The first films ever made were documentaries.
Originally demonstrations of the magic of filmmaking technology, these short, seemingly insignificant projects have since served as historical records of everyday life at the turn of the 19th century. 125 years later, documentary filmmaking is still one of the most powerful ways of educating and influencing audiences, for better or worse.
“Documentary” in and of itself is a storytelling medium, not a film genre. But in our list of film history’s essential doc titles, our picks span a wide range of subjects and styles, offering three standout selections for each noteworthy category.
Read on for our list and weigh in on what you love (or what we missed) in the comments below.
Best Documentaries on war
Best Documentaries on War
1. Shoah (1985)
French filmmaker Claude Lanzmann spent 11 years conducting interviews with survivors, bystanders in nearby villages, and even perpetrators of the Nazi atrocities during the Holocaust. He managed to pare that footage down to just nine and a half hours, in which he focuses on four main topics: the Warsaw Ghetto, Treblinka, Chelmno Extermination Camp, and Auschwitz-Birkenau.
What makes Shoah one of the best documentaries of all time is that Lanzmann chooses to forego the use of archival footage and allow the lived experience of each survivor to speak for itself. In this way, the audience cannot escape listening to firsthand accounts of the unimaginable things these people suffered.Lanzmann continued to shape the unused footage into four additional films. The final film, Shoah: Four Sisters, was released just last year.
2. Nuit et brouillard (1955)
Sixty-five years after its release, Alain Resnais’ Night and Fog is still one of the top documentaries on the Holocaust. Resnais uses a powerful series of juxtapositions that purposefully amplify the atrocities inflicted by the Nazis. Going from color to black-and-white and back again, Resnais provides a concise chronology of the Holocaust.
With accompanying narration written by Mauthausen survivor Jean Cayrol, then-current images of Auschwitz-Birkenau, empty and overgrown with weeds, are shown beside archival footage of the fully functioning camp. The commander’s villa bustles with ordinary family life next to the inhuman conditions of the camp right next door. The film concludes with Liberation and the gruesome evidence the Allies discovered in the aftermath.
NIGHT AND FOG
Best War Documentaries
3. The Fog of War (2003)
The great Errol Morris won the Best Documentary Oscar for this spotlight on former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, known as the Architect of Vietnam. Intercut with archival footage, which includes McNamara’s own words during his term, the film is broken into eleven “lessons” that McNamara attempts to impart on how to conduct a war.
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THE FOG OF WAR
4. Waltz with Bashir (2008)
Waltz with Bashir follows filmmaker Ari Folman’s deeply personal mission to recover his lost memory of his service in the Israeli Defense Force during the 1982 invasion of Lebanon. Though he is terrified of what he’ll discover about himself, he persists in following leads wherever they take him, interviewing friends who were there with him and even a journalist covering the invasion at the time.
Folman uses animation to tell his story, perfectly illustrating that what he sees in that period in his mind’s eye is literally drawn from what other people tell him.
Only in the final scene, once Folman has remembered what he desperately repressed for 25 years, does the animation transform into live-action footage of what actually happened.
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WALTZ WITH BASHIR
BEST DOCUMENTARIES ON WAR
5. The Look of Silence (2014)
Director Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Look of Silence is an exemplary study of the aftermath of terrorism. Oppenheimer follows a lone man who confronts the former guerilla leaders that committed horrific atrocities and decimated the man’s village and family.
Men who were never held accountable for their crimes against humanity now teach the local children, living and working peacefully among the neighbors they once tortured.In Oppenheimer’s own words: “The Look of Silence, is, I hope, a poem about a silence borne of terror–a poem about the necessity of breaking that silence, but also about the trauma that comes when silence is broken… a reminder that although we want to move on, look away and think of other things, nothing will make whole what has been broken.”
Best True Crime Documentaries
BEST CRIME DOCUMENTARIES
1. The Thin Blue Line (1988)
The one that started it all, Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line created the blueprint for the true crime documentary. The film re-examines the case of Randall Dale Adams, who at the time of filming was in prison for the murder of a Dallas police officer.
