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The 66 best documentaries of all time

Get real with our ranked list of the best documentaries of all time, from groundbreaking political exposés to culture-changing concerts

Written by
Joshua Rothkopf
Written by
Phil de Semlyen
Matthew Singer

Thanks to the tech in our pockets, everyone’s a documentarian of sorts these days. But there’s a big difference between filming real life and uploading the footage to the internet and making a documentary, because the best docs put real life into context. They explain our understanding of the world around us. Sometimes, they reshape how we look at the world, and the people that populate it. The greatest documentaries even make us rethink our conception of ourselves. 

There is no arguing, though, that we are living in a time of peak documentary. So to make it easier for you to choose what to watch, we’ve sorted the must-sees from the glorified iPhone videos. From the simple chronicle of a train pulling into a station in the 1800s to Apollo 11 blasting off into space, 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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Best documentaries of all time

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. 

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Chris Marker's enthralling, globehopping essay is perhaps the finest first-person documentary, one that can leave you rivetingly unmoored. Ostensibly, we're following a world traveler as he journeys between locations, from San Francisco to Africa, from Iceland to Japan. A female narrator speaks over the images as if they were letters home ("He wrote me...") even though the episodes play out right in front of us. Each viewer is bound to have their own favorites: The playful, near-subliminal opening shot of three Icelandic girls walking down a rural road; the Japanese temple dedicated to cats (a very Marker place to visit); the illuminating aside on Hitchcock's Vertigo. The doc feels like a diary that's being written, reread and transposed to celluloid simultaneously, reinventing itself from moment to moment. You'll be mesmerized.

The Thin Blue Line (1988)

We now take it for granted that documentaries employ re-creations of events, borrow the narrative thrust of fiction and tiptoe into the realm of the poetic. When Errol Morris introduced those techniques into his true-crime tale of a murdered Dallas police officer, however, the effect was galvanizing—and undeniably game-changing. Structured like a whodunit thriller, Morris's case study proved that documentaries could become popular hits, and ended up exonerating an innocent man. But the filmmaker was also crafting a meta-statement about the concept of truth itself, and it treats what could have been a typical investigative film into a real-life Rashomon. He'd pushed the nonfiction form into bold, exciting territory: Once he'd crossed that line, a legion of other filmmakers followed.

Night and Fog (1955)

Any discussion of Holocaust documentaries must include Alain Resnais's sober, deeply affecting half-hour short. A survivor, Jean Cayrol, authored the omnipresent narration, spoken in detached tones over imagery of an empty and decrepit Auschwitz decades after the ovens cooled. Resnais's camera glides over the landscape as if searching for clues to an unsolvable mystery, while photographs of Nazi medical experiments and their sickening results attest to atrocities that can't possibly be fathomed in full. The film has the feel of a ghost story where the dead, despite their eerie silence, beckon the living to preserve their memory. It will move you to tears—and beyond.

Harlan County U.S.A. (1976)

Very often, we're reminded of the virtues of looking honestly and openly, without judgment. And if a documentary can do this, it's special. But there must be room for social justice, central to the impulse to pick up a camera in the first place. Barbara Kopple's staggeringly dense record of a Kentucky coal-mine strike is the ultimate example of crusading art: a chronicle of personal pain and sacrifice as ingrained as the soot in these workers' palms. Duke Power Company drove its employees to the brink of ruination, an existence plagued by black-lung disease, insufficient wages and squalid housing. When productivity ground to a halt, pickers found themselves targeted by armed thugs. Kopple captures it all, bringing the drama to a head while finding room for the rich local culture of bluegrass.

Dont Look Back (1967)

Fans of Bob Dylan will always treasure the way this movie captures their hero at his pop-messiah apex, but even those who don't dig Mr. Zimmerman recognize D.A. Pennebaker's portrait as a groundbreaking work. It invented the fly-on-the-wall rockumentary, following the singer-songwriter as he lounges in hotel rooms and banters with buddies; the illusion of having an all-access pass to a musician's inner life starts here. But the doc's true significance lies in the way it nails a celebrity culture that was just starting to become cannibalistic. Reporters attack Dylan, rabid fans want a piece of him, and everything is reduced to an info-overload blur. The times would be a-changin' for both the media and this 26-year-old messenger very soon.

