Oscars The Best Oscar-Winning Documentaries  

Ranker Film
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List Rules Vote up the best films to have won an Oscar for Best Documentary

What are the best Oscar winning documentary films? This list includes every film to have won an Oscar for Best Documentary, including “Bowling for Columbine,” “An Inconvenient Truth," “20 Feet from Stardom,” and “Born into Brothels.” The first Oscars presented for documentary films were given out in the 1940s, and many of those early winners focused on the subject of World War II. Since then, documentaries have looked at many other topics as well, taking home Oscars in the process.

Movies have the ability to make us feel. They make us want to believe, be inspired, and live vicariously through the stories we see on screen. Documentary films especially try to inspire viewers and teach them about a subject they may not previously have had access to. The best of these movies are bestowed with an Academy Award nomination, and those that are truly the best take home the Oscar.

Documentary films tell a true story, the version of which we often have not heard before. These best Oscar winning documentary films provide a kind of emotional connection that filmmakers hope people seek in entertainment. They are moving, saddening, or angering. They provide the type of entertainment that is groundbreaking in their story-telling and in their truth.

Vote up the best Academy Award winning documentary films below.
list ordered by

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Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Pete Townshend The watershed cultural and music festival in New York. Woodstock is a 1970 American documentary of the watershed counterculture Woodstock Festival that took place in August 1969 at Bethel in New York. Entertainment Weekly called this film the ...more

122 13
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Jesse Jackson, Juan Muñoz An unsuccessful strike in the heartland of America against Hormel Foods Through the lenses of cameras, an exploration into the minds - the hopes, dreams, expectations - of their bearers reminds us of the value that has been so deeply ingrained into the ...more

112 13
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The Vietnam War Hearts and Minds is a 1974 American documentary film about the Vietnam War directed by Peter Davis. The film's title is based on a quote from President Lyndon B. Johnson: "the ultimate ...more

123 16
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The struggles of a high school football team in Memphis Undefeated is a 2011 documentary directed by Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin. The film documents the struggles of a high school football team, the Manassas Tigers of Memphis, as they attempt a ...more

82 9
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Helen Hayes, Ruth Gordon, Margalo Gillmore The Algonquin Road Table, group of writers and artists during the 1920s in New York The Ten-Year Lunch: The Wit and Legend of the Algonquin Round Table is a 1987 American documentary film about the Algonquin Round Table, a floating group of writers and actors in the ...more

124 24
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Global warming An Inconvenient Truth is a 2006 documentary film directed by Davis Guggenheim about former United States Vice President Al Gore's campaign to educate citizens about global warming via a ...more

95 14
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Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald, William Binney Citizenfour is a 2014 documentary film directed by Laura Poitras. A documentarian and a reporter travel to Hong Kong for the first of many meetings with Edward Snowden to discuss the NSA spying ...more

90 13
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The lives of background singers for some of music's most famous acts

92 14
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Winston Hibler Nature documentary noted for its propagation of the misconception of lemming suicide White Wilderness is an American nature documentary produced by Walt Disney Productions in 1958 noted for its propagation of the misconception of lemming suicide. The film was directed by James ...more

81 12
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Peter Ustinov Victory on the Western Front, from Normandy to the collapse of the Third Reich The True Glory is a co-production of the US Office of War Information and the British Ministry of Information, documenting the victory on the Western Front, from Normandy to the collapse of the ...more

81 12
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George Foreman, B.B. King, Don King The "Rumble in the Jungle" fight between Muhammed Ali and George Foreman When We Were Kings is a 1996 documentary film directed by Leon Gast about the famous "Rumble in the Jungle" heavyweight championship match between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman. The ...more

66 8
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Hungarian Jews during WWII and their struggle in the concentration camps The Last Days is a documentary, directed by James Moll and produced by June Beallor and Kenneth Lipper in 1998. Steven Spielberg was one of the executive producers, in his role as founder of the ...more

77 12
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Danny Glover, Peter Falk A group of juvenile delinquents and their three-hour session with actual convicts Scared Straight! is a 1978 documentary directed by Arnold Shapiro. Narrated by Peter Falk, the subject of the documentary is a group of juvenile delinquents and their three-hour session with ...more

67 10
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Ruth Ann Swenson, Frederick Matthews, Christine Lundquist The San Francisco opera and its big stars In the Shadow of the Stars is a 1991 documentary film about the San Francisco Opera. It depicts the lives of the various members of the chorus, rather than the big name stars. The film was ...more

