The Best Oscar-Winning Documentaries 

Ranker Film
Updated February 10, 2020 4.9k votes 546 voters 48.4k views 78 items

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 Free Solo, Bowling for ColumbineAn Inconvenient Truth20 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.

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Woodstock is listed (or ranked) 1 on the list The Best Oscar-Winning Documentaries
Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Pete Townshend

Released: 1970

Directed by: Michael Wadleigh

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

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Inside Jimi Hendrix’s Legendary And Controversial National Anthem Performance At Woodstock '69 #52 of 212 The Best Drug Movies of All Timelisted on Every Oscar Winning Film Ever

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Jesse Jackson, Juan Muñoz

Released: 1990

Directed by: Thomas Haneke, Barbara Kopple, Cathy Caplan

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

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#23 of 58 The Best Sundance Audience Award Winnerslisted on Every Oscar Winning Film Ever

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Released: 2006

Directed by: Davis Guggenheim

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

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#500 of 599 The Greatest Epic Movies Ever Made #711 of 847 The Best Horror Movies Of All Timelisted on Every Oscar Winning Film Ever

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Released: 2011

Directed by: Daniel Lindsay, T. J. Martin

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

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#267 of 354 The Greatest Documentaries of All Time #35 of 58 The Best Football Movies Ever #30 of 38 The Best High School Sports Movies

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Released: 1974

Directed by: Peter Davis

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

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#103 of 354 The Greatest Documentaries of All Time #59 of 63 The Best Bob Hope Movieslisted on Every Oscar Winning Film Ever

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Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald, William Binney

Released: 2015

Directed by: Laura Poitras

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
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Released: 2013

The lives of background singers for some of music's most famous acts
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Winston Hibler

Released: 1958

Directed by: James Algar

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
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Peter Ustinov

Released: 1945

Directed by: Garson Kanin, Carol Reed

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
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The Ten-Year Lunch Helen Hayes, Ruth Gordon, Margalo Gillmore

Released: 1987

Directed by: Aviva Slesin

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
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George Foreman, B.B. King, Don King

Released: 1996

Directed by: Leon Gast

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

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#220 of 726 The Best Black Movies Ever Made, Ranked #507 of 548 The Greatest Movies for Guyslisted on Every Oscar Winning Film Ever

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Danny Glover, Peter Falk

Released: 1978

Directed by: Arnold Shapiro

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
The Great American Cowbo... is listed (or ranked) 13 on the list The Best Oscar-Winning Documentaries
Larry Mahan

Released: 1973

Directed by: Kieth Merrill

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

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#11 of 32 The Best Rodeo Movieslisted on Every Oscar Winning Film Ever

The Last Days is listed (or ranked) 14 on the list The Best Oscar-Winning Documentaries

Released: 1998

Directed by: James Moll

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
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Ruth Ann Swenson, Frederick Matthews, Christine Lundquist

Released: 1991

Directed by: Allie Light, Irving Saraf

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
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Morgan Freeman, Sean Astin, Ed Asner

Released: 1997

Directed by: Mark Jonathan Harris

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
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Dustin Hoffman, Vito Russo, Tracy Torrey

Released: 1989

Directed by: Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman

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
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Matt Damon

Released: 2010

Directed by: Charles Ferguson

Corruption in the United States financial services industry Inside Job is a 2010 American documentary film, directed by Charles Ferguson, about the late-2000s financial crisis. Ferguson, who began researching in 2008, says the film is about "the ...more
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Released: 1956

Directed by: Louis Malle, Jacques Cousteau

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

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#236 of 354 The Greatest Documentaries of All Timelisted on Every Oscar Winning Film Ever

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Romane Bohringer, Charles Berling, Jules Sitruk

Released: 2005

Directed by: Luc Jacquet

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

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#197 of 321 The Best Movies for Kids #7 of 354 The Greatest Documentaries of All Timelisted on Every Oscar Winning Film Ever

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Released: 1954

Directed by: James Algar

Pioneers on the Oregon Trail
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Robert Montgomery

Released: 1948

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
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Released: 1953

Directed by: Irwin Allen

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.
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Released: 1953

Directed by: James Algar

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
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Zero Mostel, Ira Wohl, Philip Wohl

Released: 1979

Directed by: Ira 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