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100 best documentaries of all time, according to critics

100 best documentaries of all time, according to critics

At their best, documentaries shine a light on captivating, important true stories that would often go unnoticed otherwise. By doing so, the filmmakers can help spark greater conversations about political, historical, and social phenomena after viewers have seen them.

To highlight the best of nonfiction filmmaking, Stacker set out to discover the 100 best documentaries ever released, according to film critics. In order to do so, the site compiled data on all feature-length documentaries with at least four critical reviews through the review aggregation website Metacritic. Stacker then ranked those 100 films according to their Metascores as of Jan. 25, 2021, with ties broken internally by Metacritic.

The earliest documentary films date back to the late 19th century, as the Lumière brothers created short films like “Workers Leaving the Lumière” and “The Gardener” to document things that were happening in the world around them. Documentaries now come in a variety of forms and tackle a number of important subjects, but they all use storytelling to give real-life events deeper meaning through artistry and research.

Nevertheless, there are common threads that can be found in many successful modern-day documentaries. Some, like Amir Bar-Lev’s “The Tillman Story” and Alexander Nanau’s “Collective,” work to uncover hidden scandals like a military cover-up and a dangerous Romanian health care fraud. Others, such as Spike Lee’s “David Byrne’s American Utopia” and Alan Elliott and Sydney Pollack’s “Amazing Grace,” are in-depth concert documentaries about major musical figures.

Documentary filmmaking can also help viewers and filmmakers alike process harrowing atrocities in human history. Some documentarian auteurs built careers out of doing just that. Claude Lanzmann provided an intimate look at how the Holocaust happened through his films “Shoah” and “Shoah: Four Sisters.” Meanwhile, Rithy Panh uncovered the Cambodian genocide and its aftermath through films like “Graves Without a Name.”

Keep reading to find the right documentary for your next movie night.

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#100. The Tillman Story (2010)

- Director: Amir Bar-Lev
- Metascore: 86
- IMDb user rating: 7.7
- Runtime: 94 minutes

“The Tillman Story,” tells the true story of NFL player-turned-soldier Pat Tillman, who died in Afghanistan in 2004. Bar-Lev’s documentary follows his family’s discovery that the military lied and covered up the truth about how Tillman actually died. Rolling Stone critic Peter Travers wrote that “this documentary succeeds triumphantly on so many levels that its full impact doesn't hit you until you have time to register its aftershocks...it will get under your skin."

#99. Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters (2012)

- Director: Ben Shapiro
- Metascore: 87
- IMDb user rating: 7.4
- Runtime: 78 minutes

This documentary centers on celebrated photographer Gregory Crewdson, who’s known for his haunting photos of small-town America. Variety’s Ronnie Scheib described the film as “a perfect canvas for Crewdson’s epic creations” and a “must-see for art lovers.”

#98. The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu (2010)

- Director: Andrei Ujica
- Metascore: 87
- IMDb user rating: 7.7
- Runtime: 180 minutes

Using over 1,000 hours of filmed Romanian propaganda, director Andrei Ujica uses “The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu” to explore the public image of the country’s former dictator. The New York Times critic Manohla Dargis described the film as “a cinematic tour de force that tracks the rise, reign, and grim fall of its subject.”

#97. Grizzly Man (2005)

- Director: Werner Herzog
- Metascore: 87
- IMDb user rating: 7.8
- Runtime: 103 minutes

In “Grizzly Man,” German director Werner Herzog uses late conservationist Timothy Treadwell’s personal footage to track the man’s life with wild Alaskan grizzly bears. The film also tells the story of how one of the bears ultimately turned on Treadwell and his girlfriend, Amie Huguenard, resulting in their deaths. Critic Roger Ebert noted that “the documentary is an uncommon meeting between Treadwell’s loony idealism and Herzog’s bleak worldview.”

#96. Bisbee '17 (2018)

- Director: Robert Greene
- Metascore: 87
- IMDb user rating: 6.7
- Runtime: 112 minutes

Robert Greene’s “Bisbee ‘17” is part-documentary, part-historical fiction. It examines the 1917 Bisbee Deportation, in which 1,200 immigrant workers were violently deported from Bisbee, Arizona, by featuring both re-enactments and interviews with Bisbee citizens 100 years later.

#95. Rewind (2019)

- Director: Sasha Joseph Neulinger
- Metascore: 87
- IMDb user rating: 8.0
- Runtime: 86 minutes

In “Rewind,” documentary filmmaker Sasha Joseph Neulinger works through his childhood sexual abuse by going back through his old home videos. Variety critic Owen Gleiberman gave it a positive review, noting that “watching the movie is like staring at a blurred image of the past that gradually, over 86 minutes, comes into terrifying focus.”

#94. Life Itself (2014)

- Director: Steve James
- Metascore: 87
- IMDb user rating: 7.8
- Runtime: 121 minutes

“Life Itself'' examines the life and work of acclaimed film critic Roger Ebert, looking at the final months of his life and his rivalry with fellow journalist Gene Siskel. It won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Editing: Documentary & Long-Form, and was named for Ebert’s 2011 memoir of the same name.

