The 50 Most Important Documentaries + 2 Movies

by Harry-Hood | created - 09 Nov 2011 | updated - 14 Mar 2012 | Public

Required viewing for humans who care, or want to learn more, about the world around them.

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1. 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.

Stars: David Attenborough, Sigourney Weaver, Huw Cordey, Doug Allan

Votes: 138,332

2. Trinity and Beyond: The Atomic Bomb Movie (1995 Video)

Not Rated | 92 min | Documentary, History

A documentary presenting mankind's most ambitious effort at perfecting the means to its own annihilation. Featuring newly unclassified atomic test footage.

Director: Peter Kuran | Stars: William Shatner, Edward Teller, W.H.P. Blandy, Frank H. Shelton

Votes: 3,022

3. The National Parks: America's Best Idea (2009)

120 min | Documentary, History

The history of the U.S. National Parks system, including the initial ideas which led to the world's first national parks and the expansion of the system over 150 years.

Stars: Peter Coyote, William Cronon, Dayton Duncan, Shelton Johnson

Votes: 1,228

4. The Town That Was (2007)

TV-G | 71 min | Documentary

Portrait of John Lokitis, the youngest of 11 remaining residents of Centralia, Pennsylvania, a town destroyed by an underground mine fire.

Directors: Chris Perkel, Georgie Roland | Stars: John Lokitis, John Coddington, David DeKok, Todd Domboski

Votes: 226

5. Countdown to Zero (2010)

PG | 91 min | Documentary

70 Metascore

A documentary about how the likelihood of nuclear weapons (or fissile materials) usage has increased due to the rise of terrorism and lack of safeguards and verification.

Director: Lucy Walker | Stars: Graham Allison, James Baker III, Bruce Blair, Tony Blair

Votes: 2,060 | Gross: $0.27M

6. The Last Mountain (2011)

PG | 95 min | Documentary

62 Metascore

A coal mining corporation and a tiny community vie for the last great mountain in Appalachia in a battle for the future of energy that affects us all.

Director: Bill Haney | Stars: Susan Bird, Don Blankenship, Ron Burris, Barbara Bush

Votes: 259 | Gross: $0.12M

If your water tastes funny and you live on the East Coast of the U.S., this documentary may explain why.

7. Erin Brockovich (2000)

R | 131 min | Biography, Drama

73 Metascore

An unemployed single mother becomes a legal assistant and almost single-handedly brings down a California power company accused of polluting a city's water supply.

Director: Steven Soderbergh | Stars: Julia Roberts, Albert Finney, David Brisbin, Dawn Didawick

Votes: 153,677 | Gross: $125.60M

If you live on the West Coast, well, you get the idea.

8. Why We Fight (2005)

PG-13 | 98 min | Documentary, History, War

68 Metascore

Is American foreign policy dominated by the idea of military supremacy? Has the military become too important in American life? Jarecki's shrewd and intelligent polemic would seem to give an affirmative answer to each of these questions.

Director: Eugene Jarecki | Stars: Gore Vidal, John McCain, Ken Adelman, John Ashcroft

Votes: 9,456 | Gross: $1.44M

A fresh perspective on the "founding fathers", without the mythology.

10. Nukes in Space (1999 Video)

53 min | Documentary, History

U.S. nuclear tests in space, and the development of the military intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).

Director: Peter Kuran | Stars: Raymond Garthoff, Bernard Lovell, Bernard Schriever, William Shatner

Votes: 240

11. An Inconvenient Truth (2006)

PG | 96 min | Documentary

75 Metascore

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.

Director: Davis Guggenheim | Stars: Al Gore, Billy West, George Bush, George W. Bush

Votes: 75,997 | Gross: $23.81M

12. Inside Job (2010)

PG-13 | 109 min | Documentary, Crime

88 Metascore

Takes a closer look at what brought about the 2008 financial meltdown.

Director: Charles Ferguson | Stars: Matt Damon, Gylfi Zoega, Andri Snær Magnason, Sigridur Benediktsdottir

Votes: 64,004 | Gross: $4.31M

13. Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005)

Not Rated | 110 min | Documentary

A documentary about the Enron corporation, its faulty and corrupt business practices, and how they led to its fall.

