100 Best Documentary Films of All-Timeby John Frazier | created - 08 May 2011 | updated - 09 May 2011 | Public
Hundreds of films have been identified as the best documentary films of all time. This is a list for my college students to learn about the history of documentary films and the greatest documentary films to date. The first eighteen films are the most important films in the early development of the documentary, and then the list is alphabetized.
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1. The Arrival of a Train (1896)
Not Rated | 1 min | Documentary, Short
A train arrives at La Ciotat station.
The first 18 titles are the most important historical documentary films in establishing the genre, aesthetics, and issues of this genre.
2. In the Land of the Head Hunters (1914)
Not Rated | 65 min | Drama, History
In 1911, as part of his massive undertaking, famed Northwest photographer Edward S. Curtis travelled to Vancouver Island, British Columbia, to visit the Kwakwaka'wakw. By the next year, ... See full summary »
3. Nanook of the North (1922)
Not Rated | 78 min | Documentary
In this silent predecessor to the modern documentary, film-maker Robert J. Flaherty spends one year following the lives of Nanook and his family, Inuits living in the Arctic Circle.
Early documentary film critic, Grierson's principles of documentary were that cinema's potential for observing life could be exploited in a new art form; that the "original" actor and "original" scene are better guides than their fiction counterparts to interpreting the modern world; and that materials "thus taken from the raw" can be more real than the acted article. Grierson's definition of documentary as "creative treatment of actuality" has gained some acceptance, though it presents philosophical questions about documentaries containing stagings and reenactments.
With Robert J. Flaherty's Nanook of the North in 1922, documentary film embraced the artistic trends of romanticism (emotionalism, celebration of the traditional, human passions and shortcomings, etc.), Flaherty filmed a number of these documentary films during this time period, often showing how his subjects would have lived 100 years earlier and not how they lived right then. For instance, in Nanook of the North Flaherty did not allow his subjects to shoot a walrus with a nearby shotgun, but had them use a harpoon instead. Some of Flaherty's staging, such as building a roofless igloo for interior shots, was done to accommodate the filming technology of the time.
4. Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1927)
65 min | Documentary
This movie shows us one day in Berlin, the rhythm of that time, starting at the earliest morning and ends in the deepest night.
The continental, or realist, tradition of documentary film focused on humans within more civilized urban environments, and included the so-called "city symphony" films such as Walter Ruttmann's Berlin, Symphony of a City. Early film critic Grierson stated that Berlin represented what a documentary should not be. These films tend to feature people as products of their environment, and lean towards the avant-garde traditions of film-making.
6. Las Hurdes (1933)
30 min | Documentary, Short
A surrealistic documentary portrait of the region of Las Hurdes, a remote region of Spain where civilisation has barely developed, showing how the local peasants try to survive without even the most basic utilities and skills.
7. The Plow That Broke the Plains (1936)
Unrated | 25 min | Documentary, Short, Drama
This documentary is about what happened to the Great Plains of the United States when a combination of farming practices and environmental factors led to the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.
Pare Lorentz's The Plow That Broke the Plains (1936) and The River (1938) and Willard Van Dyke's The City (1939) are notable New Deal productions, each presenting complex combinations of social and ecological awareness, government propaganda, and leftist viewpoints.
8. Night Mail (1936)
25 min | Short, Documentary
Shows the special train on which mail is sorted, dropped and collected on the run, and delivered in Scotland overnight.
In Britain, a number of different filmmakers came together under John Grierson. They became known as the Documentary Film Movement and blended propaganda, information, and education with a more poetic aesthetic approach to documentary. Their work involved poets such as W. H. Auden, composers such as Benjamin Britten, and writers such as J. B. Priestley. Among the best known films of the movement are Night Mail and Coal Face.
10. Night and Fog (1956)
Not Rated | 32 min | Documentary, Short, History
The history of Nazi Germany's death camps of the Final Solution and the hellish world of dehumanization and death contained inside.
11. Primary (1960)
Not Rated | 60 min | Documentary
Cinéma vérité (or the closely related direct cinema) was dependent on some technical advances in order to exist: light, quiet and reliable cameras, and portable sync sound. Cinéma vérité and similar documentary traditions can thus be seen, in a broader perspective, as a reaction against studio-based film production constraints. Shooting on location, with smaller crews, would also happen in the French New Wave, the filmmakers taking advantage of advances in technology allowing smaller, handheld cameras and synchronized sound to film events on location as they unfolded. Although the terms are sometimes used interchangeably, there are important differences between cinéma vérité (Jean Rouch) and the North American "Direct Cinema." The directors of the movement take different viewpoints on their degree of involvement with their subjects. The fundamentals of the style include following a person during a crisis with a moving, often handheld, camera to capture more personal reactions. There are no sit-down interviews, and the shooting ratio (the amount of film shot to the finished product) is very high, often reaching 80 to one. From there, editors find and sculpt the work into a film.
