The 100 Best Documentaries of All Time

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10. Los Angeles Plays Itself
Director: Thom Andersen
Year: 2003

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Finally, officially released in 2014, Los Angeles Plays Itself is all at once a graceful document, a lyrical portrait and a hilarious condemnation of the titular city so often represented in, and serving as the origin of, American film in the 20th century. Consisting entirely of footage from other films, from Xanadu to Chinatown and every neighborhood in between, one watches this documentary and wishes Thom Andersen had similar personal stakes in one’s own hometown. So insightful, and so excruciatingly thorough, are his analyses—of everything from the City’s architecture to its bureaucratic reputation—that LA comes to represent the ideal of a fictionalized metropolis that American cinema has sought since its beginning. And, at nearly three hours, the documentary seems almost too short, a fervent grasp at something that is practically ungraspable: the character of one of the U.S.’s biggest, most mindboggling urban centers, a portrait of American ingenuity, corruption and aesthetic brilliance rolled into one seething, relentlessly philosophical whole. Behold, America: this is the mask you die to wear. —D.S.


9. Hearts and Minds
Director: Peter Davis
Year: 1974

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“I suppose it’s like any pain … you don’t remember pain too well afterwards.”

Devastating and so relentless there is little to do but watch, endure and allow it to work inextricably into your subcutaneous fibers, Hearts and Minds is more than an expansive document of the Vietnam War during the height of its controversy—it’s a study in pain: how we live with it, how we live without it and how we sustain ourselves in the grey area between. The same could be said for any war documentary that refuses to shy away from the horror of history, from Night and Fog to Fog of War, but Hearts and Minds doesn’t attempt to figure out what went so wrong or who’s to blame as it does (through countless interviews and extensive time spent embedded with troops) try to lend some reality to the nearly unbelievable events that sidled up snugly against an otherwise ignorant American way of life.

There is little that, all these decades later, is surprising about this documentary—in fact, one of its most heartrending scenes, of a small group of Vietnamese children fleeing a napalm attack, skin sloughing off of their naked skin in slates, is now iconic in its ubiquity. We are at the least always aware of the horrors of that war, or any war for that matter—but there is still plenty to be learned from Peter Davis’s masterwork. This is recent history made tactilely clear, a physical experience meant to be sublimated. No matter how much distance we place between ourselves and the atrocities of war, Hearts and Minds makes sure our thoughts never stray too far from the reality of what we’re, all of us, capable of doing to one another. —D.S.


8. Titicut Follies
Directors: Frederick Wiseman
Year: 1967

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“At the time, I was teaching classes in legal medicine and family law,” Wiseman once recalled. “And in order to make the things more interesting for both me and the students, I took them on field trips. I thought I would make the cases a bit more real by taking them to trials, parole-board hearings, probation hearings and mental hospitals. One of the places I took them to was Bridgewater, a prison for the criminally insane. … It seemed fresh material from a film point of view and visually very interesting.”

From that came Titicut Follies, his 1967 documentary about Bridgewater State Hospital. Writing a proposal for the film, Wiseman stated that he wanted to “give an audience factual material about a state prison but also give the film an imaginative and poetic quality that [would] set it apart from the cliché documentary about crime and mental illness.” He succeeded: Titicut Follies is a harrowing look at the treatment of the prisoners—including scenes of one naked inmate being force-fed intercut with the same inmate’s body undergoing preparation for burial—although Bridgewater’s overseers initially didn’t have a problem with the depiction of their facility. That changed once Titicut Follies was shown to reviewers, who mentioned the inmates’ harsh treatment. It was then that the governor of Massachusetts blocked the release of the film, citing invasion of privacy for the Bridgewater prisoners and violation of an oral contract that the state would have final approval over the film. (Wiseman, for his part, insisted no such agreement was ever in place.)

“Making the film was one thing, and the litigation was something else,” Wiseman told Filmmaker in 2012. “The litigation was basically a farce, because the effort to ban the film—even though they succeeded for quite a while—was just an example of political cowardice and stupidity. I always thought of it as political theatre.” After appealing to the Massachusetts Supreme Court, he was able to show the movie in certain places, but only under incredibly strict conditions. “They decided that the film had value but could only be seen by limited audiences: doctors, lawyers, judges, health-care professionals, social workers, and students in these and related fields, but not the ‘merely curious general public,’” Wiseman recalled to Vice. “And this was on condition that I give the attorney general’s office a week’s notice before any screening and that I file an affidavit after that everyone who attended was, of my personal knowledge, a member of the class of people allowed to see the film.” —T.G.


