The documentary film is as old as the craft of filmmaking itself. Films like 1895’s Workers Leaving The Lumière Factory in Lyon or 1896’s The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station are among the oldest surviving films. And in essence, they were micro-documentaries, a real-life best documentaries of all time.

Best Documentaries of All Time

Yet despite being with us since the genesis of film making, documentaries don’t often get their due admiration. At least not compared to the popular blockbusters and crowd-pleasers.

Which is unfortunate. By merit of being based in reality, best documentaries of all time are uniquely positioned to affect us. They can even be life-changing.

Which is why today we’re spotlighting 11 of the best documentaries ever made.

1. Grey Gardens (1975)

Grey Gardens depicts the daily life of a pair of reclusive women, a mother and daughter both named Edith Beale. Relatives of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and formerly well-to-do socialites, the two now live in poverty in a derelict mansion in the East Hamptons known as Grey Gardens.

Grey Gardens was a landmark example of the cinéma vérité style of filmmaking, a documentary philosophy that stressed a “fly on the wall” approach where the filmmakers have minimal interaction with their subjects or impact on their narratives, leaving them to tell their own stories.

A critical success on release Grey Gardens would go on to cultivate a cult following due to the Beales’ eccentric personalities. This cult appeal would result in the film being adapted into a stage play, a non-documentary TV movie, and a full-length musical.

2. Paris Is Burning (1990)

New York drag culture has been so extensively co-opted by the mainstream that many people probably don’t even realize that they’ve been influenced by it. For that reason, Paris Is Burning probably needs to be on everyone’s required viewing the best documentaries of all time list.

The film is considered an invaluable time capsule of the underground ball scene of 1980’s New York. But more than that, it offers a deeply moving insight into the lives of its subjects both without the competitive space of their performance and their complicated personal lives.

3. The Act of Killing (2012)

As Clint Stinchcomb, President and CEO of CuriosityStream has observed, “the appetite for factual programming is strong everywhere”. And as a Danish-British-Norwegian co-production based in Indonesia, The Act of Killing truly demonstrates the universal appeal of seeking the truth. It also best documentaries of all time how complicated and devastating the truth can be.

From 1965 to 1966, the Indonesian government and allied paramilitary groups, with the backing of the CIA, carried out a wave of mass killings targeting members of the communist party, ethnic minorities, and anyone suspected of having sympathies for either. In all, the purges claimed more than a million victims. In The Act of Killing, the filmmakers sit down with members of the death squads that carried out the murders.

The result is a raw, intense, and frequently surreal journey into the psychology of the men who are capable of the worst crimes imaginable. It is also a poignant meditation on the lies these men tell themselves to cope, and on the stories we all tell ourselves.

4. I Am Not Your Negro (2016)

This Oscar-nominated film was based on novelist and civil rights luminary James Baldwin’s unpublished manuscript, Remember This House.

Half film essay, half biopic, I Am Not Your Negro paints a portrait of the American Identity as Baldwin saw it. It follows the deaths of the likes of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr., and contrasts them with the images that Hollywood creates and puts out into American society at large.

Always feeling as though he was fighting a losing battle against the tides of white supremacy, Baldwin’s story is troubling, challenging, and entirely too relevant.

5. This Is Not a Film (2012)

One of the stars of the Iranian New Wave, Jafar Panâhi is one of Iran’s most influential living directors. His notoriety also led to him have regular clashes with the Iranian government. These culminated in several arrests and state-imposed bans on making films.

During one of these periods, Panâhi broke his directive not to direct by filming This Is Not a Film. Shot with minimal equipment, it chronicles Panâhi’s daily life on house arrest, preparing for his upcoming court case, and reflecting on life.

The film was smuggled out of Iran on a flash drive hidden in a birthday cake so that it could make a surprise appearance at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival. Though a very unusual documentary by merit of the conditions surrounding its production, it is nevertheless a stirring portrait of courage and dignity in the face of overwhelming opposition.

