The Greatest Documentaries of All Time

Originally By 10k votes 1k voters 100k views 392 items tags f p @

List Criteria: Only documentary films - no mockumentaries


List of the best documentary movies of all time, as rated by the Ranker Community. Non-fiction films, or documentaries, were the original form of movie-making, in which a camera was used to simply capture real moments of life being lived. The very ability to record and later show an audience an event was itself a form of entertainment (though these films were called "actuality" films, not documentaries, at first.)

Educational and travel-themed films were also popular during the early days of cinema and the dawn of the 20th Century. Often, faraway lands such as Asia and Africa would be recorded and romanticized for Western European and American audiences.

The 1922 documentary film "Nanook of the North" is still widely viewed today, and is partially credited for introducing the concept of a 'narrative structure' to a non-fiction film. Robert Flaherty was filming 'real' subjects in their environment, but also was staging scenes with them to work better on camera and even building sets that would look better than the actual igloos in which his subjects lived.

Documentary films have also had a central importance in propaganda and politics. Leni Riefenstahl's notorious films on behalf of the German Nazi Party - particularly 1935's "Triumph of the Will" - have remained a startling reminder of the power of film as a medium to enthrall and influence a suggestive audience. Even modern documentaries are still often focused on community organizing, exposing social issues and rallying viewers behind a certain political attitude or opinion. Films like Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11" and the Al Gore-starring "Inconvenient Truth" are credited with influencing the American political discussion during the George W. Bush era, and in some cases, advocacy films have become intertwined with the causes they depict in the minds of Americans. Not surprisingly, a few of the documentaries listed here are also considered among the best movies of all time - documentary or otherwise.

This list collects all the most important, worthwhile and significant biographical documentaries from over a century of world filmmaking. Be sure to vote up your favorites and, if your #1 biography documentary doesn't appear on the list at all, add it at the bottom of the page.Some of the films on this list are among the best documentary movies on Netflix instant, so be sure to check if you're interested in seeing them.

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  1. 1
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    Man on Wire is listed (or ranked) 1 on the list The Greatest Documentaries of All Time

    added by JesusAlonso
    2008

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  2. 2
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    Super Size Me is listed (or ranked) 2 on the list The Greatest Documentaries of All Time

    most listed & added by Pallknowing1
    2005

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  3. 3
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    Grizzly Man is listed (or ranked) 3 on the list The Greatest Documentaries of All Time

    ranked low on reranks
    2005

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  4. 4
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    March of the Penguins is listed (or ranked) 4 on the list The Greatest Documentaries of All Time

    added by DigBick
    2005

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  5. 5
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    Food, Inc. is listed (or ranked) 5 on the list The Greatest Documentaries of All Time


    2008

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  6. 6
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    The Last Waltz is listed (or ranked) 6 on the list The Greatest Documentaries of All Time


    1978

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  7. 7
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    The Thin Blue Line is listed (or ranked) 7 on the list The Greatest Documentaries of All Time


    1988

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  8. 8
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    Hoop Dreams is listed (or ranked) 8 on the list The Greatest Documentaries of All Time


    1994

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  9. 9
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    Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmake... is listed (or ranked) 9 on the list The Greatest Documentaries of All Time

    added by clash1977
    1991

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  10. 10
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    Paradise Lost: The Child Murde... is listed (or ranked) 10 on the list The Greatest Documentaries of All Time

    added by Desertrat89
    1996

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  11. 11
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    The King of Kong: A Fistful of... is listed (or ranked) 11 on the list The Greatest Documentaries of All Time

    often listed & added by jgreenberg45
    2007

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  12. 12
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    Blackfish is listed (or ranked) 12 on the list The Greatest Documentaries of All Time


    2013

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  13. 13
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    The Cove is listed (or ranked) 13 on the list The Greatest Documentaries of All Time

    added by Benjamin Dunn
    2009

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  14. 14
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    The Civil War is listed (or ranked) 14 on the list The Greatest Documentaries of All Time

    added by sebbzor
    1990

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  15. 15
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    When We Were Kings is listed (or ranked) 15 on the list The Greatest Documentaries of All Time

    often listed & added by jgreenberg45
    1996

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  16. 16
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    Dear Zachary: A Letter to a So... is listed (or ranked) 16 on the list The Greatest Documentaries of All Time

    added by jgreenberg45
    2008

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  17. 17
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    The Decline of Western Civiliz... is listed (or ranked) 17 on the list The Greatest Documentaries of All Time

    added by SandyAijalaBrown
    1981

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    Exit Through the Gift Shop is listed (or ranked) 18 on the list The Greatest Documentaries of All Time


