The 100 Best Documentaries of All Time

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60. The Last Waltz
Director:   Martin Scorsese  
Year: 1978


Martin Scorsese’s painstaking attention to detail—particularly in the editing booth here, alongside Jan Roblee and Yeu-Bun Yee—secures this film’s place among the best rock documentaries ever made. A tapestry of American music is interwoven with the farewell concert by roots outfit The Band—who most famously backed Bob Dylan in the 1960s—who invite viewers onstage for an all-star jam with an astonishing lineup of guest players: Dylan himself; Eric Clapton; Muddy Waters; Joni Mitchell; Neil Young; Dr. John; Ringo Starr … for starters. The backstories are rich, the drug use is infamous, the friendships are complicated, but the music remains the thread that binds them all together. Scorsese’s portrait stays true to that, even if, after 16 years on the road, it’s painfully clear these guys need to “take a load off” like whoa. —A.S.

59. Roger & Me
Director: Michael Moore
Year: 1989


Self-aggrandizing provocateur Michael Moore made a name for himself with this doc, in which he tours his hometown of Flint, Michigan, in the wake of GM’s closure of local factories. As the company outsources labor to Mexico, crippling Flint’s workforce, infrastructure and collective psyche, Moore totes his camera around in search of then CEO and president Roger B. Smith to get answers and, you know, be Michael doing Michael. He poses as a TV reporter to get the word on the (crime-ridden) streets, and then a shareholder to crash a GM convention. His lens encounters a who’s who of visiting conservative personalities (Pat Boone, televangelist Robert Schuller, Ronald Reagan), along with outraged blue collar citizens. It’s a pointed (if highly manipulative) commentary on class and capitalism—and gonzo demagogue Moore at his most tolerable. —A.S.

58. The Overnighters
Director: Jesse Moss
Year: 2014


The bulk of The Overnighters is about Williston, ND. It may not be the most happening city in the United States, but it is one of the fastest growing thanks to the controversial fracking boom and subsequent influx of jobs. Thankfully, Moss leaves the fracking debate for other documentaries to handle. In turn, he focuses on the economically challenged men who seek work in the area, and the harsh realities they find instead.

Rather than the instant riches and six-figure salaries afforded a lucky few, scores of job seekers are left to fend for themselves, living out of cars and alienated by a less-than-welcoming community. The notable exception is Lutheran pastor Jay Reinke, who happily throws open the doors of his Williston church with a housing program dubbed “The Overnighters.” Without the consent of his congregation, Reinke invites these desperate pilgrims to make the building their temporary (or semi-permanent) residence. For Reinke, this radical act of charity is simply the Christian thing to do. For many of his parishioners, it’s an uncomfortable intrusion on their spiritual sanctuary—especially when the local paper prints a list of registered sex offenders in the area and a few of those names are Overnighters. One even lives in Reinke’s own home, with the approval of Reinke’s wife and three children.

The experience of The Overnighters is about so much more than just what does or doesn’t drive Reinke. It’s about what’s happening in America right now, how we can have as many abstract discussions about economics, the environment, crime and punishment, and religion as we want, but that these abstract ideas have real impacts on real people. —Geoff Berkshire

57. Land Without Bread
Director: Luis Buñuel
Year: 1933


Ever since the Maysles and Frederick Wiseman and D.A. Pennebaker became direct cinema heroes in the 1960s, cinéma vérité has become something of a default method for documentary filmmakers—the less mitigated the experience, the more illuminating the truth. But the further one digs into the form’s origins, the more an ethnography like Luis Buñuel’s Land Without Bread begins to rear its suspiciously exaggerated head. An exploration of the Las Hurdes region in Spain, where inhabitants are steeped in such poverty that the idea of “bread” is alien to them, Buñuel’s account is part travelogue, and part surrealist parody of the kinds of over-exoticized travelogues of the time. In attempting to describe the extent of the region’s scarcity (where one practice is to take in random orphans in order to claim the government welfare that accompanies them), Buñuel spares no brutal detail, setting out to make these peoples’ lives seem as excruciating as possible. Undoubtedly over the top, yet terribly stirring, the film claims that one doesn’t have to look far to find a compelling documentary subject—sadness and devastation can be found right in your backyard. —D.S.

56. King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters
Director: Seth Gordon
Year: 2007


In Seth Gordon’s feature directorial debut, newcomer Steve Wiebe challenges longtime world-champion Donkey Kong player Billy Mitchell for the highest score in the game’s history. After it becomes obvious that Wiebe may threaten to depose the competitive gaming world’s longtime hero, countless roadblocks are thrown in his path by both Mitchell’s fans and the gaming institution itself. As Wiebe becomes increasingly embroiled in this subculture, he ends up learning ?rsthand about the disturbing lengths people will go to in order to be the best at something, regardless of how silly that something may be. A comedy in the vein of Errol Morris’s earliest documents of humanistic absurdity, the ?lm’s contest is every bit as exciting as anything you’d find in a 30 for 30 ?lm, while shedding light on how obsessions can combine with corrupt power structures to drive otherwise normal people to ridiculous ends. —Sean Gandert

55. Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father
Director: Kurt Kuenne
Year: 2008


Kurt Kuenne was childhood friends with a man named Andrew Bagby, who, in late 2001, was murdered by ex-girlfriend Shirley Turner. Relieved he’d finally put an end to a turbulent relationship, he had no idea Turner was pregnant. So she killed him, then fled to Newfoundland, where she gave birth to Bagby’s son, Zachary.

