The past is never past; in bringing the Holocaust to life in his towering nine-and-a-half-hour masterpiece, director Claude Lanzmann would stick solely to the present. Shoah is composed of the reflections of Polish survivors, bystanders and, most uneasily, the perpetrators. The memories become living flesh, and an essential part of documentary filmmaking finds its apotheosis: the act of testifying. Our top choice was an obvious one.
Everyone’s a documentarian these days, but the best documentary films go beyond simply filming real life and uploading it to the internet. They put real life into context. Sometimes, they reshape it and change our understanding of the world. They teach us about the people that surround us – and the truly successful documentaries make us rethink our ideas of ourselves.
It is true, though, that there are a lot of docs out there, whether streaming on Netflix or earning Oscar buzz. To make it easier for you to choose what to watch, we’ve sorted the must-sees from the glorified iPhone videos. From David Byrne in an oversized suit to Andy Warhol staring at the Empire State Building for eight hours, here are our picks for the best documentaries ever made.
Written by Joshua Rothkopf, Cath Clarke, Tom Huddleston, David Fear, Dave Calhoun, Phil de Semlyen, Andy Kryza, David Ehrlich and Matthew Singer
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