Morris’s work is simple and elegant, and that’s why it remains one of the best documentaries of all time. The overhead shot of a handheld tape recorder projecting the audio confession of the real killer, David Ray Harris, is just as compelling as having Harris himself on camera—so much so that Adams was exonerated a year after the film’s original release, having served 12 years on Death Row for a murder he didn’t commit.
THE THIN BLUE LINE
True Crime Documentaries
2. Making a Murderer (2015)
Planted evidence, lying under oath, even a “confession” coerced by a learning-disabled teenager’s own defense attorney: These are just some of the brazen acts of police and prosecutorial misconduct that make Making a Murderer one of the best documentaries of all time.
Filmmakers Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos captured all of those actions on camera during the 10 years they spent following the case of Steven Avery’s (and his nephew, Brendan Dassey) arrest and trial for the murder of Teresa Halbach.
Avery had served 18 years in prison for a violent crime he didn’t commit. After DNA exonerated him, he sued the local sheriff’s department, along with other state and local officials, for $36 million for his wrongful conviction. But just as his settlement was about to be awarded, Avery was arrested for Halbach’s murder.
Was it, as Steven Avery maintains, a frame-up as revenge for Avery’s lawsuit? Or was it just a garden variety (but equally reprehensible) case of the end justifying the means?
MAKING A MURDERER
3. Abducted in Plain Sight (2017)
What makes Abducted in Plain Sight one of the best documentaries of all time is how easy it is for us to look back on its story 40 years after it unfolded and be infuriated by Jan Broburg’s parents. They allowed a sexual predator to get so close to their family that he was able to kidnap Jan not just once, but twice, without any real consequence.
But context matters. And the context of this story is a small town in southeastern Idaho during the 1970s, a time when very few people had ever heard the word “pedophile” outside of a spelling bee, let alone understood what it meant.
Filmmaker Skye Borgman does a great job of keeping this context in mind and not judging her subjects, no matter how much she might have been screaming “How could you?!” at them in her own head.
The Broberg family, for their part, wanted their story to serve as a sort of cautionary tale of how skillfully manipulative sociopaths are. But Borgman, on the other hand, feels that the über-religious Brobergs’ unrelenting forgiveness, while extremely admirable, is equally to blame for what happened to their oldest daughter.
True Crime Documentaries
4. The Keepers (2017)
One of the top documentaries of the true crime subgenre, this seven-part series follows former students of Baltimore’s all-girl Archbishop Keough High School as they attempt to solve the brutal 50-year-old murder of their beloved former teacher, Sister Catherine Cesnik.
What these ordinary women uncover in their investigation of Cesnik’s murder is a horrific child sex ring run by the principal of Keough, Father Joseph Maskell. Maskell had spent years singling out the most vulnerable of his teenage charges and pimping them out to community leaders, including those in Baltimore law enforcement and the Baltimore archdiocese itself.
Best True Crime Documentaries
5. Capturing the Friedmans (2003)
Andrew Jarecki made a film about party clowns which featured David Friedman, known professionally as Silly Billy. In the course of his research for that film (Just a Clown), Jarecki learned about Jesse and father Arnold, who had been jailed for child molestation.
What makes Capturing the Friedmans one of the best documentaries of this subgenre is that Jarecki uses the family’s own home videos as his thesis. For whatever reason, the Friedmans kept recording, even during the tumultuous time of the investigation into the allegations against Jesse and Arnold.
Jarecki merely adds context to these videotaped conversations, using interviews with both the family and their friends and neighbors. For example, the family footage was taken at a time when pedophilia and “stranger danger” were only just beginning to be understood by the public at large.Jarecki also spotlights the media circus that quickly surrounded them, as well as the way their friends and neighbors responded to it. Capturing the Friedmans is a fascinating look at the way our opinions are shaped by what we know about someone, and what convinces us to believe they are who they claim to be.
Best Documentaries on Social Justice
Documentaries on Social Justice Issues
BEST SOCIAL JUSTICE DOCUMENTARIES
1. 13th (2016)
Ava DuVernay’s startling film is one of the best documentaries on the subject of racism you’ll ever see. The title refers to the 13th Amendment of the United States Constitution—the one that abolishes slavery:
Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States.
