The 50 best documentaries of all time
Get back to reality with our ranked list of nonfiction triumphs.
Thu Nov 18 2010
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)
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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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- 1. Cozy up to a fireplace at these restaurants and bars.
- 9. Work up a sweat at the gym.
- 11. Drink hot booze.
- 16. Get down at one of Chicago's best dance clubs.
- 17. Check out Tomorrow Never Knows 2014.
- 18. Indulge in some salt therapy.
- 19. Get your nature fix at the Garfield Park Conservatory.
- 20. Attend Hannibal Buress's Comedy Central taping.
- 21. Explore Eataly, Mario Batali's Italian superstore.
- 22. See a movie at the Hollywood Palms. (It's a jungle in there!)
- 23. Up your winter hat game.
- 24. Commute by Divvy bike (yes, even in winter).
- 25. Watch films from our list of the 50 best documentaries.
- 26. Sing away the winter blues at karaoke.
- 27. Take a winter road trip.
- 28. Hop to a new Chicago brewery.
- 29. Eat at Dusek's Board and Beer in historic Thalia Hall.
- 30. Get hooked on hot yoga.
- 32. Treat yo'self at a winter spa.
- 33. Treat yo' skin, too.
- 34. Make a killer party playlist.
- 37. Visit a new Chicago boutique.
- 38. Discover the sport of curling.
- 39. Hang out in Chicago's most serene spaces.
- 42. Build a snack stadium for your next sports-viewing party.
- 43. Try all the flavors at Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams. (There are tons.)
- 44. Spend the day at one of Chicago's best museums.
- 48. Stop by one of Chicago's best comedy shows.
- 49. Cheer on the Bulls or Blackhawks at United Center.
- 50. Try some of the Midwest's best gin.
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