The 50 best documentaries of all time

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

  • 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)

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

19

The Times of Harvey Milk (1984)

You’ve seen Sean Penn bring Milk’s story to life in his Oscar-winning performance, but as is always the case, the actual documentary footage is better. Filmmaker Rob Epstein shapes the narrative of San Francisco’s first openly gay official with zest, smarts and an ominous sense of doom that’s fitting to Milk’s trajectory. It’s a political career worth remembering.—Joshua Rothkopf

18

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

Emboldened by the towering Godfather movies, Francis Ford Coppola headed into the jungle to make a surreal statement on the Vietnam war, still fresh in American memory. We know the result as Apocalypse Now, but as this riveting making-of documentary shows, getting there was an ordeal of unimaginable frustration, compounded by egos, bad weather and fickle artistic whims.—Joshua Rothkopf

17

Stop Making Sense (1984)

Director Jonathan Demme has a filmography of incredible compassion, spanning heroic FBI agents (The Silence of the Lambs), suburban gangster molls (Married to the Mob) and losers with big dreams (Ricki and the Flash). But his most lasting work may be this breathtaking concert documentary captured at the Talking Heads’ peak moment, a music movie that completely reinvents the form.—Joshua Rothkopf

16

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)

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

14

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

13

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

12

Grizzly Man (2005)

For 13 summers, Timothy Treadwell videotaped his gushing effusions over bears in the Alaskan wild, until one killed him and his girlfriend in 2003. It really was the stupidest of stupid pet tricks; as related in Werner Herzog’s gripping assembly of Treadwell’s own footage and new postmortem testimony, the story becomes a fascinating, strangely touching cry in the dark.—Joshua Rothkopf

11

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



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