The War Game (1965)

A masterpiece of what-if storytelling, Peter Watkins's chilling featurette depicts the aftermath of a British nuclear war from a you-are-there perspective. Using scientific research, government statistics, and testimonies on the damage done in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Watkins presents manufactured scenes of suburban mayhem under the guise of an emergency news report. Fires rage, children expire, and England is turned into a barren wasteland; no one had used the fake-documentary format to such an extent before, or with such urgency since. Originally made for the BBC, Watkins's wake-up call was quickly banned by the network for being too harsh, yet it still nabbed a Best Documentary Oscar in 1966. Forty-five years later, it remains a high mark for employing vrit styles to construct something much more perverse and profound than your typical cautionary tale.

Nanook of the North (1922)

Today, Robert Flaherty's arctic slice of life is criticized: His Inuit subjects, made curious by the bulky camera, couldn't help but act a little. Scenes of igloo building and parenting were staged. Our strapping hero, accustomed to hunting with a gun, was gently urged to revert to his ancestors' spears. (He was also asked to pretend that a female friend of the director was his onscreen wife.) These points are not quibbles. But the greater truth of Flaherty's groundbreaking study can't be denied: Forevermore, documentaries would be committed to the social notion of bringing distant cultures closer (however compromised). So if we wish Nanook were more truthful, it's because it makes us want to better understand the world, a profound achievement for cinema.

Roger & Me (1989)

Michael Moore made his spectacular debut with this enraging look at the closing of a GM plant in Flint, Michigan. It's a comic cri de coeur against auto-industry exec Roger Smith, who Moore hilariously attempts to confront about Flint's economic downturn. But it's also an affectionate look at the director's depressed hometown: On his journey, he talks with such colorful characters as Bob Eubanks ("Flint's most famous native son") and Rhonda Britton, an eccentric neighbor who sells rabbits for "pets or meat." A brash and brazen new talent had clearly arrived.

Man with a Movie Camera (1929)

The modernizing Soviet Union swirled around filmmaker Dziga Vertov, who, working with his brilliant editor wife, Elizaveta, decided to capture chaotic urban life in Ukraine. There would be no script, no sound, so hostile was Vertov to narrative. Instead, he would turn his "kino eye" into a hungry maw, one that would cheerfully devour men and women at work, gnashing the image into innovative split-screen and double exposures, breaking the bonds of time and causality. His avant-garde movie, still a stunning piece of futurism, was the entire spirit of the revolution condensed to a single hour. It will inspire as long as there are eyes to watch.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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Todd Douglas Miller’s jaw-dropping space odyssey straps viewers to the side of the thundering Apollo 11 rocket as it careers into, and beyond, the Earth’s atmosphere in a spectacular doc that makes great use of hitherto unseen NASA footage. The mission, of course, successfully plonked two Americans on to the Moon’s surface and then unplonked them again, thereby winning that leg of the space race with the Soviet Union, but there’s nothing triumphalist in Miller’s thrilling recreation – just a lot of quiet professionalism, teamwork and fearless men in helmets. When it gets into space and the 70mm footage does its thing, it makes you wish you’d actually followed up on that childhood ambition to become an astronaut. 

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.

13TH (2016)
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Ava DuVernay’s searing, righteously angry doc – named after the slavery-abolishing Thirteenth Amendment – argues that incarceration has become the new slavery in America. And with a wildly disproportionate Black prison population and corporations using it for free labour, the evidence is irrefutable. DuVernay’s line-up of experts (including activists and historians like Angela Davis and Henry Louis Gates Jr) presents it with ferocious clarity. 13th is essential viewing: one of those eye-opening documentaries that will change the way you see the world in an instant, even if the world stubbornly refuses to change in its wake. 

Stop Making Sense (1984)

No band balanced surrealism and funkiness quite like Talking Heads, and Jonathan Demme manages to capture them at the absolute zenith of their abilities. All things considered, it’s probably still the greatest concert film ever, as memorable for the aesthetics – the famous big suit, frontman David Byrne’s flippy-floppy dance moves – as the musical virtuosity. 

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.

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.

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.

