Documentary The Greatest Documentaries of All Time  

Originally by
15k votes 1.7k voters 125.5k views 395 items

List Rules Only documentary films - 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 instant, so be sure to check if you're interested in seeing them.

list ordered by

264 93
Ranker Video
jgreenberg45 added Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father 2008 Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father is a 2008 American documentary film conceived and created by Kurt Kuenne. Kuenne's close friend Andrew Bagby was allegedly murdered by Shirley ...more

196 70
Ranker Video
Desertrat89 added Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills 1996 Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills is a 1996 documentary film directed by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky about the trials of three teenage boys who came to be known as the ...more

210 89
Ranker Video
Grizzly Man 2005 Grizzly Man is a 2005 documentary film by German director Werner Herzog. It chronicles the life and death of bear enthusiast Timothy Treadwell. The film includes some of Treadwell's own footage ...more

186 63
Ranker Video
Blackfish 2013 Blackfish is a 2013 Documentary film written by Eli B. Despres and directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite.

104 34
Ranker Video
sebbzor added The Civil War 1990 The Civil War is a documentary film created by Ken Burns about the American Civil War. It was first broadcast on PBS on five consecutive nights from September 23 to 27, 1990. Approximately 40 ...more

141 67
Ranker Video
The Thin Blue Line 1988 The Thin Blue Line is a 1988 American documentary film by Errol Morris, depicting the story of Randall Dale Adams, a man convicted and sentenced to life in prison for a murder he did not commit. ...more

180 98
Ranker Video
Food, Inc. 2008 How much do we know about the food we buy at our local supermarkets and serve to our families? Though our food appears the same as ever — a tomato still looks like a tomato — it has been ...more

136 79
Ranker Video
DigBick added March of the Penguins 2005 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

262 284
Ranker Video
Pallknowing1 added Super Size Me 2005 Supersize She is a 2005 television documentary focused on British professional female bodybuilder Joanna Thomas. The title was a take-off on the success of the film Super Size Me. The one-hour ...more

139 73
Ranker Video
JesusAlonso added Man on Wire 2008 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

111 79
Ranker Video
jgreenberg45 added When We Were Kings 1996 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

89 20
Ranker Video
Planet Earth 2006 Planet Earth is a 2006 British television series produced by the BBC Natural History Unit. Five years in the making, it was the most expensive nature documentary series ever commissioned by the ...more

Famous People with Stupid Tattoos

99 25
Ranker Video
Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple 2006 Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple, is a 2006 documentary film made by Firelight Media, produced and directed by Stanley Nelson. The documentary reveals new footage of the incidents ...more

118 47
Ranker Video
Benjamin Dunn added The Cove 2009 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

144 90
Ranker Video
Desertrat89 added Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room 2005 Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room is a 2005 documentary film based on the best-selling 2003 book of the same name by Fortune reporters Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind, a study of one of the ...more

292 180
Ranker Video
Bowling for Columbine 2002 Bowling for Columbine is a 2002 American documentary film written, directed, and narrated by Michael Moore. The film explores what Moore suggests are the main causes for the Columbine High ...more

122 65
Ranker Video
The Last Waltz 1978 The Last Waltz was a concert by the Canadian rock group the Band, held on American Thanksgiving Day, November 25, 1976, at Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco. The Last Waltz was advertised as ...more

The Worst Things About Group Dinners

92 53
Ranker Video
Clark Benson added The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara 2003 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

162 112
Ranker Video
Hoop Dreams 1994 Hoop Dreams is a 1994 American documentary film directed by Steve James and written by James and Frederick Marx, with Kartemquin Films. It follows the story of two African-American high school ...more

148 89
Ranker Video
jgreenberg45 added The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters 2007 The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters is a 2007 American documentary film. Highlighting the popular 1980s arcade game Donkey Kong, it follows Steve Wiebe in his attempts to take the world high ...more

132 55
Ranker Video
Exit Through the Gift Shop 2010 "In the late 1990s, a hybrid form of graffiti began appearing in cities around the world. Enlisting stickers, stencils, posters, and sculpture and spread by the burgeoning Internet, it ...more

59 33
Ranker Video
SandyAijalaBrown added The Decline of Western Civilization 1981 The Decline of Western Civilization is an American documentary film filmed through 1979 and 1980. The movie is about the Los Angeles punk rock scene and was directed by Penelope Spheeris. In ...more

Kids of Horror Movies: Where Are They Now?

106 58
Ranker Video
Capturing the Friedmans 2003 Winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the 2003 Sundance Film Festival, CAPTURING THE FRIEDMANS was the most riveting, provocative, and hotly debated film of the year. Despite their predilection for ...more

110 74
Ranker Video
Crumb 1994 Crumb is a 1994 documentary film about the noted underground cartoonist Robert Crumb and his family. Directed by Terry Zwigoff and produced by Lynn O'Donnell, it won widespread acclaim. It was ...more

80 43
Ranker Video
Woodstock 1970 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

102 41
Ranker Video
PetaFritz added Inside Job 2010 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

70 35
Ranker Video
clash1977 added Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmakers's Apocalypse 1991 Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse is a 1991 documentary film about the production of the 1979 feature film Apocalypse Now.

