Whether Jack Nicholson thinks we can handle it or not, sometimes we just want the truth. We’re not looking for super heroes, sequels, special effects, or disposable rom-coms, we just want real life on film. And that is when we turn to the documentary. Of course not all documentaries swear to tell the whole truth—this is still entertainment. But the great ones stay close to the facts while doing more than just educating you; they motivate you. They motivate you to learn more, or change your worldview, or possibly even take action.
Usually a documentary is only as good as its subject matter, but we’ve learned that sometimes, in the hands of a skilled director, even topics that seem PBS pledge drive-dull can be turned into showstoppers. In making this list, we decided to focus mostly on films that saw a release in theaters. Unfortunately, that meant leaving off such gems as Planet Earth, 9/11, The World at War, everything from ESPN’s 30 for 30 series, and The Civil War, along with the other accomplished works from Ken Burns. Oh, and spoiler alert: Katy Perry: Part of Me did not make the cut. Let’s leave fiction on the backburner for the moment, shall we? Here is our list of the 50 best documentary films of all time, in no particular order.
When We Were Kings
Director: Leon Gast
Purchase: Amazon DVD
The infamous “Rumble in the Jungle,” the landmark 1974 slugfest between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in Zaire, gets a definitive examination here by director Leon Gast. The best boxing documentary of all time, and perhaps the best sports documentary too, When We Were Kings captures all of the hype, culture, and politics involved with the fight, as well as a mesmerizing look at the man called “The Greatest.”
The Fog of War
How interesting could a movie be that’s all about one man? In this case, incredibly. The core of the film is an arresting interview with former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, who served under Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, and played a key role in the U.S. getting tragically deeper into the Vietnam War. Clearly humbled by his role in a conflict that killed far too many people, the 85-year-old dispenses 11 lessons learned, resulting in a fascinating, disturbing, and heartbreaking history lesson.
The Thin Blue Line
While making a traffic stop on two men in a car, a Dallas police officer is shot and killed. An arrest is made of one suspect, Randall Adams. A jury convicts him and he’s sentenced to death. But wait… did Adams really pull the trigger? Spoiler alert: Nope. And it was The Thin Blue Line that actually got him off. It’s an amazing true story and proof that movies can be powerful instruments for change.
You might not expect much suspense when sitting down for a documentary, but The Cove provides tense thrills and so much more. This Academy Award-winner looks at the dolphin hunting industry in Japan, with conservationists sneaking into a hidden cove with video cameras to capture the horrific footage. It certainly doesn’t claim to be an unbiased look at whaling, but it’s an undoubtedly convincing depiction of the brutality and cruelty that goes along with it.
To say watching Food Inc. is life-changing is not hyperbole. If you’ve never given much thought as to how that chicken sandwich wound up on your plate, you need to set aside 94 minutes for Robert Kenner’s hard-hitting expose of the U.S. food industry. It will make you question the food you put in your body, and the shoddy and shady ethics of getting it there.
Bowling for Columbine
Michael Moore infuriates conservatives, and probably annoys a lot of moderates as well, but few documentary filmmakers have had the impact he has. Bowling for Columbine takes America’s gun culture to task while examining the massacre at Columbine High School in 1999. Moore’s interviews with Charlton Heston and Dick Clark are weak points, but the film is a powerful and sobering look at the very real issue of gun violence.
You are a bird in this amazing nature documentary. No, you’re not regurgitating worms to your children, but the fun part, flying, is captured here like no other film has. Filmed over four years on all seven continents, Winged Migration features spectacular in-flight footage of our feathered friends, thanks to the use of tamed birds who had no problem flying alongside airborne film crews.
Director: Claude Lanzmann
Purchase: Amazon DVD
Perhaps the definitive oral history of the Holocaust on film, Shoah features more than nine hours of first-hand remembrances from survivors and even perpetrators. Director Claude Lanzmann shot more than 350 hours of footage, and his unwavering dedication to documenting one of man’s greatest horrors shows. Very difficult to sit through, but extremely comprehensive and compelling.
Nanook of the North
Director: Robert J. Flaherty
Purchase: Amazon DVD
We’re going back to 1922 for this one, as Nanook of the North is considered the first full-length film to plant its flag in nonfiction territory. Living among the Eskimos in Canadian Arctic, Robert J. Flaherty set about the task of documenting their daily lives, training his lens on one particular man, Nanook, and his family as they search for grub and trade. Although some of the film is clearly staged for the cameras, we’re gonna cut Flaherty some slack here, since it was 1922 and all.