Director: Alex Gibney | Stars: John Beard, Tim Belden, Barbara Boxer, George W. Bush

Votes: 14,837

14. Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism (2004)

Unrated | 78 min | Documentary

58 Metascore

Documentary on reported Conservative bias of the Rupert Murdoch-owned Fox News Channel (FNC), which promotes itself as "Fair and Balanced". Material includes interviews with former FNC employees and the inter-office memos they provided.

Director: Robert Greenwald | Stars: Douglas Cheek, Walter Cronkite, Roger Ailes, Eric Alterman

Votes: 5,993 | Gross: $0.24M

15. 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 »

Stars: Peter Coyote, Jared Diamond

Votes: 1,005

Answers the question, "Why are some countries or cultures more wealthy than others?" Pulitzer-winning book is must-read.

16. Collapse: Based on the Book by Jared Diamond (2010 TV Movie)

Documentary

National Geographic follows a hypothetical team of scientists in the year 2210 as they set out to learn what led to the collapse of our present day society in this theoretical look into the future.

Director: Noel Dockstader | Stars: Ricardo Agurcia, Jared Diamond, Jamie Effros, Daniel Gilbert

Votes: 123

17. National Geographic Explorer (1985– )
Episode: Easter Island Underworld (2009)

TV-PG | 45 min | Documentary, History

Deep beneath the legendary Easter Island, National Geographic undertakes a groundbreaking expedition to map a vast cave system utilized by the people who carved these iconic statues. ... See full summary »

Director: Geoffrey Luck | Star: Peter Coyote

Votes: 23

A clear explanation of what went wrong. (Deforestation = only one of many problems.) After all, we don't want to mimic their downfall, right?

18. Hubble 3D (2010)

G | 44 min | Documentary

79 Metascore

An IMAX 3D camera chronicles the effort of 7 astronauts aboard the Space Shuttle Atlantis to repair the Hubble Space Telescope.

Director: Toni Myers | Stars: Leonardo DiCaprio, Scott D. Altman, Megan McArthur, Andrew J. Feustel

Votes: 3,870 | Gross: $52.34M

The last 10 minutes exemplifies "mind-blowing" visuals. Makes the question mute, "Why should we study the heavens?"

19. The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara (2003)

PG-13 | 107 min | Documentary, Biography, History

87 Metascore

The story of America as seen through the eyes of the former Secretary of Defense under President John F. Kennedy and President Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara.

Director: Errol Morris | Stars: Robert McNamara, John F. Kennedy, Fidel Castro, Richard Nixon

Votes: 21,122 | Gross: $4.19M

20. War Photographer (2001)

96 min | Documentary, War

79 Metascore

Documentary about war photographer James Nachtwey, considered by many the greatest war photographer ever.

Director: Christian Frei | Stars: James Nachtwey, Christiane Amanpour, Hans-Hermann Klare, Christiane Breustedt

Votes: 3,636

21. The Corporation (2003)

Not Rated | 145 min | Documentary, History

73 Metascore

Documentary that looks at the concept of the corporation throughout recent history up to its present-day dominance.

Directors: Mark Achbar, Jennifer Abbott | Stars: Mikela Jay, Rob Beckwermert, Christopher Gora, Nina Jones

Votes: 19,389 | Gross: $1.88M

22. Sicko (2007)

PG-13 | 123 min | Documentary, Drama

74 Metascore

A documentary comparing the highly profitable American health care industry to other nations, and HMO horror stories including shotgun deaths.

Director: Michael Moore | Stars: Michael Moore, Tucker Albrizzi, Tony Benn, George W. Bush

Votes: 70,771 | Gross: $24.54M

23. 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.

Stars: David Attenborough, Sigourney Weaver, Huw Cordey, Doug Allan

Votes: 138,332

24. Into Eternity: A Film for the Future (2010)

75 min | Documentary

68 Metascore

A documentary on the safety of nuclear storage.

