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The 50 best documentaries of all time

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

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.

50–41

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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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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An Inconvenient Truth (2006)

Al Gore seems less alarmist every year as the environmental news only worsens and political inaction on global warming remains the norm. Davis Guggenheim’s doc is essentially a filmed PowerPoint presentation, but what it lacks in filmmaking verve, it gains in accessibility. The film has the power to turn anyone green.—Joshua Rothkopf

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When We Were Kings (1996)

The famous “Rumble in the Jungle” was more than just a boxing match, as Leon Gast’s impressively dense cultural excavation shows. Among the film’s topics are African independence, rope-a-dope resilience, the rise of black-power politics and a new kind of global celebrity, the loud-and-proud Muhammad Ali.—Joshua Rothkopf

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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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The Look of Silence (2015)

Joshua Oppenheimer's 2012 documentary The Act of Killing was a radical, disquieting thing: a bizarre forum for Indonesia's genocidal leaders (still feared 50 years after their anti-Communist purge) to recreate their murders as fantasy skits. This unforgettable follow-up, anchored by the presence of an emboldened optician haunted by his brother’s death, is even more staggering.—Joshua Rothkopf

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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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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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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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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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40–31

The Fog of War (2003)

Rarely do political figures opens themselves up to Monday-morning quarterbacking as fully as did former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara in Errol Morris’s essential documentary on a troubled time. The subject is America’s involvement in Vietnam: the war’s prosecution, illegal extension and doubtful motivation. Ultimately there’s guilt here, if you dig for it.—Joshua Rothkopf

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Point of Order (1964)

Emile de Antonio tears into political fearmonger Senator Joseph McCarthy with righteous rage and footage of the infamous Army-McCarthy hearings. "Have you no sense of decency, sir?" lawyer Joseph Welch asked during the trials, and De Antonio's political epitaph provides the answer: Not a shred.—David Fear

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Burden of Dreams (1982)

You could call this the first making-of documentary: a fly-on-the-wall perspective of one of the most difficult movie shoots of all time, Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo. The director insisted on lugging an actual steamship over a Peruvian mountain range, but even his crazed commitment pales next to the wild-eyed diva fits of star Klaus Kinski.—Joshua Rothkopf

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Koyaanisqatsi (1982)

Highway traffic swirls in time-lapse photography, the sun rises and sets, and swarms of people cruise up escalators like hot dogs on a conveyer belt. Viewers still debate whether Godfrey Reggio's "pure film" amounts to more than a fuzzy anti-industrial screed. But the shots—and Philip Glass's seismically important score—are hypnotic.—Joshua Rothkopf

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Sherman's March (1986)

Ross McElwee wanted to make a feature retracing the destructive Civil War march of General William Tecumseh Sherman. But a traumatic breakup refocused things: He'd still follow the path, but would look for romantic attachment along the way. This strikingly perceptive doc is so intimate, it hurts.—Keith Uhlich

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The Up Series (1964–2005)

Simple hook: Fourteen British schoolchildren would be interviewed every seven years, well into adulthood. Seven installments later (an eighth is scheduled for 2012), Michael Apted's frequently heartbreaking series continues to provide profound insight into the unpredictable paths that life can take.—Keith Uhlich

The Sorrow and the Pity (1969)

Sorrow and pity: perfectly reasonable reactions to the Holocaust. Yet Marcel Ophls's staggering indictment of French collaboration with Nazi Germany is after an emotion far more insidious—something close to shared national shame. A decade after the movie's initial release, it still couldn't be aired on Paris's televisions.—Joshua Rothkopf

Metallica: Some Kind of Monster (2004)

Just as the shred-metal kings' castle was crumbling, they opened up their recording sessions to a curious crew led by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, who caught them at their ugliest. With careers at stake, a life coach was called upon for therapy. The resulting chronicle is an unprecedented peek into corporatized rebellion and creative rebirth.—Joshua Rothkopf

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Woodstock (1970)

It’s possible to take in this chronicle of the most famous concert of all time and be slightly underwhelmed: By all accounts, most of the classic acts (Jimi Hendrix excepted) had mediocre sets. But open your eyes to the surroundings—the mud, the mania, the sight of a dawning idealism in flourish—and you’ll realize that something special was indeed captured.—Joshua Rothkopf

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Grey Gardens (1975)

To watch the Maysles’ 1975 vérité masterpiece, uninflected by a sentimental soundtrack or editorializing of any kind, is to be invited into a terrible mystery. It’s not just the question of where the money went. The larger question hangs as thick as the mote-strewn air—the matter of Little Edie, so glamorous, so alone. Why is she stuck there with her mother? The beauty of this film is the dignity it imparts to the Beales, trapped in their pasts.—Joshua Rothkopf

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30–21

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

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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

“Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat” (1896)

Imagine a movie that terrifies its audience—not like a horror film, but in a bodily way, causing them to duck for cover or flee the theater. As rumor has it, that’s exactly what happened when the Lumière brothers’ 50-second film of a locomotive pulling into a French station unspooled at early screenings. No one was ready for the new reality. In a sense, every doc since then has tried to be as shocking.—Joshua Rothkopf

Bowling for Columbine (2002)

Taking in the whole of American craziness—free-rifle giveaways, high-school massacres and post-9/11 fearmongering—Michael Moore arrives at a potent portrait of a nation on the decline. Though not his first documentary, it’s the beginning of Moore’s incendiary status as a tweaker of right-wing noses, a position he refuses to vacate. God love him for it.—Joshua Rothkopf

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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

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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

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

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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

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Hoop Dreams (1994)

Steve James’s intimate portrait of inner-city aspirations—on the court and off—remains a high-point of American sociocultural anthropology. This is filmmaking of rare empathy and personal investment. After it’s over, the passions and frustrations of these boys goes with you. You’ll never look at playground pick-up games the same way.—Joshua Rothkopf

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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

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20–11

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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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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10–1

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

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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

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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

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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

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Dont Look Back (1967)

Simply put, this is movie that should be on everyone's home-video shelf. (And thanks to the Criterion Collection’s gloriously restored new Blu-ray, that can happen with little effort.) The movie captures not only Bob Dylan's arrival in the mainstream—behind sunglasses, peering out of limos—but the ascent of a certain kind of rabid fame culture, one that every pop star now has to negotiate. The filmmaker responsible for this iconic imagery is D.A. Pennebaker, the revered music-doc director who cemented Dylan's skittish, soulful persona in the public eye. He intentionally omitted that apostrophe from the title because he wanted his film to be perceived as fresh, fast, now. Rules were broken onscreen and off.—Joshua Rothkopf

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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

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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

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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

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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

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Shoah (1985)

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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Comments

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.