Top 10 Greatest Documentary Films of All Time
If you’re an avid documentary enthusiast then this article is for you! We’ve compiled a list of the top 10 greatest documentary films of all time, from famous classics to modern masterpieces. Whether you’re into history, science, politics, or sociology, you’ll find the perfect documentary to satisfy your craving. So sit back, relax, and enjoy our countdown of the 10 greatest documentaries ever made!
10. The Fog of War
The 2003 documentary film ‘The Fog of War’ features interviews with former US Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara on the controversial events he was engulfed in during the Cold War, and the Vietnam War. The film highlights the different approaches he used to manage the conflict between the US and Russia, as well as the different strategies used to deal with the Vietnam War.
The film’s main focus is on McNamara’s moral ramifications of his decisions and the lessons he learned from his experiences. The interviews are cut together with footage from archives, newsreels, and television reports which provide a glimpse into the global politics of the time. ‘The Fog of War’ provides insight into McNamara’s evolution of thinking on the consequences of war and his views of the Vietnam War.
- Challenging the View of McNamara: The film’s goal was not to glorify McNamara but to provide an understanding of his thinking of his decisions and their implications.
- Historical Context: Helps to build an understanding of the end of the Cold War, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the Vietnam War.
- McNamara’s Project 100,000: Stated policy that reduced military standards and allowed 100,000 young men into military service.
The film succeeds in reaching its aim, to look at the wider implications of war, with its unique way of storytelling. One of the most influential films of its kind, ‘The Fog of War’ provides viewers with a platform to view the War in a new, nuanced light.
The documentary Virunga, released in 2014, is a powerful exposé of the issues facing Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). This park, which is home to the endangered mountain gorillas, is under threat from foreign oil companies, poachers, and militant forces like the M23 rebel group. The film follows the park’s brave rangers as they confront these challenges and fight to protect their homeland.
The documentary opens with an introduction to the park’s chief warden, Belgian Emmanuel de Merode, and his efforts to protect the park, and to protect its animals and its people. He and his rangers face danger every day, especially from poachers. The documentary follows the key players in the fight to save Virunga, including the park’s legal team, headed by British barrister Jonathan Gilardi, and the Virunga Foundation, led by Rianne Teule.
The film is full of heartbreaking scenes, like when rangers come across a young mountain gorilla whose mother was killed by poachers. It is also full of moments of triumph, like when the rangers successfully battle an armed group of poachers. At the same time, the film highlights the political struggles that go on behind the scenes, as powerful entities like oil companies seek to invade the park, and the Congo’s government seeks to exploit its resources.
- Heartbreaking scenes: The documentary follows the key players in the fight to save Virunga, including the park’s legal team, headed by British barrister Jonathan Gilardi, and the Virunga Foundation, led by Rianne Teule.
- Moments of triumph: It is full of moments of triumph, like when the rangers successfully battle an armed group of poachers.
- Political struggles: At the same time, the film highlights the political struggles that go on behind the scenes, as powerful entities like oil companies seek to invade the park, and the Congo’s government seeks to exploit its resources.
Overall, Virunga is a must-see documentary for anyone who wants to better understand the political and environmental issues facing this incredible park. It is also a tribute to the brave rangers who work hard every day to protect Virunga and its inhabitants.
8. Harlan County U.S.A.
Harlan County U.S.A. is a 1976 award-winning documentary about the struggle of a coal mining community in Harlan County, USA. It follows the efforts of the miners to win better wages and working conditions from a strong and resistant employer. The film is widely praised for its intimate depiction of the labor movement and the effects of economic injustice on a rural community.
Expertly Told Story
The film was written, directed, and produced by Barbara Kopple, a gifted documentarian. The film intersperses interviews with miners and their families, with archival footage, and scenes from the actual strike. This creates a compelling story of courage and class struggle in a time of economic trauma across America.
The film went on to win two Academy Awards, 5 Emmys, a Peabody, as well as other accolades. Kopple later returned to Harlan County in 2007 to create a follow-up documentary, “Harlan County U.S.A: Voices from the Mine War”.
Legacy of the Film
Harlan County U.S.A. is considered a classic and is regularly cited among the best documentaries of all time. The film is essential viewing to gain an understanding of the struggles of the working class in America and the power that grassroots activism can wield.