Director: Michael Madsen | Stars: Carl Reinhold Bråkenhjelm, Mikael Jensen, Berit Lundqvist, Michael Madsen

Votes: 2,638 | Gross: $0.06M

25. Home (I) (2009)

Not Rated | 120 min | Documentary, Drama, Family

47 Metascore

With aerial footage from fifty-four countries, 'Home' is a depiction of how Earth's problems are all interlinked.

Director: Yann Arthus-Bertrand | Stars: Yann Arthus-Bertrand, Glenn Close, Jacques Gamblin

Votes: 20,141

26. 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.

Director: Godfrey Reggio | Stars: Christie Brinkley, David Brinkley, Pope John Paul II, Dan Rather

Votes: 6,900 | Gross: $0.59M

27. 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.

Director: Godfrey Reggio | Stars: Lou Dobbs, Ted Koppel

Votes: 30,864 | Gross: $1.72M

28. Nuclear Rescue 911: Broken Arrows & Incidents (2001 Video)

Not Rated | 53 min | Documentary

Since 1950, there have been 32 nuclear weapon accidents, known as "Broken Arrows." A Broken Arrow is defined as an unexpected event involving nuclear weapons that result in the accidental ... See full summary »

Director: Peter Kuran | Star: Adam West

Votes: 107

29. Atomic Journeys: Welcome to Ground Zero (1999 Video)

TV-PG | 52 min | Documentary, History

A tour of U.S. atomic test sites in Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado, Mississippi, and Alaska.

Director: Peter Kuran | Stars: Peter Merlin, William Shatner

Votes: 234

30. The Thin Blue Line (1988)

Not Rated | 101 min | Documentary, Crime, Drama

79 Metascore

A film that successfully argued that a man was wrongly convicted for murder by a corrupt justice system in Dallas County, Texas.

Director: Errol Morris | Stars: Randall Adams, David Harris, Gus Rose, Jackie Johnson

Votes: 19,216 | Gross: $1.21M

31. W. (I) (2008)

PG-13 | 129 min | Biography, Drama, History

56 Metascore

A chronicle of the life and Presidency of George W. Bush.

Director: Oliver Stone | Stars: Josh Brolin, Elizabeth Banks, Ioan Gruffudd, Colin Hanks

Votes: 43,615 | Gross: $25.53M

A dramatic account of why voters should check the work history of a person before voting. (Must-see for all Americans & democracies.)

32. Super Size Me (2004)

PG | 100 min | Documentary, Comedy, Drama

73 Metascore

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.

Director: Morgan Spurlock | Stars: Morgan Spurlock, Daryl Isaacs, Chemeeka Walker, Dania Abu-Rmaileh

Votes: 93,902 | Gross: $11.53M

33. Capitalism: A Love Story (2009)

R | 127 min | Documentary, Crime, News

61 Metascore

An examination of the social costs of corporate interests pursuing profits at the expense of the public good.

Director: Michael Moore | Stars: Michael Moore, William Black, Jimmy Carter, Elijah Cummings

Votes: 39,064 | Gross: $14.36M

34. Freakonomics (2010)

PG-13 | 85 min | Documentary

58 Metascore

A collection of documentaries that explores the hidden side of human nature through the use of the science of economics.

Directors: Heidi Ewing, Alex Gibney, Seth Gordon, Rachel Grady, Eugene Jarecki, Morgan Spurlock | Stars: James Ransone, Tempestt Bledsoe, Melvin Van Peebles, Morgan Spurlock

Votes: 6,384 | Gross: $0.10M

35. Who Killed the Electric Car? (2006)

PG | 92 min | Documentary

70 Metascore

A documentary that investigates the birth and death of the electric car, as well as the role of renewable energy and sustainable living in the future.

Director: Chris Paine | Stars: Martin Sheen, Tom Hanks, Mel Gibson, Reverend Gadget

Votes: 11,761 | Gross: $1.68M

36. Revenge of the Electric Car (2011)

PG-13 | 90 min | Documentary

63 Metascore

Director Chris Paine takes his film crew behind the closed doors of Nissan, GM, and the Silicon Valley start-up Tesla Motors to chronicle the story of the global resurgence of electric cars.

