Best Documentaries of All Time

Inspired by my recent viewing of Tony Kaye’s outstanding Lake of Fire, here is my list of the best documentaries as of June 2010. No, I have not seen Nanook.

1. Capturing the Friedmans

This is my vote for the greatest documentary of all time (if I had to pick one). It is one of the most difficult films I’ve ever seen. It seamlessly blends new footage with the huge amount of home movies the Friedmans shot over the years.

2. The Man with a Movie Camera

This is a revolutionary film and possibly the most important documentary ever made. But it’s strictly for film geeks.

3. Night and Fog

This is probably the first film I ever had a visceral reaction to. The first time I saw it was in Grade 11 Politics (I know, weird). I couldn’t eat lunch. I think I struggled through dinner. I remember feeling out of sorts for a week. It’s easier to watch it a second time, but it’s still one of the most powerful films ever made.

4. Hoop Dreams

An absolutely incredible film. Perhaps more so since the filmmakers had no idea the story would turn out the way it does. The greatest sports movie ever made.

5. Don’t Look Back

The music documentary.

6. Lake of Fire

As detailed a film exploration of an issue as you’ll find anywhere. Also extremely artistic. Though one-sided, it attempts to balance out its bias as few other films have.

7. Grizzly Man

In some way, this is a little similar to the Friedman’s, as again we have an obsessive documentarian providing the fodder for a great filmmaker to make a classic film. This film, and its subject, is almost incomprehensible, given what we know about Grizzly Bears. I still can’t believe this guy ever existed.

8. Burden of Dreams

Perhaps the greatest documentary about the the making of a film. As has many of the same qualities as Herzog’s greatest films, not just Fitzcaraldo but the other Kinski films.

9. The Last Waltz

Music from Big Pink stands outside of time. This is perhaps as close as we’ll get to understanding how and why. It also documents a concert that is hard for someone like me to imagine.

10. The Thin Blue Line

It reversed a verdict. Enough said.

11. Culloden

11. Dark Side of the Moon

Both of these are not really true documentaries. But the line is a blurry one anyway. Culloden is an amazing recreation of the battle as if film existed at the time (a revolutionary conceit). Dark Side of the Moon is essential viewing in this era where few people can agree on “fact.”

13. Brother’s Keeper

13. Paradise Lost: the Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills

Two essential films about justice. The first shows us how we can never really know what happened in the past. The second shows us the issues of justice in context, which of course is the only way we can have it in reality.

15. Atilla ’74

Interesting and moving at the same time.

16. Blindsight

16. Murderball

Two of the most inspirational films I’ve ever seen.

18. Little Dieter Needs to Fly

The story itself is incredible. The way Herzog tells it elevates it to another level entirely.

19. No End in Sight

The best (non-fiction) film about that SNAFU.

20. Hands on a Hard Body

Extremely compelling despite its subject. This kind of thing has become much more commonplace now (I have even seen a TV series that imitated this film completely) but at the time it was pretty unique.

21. Koyaanisqatsi

A landmark.

22. Fast, Fast Cheap and Out of Control

Sort of impossible to encapsulate.

23. General Idi Amin: a Self Portrait

Frightening, with an amazing amount of access.

24. Gates of Heaven

These people sound crazy. But somehow Morris humanizes them in a way I never imagined possible.

25. Lessons of Darkness

Another pseudo documentary. Anti-war, pro-environment, with a fictional conceit that doesn’t hold up at all. It’s still a ridiculous experience.

26. The War Game


27. No Direction Home

Not at the same level as Don’t Look Back, it’s still very interesting.

28. Spellbound

I still can’t believe I could ever come to be riveted by a spelling B. Look what it has wrought…

29. The Fog of War

Fascinating and extremely informative. Essential viewing for anyone who thinks being a leader is an easy job.

I don’t have a 30th film because that would have meant sorting through countless 8/10 docs. But I’ll just say Lost in La Mancha is pretty great too.

1 Comment

  1. I cheated. I realized after I posted that I included Night and Fog but I didn't include any other shorts (and there are a number of great ones I've seen, especially involving Herzog). I guess I feel like Night and Fog, though short, is still a similar emotional experience to watching a feature, as it feels like you've been watching a much longer film.

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