15 Best Documentaries of All-Time

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Since the invention of cinema, the documentary has been tied directly to the form’s evolution. From Eadweard Muybridge’s surveys on the zoopraxiscope to Robert J. Flaherty’s docu-drama hybrid, Nanook of the North, to Errol Morris’ and Michael Moore’s inquiry into the root of the American problem, the documentary has become a respected institution in the mind of most critics and cinephiles. It is bringing forth stories that are even more amazing than anything that the mind of a screenwriter could have conjured. These are real human stories that can inspire, depress, enrage, and enlighten. That’s the power of these films, transcending the power of simple news programming and using the language of cinema to elevate it to something transcendent. 

Here’s a list of the most incredible documentaries ever made, proving that documentaries can transcend their form and become entertaining films in their own right.

1. Town Bloody Hall 

Photo Credit: Pennebaker Hegedus Films.

Shot on grainy 16mm film by the great D.A Pennebaker, this 1979 documentary chronicles an infamous town hall debate between the author Norman Mailer and four prominent feminists: Jacqueline Ceballos, Germaine Greer, Jill Johnston, and Diana Trilling. An exhilarating intellectual brawl, this is one documentary that genuinely has to be seen to be believed.

2. Roger & Me

Photo Credit: Dog Eat Dog Films.

Before launching into the stratosphere with films like Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11, Michael Moore’s first film tackles the shuttering of several GM factories in his hometown of Flint, Michigan. While trying to get an interview with GM’s CEO, Roger Smith, Moore chronicles the cycles of poverty and violence that afflict his friends and family after the loss of their jobs. As depressing as that may sound, Moore’s post-modern stylings keep things light and humorous.

3. The War Game

Photo Credit: BBC.

Not a traditional documentary, per se, the film chronicles an unnamed war that affects Great Britain. It was a film so powerful it was banned by the BBC and the British government, only seeing the light of day when it won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 1967. This is one intense experience that you do not want to miss.

4. Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father

Photo Credit: MSNBC Films.

One of the most upsetting documentaries ever made, this film follows Kurt, a director who wants to make a film for the son of his murdered friend, Andrew. The film follows several threads, one of which includes Andrew’s parents, who try in vain to gain custody of their dead son’s child. Dear Zachary is a harrowing tale of loss and closure.

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5. Paris is Burning

Photo Credit: BBC.

This documentary is an essential document of the New York drag balls of the 1980s. With queer culture being under attack, this is a film that’s littered with unforgettable characters and is well worth your time. Seek it out. 

6. Man with a Movie Camera

Photo Credit: Vseukrainske Foto Kino Upravlinnia.

Soviet filmmaker Dziga Vertov’s experimental documentary, which depicted life in the contemporary USSR, pushed the boundaries of the film form when it was released in 1929. Though critics weren’t so hot on the film at the time of its release, the British film magazine Sight and Sound has since hailed it as the greatest documentary ever. 

7. The People vs. Paul Crump

Photo Credit: WBKB Channel 7.

Future Exorcist and French Connection filmmaker William Friedkin flexes his documentary chops with this 1962 feature about a death row inmate who was locked away for a robbery and a murder committed almost a decade prior. A significant milestone in William Friedkin’s career, the film would help to get the titular Paul Crump paroled for his crimes.

8. Night and Fog

Photo Credit: Argos Films.

Clocking in at just over half an hour, this short documentary by revered French filmmaker Alain Resnais tackles the subject of the concentration camps that stood empty after the end of the Second World War. It makes a great double feature with Jonathan Glazer’s recent Best Picture nominee, Zone of Interest. It is an electric, necessary piece of documentary filmmaking. 

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9. Grey Gardens

Photo Credit: Portrait Films.

The Maysles Brothers’ legendary documentary follows the residents of the titular Grey Gardens, a decaying estate owned by the eccentric family of former First Lady Jackie Kennedy. Featuring some of the most memorable subjects ever captured on film, this baroque comedy will surely leave the viewers wanting more.

10. The Act of Killing

Photo Credit: Final Cut for Real.

Joshua Oppenheimer’s experimental documentary chronicles the Indonesian mass murders of 1965 and ’66. The film follows many of the perpetrators around the country, most of whom would become gangsters and retain power as the New Order tried to wipe out any perceived political dissidents. There is a sickening power to the film, with many of the film’s reenactments of the killings being performed by the actual gangsters who perpetrated the crimes in the first place. A sickening, if essential, look into the nature of human brutality.

11. The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On

Photo Credit: Imamura Productions.

Filmmaker Kazuo Hara’s 1987 documentary follows Kenzō Okuzaki, a World War II soldier stationed in New Guinea, who searches desperately for the explanation for the mysterious deaths of two men who died tragically in his company. The film follows a bizarre and frightening odyssey of the lengths men will go to rectify the wrongs committed against them. It’s an obscure choice, but documentary filmmaker Errol Morris has cited it as one of the five greatest documentaries ever made.

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12. The Thin Blue Line

Photo Credit: American Playhouse.

Commended by many as being the film that set the template for many of the true crime documentaries that proliferate Netflix today, this 1988 documentary by Errol Morris covers the trial and false conviction of Randall Dale Adams for the 1976 shooting of Dallas police officer Robert W. Wood. It was a powerful documentary that got its subject acquitted the year after its release. It shows the true power the form can have when used to its fullest effect.

13. Nanook of the North

Photo Credit: Les Frères Revillon.

The film that started it all, this 1927 film from Robert J. Flaherty, follows the titular Nanook, an Inuit boy, as he goes about his daily tasks, which include hunting a walrus, building an igloo, and fishing, among other things. Though the film has been accused of staging certain scenes, the sheer visceral nature of the piece and the reinvention of the documentary form make it essential viewing.

14. Harlan County U.S.A.

Photo Credit: Cabin Creek Films.

Revolutionary in the subject and for the fact that it’s directed by a woman, Barbara Kopple’s propulsive documentary follows a miner’s strike in the titular Harlan County, Kentucky. It is a beautiful work on the dynamics of capitalist power and the nature of collective labor overpowering an unfair system. So, too, is this documentary important because a woman directs it.

15. Welfare

Photo Credit: Zipporah Films.

Directed by Frederick Wiseman, debatably the greatest documentary filmmaker ever to do it, this nearly three-hour film follows a welfare office from the perspective of both the employees and the clientele, getting their respective stories to track what has led them to the dizzying world of welfare. It is a film so powerful and so real that it makes the viewer violently angry with the bureaucracy that leads the poor and disenfranchised to get the short end of the stick.

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