15 best documentaries on Netflix for conversation starters

Chris Mandle

Nervous about meeting new people? Aching for conversation starters? What if bingeing episodes of TV could line your repartee with come killer ice-breakers? Chris Mandle recommends the best documentaries on Netflix that will make you sound like a regular Einstein when you talk to strangers

Maybe you’re 19 episodes into something – maybe you have imposed yourself upon your sofa cushions the way a wax seal is firmly, heavily pressed into a glob of hot wax – and you are beginning to feel a thick, electric guilt shooting down the back of your neck.

Maybe the art of doing nothing, which you have perfected, which you have sharpened and finessed with a deftness usually reserved for Olympic sports, has begun to make you feel, umm, what’s the word for when your brain is empty despite you filling it with endless amounts of anything and you’ve forgotten how to function? Dumb.

Well, what if, packed tightly within the algorithms working as aggressively and seamlessly as the parts of a chronograph, there were things you could watch that would plug any leaks in your head?

Solo travel is an enriching thing, but meeting new people and starting a conversation in real life can be awkward – and close-up magic doesn’t impress everyone – so it’s important you know how to break the ice. The following Netflix documentaries are both entertaining and will make you more interesting. This is 100% proven by science.

Fyre: The Greatest Party that Never Happened

This is the millennial version of The Big Short, the 2016 explainer-as-entertainment movie that chronicled the 2007-2008 financial crisis via the mediums of handsome mortals Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt and Christian Bale. But here, the actual story of one spectacularly lavish musical festival – the Fyre Festival – that was too opulent to be true is told in all its glory.

Killer ice breaker: Gay event producer Andy King was asked to ‘settle’ an outstanding $175k debt to a water company by performing oral sex. He almost went through with it.

Wild Wild Country

Who would join a cult? That’s the kind of thing people say about cults, like they are ACME-grade booby traps you can spot a mile off. This multi-part documentary chronicles the parasitic nature of spiritual guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and his militant operation that involved espionage, poisoning and subterfuge to get what he wanted.

Killer ice breaker: The cult planned to use salmonella-riddled beavers, blended to a pulp, to infect the local water supply.

The Pixar Story

We know now that Pixar can trojan-horse extremely adult things into its animated films, and this documentary will only further elevate your academic appreciation for the studio by showcasing the designers behind the scenes.

Killer ice breaker: The studio wouldn’t have found its footing if not for entrepreneurial godfather Steve Jobs, who advised them in the early days.

Jiro Dreams of Sushi

85-year-old Jiro has been making sushi for decades – unfussy, non-disruptive, elegant sushi. He claims he has never perfected it, in this minimalist examination of his work.

Killer ice breaker: The food can be eaten so quickly it is minute-for-minute the most expensive restaurant in the world.

Get Me Roger Stone

The US Election! Still hurts, doesn’t it? Still feels like a mackerel bone in the throat. Before he was indicted as part of the Muller probe, Stone was known as a right-wing trickster, disruptive, hateful, and downright dirty.

Killer ice breaker: 66-year-old Stone has a tattoo of Richard Nixon’s head between his shoulder-blades.

Read more: Netflix and thrill: 21 best films on Netflix to inspire wanderlust 

Icarus

The idea was for director Bryan Fogel to try doping in order to report on it. Instead, he got sucked into a truly sinister scandal.

Killer ice breaker: Whistleblower Grigory Rodchenkov alleges even Vladimir Putin is in on the doping scandal.

13th

The titular amendment to the constitution abolished slavery. Ava Duverney examines its legacy, and the ongoing mass incarceration of African Americans in the United States.

Killer ice breaker: The US contains 5% of the world’s population – but 25% of its prisoners.

Knock Down The House

Are you sending a pattern? US political docs are helping us make sense of the world. In this one: behind-the-scenes on the campaigns of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Amy Vilela, Cori Bush, and Paula Jean Swearengin— all without political experience or corporate money.

Killer ice breaker: AOC’s opponent Joe Crowley, a politician since 1999, was so sure of his success he sent a proxy to debate her. Then lost.

Casting JonBenet

6-year-old child beauty queen JonBenet Ramsay’s murder in 1996 is still unresolved. This documentary visits the town still haunted by what happened.

Killer ice breaker: One popular theory surrounding the case claims the town’s Father Christmas was behind the murder.

The First Monday in May

The Met Gala is the Superbowl of haute couture and this behind-the-scenes peek at the glamourous (and not so glamorous) will give you a newfound appreciation for the event.

Killer ice breaker: Moulin Rouge director Baz Luhrmann helped plan the event.

Read more: Everything you need to know about breaking the ice when you meet new people

Blackfish

You know this one; it’s about killer whales and Seaworld. Harry Styles even watched it! But it will make you regret ever paying to watch a giant wet mammal thrash about in the water.

Killer ice breaker: One trainer, crushed between two six-ton orcas, was only held together by his wetsuit.

Amy

Even if you followed Amy Winehouse’s spectacular rise and gut-wrenching fall from grace, this documentary will change how you look at the media’s role in the careers of young creatives.

Killer ice breaker: Winehouse’s father Mitch appears in the film with his own camera crew – he was filming a rival documentary.

I Called Him Morgan

The story of Lee Morgan, an important if not household level name in jazz, is appropriately wild, dizzying and glib in places.

Killer ice breaker: Despite being killed at 32, Morgan recorded over 25 albums.

Free Solo

Not only does this climbing film achieve staggering heights – taking place at the 1000ft run on El Cap in Yosemite National Park – it asks fascinating questions about the ethics of documenting something so life-threatening.

Killed ice breaker: Subject Alex Honnold only began free solo climbing because he was too shy to ask other people to belay him.

Pumping Iron

Chronicling 28-year-old Arnold Schwarzenegger’s plans to compete in the 1975 Mr Universe competition, the documentary offers a fascinating look in the way male body ideals have shifted in the intervening decades.

Killer ice breaker: the film got a huge PR surge when Jackie Kennedy attended a press lunch – purely as a favour to a friend.

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