Paris Is Burning (1991)
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Along with Madonna’s ‘Vogue,’ Jennie Livingston’s landmark documentary brought drag culture into the mainstream, and critics have been debating its impact ever since. Did exposing a transgender, predominantly Black and Latinx scene to straight, white audiences help or hurt the queer community at large? Does it matter that Livingston herself was a white outsider? What of the minority filmmakers who’d documented the ballroom world before her but couldn’t find funding, distribution or press attention? All those questions are worth asking, even 30 years later. But the discussion surrounding Paris is Burning does not diminish the vitality of the film itself – on its own, it remains a testament to lives lived out loud and the power of allowing marginalised people to speak for themselves. 

Gimme Shelter (1970)

It’s probably an oversimplification to describe The Rolling Stones’ disastrous free concert at the Altamont Speedway in Northern California on December 6, 1969, as the event that killed the ’60s utopian dream for good, but Albert and David Maysles’ documentary makes it clear why it’s remembered as exactly that. The brothers’ emotionally-removed, cinéma vérité approach makes it come across like a waking nightmare – especially for Mick Jagger, who’s shown watching the footage of the band’s biker security guards murdering a Black audience member with a look of shell-shocked horror across his face.

Hoop Dreams (1994)

Steve James's chronicle of two inner-city Chicago kids obsessed with basketball balances a microscopic look at their lives with a macro-examination of the social forces around them. It's less about what happens on the court than how class, race and community affect everything off the blacktop.

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In a just world, this gripping Romanian doc would have beaten Netflix’s cutesy The Octopus Teacher to Oscar glory. Then again, if it were a just world this exposé of state-sponsored corruption probably wouldn’t exist. Surprisingly, it is a team of sports journalists who uncover a medical scandal that needlessly cost the lives of dozens of victims of Bucharest’s Colectiv nightclub in 2015. In the spirit of all good conspiracy thrillers, they tug on a thread that leads to the higher echelons of government. This startling, Spotlight-like thriller is a local story with sadly universal resonance.

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.


27. 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.

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.

Bowling for Columbine (2002)

Whether or not you agree with his approach, Michael Moore has been right more often than not – and he’s never been more right than he was in diagnosing America’s gun addiction. Way back when school shootings didn’t all blend into one horrific blur, Moore was drilling into the root causes of the 1999 Columbine massacre in suburban Colorado, with a similar mix of righteous anger and irreverent humour that was then coming to flower on The Daily Show. The segment in which Moore escorts two shooting survivors to Kmart and demand refunds for the bullet fragments still lodged in their bodies is gonzo propaganda at its boldest.

30. “Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat” (1896)

An essential piece of cinema history, the Lumire brothers' 50-second film is an unedited shot of a locomotive pulling into a provincial French station. It's often credited as the first movie exhibited for a paying audience; several spectators reportedly dove for cover, convinced the train would break through the screen. Even at this early date, the impact of cinema was enormous.

Man on Wire (2008)

On an early, gray morning in August 1974, tightrope-walker Philippe Petit stepped out into an impossible void, the space between the Twin Towers, and danced for an hour. No other film, fictional or otherwise, more fully restores—poetically, with antic humor—our city's loss as does James Marsh's stunner.

32. The Gleaners & I (2000)

In her playful cine-essay, Agnès Varda reflects on the mythic French gleaners—field hands who traditionally clean up after harvests—and interviews homeless scavengers of the present day. Her thoughts on the passage of time and her own mortality turn a slight anthropological profile into a profound meditation on life.

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.

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Unrelenting, emotional, and visceral in a way that will leave you a little wobbly, this astonishing doc catapults you into Aleppo’s bomb-damaged buildings and dust-shrouded corridors to take shelter from Syrian and Russian air attacks alongside filmmaker Waad Al-Kateab, her doctor husband and the young baby to whom the film is dedicated. Co-directed by Brit Edward Watts, it’s a tapestry of unforgettable moments and a shakycam memoir of life in a dying city. It’s not always easy viewing but the defiance and determination at its core is seriously inspiring to witness

Grey Gardens (1975)

Meet the Beales, "Big Edie" and "Little Edie," former socialites who live in a run-down mansion with lots of cats and no running water. This mesmerizing Maysles-brothers doc inspired a sequel consisting of unreleased footage, an HBO film and even a Broadway musical. Who knew that two isolationist eccentrics could so powerfully capture the public imagination?