20 Feet From Stardom
Does your dad like music? We just found you his Father’s Day gift. 20 Feet From Stardom lets the unsung heroes of the music – the background singers – finally sing in the spotlight. Legends like Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, and Mick Jagger are interviewed here, but for once, they’re not the stars. Instead it’s the deserving and ultra-talented yet perpetually nameless women (and some men) who’ve provided so many of the great harmonies and hit records over the years.
Director: Ira Wohl
Purchase: Amazon DVD
Director Ira Wohl turns the camera on his own family for this immensely personal and moving look at the life of a 52-year-old mentally handicapped man named Philly. The challenges of living with Philly and making sure that he’s cared for after his parents are gone are explored in a very up-close fashion, extracting plenty of empathy from even the most callous viewer.
Krumping may not have crossed over fully into American pop culture, but it doesn’t matter. This look at look at the underground dance scene in L.A. features some of the most mind-blowing footage we’ve ever laid our peepers on, with bodies popping and shaking like the inside of a bag of Orville Redenbacher’s. The dancing alone makes this film great, but the surprising mist we found in our eyes at the end when seeing how this community deals with tragedy, turns Rize into something special.
Baraka is an absolute feast for the eyes. And it’s a good thing too, because there is absolutely no dialogue or narration whatsoever in this 96-minute masterpiece. With jaw-dropping photography of people and places in 24 different countries, director Ron Fricke expertly works the camera and lets the subjects themselves define the film. And for the tech heads out there pumped up about 4K video, check this: Baraka is the first film ever to be restored and scanned at 8K resolution.
Timothy Treadwell loved grizzly bears. After making numerous trips to a national park in Alaska, he believed he and the bears had an understanding. A connection. He was fatally wrong. This fascinating look at Treadwell and the bizarre life he led features his own footage, often with him ranting in front of the camera with bears walk behind him. Daring, delusional, and poignant, Grizzly Man is unforgettable for sure.
The level of danger, dedication, and despair involved for U.S. troops with the war in Afghanistan is bravely captured on film here by Sebastian Junger and the late Tim Hetherington. They follow the 2nd Platoon of Battle Company on a 15-month deployment in the Korengal Valley, billed as the “deadliest place on Earth.” We get to meet and know the soldiers, which only makes the firefights that much more tense, and the deaths that much more of a gut punch.
Harlan County, USA
Perhaps the greatest documentary film about labor disputes and class warfare, Harlan County, USA sides firmly with the Kentucky coal miners in their 13-month strike against Duke Power Company. The footage is raw and intense, and it eventually gets violent. It’s another testament to the power of the video camera.
Lake of Fire
Hot button topics don’t come much hotter than abortion, and Lake of Fire dives into the fray headfirst with its graphic footage, hyped up supporters and opponents, and deeply personal stories. Director Tony Kaye (American History X…yeah, dude likes to work light, eh?) spent 15 years on the film, and it shows. Impartial, but immensely unsettling.
The Last Waltz
Director: Martin Scorcese
Purchase: Amazon DVD
Are you ready to rock? Actually, lets strike that cliché from the record, because Martin Scorcese’s film detailing the final concert by The Band is too good for that. Even if you’re not familiar with The Band, seeing legends like Bob Dylan, Muddy Waters, Van Morrison, Ringo Starr, Neil Young, Eric Clapton, and more at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco makes for unforgettable rock history.
Cartoonist Robert Crumb seems like a character straight out of Napoleon Dynamite, but no, he’s quite real, and this is a fascinating look at the man and his seriously strange family. Nine years in the making and painfully honest and personal, Crumb shows us how sometimes a life of misery can lead to masterful art.
One Day in September
The 1972 Olympic Games in Munich will forever be remembered for the shocking murders of 11 Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists. This film not only delves into the incident itself, but also takes German and IOC officials to task for their handling of the hostage situation, as well as the release of three suspects after a hijacking less than two months later. Narrated by Michael Douglas, this Oscar winner also features an interview with one of the terrorists.
Even if you think socialized medicine is evil and health care should be left to fend for itself in the arena of capitalism, you can’t deny the U.S. system has sucked for years. A $3,000 bill for a quick trip to the ER? No thanks. Moore roasts the insurance companies, lobbyists, politicians, and pharmaceutical companies responsible, and even if he offers more style than substance at times, the message is lid and clear.
Man on Wire
Man on Wire already starts with a great subject, high-wire artist Philippe Petit, then ups the ante by turning the tale of his death-defying walk across the World Trade Center towers into a suspenseful caper-like flick, as Petit and his crew try to pull off the stunt without security catching them. Tense and quite wow-worthy.