Female Sports with the Hottest Athletes

87 41
Ranker Video
Koyaanisqatsi 1983 Koyaanisqatsi, also known as Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance, is a 1982 film directed by Godfrey Reggio with music composed by Philip Glass and cinematography by Ron Fricke. The film consists ...more

113 71
Ranker Video
Roger & Me 1989 Roger & Me is a 1989 American documentary film directed by Michael Moore. Moore portrays the regional negative economic impact of General Motors CEO Roger Smith's summary action of closing ...more

80 46
Ranker Video
Samantha Dillinger added Catfish 2010 "Nev, a 24-year-old New York–based photographer, has no idea what he’s in for when Abby, an eight-year-old girl from rural Michigan, contacts him on MySpace, seeking permission to paint one ...more

98 43
Ranker Video
Grey Gardens 1975 Grey Gardens is a 1975 American documentary film by Albert and David Maysles. Ellen Hovde and Muffie Meyer also directed, and Susan Froemke was the associate producer. Although Susan Froemke is ...more

59 31
Ranker Video
Harlan County, USA 1976 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

The Best Documentaries to Watch on Benzos

74 36
Ranker Video
Nanook of the North 1922 Nanook of the North is a 1922 American silent documentary film by Robert J. Flaherty, with elements of docudrama, at a time when separating films into documentary and drama did not yet exist. In ...more

53 8
Paradise Lost Trilogy is listed (or ranked) 34 on the list The Greatest Documentaries of All Time
Paradise Lost Trilogy

91 51
Ranker Video
Gimme Shelter 1970 Gimme Shelter is a 1970 documentary film directed by Albert and David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin chronicling the last weeks of The Rolling Stones' 1969 US tour which culminated in the ...more

60 30
Ranker Video
RobMeusel added Senna 2010 "The story of Ayrton Senna, perhaps the greatest race car driver who ever lived, is an epic tale that literally twists at every turn. In the mid 1980s, Senna, a young, gifted driver, ...more

58 38
Ranker Video
JesusAlonso added Waltz with Bashir 2008 One night at a bar, an old friend tells director Ari about a recurring nightmare in which he is chased by 26 vicious dogs. Every night, the same number of beasts. As Ari delves deeper and deeper ...more

The Best of the Skeptical 3rd World Kid Meme

67 36
Ranker Video
JesusAlonso added Triumph of the Will 1935 Triumph of the Will is a 1935 propaganda film directed, produced, edited and co-written by Leni Riefenstahl. It chronicles the 1934 Nazi Party Congress in Nuremberg, which was attended by more ...more

96 64
Ranker Video
Religulous 2008 Religulous is a 2008 American documentary film written by and starring comedian Bill Maher and directed by Larry Charles. The title of the film is a portmanteau derived from the words religious ...more

51 21
Ranker Video
Bobby Fischer Against The World 2011 Bobby Fischer Against the World is a documentary feature film that explores the life of the late chess Grandmaster and 11th World Champion Bobby Fischer. It incorporates interviews with chess ...more

38 13
Ranker Video
The Imposter 2012 The Imposter is a 2012 biographical documentary film directed by Bart Layton.

42 38
Ranker Video
Murderball 2005 Murderball is a 2005 American documentary film about physically disabled athletes who play wheelchair rugby. It centers on the rivalry between the Canadian and U.S. teams leading up to the 2004 ...more

The Best New Kids Movies Since 2015

55 16
Ranker Video
Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory 2011 Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory is a 2011 documentary film and sequel to the films Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills and Paradise Lost 2: Revelations. The three films chronicle the ...more

37 6
The Jinx is listed (or ranked) 44 on the list The Greatest Documentaries of All Time
The Jinx February 8, 2015 – March 15, 2015

51 13
Ranker Video
sebbzor added 9/11: The Falling Man 2006 911: The Falling Man is a 2006 documentary film about the picture of a man falling from the World Trade Center during the September attacks  and the story behind it.

44 27
Ranker Video
JesusAlonso added Olympia 1938 Olympia is a 1938 German documentary film film written, directed and produced by Leni Riefenstahl, documenting the 1936 Summer Olympics, held in the Olympic Stadium in Berlin, Germany. The film ...more

73 55
Ranker Video
midnightq2 added Sicko 2007 Sicko is a 2007 documentary film by American filmmaker Michael Moore. The film investigates health care in the United States, focusing on its health insurance and the pharmaceutical industry. ...more

63 52
Ranker Video
JesusAlonso added Zeitgeist: The Movie 2007 Zeitgeist: The Movie is a 2007 documentary-style film by Peter Joseph. It presents a number of conspiracy theory-based ideas, including a version of the Christ myth theory, conspiracy theories ...more

56 40
Ranker Video
sebbzor added Auschwitz: The Nazis and the 'Final Solution' 2005 Auschwitz: The Nazis and 'The Final Solution' is a BBC six-episode documentary film series presenting the story of Auschwitz through interviews with former inmates and guards to include ...more

56 40
Ranker Video
clash1977 added Dogtown and Z-Boys 2001 Dogtown and Z-Boys is an award winning 2001 documentary film directed by Stacy Peralta. The documentary explores the pioneering of the Zephyr skateboard team in the 1970s and the evolving sport ...more