Entertainment

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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    • Directed by: Stanley Nelson
    • Actors: Kurt Kuenne
    • Directed by: Kurt Kuenne
    • Actors: Joe Berlinger, Bruce Sinofsky, Jessie Misskelly, Jason Baldwin, Damien Wayne Echols
    • Directed by: Joe Berlinger, Bruce Sinofsky
  • Athlete A
    4
    • Actors: Maggie Nichols, Simone Biles, Gabby Douglas
    • Directed by: Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk
  • Blackfish
    5
    • Actors: Tilikum, Dave Duffus, Samantha Berg
    • Directed by: Gabriela Cowperthwaite
    • Actors: Billy McFarland, Ja Rule
    • Directed by: Chris Smith
  • Love, Gilda
    7
    • Actors: Gilda Radner, Amy Poehler, Bill Hader, Lorne Michaels, Maya Rudolph
    • Directed by: Lisa Dapolito
    • Directed by: Henry Singer
    • Actors: Fred Rogers
    • Directed by: Morgan Neville
    • Actors: Ed Koch, Craig Steven Wilder, Calvin O. Butts, David Dinkins
    • Directed by: Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, David McMahon
  • Grizzly Man
    11
    • Actors: Jewel Palovak, Warren Queeney, Carol Dexter, Val Dexter, Sam Egli
    • Directed by: Werner Herzog
  • The Imposter
    12
    • Actors: Adam O'Brian, Ken Appledorn, Amparo Fontanet, Ivan Villanueva, Maria Jesus Hoyos
    • Directed by: Bart Layton
    • Directed by: Carl Colby
    • Actors: Mads Brügger
    • Directed by: Mads Brügger
    • Directed by: Jon Kasbe
    • Actors: Joan Jett, Billie Joe Armstrong, Miley Cyrus
    • Directed by: Kevin Kerslake
    • Actors: David Friedman, Jesse Friedman
    • Directed by: Andrew Jarecki
  • Grey Gardens
    18
    • Directed by: Ellen Hovde, Albert Maysles, David Maysles, Muffie Meyer
  • Woodstock
    19
    • Actors: Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Pete Townshend, Jerry Garcia, Keith Moon
    • Directed by: Michael Wadleigh
    • Directed by: Irene Taylor Brodsky
  • Boys State
    21
    • Actors: Ben Feinstein, Steven Garza, Robert MacDougall
    • Directed by: Jesse Moss, Amanda McBaine
  • Black Mother
    22
    • Directed by: Khalik Allah
    • Directed by: Joshua Riehl
    • Actors: Bob Ross
    • Directed by: Joshua Rofé
    • Actors: Carson Daly, Black Thought, Maureen Callahan
    • Directed by: Garret Price