7. The Thin Blue Line
Director:   Errol Morris  
Year: 1988

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A little after midnight on Nov. 28, 1976, Dallas police officers Robert Wood and Teresa Turko made a routine traffic stop for a car driving without headlights. When Wood approached the vehicle, the driver pulled a handgun and shot him five times. The car sped off into the night while Turko fired hopelessly in its wake and Wood died at her feet. A cop killer was on the loose in Dallas.

Turko’s recollections of the driver were meager, and 50 investigators worked through the sparse clues without a single witness. But less than a month later, on Dec. 21, Dallas police arrested Randall Dale Adams, a 28-year-old itinerant laborer from Ohio. Though Adams claimed his innocence, a jury found him guilty and the judge handed him the death sentence. The man once branded in court as “Charles Manson” was safely locked away. Dallas breathed again.

Nine years later, in 1985, a documentarian named Errol Morris drifted into town from New York. Morris had never heard of Randall Dale Adams; he was in Dallas to speak to a doctor. By the time Morris left three years later, he had freed an innocent man, identified a murderer, uncovered widespread corruption and earned death threats, law suits and debt. He had also made one of the finest documentary films of all time—a nimbly stylized and obsessive pursuit of truth; a study in and a shrug to the pitfalls of myopia; the Serial podcast before podcasts ever existed; an epic story of life, death and the misuse of power that has repercussions to this day. He called it The Thin Blue Line. —Neil Forsyth


6. Grizzly Man
Director:   Werner Herzog  
Year: 2005

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Leave it to Werner Herzog to take on a subject as peculiar and tragic as that of Timothy Treadwell, the bear enthusiast who, along with his girlfriend, was killed by his wild obsession in 2003. A sing-songy, pleasant, dangerously deluded man who believed his beloved grizzly companions knew and trusted him, Treadwell, over the course of 13 summers spent in Alaskan national parks, approached bears with both a religious reverence and folksy casualness—the latter of which arguably cost him his life. Treadwell self-anoints himself “kind warrior” and, alternately, “samurai,” and at one point tellingly declares that animals rule, but “Timothy conquered.” Rooted in Treadwell’s own footage, Grizzly Man will divide camps between those who find him a reckless idiot and those who enjoy him as a kooky nature lover, or both. For his part, Herzog is a sympathetic yet level-headed narrator, his even voice and expositional asides setting the tone for a restrained, expertly crafted film. Far from exploitative—existing audio footage of the couple’s death is not heard onscreen, just reacted to and discussed—Grizzly Man is a sensitive, supremely fascinating glimpse of the primal forces within us and apart from us, and what happens when they can’t be reconciled. —A.S.


5. Night and Fog
Director: Alain Resnais
Year: 1955

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Released 10 years after the liberation of prisoners from the Nazi concentration camps, Night and Fog was almost never made. Any number of reasons contributed to its tenuous birth: that noted documentary director Resnais refused repeated attempts to helm the movie, insisting that a survivor of the camps be intimately involved, until screenwriter Jean Cayrol came on board, himself a survivor of the Mauthausen-Gusen camp; that Resnais and collaborators battled both French and German censors upon potential Cannes release; or that both Resnais and Cayrol themselves struggled with especially graphic footage, unsure of how to properly and comprehensively depict the unmitigated horror of what they were undertaking. Regardless, the film found release and is today, even at only 31 minutes, an eviscerating account of life in the camps: their origins, their architecture and their inner-workings.

Yet, most of all, Night and Fog is a paean to the power of art to shake history down to its foundational precedents. Look only to its final moments, in which, over images of the dead, emaciated and piled endlessly in mass graves, narrator Michel Bouquet simply asks to know who is responsible. Who did this? Who allowed this to happen? Which is so subtly subversive—especially given the film’s quiet filming of Auschwitz and Majdanek, overgrown and abandoned, accompanied by lyrical musings and a strangely buoyant score—because rarely do documentaries demand such answers. Rarely do documentaries ask such questions. Rarely is truth taken to task, bled of all subjectivity, and placed naked before the audience: Here is evil, undeniably—what will you do about this? —D.S.


