100 Greatest Movie Documentaries/50 Greatest Documentary Films

by jordanhores | created - 09 Oct 2015 | updated - 8 months ago | Public

This list is a list of best documentaries in modern cinema, (1970s-present,) based on topic, diversity, critical reception, accolades, cultural impact, historical importance, cinematography, direction and popularity. Excluding ones that have been critically panned/negative reviews and entertaining celebrity biographies.

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1. Woodstock (1970)

R | 184 min | Documentary, History, Music

The film chronicle of the legendary 1969 music festival.

Director: Michael Wadleigh | Stars: Joan Baez, Richie Havens, Roger Daltrey, Joe Cocker

Votes: 15,139 | Gross: $50.00M

2. The Cove (2009)

PG-13 | 92 min | Documentary, Crime

84 Metascore

Using state-of-the-art equipment, a group of activists, led by renowned dolphin trainer Ric O'Barry, infiltrate a cove near Taijii, Japan to expose both a shocking instance of animal abuse and a serious threat to human health.

Director: Louie Psihoyos | Stars: Richard O'Barry, Louie Psihoyos, Hardy Jones, Michael Illiff

Votes: 45,736 | Gross: $0.87M

3. GasLand (2010)

Not Rated | 107 min | Documentary

An exploration of the fracking petroleum extraction industry and the serious environmental consequences involved.

Director: Josh Fox | Stars: Josh Fox, Dick Cheney, Pete Seeger, Richard Nixon

Votes: 10,010 | Gross: $0.03M

4. Waste Land (2010)

Not Rated | 99 min | Documentary

78 Metascore

On the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro is Jardim Gramacho, the world's largest landfill, where men and women sift through garbage for a living. Artist Vik Muniz produces portraits of the workers and learns about their lives.

Directors: Lucy Walker, Karen Harley, João Jardim | Star: Vik Muniz

Votes: 8,062 | Gross: $0.19M

5. The Act of Killing (2012)

Not Rated | 117 min | Documentary, Biography, Crime

90 Metascore

A documentary which challenges former Indonesian death-squad leaders to reenact their mass-killings in whichever cinematic genres they wish, including classic Hollywood crime scenarios and lavish musical numbers.

Directors: Joshua Oppenheimer, Anonymous, Christine Cynn | Stars: Anwar Congo, Herman Koto, Syamsul Arifin, Ibrahim Sinik

Votes: 31,953 | Gross: $0.49M

6. March of the Penguins (2005)

G | 80 min | Documentary, Family

79 Metascore

In the Antarctic, every March since the beginning of time, the quest begins to find the perfect mate and start a family.

Director: Luc Jacquet | Stars: Morgan Freeman, Charles Berling, Romane Bohringer, Jules Sitruk

Votes: 53,995 | Gross: $77.44M

7. Anne Frank Remembered (1995)

PG | 117 min | Documentary, Biography, War

Using previously unreleased archival material in addition to contemporary interviews, this academy award-winning documentary tells the story of the Frank family and presents the first ... See full summary »

Director: Jon Blair | Stars: Kenneth Branagh, Glenn Close, Janny Brandes-Brilslijper, Rose De Liema

Votes: 924 | Gross: $1.31M

8. Broken Rainbow (1985)

70 min | Documentary, History

Documentary chronicling the government relocation of 10,000 Navajo Indians in Arizona.

Director: Victoria Mudd | Stars: Martin Sheen, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Burgess Meredith, Laura Nyro

Votes: 186

9. Harlan County U.S.A. (1976)

PG | 103 min | Documentary

80 Metascore

A filmed account of a bitterly violent miner strike.

Director: Barbara Kopple | Stars: Norman Yarborough, Houston Elmore, Phil Sparks, John Corcoran

Votes: 4,480

10. Hearts and Minds (1974)

R | 112 min | Documentary, History, War

68 Metascore

An examination of the conflicting attitudes of the opponents of the Vietnam War.

Director: Peter Davis | Stars: Tin Chan, Chau Diem, Ngo Dinh Diem, John Foster Dulles

Votes: 4,996 | Gross: $0.03M

11. Restrepo (2010)

R | 93 min | Documentary, War

85 Metascore

A year with one platoon in the deadliest valley in Afghanistan.

Directors: Tim Hetherington, Sebastian Junger | Stars: The Men of Battle Company 2nd of the 503rd Infantry Regiment 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, Juan 'Doc Restrepo, Dan Kearney, LaMonta Caldwell

Votes: 21,131 | Gross: $1.33M

12. Virunga (2014)

Not Rated | 100 min | Documentary, War

95 Metascore

A team of brave individuals risk their lives to protect the last mountain gorillas.