7. Grizzly Man
Grizzly Man is a 2004 documentary film directed by Werner Herzog. It tells the story of Timothy Treadwell, who spent years living among grizzly bears in the Alaskan wild. During his time in Alaska, Treadwell became indulgent in his behavior with the animals; attempting to touch, feed, and even give them names– all of which changed the animals’ behavior and in some cases caused an aggression towards humans.
The main focus of the film is a 13-minute video collected from Treadwell’s camcorder after he was killed by a grizzly bear in the area. This footage, along with interviews of the people involved in the event, serves as a way to examine the reasoning behind Treadwell’s behavior and ultimately leads to the question: is this kind of behavior ethical?
- The film follows Treadwell’s journey to Alaska
- Shows footage and interviews collected from the people around him
- Explores his reckless behavior with animals
- Demonstrates potential dangers of human-animal interaction
- Raises important ethical questions
Grizzly Man culminates with perhaps the most difficult questions posed to the audience: how much control can humans have over animal behavior and how close is too close to wild animals? As with the film’s most powerful moments, the answer to these questions is far from clear.
6. When We Were Kings
Released in 1996, When We Were Kings is a documentary that chronicles the 1974 heavyweight title bout between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman, taking place in Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It not only looks back on the major boxing event itself but also explores the history of the nation at that time as well as its implications in the wider international context.
The film won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, as well as a range of other awards including the Grand Jury Award at the Sundance Film Festival. For many, it’s seen as one of the best boxing films ever made, depicting the excitement of the contest between these two powerful athletes as well as touching upon issues of race and colonialism.
Here are six things to know about When We Were Kings:
- It was directed by Academy Award-winning filmmaker Leon Gast.
- It made extensive use of rare archival footage from the fight, as well as interviews with figures such as Don King and Norman Mailer.
- The documentary was shot over the course of three years, with Gast traveling back and forth between the U.S. and Africa.
- The documentary focuses on a variety of issues, such as race, fame, and the importance of the fight in the context of the turbulent political stage at the time.
- It provides a unique insight into the life of Muhammad Ali during the height of his career.
- It celebrates the spirit of the fight and its potential to bring people together.
The film is well worth watching, as it encapsulates the importance of that historic fight and offers an interesting glimpse at an incredibly momentous occasion.
5. The Thin Blue Line
The Thin Blue Line was a 1988 documentary directed by Errol Morris and executive produced by Michael Apted. The film follows the story of Randall Dale Adams, a man wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death for a 1976 murder in Dallas, Texas.
Using archival news footage, interviews, and re-enactments, the film examines the facts of the case and the injustices within the criminal justice system. The Thin Blue Line was one of the first documentaries to employ narrative film techniques. This has been credited with helping to change public opinion in the case, ultimately leading to Adams’s release from prison.
- Innovative Filmmaking Technique - The Thin Blue Line employed narrative film techniques like those found in dramas, usually reserved for fictional films. This created a ‘filmic poem’ within the documentary to increase the impact.
- Social Impact – The Thin Blue Line received critical acclaim from audiences and critics alike, and has since been labeled one of the most influential documentaries of all time.
- Use of Reenactments – As interviews for the film were limited, Morris employed reenactments to portray certain events and point of view of the police and witnesses.
The film brought attention to the flawed criminal justice system and the potential for miscarriages of justice. Since its release, The Thin Blue Line has been studied in the fields of law, sociology, philosophy, and film studies. It has also been credited with reinvigorating the genre of documentary filmmaking.
4. Grey Gardens
Grey Gardens is one of the most famous documentaries of all time and is well worth a watch if you’re interested in a unique behind-the-scenes look at a unique family. The 1975 documentary was based on the Grey Gardens mansion located in East Hampton, New York, owned by Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale and her daughter Little Edie.
The project was created by renowned documentarians Albert and David Maysles and tells the fascinating story of how this eccentric old mother-and-daughter duo lived together in the decaying mansion, despite their wealth and privilege. If you’re looking for a lighthearted yet incredibly empathetic film, you’ll likely find it in Grey Gardens.