#93. Murderball (2005)

- Directors: Henry Alex Rubin, Dana Adam Shapiro
- Metascore: 87
- IMDb user rating: 7.7
- Runtime: 88 minutes

In “Murderball,” the quadriplegic U.S. rugby team describes the impact that the sport has had on their lives while gearing up to play against the Canadian team at the 2004 Paralympic Games. It was later nominated for Best Documentary Feature at the 2006 Oscars.

#92. Tarnation (2003)

- Director: Jonathan Caouette
- Metascore: 87
- IMDb user rating: 7.1
- Runtime: 88 minutes

Through “Tarnation,” director Jonathan Caouette uses multimedia like VHS tapes and answering machine messages to work through his relationship with his schizophrenic mother. Memorably, he made it on an iPhone, with an ultra-low budget of under $250.

#91. Particle Fever (2013)

- Director: Mark Levinson
- Metascore: 87
- IMDb user rating: 7.4
- Runtime: 99 minutes

“Particle Fever” follows a team of physicists as they attempt to figure out the origins of the universe by recreating the big bang. It received overwhelmingly positive reviews, as the Rotten Tomatoes consensus noted that while “the concepts behind its heady subject matter may fly over the heads of most viewers [...] ‘Particle Fever’ presents it in such a way that even the least science-inclined viewers will find themselves enraptured.”

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#90. The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara (2003)

- Director: Errol Morris
- Metascore: 87
- IMDb user rating: 8.1
- Runtime: 107 minutes

“The Fog of War” centers on controversial former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara’s work and thoughts on the ideology surrounding warfare. It won the Best Documentary Feature Oscar at the 2004 Academy Awards, and was named after the military idea of “the fog of war.”

#89. Gideon's Army (2013)

- Director: Dawn Porter
- Metascore: 87
- IMDb user rating: 7.7
- Runtime: 96 minutes

“Gideon’s Army” follows three Southern public defenders who dedicate their lives and careers to serving people who cannot afford lawyers otherwise. New York Times critic Stephen Holden noted that it was a “bare” documentary approach, and Dawn Porter’s documentary won the Candescent Award at the Sundance Film Festival.

#88. Listen to Me Marlon (2015)

- Director: Stevan Riley
- Metascore: 87
- IMDb user rating: 8.2
- Runtime: 103 minutes

“Listen to Me Marlon” allows famous actor Marlon Brando to reflect on his life and work in his own words, using hours of audiotape recordings. Vulture critic David Edelstein named it one of the “most searching” and best documentaries made about any actor, and it was nominated for a BAFTA Award for Best Documentary.

#87. My Journey Through French Cinema (2016)

- Director: Bertrand Tavernier
- Metascore: 87
- IMDb user rating: 7.8
- Runtime: 201 minutes

“My Journey Through French Cinema” looks back at some of the country’s notable auteurs, from Jean-Luc Godard to Edmond T. Gréville. Its filmmaker, Bertrand Tavernier, is regarded as one of the most respected directors in the French film world.

#86. Portrait of Jason (1967)

- Director: Shirley Clarke
- Metascore: 87
- IMDb user rating: 7.2
- Runtime: 105 minutes

This groundbreaking documentary was filmed over 12 hours, as Shirley Clarke spoke with aspiring cabaret dancer and Black gay sex worker Jason Holliday. While some have argued that it’s exploitative, it provided key insights into Black LGBTQ+ life in the 1960s.

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#85. Jane (2017)

- Director: Brett Morgen
- Metascore: 87
- IMDb user rating: 7.8
- Runtime: 90 minutes

Using more than 100 hours of National Geographic archival footage, “Jane” explores the life and work of famous primatologist Jane Goodall. “It’s most evocative as a memorable portrait of a woman [...] Who, in doing so, helped make the world a better place,” wrote Seattle Times critic Moira Macdonald.

#84. Level Five (1997)

- Director: Chris Marker
- Metascore: 87
- IMDb user rating: 7.1
- Runtime: 106 minutes

In the French documentary “Level Five,” actress Catherine Belkhodja is the only human featured in an otherwise total virtual reality. The movie was meant to hypothesize the primarily digital world that has become a reality in 2021 in many ways.

#83. F for Fake (1973)

- Directors: Orson Welles, Gary Graver, Oja Kodar, François Reichenbach
- Metascore: 87
- IMDb user rating: 7.8
- Runtime: 89 minutes

In Orson Welles’ 1973 docudrama “F for Fake,” Elmyr de Hory looks back on his work as an infamous art forger. Incorporating Welles playing himself, the director felt he was creating “a new kind of film.

#82. Fire at Sea (2016)

- Director: Gianfranco Rosi
- Metascore: 87
- IMDb user rating: 6.8
- Runtime: 114 minutes

“Fire At Sea” explores how Italy’s island of Lampedusa became an important location for European migrants fleeing in search of a better life. Meryl Streep called it “a daring hybrid of captured footage and deliberate storytelling that allows us to consider what documentary can do.”

#81. Stray (2021)

- Director: Elizabeth Lo
- Metascore: 87
- IMDb user rating: 7.1
- Runtime: 72 minutes

“Stray” follows stray dogs on the streets of Istanbul, Turkey, as they fight to survive and form close bonds with nearby humans. Specifically, it centers on three dogs: Zeytin, Nazar, and a puppy named Kartal.

