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Most people aren’t enamored with the concept of documentaries. The premise of spending 1-2 hours watching a program under the guise of educational exploration is lost on those who’d rather have their entertainment be anything but. It’s true, there is a time for learning and there is a time for entertainment. A good documentary, however, does both. A good documentary will hook you with a prospective topic – something you’re mildly curious about or something you never knew you’d be interested in – and takes you on an enlightening journey that expands your mind, all whilst leaving you feel entertained. No one truly likes spending time learning stuff, but everyone does like feeling like the smartest guy/girl in the room. A good documentary leaves you feeling smarter and more informed, with the least amount of effort from you as possible.

The following entries make up some of the best, fascinating, and nerd approved documentaries that you can watch right now on Netflix. So sit back, relax, and be prepared to learn some shit via your Television or streaming mobile device. 

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An Honest Liar

Depending on your generation, you may or may not be aware of the name The Amazing James Randi. You have, though, heard about him. Namely, his 1 million dollar challenge to any psychic, medium, or telepath that can scientifically, under strict conditions, prove their powers. To this day, no one has passed the challenge. James Randi has spent the majority of his life debunking and defrauding mystics, spiritual healers, and all other manner of charlatans. This mission came about his early days as a world renowned magician (one that modeled his career around and even rivaled the late great Harry Houdini) where he found great power in being able to deceive people, and the temptation to do it for means other than entertainment. From that grew a great anger towards those who do consciously choose to exploit the emotions and sometimes the health of naive minds for personal gain.

An Honest Liar explores the life of The Amazing James Randi; his days as a popular magician, his mission and journey as a truth seeker, battles and victories against prominent supernaturalists, as well a shocking obscurity / revelation in his own life.

This documentary will make you realize just how dumb and gullible people can be, and thank the flying spaghetti monster we have a champions of truth like James Randi who fight to teach people to know better. That, and because, magic is cool.

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Special When Lit

If you were born before ’95, will undoubtedly remember Pinball being an ever prevalent form of entertainment in your childhood. As if overnight, this genre of gaming up and disappeared. These where fun pieces of gaming past time, what the heck happened to them? What happened to those days where random strangers would circle the coffin-shaped boxes, waiting to take their turns at achieving the highest of scores in a game of semi controlled chaos?

Special When Lit tells the story of the pinball machine, a game that was once deemed a form of gambling and became one of the most popular forms of entertainment for the latter half the 20th century. The film documents the rise of pinball while interviewing some of the game’s early designers to the modern day manufacturers who still continue to build the games long after the pinball craze died out. There’s a few odd ball (no pun intended) characters in the mix as well.

Apart from tugging on the obvious nostalgia heart-strings, the film places pinball as an icon – a monolithic machine for disseminating American pop culture to adolescent males all over the world – embracing the design, art and spectacle of the medium inside and out. It will have you yearning for a different period of time when things were simpler.

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I Know That Voice

Showing up to work in pajamas and being paid to speak into a microphone… man, voice actors have the easiest job in the world. Or do they?

I Know That Voice is a documentary by executive producer and voice actor himself John Di Maggio (Futurama, Adventure Time), that focuses on the voice acting business. From the inspiration of Mel Blanc to video games and Comic-Con appearances, dozens of voice actors get together and discuss their craft.

It’s a cartoon nerds dream to see all faces behind some of the most popular characters, and to see them do those familiar voices.  We’re talking Hank Azaria, Nolan North, Rob Paulsen, Fred Tatasciore, Kevin Conroy, Tara Strong, Mark Hamill and more. And there is a lot of that in this movie, but it’s about more than just the voices. It spotlights the legitimate acting and even physicality that go into an actor’s time in the sound booth. Everyone thinks they can do voices, but the profession is far more challenging than anyone thinks. It is a matter of going from one character to another in a split second, and doing it for hours on end. Never has making a grunt or sigh sound seemed so difficult and arduous.

Sometimes it views like the talent is simply stroking their own and others egos, but mostly, it’s a wonderful behind the scenes stories, personal experiences and discuss how they got into this craft–and all of it is very interesting. If  you love cartoons and/or behind the scenes stuff, this is definitely worth a watch.

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Inside LEGO (A LEGO Brickumentary)

There was a time (back in 2002) when LEGO almost went bankrupt. The company was leading down a bad path with expensive and unpopular new products (Anyone remember the Galidor line which in practically no way resembled a LEGO product?). The company went there and back again – making massive profits to near fatal loss, and now having overtaken Mattel and Hasbro as the most profitable toymaker in the world. How did they do it?