Woodstock (1970)

The Woodstock Music and Art Fair was the defining cultural event of the 1960s, and Michael Wadleigh’s chronicle of those three days of ‘peace and music’ solidified the concert as the apex of the hippie utopian dream. That part is mostly bullshit, of course – there were multiple sexual assaults, two deaths and numerous institutional lapses that put more attendees’ lives at risk. But goddamn, that performance footage. Rock’n’roll may currently be going the way of jazz, but Jimi Hendrix's scorching rendition of the ‘Star Spangled Banner’ will still singe your eyebrows.

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.

38. 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.


39. The Up Series (1964–2019)

Simple hook: Fourteen British schoolchildren would be interviewed every seven years, well into adulthood. Nine installments later, the late Michael Apted's frequently heartbreaking series still provides profound insight into the unpredictable paths that life can take.

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.

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.

Burden of Dreams (1982)

Les Blank offers a warts-and-all look at the problems that plagued Werner Herzog's tow-the-boat-over-the-mountain epic, Fitzcarraldo. Inclement weather and a war between Peru and Ecuador ground filming to a halt—but egotistical star Klaus Kinski made all complications seem quaint.

Waltz with Bashir (2008)
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Using animation to navigate the mental fog of war, Ari Folman’s groundbreaking film about searching for suppressed memories of his time as a teenage soldier in Lebanon gave documentarians a workaround for exploring subjects where archival footage and dramatic recreations won’t suffice. It’s already proven influential: 2021’s Flee took a similar approach to the refugee experience and was nominated in three Oscar categories, including both Best Documentary Feature and Best Animated Feature. 

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.

The Fog of War (2003)

Errol Morris loves giving kooks a forum, but with this collection of "lessons," the filmmaker ceded the spotlight to a much more divisive American figure: former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, the architect of the Vietnam War. What he doesn't say about his part in history is almost as telling as what he does.

Monterey Pop (1968)

The first major rock festival of the '60s gave birth to the first major concert film of the era, with D.A Pennebaker paying as much attention to a burgeoning sense of a counterculture as he does to the music itself (though the footage of the Who, Otis Redding and Jimi Hendrix setting his guitar on fire, to name three, is epochal). Something was indeed brewing; Pennebaker lets us see the pot being stirred.

The Battle of Chile (1975–79)

Patricio Guzmn's three-part doc offers a comprehensive, 360-degree view of Augusto Pinochet's rise to power, as seen through the eyes of everybody from Marxist peasants to the military brass who staged the coup. The combination of big-picture history lessons and newsreel immediacy continues to inspire lefty documentarians and frontline filmmakers.

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A documentarian has a few options for tackling America's OxyContin crisis and the story of its first family, the Sacklers. Citizenfour director Laura Poitras picks the least obvious, but most impactful option. Skipping anything investigative or procedural, she instead adopts legendary New York photographer Nan Goldin, herself a recovering oxy addict, as a symbol of resistance to the Sackler's reputation-washing patronage of the arts. It's two enthralling stories for the price of one: a venal, vastly culpable family and the guerilla activist who takes the fight to them. 
F for Fake (1973)

Here's yet more evidence that Orson Welles didn't just disappoint after Citizen Kane. Toward the end of his working career, the feisty director mounted this sly, quietly groundbreaking study of the art of lying, one that flits from hoaxer Clifford Irving to Welles's own fake alien invasion, The War of the Worlds.

Dig! (2004)
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Oasis vs Blur. Michael Jackson vs Prince. Biggie vs Tupac. All great artistic rivalries, but in terms of sheer entertainment value, none of them has shit on The Dandy Warhols and The Brian Jonestown Massacre. Director Ondi Timoner spent seven years tracking the divergent careers of the two then-little-known psych-rock compatriots, as the former signed to a major label and built an international following and the latter engaged in persistent self-sabotage, eroding their relationship from mutual admiration to bitter resentment. There are onstage fistfights, drugs, arrests, broken sitars and dialogue that would've been cut from This Is Spinal Tap for being too ridiculous. It’s a masterclass in rock’n’roll insanity populated with characters you couldn’t make up, because no one would believe they could exist.

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.

The Look of Silence (2015)

Joshua Oppenheimer's 2012 documentary The Act of Killing was a radical, disquieting thing: a bizarre forum for Indonesia's genocidal leaders (still feared 50 years after their anti-Communist purge) to recreate their murders as fantasy skits. This unforgettable follow-up, anchored by the presence of an emboldened optician haunted by his brother’s death, is even more staggering.

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