Should killer whales be kept in captivity? Blackfish makes a pretty damn good case against it. Centering on the 2010 death of Sea World Orlando trainer Dawn Brancheau, along with Tilikum, the orca behind her death, Blackfish rakes the marine park over the coals, with a handful of ex-Sea World employees blasting the practices involved with putting on daily Shamu shows.
Super Size Me
If you need proof that Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me had a double quarter pounder-sized impact on the fast food industry, just try tossing that classic 90s phrase out at a McDonald’s drive-thru today. Mickey D’s coincidentally began phasing out the jumbo-sized option right around the time the movie hit. Spurlock gorges himself on burgers and shakes for 30 days, entertaining us as his body displays the damaging effects. You’ll never want a salad as much as after watching this.
Anne Frank Remembered
The story of Anne Frank is well-known, but this Academy Award Winner stands out for having the only known moving footage of the girl who hid from the Nazis for years in Amsterdam. Real life hero Miep Gies, who helped shelter the Frank family and saved Anne’s diary, shares her remarkable story as well.
Take your Bonaroos and your Lollapaloozas and your what have yous and put them all together, and they still can’t match the footprint that Woodstock left in 1969. The movie about the most famous concert of all time digs deep into the music, the movement, the mud—you name it. Performances by The Who, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Joe Cocker and more make this one film that every music buff should have in his or her collection.
The NBA aspirations and inner city struggles of two Chicago high school students are chronicled in detail here, serving as a painful reminder of the dreams that many young men discard along the way. You’ll find yourself rooting for the film’s real life subjects – Arthur Agee and William Gates – just as hard as for any pro athlete. The questions you’re left with about class, race, and education will stay you with much longer than any postgame interview.
The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters
Donkey Kong. Somebody made a movie about guys who play Donkey Kong. And here’s the kicker: It’s great. Director Seth Gordon follows Steve Wiebe as he obsessively tries to grab the world high score from reigning champ Billy Mitchell, and it makes for a surprisingly compelling piece of real life drama. If you’ve ever grinded away at a video game to get the high score, you need to see this.
Even if you don’t care about auto racing, Senna is a must-see film, and that goes double for sports fans. Formula 1 champion Ayrton Senna is the focus here, and he makes for a fascinating and ultimately tragic subject, what with his fierce competitive streak, cult-like following in Brazil, and intense rivalry with fellow driver Alain Prost.
If you’ve ever thought about going vegan or banning circuses from your list of entertainment options, Earthlings will surely put you over the edge. Narrated by Joaquin Phoenix, this disturbing look at man’s dominant and often abusive relationship with animals features hidden camera footage that will turn even the most macho of stomachs and quite possibly raise one’s empathy for the multitude of species we share the planet with.
The Tillman Story
What Pat Tillman did, selflessly giving up his career in the NFL to join the Army, wowed the nation. When word got out that he was killed in action in Afghanistan, his heroic story went from newsworthy to legendary. Then the truth came out. A powerful and eye-opening look one family’s fight for truth against the government and military, The Tillman Story will rightly make you think hard about questioning authority.
Beyond the Mat
Director: Barry W. Blaustein
Purchase: Amazon DVD
Professional wrestlers are people too. That point is made abundantly clear in this look at the outside-of-the-ring side of sports entertainment, namely the WWF (it wasn’t the WWE yet back then) and Extreme Championship Wrestling. Mick Foley, Terry Funk, and Jake “The Snake” Roberts get the bulk of the screen time, and their real-life stories range from surprising to downright depressing.
Hearts and Minds
Director: Peter Davis
Purchase: Amazon DVD
If you believe the Vietnam War was a disastrous and tragic mistake, Hearts and Minds might be your Exhibit A. Director Peter Davis uses news clips, interviews, and other collected footage to make his case, and though he’s clearly not interested in telling a balanced story, even the most pro-war patriot has to be humbled by this 1974 Academy Award winner.
Like Planet of the Apes? You need to see Project Nim. This fascinating, funny, and inevitably tear-jerking story centers on a chimp named Nim, who was the subject of a study to see if an ape could learn to communicate with sign language if raised as a human child. The talented director, James Marsh, also handled Man on Wire.
Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse
Director: Fax Bahr, George Hickenlooper, Eleanor Coppola
Purchase: Amazon DVD
Perhaps the ultimate “special feature” any movie has ever had to accompany it. This intimate behind-the-scenes look at the making of Apocalypse Now reveals a cache of rare footage, showing just how chaotic and insane the whole process was. Required viewing for anyone who’s ever tried to make a movie or wants to.
Understated, offbeat, and funny, Sherman’s March was supposed to be about the effects of Civil War General William Tecumseh Sherman’s fiery path he cut through the Carolinas and Georgia. Instead, the film does a total 180 and focuses instead on the women in director Ross McElwee’s life. That kind of WTF mentality, and the skill with which McElwee pulls it off, has made this a cult classic.