It’s that “except as a punishment for a crime” part that DuVernay zeroes in on. Through interviews with historians, activists, and lawmakers, along with archival images, Duvernay shows how today’s “mass incarceration” of African-American (especially) men is just yesterday’s slavery dressed up in modern clothing.
Social Justice Issues Documentaries
2. I Am Not Your Negro (2016)
Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro is a valuable, straightforward lesson on racism in America. James Baldwin’s powerful words are voiced by the great Samuel L. Jackson, but Baldwin himself appears, castigating those who choose ignorance over action, in archival interviews.
I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO
Best Social Justice Documentaries
5. How to Survive a Plague (2012)
AIDS doesn’t get as much attention now as it did back in the 1980s. This is partly because it isn’t necessarily the death sentence it was back then, since we’ve developed drugs and protocols to help people live with HIV in much the same way as they would any other chronic illness.
How to Survive a Plague is the story of the women and men of ACTUP and other activist organizations who advocated, lobbied, marched, and rallied for the way we live with AIDS now to be possible. For example, they lobbied for government research into the causes of HIV/AIDS, and demanded that FDA drug trials be shortened so that affected people might actually benefit from any drugs being developed.
The film was produced using hundreds of hours in archival footage ranging from interviews, news stories, C-SPAN, and personal footage taken by ACTUP members.
HOW TO SURVIVE A PLAGUE
Documentaries on Social Justice ISsues
3. Paris is Burning (1990)
Jennie Livingston’s Paris is Burning introduced us to the world of Ball culture, a subculture of 1980s New York populated by those who had been rejected everywhere else for their sexuality, gender identity, or gender persona.
Through interviews and conversations, we learn what it means to be a House Mother, how to “read” a rival, and how to throw “shade.” We also get to see some of the unbelievable dance moves that inspired the Madonna hit song “Vogue.”
Social Justice Documentaries
4. The Invisible War (2012)
Kirby Dick and Amy Zierling’s powerful film exposes the rampant sexual assault in the U.S. military.
Both government and military officials at the time of its release openly credited the film for changes they made in official policy regarding investigations and reporting of sexual assault, along with aftercare for sexual assault victims.
and Nature Documentaries
Travel and Nature Documentaries
1. Planet Earth/Blue Planet (2006-2016)
The very first series of the franchise, Blue Planet, features the various ocean habitats. Though it was originally broadcast back in 2001, it remains one of the best documentaries ever made.
And it was the first nature documentary to capture the migration of blue whales. Since then, the entire Planet Earth franchise has continued to elevate the documentary bar higher and higher.
The first Planet Earth (2006) was shot over five years and features 11 different habitats. It was one of the first major network productions to be shot in HD, at the time the highest resolution.The second series, both Planet Earth II and Blue Planet II, were broadcast 10 years later and revisited many of the habitats from the first series, now with even better technology and higher camera resolution (4K). Now the filmmakers could take the audience right inside an underground network of burrows, or soaring on the back of an eagle.
THE PLANET EARTH SERIES
Best Nature documentaries
2. March of the Penguins (2005)
This Oscar-winning film documents the emperor penguins’ annual autumn trek from the sea to the permanent ice of their ancestral breeding ground. Shooters Laurent Chalet and Jérôme Maison spent more than a year in the Antarctic winter filming these magnificent birds as they struggled to keep their eggs, and later their young chicks, alive.
MARCH OF THE PENGUINS
Travel and Nature Documentaries
3. Blackfish (2013)
Blackfish focuses on Tilikum, an orca captured from his pod off the coast of Iceland when he was just two years old. Tilikum had been wholly or partly responsible for the deaths of three different humans, two of them his trainers.
The film spotlights the cruelty of removing animals from the wild and exploiting them for entertainment, particularly large animals like cetaceans, whose lifespans and social constructions are comparable to those of humans.
Best Travel and Nature Documentaries
4. Kedi (2017)
One of my first ever projects in film school was a short film in which I followed my cats throughout their day. I scuttled along after them, holding the camera down at my knees, trying to get as close to their eye level as possible, all while hoping I was staying in focus. Not only was I getting good footage, but my instructor commended me for getting the first over-the-shoulder shots of cats he had ever seen.
