50 Best Documentaries

  • In the Land of the Headhunters (1914)
  • Nanook of the North (1922)
  • Grass (1925)
  • Berlin: Sympony of a City (1927)
  • Man With a Movie Camera (1929)
  • Land Without Bread (1933)
  • Man of Aran (1934)
  • Triumph of the Will (1934)
  • Olympia (1938)
  • Louisiana Story (1948)
  • Blood of the Beasts (1949)
  • Kon-Tiki (1950)
  • Night and Fog (1955)
  • Mystery of Picasso (1956)
  • White Wilderness (1958)
  • Jazz on a Summer's Day (1960)
  • Tokyo Olympiad (1965)
  • Endless Summer (1966)
  • Portrait of Jason (1967)
  • Salesman (1969)
  • Gimme Shelter (1970)
  • Woodstock (1970)
  • F for Fake (1974)
  • Hearts and Minds (1974)
  • Grey Gardens (1975)
  • Man Who Skied Down Everest (1975)
  • Gates of Heaven (1978)
  • Last Waltz (1978)
  • Scared Straight! (1978)
  • Atomic Cafe (1982)
  • Burden of Dreams (1982)
  • Koyaanisqatsi (1983)
  • 28 Up (1985)
  • Shoah (1985)
  • Sherman's March (1986)
  • Cane Toads (1988)
  • Thin Blue Line (1988)
  • Roger & Me (1989)
  • Close-up (1990)
  • Baraka (1992)
  • Crumb (1994)
  • Hoop Dreams (1994)
  • American Movie (1999)
  • Beyond the Mat (1999)
  • Mr. Death: the Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. (1999)
  • Dark Days (2000)
  • Stevie (2002)
  • Capturing the Friedmans (2003)
  • Fog of War (2003)
  • Control Room (2004)
Author Comments: 

Documentaries I haven't yet seen:
Harlan County, USA
High School
Dead Birds
Life and Debt
Stop Making Sense
Hotel Terminus
Titicut Follies
Hearts of Darkness
Living Desert
Sans Soleil
Vernon, Florida
Grizzly Man
Bright Leaves

I can't wait to see Land Without Bread. Why didn't F for Fake make this list?

I don't know why. The only reason I can think of is I didn't like the look of it, as if Orson never wanted to switch to color (could have been a bad VHS I watched). But now you've got me thinking it's too creative and mesmerizing to leave off. It might make a good radio program.

What about Life and Debt?

I'll add it to my Haven't Seen list

Great list. I'm a huge fan of Errol Morris, it's nice to see him so well-represented here. Have you seen Vernon, Florida? Maybe not a top 50 contender, but good fun.

I would recommend Spellbound (2002), if you haven't seen it. Also a great little music documentary called DiG! (2004)

Unfortunately I haven't seen Vernon Florida, only driven through. I did like Spellbound. Was glad that annoying hyperactive kid lost.

This is an odd decade for me and documentaries. For all their return to popularity, I find the higher-profile ones don't impress me as much as they do other viewers, and yet a few undersung ones have blown me away.

For my money, the best three of this decade so far are Tarnation, Grizzly Man, and Bright Leaves. I still have not watched Fog of War yet, but I will take those three over Control Room any day...

Have you ever seen an older one titled Best Boy? I really like that one.

Shalom, y'all!

L. Bangs

I was mad that I waited 8-9 months to see Grizzly Man and it ended up not playing here. This doesn't seem to be a good area for smaller films.

I seem to be in the minority on Control Room. I enjoyed the passive, disconnected feeling I got in reaction to violent, topical events.

I liked Best Boy as well. Did you see the followup Best Man? Curious if it's worth the rental.

Grizzly Man only played the lone art house theater here, so I guess it merely managed a very limited run. I'm sorry.

I haven't caught Best Man yet, so I am zippo help there.

I did like Control Room, I just did not love it as much as many did.

Shalom, y'all!

L. Bangs

With that kind of record, you should definitely check out Dark Days, the undersung, low-profile documentary that recently wowed Jim, me, and lukeprog, in that order. And it's on pianoshootis's list too!

I haven't seen that yet, but I did see a trailer for it many moons ago and found the concept very intriguing. I'll have to check it out!

Shalom, y'all!

L. Bangs

I love Flaherty's docs: Nanook, Man of Aran, and Louisiana Story. Night and Fog may also be the single most unsettling film I've ever seen--amazing how so many of those images can still cut through our 24-hour, show-everything news channel mentality. I loved Harlan County, USA when I saw it years ago, and I don't understand why it still isn't out on DVD.

Great list; I'm making it a favorite.

Johnny Waco

Thanks for the favoritizing.

It's absurd that the IDA could name "Bowling for Columbine" the best documentary ever in the face of "Night and Fog", Flaherty, etc

Do you not like the rest of the Up Documentaries, or were you just picking the one you liked best to represent the series? If the latter, I think you picked the right one.

The latter, I liked them all (eagerly waiting for 49 Up). 28 Up seems to be the pivotal one where most of the kids start settling into life.