The 50 best documentaries of all time

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

  • Best documentaries: The Fog of War (2003)

  • Best documentaries: Point of Order (1964)

  • Best documentaries: Burden of Dreams (1982)

  • Best documentaries: Koyaanisqatsi (1982)

  • Best documentaries: Sherman's March (1986)

  • Best documentaries: The Up Series (1964–2005)

  • Best documentaries: The Sorrow and the Pity (1969)

  • Best documentaries: Metallica: Some Kind of Monster (2004)

  • Best documentaries: Woodstock (1970)

  • Best documentaries: Grey Gardens (1975)

Best documentaries: The Fog of War (2003)

40

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

39

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

38

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

37

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

36

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

35
THE UP SERIES (1964--2005)

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

34
THE SORROW AND THE PITY (1969)

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

33

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

32

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

31

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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