelligent animals as entertainment.

Sea parks make billions of dollars off of keeping animals captive, often at the expense of the health and well-being of its animals. This documentary played a huge role in convincing SeaWorld to stop their theatrical Shamu killer whale shows. [Click to watch]

Particle Fever (2013)

What it's about: This documentary follows six scientists as they prepare for one of the biggest and most expensive experiments in history: recreating conditions from the Big Bang with the launch of the Large Hadron Collider in Europe. Their aim is to unravel the mysteries of the universe and the origins of matter.

Why you should see it: Physics is often considered a forbiddingly dense subject, but 'Particle Fever' gives you a window into physics without breaking your brain.

It documents the discovery of the famous Higgs boson particle that many physicists think holds the key to understanding the universe.

Instead of getting bogged down with the complexities of particle physics, the film focuses more on the human drama of the discovery, and how it could change our understanding of the world around us. [Click to watch]

Planet Earth (2006)

"Planet Earth" (2006)Planet Earth/BBC Video

What it's about: David Attenborough narrates this dazzling high-definition documentary series, which offers incredible footage of the world's breathtaking natural wonders - oceans, deserts, ice caps, and more.

Why you should see it: "Planet Earth is why HDTV was invented. It has some of the most amazing visuals ever. And then when you learn to the depths at which they went to get the footage, such as camping out for days on end in camouflage, you have such a great appreciation that the people behind it. They truly want to give you a one of a kind experience," says Sam Rega, producer and director for Business Insider Films. 

"You've never seen nature like this. I'd argue that Planet Earth, with its high definition footage that took five years to shoot, changed the way nature documentaries were made - all for the better."

It's a journey around the globe to the incredibly varied environments that make up our world. Every episode shows you things you've never seen: caves with their eyeless creatures, jungles brimming with life, and to the mountains which tower over us. [Click to watch]

The Blue Planet (2001)

What it's about: This critically-acclaimed series plunges into the mysterious depths of the world's oceans by traveling to a variety of coasts and poles to examine all of its creatures, big and small. It's narrated by Sir David Attenborough, one of the most famous voices in documentary filmmaking.

Why you should see it: This is a must-watch because our planet is covered by water and there are mysteries and alien creatures in the oceans that seem like they're from another world.

The next-best thing to exploring that yourself is seeing those incredible environments and having David Attenborough talk you through fragile and colorful coral reefs, the dark abyss of the deep ocean, and the lives of the powerful creatures of the open sea. [Click to watch]

Good Eats (2011)

What it's about: Chef Alton Brown isn't satisfied just making food in front of a camera. He creatively explores how and why the things we do in the kitchen work, and - with goofy flair - walks you through the science and history of everything from proper cutting technique to preparing classic dishes.

Why you should see it: "It's tempting to write off Brown as a hokey jokester, but give him a chance: Good Eats is easily the most empowering cooking show ever made."

"There's nothing quite like understanding the reason you're doing something in the kitchen - and the genius hacks you can use to save time, skip steps, substitute ingredients, and so on. I also love Brown's show because there's a sharp focus on basics."

"We're all so eager to rush into whipping up eggs Hollandaise, but so often it's poor technique that leads to terrible misadventures in cooking." - Dave Mosher, science and tech correspondent. [Click to watch]

Bigger, Stronger, Faster (2008)

"Bigger, Stronger, Faster" (2008)BSF Film

What it's about: This documentary sucks you into the bizarre yet pervasive world of performance-enhancing drugs in sports. Through interviews with bodybuilders, doctors, coaches, and politicians, you get an intimate sense of the American obsession with doing whatever it takes to win. 

Why you should see it: Christopher Bell's documentary about steroid use focuses on himself and his two brothers, but it's really a story about what it means to be a 'better' or science-augmented human and a philosophical consideration of the American psychological obsession with being the best: biggest, strongest, and fastest.

