The 50 best documentaries of all time
Get back to reality with our ranked list of nonfiction triumphs.
Thu Nov 18 2010
Best documentaries: Man with a Movie Camera (1929)
Best documentaries: Roger & Me (1989)
Best documentaries: Nanook of the North (1922)
Best documentaries: The War Game (1965)
Best documentaries: Don't Look Back (1967)
Best documentaries: Harlan County U.S.A. (1976)
Best documentaries: Night and Fog (1955)
Best documentaries: The Thin Blue Line (1988)
Best documentaries: Sans Soleil (1983)
Best documentaries: Shoah (1985)
Best documentaries: Man with a Movie Camera (1929)
Man with a Movie Camera (1929)
The modernizing Soviet Union swirled around filmmaker Dziga Vertov, who, working with his brilliant editor wife, Elizaveta, decided to capture chaotic urban life in Ukraine. There would be no script, no sound, so hostile was Vertov to narrative. Instead, he would turn his "kino eye" into a hungry maw, one that would cheerfully devour men and women at work, gnashing the image into innovative split-screen and double exposures, breaking the bonds of time and causality. His avant-garde movie, still a stunning piece of futurism, was the entire spirit of the revolution condensed to a single hour. It will inspire as long as there are eyes to watch.—Joshua Rothkopf
Roger & Me (1989)
Michael Moore made his spectacular debut with this enraging look at the closing of a GM plant in Flint, Michigan. It's a comic cri de coeur against auto-industry exec Roger Smith, who Moore hilariously attempts to confront about Flint's economic downturn. But it's also an affectionate look at the director's depressed hometown: On his journey, he talks with such colorful characters as Bob Eubanks ("Flint's most famous native son") and Rhonda Britton, an eccentric neighbor who sells rabbits for "pets or meat." A brash and brazen new talent had clearly arrived.—Keith Uhlich
Nanook of the North (1922)
Today, Robert Flaherty's arctic slice of life is criticized: His Inuit subjects, made curious by the bulky camera, couldn't help but act a little. Scenes of igloo building and parenting were staged. Our strapping hero, accustomed to hunting with a gun, was gently urged to revert to his ancestors' spears. (He was also asked to pretend that a female friend of the director was his onscreen wife.) These points are not quibbles. But the greater truth of Flaherty's groundbreaking study can't be denied: Forevermore, documentaries would be committed to the social notion of bringing distant cultures closer (however compromised). So if we wish Nanook were more truthful, it's because it makes us want to better understand the world, a profound achievement for cinema.—Joshua Rothkopf
The War Game (1965)
A masterpiece of what-if storytelling, Peter Watkins's chilling featurette depicts the aftermath of a British nuclear war from a you-are-there perspective. Using scientific research, government statistics, and testimonies on the damage done in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Watkins presents manufactured scenes of suburban mayhem under the guise of an emergency news report. Fires rage, children expire, and England is turned into a barren wasteland; no one had used the fake-documentary format to such an extent before, or with such urgency since. Originally made for the BBC, Watkins's wake-up call was quickly banned by the network for being too harsh, yet it still nabbed a Best Documentary Oscar in 1966. Forty-five years later, it remains a high mark for employing vrit styles to construct something much more perverse and profound than your typical cautionary tale.—David Fear
Don't Look Back (1967)
Fans of Bob Dylan will always treasure the way this movie captures their hero at his pop-messiah apex, but even those who don't dig Mr. Zimmerman recognize D.A. Pennebaker's portrait as a groundbreaking work. It invented the fly-on-the-wall rockumentary, following the singer-songwriter as he lounges in hotel rooms and banters with buddies; the illusion of having an all-access pass to a musician's inner life starts here. But the doc's true significance lies in the way it nails a celebrity culture that was just starting to become cannibalistic. Reporters attack Dylan, rabid fans want a piece of him, and everything is reduced to an info-overload blur. The times would be a-changin' for both the media and this 26-year-old messenger very soon.—David Fear
Harlan County U.S.A. (1976)
Very often, we're reminded of the virtues of looking honestly and openly, without judgment. And if a documentary can do this, it's special. But there must be room for social justice, central to the impulse to pick up a camera in the first place. Barbara Kopple's staggeringly dense record of a Kentucky coal-mine strike is the ultimate example of crusading art: a chronicle of personal pain and sacrifice as ingrained as the soot in these workers' palms. Duke Power Company drove its employees to the brink of ruination, an existence plagued by black-lung disease, insufficient wages and squalid housing. When productivity ground to a halt, pickers found themselves targeted by armed thugs. Kopple captures it all, bringing the drama to a head while finding room for the rich local culture of bluegrass.—Joshua Rothkopf
Night and Fog (1955)
Any discussion of Holocaust documentaries must include Alain Resnais's sober, deeply affecting half-hour short. A survivor, Jean Cayrol, authored the omnipresent narration, spoken in detached tones over imagery of an empty and decrepit Auschwitz decades after the ovens cooled. Resnais's camera glides over the landscape as if searching for clues to an unsolvable mystery, while photographs of Nazi medical experiments and their sickening results attest to atrocities that can't possibly be fathomed in full. The film has the feel of a ghost story where the dead, despite their eerie silence, beckon the living to preserve their memory. It will move you to tears—and beyond.—Keith Uhlich
The Thin Blue Line (1988)
We now take it for granted that documentaries employ re-creations of events, borrow the narrative thrust of fiction and tiptoe into the realm of the poetic. When Errol Morris introduced those techniques into his true-crime tale of a murdered Dallas police officer, however, the effect was galvanizing—and undeniably game-changing. Structured like a whodunit thriller, Morris's case study proved that documentaries could become popular hits, and ended up exonerating an innocent man. But the filmmaker was also crafting a meta-statement about the concept of truth itself, and it treats what could have been a typical investigative film into a real-life Rashomon. He'd pushed the nonfiction form into bold, exciting territory: Once he'd crossed that line, a legion of other filmmakers followed.—David Fear
Sans Soleil (1983)
Chris Marker's enthralling, globehopping essay is perhaps the finest first-person documentary, one that can leave you rivetingly unmoored. Ostensibly, we're following a world traveler as he journeys between locations, from San Francisco to Africa, from Iceland to Japan. A female narrator speaks over the images as if they were letters home ("He wrote me...") even though the episodes play out right in front of us. Each viewer is bound to have their own favorites: The playful, near-subliminal opening shot of three Icelandic girls walking down a rural road; the Japanese temple dedicated to cats (a very Marker place to visit); the illuminating aside on Hitchcock's Vertigo. The doc feels like a diary that's being written, reread and transposed to celluloid simultaneously, reinventing itself from moment to moment. You'll be mesmerized.—Keith Uhlich
The past is never past; in bringing the Holocaust to life in his towering nine-and-a-half-hour masterpiece, director Claude Lanzmann would stick solely to the present. Shoah is composed of the reflections of Polish survivors, bystanders and, most uneasily, the perpetrators. The memories become living flesh, and an essential part of documentary filmmaking finds its apotheosis: the act of testifying. Our top choice was an obvious one. If you doubt the impact of this mightiest of movies, take time next month to catch IFC's 25th-anniversary rerelease, an ennobling theatrical experience. We'll leave you with a taste of the first image: A graying man sings a quiet tune on a rowboat floating downstream, his eyes lost in thought. As a 13-year-old Jewish captive, he was beloved by his SS guards for his voice.—Joshua Rothkopf
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