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#80. To Be and To Have (2002)

- Director: Nicolas Philibert
- Metascore: 87
- IMDb user rating: 7.8
- Runtime: 104 minutes

“To Be and To Have” spotlights the work of rural French school teacher Georges Lopez, who teaches 12 kids ranging in age from 4 to 11. The movie was celebrated by critics for its focus on the impact a tireless, dedicated educator can have on young minds.

#79. The Farthest (2017)

- Director: Emer Reynolds
- Metascore: 87
- IMDb user rating: 8.1
- Runtime: 121 minutes

This Irish documentary revolves around the creation of the Voyager program, which resulted in the probe Voyager 1 becoming the first human creation to ever bypass our Solar System. Los Angeles Times writer Noel Murray praised director Emer Reynolds for “weaving together insightful and unexpectedly poetic interviews.”

#78. Of Men and War (2014)

- Director: Laurent Bécue-Renard
- Metascore: 87
- IMDb user rating: 7.0
- Runtime: 142 minutes

This documentary takes place at a now-closed veteran treatment facility called “Of Men and War.” There, it features interviews with several Iraq and Afghan war veterans, shedding light on the trauma that these people often face in the aftermath.

#77. The Missing Picture (2013)

- Director: Rithy Panh
- Metascore: 87
- IMDb user rating: 7.4
- Runtime: 92 minutes

The Cambodian documentary “The Missing Picture” recounts the atrocities committed under the Khmer Rouge regime. Director Rithy Panh lived through the regime when he was a young teenager, and recreates major events using clay figurines and archival footage.

#76. Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan (2016)

- Directors: Linda Saffire, Adam Schlesinger
- Metascore: 87
- IMDb user rating: 7.1
- Runtime: 90 minutes

This documentary follows renowned ballerina Wendy Whelan, who was a longtime principal dancer in the New York City Ballet. As she confronts the reality of aging, the film raises questions about the physical limitations and constantly changing relationship to art that many dancers face.

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#75. Newtown (2016)

- Director: Kim A. Snyder
- Metascore: 87
- IMDb user rating: 6.8
- Runtime: 85 minutes

“Newtown” shines a light on the town of Newtown, Connecticut, who suffered a mass shooting resulting in the deaths of several teachers and elementary school children in 2012. Vulture's Bilge Ebiri gave the documentary a positive review, noting that “it is as much about the complex, dull horror of memory as it is about the brute, sharp horror of that day.”

#74. Jane Fonda in Five Acts (2018)

- Director: Susan Lacy
- Metascore: 87
- IMDb user rating: 8.0
- Runtime: 133 minutes

Susan Lacy’s documentary dives deep into the public highs and lows of beloved actor Jane Fonda. It tackles many elements of her life and career, from her marriage to a billionaire to her anti-war activism.

#73. Everything Is Copy (2015)

- Directors: Jacob Bernstein, Nick Hooker
- Metascore: 88
- IMDb user rating: 7.4
- Runtime: 89 minutes

“Everything Is Copy” is a documentary tribute to renowned writer and filmmaker Nora Ephron. It features interviews with many of her well-known frequent collaborators, such as Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan.

#72. Apollo 11 (2019)

- Director: Todd Douglas Miller
- Metascore: 88
- IMDb user rating: 8.2
- Runtime: 93 minutes

“Apollo 11” didn’t receive widely positive critical reviews, with The New Yorker's Richard Brody arguing it’s remarkable that the movie manages to be dull in spite of its historic subject matter. Nevertheless, Todd Douglas Miller’s documentary about the well-known space mission includes exclusive footage from the event.

#71. 45365 (2009)

- Directors: Bill Ross IV, Turner Ross
- Metascore: 88
- IMDb user rating: 7.1
- Runtime: 90 minutes

“45365” is named for the zip code of the small town of Sidney, Ohio, where this documentary takes place. The filmmaking brother duo uses it to shine a light on the everyday lives and dreams of Middle Americans, providing a portrait of life in the late 2000s.

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#70. Shirkers (2018)

- Director: Sandi Tan
- Metascore: 88
- IMDb user rating: 7.4
- Runtime: 97 minutes

“Shirkers” tells the story of Singaporean filmmaker Sandi Tan’s lost first film, which was hijacked and stolen by her older American mentor. Tan’s honest examination of loss and creativity won the World Cinema Documentary Directing Award after premiering at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.

#69. Inside Job (2010)

- Director: Charles Ferguson
- Metascore: 88
- IMDb user rating: 8.2
- Runtime: 109 minutes

“Inside Job” examines the factors that led to the 2008 financial crash and plunged the United States into a serious economic recession. It went on to win the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature at the 2011 ceremony.

#68. Citizenfour (2014)

- Director: Laura Poitras
- Metascore: 88
- IMDb user rating: 8.0
- Runtime: 114 minutes

“Citizenfour” examines what happened when Edward Snowden released classified documents to director Laura Poitras and journalist Glenn Greenwald, resulting in a whistleblower scandal. The Guardian writer Peter Bradshaw noted that Poitras’ documentary was “as gripping as any thriller,” and like “a [Michael] Moore film with the gags and stunts removed.”

#67. A Film Unfinished (2010)

- Director: Yael Hersonski
- Metascore: 88
- IMDb user rating: 7.4
- Runtime: 88 minutes

In “A Film Unfinished,” director Yael Hersonski contextualizes a recently discovered film reel from an unfinished Nazi film called “Das Ghetto.” Using interviews with surviving cameramen, he shines a light on a dark propaganda machine filmed amid the Holocaust’s greatest atrocities.