Director: Orlando von Einsiedel | Stars: André Bauma, Emmanuel de Merode, Mélanie Gouby, Rodrigue Mugaruka Katembo

Votes: 9,221

13. The Salt of the Earth (2014)

PG-13 | 110 min | Documentary, Biography, History

83 Metascore

The life and work of photographer Sebastião Salgado, who has spent forty years documenting deprived societies in hidden corners of the world.

Directors: Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, Wim Wenders | Stars: Sebastião Salgado, Wim Wenders, Lélia Wanick Salgado, Juliano Ribeiro Salgado

Votes: 17,755 | Gross: $1.34M

14. Last Days in Vietnam (2014)

Not Rated | 98 min | Documentary, History, War

86 Metascore

During the chaotic final weeks of the Vietnam War, the North Vietnamese Army closes in on Saigon as the panicked South Vietnamese people desperately attempt to escape. On the ground, ... See full summary »

Director: Rory Kennedy | Stars: Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger, Stuart Herrington, Juan Valdez

Votes: 3,539 | Gross: $0.47M

15. Citizenfour (2014)

R | 114 min | Documentary, Biography, News

88 Metascore

A documentarian and a reporter travel to Hong Kong for the first of many meetings with Edward Snowden.

Director: Laura Poitras | Stars: Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald, William Binney, Jacob Appelbaum

Votes: 49,090 | Gross: $2.80M

16. The Square (2013)

Not Rated | 95 min | Documentary, News

84 Metascore

A group of Egyptian revolutionaries battle leaders and regimes, risking their lives to build a new society of conscience.

Director: Jehane Noujaim | Stars: Ahmed Hassan, Khalid Abdalla, Magdy Ashour, Ramy Essam

Votes: 8,151 | Gross: $0.12M

17. An Inconvenient Truth (2006)

PG | 96 min | Documentary, News

75 Metascore

Filmmaker Davis Guggenheim follows Al Gore on the lecture circuit, as the former presidential candidate campaigns to raise public awareness of the dangers of global warming and calls for immediate action to curb its destructive effects on the environment.

Director: Davis Guggenheim | Stars: Al Gore, Billy West, George Bush, George W. Bush

Votes: 78,175 | Gross: $23.81M

18. Dirty Wars (2013)

Not Rated | 87 min | Documentary, Crime, Mystery

76 Metascore

Investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill is pulled into an unexpected journey as he chases down the hidden truth behind America's expanding covert wars.

Director: Rick Rowley | Stars: Jeremy Scahill, Nasser Al Aulaqi, Saleha Al Aulaqi, Muqbal Al Kazemi

Votes: 8,770 | Gross: $0.38M

19. The Invisible War (2012)

Not Rated | 93 min | Documentary, Crime

75 Metascore

An investigative documentary about the epidemic of rape of soldiers within the US military.

Director: Kirby Dick | Stars: Amy Ziering, Kirby Dick, Kori Cioca, Jessica Hinves

Votes: 6,399 | Gross: $0.07M

20. How to Survive a Plague (2012)

Not Rated | 110 min | Documentary, History, News

86 Metascore

The story of two coalitions -- ACT UP and TAG (Treatment Action Group) -- whose activism and innovation turned AIDS from a death sentence into a manageable condition.

Director: David France | Stars: Peter Staley, Larry Kramer, Iris Long, Bob Rafsky

Votes: 3,560 | Gross: $0.13M

21. Five Broken Cameras (2011)

Not Rated | 94 min | Documentary, War

78 Metascore

A documentary on a Palestinian farmer's chronicle of his nonviolent resistance to the actions of the Israeli army.

Directors: Emad Burnat, Guy Davidi | Stars: Emad Burnat, Soraya Burnat, Mohammed Burnat, Yasin Burnat

Votes: 5,542 | Gross: $0.11M

22. Hell and Back Again (2011)

Not Rated | 88 min | Documentary, Action, History

81 Metascore

What does it mean to lead men in war? What does it mean to come home? Hell and Back Again is a cinematically revolutionary film that asks and answers these questions with a power and ... See full summary »

Director: Danfung Dennis | Stars: Nathan Harris, Ashley Harris, The Marines of Echo Company, Christian Cabaniss

Votes: 2,154 | Gross: $0.04M

23. Undefeated (2011)

PG-13 | 113 min | Documentary, Sport

71 Metascore

Chronicles three underprivileged students from inner-city Memphis and their volunteer coach who tries to help them beat the odds on and off the field.