The film provides a snapshot of a unique and estranged family, but it also manages to be more than a simple portrait. The audience is invited to see human fragility and the strength of family bonds while having a sometimes humorous, ever-unusual subplot. Highlights of the film include:
- The Music: The haunting but picturesque music of Finnish composer Yaakov Gili is one of its most distinct features.
- The Costumes: Little Edie is famous for her outrageous collection of costumes and creative accessorizing that was so ahead of its time in 1975.
- The Characters: The main characters of the Beale family are especially beloved, and the documentary continues to hold an iconic status.
Grey Gardens has been re-released a number of times since its release, each time finding an even larger audience and continued respect. It is probably one of the most famous documentaries of the 20th century, and its influence can still be felt in the landscape of filmmaking today.
3. Man on Wire
The 2008 British-French documentary movie, ‘Man on Wire’, covers Philippe Petit’s dangerous and daring effort to perform a tightrope walk between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City on August 7th, 1974.
Told through historical footage, interviews, and as-it-happened reenactments, the film narrates how Phillipe Petit and his fellow conspirators managed to execute the plan, defying the laws of physics and the authorities. The resulting tightrope walk and show was a beautiful and death-defying art piece.
The scene of Phillipe’s stroll across the Twin Towers was an iconic one, and it resulted in the arrest of Petit and his accomplices. This risky and clever performance was a spectacle to watch, and even resulted in some good press for the World Trade Center, as Petit was hailed as a brave man, and his act as an act of art.
The film was well-received, winning an Oscar and multiple awards at film festivals. It stands out as a piece that celebrates creativity and the art of risk-taking and is sure to remain in the hearts and minds of generations to come.
Notable Facts About ‘Man on Wire’:
- The film was directed by James Marsh
- It won an Oscar and was nominated for five more
- It was released in the United Kingdom in 2008 and in the United States in 2009
- The movie was never released in theatres but was distributed in film festivals
2. Steamboat Bill Jr.
Steamboat Bill Jr. is a 1928 American silent comedy film starring Buster Keaton. The film follows the story of Willie Canfield, the son of Steamboat Captain William “Steamboat Bill” Canfield. When Willie learns of his father’s obsolescence, he comes to his rescue with the help of his love interest Marion, a young girl who is also one of his father’s crew members.
Willie is pitted against his father’s rival, ’Steamboat’ King, who wants to drive Steamboat Bill out of business. Willie and his father must work together to outwit King and save Canfield’s steamboat. The film is filled with excellent physical comedy sequences, as well as Keaton’s signature gag, a house whose facade falls on him.
The film also features an impressive stunt sequence that involves a cyclone and a collapsing river wall. It’s an impressive demonstration of Keaton’s stuntman abilities and a great highlight of the film. So if you’re looking for some classic silent comedy, look no further than Steamboat Bill Jr!
- Starring Buster Keaton
- Follows the story of Willie Canfield
- Features an impressive stunt sequence
- Filled with excellent physical comedy sequences
1. The Battle of Algiers
The Battle of Algiers (1966) is an Algerian–French war film directed by Gillo Pontecorvo. This historical drama, filmed in black and white, documents the struggles of Algerians for independence from France. The film is based on the events of the Algerian War (1954–62).
The Battle of Algiers has become a classic in political cinema and is now considered an anticolonialist film. Numerous people from that period who were portrayed in the film were present during the making; such as Saadi Yacef, an Algerian military leader who had taken part in the battle and later wrote his memoirs. The film also features an impressive musical score and strong performances by the cast.
- The film portrays the year-long Battle of Algiers, from 1954 to 1955, when the Algerians fought against French forces for independence.
- The film follows the organization of the Algerians, from the use of terrorism to their capture by the French.
- The Battle of Algiers received worldwide acclaim, and it was nominated for three Academy Awards in 1967.
The Battle of Algiers has been widely praised for its historical accuracy and is regarded as one of the greatest films of all time. The film has been cited by figures such as Fidel Castro, Edward Said, and Che Guevara, and it has been named the best film of the century by various film critics and scholars.
We hope you enjoyed this list of the top 10 greatest documentary films of all time. Whether you’re a serious movie buff, or just looking for something to watch on a lazy Sunday afternoon, there’s surely something here that will capture your interest. So, take your pick and get ready to learn something – along with being entertained.