The Greatest Documentaries of All Time Films

The Greatest Documentaries of All Time

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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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  • 15 ReRanks
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  1. 1
    + 121
    - 58
    Hoop Dreams


    1994

    ;
  2. 2
    + 193
    - 156
    Super Size Me

    most listed & added by Pallknowing1
    2005

    ;
  3. 3
    + 107
    - 36
    Grizzly Man

    ranked low on reranks
    2005

    ;
  4. 4
    + 124
    - 47
    Food, Inc.


    2008

    ;
  5. 5
    + 95
    - 56
    The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters

    often listed & added by jgreenberg45
    2007

    ;
  6. 6
    + 87
    - 33
    Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills

    added by Desertrat89
    1996

    ;
  7. 7
    + 77
    - 28
    March of the Penguins

    added by DigBick
    2005

    ;
  8. 8
    + 103
    - 55
    Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room

    added by Desertrat89
    2005

    ;
  9. 9
    + 89
    - 36
    Man on Wire

    added by JesusAlonso
    2008

    ;
  10. 10
    + 78
    - 45
    When We Were Kings

    added by jgreenberg45
    1996

    ;
  11. 11
    + 82
    - 35
    The Thin Blue Line


    1988

    ;
  12. 12
    + 194
    - 110
    Bowling for Columbine


    2002

    ;
  13. 13
    + 75
    - 30
    Gimme Shelter


    1970

    ;
  14. 14
    + 71
    - 30
    Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father

    added by jgreenberg45
    2008

    ;
  15. 15
    + 91
    - 36
    The Last Waltz


    1978

    ;
  16. 16
    + 42
    - 15
    The Decline of Western Civilization

    added by SandyAijalaBrown
    1981

    ;
  17. 17
    + 53
    - 16
    Blackfish


    2013

    ;
  18. 18
    + 49
    - 20
    Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmakers's Apocalypse

    added by clash1977
    1991

    ;
  19. 19
    + 39
    - 8
    The Civil War

    added by sebbzor
    1990

    ;
  20. 20
    + 52
    - 18
    Woodstock


    1970

    ;
  21. 21
    + 62
    - 30
    The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara
    ;
  22. 22
    + 42
    - 7
    Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple
    ;
  23. 23
    + 71
    - 28
    Exit Through the Gift Shop


    2010

    ;
  24. 24
    + 72
    - 22
    Inside Job

    added by PetaFritz
    2010

    ;
  25. 25
    + 79
    - 43
    Crumb


    1994

    ;
  26. 26
    + 64
    - 26
    The Cove

    added by Benjamin Dunn
    2009

    ;
  27. 27
    + 65
    - 27
    Capturing the Friedmans


    2003

    ;
  28. 28
    + 40
    - 17
    Harlan County, USA


    1976

    ;
  29. 29
    + 28
    - 15
    Murderball

    often listed & Ranked High on Reranks
    2005

    ;
  30. 30
    + 36
    - 11
    Auschwitz: The Nazis and the 'Final Solution'

    added by sebbzor
    2005

    ;
  31. 31
    + 83
    - 47
    Roger & Me


    1989

    ;
  32. 32
    + 61
    - 25
    Grey Gardens


    1975

    ;
  33. 33
    + 42
    - 22
    Dogtown and Z-Boys

    added by clash1977
    2001

    ;
  34. 34
    + 36
    - 17
    Senna

    added by RobMeusel
    2010

    ;
  35. 35
    + 29
    - 18
    Catfish

    added by Samantha Dillinger
    2010

    ;
  36. 36
    + 21
    - 17
    Incident at Oglala

    added by clash1977
    1992

    ;
  37. 37
    + 24
    - 14
    Dark Days

    added by Samantha Dillinger
    2000

    ;
  38. 38
    + 48
    - 25
    Koyaanisqatsi


    1983

    ;
  39. 39
    + 35
    - 22
    Waltz with Bashir

    added by JesusAlonso
    2008

    ;
  40. 40
    + 23
    - 6
    Thrilla In Manilla


    Thrilla In Manilla 2008

  41. 41
    + 22
    - 12
    One Day in September

    added by clash1977
    1999

    ;
  42. 42
    + 23
    - 8
    Planet Earth


    2006

    ;
  43. 43
    + 39
    - 23
    Sicko

    added by midnightq2
    2007

    ;
  44. 44
    + 21
    - 18
    Triumph of the Will

    added by JesusAlonso
    1935

    ;
  45. 45
    + 23
    - 14
    Trekkies


    1997

    ;
  46. 46
    + 42
    - 27
    Religulous


    2008

    ;
  47. 47
    + 31
    - 18
    Nanook of the North


    1922

    ;
  48. 48
    + 25
    - 12
    Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson
    ;
  49. 49
    + 39
    - 36
    Super High Me

    added by ikattarri
    2008

    ;
  50. 50
    + 68
    - 51
    Capitalism: A Love Story

    added by Pallknowing1
    2009

    ;
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