Director: Chris Paine | Stars: Tim Robbins, Dan Neil, Danny DeVito, Ray Wert

Votes: 1,652 | Gross: $0.15M

37. Earthlings (2005)

95 min | Documentary, Horror

Using hidden cameras and never-before-seen footage, Earthlings chronicles the day-to-day practices of the largest industries in the world, all of which rely entirely on animals for profit.

Director: Shaun Monson | Star: Joaquin Phoenix

Votes: 15,575

You might not look at the South Pacific the same again.

39. Wild Pacific (2009– )

353 min | Documentary

A documentary series on life in and adapted to the conditions of the Southern part of the Pacific Ocean, a vast aquatic region with an unequaled number of islands. Both wildlife and human ... See full summary »

Stars: Benedict Cumberbatch, Mike Rowe, Richard Wollocombe, Mark Brownlow

Votes: 2,004

The most relaxing title to watch on this list. Still brings a solid eco-friendly message.

This TV movie adaptation is not as good as "Myths and the Moundbuilders". IMDB does not list that, but it's worth checking out (local library, internet, etc). Look for that doc, which covers as aspect of Native American history I never learned in an American school.

42. The American Nightmare (2000)

Not Rated | 73 min | Documentary, Horror

An examination into the nature of 1960s-'70s horror films, the artists involved, and how they reflected contemporary society.

Director: Adam Simon | Stars: George A. Romero, John Carpenter, Tom Savini, David Cronenberg

Votes: 1,723

If you didn't know that many horror films are social commentary, this might interest you.

43. Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory (2011)

Not Rated | 121 min | Documentary, Crime

85 Metascore

A further followup of the case of the West Memphis Three and the decades long fight to exonerate them that finally gained traction with new DNA evidence.

Directors: Joe Berlinger, Bruce Sinofsky | Stars: Gary Gitchell, Todd Moore, Dana Moore, Pam Hobbs

Votes: 7,945

44. Cosmos (1980)

TV-PG | 60 min | Documentary

Astronomer Carl Sagan leads us on an engaging guided tour of the various elements and cosmological theories of the universe.

Stars: Carl Sagan, Jaromír Hanzlík, Jonathan Fahn, Alan Belod

Votes: 29,197

The most highly-regarded astronomy doco. For more current scientific discoveries, I recommend the next two series, "Through the Wormhole" and "The Universe".

45. Through the Wormhole (2010–2017)

TV-PG | 60 min | Documentary

Hosted by Morgan Freeman, Through the Wormhole will explore the deepest mysteries of existence - the questions that have puzzled mankind for eternity. What are we made of? What was there ... See full summary »

Stars: Morgan Freeman, Sean Carroll, Michio Kaku, Carlos Frenk

Votes: 15,276

46. The Universe (2007– )

45 min | Documentary, History

This educational show explores many scientific questions and topics about the universe (Big Bang, the Sun, the planets, black holes, other galaxies, astrobiology etc.) through latest CGI, data and interviews with scientists.

Stars: Erik Thompson, Alex Filippenko, Laura Danly, Clifford V. Johnson

Votes: 4,534

47. Nova (1974– )

TV-PG | Documentary, Biography

Science documentaries about various topics.

Stars: Jay O. Sanders, Craig Sechler, Lance Lewman, Will Lyman

Votes: 1,829

Long-running series on PBS, which covers many "breaking news" stories from the science world.

48. Horizon (1964– )

50 min | Documentary

British documentary series that covers a variety of subjects in science and philosophy.

Stars: Paul Vaughan, Jack Fortune, Dilly Barlow, Martin Jarvis

Votes: 850

Another great series, from BBC this time, that helpfully explains the weird world around us.

49. Dark Matters: Twisted But True (2011– )

30 min | Documentary, Horror, Sci-Fi

Delves into the most unusual research ever conducted, including attempts to crossbreed humans and apes, actual zombie investigations and head transplantation studies. Cutting-edge CGI ... See full summary »

Stars: John Noble, James S. Ottaviani, Sean Montgomery, David Maiullo

Votes: 761

Tongue-in-cheek, yet intriguing, TV series about 'true' conspiracies.

50. I Shouldn't Be Alive (2005– )

TV-PG | 60 min | Documentary, Biography, Drama

8.1