6. Capturing the Friedmans (2003)

Director Andrew Jarecki set out to make a light-hearted documentary about birthday clowns. In the process, he ended up discovering a deeper and more unsettling story.

While researching David Friedman, one of his subjects, he learned that Friedman’s father and brother had both been convicted of a systematic pattern of child sexual abuse. Culling through public archives, newspaper articles, and conducting interviews, Jarecki’s simple clown comedy ended up becoming a compelling look at family, dark secrets, lies, and truth.

7. Man with a Movie Camera (1929)

Not only one of the best documentaries of all time , but according to the top critics at Sight & Sound, Man with a Movie Camera is one of the best films ever made, ranking number eight in their most recent critic’s poll.

Perhaps the first great documentary film, Man with a Movie Camera depicts urban life in the Soviet cities of Kiev, Kharkov, Moscow, and Odessa. With no dedicated subjects, the film shows average Soviet citizens at work and play.

Beyond being important to documentary filmmaking, it was a huge leap forward for the medium of film as a whole. Man with a Movie Camera was one of the first films to emphasize the mobility of the camera. And though avant-garde in its day, it introduced techniques that are now fundamentals of filmmaking.

8. How to Survive a Plague (2012)

Another Oscar-nominated entry on our list, How to Survive a Plague tells the story of the early days of the AIDS crisis. Directed by David France, who covered the AIDS crisis as a journalist in the ’80s, depicts the heroic struggles of members of ACT UP, the organization that stood up against the Reagan administration.

Fighting an uphill battle every step of the wall, ACT UP had to scratch and claw for every inch of progress they made. Their efforts succeeded in raising awareness of the best documentaries of all time that disease and humanizing its victims, many of whom existed on the margins of society and who had been abandoned to die quiet deaths alone.

It is because of their efforts that HIV went from a death sentence to a manageable illness. How to Survive a Plague commemorates the hard battles they fought to accomplish that.

9. The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness (2013)

This film follows the routines of several employees of the famed Studio Ghibli. Most notably, the acclaimed animators Hayao Miyazaki, Isao Takahata, and Toshio Suzuki, and their difficulties as they work to complete the films The Wind Rises and The Tale of the Princess Kaguya.

In the process of watching them work, we come to know what makes these brilliant artists tic and see how the creative drive can be a blessing, a curse, and an addiction all at once.

10. Man on Wire (2008)

In 1974, high-wire artist Philippe Petit defied death and all good judgment when he performed eight tightrope walks between the two towers of the World Trade Center. And James Marsh’s 2008 documentary triest to map out not only the event but the drive that would compel someone to attempt such a stunt.

Marsh was attracted to the story after realizing that it played out like a heist film. Petit’s stunt wasn’t sanctioned, and infiltrating the then under-construction towers required more planning than the stunt itself.

The resulting film is an inspiring, if not a little mad, tale of one man’s inspiring drive to achieve an unusual goal.

11. American Movie (1999)

American Movie is best documentaries of all time for anyone who’s ever strived for something greater than their lot in life. Profiling a blue-collar suburbanite’s struggle to achieve his dream of being a filmmaker, the film is a love letter to the dreamers of the world. In particular, those who have the odds stacked against them.

It’s affectionate, often very funny, and occasionally very sad film. But the sheer passion its subject demonstrates is ultimately inspiring to anyone who’s ever wanted to pursue a creative field. As Roger Ebert noted in his 4-star review, “If you’ve ever wanted to make a movie, see American Movie, a documentary about someone who wants to make a movie more than you do.”

Enjoy Some of the Best Documentaries of all Time

Jean Luc Godard once called cinema “truth at 24 frames per second”. If we accept that it is possible for any film to tell the unvarnished truth, then it stands to reason that the best documentaries of all time is the discipline that most strives towards that goal.

These films can offer answers to questions that we didn’t know we had, and this list is just the tip of the iceberg. There are hundreds or more that deserve to be in any discussion of the best documentaries ever made. They’re just waiting for you to seek them out.

To help get you started on that journey, be sure to keep up with all the latest news and reviews on our site web guide section.

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