The Best Oscar-Winning Documentaries  

Ranker Film
4.6k votes 498 voters 43k views 76 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 “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
Ranker Video
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
Ranker Video
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
Ranker Video
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
Ranker Video
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
Ranker Video
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
Ranker Video
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
Ranker Video
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
Ranker Video
The lives of background singers for some of music's most famous acts
Ranker Video
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
Ranker Video
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
Ranker Video
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
Ranker Video
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
Ranker Video
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
Ranker Video
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
Ranker Video
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
Ranker Video
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
Ranker Video
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
Ranker Video
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
Ranker Video
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
Ranker Video
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
Ranker Video
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
Ranker Video
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
Ranker Video
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
Ranker Video
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
Ranker Video
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