#66. Quest (2017)

- Director: Jonathan Olshefski
- Metascore: 88
- IMDb user rating: 7.0
- Runtime: 104 minutes

“Quest” centers on the ups and downs of the Raineys, a Black family raising their daughter in Philadelphia. The documentary takes place over eight years, utilizing moments from over 300 hours of footage.

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#65. In Transit (2015)

- Directors: Albert Maysles, Lynn True, David Usui, Nelson Walker III, Ben Wu
- Metascore: 88
- IMDb user rating: 7.3
- Runtime: 76 minutes

“In Transit” gives a rare voice to the everyday passengers and employees on the Empire Builder Amtrak train. Because the movie’s financier Al Jazeera America shuttered in 2016, the film was not distributed for some time.

#64. City Hall (2020)

- Director: Frederick Wiseman
- Metascore: 88
- IMDb user rating: 7.3
- Runtime: 272 minutes

Documentarian Frederick Wiseman’s picture of the Boston city government’s inner workings is on the longer side, clocking in at 4.5 hours. In reviewing the film, Austin Chronicle critic Josh Kupecki noted, “While the phrase ‘required viewing’ gets thrown around a lot, I cannot think of another film that plainly and comprehensively lays bare both the complex apparatus at work, and the people dedicated to serving its populace.”

#63. Crime + Punishment (2018)

- Director: Stephen T. Maing
- Metascore: 88
- IMDb user rating: 7.4
- Runtime: 112 minutes

“Crime and Punishment” details how a number of Black and Latinx NYPD police officers attempted to expose the police department’s systemic wrongdoings. The Guardian writer Jake Nevins lauded it as a “shocking” film taking aim at a corrupt American institution.

#62. 4 Little Girls (1997)

- Director: Spike Lee
- Metascore: 88
- IMDb user rating: 7.8
- Runtime: 102 minutes

Spike Lee’s “4 Little Girls” focuses on the 1963 Alabama church bombing that killed four young Black girls. It was nominated for Best Documentary at the 1998 Academy Awards.

#61. Democrats (2014)

- Director: Camilla Nielsson
- Metascore: 88
- IMDb user rating: 7.4
- Runtime: 100 minutes

Camilla Nielsson’s “Democrats” documents the tenuous political situation in modern Zimbabwe, where a new constitution is being put together in the face of personal political interests threatening to weigh it down. Variety’s Guy Lodge said that “even the slyest political satire couldn’t outdo this riveting docu study of Zimbabwe’s troubled coalition government.”

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#60. The Arbor (2010)

- Director: Clio Barnard
- Metascore: 88
- IMDb user rating: 7.3
- Runtime: 94 minutes

“The Arbor” chronicles acclaimed Bradford playwright Andrea Dunbar’s difficult early years living in the U.K. The film uses a blend of fictional recreations (including direct quotes from Dunbar’s real life) and nonfictional accounts.

#59. The Last Waltz (1978)

- Director: Martin Scorsese
- Metascore: 88
- IMDb user rating: 8.2
- Runtime: 117 minutes

This Martin Scorsese documentary follows the iconic rock group The Band’s final concert together, reflecting on their legacy. While it’s been praised as one of the best concert movies out there, it has faced a degree of criticism for largely leaving out musician Robbie Robertson.

#58. Dick Johnson Is Dead (2020)

- Director: Kirsten Johnson
- Metascore: 89
- IMDb user rating: 7.5
- Runtime: 89 minutes

Director Kirsten Johnson made “Dick Johnson Is Dead” to process her father’s impending death by dementia. In the documentary, she stages different ways in which he could die, and Washington Post critic Ann Hornaday gave it a positive review for making “a dread-filled fantasy that brims with love, humor, and of all things, life.”

#57. Dead Souls (2018)

- Director: Wang Bing
- Metascore: 89
- IMDb user rating: 8.1
- Runtime: 495 minutes

“Dead Souls” features intimate interviews with over 100 survivors of China’s labor detention camps. As Wang Bing notes, these camps have a long-spanning history, as they were established in the 1950s.

#56. The Winding Stream (2014)

- Director: Beth Harrington
- Metascore: 89
- IMDb user rating: 7.7
- Runtime: 90 minutes

“The Winding Stream” takes a close look at the Carters, an endlessly influential family within the world of American country music. It’s particularly notable given that it features an exclusive interview with an older Johnny Cash, which was conducted right before his death.

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#55. Stop Making Sense (1984)

- Director: Jonathan Demme
- Metascore: 89
- IMDb user rating: 8.6
- Runtime: 88 minutes

The concert documentary “Stop Making Sense” revolves around the iconic band the Talking Heads, particularly their lead singer, David Byrne. A spiritual sequel about Byrne’s Broadway show titled “American Utopia” premiered on HBO in 2020.

#54. Western (2015)

- Directors: Bill Ross IV, Turner Ross
- Metascore: 89
- IMDb user rating: 5.9
- Runtime: 92 minutes

“Western” centers on border politics and increasing cartel violence threatening the peaceful relationship between the border towns of Piedras Negras, Mexico, and Eagle Pass, Texas. Variety writer Scott Foundas called it an “elegiac portrait of modern frontier life.”