4. Grey Gardens
Directors: Ellen Hoyde, Albert Maysles, David Maysles, Muffie Meyer
Year: 1975

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Co-directed by recently deceased documentarian Albert Maysles (Iris), this influential doc—another title preserved in the U.S. Film Registry—chronicles the lives of Edith “Big Edie” Ewing Bouvier Beale and her daughter, “Little Edie,” a reclusive mother and middle-aged daughter duo related to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. When Big Edie’s husband left her, she and her Little namesake continued to live for a half century in the titular East Hampton estate, which fell into dire disrepair—so much so that Jackie had to step in to save it. The socialites’ eccentric, Havisham-esque existence drew Albert and his brother David to their tale—natural born hams, the ladies dance, preen and otherwise play to their directors’ handheld cameras, at that time a somewhat revolutionary technique. It feels almost too intimate. The result is a wistful, sometimes funny, often sad portrait of codependency and nostalgia made more poignant by the Maysles’ voyeuristic storytelling. —A.S.


3. Sans Soleil
Director: Chris Marker
Year: 1983

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Unfortunately—or perhaps saliently—the best documentaries are those that revel in their medium, that roll around in and burrow into and laugh at the flagrant manipulation of truth that lies at the heart of even the basest cinéma vérité. Leave it to Chris Marker, who’d already trolled his synapses with the sci-fi masterpiece La Jetée, to craft an unparalleled film about the imperfections of filmmaking—and cats. So many cats.

Compiled of disparate images from Marker’s colleagues, his own travels and filmmakers such as Andrei Tarkovsky and Alfred Hitchcock, focused prominently on Japan and Guinea-Bissau out of many locales, Sans Soleil is, above all, a meditation on the imperfection of memory. Which is why its most striking images will forever stay with you: the poaching of a giraffe, the vultures that eat the giraffe’s softest remains, the shrine to cats, the JFK robot, the petrified desert animals, the art exhibit of taxidermied creatures posed in erotic gestures, the seemingly primeval digital manipulations of celebrity vignettes, the teenagers dancing, and the many visions of extreme emotion forever lost to time. Seemingly about everything just as it is about one person’s awe-struck experiences trotting across the globe, Sans Soleil touches on the ineffable with the wit and grandeur of someone remarkably in sync with some sort of subconscious matrix that binds us all, with Jungian fervor, inextricably together. —D.S.


2. Shoah
Director: Claude Lanzmann
Year: 1985

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Describing this 10-hour landmark of documentary filmmaking—of filmmaking in general, really—is, ostensibly, an easy task: Director Claude Lanzmann foregoes using any archival or historical footage to allow only the testimonials of survivors and historians to tell, in breathtaking detail that is both sweeping and deeply intimate, the story of the Holocaust. We are given hours to reflect as we join these beleaguered people: They walk us through Treblinka, through Auschwitz, through the Warsaw ghettos, through Chelmno, where the first mobile gas chambers were used—through the night and fog of memory. And though the film has been, of course, greeted with controversy, especially by Poles who feel that the film in many ways indicts them in the atrocities committed against the Jews, there is no other cinematic experience like it. There is only this petition: you must watch this film; you must live inside this film for as long as it takes; you must understand every single ounce of pain it recalls. And, in feeling, down to your most empirical bits, the power of filmmaking, you must leave this film forever changed. —D.S.


1. Hoop Dreams
Director: Steve James
Year: 1994

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The documentary labeled by none other than Roger Ebert as the single best film of the 1990s is alternatingly beautiful and crushing, an intense profile of life in inner city Chicago and dreams of escape through basketball—of all things. The story of two young men recruited by a wealthy, predominantly white high school to play basketball, it raised serious questions about modern education, race and socioeconomic status, all of which we’re still asking today. Shot over the course of five years and condensed from 250 hours of footage, it’s a sprawling story that leaves out absolutely nothing in its realistic portrayal of multiple families, yet was snubbed from a nomination in the Academy’s best documentary category, leading to public and critical outcry. It just doesn’t get any more real than this, in ways both illuminating and heartbreaking. Both of the young men profiled had older brothers gunned down in Chicago street violence in the years that followed the film’s release, one in 1994 and another in 2001. Still, interest in their story has remained strong—the restored, Criterion Collection Blu-Ray was just released for the first time last month. —J.V.

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