The Greatest Documentaries of All Time

Originally By 10k votes 1k voters 95k views 382 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
    + 203
    - 187
    Super Size Me is listed (or ranked) 1 on the list The Greatest Documentaries of All Time

    most listed & added by Pallknowing1
    2005

    ;
  2. 2
    + 97
    - 41
    Man on Wire is listed (or ranked) 2 on the list The Greatest Documentaries of All Time

    ranked low on reranks & added by JesusAlonso
    Man on Wire 2008

  3. 3
    + 117
    - 42
    Grizzly Man is listed (or ranked) 3 on the list The Greatest Documentaries of All Time

    ranked low on reranks
    Grizzly Man 2005

  4. 4
    + 131
    - 64
    Food, Inc. is listed (or ranked) 4 on the list The Greatest Documentaries of All Time


    Food, Inc. 2008

  5. 5
    + 131
    - 88
    Hoop Dreams is listed (or ranked) 5 on the list The Greatest Documentaries of All Time


    Hoop Dreams 1994

  6. 6
    + 101
    - 48
    Paradise Lost: The Child Murde... is listed (or ranked) 6 on the list The Greatest Documentaries of All Time

    added by Desertrat89
    Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills 1996

  7. 7
    + 82
    - 35
    March of the Penguins is listed (or ranked) 7 on the list The Greatest Documentaries of All Time

    added by DigBick
    March of the Penguins 2005

  8. 8
    + 85
    - 64
    When We Were Kings is listed (or ranked) 8 on the list The Greatest Documentaries of All Time

    often listed & added by jgreenberg45
    When We Were Kings 1996

  9. 9
    + 103
    - 72
    The King of Kong: A Fistful of... is listed (or ranked) 9 on the list The Greatest Documentaries of All Time

    often listed & added by jgreenberg45
    The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters 2007

  10. 10
    + 90
    - 43
    The Thin Blue Line is listed (or ranked) 10 on the list The Greatest Documentaries of All Time


    The Thin Blue Line 1988

  11. 11
    + 96
    - 42
    The Last Waltz is listed (or ranked) 11 on the list The Greatest Documentaries of All Time


    The Last Waltz 1978

  12. 12
    + 83
    - 34
    Exit Through the Gift Shop is listed (or ranked) 12 on the list The Greatest Documentaries of All Time

    ranked low on reranks
    2010

    ;
  13. 13
    + 45
    - 19
    The Decline of Western Civiliz... is listed (or ranked) 13 on the list The Greatest Documentaries of All Time

    added by SandyAijalaBrown
    1981

    ;
  14. 14
    + 85
    - 46
    Dear Zachary: A Letter to a So... is listed (or ranked) 14 on the list The Greatest Documentaries of All Time

    added by jgreenberg45
    Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father 2008

  15. 15
    + 78
    - 39
    Gimme Shelter is listed (or ranked) 15 on the list The Greatest Documentaries of All Time


    1970

    ;
  16. 16
    + 56
    - 23
    Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmake... is listed (or ranked) 16 on the list The Greatest Documentaries of All Time

    added by clash1977
    Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmakers's Apocalypse 1991

  17. 17
    + 213
    - 141
    Bowling for Columbine is listed (or ranked) 17 on the list The Greatest Documentaries of All Time


    2002

    ;
  18. 18
    + 72
    - 29
    The Cove is listed (or ranked) 18 on the list The Greatest Documentaries of All Time

    added by Benjamin Dunn
    The Cove 2009

  19. 19
    + 72
    - 28
    Blackfish is listed (or ranked) 19 on the list The Greatest Documentaries of All Time


    Blackfish 2013

  20. 20
    + 110
    - 74
    Enron: The Smartest Guys in th... is listed (or ranked) 20 on the list The Greatest Documentaries of All Time

    often listed & added by Desertrat89
    2005

    ;
  21. 21
    + 48
    - 18
    The Civil War is listed (or ranked) 21 on the list The Greatest Documentaries of All Time

    often listed & added by sebbzor
    The Civil War 1990

  22. 22
    + 29
    - 2
    Defamation is listed (or ranked) 22 on the list The Greatest Documentaries of All Time

    ranked low on reranks & added by Mollevangsvagen
    2009

    ;
  23. 23
    + 29
    - 2
    Checkpoint is listed (or ranked) 23 on the list The Greatest Documentaries of All Time

    ranked low on reranks & added by Mollevangsvagen
    Checkpoint 2003

  24. 24
    + 79
    - 28
    Inside Job is listed (or ranked) 24 on the list The Greatest Documentaries of All Time

    ranked low on reranks & added by PetaFritz
    Inside Job 2010

  25. 25
    + 67
    - 40
    The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons... is listed (or ranked) 25 on the list The Greatest Documentaries of All Time

    added by Clark Benson
    The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara 2003