#53. No End in Sight (2007)

- Director: Charles Ferguson
- Metascore: 89
- IMDb user rating: 8.2
- Runtime: 102 minutes

“No End in Sight” offers a scathing look at the American invasion of Iraq, and why the Bush administration insisted on unnecessarily perpetuating the war. It received a nomination for Best Documentary Feature at the 2008 Academy Awards.

#52. National Gallery (2014)

- Director: Frederick Wiseman
- Metascore: 89
- IMDb user rating: 7.3
- Runtime: 180 minutes

“National Gallery” offers an in-depth glimpse of the many art pieces within London’s National Gallery. The Washington Post critic Stephanie Merry called it “remarkably engaging” and “bursting with beauty.”

#51. Uncertain (2015)

- Directors: Ewan McNicol, Anna Sandilands
- Metascore: 89
- IMDb user rating: 7.2
- Runtime: 82 minutes

In the rural Texas town of Uncertain (which is spotlighted in “Uncertain”), elderly fisherman Henry’s livelihood is thrown into jeopardy when a parasitic infestation takes over the local lake. The Museum of Modern Art’s official description for the film calls it “an exemplary portrait of three generations of men processing personal and political trauma with the scarcest of resources.”

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#50. When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts (2006)

- Director: Spike Lee
- Metascore: 89
- IMDb user rating: 8.5
- Runtime: 255 minutes

This documentary by renowned filmmaker Spike Lee dives deep into the American government’s handling of the cataclysmic disaster that was Hurricane Katrina. Lee features interviews with many New Orleans residents impacted by the hurricane and allows them to explain how the city has rebuilt itself since.

#49. For Sama (2019)

- Directors: Waad Al-Kateab, Edward Watts
- Metascore: 89
- IMDb user rating: 8.5
- Runtime: 100 minutes

This film follows a Syrian woman named Waad Al-Kateab as she recounts five years of living through the war in Aleppo, Syria. The movie was nominated for Best Documentary Feature at the 2020 Academy Awards.

#48. Man on Wire (2008)

- Director: James Marsh
- Metascore: 89
- IMDb user rating: 7.7
- Runtime: 94 minutes

“Man on Wire” explains the famous 1974 event in which tightrope artist Philippe Petit walked on a high wire in between New York City’s Twin Towers. It was later turned into a 2015 feature-length movie starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

#47. Scheme Birds (2019)

- Directors: Ellen Fiske, Ellinor Hallin
- Metascore: 89
- IMDb user rating: 7.2
- Runtime: 90 minutes

“Scheme Birds” centers on pregnant Scottish teenager Gemma, who runs into trouble in the fading town of Jerviston. In the Tribeca Film Festival’s synopsis for the film, Julie Rozite describes it as an “absorbing story of survival.”

#46. 63 Up (2019)

- Director: Michael Apted
- Metascore: 89
- IMDb user rating: 8.2
- Runtime: 145 minutes

In “63 Up,” documentarian Michael Apted once again follows up with several British people of varying socioeconomic backgrounds after seven years. NPR critic Ella Taylor commented on the “fundamental decency of just about every participant in this long cultural experiment.”

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#45. The Overnighters (2014)

- Director: Jesse Moss
- Metascore: 89
- IMDb user rating: 7.4
- Runtime: 102 minutes

“The Overnighters” highlights North Dakota pastor Jay Reinke, who became a controversial figure in the town of Williston after providing housing for many homeless people. Indiewire’s Katie Walsh called it a “starkly bleak and devastatingly humane” film.

#44. The River and the Wall (2019)

- Director: Ben Masters
- Metascore: 89
- IMDb user rating: 6.1
- Runtime: 97 minutes

“The River and the Wall” follows five friends as they travel from El Paso to the Gulf of Mexico, hoping to expose the American-Mexican border wall’s negative impacts on the environment. The New York Times critic Jeannette Catsoulis wrote that it was a “passionate and spectacularly photographed political message.”

#43. Minding the Gap (2018)

- Director: Bing Liu
- Metascore: 90
- IMDb user rating: 8.1
- Runtime: 93 minutes

“Minding the Gap” centers on three young men in a Rust Belt Illinois town who use skateboarding as an escape from abusive homes and systemic prejudice, as they ponder their futures. New Yorker critic Richard Brody wrote that the film’s “near-at-hand intimacy gives rise to a film of vast scope and political depth.”

#42. Capturing the Friedmans (2003)

- Director: Andrew Jarecki
- Metascore: 90
- IMDb user rating: 7.7
- Runtime: 107 minutes

In “Capturing the Friedmans,” Andrew Jarecki explores the trial of two men from the same family who were convicted of child sexual abuse in the 1980s. Although it was nominated for an Oscar in 2004, some of the subjects’ family members protested the nomination.

#41. Big Men (2013)

- Director: Rachel Boynton
- Metascore: 90
- IMDb user rating: 7.1
- Runtime: 99 minutes

This Rachel Boynton film shines a light on corruption within Africa’s oil industry. The movie drew acclaim for its nuance from New York Times' critic Jeannette Catsoulis, and for being a “cool and incisive snapshot of global capitalism at work.”

