As long as there are action movies, animated fantasies, comedies and wish fulfillment onscreen, audiences will also yearn for the truth—or something close to it. In arriving at our pick of the best documentaries (from all eras and countries), we bumped up against some thorny questions: What makes a documentary essential? Is it the political or social import? Its popularity? Can we allow for staged scenes? Or must we insist on pure vérité? How "real" is reality? We invite your own thoughts in response to our ranked list of the best documentaries of all time.
RECOMMENDED: Our list of the 100 best movies of all time
Best documentaries: 50–41
America braced itself for Michael Moore's rage—during a presidential election year, no less. But no one expected the emotional gut punch of interviewee Lila Lipscomb, a patriotic army mother turned disbeliever. Moore's defiant success (it's still the highest-grossing doc of all time) had a massive impact, if not quite the intended result.
Grabbing the brass ring of technical wizardry, Martin Scorsese took the Band's final concert, an intimate San Francisco event tinged with bitterness, and turned it into myth. In many ways, the musicians come off like downbeat characters in a Scorsese picture, one as potent as Taxi Driver.
A politician using facts instead of fabrications—imagine that! Former Vice President Al Gore (working with director Davis Guggenheim) lays out the causes, effects and potential solutions to global warming in an entertainingly persuasive doc that made PowerPoint presentations exciting and spoke strongly to environmentalists.
Leon Gast's definitive look at the Ali-Foreman "Rumble in the Jungle" is more than just a great-moments-in-sports doc. It's an insightful portrait of Ali as a 20th-century icon transformed into a symbol of tenacity for a beleaguered continent—and proof that the charismatic champ was indeed "the greatest."
A towering, decade-spanning political chronicle summing up nothing less than an international spirit of change, Chris Marker's epic journey takes on Che and Fidel, Vietnam and Chile, Parisian riots and California flower children. The result, beautifully resigned, is a difficult but essential work.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Best documentaries: 40–31
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Up Series (1964–2005)
Simple hook: Fourteen British schoolchildren would be interviewed every seven years, well into adulthood. Eight installments later (a ninth is scheduled for 2019), Michael Apted's frequently heartbreaking series continues to provide profound insight into the unpredictable paths that life can take.
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.
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.
It may boil down "3 Days of Peace & Music" into little more than three hours, but Michael Wadleigh's doc on the defining event of the hippie generation shows you why Max Yasgur's farm became their Garden of Eden. The footage of Jimi Hendrix playing "The Star-Spangled Banner" is the pitch-perfect symbol of '60s flower power.
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?
Best documentaries: 30–21
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.
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.
“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.
Only Michael Moore would make a gonzo movie about gun control that featured the director going into a bank for its free-giveaway rifle, or include a montage that blends high-school tragedy, 9/11 and Louis Armstrong. This was the movie that proved Moore was a peerless propagandist—and demonstrated that he was just warming up.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Best documentaries: 20–11
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.
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.
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.
Throw on your oversize, boxy suit, hit PLAY on your boom box and make flippy-floppy with Jonathan Demme's unfailingly awesome Talking Heads concert doc. The overriding atmosphere is cosmopolitan and multicultural, but limber frontman David Byrne brings things closer to science fiction with his spotlight-commanding dance moves.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Best documentaries: 10–1
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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. If you doubt the impact of this mightiest of movies, take time next month to catch IFC's 25th-anniversary rerelease, an ennobling theatrical experience. We'll leave you with a taste of the first image: A graying man sings a quiet tune on a rowboat floating downstream, his eyes lost in thought. As a 13-year-old Jewish captive, he was beloved by his SS guards for his voice.