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The Greatest Documentaries of All Time 

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Updated April 8, 2020 20.5k votes 2.5k voters 156.5k views 352 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.

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jgreenberg45 added 2008

Actors: Kurt Kuenne

Directed by: Kurt Kuenne

Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father is a 2008 American documentary conceived and created by Kurt Kuenne. Kuenne's close friend Andrew Bagby was murdered after Bagby ended his ...more

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Directed by: Werner Herzog

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
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Directed by: Errol Morris

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

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Directed by: Robert Kenner

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

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Directed by: Michael Moore

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

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Desertrat89 added 1996

Directed by: Joe Berlinger, Bruce Sinofsky

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
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DigBick added 2005

Actors: Romane Bohringer, Charles Berling, Jules Sitruk

Directed by: Luc Jacquet

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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Benjamin Dunn added 2009

Directed by: Louie Psihoyos

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
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Directed by: Andrew Jarecki

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
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JesusAlonso added 2008

Actors: Paul McGill, Robert Sciglimpaglia, Jr., Joel Ney, Laurence Gates, + more

Directed by: James Marsh

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

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Directed by: Steve James

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
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Pallknowing1 added 2005

Directed by: Morgan Spurlock, Mira King

Super Size Me is a 2004 American documentary film directed by and starring Morgan Spurlock. Spurlock's film follows a 30-day period from February 1 to March 2, 2003, during which he ate only ...more
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Desertrat89 added 2005

Actors: Peter Coyote, Gary Davis, Jeffrey Skilling, Bethany McLean, Kenneth Lay, + more

Directed by: Alex Gibney

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

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Directed by: Albert Maysles, David Maysles, Ellen Hovde, Muffie Meyer

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

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Directed by: Martin Scorsese

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

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jgreenberg45 added 1996

Actors: George Foreman, B.B. King, Don King, George Plimpton

Directed by: Leon Gast

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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jgreenberg45 added 2007

Directed by: Seth Gordon

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

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Actors: Robert Crumb

Directed by: Terry Zwigoff

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
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Actors: Guy Williams, Correy Lennox, Richard Earl Sawdon, Brian MacDonald

Directed by: Michael Moore

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
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Clark Benson added 2003

Directed by: Errol Morris

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

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PetaFritz added 2010

Actors: Matt Damon

Directed by: Charles Ferguson

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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Actors: Lou Dobbs

Directed by: Godfrey Reggio

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
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Directed by: Gabriela Cowperthwaite

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

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Actors: Keith Richards, The Rolling Stones, Mick Jagger, Bill Wyman, Charlie Watts, + more

Directed by: Albert Maysles, David Maysles, Charlotte Zwerin

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

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Actors: Nyla, Allakariallak, Cunayou

Directed by: Robert J. Flaherty

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

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