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The Best Oscar-Winning Documentaries

Updated February 17, 2021 5.3k votes 554 voters 49.4k views81 items

List RulesVote 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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  • The Ten-Year Lunch1
    189
    15

    The Ten-Year Lunch

    Helen Hayes, Ruth Gordon

    Released1987

    Directed byAviva 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...  more
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  • The Great American Cowboy2

    Released1973

    Directed byKieth 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...  more
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  • Woodstock3
    180
    31

    Woodstock

    Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin

    Released1970

    Directed byMichael Wadleigh

    The watershed cultural and music festival in New York.
    Woodstock is a 1970 American documentary of the watershed counterculture Woodstock Festival...  more
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  • American Dream4
    113
    18

    American Dream

    Jesse Jackson, Juan Muñoz

    Released1990

    Directed byThomas 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, ...  more
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  • An Inconvenient Truth5
    Global warming
    An Inconvenient Truth is a 2006 documentary film directed by Davis Guggenheim about former...  more
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  • Hearts and Minds6
    The Vietnam War
    Hearts and Minds is a 1974 American documentary film about the Vietnam War directed by Peter...  more
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  • Undefeated7
    114
    25

    Undefeated

    Bill Courtney, O.C. Brown

    Released2011

    Directed byDaniel 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...  more
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  • The Vanishing Prairie8
    Pioneers on the Oregon Trail
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  • CitizenFour9
    99
    18

    CitizenFour

    Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald

    Released2015

    Directed byLaura Poitras

    Citizenfour is a 2014 documentary film directed by Laura Poitras. A documentarian and a...  more
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  • The Sea Around Us10
    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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  • 20 Feet from Stardom11
    The lives of background singers for some of music's most famous acts
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  • The True Glory12
    75
    16

    The True Glory

    Peter Ustinov

    Released1945

    Directed byGarson 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...  more
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  • White Wilderness13
    81
    21

    White Wilderness

    Winston Hibler

    Released1958

    Directed byJames 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...  more
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  • When We Were Kings14
    74
    18

    When We Were Kings

    George Foreman, B.B. King

    Released1996

    Directed byLeon 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...  more
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  • Scared Straight!15
    70
    14

    Scared Straight!

    Danny Glover, Peter Falk

    Released1978

    Directed byArnold 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...  more
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  • Anne Frank Remembered16
    88
    30

    Anne Frank Remembered

    Glenn Close, Kenneth Branagh

    Released1995

    Directed byJon Blair

    Diarist Anne Frank
    Anne Frank Remembered is a 1995 documentary film by Jon Blair about the life of the diarist...  more
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  • Journey into Self17
    61
    16

    Journey into Self

    Stanley Kramer

    Released1968

    Directed byBill McGaw

    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...  more
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  • The Last Days18
    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...  more
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  • In the Shadow of the Stars19
    59
    16

    In the Shadow of the Stars

    Ruth Ann Swenson, Frederick Matthews

    Released1991

    Directed byAllie 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...  more
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  • Artie Shaw: Time Is All You've Got20
    53
    15

    Released1986

    Directed byBrigitte Berman

    Clarinetist Artie Shaw.
    Artie Shaw: Time Is All You've Got is a 1986 documentary film about clarinetist Artie Shaw. It...  more
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  • Helen Keller in Her Story21
    66
    28

    Helen Keller in Her Story

    Helen Keller, Katharine Cornell

    Released1954

    Directed byNancy Hamilton

    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...  more
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  • The Long Way Home22
    50
    14

    The Long Way Home

    Morgan Freeman, Sean Astin

    Released1997

    Directed byMark 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...  more
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  • Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt23
    45
    14

    Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt

    Dustin Hoffman, Vito Russo

    Released1989

    Directed byRob 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...  more
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  • The Man Who Skied Down Everest24
    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...  more
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  • Inside Job25
    50
    20

    Inside Job

    Matt Damon

    Released2010

    Directed byCharles Ferguson

    Corruption in the United States financial services industry
    Inside Job is a 2010 American documentary film, directed by Charles Ferguson, about the...  more
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