The 10 Greatest Documentaries of All Time According to 340 Filmmakers and Critics

Ear­li­er this year we fea­tured the aes­thet­i­cal­ly rad­i­cal 1929 doc­u­men­tary A Man with a Movie Cam­era. In it, direc­tor Dzi­ga Ver­tov and his edi­tor-wife Eliza­ve­ta Svilo­va, as Jonathan Crow put it, glee­ful­ly use “jump cuts, super­im­po­si­tions, split screens and every oth­er trick in a filmmaker’s arse­nal” to craft a “dizzy­ing, impres­sion­is­tic, propul­sive por­trait of the new­ly indus­tri­al­iz­ing Sovi­et Union.”

He men­tioned then that no less author­i­ta­tive a cinephilic insti­tu­tion than Sight and Sound named A Man with a Movie Cam­era, in their 2012 poll, “the 8th best movie ever made,” But now, in their new poll in search of the great­est doc­u­men­tary of all time, they gave Ver­tov’s film an even high­er hon­or, nam­ing it, well, the great­est doc­u­men­tary of all time. A Man with a Movie Cam­era, writes Bri­an Win­ston, “sign­posts noth­ing less than how doc­u­men­tary can sur­vive the dig­i­tal destruc­tion of pho­to­graph­ic image integri­ty and yet still, as Ver­tov want­ed, ‘show us life.’ Ver­tov is, in fact, the key to documentary’s future.”

High praise indeed, though Sight and Sound’s crit­ics make strong claims (with sup­port­ing clips) for the oth­er 55 doc­u­men­taries on the list as well. In the top ten alone, we have the fol­low­ing:

  1. A Man with a Movie Cam­era (Dzi­ga Ver­tov, 1929)
  2. Shoah (Claude Lanz­mann, France 1985). Lanz­man­n’s “550-minute exam­i­na­tion of the Jew­ish Holo­caust falls with­in the doc­u­men­tary tra­di­tion of inves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ism, but what he does with that form is so con­fronta­tion­al and relent­less that it demands to be described in philosophical/spiritual terms rather than sim­ply cin­e­mat­i­cal­ly.”
  3. Sans soleil (Chris Mark­er, 1982). “It’s a cliché to say about a movie [ … ] that its true shape or tex­ture is in the eye of the behold­er – but it’s true of Sans soleil, which not only with­stands mul­ti­ple view­ings, but nev­er seems to be the same film twice. It address­es mem­o­ry even as its dif­fer­ent threads seem to for­get them­selves; it pars­es geopol­i­tics with­out betray­ing any affil­i­a­tion; it might be Marker’s most elab­o­rate­ly self-effac­ing film, or his most plan­gent­ly per­son­al.”
  4. Night and Fog (Alain Resnais, 1955).In 1945 movie­go­ers world­wide became famil­iar through week­ly news­reels in their local cin­e­mas with the unspeak­able con­di­tions in the recent­ly lib­er­at­ed Nazi exter­mi­na­tion camps. [ … ] Not, how­ev­er, until Night and Fog (Nuit et brouil­lard), com­mis­sioned to mark the tenth anniver­sary of the Allied lib­er­a­tion of the most noto­ri­ous camp, at Auschwitz, did film pro­duc­ers tru­ly con­front and define the moral and aes­thet­ic para­me­ters involved in treat­ing such an intractable sub­ject.”
  5. The Thin Blue Line (Errol Mor­ris, 1989). “A good pros­e­cu­tor can put a guilty sus­pect behind bars, we hear in The Thin Blue Line, but it takes a great one to con­vict an inno­cent man. Some­thing sim­i­lar might be said of Errol Morris’s bril­liant­ly unsta­ble, high­ly influ­en­tial inves­ti­ga­tion into the 1976 road­side shoot­ing of a Texas cop and the wrong­ful con­vic­tion of one Ran­dall Adams.” Demon­strat­ing a mis­car­riage of jus­tice is impres­sive, but it’s quite anoth­er thing to under­mine the very notion of a sta­ble truth.
  6. Chron­i­cle of a Sum­mer (Jean Rouch & Edgar Morin, 1961). Rouch and Morin “are the archi­tects of a social col­lab­o­ra­tion and are rig­or­ous­ly open-hand­ed with the mate­ri­als they’re using. Their loose vox-pop style, begin­ning each encounter by ask­ing whether the inter­vie­wee is hap­py, dis­arm­ing­ly mix­es with scenes that show how cin­e­ma, in any regard, must be arti­fi­cial – employ­ing clas­sic shot-reverse-shot tech­niques in oth­er­wise unevent­ful con­ver­sa­tion­al moments.”
  7. Nanook of the North (Robert Fla­her­ty, 1922). “Nanook of the North is noto­ri­ous for its fak­ery, its open-faced igloo and cutesy depic­tion of the Inu­it as untouched by West­ern cul­ture. [But] Flaherty’s pho­tog­ra­phy is beau­ti­ful, and his make-believe meth­ods cap­tured the tra­di­tion­al skills of Allakariallak’s ances­tors on film before they died out alto­geth­er; to the cin­e­ma audi­ences of the time, Nanook was a jour­ney to a for­eign and fas­ci­nat­ing place.”
  8. The Glean­ers and I (Agnès Var­da, 2000). Var­da’s “hand­held DV auto­por­trait of the artist as an old­er woman,” though it “seems small and sim­ple, albeit rig­or­ous in its inti­ma­cy, bril­liant­ly encom­pass­es agri­cul­ture, art his­to­ry, class pol­i­tics, ecol­o­gy, eco­nom­ics, recy­cling raps and (via an inter­view with a descen­dant of Louis Daguerre) the ori­gins of cin­e­ma.”
  9. Dont Look Back (D.A. Pen­nebak­er, 1967). “The man born Robert Zim­mer­man knows well the val­ue of obscur­ing myths and shift­ing per­sonas, and part of the fas­ci­na­tion of Pennebaker’s pio­neer­ing Direct Cin­e­ma account of Dylan’s 1965 tour of Britain is the way it cap­tures the singer trans­form­ing on cam­era into ‘Dylan’, the unreach­ably cool, detached yet wired, light­ning-in-a-bot­tle young genius who, as Greil Mar­cus mem­o­rably wrote, ‘seemed less to occu­py a turn­ing point in cul­tur­al space and time than to be that turn­ing point.’ ”
  10. Grey Gar­dens, (Albert and David Maysles, Ellen Hov­de, Muffie Mey­er, 1975). “Imag­ine if John Waters shot a script by Ten­nessee Williams and it was broad­cast in a TV slot usu­al­ly reserved for The Hoard­er Next Door or How Clean Is Your House? [ … ] a fly-in-a-Har­vey-Wall­banger look at the world of Jack­ie O.’s eccen­tric cousins, Big Edie and Lit­tle Edie (and their inter­lop­er, ‘the Mar­ble Faun’). It’s fin­ger­nails-down-black­board won­der­ful, as the Edies rem­i­nisce, sing, dance, yell at each oth­er and watch approv­ing­ly as cats and rac­coons befoul their rot­ting Long Island retreat.”

