The 50 best documentaries of all time

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

0

Comments

Add +
  • Best documentaries: Capturing the Friedmans (2003)

  • Best documentaries: The Gleaners & I (2000)

  • Best documentaries: Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat (1896)

  • Best documentaries: Bowling for Columbine (2002)

  • Best documentaries: In the Year of the Pig (1968)

  • Best documentaries: Empire (1964)

  • Best documentaries: High School (1968)

  • Best documentaries: Our Hitler: A Film from Germany (1977)

  • Best documentaries: Hoop Dreams (1994)

  • Best documentaries: Gimmie Shelter (1970)

Best documentaries: Capturing the Friedmans (2003)

30
CAPTURING THE FRIEDMANS (2003)

Capturing the Friedmans (2003)

Like most families, the Friedmans of Great Neck took video of themselves in their moments of joy and celebration. Unlike most clans, however, this one would be torn apart by sexual abuse, incest and a criminal conviction. They left the cameras rolling, even as their lives unraveled; director Andrew Jarecki shaped the found footage into a heartbreaker.—Joshua Rothkopf

 Watch now on iTunes    Watch now at Amazon Instant Video

29

The Gleaners & I (2000)

There's no better way to enter the whimsical world of New Wave legend Agns Varda than via this playful first-person exploration, a loving paean to human idiosyncrasy. Camcorder in hand, the director travels the French countryside in search of people who collect trash of all different sorts.—Keith Uhlich

 Watch now on iTunes    Buy on Amazon

28
ARRIVAL OF A TRAIN AT LA CIOTAT (1896)

Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat (1896)

An essential piece of cinema history, the Lumire brothers' 50-second film is an unedited shot of a locomotive pulling into a provincial French station. It's often credited as the first movie exhibited for a paying audience; several spectators reportedly dove for cover, convinced the train would break through the screen. Even at this early date, the impact of cinema was enormous.—Keith Uhlich

27
BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE (2002)

Bowling for Columbine (2002)

Only Michael Moore would make a gonzo movie about gun control that featured the director going into a bank for its free-giveaway rifle, or include a montage that blends high-school tragedy, 9/11 and Louis Armstrong. This was the movie that proved Moore was a peerless propagandist—and demonstrated that he was just warming up.—David Fear

 Watch now on iTunes    Watch now at Amazon Instant Video

26
IN THE YEAR OF THE PIG (1968)

In the Year of the Pig (1968)

Premiering less than a year after the Tet Offensive, Emile de Antonio's scathing indictment of the Vietnam War excels at using the contradictory statements of the military brass, troops and politicians against them. Both Michael Moore and The Daily Show owe this muckraking screed a major debt.—David Fear

 Watch now at Amazon Instant Video

25
EMPIRE (1964)

Empire (1964)

It's eight hours of the Empire State Building in a single shot, with no sound. But call Andy Warhol's minimalist masterpiece "boring" at your own peril. The sunlight fades. A Manhattan evening blooms. Architecture becomes mythic. Warhol's notion of iconic repetition gains power. Admit it: You wish you had thought of this.—Joshua Rothkopf

24
HIGH SCHOOL (1968)

High School (1968)

Frederick Wiseman's examination of a Philadelphia school is so subtle in its social critique that you might think it's merely about education. But remember what was going on in America at the time: Suddenly, the authority figures stamping out individualism and the frustrated kids being force-fed bankrupt values don't seem so innocuous.—David Fear

23
OUR HITLER: A FILM FROM GERMANY (1977)

Our Hitler: A Film from Germany (1977)

How does an artist deal with one of the biggest monsters of our time? In Hans-Jrgen Syberberg's case, you tackle it with operatic assurance. Over seven-and-a-half hours, the German New Waver documents der Fhrer's rise and fall by filming an overwhelming, daringly abstract theater piece (incorporating puppetry, actual Nazi radio broadcasts, rear-screen projection and more). It confounds, challenges and ultimately enlightens.—Keith Uhlich

22
HOOP DREAMS (1994)

Hoop Dreams (1994)

Steve James's chronicle of two inner-city Chicago kids obsessed with basketball balances a microscopic look at their lives with a macro-examination of the social forces around them. It's less about what happens on the court than how class, race and community affect everything off the blacktop.—David Fear

 Watch now on iTunes    Watch now at Amazon Instant Video

21
GIMME SHELTER (1970)

Gimmie Shelter (1970)

Everyone refers to Altamont as the official end of the 1960s; the Maysles brothers' doc shows you why. Bad trips prevail even before the Hells Angels stab a concertgoer—and puncture the era's utopian dreams. That look on Mick Jagger's face as he watches the telltale footage still chills.—David Fear

 Buy on Amazon



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.

Time Out Los Angeles on Spotify