The films Primary and Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment (both produced by Robert Drew) and Harlan County, USA (directed by Barbara Kopple) are frequently deemed cinéma vérité films.
13. The Sorrow and the Pity (1969)
PG | 251 min | Documentary, History, War
From 1940 to 1944, France's Vichy government collaborated with Nazi Germany. Marcel Ophüls mixes archival footage with 1969 interviews of a German officer and of collaborators and ... See full summary »
16. The Hour of the Furnaces (1968)
Unrated | 260 min | Documentary
Divided into three segments, namely 1 Neocolonialism, 2 Act for liberation, 3 Violence and liberation, the documentary lasts more than 4 hours this deals with the defense of the revolution ... See full summary »
In the 1960s and 1970s, documentary film was often conceived as a political weapon against neocolonialism and capitalism in general, especially in Latin America.
18. The Thin Blue Line (1988)
Not Rated | 101 min | Documentary, Crime, Drama
A film that successfully argued that a man was wrongly convicted for murder by a corrupt justice system in Dallas County, Texas.
Votes: 18,345 | Gross: $1.21M
The style of documentary films has expanded in the past 20 years from the cinema verité style introduced in the 1960s in which the use of portable camera and sound equipment allowed an intimate relationship between filmmaker and subject. The line blurs between documentary and narrative and some works are very personal, which mix expressive, poetic, and rhetorical elements and stresses subjectivities rather than historical materials. Historical documentaries, such as The Civil War by Ken Burns, expressed not only a distinctive voice but also a perspective and point of views. Some films such as The Thin Blue Line by Errol Morris incorporated stylized re-enactments
19. The Atomic Cafe (1982)
Not Rated | 86 min | Documentary, History
Disturbing collection of 1940s and 1950s United States government issued propaganda films designed to reassure Americans that the atomic bomb was not a threat to their safety.
The remainder of this list are considered the best documentary films ever created.
R | 85 min | Documentary
Two documentary filmmakers chronicle their time in Sonagchi, Calcutta and the relationships they developed with children of prostitutes who work the city's notorious red light district.
Votes: 13,726 | Gross: $3.41M
24. A Brief History of Time (1991)
G | 80 min | Documentary, Biography
A film about the life and work of the cosmologist, Stephen Hawking, who despite his near total paralysis, is one of the great minds of all time.
Votes: 4,328 | Gross: $2.28M
26. Buena Vista Social Club (1999)
G | 105 min | Documentary, Music
Aging Cuban musicians whose talents had been virtually forgotten following Castro's takeover of Cuba, are brought out of retirement by Ry Cooder, who travelled to Havana in order to bring the musicians together, resulting in triumphant performances of extraordinary music, and resurrecting the musicians' careers.
Votes: 14,565 | Gross: $7.00M
27. Capitalism: A Love Story (2009)
R | 127 min | Documentary, Crime, News
An examination of the social costs of corporate interests pursuing profits at the expense of the public good.
Votes: 38,256 | Gross: $14.36M
28. Capturing Reality (2008)
90 min | Documentary
From cinema-verite; pioneers Albert Maysles and Joan Churchill to maverick movie makers like Errol Morris, Werner Herzog and Nick Broomfield, the world's best documentarians reflect upon ... See full summary »
29. Capturing the Friedmans (2003)
Not Rated | 107 min | Documentary, Biography
Documentary on the Friedmans, a seemingly typical, upper-middle-class Jewish family whose world is instantly transformed when the father and his youngest son are arrested and charged with shocking and horrible crimes.
Votes: 21,128 | Gross: $3.12M
30. The Celluloid Closet (1995)
R | 102 min | Documentary, History
A documentary surveying the various Hollywood screen depictions of homosexuals and the attitudes behind them throughout the history of North American film.
Votes: 5,521 | Gross: $1.51M
35. Earth (2007)
G | 90 min | Documentary
Feature-length version of the documentary TV series Planet Earth (2006), following the migration paths of four animal families.