Ceyda Torun’s Kedi (“cat” in Turkish), takes this kind of camerawork to the next level. The film focuses on seven of the thousands of cats that inhabit the streets of Istanbul, a city thousands of years old with more than 20 million human residents.
Cats are, and have always been, an essential part of life there, which is comforting to the humans of Istanbul. While our future remains uncertain in many ways, what is for sure is that it will include cats.
Travel and Nature Documentaries
5. Sans Soleil (1983)
Chris Marker compiled his film (Sunless, in English) from stock footage, footage from other filmmakers, and his own original shots. Because it’s more of an experimental “visual essay,” there are those who hesitate to call it a documentary at all.
As with his other best known work, La jetée, Marker tries to make the point that context matters when interpreting memory. But we can never be truly accurate in what we remember, because memory is affected by the context of the time in history, the season, the company we’re with, etc. Marker illustrates this point with images that often don’t jibe with the text from the voice-over.
In the “letters” read in the voice-over narration, he remembers the place in the scene a particular way, while the images show us something slightly different about it. It’s because of this slight disconnect, Marker argues, that perceptions of entire eras or nations can become skewed.
The Silent Era
documentaries Made in the Silent Era
1. Man with a Movie Camera (1929)
Husband and wife Dziga Vertov and Elizaveta Svilova shot and edited this depiction of early Soviet life in several major cities across the newly formed Soviet Union. The filmmakers juxtapose images of Soviet futurism with the mundane reality of ordinary lives, using the camera in some highly inventive ways with techniques that are done digitally now.
The filmmakers’ use of double exposure in one scene, for example, places the eponymous man with the camera inside a frosty mug of beer. In another scene, he’s a giant overlooking the seeming lilliputian city. Other scenes use slow motion, split-screen, freeze frames, and even tracking shots from one moving vehicle to another.The film was dismissed for decades as, in the words of film director and theorist Sergei Eisenstein, “pointless camera hooliganism.” But in recent years, filmmakers and critics alike have reassessed and recognized its importance. With Man with a Movie Camera, Vertov and Svilova accurately predict, and demonstrate, that cinema is limited only by a director’s imagination.
Documentaries in the Silent Era
2. La sortie de l’usine Lumière (1895)
La sortie de l’usine Lumière, Exit from the Lumière Factory, Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory... this film is known by several titles. But no matter what you call it, this 46-second study of factory workers leaving at the end of their work day is what more or less started the documentary concept.
By today’s standards, what happens in this clip is completely uneventful. But at the time of its making, its impact on audiences was enormous.Exit from the Lumière Factory was also one of the first films to prove that cinema could be projected at a scale large enough for an entire seated audience, rather than viewed by only a single person looking through a peephole, as was common at the time.
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LA SORTIE DE L’USINE LUMIERE
- One of the first films shot on 35mm at 1.33:1 aspect ratio, it’s considered by many to be the first real movie ever made
- Tomatometer: N/A
Silent Era Documentaries
3. Nanook of the North (1922)
Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North is frequently cited as the first feature-length documentary, as well as one of the best of all time. Flaherty spent a year in the company of the Inuit people of Ungava Peninsula in the Canadian Arctic, recording their ancestral lifestyle as it would have been prior to European colonization.
Flaherty was heavily criticized for staging most of these events. (The Inuit people had already adopted Western living, even in the early 20th century.) Some critics even argued that Nanook of the North’s re-enactment approach excluded the film from the documentary category altogether.
But a less cynical view would credit Flaherty for putting the re-enactment into documentary filmmakers’ toolbox. It’s a tool that many great documentaries made in its wake have used over the last century.
More Best Documentaries
More Documentaries - Honarary MEntions
More Best Documentaries
A few other documentaries that consistently make “top documentaries” lists are:
Best Movies of the Year 2019
“Best Of” lists provide a unique time capsule of where the zeitgeist was when they’re created. As of this time, these are StudioBinder’s best movies of 2019.