This is how Dear Zachary begins: a visual testament to both Andrew Bagby’s life, as well as the enduring hearts of his parents, who, as Kuenne chronicles, moved to Newfoundland after their son’s murder to begin proceedings to gain custody of Zachary. Kuenne only meant the film to be a gift, a love letter to his friend postmarked to Zachary, to allow the baby to one day get to know his father via the many, many people who loved him most. Told in interviews, photos, phone calls, seemingly every piece of detritus from one man’s life, Kuenne’s eulogy is an achingly sad portrait of someone who, in only 28 years, deeply affected the lives of so many people around him.

And then Dear Zachary transforms into something profoundly else. It begins to take on the visual language and tone of an infuriating true-crime account, painstakingly detailing the process by which Bagby’s parents gained custody and then—just as they were beginning to find some semblance of consolation—faced their worst nightmares. The film at times becomes exquisitely painful, but Kuenne has a natural gift for tension and pacing that neither exploits the material nor drags the audience through melodramatic mud. In retrospect, Dear Zachary’s expositional approach may seem a bit cloying, but that’s only because Kuenne is willing to tell a story with all the disconsolate surprise of the tragedy itself. You’re gonna bawl your guts out. —D.S.

54. Citizenfour
Director: Laura Poitras
Year: 2014


Few documentaries have cameras rolling as history is being made. But director Laura Poitras found herself in the middle of momentous times while making Citizenfour, which takes us behind the scenes as NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden works with (among others) journalist Glenn Greenwald to expose the organization’s systematic surveillance of everyday Americans. From the worried initial meetings in a Hong Kong hotel room to the later fallout across the globe, Citizenfour has the rush of a thriller, humanizing its subjects so that we see the uncertainty and anxiety coursing through them—along with the guts and indignation. —T.G.

53. Taxi to the Dark Side
Director: Alex Gibney
Year: 2007


A shade overshadowed by controversy surrounding the film’s distribution and promotion, Taxi to the Dark Side is still a punishing document of American imperialism—both a product and condemnation of the democratic system that’s failed us for so long. Part post-9/11 discourse on torture and those who facilitate it for a so-called greater good, and part slowly simmering nightmare, Gibney’s film draws out a labyrinth of bureaucracy only slightly less enraging than the feeling of sitting there, watching this documentary, knowing there’s pretty much nothing you can do. This is the way the world ends—not with a bang but with the whimper of a man being tortured to death. —D.S.

52. Welfare
Director: Frederick Wiseman
Year: 1975


An unholy mess of dog-eared government forms, sad-sack stories of disappeared husbands, suicidal tendencies and public servants with permanently prickly demeanors, Welfare gets in the face of a civil edifice with the same fearlessness and devotion as any other Wiseman joint. For almost three hours, we sit by—sometimes idly, and sometime rapt—in the midst of a welfare office in New York in the middle of the 1970s, listening to applicants and recipients explain their cases to (mostly) deadpan employees. We’re exposed to the many-sorted maladies of a modern urban malaise: psychiatric, educational or racial; due to addiction, bad luck or some sort of institution. Though every story rings with a dull tone of tragedy, in time, all that sound runs together, and the viewer finds relief in white noise. But Welfare’s homogeneity may even be its point—beneath the tedium and repetition of hearing countless people voice one complaint after another, there crouches a harsher truth: If New York is supposed to be a microcosm of our species, then we are a people absolutely brimming with pain. —D.S.

51. Hearts of Darkness
Directors: Fax Bahr, George Hickenlooper, Eleanor Coppola
Year: 1991


There’s no movie industry machine to fault for Francis Ford Coppola’s own personal brand of apocalypse, just the immensity of the production itself—self-financed by the director—and his relentless need to make Apocalypse Now his crowning artistic achievement. This means that Coppola’s surreal Vietnam odyssey, which reached a whopping 265 days of principal photography, was, somewhere in the director’s brilliant, anxiety-riddled mind, his definitive statement on what it took for any human being to make a massive piece of art like Apocalypse Now. The experience was, as he tells a crowd at the very beginning of the making-of doc Hearts of Darkness, not about the Vietnam War; it was the Vietnam War.

Far from an exaggeration, Hearts of Darkness spends 90 minutes defending that initial statement, and after millions of dollars, a heart attack, a number of psychological collapses, serious drug abuse, a rebellion in the Philippines, threats of suicide, and endless rewrites to John Milius’s almost-legendary script, the audience might be hard-pressed to disagree with Coppola’s assessment. In fact, one wonders—along with practically everyone involved—if Apocalypse Now was even worth the trouble, despite a respectable awards showing and suitable box-office returns. Because at the heart of all that turmoil was an impenetrable something that Coppola spent nearly a year trying to find. In the end, just like in the Joseph Conrad novel upon which the film was based, it’s hard to tell if Coppola ever found what he was looking for. —D.S.

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