75 14
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Larry Mahan The battle between two rodeo stars for the world championship The Great American Cowboy is a 1973 documentary film by Kieth Merrill. The film, which won the 1973 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, is about the battle between two rodeo stars for ...more

39 4
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The ocean depths, shot aboard the ship Calypso The Silent World is a 1956 French documentary film co-directed by the famed French oceanographer Jacques-Yves Cousteau and a young Louis Malle. The Silent World is noted as one of the first ...more

55 9
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Morgan Freeman, Sean Astin, Ed Asner Jewish refugees after WWII and their establishment of Israel The Long Way Home is a 1997 documentary film directed by Mark Jonathan Harris. It depicts the plight of Jewish refugees after World War II that contributed to the creation of the State of ...more

49 9
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Dustin Hoffman, Vito Russo, Tracy Torrey The story of the NAMES Project AIDS memorial quilt Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt is a 1989 documentary film that tells the story of the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt. Narrated by Dustin Hoffman with a musical score written and ...more

40 8
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Pioneers on the Oregon Trail The Vanishing Prairie is a 1954 documentary film released by Walt Disney Productions. The theme music was given a set of lyrics by Hazel "Gil" George. It was rechristened as ...more

36 7
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Robert Montgomery An American expedition to explore Antarctica code-named "Operation High Jump" The Secret Land is a 1948 American documentary film about an American expedition code-named "Operation High Jump" to explore Antarctica. It won the Academy Award for Academy Award for ...more

36 9
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Based on the book by Rachel Carson this documentary reveals the science and poetry of the sea while ranging from its primeval beginnings to the latest scientific probings. The Sea Around Us is a 1953 American documentary film directed by Irwin Allen and released by RKO. It won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. It was based on the Rachel Carson book ...more

32 6
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Zero Mostel, Ira Wohl, Philip Wohl Mentally handicapped Philly Wohl, who lived with his parents until he was 52 Best Boy is a 1979 documentary made by Ira Wohl. The film received critical acclaim, and won many awards including the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 1979. The film follows Ira's ...more

47 20
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Matt Damon Corruption in the United States financial services industry The creators of ``Undercover Boss'' are behind this unscripted TNT series, which gives the popular CEO-in-disguise premise a bit of a twist. ``Inside Job'' puts candidates for six-figure ...more

36 11
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The everyday lives of desert animals in the southwestern U.S. The Living Desert is a 1953 American nature documentary film that shows the everyday lives of the animals of the desert of the southwestern United States. The movie was written by James Algar, ...more

64 51
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Romane Bohringer, Charles Berling, Jules Sitruk The yearly journey of the emperor penguins of Antarctica March of the Penguins is a 2005 French nature documentary film directed and co-written by Luc Jacquet, and co-produced by Bonne Pioche and the National Geographic Society. The documentary ...more

24 10
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Buddy Rich, Mel Tormé, Artie Shaw Clarinetist Artie Shaw. Artie Shaw: Time Is All You've Got is a 1986 documentary film about clarinetist Artie Shaw. It was written, directed and narrated by Brigitte Berman. It won an Academy Award for Best Documentary ...more

26 13
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Stanley Kramer A 16-hour group-therapy session for eight well-adjusted people who had never met Journey into Self is a 1968 documentary film introduced by Stanley Kramer, produced by Bill McGaw, and directed by Tom Skinner. The film portrays a 16-hour group-therapy session for eight ...more

24 11
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Bernard Montgomery, 1st Viscount Montgomery of Alamein Struggle between General Erwin Rommel and Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery during WWII  Desert Victory is a 1943 film produced by the British Ministry of Information, documenting the Allies' North African campaign against Field Marshal Erwin Rommel and the Afrika Korps. This ...more

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Glenn Close, Kenneth Branagh, Joely Richardson Diarist Anne Frank Anne Frank Remembered is a 1995 documentary film by Jon Blair about the life of the diarist Anne Frank. The documentary was made in association with Anne Frank House, Walt Disney Pictures and ...more

32 23
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Henry Fonda, Donald Crisp, Jane Darwell WWII's Battle of Midway and its strategic importance. The Battle of Midway is a 1942 American documentary film short directed by John Ford. It is a montage of color footage of the Battle of Midway with voice overs of various narrators, including ...more

29 22
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The "Brookside Strike" against the Duke Power Company Harlan County, USA is a 1976 Oscar-winning documentary film covering the "Brookside Strike", an effort of 180 coal miners and their wives against the Duke Power Company-owned Eastover ...more

