The 50 best documentaries of all time

Get back to reality with our ranked list of nonfiction triumphs.

  • Best documentaries: Click to the next image to see our 50 best documentaries of all time

  • Best documentaries: Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004)

  • Best documentaries: The Last Waltz (1978)

  • Best documentaries: An Inconvenient Truth (2006)

  • Best documentaries: When We Were Kings (1996)

  • Best documentaries: A Grin Without a Cat (1977)

  • Best documentaries: Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind (2007)

  • Best documentaries: F for Fake (1973)

  • Best documentaries: The Battle of Chile (1975–79)

  • Best documentaries: Monterey Pop (1968)

  • Best documentaries: Man on Wire (2008)

Best documentaries: Click to the next image to see our 50 best documentaries of all time

As long as there is fantasy and wish fulfillment onscreen, audiences will also yearn for the truth—or something close to it. In arriving at our favorite documentaries (from all eras and countries), we bumped up against some thorny questions: What makes a documentary essential? Is it the political or social import? Its popularity? Can we allow for staged scenes? Or must we insist on pure vérité? How "real" is reality? We invite your own thoughts in response to our ranked list.


50

Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004)

America braced itself for Michael Moore's rage—during a presidential election year, no less. But no one expected the emotional gut punch of interviewee Lila Lipscomb, a patriotic army mother turned disbeliever. Moore's defiant success (it's still the highest-grossing doc of all time) had a massive impact, if not quite the intended result.—Joshua Rothkopf

49

The Last Waltz (1978)

Grabbing the brass ring of technical wizardry, Martin Scorsese took the Band's final concert, an intimate San Francisco event tinged with bitterness, and turned it into myth. In many ways, the musicians come off like downbeat characters in a Scorsese picture, one as potent as Taxi Driver.—Joshua Rothkopf

48

An Inconvenient Truth (2006)

Al Gore seems less alarmist every year as the environmental news only worsens and political inaction on global warming remains the norm. Davis Guggenheim’s doc is essentially a filmed PowerPoint presentation, but what it lacks in filmmaking verve, it gains in accessibility. The film has the power to turn anyone green.—Joshua Rothkopf

47

When We Were Kings (1996)

The famous “Rumble in the Jungle” was more than just a boxing match, as Leon Gast’s impressively dense cultural excavation shows. Among the film’s topics are African independence, rope-a-dope resilience, the rise of black-power politics and a new kind of global celebrity, the loud-and-proud Muhammad Ali.—Joshua Rothkopf

46

A Grin Without a Cat (1977)

A towering, decade-spanning political chronicle summing up nothing less than an international spirit of change, Chris Marker's epic journey takes on Che and Fidel, Vietnam and Chile, Parisian riots and California flower children. The result, beautifully resigned, is a difficult but essential work.—Joshua Rothkopf

45

The Look of Silence (2015)

Joshua Oppenheimer's 2012 documentary The Act of Killing was a radical, disquieting thing: a bizarre forum for Indonesia's genocidal leaders (still feared 50 years after their anti-Communist purge) to recreate their murders as fantasy skits. This unforgettable follow-up, anchored by the presence of an emboldened optician haunted by his brother’s death, is even more staggering.—Joshua Rothkopf

44

F for Fake (1973)

Here's yet more evidence that Orson Welles didn't just disappoint after Citizen Kane. Toward the end of his working career, the feisty director mounted this sly, quietly groundbreaking study of the art of lying, one that flits from hoaxer Clifford Irving to Welles's own fake alien invasion, The War of the Worlds.—Joshua Rothkopf

43

The Battle of Chile (1975–79)

Patricio Guzmn's three-part doc offers a comprehensive, 360-degree view of Augusto Pinochet's rise to power, as seen through the eyes of everybody from Marxist peasants to the military brass who staged the coup. The combination of big-picture history lessons and newsreel immediacy continues to inspire lefty documentarians and frontline filmmakers.—David Fear

42

Monterey Pop (1968)

The first major rock festival of the '60s gave birth to the first major concert film of the era, with D.A Pennebaker paying as much attention to a burgeoning sense of a counterculture as he does to the music itself (though the footage of the Who, Otis Redding and Jimi Hendrix setting his guitar on fire, to name three, is epochal). Something was indeed brewing; Pennebaker lets us see the pot being stirred.—David Fear

41

Man on Wire (2008)

On an early, gray morning in August 1974, tightrope-walker Philippe Petit stepped out into an impossible void, the space between the Twin Towers, and danced for an hour. No other film, fictional or otherwise, more fully restores—poetically, with antic humor—our city's loss as does James Marsh's stunner.—Joshua Rothkopf


  1. 50–41
  2. 40–31
  3. 30–21
  4. 20–11
  5. 10–1

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