Sometimes all you want are action movies or Miyazaki animated fantasies. We get that. Movies are a beautiful escape. But there’s still that pang of conscience: What about the outside world? The real world struggling with sociopolitical inequity? The world captured by filmmakers who want to inform us and make us angry? (If they win an Oscar or two along the way, all the better.) A brilliant documentary can turn audiences into activists; it can awaken, alarm and amuse. Coming to a ranked list of the 51 best documentaries of all time wasn’t easy—watching them won’t be, either. But you won’t regret it.
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