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Dennis Coffey, Malik Bendjelloul, Clarence Avant Two Cape Town fans in the late 1990s and the rumored death of Sixto Rodriguez Searching for Sugar Man is a 2012 Swedish–British documentary film directed and written by Malik Bendjelloul which details the efforts of two Cape Town fans in the late 1990s, Stephen ...more

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Yuichiro Miura, a Japanese alpinist who skied down Mt. Everest in 1970 The Man Who Skied Down Everest is a documentary about Yuichiro Miura, a Japanese alpinist who skied down Mt. Everest in 1970. The film was produced by Canadian film maker Budge Crawley. Miura ...more

16 11
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Jacques d'Ambroise noted American ballet star  He Makes Me Feel Like Dancin' is a 1983 documentary film directed by Emile Ardolino about Jacques d'Amboise, a noted former American ballet star who had dancing roles in such films as Seven ...more

28 26
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Helen Keller, Katharine Cornell Biographical documentary about Helen Keller with footage of her visits with Eisenhower and Martha Graham
Helen Keller in Her Story is an American biographical documentary about Helen Keller made in 1954. It won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 1955. It starred Helen Keller and used ...more

18 14
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The palomino horse, Nautical, who won team gold at the 1959 Pan American Games The Horse with the Flying Tail is a 1960 American documentary film by Walt Disney Pictures, that won the Best Documentary award at the 33rd Academy Awards. The movie is about the palomino horse, ...more

29 29
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The murder of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics One Day in September is a 1999 documentary film directed by Kevin Macdonald examining the 5 September 1972 murder of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, Germany. Michael ...more

17 19
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The life and works of artist Michelangelo Buonarroti The Titan: Story of Michelangelo is a 1950 German documentary film. It won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. In 1952 it became the first feature-length documentary to be shown on ...more

19 22
The Anderson Platoon is listed (or ranked) 39 on the list The Best Oscar-Winning Documentaries
The VIetnam War The Anderson Platoon is a documentary feature by Pierre Schoendoerffer about the Vietnam War, named after the leader of the platoon - Lieutenant Joseph B. Anderson - with which Schoendeorffer ...more

19 23
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Eleanor Roosevelt, Archibald MacLeish, Eric Sevareid Former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt The Eleanor Roosevelt Story is a 1965 American biographical documentary film directed by Richard Kaplan. It won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 1965.

15 19
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Film that critiques Reganomics by showing examples of poverty in America. Down and Out in America is a 1986 Academy Award-winning documentary film that critiques Reaganomics by showing examples of poverty in the United States. It won an Academy Award for Best ...more

31 41
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Paul McGill, Robert Sciglimpaglia, Jr. Philippe Petit's 1974 high-wire walk between the World Trade Center towers Man on Wire is a 2008 British documentary film directed by James Marsh. The film chronicles Philippe Petit's 1974 high-wire walk between the Twin Towers of New York's World Trade Center. It is ...more

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The children of prostitutes in Sonagachi, Kolkata's red light district Born into Brothels: Calcutta's Red Light Kids is a 2004 Indian-American documentary film about the children of prostitutes in Sonagachi, Kolkata's red light district. The widely acclaimed film, ...more

18 26
Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Visio... is listed (or ranked) 44 on the list The Best Oscar-Winning Documentaries
Maya Lin, who created the Washington DC Vietnam Veterans Memorial Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision is a 1994 documentary film made by Freida Lee Mock about the life of American artist Maya Lin, whose best-known work is the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in ...more

15 22
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WWII, the first film of Frank Capra's "Why We Fight" propaganda series Prelude to War was the first film of Frank Capra’s Why We Fight propaganda film series, commissioned by the Office of War Information and George C. Marshall. It was made to convince American ...more

17 25
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Former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara is a 2003 American documentary film about the life and times of former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara ...more

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The life of Polish-American pianist Arthur Rubinstein Arthur Rubinstein is a 1969 documentary TV movie.

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Dolphin hunting practices in Japan The Cove is a 2009 documentary film that analyzes and questions dolphin hunting practices in Japan. It was awarded the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 2010. The film is a call to ...more

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Judi Dench, Lore Segal, Hedy Epstein "Kindertransport" which saved the lives of 10,000 Jewish children during the Holocaust Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport is the 2000 Academy Award-winning Warner Bros. documentary feature film about the remarkable British rescue operation, known as the ...more

11 20
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Greg D'Agostino, Brian Keith Allen The killing of an Afghan taxi driver by American soldiers Taxi to the Dark Side is a 2007 documentary film directed by American filmmaker Alex Gibney, and produced by him, Eva Orner and Susannah Shipman, which won the 2007 Academy Award for Best ...more