The 50 best documentaries of all time

Get back to reality with our ranked list of the best documentaries ever made.

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  • 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 in film, audiences will also yearn for the truth—or something close to it. In arriving at Time Out's list of best 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)

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

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49
THE LAST WALTZ (1978)

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

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48
AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH (2006)

An Inconvenient Truth (2006)

A politician using facts instead of fabrications—imagine that! Former Vice President Al Gore (working with director Davis Guggenheim) lays out the causes, effects and potential solutions to global warming in an entertainingly persuasive doc that made PowerPoint presentations exciting and spoke strongly to environmentalists.—Keith Uhlich

 Watch now on iTunes    Watch now at Amazon Instant Video

47
WHEN WE WERE KINGS (1996)

When We Were Kings (1996)

Leon Gast's definitive look at the Ali-Foreman "Rumble in the Jungle" is more than just a great-moments-in-sports doc. It's an insightful portrait of Ali as a 20th-century icon transformed into a symbol of tenacity for a beleaguered continent—and proof that the charismatic champ was indeed "the greatest."—David Fear

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46
A GRIN WITHOUT A CAT (1977)

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

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45
PROFIT MOTIVE AND THE WHISPERING WIND (2007)

Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind (2007)

Stones do the speaking in John Gianvito's stirring experimental doc, composed entirely of images of marked and unmarked grave sites across the United States. Tracing a quietly bracing history of the American Left (we visit the resting places of, among others, Eugene V. Debs and Elizabeth Cady Stanton), the film is an ode to the power of protest.—Keith Uhlich

44
F FOR FAKE (1973)

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

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43
THE BATTLE OF CHILE (1975--79)

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

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42
MONTEREY POP (1968)

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

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41
MAN ON WIRE (2008)

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

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

Users say

5 comments
Julia Pello
Julia Pello

This is overall a comprehensive, satisfying attempt at a documentary canon with one very special film missing. The Japanese masterpiece that pushes the boundaries of documentary by staging provocations wih a true "anti-hero" hero at its center taking up the harrowing subject of cannabalism in the Japanese military at the very end of WWII: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0092963/?ref_=fn_al_tt_1 I was extremely happy to see Sans Soleil so high on the list.

chaz
chaz

There's just no way Bowling For Columbine is better than Grey Gardens. Or Capturing the Friedmans, or many of the others that some how ranks higher than GG, which is one of the most lasting, affecting, unique portraits of humanity and America, if you will, ever committed to film. GG is easily in the top 20.

thoo
thoo

How about european documentary masterpices by Krzysztof Kieslowski, Marcel Lozinski, Raymond Depardon, Nicolas Philibert, Sergiej Drvortsevoy, Sergiej Loznitza, Werner Herzog, Urlich Seidl, Jorgen Leth, Nicolas Glawogger and many more?

Jackie
Jackie

Jiro dreams of sushi and The Cove definitely should be on this list. I also agree with exit through the gift shop.

Mike Arce
Mike Arce

"Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son about his Father" isn't here and "Some Kind of Monster" is? List is invalidated.

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