An Inconvenient Truth
The term “global warming” has been around since the mid-1970s, but in 2006, An Inconvenient Truth took the discussion to new heights. Former Vice President Al Gore sounds the alarm about the Earth’s worsening climate change in this convincing call to action. Even though the issue and the messenger still have a large amount of skeptics and critics, the timing of the film (less than a year after Hurricane Katrina) forced millions of people to reconsider man’s impact on climate change.
March of the Penguins
Morgan Freeman could read the ingredients for Chex Mix – repeatedly – for 90 minutes and you’d still have a decent movie. So when he puts his seasoned voice behind an amazing nature story that plays out every year in Antarctica, you know you’ve got gold. Watching Emperor penguins and the fascinating lengths they go to make whoopee results in a cuteness overload.
Wanna see a scary movie that’s actually real? Cropsey delivers an excellent mix of chills and disturbing truths while examining both an urban legend and real-life child kidnapper. The second half of the film boils down to much more of a typical documentary formula, but by that time you’re engrossed in the story it hardly matters.
Man with a Movie Camera
Simple title, simple movie. It’s basically just director Dziga Vtov’s take on one day of life in the Soviet Union. But when you consider this was 1929, and that it helped usher in a host new filmmaking techniques like jump cuts and tracking shots, you can see why the respect is due.
Exit Through the Gift Shop
Street artist Banksy is behind the lens for this possibly real and possibly phony look at Thierry Guetta, a French thrift shop owner living in Los Angeles. Guetta starts filming his cousin, another street artist, and then the trail leads to Banksy himself. The results make for a uniquely compelling and comical mix.
You can make a strong case that the cultural phenomenon that is hip-hop, all started with the DJ. Scratch does an excellent job of telling the history of the men behind the ones and twos, as well as showcasing some insane cutting and scratching performances from a newer generation of turntablists.
No End in Sight
Before it took place, the invasion of Iraq was framed to the American people as a quick and decisive mission to bring a ruthless dictator to justice and get rid of his weapons of mass destruction. This would not be the case. No End in Sight is a level-headed but no less lethal takedown of the Bush administration’s planning and execution of the war, serving as perhaps the definitive film on how we went from “Mission Accomplished” to a conflict that lasted almost three years longer than World War II.
Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room
Sleaze doesn’t always come oozing out of the gutter–sometimes it’s wearing a three-piece suit. Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room examines one of the most heinous examples of corporate corruption and crime in American history, and director Alex Gibney skillfully does so by taking some pretty complex financial issues and breaking them down into meaty morsels that would be easy to digest if they weren’t so sickening. Prepare to be pissed.
Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer
As wretched as serial killers are, there is still something fascinating about them. And when that killer is a woman, one can’t help but wonder what makes her tick. This intimate and disturbing look at Aileen Wuornos, the woman who killed seven men in Florida in 1989 and 1990, is impossible to turn away from. Multiple interviews with Wuornos are featured as director Nick Broomfield probes her mind in the days leading up to her execution.
Raking in some $119 million, Fahrenheit 9/11 is far and away the most successful documentary film of all time. Of course, Justin Bieber: Never Say Never is third on that list, so, ya know. But still, this film is a brutal takedown of President George W. Bush and the Iraq War. While its impact wasn’t big enough to keep Bush from getting reelected, the number of Moore-bashing movies it inspired speaks volumes about its effectiveness.
Capturing the Friedmans
The Friedmans appeared to your typical middle-class family from Long Island, until Arnold Friedman and one of his sons were charged with multiple counts of child molestation. Despite this upheaval, the family continued to document their lives by taking home movies. A compelling look at a disturbingly dysfunctional family.
Who lit the fuse to the financial crisis bomb that exploded in 2008? It’s a long list. Inside Job aims much of its firepower at the Wall Street goons who played (or still play) fast and loose with much of America’s money, but politicians on both aisles also get their fair share of blame. Complex, but comprehensive and very important.
Waiting for Superman
America’s public education system gets the red pen treatment here in Davis Guggenheim’s (An Inconvenient Truth) look at young students hoping to get into a charter school. No real answers to the problems are given, but seeing it all through the eyes of the children affected is powerful stuff.
For about 20 years, it seemed like every college freshman was somehow given a copy of Legend, the Bob Marley greatest hits CD. Where they got them from, we don’t know. But now in the age of the Mp3, perhaps we can give them a copy of this film on Blu-ray. Marley is the defining look at one of the most iconic and charismatic performers of all time.
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