The 50 best documentaries of all time

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

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  • Best documentaries: Lake of Fire (2006)

  • Best documentaries: The Times of Harvey Milk (1984)

  • Best documentaries: Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse (1991)

  • Best documentaries: Stop Making Sense (1984)

  • Best documentaries: Titicut Follies (1967)

  • Best documentaries: Crumb (1994)

  • Best documentaries: Hearts and Minds (1974)

  • Best documentaries: Triumph of the Will (1935)

  • Best documentaries: Grizzly Man (2005)

  • Best documentaries: Salesman (1968)

Best documentaries: Lake of Fire (2006)

20
LAKE OF FIRE (2006)

Lake of Fire (2006)

Filmed in dramatically crisp black and white yet far from didactic, Tony Kaye's landmark examination of the smoldering battleground of abortion leaves no conviction untested. Renowned libertarians reveal uncertain hearts; pro-lifers squirm in the cool eye of the lens. Kaye shows it all, as well as footage of the procedure itself; we must watch it.—Joshua Rothkopf

 Buy on Amazon

19
THE TIMES OF HARVEY MILK (1984)

The Times of Harvey Milk (1984)

Only an unrelenting homophobe could come away unmoved by Rob Epstein's Academy Award--winning documentary about the groundbreaking San Francisco politician assassinated by a bigoted colleague. It's both an angry film and a compassionate one—a true watershed in the gay-rights struggle.—Keith Uhlich

 Watch now on iTunes    Buy on Amazon

18
HEARTS OF DARKNESS: A FILMMAKER'S APOCALYPSE (1991)

Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse (1991)

This spellbinding behind-the-scenes doc by Fax Bahr and George Hickenlooper dishes all the dirt about the making of Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now (1979). Bad weather, heart attacks, temperamental stars and a ballooning budget—it's amazing a turkey didn't result. For that, Coppola would have to wait until One from the Heart.—Keith Uhlich

 Buy on Amazon

17
STOP MAKING SENSE (1984)

Stop Making Sense (1984)

Throw on your oversize, boxy suit, hit PLAY on your boom box and make flippy-floppy with Jonathan Demme's unfailingly awesome Talking Heads concert doc. The overriding atmosphere is cosmopolitan and multicultural, but limber frontman David Byrne brings things closer to science fiction with his spotlight-commanding dance moves.—Keith Uhlich

 Buy on Amazon

16
TITICUT FOLLIES (1967)

Titicut Follies (1967)

Frederick Wiseman's no-holds-barred look at the horrors inside a prison for the criminally insane set the standard for vrit indictments, and not even a 24-year ban on public screenings stopped Wiseman from forcing accountability. Those who praise the power of the camera to effect change rightfully consider this a landmark.—David Fear

15
CRUMB (1994)

Crumb (1994)

In this one-of-a-kind portrait, Terry Zwigoff takes us deep into the home life of underground comic artist Robert Crumb. Though known for his salacious images of plump females, Crumb comes off as one of the more normal people onscreen alongside troubled siblings Max and Charles. Zwigoff's film never condescends—this is a dysfunctional family we all can empathize with.—Keith Uhlich

 Watch now on iTunes    Watch now at Amazon Instant Video

14
HEARTS AND MINDS (1974)

Hearts and Minds (1974)

It's naïve to think that any documentary can stop a war, but if one decisively damned an outcome, it's Peter Davis's mighty, merciless take on Vietnam. A fatuous American general destroys his own credibility ("The Oriental doesn't put the same high price on life as does the Westerner") while we watch the graves being dug.—Joshua Rothkopf

 Buy on Amazon

13
TRIUMPH OF THE WILL (1935)

Triumph of the Will (1935)

Reality is always shaped by the documentarian—even the most respectful one makes a choice with every shot. Here, then, is cinema's grandest piece of propaganda, to remind us not only of the terror of fascism but of the power of the image. Leni Riefenstahl would never escape the legacy of her Nuremberg rally.—Joshua Rothkopf

 Buy on Amazon

12
GRIZZLY MAN (2005)

Grizzly Man (2005)

Werner Herzog's "ecstatic truth" methodology—in which reporting the facts is secondary to finding deeper emotional undercurrents—is on full display in his portrait of Timothy Treadwell, a wildlife enthusiast killed by a bear he adored. Nature and chaos, obsession and madness—the auteur's thematic preoccupations are all here, in a form that's somehow more moving than Herzog's fictional counterparts.—David Fear

 Watch now on iTunes    Watch now at Amazon Instant Video

11
SALESMAN (1968)

Salesman (1968)

Follow a quartet of real-life Willy Lomans as they peddle Bibles to working-class stiffs, in the Maysles brothers' bleak picture of the American dream circa the late '60s. No film has better captured the drudgery and desperation of the men who live day to day, dollar to dollar, door to door.—David Fear

 Buy on Amazon



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