The 50 best documentaries of all time

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

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  • Best documentaries: The Fog of War (2003)

  • Best documentaries: Point of Order (1964)

  • Best documentaries: Burden of Dreams (1982)

  • Best documentaries: Koyaanisqatsi (1982)

  • Best documentaries: Sherman's March (1986)

  • Best documentaries: The Up Series (1964–2005)

  • Best documentaries: The Sorrow and the Pity (1969)

  • Best documentaries: Metallica: Some Kind of Monster (2004)

  • Best documentaries: Woodstock (1970)

  • Best documentaries: Grey Gardens (1975)

Best documentaries: The Fog of War (2003)

40
THE FOG OF WAR (2003)

The Fog of War (2003)

Errol Morris loves giving kooks a forum, but with this collection of "lessons," the filmmaker ceded the spotlight to a much more divisive American figure: former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, the architect of the Vietnam War. What he doesn't say about his part in history is almost as telling as what he does.—David Fear

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39
POINT OF ORDER (1964)

Point of Order (1964)

Emile de Antonio tears into political fearmonger Senator Joseph McCarthy with righteous rage and footage of the infamous Army-McCarthy hearings. "Have you no sense of decency, sir?" lawyer Joseph Welch asked during the trials, and De Antonio's political epitaph provides the answer: Not a shred.—David Fear

38
BURDEN OF DREAMS (1982)

Burden of Dreams (1982)

Les Blank offers a warts-and-all look at the problems that plagued Werner Herzog's tow-the-boat-over-the-mountain epic, Fitzcarraldo. Inclement weather and a war between Peru and Ecuador ground filming to a halt—but egotistical star Klaus Kinski made all complications seem quaint.—Keith Uhlich

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37
KOYAANISQATSI (1982)

Koyaanisqatsi (1982)

Highway traffic swirls in time-lapse photography, the sun rises and sets, and swarms of people cruise up escalators like hot dogs on a conveyer belt. Viewers still debate whether Godfrey Reggio's "pure film" amounts to more than a fuzzy anti-industrial screed. But the shots—and Philip Glass's seismically important score—are hypnotic.—Joshua Rothkopf

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36
SHERMAN'S MARCH (1986)

Sherman's March (1986)

Ross McElwee wanted to make a feature retracing the destructive Civil War march of General William Tecumseh Sherman. But a traumatic breakup refocused things: He'd still follow the path, but would look for romantic attachment along the way. This strikingly perceptive doc is so intimate, it hurts.—Keith Uhlich

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35
THE UP SERIES (1964--2005)

The Up Series (1964–2005)

Simple hook: Fourteen British schoolchildren would be interviewed every seven years, well into adulthood. Seven installments later (an eighth is scheduled for 2012), Michael Apted's frequently heartbreaking series continues to provide profound insight into the unpredictable paths that life can take.—Keith Uhlich

34
THE SORROW AND THE PITY (1969)

The Sorrow and the Pity (1969)

Sorrow and pity: perfectly reasonable reactions to the Holocaust. Yet Marcel Ophls's staggering indictment of French collaboration with Nazi Germany is after an emotion far more insidious—something close to shared national shame. A decade after the movie's initial release, it still couldn't be aired on Paris's televisions.—Joshua Rothkopf

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33
METALLICA: SOME KIND OF MONSTER (2004)

Metallica: Some Kind of Monster (2004)

Just as the shred-metal kings' castle was crumbling, they opened up their recording sessions to a curious crew led by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, who caught them at their ugliest. With careers at stake, a life coach was called upon for therapy. The resulting chronicle is an unprecedented peek into corporatized rebellion and creative rebirth.—Joshua Rothkopf

 Watch now at Amazon Instant Video

32
WOODSTOCK (1970)

Woodstock (1970)

It may boil down "3 Days of Peace & Music" into little more than three hours, but Michael Wadleigh's doc on the defining event of the hippie generation shows you why Max Yasgur's farm became their Garden of Eden. The footage of Jimi Hendrix playing "The Star-Spangled Banner" is the pitch-perfect symbol of '60s flower power.—David Fear

 Watch now on iTunes   

31
GREY GARDENS (1975)

Grey Gardens (1975)

Meet the Beales, "Big Edie" and "Little Edie," former socialites who live in a run-down mansion with lots of cats and no running water. This mesmerizing Maysles-brothers doc inspired a sequel consisting of unreleased footage, an HBO film and even a Broadway musical. Who knew that two isolationist eccentrics could so powerfully capture the public imagination?—Keith Uhlich

 Watch now on iTunes    Watch now at Amazon Instant Video



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