Directors: Daniel Lindsay, T.J. Martin | Stars: Bill Courtney, O.C. Brown, Montrail 'Money' Brown, Chavis Daniels

Votes: 6,499 | Gross: $0.56M

24. Inside Job (2010)

PG-13 | 109 min | Documentary, Crime

88 Metascore

Takes a closer look at what brought about the 2008 financial meltdown.

Director: Charles Ferguson | Stars: Matt Damon, Gylfi Zoega, Andri Snær Magnason, Sigridur Benediktsdottir

Votes: 66,209 | Gross: $4.31M

25. Which Way Home (2009)

Not Rated | 90 min | Documentary

"Which Way Home" is a feature documentary film that follows unaccompanied child migrants, on their journey through Mexico, as they try to reach the United States. We follow children like ... See full summary »

Director: Rebecca Cammisa

Votes: 1,020

26. The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers (2009)

Not Rated | 92 min | Documentary

75 Metascore

"The Most Dangerous Man in America" is the story of what happens when a former Pentagon insider, armed only with his conscience, steadfast determination, and a file cabinet full of ... See full summary »

Directors: Judith Ehrlich, Rick Goldsmith | Stars: Peter Arnett, Ben Bagdikian, Ann Beeson, John Dean

Votes: 2,186 | Gross: $0.45M

27. Food, Inc. (2008)

PG | 94 min | Documentary, News

80 Metascore

An unflattering look inside America's corporate controlled food industry.

Director: Robert Kenner | Stars: Michael Pollan, Eric Schlosser, Richard Lobb, Vince Edwards

Votes: 48,173 | Gross: $4.42M

28. Encounters at the End of the World (2007)

G | 99 min | Documentary

80 Metascore

Film-maker Werner Herzog travels to the McMurdo Station in Antarctica, looking to capture the continent's beauty and investigate the characters living there.

Director: Werner Herzog | Stars: Werner Herzog, Scott Rowland, Stefan Pashov, Doug MacAyeal

Votes: 16,356 | Gross: $0.94M

29. Man on Wire (2008)

PG-13 | 94 min | Documentary, Biography, History

89 Metascore

A look at tightrope walker Philippe Petit's daring, but illegal, high-wire routine performed between New York City's World Trade Center's twin towers in 1974, what some consider, "the artistic crime of the century".

Director: James Marsh | Stars: Philippe Petit, Jean François Heckel, Jean-Louis Blondeau, Annie Allix

Votes: 50,099 | Gross: $2.96M

30. War Dance (2007)

PG-13 | 105 min | Documentary, Music, War

68 Metascore

Three children living in a displacement camp in northern Uganda compete in their country's national music and dance festival.

Directors: Sean Fine, Andrea Nix | Stars: Dominic, Nancy, Rose, Jane Adong

Votes: 1,103 | Gross: $0.11M

31. No End in Sight (2007)

Not Rated | 102 min | Documentary, War

89 Metascore

A comprehensive look at the Bush Administration's conduct of the Iraq war and its occupation of the country.

Director: Charles Ferguson | Stars: Campbell Scott, Gerald Burke, Ali Fadhil, Omar Fekeiki

Votes: 7,943 | Gross: $1.43M

32. Taxi to the Dark Side (2007)

R | 106 min | Documentary, Crime, News

82 Metascore

Alex Gibney exposes the haunting details of the USA's torture and interrogation practices during the War in Afghanistan.

Director: Alex Gibney | Stars: Alex Gibney, Brian Keith Allen, Moazzam Begg, Christopher Beiring

Votes: 14,059 | Gross: $0.27M

33. My Country, My Country (2006)

Not Rated | 90 min | Documentary

Documentary by Oscar winner Laura Poitras about the war in Iraq.

Director: Laura Poitras

Votes: 261

34. Iraq in Fragments (2006)

Not Rated | 94 min | Documentary, War

84 Metascore

Stories from modern day Iraq as told by Iraqis living in a time of war, occupation and ethnic tension.

Director: James Longley | Stars: Mohammed Haithem, Suleiman Mahmoud, Muqtada al-Sadr, George W. Bush

Votes: 1,364 | Gross: $0.20M

35. Deliver Us from Evil (2006)

Not Rated | 101 min | Documentary, Crime

86 Metascore

Documentary about Father Oliver O'Grady, a Catholic priest who was relocated to various parishes around the United States during the 1970s in an attempt by the Catholic Church to cover up his rape of dozens of children.

