The 50 best documentaries of all time

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

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  • Best documentaries: Lake of Fire (2006)

  • Best documentaries: The Times of Harvey Milk (1984)

  • Best documentaries: Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse (1991)

  • Best documentaries: Stop Making Sense (1984)

  • Best documentaries: Titicut Follies (1967)

  • Best documentaries: Crumb (1994)

  • Best documentaries: Hearts and Minds (1974)

  • Best documentaries: Triumph of the Will (1935)

  • Best documentaries: Grizzly Man (2005)

  • Best documentaries: Salesman (1968)

Best documentaries: Lake of Fire (2006)

20
LAKE OF FIRE (2006)

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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19
THE TIMES OF HARVEY MILK (1984)

The Times of Harvey Milk (1984)

Only an unrelenting homophobe could come away unmoved by Rob Epstein's Academy Award--winning documentary about the groundbreaking San Francisco politician assassinated by a bigoted colleague. It's both an angry film and a compassionate one—a true watershed in the gay-rights struggle.—Keith Uhlich

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18
HEARTS OF DARKNESS: A FILMMAKER'S APOCALYPSE (1991)

Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse (1991)

This spellbinding behind-the-scenes doc by Fax Bahr and George Hickenlooper dishes all the dirt about the making of Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now (1979). Bad weather, heart attacks, temperamental stars and a ballooning budget—it's amazing a turkey didn't result. For that, Coppola would have to wait until One from the Heart.—Keith Uhlich

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17
STOP MAKING SENSE (1984)

Stop Making Sense (1984)

Throw on your oversize, boxy suit, hit PLAY on your boom box and make flippy-floppy with Jonathan Demme's unfailingly awesome Talking Heads concert doc. The overriding atmosphere is cosmopolitan and multicultural, but limber frontman David Byrne brings things closer to science fiction with his spotlight-commanding dance moves.—Keith Uhlich

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16
TITICUT FOLLIES (1967)

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

15
CRUMB (1994)

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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14
HEARTS AND MINDS (1974)

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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13
TRIUMPH OF THE WILL (1935)

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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12
GRIZZLY MAN (2005)

Grizzly Man (2005)

Werner Herzog's "ecstatic truth" methodology—in which reporting the facts is secondary to finding deeper emotional undercurrents—is on full display in his portrait of Timothy Treadwell, a wildlife enthusiast killed by a bear he adored. Nature and chaos, obsession and madness—the auteur's thematic preoccupations are all here, in a form that's somehow more moving than Herzog's fictional counterparts.—David Fear

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11
SALESMAN (1968)

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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Users say

55 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".