The 50 best documentaries of all time

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

  • 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 onscreen, audiences will also yearn for the truth—or something close to it. In arriving at TONY's favorite 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

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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

53 comments
Roger Faires
Roger Faires

I think the list is quite good and at times surprising and challenging of what films should be on such a list. But, and it's a big but, this list of terrific docs does not include the documentary I actually think should be at number 1 (or at least in the top 5); The World At War. It is a staggering achievement. Yes it was made for television and is 26 parts originally (more were added later during the DVD box set ear). But there was nothing quite like it before and it spawned as many or more imitators as Errol Morris's work does. Here's to you Sir Jeremy Isaacs!! Hip Hip Hurray! and Shalom! Many of us know it was you really behind the whole thing. Even narrator, Laurence Olivier was in awe of your grasp, kindness and objectivity. Of course my prize for the best Doc ever needs to be shared by everyone on the staff of that Thames series, the directors, researchers, composer Carl Davis, etc. . . and as I've already tipped the readers; a magnificent Laurence Olivier who's narration is inseparable from the entire film itself. So, having written all that, I would like to add that I am very happy to see Grizzly Man so high on the list. I think the film is so good and ground breaking that many people don't even think of it as a documentary. It, by the way, really has two directors: Werner Herzog and Timothy Treadwell himself. Sorry he never got to see his best work.

Victoria  Mckenzie
Victoria Mckenzie

Sorry to see Michael Moore over-represented while gems like the Paradise Lost trilogy, Marjoe, and Deliver Us From Evil are missing!

Danny
Danny

I like this list but it is missing one documentary that should easily be in the top ten Dear Zachary that doc invoked more emotions in me than I have every thought possible it is an absolute must see!

Bunny
Bunny

Oh please! All liberal bulls_it!!!

burtie
burtie

Top 50 docs and 'Deep Water' isn't even in it?! What research did you do? 'Deep water' is one of the most gripping docs you'll see...

sakara
sakara

POINT OF ORDER----communists have taken over 21st century hollyweird, which is why movies stink now days. IN YEAR OF THE PIG----total boredom; scenes drag on and on and on and on.

sakara
sakara

F FOR FAKE---bottom of the barrel boredom, with only ray harryhausen scenes good. INCONVENIENT TRUTH---al gore a 2 bit phoney who travels on a private jet

Scott
Scott

Are you serious? Metallica makes the list but not Long Way Round? I'm speechless. One star'd only cause I have to. This list round get zero if it would let me

Daniel
Daniel

A terrific list with so many amazing films. There are a couple I would have included. Tarnation's use of imovie to create a poignant personal diary proves that to create a masterpiece all the artist needs is paper and pencil. Ken Burns' The Civil War may be a PBC series, but it is perhaps the greatest historical documentary ever. Burns' style is just so informative, singular, influential, and poetic.

Kalah
Kalah

I would gladly watch any and all of these documentaries because they are the best form of art, visually, emotionally, and they are inspiring and uplifting, except for the ridiculous sounding one by andy warhol, 8 hours of the eiffel tower...no thanks. There are many wonderful WWII docs that are missing, as well as one on yellowstone national park and its wildlife that's missing, supersize me should be on here.. I'm sure there are others I can't think of that are missing.

Will Valentine
Will Valentine

Any list without the world at war is invalid, and the fact that Micheal Moore has multiple titles on here, is horrendous.

João
João

A list with so many Michal Moore's films ranking higher than a masterpiece as Hoop Dreams can't really be respected

biffula
biffula

Any documentary list without Ken Burns in it is invalid by default. Also, Michael Moore doesnt make documentaries, he makes movies. He even says so himself. He manufactures too much of his 'evidence' and doctors scenes too much.

Julián
Julián

Heima, Baraka and Samsara definitly are in my list.

Pete
Pete

Where are the Adam Curtis documentaries? He makes thee best documentaries I have ever seen such as 'All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace', 'Century of the Self' and 'The Power of Nightmares', utterly SUPREME documentaries, all written and directed by Curtis as well as the Voice Over.

Stokley
Stokley

What about Bill Maher's 'Religulous"???

hater
hater

from this this list i can tell your old,american and probaly in the army or most likely were to afraid to join......douche

bob loblaw
bob loblaw

Nice liberal list. Was looking for something more interesting, or at the very least, based on facts

Stephen
Stephen

Disregard Malk Woldin; this is a good list. Koyaanisqatsi is definitely a documentary. It communicates non-fiction truths via cinema. That is a documentary.

Omar Khairy
Omar Khairy

Sigur Ros' "Heima" should be on that list

Mark Woldin
Mark Woldin

The Sorrow and the Pity number 34? Koyaanisqatsi a documentary? What were you doing before this gig, my sir -- restaurants? Politics in Suffolk County? Dog shows?

James
James

There are some good films on this Top 100 Documentaries list... However to leave out the "The Cove" is criminal. What is actually worse is the complete lack of any of the big budget BBC Wildlife documentaries like "The Blue Planet", "Life in cold blood" etc. How can you not include at least one of these amazing documentaries about life on our planet. Your list is riddled with Jewish propaganda documentaries about the Holocaust and other pro-Jewish productions, whilst I am not against these in any way, shape or form, I am disgusted to see that they inundate the list, whilst much more professional, quality and meaningful work is done, that covers life in it's totality. Shameful list.