Scientifically you see the physical and mental effects of common performance-enhancing drugs. At the same time you consider what it means to use technology and science to be a better athlete - how do we decide what's fair? [Click to watch]

Life (2009)

What it's about: This 11-episode British animated series was made over four years and filmed on every continent and in every type of habitat in the world. It chronicles some of the most unusual and bizarre behaviors that both plants and animals adopt to survive on our planet.

Why you should see it: "Each episode is unique, but they all have these whoa moments, like when the chimpanzees SHARE their tools. It’s also the fact that they know how to share, and it makes you think about how we’re not so different from animals."

"Overall, the theme of the series is that life is this insane system of creatures adapting any way they can to survive." - Steve Kovach, senior correspondent. [Click to watch]

Fed Up (2014)

"Fed Up" (2014)Fed Up/Atlas Films

What it's about: An investigation into the American food industry and a first-hand look at how processed foods - particularly sugar - contribute to deadly diseases like obesity.

Why you should see it: "Obesity is typically thought of as a matter of will power. It's something you avoid by willfully eating well and staving off through exercise."

"Fed Up argues that big corporations, via intense lobbying, have convinced the federal government to put sugar into everything ... Kids don't have a chance even if they wanted to take action." - Chris Weller, senior innovation reporter. [Click to watch]

Into the Abyss (2011)

What it's about: A Werner Herzog masterpiece, this documentary tells the story of death row inmate Michael Perry, who was convicted of a triple murder in 2001.

Why you should see it: This film delves into the fraught realm of capitol punishment through interviews with convicted killers and their families, and Texas criminal justice system members to explore the psychology of why people - and states that enforce the death penalty - kill. [Click to watch]

The Ivory Game (2016)

What it's about: Richard Ladkani and Kief Davidson document the struggle to protect elephants, following armed law enforcement officers fighting poaching in Africa and trying to infiltrate the organised-crime run black market for ivory in China.

Why you should see it: Persistently sad, thrilling, and beautifully shot, this film helps shine a light on one of the biggest criminal enterprises on the planet.

It's tragic to watch these intelligent, social, majestic animals being slaughtered for their teeth, but this film helps show the scope of the problem and at least offers a glimpse of what it would take to prevent these animals from being hunted to extinction. [Click to watch]

Cowspiracy (2014)

"Cowspiracy" (2014)Netflix

What it's about: Documentary filmmakers Kip Andersen and Keegan Kuhn reveal the eye-opening environmental impacts that meat production has had on our planet - including global warming, habitat loss, pollution, and more.

Why you should see it: The US is one of the biggest consumers and producers of meat, yet most people rarely understand how their food choices tie in to abstract problems like climate change, drought, habitat loss, and pollution.

As meat consumption continues to rise, so too will its negative effects on the environment. [Click to watch]

Everest (1998)

What it's about: A team of filmmakers follow avid and fearless climbers and their guides as they make their annual attempts at summiting Mount Everest - Earth's tallest and one of its most treacherous mountains.

Why you should see it: This expedition led by noted climber David Breashears helps reveal the massive efforts that go into trying to get climbers up to the top of the world. Plus, it's stunning. [Click to watch]

Virunga (2014)

What it's about: In the midst of a civil war and fight over the Congo's natural resources, a team of embattled and devoted park rangers risk their lives to protect eastern Congo's Virunga National Park from poachers and armed militia.

Why you should see it: This film is a dynamic and impressive mix of investigative journalism and nature, bringing to light the troubles of protecting one of the most biodiverse places on the planet and home to the few remaining mountain gorillas in Africa's forgotten national park. [Click to watch]

Antarctica: A Year On Ice (2013)

"Antarctica: A Year On Ice" (2013)Antzworks

What it's about: This feature-length film provides stunning footage of what it's like to live and work in one of the harshest environments on Earth: Antarctica. This unique look at the bottom of the planet was filmed across 15 years by Frozen Planet photographer Anthony Powell.

