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.
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
- Directed by: Stanley Nelson
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
- Actors: Kurt Kuenne
- Directed by: Kurt Kuenne
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
- Actors: Joe Berlinger, Bruce Sinofsky, Jessie Misskelly, Jason Baldwin, Damien Wayne Echols
- Directed by: Joe Berlinger, Bruce Sinofsky
Athlete A is a 2020 American documentary film directed by Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk. A team of investigative journalists from The Indianapolis Star break the story of doctor Larry Nassar assaulting ...more
- Actors: Maggie Nichols, Simone Biles, Gabby Douglas
- Directed by: Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk
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
- Actors: Tilikum, Dave Duffus, Samantha Berg
- Directed by: Gabriela Cowperthwaite
The history of the Fyre Music Festival, from its creation through its unraveling.
- Actors: Billy McFarland, Ja Rule
- Directed by: Chris Smith
Love, Gilda is a 2018 documentary film directed by Lisa Dapolito. In her own words, comedienne Gilda Radner looks back and reflects on her life and career with recently discovered audiotapes, ...more
- Actors: Gilda Radner, Amy Poehler, Bill Hader, Lorne Michaels, Maya Rudolph
- Directed by: Lisa Dapolito
- Directed by: Henry Singer
Filmmaker Morgan Neville examines the life and legacy of Fred Rogers, the beloved host of the popular children's TV show "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood."
- Actors: Fred Rogers
- Directed by: Morgan Neville
Filmmakers Ken Burns, Sarah Burns and David McMahon examine a 1989 case of five teenagers who were wrongfully convicted of raping a woman. After they had spent from six to 13 years in prison, a ...more
- Actors: Ed Koch, Craig Steven Wilder, Calvin O. Butts, David Dinkins
- Directed by: Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, David McMahon
Pieced together from Timothy Treadwell's actual video footage, Werner Herzog's remarkable documentary examines the calling that drove Treadwell to live among a tribe of wild grizzly bears on an ...more
- Actors: Jewel Palovak, Warren Queeney, Carol Dexter, Val Dexter, Sam Egli
- Directed by: Werner Herzog
The Imposter is a 2012 biographical documentary film directed by Bart Layton.
- Actors: Adam O'Brian, Ken Appledorn, Amparo Fontanet, Ivan Villanueva, Maria Jesus Hoyos
- Directed by: Bart Layton
The Man Nobody Knew: In Search of My Father, CIA Spymaster William Colby is a 2011 American documentary film exploring the life and career of former CIA director William Egan Colby. His son Carl ...more
- Directed by: Carl Colby
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: Mads Brügger
- Directed by: Mads Brügger
When Lambs Become Lions is a 2019 American documentary film directed by Jon Kasbe. The film looks at the struggle that faces both ivory poachers and wildlife rangers in the Kenyan bush.
- Directed by: Jon Kasbe
Bad Reputation is a 2018 documentary film directed by Kevin Kerslake. Featuring archival footage and interviews with rock legends, the documentary explores the rise of Joan Jett in rock-n-roll ...more
- Actors: Joan Jett, Billie Joe Armstrong, Miley Cyrus
- Directed by: Kevin Kerslake
While preparing a documentary about children's birthday party entertainers, filmmaker Andrew Jarecki learned that one of his subjects, professional clown David Friedman, was the son and brother of ...more
- Actors: David Friedman, Jesse Friedman
- Directed by: Andrew Jarecki
This film explores the daily lives of two aging, eccentric relatives of Jackie Kennedy Onassis. Edie Bouvier Beale and her mother, Edith, are the sole inhabitants of a Long Island estate. During the ...more
- Directed by: Ellen Hovde, Albert Maysles, David Maysles, Muffie Meyer
In 1969, 500,000 people descended on a small patch of field in a little-known town in upstate New York called Woodstock. In this documentary, the iconic event is chronicled in unflinching detail, ...more
- Actors: Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Pete Townshend, Jerry Garcia, Keith Moon
- Directed by: Michael Wadleigh
Moonlight Sonata (a.k.a. Moonlight Sonata: Deafness in Three Movements) is a 2019 American documentary film directed by Irene Taylor Brodsky. The documentary interweaves the story of a deaf boy ...more
- Directed by: Irene Taylor Brodsky
Boys State is a 2020 American documentary film directed by Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine. A thousand teenage boys attending Boys/Girls State in Texas, coming together to build a representative ...more
- Actors: Ben Feinstein, Steven Garza, Robert MacDougall
- Directed by: Jesse Moss, Amanda McBaine
Black Mother is a 2019 American documentary film directed by Khalik Allah. From red light districts to lush rain-forests, 'Black Mother' is a loving and lyrical ode to Jamaica and its people, a ...more
- Directed by: Khalik Allah
The Russian Five is a 2019 American, Canadian, and Russian sports documentary film directed by Joshua Riejl. In the late 1980s, The Detroit Red Wings changed the way North American hockey is played ...more
- Directed by: Joshua Riehl
TV host Bob Ross ("The Joy of Painting") brings joy to millions as the world's most famous art instructor. However, a battle for his business empire casts a shadow over his happy trees.
- Actors: Bob Ross
- Directed by: Joshua Rofé
Woodstock 99: Peace, Love, and Rage is a 2021 American documentary film directed by Garret Price. Woodstock 99, a three-day music festival promoted to echo unity and counterculture idealism of the ...more
- Actors: Carson Daly, Black Thought, Maureen Callahan
- Directed by: Garret Price