  26. 26
    + 59
    - 22
    Nanook of the North is listed (or ranked) 26 on the list The Greatest Documentaries of All Time


    1922

    ;
  27. 27
    + 75
    - 27
    Koyaanisqatsi is listed (or ranked) 27 on the list The Greatest Documentaries of All Time


    Koyaanisqatsi 1983

  28. 28
    + 48
    - 15
    Jonestown: The Life and Death ... is listed (or ranked) 28 on the list The Greatest Documentaries of All Time
    ;
  29. 29
    + 48
    - 22
    Triumph of the Will is listed (or ranked) 29 on the list The Greatest Documentaries of All Time

    added by JesusAlonso
    Triumph of the Will 1935

  30. 30
    + 56
    - 33
    Woodstock is listed (or ranked) 30 on the list The Greatest Documentaries of All Time


    Woodstock 1970

  31. 31
    + 43
    - 23
    Harlan County, USA is listed (or ranked) 31 on the list The Greatest Documentaries of All Time


    Harlan County, USA 1976

  32. 32
    + 69
    - 31
    Grey Gardens is listed (or ranked) 32 on the list The Greatest Documentaries of All Time


    1975

    ;
  33. 33
    + 85
    - 62
    Crumb is listed (or ranked) 33 on the list The Greatest Documentaries of All Time


    Crumb 1994

  34. 34
    + 89
    - 55
    Roger & Me is listed (or ranked) 34 on the list The Greatest Documentaries of All Time


    Roger & Me 1989

  35. 35
    + 69
    - 40
    Capturing the Friedmans is listed (or ranked) 35 on the list The Greatest Documentaries of All Time


    Capturing the Friedmans 2003

  36. 36
    + 46
    - 24
    Waltz with Bashir is listed (or ranked) 36 on the list The Greatest Documentaries of All Time

    added by JesusAlonso
    Waltz with Bashir 2008

  37. 37
    + 40
    - 19
    Senna is listed (or ranked) 37 on the list The Greatest Documentaries of All Time

    added by RobMeusel
    Senna 2010

  38. 38
    + 38
    - 12
    Bobby Fischer Against The Worl... is listed (or ranked) 38 on the list The Greatest Documentaries of All Time


    2011

    ;
  39. 39
    + 36
    - 18
    Olympia is listed (or ranked) 39 on the list The Greatest Documentaries of All Time

    added by JesusAlonso
    Olympia 1938

  40. 40
    + 44
    - 27
    Dogtown and Z-Boys is listed (or ranked) 40 on the list The Greatest Documentaries of All Time

    added by clash1977
    Dogtown and Z-Boys 2001

  41. 41
    + 31
    - 28
    Murderball is listed (or ranked) 41 on the list The Greatest Documentaries of All Time


    Murderball 2005

  42. 42
    + 29
    - 15
    Planet Earth is listed (or ranked) 42 on the list The Greatest Documentaries of All Time


    Planet Earth 2006

  43. 43
    + 26
    - 20
    Dark Days is listed (or ranked) 43 on the list The Greatest Documentaries of All Time

    added by Samantha Dillinger
    Dark Days 2000

  44. 44
    + 33
    - 29
    Catfish is listed (or ranked) 44 on the list The Greatest Documentaries of All Time

    added by Samantha Dillinger
    2010

    ;
  45. 45
    + 26
    - 4
    Kon-Tiki is listed (or ranked) 45 on the list The Greatest Documentaries of All Time

    ranked low on reranks
    Kon-Tiki 1947

  46. 46
    + 21
    - 24
    Incident at Oglala is listed (or ranked) 46 on the list The Greatest Documentaries of All Time

    often listed & added by clash1977
    1992

    ;
  47. 47
    + 37
    - 33
    Zeitgeist: The Movie is listed (or ranked) 47 on the list The Greatest Documentaries of All Time

    added by JesusAlonso
    2007

    ;
  48. 48
    + 36
    - 29
    Auschwitz: The Nazis and the '... is listed (or ranked) 48 on the list The Greatest Documentaries of All Time

    added by sebbzor
    Auschwitz: The Nazis and the 'Final Solution' 2005

  49. 49
    + 23
    - 12
    Thrilla In Manilla is listed (or ranked) 49 on the list The Greatest Documentaries of All Time


    Thrilla In Manilla 2008

  50. 50
    + 18
    - 9
    Who Killed the Electric Car? is listed (or ranked) 50 on the list The Greatest Documentaries of All Time

    added by LanaYoshii
    2006

    ;
383 +

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