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100 best documentaries of all time

  • 100 best documentaries of all time

    Great documentaries often give access and illumination to stories that would otherwise go untold. The subject of a great documentary can be anything from a single individual’s life to a broader political event, and the effect of the films can be anything from uplifting to devastating.

    So what do great documentaries have in common? For one, they focus on conducting intensive research. The director of the legendary nine-hour documentary “Shoah,” which focused on the Holocaust, refused to use any archival footage and only used his own original interviews, which partly explains why the film took 11 years to make.

    Stacker's slideshow features 100 celebrated documentaries and the stories they tell. Some of these films expose stories that have put their filmmakers at risk. “The Act of Killing,” which exposes mass executions that took place in Indonesia in the 1960s, features stories that have been actively covered up by Indonesian government officials. One of the documentary’s filmmakers remained anonymous out of fear of reprisals from the government. In another case, an Iranian filmmaker’s fear of the government and repression was so intense that he smuggled his documentary to the Cannes Film Festival on a flash drive baked into a birthday cake.

    Other documentaries that appear on Stacker’s list are uplifting and tell stories of some of humanity’s greatest achievements like “Apollo 11,” which features footage from the famous space mission that was the first to land humans on the moon.

    Stacker surveyed Metacritic for the top-ranked documentaries and ranked them according to their Metascore as of May 5, 2020. Ties were broken by IMDb user rating and further broken by IMDb user votes. Films that have critic reviews but have not been released to the public were not considered. Documentary TV series were also not considered.

    Read on for a look at the best documentary films of all time.

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  • #100. The Murder of Fred Hampton (1971)

    - Director: Howard Alk
    - Metascore: 86
    - IMDb user rating: 7.4
    - Runtime: 88 min

    "The Murder of Fred Hampton" explores the murky circumstances around the murder of political activist and Black Panther Fred Hampton by the Chicago police. Although it received relatively little attention when it was released in 1971, 21st-century activists have pointed to it as a model of political activism through documentary and the arts.

  • #99. What Now? Remind Me (2013)

    - Director: Joaquim Pinto
    - Metascore: 86
    - IMDb user rating: 7.4
    - Runtime: 164 min

    "What Now? Remind Me" traces filmmaker Joaquim Pinto’s course of AIDS treatment as he receives it. The documentary is unique in that it is a “first-person” documentary, which is common in mediums like fiction, but less so in documentary films.

  • #98. Cameraperson (2016)

    - Director: Kirsten Johnson
    - Metascore: 86
    - IMDb user rating: 7.4
    - Runtime: 102 min

    "Cameraperson" is another autobiographical documentary, in which director Kirsten Johnson chronicles her years behind the camera with decades of footage shot all over the world. Critics applaud the film for being absorbing, even for those unfamiliar with Johnson’s other work, and its fresh approach to documentary collage.

  • #97. Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010)

    - Director: Werner Herzog
    - Metascore: 86
    - IMDb user rating: 7.4
    - Runtime: 90 min

    Werner Herzog’s team was given rare access inside France’s Chauvet Cave, which contains some of the oldest paintings ever recorded. The crew had to wear special suits and take extreme precautions while filming, and because of near-toxic levels of radon and carbon dioxide, no one could stay in the cave for more than a few hours a day.

  • #96. Dawson City: Frozen Time (2016)

    - Director: Bill Morrison
    - Metascore: 86
    - IMDb user rating: 7.5
    - Runtime: 120 min

    "Dawson City: Frozen Time" uses footage found in the 1970s of the Yukon Canadian city of Dawson City, from its time during the gold rush to its era of filmmaking. The reels of footage were found in a swimming pool.

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  • #95. Last Days in Vietnam (2014)

    - Director: Rory Kennedy
    - Metascore: 86
    - IMDb user rating: 7.6
    - Runtime: 98 min

    "Last Days in Vietnam" chronicles the final days and escape efforts of Vietnamese and American service people alike at the end of the Vietnam War. The film contains footage that critics called “astonishing” and valuable reflections from those who were actually there.

  • #94. How to Survive a Plague (2012)

    - Director: David France
    - Metascore: 86
    - IMDb user rating: 7.6
    - Runtime: 110 min

    "How to Survive a Plague" is about the early years of the AIDS epidemic. The production used over 700 hours of footage, including those of activists who had AIDS. Filmmaker David France said that one reason he knew his film would be historic is that many of the activists included knew they themselves would die.

  • #93. Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese (2019)

    - Director: Martin Scorsese
    - Metascore: 86
    - IMDb user rating: 7.7
    - Runtime: 142 min

    "Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story" by Martin Scorsese is a “pseudo-documentary,” containing both fictional and nonfictional material covering a concert by its titular subject. The film makes no distinction between the fiction and the nonfiction elements, and Dylan appears in the film talking about the fictional characters as if they were real, leaving audiences to guess.

  • #92. The Tillman Story (2010)

    - Director: Amir Bar-Lev
    - Metascore: 86
    - IMDb user rating: 7.8
    - Runtime: 94 min

    "The Tillman Story" explores the life of football player turned soldier Pat Tillman and his death in Afghanistan. Tillman was reportedly killed in a Taliban attack, but the film reveals that it was a cover-up by the military. Tillman died as a result of “friendly fire.” Critics lauded it in particular for being a powerful piece of anti-propaganda.

  • #91. Deliver Us from Evil (2006)

    - Director: Amy Berg
    - Metascore: 86
    - IMDb user rating: 7.9
    - Runtime: 101 min

    "Deliver Us from Evil" blurs the line between fiction and nonfiction, traveling between police precincts in the Bronx and military battles in the Middle East. Critics were divided, with some calling the genre mashup of fiction and nonfiction “silly” and overwhelming.

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