You can read up on the rest of the 50 great­est doc­u­men­taries of all time, which range across the world, across his­to­ry, and across the spec­trum of truth and fic­tion, at Sight and Sound.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

4,000+ Free Movies Online: Great Clas­sics, Indies, Noir, West­erns, Doc­u­men­taries & More

200 Free Doc­u­men­taries Online

Free: Dzi­ga Vertov’s A Man with a Movie Cam­era, the 8th Best Film Ever Made

The 10 Great­est Films of All Time Accord­ing to 846 Film Crit­ics

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture and writes essays on cities, lan­guage, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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Comments (11)
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  • Rain,adustbowlstory says:

    The Thin Blue Line for­ev­er changed my con­fi­dence in the jus­tice sys­tem.

    Now it just makes me ner­vous.

  • Scott Currie says:

    I’m sur­prised that “Sales­man” by Albert and David Maysles isn’t includ­ed. I thought it was at least as mov­ing and inter­est­ing as their “Grey Gar­dens.”

  • davidadein says:

    We’re in a Gold­en Age of Doc­u­men­tary Film and the the lat­est film on this list is from 1989? This does not com­pute?

  • Lola Rogers says:

    Pir­jo Honkasa­lo’s Tril­o­gy of the Sacred and the Satan­ic is not as well-known as it should be.

  • Jadranka Matkovic says:


  • Tom Welsh says:

    I hearti­ly agree with Scott Cur­rie’s coo­ment above.

  • Tom Welsh says:

    Oops, I meant “com­ment”…

  • E.M. Fitzgerald says:

    Where is Tit­ti­cut Fol­lies? As a film that was cen­sored for almost 30 years due to the embar­rass­ment it caused to author­i­ties and it’s role in psy­chi­atric prison reform in the US, I would think that it would be sig­nif­i­cant enough to make the top ten.
    Or Har­lan Coun­ty, USA?
    And I con­cur. I think Sales­man is actu­al­ly a bet­ter exam­ple of Cin­e­ma Ver­i­tae than Grey Gar­dens and a supe­ri­or work by the Maysles.

  • Saulo says:

    When i am asked about my favourite movies I always have in mind two doc­u­men­taries as well, which are of high val­ue and that I per­son­al­ly love, “Crumb” by Ter­ry Zwigoff (1994) and the recent “The Act of Killing” (2012).
    Prob­a­bly Her­zog’s “Griz­zlie Man” would also be at my per­son­al top, though a bit behind those two

  • Quinn says:

    What about the “Up” series?

  • Fede says:

    I would like to add to the list, The dev­il and daniel John­ston, and the Zei­thgeist tril­o­gy.

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