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The Greatest Documentaries of All Time

Updated December 10, 2020 16.7k votes 2.6k voters 162.6k views351 items

List RulesOnly 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.

  • Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father1

    ActorsKurt Kuenne

    Directed byKurt Kuenne

    Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father is a 2008 American documentary conceived and...  more

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  • Grizzly Man2

    Directed byWerner Herzog

    Grizzly Man is a 2005 documentary film by German director Werner Herzog. It chronicles the...  more
  • The Thin Blue Line3

    Directed byErrol Morris

    The Thin Blue Line is a 1988 American documentary film by Errol Morris, depicting the story of...  more
  • Capturing the Friedmans4

    Directed byAndrew Jarecki

    Winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the 2003 Sundance Film Festival, CAPTURING THE FRIEDMANS was...  more

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    #5 of 19 These Documentaries Took A Hard Left Turn And Left Audiences Shocked And Confused#17 of 37 The Best British Documentaries

  • Grey Gardens5

    Directed byAlbert Maysles, David Maysles, Ellen Hovde, Muffie Meyer

    Grey Gardens is a 1975 American documentary film by Albert and David Maysles. Ellen Hovde and...  more
  • Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills6

    Directed byJoe Berlinger, Bruce Sinofsky

    Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills is a 1996 documentary film directed by...  more

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  • The Cove7

    ActorsRichard O'Barry, Louie Psihoyos, Hardy Jones

    Directed byLouie Psihoyos

    The Cove is a 2009 documentary film that analyzes and questions dolphin hunting practices in...  more

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  • Food, Inc.8

    Directed byRobert Kenner

    How much do we know about the food we buy at our local supermarkets and serve to our families?...  more
  • March of the Penguins9

    ActorsRomane Bohringer, Charles Berling, Jules Sitruk

    Directed byLuc Jacquet

    March of the Penguins is a 2005 French nature documentary film directed and co-written by Luc...  more

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  • Bowling for Columbine10

    Directed byMichael Moore

    Bowling for Columbine is a 2002 American documentary film written, directed, and narrated by...  more
  • Hoop Dreams11

    ActorsWilliam Gates, Arthur Agee, Emma Gates

    Directed bySteve James

    Hoop Dreams is a 1994 American documentary film directed by Steve James and written by James...  more

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  • Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room12

    ActorsPeter Coyote, Gary Davis, Jeffrey Skilling, Bethany McLean, Kenneth Lay

    Directed byAlex Gibney

    Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room is a 2005 documentary film based on the best-selling 2003...  more
  • Man on Wire13

    ActorsPaul McGill, Robert Sciglimpaglia, Jr., Joel Ney, Laurence Gates

    Directed byJames Marsh

    Man on Wire is a 2008 British documentary film directed by James Marsh. The film chronicles...  more
  • The Last Waltz14

    ActorsRobbie Robertson, Muddy Waters, Neil Young

    Directed byMartin Scorsese

    The Last Waltz was a concert by the Canadian rock group the Band, held on American...  more

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  • The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters15

    Directed bySeth Gordon

    The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters is a 2007 American documentary film. Highlighting the...  more

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  • Koyaanisqatsi16

    ActorsLou Dobbs

    Directed byGodfrey Reggio

    Koyaanisqatsi, also known as Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance, is a 1982 film directed by...  more
  • The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara17

    Directed byErrol Morris

    The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara is a 2003 American...  more
  • Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmakers's Apocalypse18

    Directed byEleanor Coppola, George Hickenlooper, Fax Bahr

    Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse is a 1991 documentary film about the production...  more
  • Blackfish19

    Directed byGabriela Cowperthwaite

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

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  • When We Were Kings20

    ActorsGeorge Foreman, B.B. King, Don King, George Plimpton

    Directed byLeon Gast

    When We Were Kings is a 1996 documentary film directed by Leon Gast about the famous "Rumble...  more

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  • Woodstock21

    ActorsJimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Pete Townshend, Jerry Garcia, Keith Moon

    Directed byMichael Wadleigh

    Woodstock is a 1970 American documentary of the watershed counterculture Woodstock Festival...  more

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  • Crumb22



    ActorsRobert Crumb

    Directed byTerry Zwigoff

    Crumb is a 1994 documentary film about the noted underground cartoonist Robert Crumb and his...  more
  • Harlan County, USA23

    Directed byBarbara Kopple

    Harlan County, USA is a 1976 Oscar-winning documentary film covering the "Brookside Strike",...  more
  • Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple24

    Directed byStanley Nelson Jr.

    Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple, is a 2006 documentary film made by Firelight...  more
  • Inside Job25

    ActorsMatt Damon

    Directed byCharles Ferguson

    Inside Job is a 2010 American documentary film, directed by Charles Ferguson, about the...  more