John Murphy
John Murphy

If you have not seen "Dear Zachary," it is a must. Best documentary I have ever seen and it didn't even make the list. I at least thought it would be in your top ten. Must see.

Erik
Erik

Yes, someone listed "Paradise Lost" - I forgot to mention that one (as well as many others). Great one.

Fox
Fox

Wow..Michael Moore much? What a lousy list..

Heidi
Heidi

Dear Zachary Paradise Lost I & II Dig! American Movie Hated Any of David Attenborough's documentary series

Hamsom
Hamsom

Who am i kidding. Of course number 1 would be regarding the holocaust.

Chip
Chip

Two doc that are not on your list with a similar theme "Fourteen Days in May" and "Paradise Lost", both haunting and it follows events as they unfold.

Jim
Jim

Remarkably, your surname seems to coincide with your unusual top 5?

Jojo
Jojo

Ummm...has anyone here heard of a guy by the name of KEN BURNS! I think he is probably the best documentarian on the face of the is planet and not ONE of his films even made the list. Someone needs to do their research a little better.

Jack Crumb
Jack Crumb

It's difficult to put together a list of the best documentaries - it means so many different things to different people. I thought that having two holocaust documentaries in the top 3 was too many - and I personally think of Nanking as being more horrific and more noteworthy ... but vocal minorities carry a lot of influence. If you want to capture the positive side of humanity (something that's largely missing from this list) try "The Ascent of Man" (By Bronowski) or "Cosmos" (by Carl Sagan) - two both very stimulating docos.

suckah pleez
suckah pleez

Your list is WEAK! Thanks for nothing. A lot of biased liberal conspiracy theory junk while not including some great documentaries.

Jonnyrodger1
Jonnyrodger1

Just over one year after "Planet Earth" premiered on the BBC it had been shown in more than 130 countries worldwide according to the wikipedia page. You've got to give that some thought.

Jonnyrodger1
Jonnyrodger1

I am shocked beyond all belief that not one of Sir David Attenborough's landmark and awe-inspiring natural history documentaries is included. The reasoning behind not including at least one of the ten installments of his "Life" series, "The Blue Planet", "Planet Earth" or "Frozen Planet" is mind-boggling. The series are hugely popular in the United Kingdom and I believe throughout Australia, New Zealand and maybe the USA, "Planet Earth" was certainly aired on the Discover Channel with a few tweaks and Sigourney Weaver as narrator. They captured animal behaviour never before seen as it happens and are unquestionably politically relevant due to the impact these series have had on environmentalism. The sheer quality of the cinematography in the later series merits them a place on this list. I recommend that TONY seriously considers the call for "Planet Earth" or "The Blue Planet" to be included, I expected one of them to be in the top 5 but to have none in the entire list is bizarre. It is a disgrace. I suggest you reconsider!

Frank
Frank

As soon as I saw Farenheit 9/11 and An Inconvenient Truth listed, I stopped scanning the list. There's a difference between propaganda and a documentary. And if you're going to throw the Oscar and Nobel Peace Prize arguement. Spare me. Where's FarenHYPE 9/11 ? Nice try, though.

Greg W. Locke
Greg W. Locke

you guys forgot the best documentary ever made: American Movie.

mark g
mark g

Just cause someone may not agree with the list doesn't mean anything apart from they have different tastes you idiot!

smithingham
smithingham

also, anyone who disagrees with "san soleil" being in the top three has no concept of film form and history. additionally, the word "pretentious" is a term used by ignorant/stupid people to describe things they can't understand.

smithingham
smithingham

this list is impeccable. love the fact that it focuses on cinema rather than politics. documentaries don't need to be soapboxes. although paradise lost is an interesting film and I support the WM3, issue-based films like that do little to advance film form and dialectics, and have no real place on a list like this. Needless to say, I am quite annoyed by the wave of "i-bought-a-5d-and-took-it-to-occupy-wall-street-so-now-im-filmmaker" documentaries. with that said, i think this list is missing "aka don bonus," "my winnipeg" and "land without bread"

Roberbot
Roberbot

Top 12 Must see Documentaries (Updated) 1. A Letter to Zachary 2. Dead in the water (USS Liberty) 3. 102 Minutes that changed America 4. The life and death of Aileen Wournos (Serial Killer) 5. Yugoslavia: The avoidable war 6. Jonestown 7. Ghosts of Rwanda 8. The Battle of Haditha 9. The true story of Black Hawk Down 10. Murder on the lake 11. Paradise Lost 12. Ben: Diary of a heroin addict

Edamame
Edamame

"On the Bowery" not on the list? The first documentary ever nominated for an Academy Award. What do you have against Lionel Rogosin?

Howard Webb
Howard Webb

Sans Soleil the second best documentary of all time? You pretentious twits...

yasir
yasir

I was sure that the No.1 will be something about the damn zionists "the insects of the earth".

Shane
Shane

Restrepo! it's as real as a modern war documentary gets. This list is mostly weak. Micheal Moore?!?!?! Just another socialist weasel.

Shawn
Shawn

No Paradise Lost?!?!? Just lost all credibility