Narrated by Jason Bateman  Inside LEGO explores how LEGO bricks were invented and became one of Denmark’s most famous exports; as well as the business decisions, franchising, and back-to-basics mindset that has re-vilified the company. But this “Brickumentary” is more than that. It is also a look  into the immensely diverse world of LEGO fanboys and girls that make up its global phenomenon. The film introduces us to the designers, the master builders, and the community of LEGO aficionados known as AFOL (Adult Fan of LEGO) and spotlights their loyalty and seemingly limitless ability to build and create.

If anything, this documentary is one colorful unabashed love letter to its fans as much as it is to itself. While it does feel like a 93-minute long commercial, it is a fascinating look into the company and its community. If you thought you knew LEGO, you don’t know brick.

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Stripped

Coming across a title like Stripped, you might be mildly disappointed that it has absolutely nothing to do with strippers or stripping. Instead,  Stripped is a feature-length documentary on comic strips, how they’re created, and the people behind them – featuring the first-ever recorded interview with Bill Watterson of Calvin & Hobbes. The film sits down with over 60 of the world’s best cartoonists to talk about comic strips, getting into the business, where the art form’s going, and the decline of the newspaper medium.

It’s a lot of fun getting to hear from the imagineers of printed comics (Dan Piraro, Jeff Smith, Bill Amend, Jim Davis, Matt Inman, Scott McCloud . . . even the reclusive Bill Watterson, if only his voice), and it is fascinating getting to see these people work.

We see “the funnies” every day in newspapers but we take for granted what a task it is for these artists/writers to produce the content that they do. The demand to keep the humor up, put it to page, and continue to churn out daily strips for years on end is absolutely crazy. It is especially noteworthy for exploring the “new” commerce model that the Internet age has brought about: make money (a living) by giving away your content for free.

Fascinating, full of nostalgia and humor; Stripped paints a wonderful picture of a uniquely American art form.

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The Sheik

Ah, pro-wrestling. Either you completely adore it, or you find it to be the most idiotic, mind-numbing sport on earth (it is a sport, damn it…). But whether you hate it or you have “Austin 3:16” tattooed on your chest, you are (at least culturally) aware of the legendary Iron Sheik. Most notably for his post wrestling career; with his wildly offensive, insane, and hilarious ramblings and rants on social media. He’s a guy that will say onto you “You are F**got. I F**k your Ass. I make you humble” and other confounding ham-strung obscenities.

Prior to his popularity as a living meme, the Sheik was at various times a multiple times amateur wrestling champion of Iran; a personal bodyguard for the then Shah of Iran; a coach for a U.S. Olympic Gold winning wrestling team, and of course, was an iconic pro wrestler in the late 70s and early 80’s made famous for his schtick as a villainous Iranian. Loud, proud, and full of piss and vinegar – during the height of the Sheiks career not one wrestler drew more heat from the crowd. People loved to hate him. His persona (and teachings) helped inspire and shaped Dwayne Johnson into becoming The Rock. He’s also pretty much the litchpin in WWE’s success, beating Bob Backlund for the Championship and then planned to lose it to Hulk Hogan whom WWE was building their Empire around. Like most wrestlers, The Sheiks story is not without its tragedy. Having faced a crippling personal loss, health problems, and a ferocious drug addiction; The Iron Sheik was headed to death, alone and hopeless. That is, until he found new life with his business manager and friend. Together, the two put Sheik back in the spotlight. Becoming an outlandish social media sensation.

You can’t help but love The Sheik. Sad, happy, sorrow, smiles, and triumph.

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Life Itself 

How would Roger Ebert feel about being the subject of a movie? He wasn’t crazy about the “parody” “Mayor Ebert” and his lackey “Gene” in Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla, but can you blame him? Ebert didn’t live to see how his memoir, also title Life Itself, would be adapted by Steve James (Hoop Dreams), but he would probably approve of James’ loving yet analytical look at Ebert’s life, and how he took the misunderstood and derided craft of film criticism, and made it both commercially viable and practically essential to any discussion about the movies we love and hate.

