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30 best nature documentaries of all time

  • 30 best nature documentaries of all time

    Captivated by the mating habits of jellyfish, elephants mourning their ancestors, and proud lionesses cuddling their cubs, audiences love to peer into the private lives of creatures great and small––particularly in spectacular settings around the world. A study conducted by the BBC together with the University of California Berkeley revealed just why viewers choose to kick back and tune into programs like “Honey Badgers: Masters of Mayhem” and “The Tigers of Scotland”⁠—nature documentaries trigger the neurochemicals of happiness, reducing the stress and anxieties of modern life. 

    Some of the best exponents of the genre come from the BBC Natural History Unit, which has been cranking out award-winning nature documentaries since 1957, often in conjunction with natural historian and television producer Sir David Attenborough. Now in his 90s, Attenborough has worked with the BBC for over 25 years and is the genius behind several acclaimed series, including “Life” and “The Blue Planet,” which continue to be watched by millions of people worldwide.

    In recent years, a growing number of filmmakers have used their platform to raise public consciousness about the many threats posed by global warming. Coral bleaching, rising sea levels, and melting polar ice-caps have all been addressed in documentaries, as well as the significant role played by human beings concerning climate change. Celebrity activists, including United Nations Messenger of Peace Leonardo DiCaprio, Laurence Fishburne, and Oprah Winfrey, have also lent their status to the movement, behind the camera as well as in front of it. 

    Stacker put together a list of the 30 best nature documentaries of all time, based on IMDb user ratings. Consideration went to documentaries and single-season documentary miniseries focused on plants, animals, and the environment. Scroll through the slideshow and find out which films exposed barbarous ancient fishing practices, employed revolutionary photography techniques, or were recently outed for faking content. 

    You may also like: Rare animals featured in Planet Earth, Our Planet, and other nature documentaries

  • #30. Chasing Coral (2017)

    - IMDb user rating: 8.1
    - Votes: 7,629
    - Runtime: 100 min

    “Chasing Coral” has all the elements of a blockbuster Hollywood thriller: a suspenseful storyline, powerful emotional impact, and stunning visuals. Coral death, also known as “coral bleaching,” has skyrocketed worldwide due to global warming. This Netflix documentary, directed by Jeff Orlowski, chronicles a talented team racing to invent the first underwater time-lapse camera to capture the phenomenon as it unfolds. 

  • #29. Racing Extinction (2015)

    - IMDb user rating: 8.2
    - Votes: 6,968
    - Runtime: 90 min

    “Racing Extinction” explores the devastating effects of climate change on the world’s oceans. Human activity—notably energy consumption—currently threatens half of the world’s aquatic species with mass extinction. Helmed by Academy Award-winning director Louie Psihoyos, this 2015 documentary urges viewers to act before it’s too late.

  • #28. Virunga (2014)

    - IMDb user rating: 8.2
    - Votes: 9,027
    - Runtime: 100 min

    Virunga National Park, located in the East Congo, is home to some of the world’s most diverse flora and fauna—including the last remaining community of mountain gorillas. Produced by Leonardo DiCaprio, “Virunga” tells the story of the dedicated park rangers entrusted with protecting this UNESCO World Heritage site from both poachers and armed militia.

  • #27. Before the Flood (2016)

    - IMDb user rating: 8.3
    - Votes: 23,483
    - Runtime: 96 min

    In “Before the Flood,” United Nations Messenger of Peace Leonardo DiCaprio takes viewers on a journey around the world, illustrating the threat posed by global warming. Directed by Academy Award-winner Fisher Stevens, this National Geographic production practices what it preaches, offsetting carbon emissions created during production with a voluntary carbon tax.

  • #26. Ashes and Snow (2005)

    - IMDb user rating: 8.3
    - Votes: 3,659
    - Runtime: 62 min

    Laurence Fishburne narrates “Ashes and Snow,” which documents the astonishing relationship between human beings and the animal world. Haunting still images are intertwined with filmed footage in this poetic meditation by filmmaker Gregory Colbert. 

  • #25. Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret (2014)

    - IMDb user rating: 8.3
    - Votes: 17,816
    - Runtime: 90 min

    Kip Andersons’ Indiegogo-funded “Cowspiracy” highlights the uncomfortable relationship between big agriculture and carbon emissions. As much a movement as a documentary, “Cowspiracy” urges its audience to eschew animal products in an empowering, grassroots campaign to battle climate change. A 2015 cut of the film released on Netflix was produced by celebrity activist Leonardo DiCaprio.



  • #24. Koyaanisqatsi (1982)

    - IMDb user rating: 8.3
    - Votes: 32,068
    - Runtime: 86 min

    “Koyaanisqatsi” is a Hopi word that translates to “life out of balance” and is also the subject of director Godfrey Reggio’s 1982 documentary, which details the inherent conflict between nature and urbanism. An original score by legendary composer Philip Glass complements the stunning cinematography. 

  • #23. Beautiful People (1974)

    - IMDb user rating: 8.3
    - Votes: 3,433
    - Runtime: 92 min

    Directed by Jamie Uys of “The Gods Must Be Crazy” fame, “Beautiful People” (also released as “Animals are Beautiful People”) takes a gentle and frequently humorous look at South African wildlife. A scene in which inebriated animals indulge in fermented fruit is one of the highlights of this 1975 Golden Globe winner. 

  • #22. The Last Lions (2011)

    - IMDb user rating: 8.3
    - Votes: 3,829
    - Runtime: 88 min

    The brainchild of conservationists and filmmakers Dereck and Beverly Joubert, “The Last Lions” plays like a feature film as it chronicles the trials and tribulations of Ma di Tau—a remarkable lioness committed to defending her family in Botswana’s treacherous Okavango Delta. Narrated by actor Jeremy Irons, the film draws attention to the plight of the wild lion population, which has dwindled from approximately 450,000 to 20,000 in the last 50 years.

  • #21. Walking with Prehistoric Beasts (2001)

    - IMDb user rating: 8.3
    - Votes: 2,339
    - Runtime: 240 min

    A sequel to “Walking with Dinosaurs,” this joint BBC/Discovery Channel effort explores life on Earth immediately after the big lizards became extinct. Sir Kenneth Brannagh narrates this three-hour look at the habits and habitats of wooly mammoths and saber-tooth lions.