    2010

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    Bowling for Columbine is listed (or ranked) 19 on the list The Greatest Documentaries of All Time


    2002

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  20. 20
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    Enron: The Smartest Guys in th... is listed (or ranked) 20 on the list The Greatest Documentaries of All Time

    added by Desertrat89
    2005

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  21. 21
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    Gimme Shelter is listed (or ranked) 21 on the list The Greatest Documentaries of All Time


    1970

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  22. 22
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    Koyaanisqatsi is listed (or ranked) 22 on the list The Greatest Documentaries of All Time


    1983

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  23. 23
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    Woodstock is listed (or ranked) 23 on the list The Greatest Documentaries of All Time

    often listed & ranked high on reranks
    1970

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  24. 24
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    The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons... is listed (or ranked) 24 on the list The Greatest Documentaries of All Time
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  25. 25
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    Nanook of the North is listed (or ranked) 25 on the list The Greatest Documentaries of All Time


    1922

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  26. 26
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    Inside Job is listed (or ranked) 26 on the list The Greatest Documentaries of All Time

    added by PetaFritz
    2010

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  27. 27
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    Jonestown: The Life and Death ... is listed (or ranked) 27 on the list The Greatest Documentaries of All Time
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  28. 28
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    Triumph of the Will is listed (or ranked) 28 on the list The Greatest Documentaries of All Time

    added by JesusAlonso
    1935

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  29. 29
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    Roger & Me is listed (or ranked) 29 on the list The Greatest Documentaries of All Time


    1989

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  30. 30
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    Capturing the Friedmans is listed (or ranked) 30 on the list The Greatest Documentaries of All Time


    2003

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  31. 31
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    Crumb is listed (or ranked) 31 on the list The Greatest Documentaries of All Time


    1994

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  32. 32
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    Harlan County, USA is listed (or ranked) 32 on the list The Greatest Documentaries of All Time


    1976

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  33. 33
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    Waltz with Bashir is listed (or ranked) 33 on the list The Greatest Documentaries of All Time

    added by JesusAlonso
    2008

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    Defamation is listed (or ranked) 34 on the list The Greatest Documentaries of All Time

    added by Mollevangsvagen
    2009

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  35. 35
    + 30
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    Checkpoint is listed (or ranked) 35 on the list The Greatest Documentaries of All Time

    ranked low on reranks & added by Mollevangsvagen
    Checkpoint 2003

  36. 36
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    Senna is listed (or ranked) 36 on the list The Greatest Documentaries of All Time

    added by RobMeusel
    2010

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  37. 37
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    Grey Gardens is listed (or ranked) 37 on the list The Greatest Documentaries of All Time


    1975

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  38. 38
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    Bobby Fischer Against The Worl... is listed (or ranked) 38 on the list The Greatest Documentaries of All Time


    2011

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  39. 39
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    Olympia is listed (or ranked) 39 on the list The Greatest Documentaries of All Time

    added by JesusAlonso
    1938

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  40. 40
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    Planet Earth is listed (or ranked) 40 on the list The Greatest Documentaries of All Time


    2006

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  41. 41
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    Dogtown and Z-Boys is listed (or ranked) 41 on the list The Greatest Documentaries of All Time

    added by clash1977
    2001

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  42. 42
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    Murderball is listed (or ranked) 42 on the list The Greatest Documentaries of All Time


    2005

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  43. 43
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    Dark Days is listed (or ranked) 43 on the list The Greatest Documentaries of All Time

    added by Samantha Dillinger
    2000

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  44. 44
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    Capitalism: A Love Story is listed (or ranked) 44 on the list The Greatest Documentaries of All Time

    added by Pallknowing1
    2009

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  45. 45
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    Catfish is listed (or ranked) 45 on the list The Greatest Documentaries of All Time

    added by Samantha Dillinger
    2010

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  46. 46
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    Incident at Oglala is listed (or ranked) 46 on the list The Greatest Documentaries of All Time

    often listed & added by clash1977
    1992

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  47. 47
    + 26
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    Thrilla In Manilla is listed (or ranked) 47 on the list The Greatest Documentaries of All Time


    Thrilla In Manilla 2008

  48. 48
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    Kon-Tiki is listed (or ranked) 48 on the list The Greatest Documentaries of All Time

    ranked low on reranks
    1947

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  49. 49
    + 38
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    Zeitgeist: The Movie is listed (or ranked) 49 on the list The Greatest Documentaries of All Time

    added by JesusAlonso
    2007

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  50. 50
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    Who Killed the Electric Car? is listed (or ranked) 50 on the list The Greatest Documentaries of All Time

    added by LanaYoshii
    2006

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393 +

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