Why you should see it: A fun, charming look at an entire year living in the most extreme place on the planet. It's his first film, but New Zealand filmmaker Anthony Powell has years of experience at the bottom of the globe, and it shows.

Powell uses a combination of time-lapse photography and footage shot over a 365-day-period to show the both the extreme beauty and the day-to-day normal tasks that keep the people that choose to make Antarctica their home busy.

Plus, it's shot in some of the most extreme conditions possible, surrounded by icebergs and massive storms and either 24 hours of day or night. [Click to watch]

Human Planet (2011)

What it's about: From the Arctic to the desert, and coasts to jungles, this awe-inspiring, jaw-dropping series explores humankind's adaptation to and relationship with nature. 

Why you should see it: "It feels like I’m watching it for the first time, every time. Amazing visuals and excellent narration. I don’t feel like I’m wasting time when I’m watching these documentaries." - Antonio Villas-Boas, tech reporter. [Click to watch]

Touching the Void (2003)

What it's about: This is the true story of two young climbers who attempted to summit Siula Grande in Peru in the 1980s and their perilous journey along the way. It's widely considered one of the most defining mountaineering tales of our time.

Why you should see it: This incredibly intense film tells the story of Joe Simpson's and Simon Yates's attempt to climb Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes.

After reaching the summit, Joe falls and breaks his leg. Simon attempts to lower Joe down, but while a storm rages overhead, Joe falls off a cliff. Stuck holding onto a dangling rope, Simon was forced to cut Joe loose.

Somehow, unknown to his climbing partner, Joe survives the fall, and has to try to drag himself back to camp. It's a story about survival and perseverance in the face of death, and one that redefines resilience. [Click to watch]

Making a Murderer (2015)

"Making a Murderer" (2015)Netflix

What it's about: This true crime series tells the story of Steven Avery, a man who spent 18 years in prison after being wrongfully convicted of a crime.

Why you should see it: If you've avoided this captivating series so far because you weren't sure if it could live up the hype, give it a shot.

This twisting tale goes far beyond a look into forensic science to see how it can go wrong or be wrongfully used - it asks serious questions about the justice system and how it treats the vulnerable, whether or not they are guilty. [Click to watch]

Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey (2014)

What it's about: This documentary series is a spin-off of Carl Sagan's award-winning and popular 1980 show, Cosmos: A Personal Voyage. The illustrious Neil deGrasse Tyson takes viewers on a journey across the universe and planet Earth in a dazzling demonstration of the human quest for knowledge.

Why you should see it: "Neil Tyson is great at taking complex science things and making them accessible; he’s very good at making it sound magical." - Steve Kovach, senior correspondent. [Click to watch]

Food, Inc. (2008)

What it's about: Director Robert Kenner offers a deep look into how the food industry has changed drastically since the 1950s, driven mostly by multinational corporations and fast food companies. The film was nominated for an Oscar, and for good reason.

Why you should see it: "Everyone eats food, but very few of us stop to consider where all of it comes from. And when you look as deeply and as widely as author Eric Schlosser did with Fast Food Nation, which director Robert Kenner based his documentary on, the picture is shocking and often disturbing."

"There are some political leanings apparent in Food, Inc., and a few facts that seem suspect."

"But the larger picture - a desperate need for a better, healthier, more humane food system - remains firmly intact. If you eat food in the United States, you must watch this movie. It's as moving as it is informative." - Dave Mosher, science and tech correspondent. [Click to watch]

Into the Inferno (2016)

"Into the Inferno" (2016)YouTube/Netflix

What it's about: Director Werner Herzog and volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer scour the globe, examining the power of active volcanoes.

Why you should see it: This film delves not just into volcanoes themselves, but into the spiritual beliefs and practices that have developed around them. It's a look at how humanity interacts with dangerous natural phenomena - plus, there's some stunning imagery. [Click to watch]

This article was originally published by Business Insider.

More from Business Insider:

More From ScienceAlert