Like a good movie that Ebert would have sung the praises about, Life Itself is an emotional journey that includes never before seen glimpses of the writers antagonistic early days with partner Gene Siskel, and by “antogonistic” we mean not in a friendly way. That would change over the years, and what would grow is mutual respect and admiration, not to mention a true friendship, which is hardly the end result expected if you were just going by those outtakes from At the Movies. There’s also the emotional final chapter of Ebert’s life, as be bravely faces the cancer that literally took his voice, but still finding a way to innovate and embrace the new media, especially Twitter.

But it’s not all sadness and melancholy. There is something quite joyful about the film, and that’s its subject giddiness about the possibility of the film, and surprising number of times that you see something that reaches you on an emotional level. Ebert wasn’t the best because he was biting, sarcastic and nihilistic about movies, he was the best because he was always looking for the best, and he was a shining example that proper film criticism isn’t just about what you hate.

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Showrunners

For years, the pinnacle of the behind-the-scenes creative types was the director, or at the very least, the producer. on feature films, it was to them that the credit, the laurels, and if necessary the darts, went to for the success of a given project. The golden age of television though brought new ambition, now everyone wants to be a showrunner! What’s a showrunner? It’s a term you probably hear a lot, but what exactly does it entail?

Filmmaker Des Doyle reached out to some of the best to get an answer, amongst them are Robert and Michelle King (The Good Wife), Ronald D. Moore, J.J. Abrams, Jonathan Nolan (Person of Interest), Hart Hanson (Bones), and Joss Whedon. Doyle interviews the showrunners and visits them on the set, in the writers’ room and the production offices of various TV shows to reveal just what exactly they do that has made the job so indispensable to the modern TV show. It gives the average viewer rare insight into the meat of how a TV show is made, how much of the success or failure of the show is dependent on how well the showrunner manages his team, and his show.

Doyle doesn’t reinvent the wheel with his doc, and it’s fairly straightforward in form and function, but Doyle must be admired for his dedication and commitment to the cause. It took him four years to complete the film, gathering all the necessary footage, getting all the interviews he wanted (up to and especially Whedon), and even raising the money needed to complete it. It’s a job well done, and an essential bit of viewing for anyone that likes great TV.

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Fed-Up

This entry is controversial. A) because it’s not quite within the realm of pop culture and B) because of its subject matter. This is a documentary about the dangers of sugar and the ever increasing concern of obesity in America. Keeping this relevant to the interest of nerds – who, lets be honest, the bulk of which don’t maintain the healthiest of lifestyles living off hot pockets and copious amounts of Mountain Dew – by likening this to Kevin Smith. The writer/director/podcaster has spent the majority of his life being fat, often using self deprecation referring to himself “Fat Kev Smith” or “Fatman on Batman”. Though, he can’t quite say that anymore. He’s lost an amazing 85 pounds recently, now swimming in those hockey jerseys he famously wears. How’d he do it? He cut out sugar, completely. Something he learned from watching Fed-Up, which he has spent a great deal amount of time up talking on his podcasts.

While definitely a biased and an agenda driven documentary – demonizing sugar as well as processed foods, calling for government to regulate food companies and even go as far as putting warning labels on food packaging. While the subject of government taking control of what people consume may stir viewers the wrong way, there is no questioning the undeniable fact that sugar and processed foods are setting Americans (as well as other countries) on a fast future as depicted in Pixar’s Wall-E.

Fed-Up will have you realizing that sugar is really a drug and the marketing companies behind these foods are drug pushes doing everything they can to get you coming back for more. This documentary will scare you straight.

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To Be Takei

This documentary transports us back in time and allows us to see how one of the most influential pop culture icons overcame all the odds, and became one of the biggest names in social media and in geek culture. This documentary helps fans new and existing learn more about the many roles played by eclectic 77-year-old actor/activist George Takei while also showcasing his personal journey  from a WWII internment camps, to the helm of the starship Enterprise, to the daily news feeds of millions on social media. All of this done with his wit, humor and grace  that have catapulted him to international success and Internet domination with 7-million Facebook fans and counting on display.

It is interesting to note that this documentary does touch on the antagonist relationship between Takei and his co-star William Shatner, which has lasted throughout three seasons of the TV show, six movies and five decades. The film also doesn’t hold back from pointing out the contradictions in  Takei’s long life and career. While it showcases his role as Sulu, it equally brings to light the stereotypical race characters George Takei was advised to play by his agents after NBC cancelled “Star Trek”, along with some of his not so bright and shiny moments in the social media sphere.

Category: Featured, Film

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