The 15 Greatest Documentaries of All Time: Explore Films by Werner Herzog, Errol Morris & More

There are two kinds of peo­ple in this world: those who rec­og­nize the phrase “corny dia­logue that would make the pope weep,” and those who don’t. If you fall into the for­mer cat­e­go­ry, your mind is almost cer­tain­ly filled with images of bleak Mid­west­ern win­ters, mod­est trail­er homes, hood­ed fig­ures smash­ing an already-junk­yard-wor­thy car, and above all, one man try­ing — and try­ing, and try­ing — to put anoth­er man’s head through a kitchen cab­i­net. If you fall into the lat­ter cat­e­go­ry, it’s high time you watched Amer­i­can Movie, Chris Smith and Sara Price’s doc­u­men­tary about a hap­less aspir­ing Wis­con­sin hor­ror film­mak­er Mark Bor­chardt that has, in the 25 years since its release, become a minor cul­tur­al phe­nom­e­non unto itself.

Amer­i­can Movie right­ful­ly occu­pies the top spot in the new Cin­e­ma Car­tog­ra­phy video above, which ranks the fif­teen great­est doc­u­men­taries of all time. The list fea­tures well-known works by the most acclaimed doc­u­men­tary film­mak­ers alive today, like Fred­er­ick Wise­man’s Titi­cut Fol­lies, which cap­tures a tal­ent show at an insti­tu­tion for the “crim­i­nal­ly insane”; Errol Mor­ris’ The Thin Blue Line, which proved instru­men­tal in solv­ing the very mur­der case it exam­ines; and Wern­er Her­zog’s Griz­zly Man, which deals in Her­zog’s sig­na­ture height­ened yet mat­ter-of-fact man­ner with the iron­ic fate of an eccen­tric bear enthu­si­ast.

Doc­u­men­tary film has expe­ri­enced some­thing of a pop­u­lar renais­sance over the past few decades, begin­ning in 1994 with Steve James’ Acad­e­my Award-win­ning Hoop Dreams (which comes in at num­ber sev­en). More recent exam­ples of doc­u­men­taries that have gone rel­a­tive­ly main­stream include Joshua Oppen­heimer’s The Act of Killing (num­ber three), in which par­tic­i­pants in Indone­si­a’s mass polit­i­cal vio­lence of the nine­teen-six­ties recall their own bru­tal­i­ty in detail, and O.J.: Made in Amer­i­ca (num­ber five), which revis­its the “tri­al of the cen­tu­ry” now so close and yet so far in our cul­tur­al mem­o­ry. There are also intrigu­ing films of a much low­er pro­file, like William Greaves’ chaot­ic Sym­biopsy­chotax­i­plasm: Take One and the late Jonas Mekas’ epi­cal­ly but mod­est­ly auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal As I Was Mov­ing Ahead Occa­sion­al­ly I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beau­ty.

If you watch only one of these fif­teen doc­u­men­taries, make it Amer­i­can Movie, which repays repeat­ed view­ings over a quar­ter-cen­tu­ry (as I can per­son­al­ly con­firm) with not just its com­e­dy — inten­tion­al or unin­ten­tion­al — but also its insight — again, inten­tion­al or unin­ten­tion­al — into the nature of cre­ation, friend­ship, and human exis­tence itself. “If ever, in your cre­ations, there’s doubt, or you ever feel like you’ve lost your way, if there was ever a film to watch, to realign your­self, it is Amer­i­can Movie,” says The Cin­e­ma Car­tog­ra­phy cre­ator Lewis Bond. Even those of us not ded­i­cat­ed to any par­tic­u­lar art form could stand to be remind­ed on occa­sion that, as Bor­chardt mem­o­rably puts it, “life is kin­da cool some­times.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

50 Must-See Doc­u­men­taries, Select­ed by 10 Influ­en­tial Doc­u­men­tary Film­mak­ers

Watch 80 Free Doc­u­men­taries from Kino Lor­ber: Includes Films on M. C. Esch­er, Stan­ley Kubrick, Han­nah Arendt, Hilma af Klint & More

Errol Mor­ris Makes His Ground­break­ing Series First Per­son Free to Watch Online: Binge Watch His Inter­views with Genius­es, Eccentrics, Obses­sives & Oth­er Unusu­al Types

Por­trait Wern­er Her­zog: The Director’s Auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal Short Film from 1986

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

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

by | Permalink | Comments (1) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.