The 50 best documentaries of all time

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

  • 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)


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


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


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

EMPIRE (1964)

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


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


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


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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