Entertainment

The Greatest Documentaries of All Time 

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Updated February 25, 2020 20.3k votes 2.4k voters 154.7k views 350 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
1
Ranker Video
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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#109 of 292 The Top Tearjerker Movies That Make Men Cry #64 of 199 The Biggest Tearjerker Movies of All Time

2
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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
3
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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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#173 of 317 The Best Movies for Kidslisted on Every Oscar Winning Film Ever

4
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2005

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
5
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1988

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
6
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2013

Directed by: Gabriela Cowperthwaite

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

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#19 of 60 The Best Documentaries on Hulu #2 of 51 Life-Changing Documentaries You've Got to See

7
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2006

Directed by: Stanley Nelson Jr.

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
8
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2008

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
9
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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
10
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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
11
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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
12
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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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#536 of 548 The Greatest Movies for Guyslisted on Every Oscar Winning Film Ever

13
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1978

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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#46 of 205 The Best Movies About Music #182 of 591 The Best '70s Movies

14
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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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#297 of 379 The 50+ Best War Movies Ever Made, Ranked #40 of 78 The Best Oscar-Winning Documentarieslisted on Every Oscar Winning Film Ever

15
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2003

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
16
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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
17
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2019

Actors: Billy McFarland, Ja Rule

Directed by: Chris Smith

Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened is a 2019 American documentary film directed by Chris Smith, released on Netflix on January 18, 2019. An exclusive behind the scenes look at the ...more
18
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1975

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
19
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SandyAijalaBrown added 1981

Actors: Exene Cervenka, Billy Zoom, John Doe, Dave Alvin, D. J. Bonebrake, + more

Directed by: Penelope Spheeris

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
20
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2002

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
21
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1970

Actors: Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Pete Townshend, Jerry Garcia, Keith Moon, + more

Directed by: Michael Wadleigh

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

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#144 of 591 The Best '70s Movies Inside Jimi Hendrix’s Legendary And Controversial National Anthem Performance At Woodstock '69listed on Every Oscar Winning Film Ever

22
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1994

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
23
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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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#31 of 46 Films About Hobbies, Interests, Collecting and Obsessions #2 of 29 The Best Documentaries About Video Games

24
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1989

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
25
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clash1977 added 1991

Directed by: Eleanor Coppola, George Hickenlooper, Fax Bahr

Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse is a 1991 documentary film about the production of the 1979 feature film Apocalypse Now.