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#40. This Is Not a Film (2011)

- Directors: Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, Jafar Panahi
- Metascore: 90
- IMDb user rating: 7.4
- Runtime: 75 minutes

Iranian documentarian Jafar Panahi made “This Is Not a Film” about modern life in Iran in response to the government threatening him. The movie was smuggled to the Cannes Film Festival using a flash drive hidden in a birthday cake.

#39. My Perestroika (2010)

- Director: Robin Hessman
- Metascore: 90
- IMDb user rating: 7.2
- Runtime: 88 minutes

“My Perestroika” tracks the series of events that led to the USSR’s collapse in 1991. Robin Hessman examines the fallout by interviewing five Russians who were there about how their perception of their national identity has changed.

#38. My Voyage to Italy (1999)

- Director: Martin Scorsese
- Metascore: 90
- IMDb user rating: 8.2
- Runtime: 246 minutes

“My Voyage to Italy” recounts acclaimed filmmaker Martin Scorsese’s upbringing in New York City. He also lists his own film influences, noting Roberto Rossellini’s work in particular.

#37. Gunda (2020)

- Director: Viktor Kossakovsky
- Metascore: 90
- IMDb user rating: 7.5
- Runtime: 93 minutes

“Gunda” follows a day in the life of a pig and its fellow farm animals: a one-legged chicken and two cows. Oscar-winning actor Joaquin Phoenix serves as an executive producer on this documentary.

#36. I Called Him Morgan (2016)

- Director: Kasper Collin
- Metascore: 90
- IMDb user rating: 7.3
- Runtime: 92 minutes

“I Called Him Morgan” chronicles the relationship between jazz musician Lee Morgan and his wife Helen, who was implicated in his 1972 murder. The Guardian writer Jordan Hoffman praised it, calling the film “spellbinding, mercurial, hallucinatory, exuberant, tragic.”

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#35. The Girls in the Band (2011)

- Director: Judy Chaikin
- Metascore: 90
- IMDb user rating: 7.4
- Runtime: 81 minutes

“The Girls in the Band” spotlights often-forgotten all-women bands who toured America in the 1930s and 1940s. Jeannette Catsoulis, critic for The New York Times, praised Judy Chaikin’s documentary for including “humor, determination, and raw talent,” while still investigating the music industry sexism that let these women’s reputations be largely buried in history.

#34. The Gatekeepers (2012)

- Director: Dror Moreh
- Metascore: 91
- IMDb user rating: 7.6
- Runtime: 101 minutes

“The Gatekeepers” interviews six members of Shin Bet, Israel’s central intelligence agency. The interviewees speak about the agency’s handling of the Six-Day War, although some Israeli citizens weren’t happy with its generally positive depiction of the organization.

#33. Nostalgia for the Light (2010)

- Director: Patricio Guzmán
- Metascore: 91
- IMDb user rating: 7.6
- Runtime: 90 minutes

“Nostalgia for the Light” is set in Chile’s Atacama Desert. It follows a group of astronomers, as well as a team of archaeologists searching for ancient civilization relics.

#32. Over the Limit (2017)

- Director: Marta Prus
- Metascore: 91
- IMDb user rating: 7.4
- Runtime: 74 minutes

“Over the Limit” follows Russian gymnast Margarita Mamun as she prepares to compete in the 2016 Olympic Games. Variety writer Guy Lodge compared it to Darren Aronofsky’s ballet psychodrama “Black Swan.”

#31. Ex Libris: The New York Public Library (2017)

- Director: Frederick Wiseman
- Metascore: 91
- IMDb user rating: 7.4
- Runtime: 197 minutes

“Ex Libris: New York Public Library” provides an in-depth look at the various branches and inner workings of the New York Public Library. The documentary also looks at how the library functions as an equalizer by providing accessible books and education to all.

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#30. They Shall Not Grow Old (2018)

- Director: Peter Jackson
- Metascore: 91
- IMDb user rating: 8.3
- Runtime: 99 minutes

Although Peter Jackson is arguably best known for directing the “Lord of the Rings” films, he also was nominated for a BAFTA Award for helming this documentary about World War I. “They Shall Not Grow Old” uses archival footage from the Imperial War Museum to tell the story of what it was like for World War I soldiers fighting in the trenches.

#29. The Act of Killing (2012)

- Directors: Joshua Oppenheimer, Anonymous, Christine Cynn
- Metascore: 91
- IMDb user rating: 8.2
- Runtime: 117 minutes

“The Act of Killing” details the mass killings of exposed Indonesian communists. Because of its sensitive nature, one of the directors is an anonymous Indonesian filmmaker.

#28. Stories We Tell (2012)

- Director: Sarah Polley
- Metascore: 91
- IMDb user rating: 7.5
- Runtime: 108 minutes

This Sarah Polley documentary dives deep into her family’s complicated personal history, such as the fact that she was born out of an extramarital affair. The film is composed using Super 8 footage meant to look like home movies, as well as interviews with close friends and family members.

#27. Graves Without a Name (2018)

- Director: Rithy Panh
- Metascore: 91
- IMDb user rating: 6.5
- Runtime: 115 minutes

With “Graves Without a Name,” filmmaker Rithy Panh continues his journey of documenting the aftermath of the Cambodian genocide through documentary footage. In this follow-up to his film “The Missing Picture,” he follows a young boy who attempts to search for his family’s graves after losing them in the Cambodian Civil War.