Director: Amy Berg | Stars: Oliver O'Grady, Thomas Doyle, Adam, Jeff Anderson

Votes: 9,472 | Gross: $30.58M

36. Murderball (2005)

R | 88 min | Documentary, Sport

87 Metascore

Quadriplegics, who play full-contact rugby in wheelchairs, overcome unimaginable obstacles to compete in the Paralympic Games in Athens, Greece.

Directors: Henry Alex Rubin, Dana Adam Shapiro | Stars: Joe Soares, Keith Cavill, Mark Zupan, Joe Bishop

Votes: 9,602 | Gross: $1.52M

37. Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005)

R | 110 min | Documentary, Biography, History

A documentary about the Enron corporation, its faulty and corrupt business practices, and how they led to its fall.

Director: Alex Gibney | Stars: John Beard, Tim Belden, Barbara Boxer, George W. Bush

Votes: 15,651

38. Darwin's Nightmare (2004)

107 min | Documentary

84 Metascore

A documentary on the effect of fishing the Nile perch in Tanzania's Lake Victoria. The predatory fish, which has wiped out the native species, is sold in European supermarkets, while starving Tanzanian families have to make do with the leftovers.

Director: Hubert Sauper | Stars: Elizabeth 'Eliza' Maganga Nsese, Raphael Tukiko Wagara, Dimond Remtulia, Marcus Nyoni

Votes: 5,241 | Gross: $0.20M

39. Twist of Faith (2004)

TV-MA | 87 min | Documentary

70 Metascore

A man confronts the trauma of past sexual abuse as a boy by a Catholic priest only to find his decision shatters his relationships with his family, community and faith.

Director: Kirby Dick | Stars: Jeff Anderson, Barbara Blaine, David Clohessy, Sandy Comes

Votes: 788 | Gross: $0.00M

40. Born Into Brothels: Calcutta's Red Light Kids (2004)

R | 85 min | Documentary, Biography, News

78 Metascore

Two documentary filmmakers chronicle their time in Sonagchi, Calcutta and the relationships they developed with children of prostitutes who work the city's notorious red light district.

Directors: Zana Briski, Ross Kauffman | Stars: Kochi, Avijit Halder, Shanti Das, Manik

Votes: 15,240 | Gross: $3.41M

41. Capturing the Friedmans (2003)

Not Rated | 107 min | Documentary, Biography

90 Metascore

Documentary on the Friedmans, a seemingly typical, upper-middle-class Jewish family whose world is instantly transformed when the father and his youngest son are arrested and charged with shocking and horrible crimes.

Director: Andrew Jarecki | Stars: Arnold Friedman, Jesse Friedman, David Friedman, Elaine Friedman

Votes: 22,740 | Gross: $3.12M

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

PG-13 | 107 min | Documentary, Biography, History

87 Metascore

The story of America as seen through the eyes of the former Secretary of Defense under President John F. Kennedy and President Lyndon Baines Johnson, Robert McNamara.

Director: Errol Morris | Stars: Robert McNamara, John F. Kennedy, Fidel Castro, Richard Nixon

Votes: 21,993 | Gross: $4.20M

43. Spellbound (2002)

G | 97 min | Documentary, Comedy, Thriller

80 Metascore

Spellbound follows eight teenagers on their quest to win the 1999 National Spelling Bee.

Director: Jeffrey Blitz | Stars: Angela Arenivar, Ubaldo Arenivar, Jorge Arenivar, Scott McGarraugh

Votes: 11,650 | Gross: $5.73M

44. Prisoner of Paradise (2002)

PG | 96 min | Documentary, Biography

Documentary about Holocaust victim Kurt Gerron.

Directors: Malcolm Clarke, Stuart Sender | Stars: Ian Holm, Robert Lantz, Eleonore Hertzberg, Lone Koppel

Votes: 344

45. Promises (2001)

106 min | Documentary

80 Metascore

Several Jewish and Palestinian children are followed for three years and put in touch with each other, in this alternative look at the Jewish-Palestinian conflict. The three filmmakers ... See full summary »

Directors: B.Z. Goldberg, Justine Shapiro, Carlos Bolado | Stars: Moishe Bar Am, B.Z. Goldberg, Shlomo Green, Sanabel Hassan

Votes: 2,515 | Gross: $0.24M

46. LaLee's Kin: The Legacy of Cotton (2001 TV Movie)

89 min | Documentary

78 Metascore

This documentary follows a Mississippi Delta school district and a single Delta family as they struggle against the crippling effects of poverty in the wake of more than one hundred years of slavery.

Directors: Deborah Dickson, Susan Froemke, Albert Maysles | Stars: LaLee Wallace, Reggie Barnes

Votes: 206

47. Children Underground (2001)

Not Rated | 104 min | Documentary