Votes: 13,437 | Gross: $38.05M
37. 500 Years Later (2005)
Not Rated | 106 min | Documentary
Crime, drugs, HIV/AIDS, poor education, inferiority complex, low expectation, poverty, corruption, poor health, and underdevelopment plagues people of African descent globally - Why? 500 ... See full summary »
PG-13 | 107 min | Documentary, Biography, History
Votes: 20,713 | Gross: $4.19M
40. Freakonomics (2010)
PG-13 | 85 min | Documentary
A collection of documentaries that explores the hidden side of human nature through the use of the science of economics.
Votes: 6,247 | Gross: $0.10M
44. Ghosts of Cité Soleil (2006)
85 min | Documentary, Action, Drama
In the slum of Cité Soleil, President Aristide's most loyal supporters were ruling as kings. The five major gang leaders were controlling heavily armed young men; the Chiméres. The Secret ... See full summary »
Votes: 1,694 | Gross: $0.05M
45. Les glaneurs et la glaneuse (2000)
Not Rated | 82 min | Documentary
An intimate, picaresque inquiry into French life as lived by the country's poor and its provident, as well as by the film's own director, Agnes Varda. The aesthetic, political and moral ... See full summary »
Votes: 4,388 | Gross: $0.15M
48. Grizzly Man (2005)
R | 103 min | Documentary, Biography
Votes: 45,829 | Gross: $3.17M
49. Guns, Germs, and Steel (2005– )
165 min | Documentary, History
A PBS documentary concerning Jared Diamond's theory on why there is such disparity between those who have advanced technology and those who still live primitively. He argues it is due to ... See full summary »
50. Hell House (2001)
Not Rated | 85 min | Documentary
A look at the "Hell House" performed annually in October by the youth members of Trinity Church (Assemblies of God) in Cedar Hill, Texas (a Dallas suburb) - seen by over 10,000 visitors ... See full summary »
51. Hitler, ein Film aus Deutschland (1977)
442 min | Biography, Drama
Director Hans-Jurgen Syberberg examines the rise and fall of the Third Reich in this brooding seven-hour masterpiece, which incorporates puppetry, rear-screen projection, and a Wagnerian ... See full summary »
52. Hoop Dreams (1994)
PG-13 | 170 min | Documentary, Drama, Sport
A film following the lives of two inner-city Chicago boys who struggle to become college basketball players on the road to going professional.
Votes: 21,181 | Gross: $7.83M
53. How Bruce Lee Changed the World (2009 TV Movie)
120 min | Documentary
More than just a biography, this film explores Bruce Lee's global impact to see how he has influenced all areas of popular culture including fitness, cinema, music, sport, dance, video ... See full summary »
55. An Inconvenient Truth (2006)
PG | 96 min | Documentary
Filmmaker Davis Guggenheim follows Al Gore on the lecture circuit, as the former presidential candidate campaigns to raise public awareness of the dangers of global warming and calls for immediate action to curb its destructive effects on the environment.
Votes: 74,443 | Gross: $23.81M
56. Inside Deep Throat (2005)
NC-17 | 92 min | Documentary, Biography, History
An examination of the infamous pornographic film Deep Throat (1972), covering aspects from the film's creation to its cultural impact.
Votes: 5,906 | Gross: $0.65M
58. I.O.U.S.A. (2008)
PG | 85 min | Documentary
Few are aware that America may be on the brink of a financial meltdown. I.O.U.S.A. explores the country's shocking current fiscal condition and ways to avoid a national economic disaster.
Votes: 1,778 | Gross: $0.82M
60. Koyaanisqatsi (1982)
Not Rated | 86 min | Documentary, Music
A collection of expertly photographed phenomena with no conventional plot. The footage focuses on nature, humanity and the relationship between them.
Votes: 29,787 | Gross: $1.72M
63. Mad Hot Ballroom (2005)
PG | 105 min | Documentary, Family, Music
The students of several New York City elementary schools learn ballroom dancing and compete in a city wide dance competition.
Votes: 3,218 | Gross: $8.04M
64. Man on Wire (2008)
PG-13 | 94 min | Documentary, Biography
A look at tightrope walker Philippe Petit's daring, but illegal, high-wire routine performed between New York City's World Trade Center's twin towers in 1974, what some consider, "the artistic crime of the century".
Votes: 46,525 | Gross: $2.96M
65. March of the Penguins (2005)
G | 80 min | Documentary, Family
In the Antarctic, every March since the beginning of time, the quest begins to find the perfect mate and start a family.