#26. Time (2020)

- Director: Garrett Bradley
- Metascore: 91
- IMDb user rating: 7.2
- Runtime: 81 minutes

This Garrett Bradley documentary follows matriarch Fox Rich, who fights for prison abolition while working to free her incarcerated husband, who was sentenced to 60 years. Utilizing home video footage from two decades, “Time” looks at the impact American mass incarceration disproportionately has on families of color.

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#25. Mr. Soul! (2018)

- Directors: Melissa Haizlip, Sam Pollard
- Metascore: 91
- IMDb user rating: 8.2
- Runtime: 104 minutes

“Mr. Soul!” tells the story of Ellis Haizlip, who hosted the TV show of the same name from 1968 to 1973. The documentary explores how it was an early series aimed at a Black audience, and won the 2020 Critic’s Choice Documentary Award for Best First Documentary Feature.

#24. Tower (2016)

- Director: Keith Maitland
- Metascore: 92
- IMDb user rating: 8.0
- Runtime: 82 minutes

“Tower” recounts a 1966 mass shooting at the University of Texas at Austin, in which a gunman opened fire from the main campus tower, and ultimately killed 16 people. It features interviews with survivors and recreates their accounts of what happened using animation.

#23. The Look of Silence (2014)

- Director: Joshua Oppenheimer
- Metascore: 92
- IMDb user rating: 8.3
- Runtime: 103 minutes

“The Look of Silence” spotlights Indonesian optometrist Ali, who confronts the men who killed his brother during a series of mass killings in the 1960s. It’s regarded as a companion film to the documentary “The Act of Killing,” and was nominated for Best Documentary Feature at the Oscars.

#22. A Man Vanishes (1967)

- Director: Shôhei Imamura
- Metascore: 92
- IMDb user rating: 7.2
- Runtime: 130 minutes

This Japanese documentary tells the story of a businessman who suddenly disappears without a trace. The New York Times writer Manohla Dargis praised the documentary, calling its filmmaking “wildly startling.”

#21. Let It Fall: L.A. 1982-1992 (2017)

- Director: John Ridley
- Metascore: 92
- IMDb user rating: 7.8
- Runtime: 144 minutes

“Let It Fall” tracks the racial tension in Los Angeles that culminated in the 1992 race riots. Vogue's Julia Felsenthal noted that “‘Let It Fall,’ in the broadest sense, is about memory: what we remember, how we remember it, and how the collective accretion of individual memories can illuminate the complexity of history in a way that official institutional memory cannot.”

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#20. Out of the Clear Blue Sky (2012)

- Director: Danielle Gardner
- Metascore: 92
- IMDb user rating: 6.7
- Runtime: 107 minutes

“Out of the Clear Blue Sky” examines the devastating impact that 9/11 had on the firm Cantor Fitzgerald, a company that lost hundreds of employees killed during the terrorist attacks. In his review of the film, Slate Magazine critic Rob Humanick wrote, “Danielle Gardner’s work also suggests how Americans might yet unify even as the world around them threatens to tear itself apart.”

#19. One More Time With Feeling (2016)

- Director: Andrew Dominik
- Metascore: 92
- IMDb user rating: 8.3
- Runtime: 113 minutes

“One More Time With Feeling” follows Nick Cave after he records an album following the death of his 15-year-old son. The movie was shot in 10 days, utilizing a crew of over seven people.

#18. Crumb (1994)

- Director: Terry Zwigoff
- Metascore: 93
- IMDb user rating: 8.0
- Runtime: 119 minutes

Terry Zwigoff uses “Crumb” to provide an intimate look at his famous and controversial cartoonist friend Robert Crumb’s complicated family life. San Francisco Examiner critic Jeffery M. Anderson later called it “the greatest documentary ever made” in 2012.

#17. Brother's Keeper (1992)

- Directors: Joe Berlinger, Bruce Sinofsky
- Metascore: 93
- IMDb user rating: 7.5
- Runtime: 104 minutes

“Brother’s Keeper” details a 1990 murder case in which a young upstate New York man named Delbert Ward is accused of murdering his brother William. The documentary also looks at how the media clash with the inhabitants of the brothers’ small town.

#16. The Decline of Western Civilization (1981)

- Director: Penelope Spheeris
- Metascore: 93
- IMDb user rating: 7.6
- Runtime: 100 minutes

This Penelope Spheeris documentary examines the ‘70s Los Angeles punk scene, including bands like X, Catholic Discipline, and Black Flag. Although the film received critical acclaim, the Los Angeles chief of police wrote a letter demanding it not be shown in the city again upon its release.

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#15. Sherpa (2015)

- Director: Jennifer Peedom
- Metascore: 93
- IMDb user rating: 7.7
- Runtime: 96 minutes

“Sherpa” recounts a deadly 2014 Mount Everest avalanche from the perspectives of sherpas who lived through it. In his review, Empire critic Patrick Peters wrote, “This is a spectacular, intimate, and politically provocative exposé of the dangers, racial tensions, and harsh economic realities on the world’s highest mountain.”

#14. Shoah: Four Sisters (2018)

- Director: Claude Lanzmann
- Metascore: 93
- IMDb user rating: 8.2
- Runtime: 273 minutes

“Shoah: Four Sisters” features interviews conducted in the 1970s with four female Holocaust survivors. The movie is made up of footage from Claude Lanzmann’s previous “Shoah” documentary and debuted on TV as a four-part series.

