The Greatest Documentaries of All Time

List Rules
Vote up your favorite documentary films. Sorry, 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, so be sure to check if you're interested in seeing them.

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  • One Child Nation
    17 votes
    • Directed by: Nanfu Wang, Jialing Zhang
    One Child Nation is a 2019 American documentary film directed by Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang. After becoming a mother, a filmmaker (Nanfu Wang) uncovers the untold history of China's one-child ...more
    • Directed by: Stanley Nelson
    Filmmaker Stanley Nelson charts the rise and fall of Peoples Temple founder Jim Jones, whose followers drank poisoned punch at their South American commune in 1978. Using archival film footage and ...more
    • Actors: Mads Brügger
    • Directed by: Mads Brügger
    Cold Case Hammarskjöld is a 2019 Danish documentary film directed by Mads Brügger. The documentary is an investigation into the death of UN General Secretary Dag Hammarskjöld, whose airplane crashed ...more
    • Actors: Andrew Bagby, Shirley Turner, Kurt Kuenne
    • Directed by: Kurt Kuenne
    In 2001, 28-year-old Dr. Andrew Bagby is found dead in a park in Pennsylvania. He had been shot by his ex-girlfriend, who then fled to Canada, where she was able to walk free on bail, pregnant with ...more

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    • Actors: Joe Berlinger, Bruce Sinofsky, Jessie Misskelly, Jason Baldwin, Damien Wayne Echols
    • Directed by: Joe Berlinger, Bruce Sinofsky
    Three teenagers are accused of this horrific crime of killing three children, supposedly as a result of involvement in Satanism. As in their previous documentary, things turn out to be more complex ...more
  • Blackfish
    554 votes
    • Actors: Tilikum, Dave Duffus, Samantha Berg
    • Directed by: Gabriela Cowperthwaite
    The story of Tilikum, a captive killer whale that has taken the lives of several people, underscores problems within the sea-park industry, man's relationship to nature, and how little has been ...more

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