Votes: 51,082 | Gross: $77.44M
66. Matthew Barney: No Restraint (2006)
72 min | Documentary
How does artist Matthew Barney use 45,000 pounds of petroleum jelly, a factory whaling vessel and traditional Japanese rituals to create his latest art project? Barney plowed the waters off... See full summary »
Votes: 108 | Gross: $0.02M
69. Murderball (2005)
R | 88 min | Documentary, Sport
Quadriplegics, who play full-contact rugby in wheelchairs, overcome unimaginable obstacles to compete in the Paralympic Games in Athens, Greece.
Votes: 9,375 | Gross: $1.52M
71. Paper Clips (2004)
G | 82 min | Documentary, War
As a part of their study of the Holocaust, the children of the Whitwell, TN Middle School try to collect 6 million paper clips representing the 6 million Jews killed by the Nazis, and grows to include millions of others killed.
Votes: 1,621 | Gross: $1.10M
72. Paragraph 175 (2000)
Not Rated | 81 min | Documentary, History, Romance
Historian Klaus Müller interviews survivors of the Nazi persecution of homosexuals because of the German Penal Code of 1871, Paragraph 175.
Votes: 1,687 | Gross: $0.07M
73. Paris Is Burning (1990)
R | 71 min | Documentary
A chronicle of New York's drag scene in the 1980s, focusing on balls, voguing and the ambitions and dreams of those who gave the era its warmth and vitality.
Votes: 6,631 | Gross: $3.78M
74. Planet Earth (2006)
TV-G | 533 min | Documentary
Emmy Award-winning, 11 episodes, five years in the making, the most expensive nature documentary series ever commissioned by the BBC, and the first to be filmed in high definition.
75. Powaqqatsi (1988)
G | 99 min | Documentary, Music
An exploration of technologically developing nations and the effect the transition to Western-style modernization has had on them.
Votes: 6,704 | Gross: $0.59M
76. Restrepo (2010)
R | 93 min | Documentary, War
A year with one platoon in the deadliest valley in Afghanistan.
Directors: Tim Hetherington, Sebastian Junger | Stars: The Men of Battle Company 2nd of the 503rd Infantry Regiment 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, Juan 'Doc Restrepo, Dan Kearney, LaMonta Caldwell
Votes: 19,223 | Gross: $1.33M
80. Salesman (1969)
G | 85 min | Documentary, Drama
Four relentless door-to-door salesmen deal with constant rejection, homesickness and inevitable burnout as they go across the country selling very expensive bibles to low-income Catholic families.
83. Shoah (1985)
Not Rated | 566 min | Documentary, History, War
Claude Lanzmann's epic documentary recounts the story of the Holocaust through interviews with witnesses - perpetrators as well as survivors.
Votes: 6,871 | Gross: $0.02M
84. Sicko (2007)
PG-13 | 123 min | Documentary, Drama
A documentary comparing the highly profitable American health care industry to other nations, and HMO horror stories including shotgun deaths.
Votes: 69,913 | Gross: $24.54M
85. Le monde du silence (1956)
86 min | Documentary
This pioneering nature documentary investigates aquatic habitats in various locations around the world. It doesn't shy away from the brutality present in the natural world, but it also ... See full summary »
88. Super Size Me (2004)
PG | 100 min | Documentary, Comedy, Drama
While examining the influence of the fast food industry, Morgan Spurlock personally explores the consequences on his health of a diet of solely McDonald's food for one month.
Votes: 92,091 | Gross: $11.53M
90. This Is It (2009)
PG | 111 min | Documentary, Music
A compilation of interviews, rehearsals and backstage footage of Michael Jackson as he prepared for his series of sold-out shows in London.
Votes: 35,086 | Gross: $72.09M
91. The Times of Harvey Milk (1984)
Not Rated | 90 min | Documentary, Biography, History
A documentary of the successful career and assassination of San Francisco's first elected gay councilor.
Votes: 4,954 | Gross: $0.01M
92. Trekkies (1997)
PG | 86 min | Documentary
Denice Crosby takes a first look at the huge fans of Star Trek and how the series from around America has affected and shaped their lives.
Votes: 4,560 | Gross: $0.32M
93. Touching the Void (2003)
R | 106 min | Documentary, Adventure, Drama
The true story of two climbers and their perilous journey up the west face of Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes in 1985.
Votes: 29,665 | Gross: $4.58M
98. Wasteland (2010)
88 min | Comedy, Drama
Phil, an unemployed bong connoisseur (Keiran King), wakes up to find his laid-back life thrown into chaos and confusion by the actions of his mate, Nick (Michael Bruce Williams), a small ... See full summary »