#13. David Byrne's American Utopia (2020)

- Director: Spike Lee
- Metascore: 93
- IMDb user rating: 8.3
- Runtime: 105 minutes

Acclaimed director Spike Lee helmed this recording of longtime Talking Heads frontman David Byrne’s Broadway show of the same name. The A.V. Club’s writer Erik Adams praised the movie, writing, “The key to [the film’s] resonance isn’t so much one of joy versus despair as it is connection versus isolation.”

#12. Faces Places (2017)

- Directors: JR, Agnès Varda
- Metascore: 94
- IMDb user rating: 7.9
- Runtime: 94 minutes

“Faces Places” centers on the unlikely friendship between directors JR and Agnés Varda, who reflect upon life and art as they travel France together. It was the last movie that Varda released during her lifetime, and Film Comment critic Amy Taubin referred to it as “an exploration of the arts in the face of mortality.”

#11. First Cousin Once Removed (2012)

- Director: Alan Berliner
- Metascore: 94
- IMDb user rating: 7.5
- Runtime: 78 minutes

“First Cousin Once Removed” tells the story of poet and university professor Edwin Honig’s life, career, and struggle with Alzheimer’s disease. The title comes from the fact that Honig and director Alan Berliner are first cousins once removed.

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#10. We Were Here (2011)

- Directors: David Weissman, Bill Weber
- Metascore: 94
- IMDb user rating: 7.9
- Runtime: 90 minutes

Filmmaker David Weissman moved to San Francisco in 1976, just as Harvey Milk was elected as the city’s openly gay mayor. He later worked on “We Were Here,” which memorializes gay San Franciscans who lost their lives throughout the AIDS epidemic.

#9. Amazing Grace (2018)

- Directors: Alan Elliott, Sydney Pollack
- Metascore: 94
- IMDb user rating: 7.5
- Runtime: 89 minutes

This concert documentary follows legendary singer Aretha Franklin as she performs in Los Angeles in 1972. While the movie was first planned back in the 1970s, it was only released in the late 2010s because of technical troubles syncing audio and visuals.

#8. Collective (2019)

- Director: Alexander Nanau
- Metascore: 95
- IMDb user rating: 8.4
- Runtime: 109 minutes

“Collective” centers on Romanian journalists from the newspaper Gazeta Sporturilor as they expose a secret health care fraud behind a 2015 Bucharest nightclub fire that killed numerous people. Variety critic Jay Weissberg praised it as “a documentary for our times, deserving of widespread exposure.”

#7. Woodstock (1970)

- Director: Michael Wadleigh
- Metascore: 95
- IMDb user rating: 8.2
- Runtime: 184 minutes

“Woodstock” dives deep into the history of the iconic 1969 music festival of the same name, which attracted half a million people. In 1996, Entertainment Weekly called it one of the most entertaining documentaries in history, as well as a “benchmark” of concert films.

#6. I Am Not Your Negro (2016)

- Director: Raoul Peck
- Metascore: 95
- IMDb user rating: 7.9
- Runtime: 93 minutes

Raoul Peck’s documentary explores the history of systemic anti-Blackness in America by using passages from James Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript, “Remember This House.” Samuel L. Jackson narrated the film, which also spotlights Baldwin’s friendships with civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.

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#5. Virunga (2014)

- Director: Orlando von Einsiedel
- Metascore: 95
- IMDb user rating: 8.2
- Runtime: 100 minutes

“Virunga” follows a team of park rangers in the Congo Virunga National Park, who work to protect endangered mountain gorillas from poachers. It was nominated for Best Documentary Feature at the 2015 Academy Awards.

#4. King In The Wilderness (2018)

- Director: Peter W. Kunhardt
- Metascore: 97
- IMDb user rating: 8.0
- Runtime: 111 minutes

“King In the Wilderness” explores the work and interiority of Martin Luther King Jr. during the final 18 months of his life. The Hollywood Reporter critic Owen Gleiberman described it as “a searing portrait” that “captures the Civil Rights leader in a purgatory of anxiety and conflict.”

#3. Hoop Dreams (1994)

- Director: Steve James
- Metascore: 98
- IMDb user rating: 8.3
- Runtime: 170 minutes

“Hoop Dreams” follows two inner-city Chicago boys who work to become college basketball players by playing at a predominantly white high school known for its basketball program. It was originally meant to be a 30-minute short film but resulted in over 250 hours of footage.

#2. Shoah (1985)

- Director: Claude Lanzmann
- Metascore: 99
- IMDb user rating: 8.7
- Runtime: 566 minutes

The harrowing 9.5-hour documentary “Shoah” recounts the atrocities of the Holocaust, as told by witnesses, survivors, and perpetrators. The movie received plenty of critical acclaims, winning Best Documentary at the BAFTA Awards and the New York Film Critics Circle Awards.

#1. Best Kept Secret (2013)

- Director: Samantha Buck
- Metascore: 100
- IMDb user rating: 7.5
- Runtime: 85 minutes

Because many educational documentaries disproportionately focus on white, middle- to upper-class kids, it’s refreshing to see the lives of special needs children and children of color spotlighted in “Best Kept Secret.” The documentary centers on a special needs student teacher, who works with her students in the 18 months before graduation.

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