The 100 Best Documentaries of All Time

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50. Calcutta
Director: Louis Malle
Year: 1969

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Calcutta is a confounding, compulsively rewatchable documentary—probably the closest thing we’ll ever get to a cinematic Where’s Waldo book. Louis Malle and his camera seemingly leave no crevice of the Indian city un-glimpsed, rarely commenting, and almost wholly observing, stepping gingerly through the slums or weaving helplessly through traffic, as if the full truth of a metropolitan area of 8 million people could be documented only through comprehensive coverage—as if success in Malle’s mind is measured in the sheer amount of ground one camera can touch. Malle breaks his silence at one point to inform us that projections see the population rising to 20 million by 1990; that never happened, but under the oppressive bulk of that possibility Calcutta shudders. —D.S.

49. The War Game
Director: Peter Watkins
Year: 1967

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In the final moments of this film, a child, dripping with blood and coated in ash, says, “I don’t want to grow up to be nothing.”

Based on interviews with leading professionals, extensive research and a heady dose of well-educated speculation, Peter Watkins’ The War Game exists in a sort of interstitial reality between documentary and drama. Using mostly non-actors to portray Watkins’ estimation of what a nuclear holocaust in the UK would be like, the film conjures up an alternate reality in which an unsuspecting population freefalls into total annihilation. What’s scarier than the images Watkins depicts of people burning alive or of a riot erupting in the midst of the desperate institution of martial law—all (obviously) dramatized but all very difficult to watch—is also one of the film’s most trenchant truths: the lack of awareness most citizens have of the devastation our elected leaders have at their disposal. If we became suddenly aware that our future generations could grow up to be nothing—to mean nothing in the grand scheme of things—we’d have no idea how to prevent it. —D.S.


48. Little Dieter Needs to Fly
Director:   Werner Herzog  
Year: 1997

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The story of former fighter pilot Dieter Dengler, told in his own words, is one that, while pretty unbelievable, best illustrates the mastery manipulation of the man helping tell it. Werner Herzog makes no apologies for the way he so often bends truth to more snugly serve the grandeur he finds in the subjects he chooses for his documentaries—but he’s never been interested in unadulterated truth anyway. Instead, he’s in the documentary game for the exultation of truth, conveying it in such a way as to focus on the overpowering emotions at its core. And so, in Little Dieter Needs to Fly, Herzog takes Dengler back to Southeast Asia, where, in the early days of the Vietnam War, he was shot down and taken prisoner, tortured and starved—but then, somewhere within him, found the will to escape. Dengler leads us step by step through this harrowing experience, accompanied by locals who Herzog hired to help Dengler “reenact” the events, and in a sense help him remember.

That Herzog later went on to make a narrative feature based on Dengler’s story isn’t at all surprising—Rescue Dawn, starring Christian Bale in the lead role, walks a fine line between harsh reality and patriotic melodrama. Because, as Herzog told Paste more than eight years ago:

Rescue Dawn is not a war movie. It’s a ?lm about the test and trial of men … And survival.”

It doesn’t necessarily matter how Dengler escaped, but that he was able to at all. Whatever you want to call it, it was that titular “need” that propelled him onward—and that’s the truth Herzog wants to discover. —D.S.


47. Exit Through the Gift Shop
Director:   Banksy  
Year: 2010

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When renowned graffiti artist Banksy took the camera away from Thierry Guetta, the man shooting his biopic, and decided that the subject would become the documentarian (and the documentarian, the subject), an incomparably zany (and very, very funny) documentary was born. Against all odds, Mr. Brainwash, as Guetta christens himself, puts on the largest and most profitable street art exhibition in history.

The film never quite takes a side on the Warholian question of whether Guetta/Mr. Brainwash is actually a legitimate artist or has merely convinced enough people that he is—or whether those are one and the same, or whether it even matters. But the most compelling theme of the film is its cinematic exploration of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle: That a phenomenon cannot be observed or measured without simultaneously changing it. Guetta never puts spray can to wood until he’s being documented by Banksy. Does that mean Banksy made him what he is? Destroyed, in some sense, what he was? And is that good or bad, or neither? Banksy’s not saying. —M.D.


46. From the East
Director: Chantal Akerman
Year: 1993

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Chantal Akerman once said, “In my films I follow an opposite trajectory to that of the makers of political films … They have a skeleton, an idea and then they put on flesh: I have in the first place the flesh, the skeleton appears later.” So goes the corporeal nature of From the East, in which Akerman travels to East Germany, and then Moscow, shortly after the institution of perestroika. Her vignettes, devoid of context and explanation, are as rich as they are varied: peasants planting crops, people preparing dinner, streets ever-thickening with snow, someone listening to music—each calmly documented, without any noticeable agenda. Akerman’s intent could be practically anything—a visual reconstruction of the Soviet deconstruction perhaps, or an exploration of the museum of communism, limned in ruin—which seems to be her only intent. And yet, as we watch people waiting, as we watch people reminiscing, as we watch people stand between monoliths and silhouettes, the whole film conjures up an ineffable atmosphere of nostalgia—what these people are nostalgic for is left to us to imagine. —D.S.


45. Crumb
Director: Terry Zwigoff
Year: 1995

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Robert Crumb, one of the most controversial cartoon artists of the late ’60s and ’80s, continues to impress his fans with his eccentric persona and borderline gross perspectives even today. Starting his own Zap Comix in 1968—printed by filmmaker and Beat writer Charles Plymell—he’s since dedicated his time to creating his own work (notably, Fritz the Cat). He also managed to merge his passion for music with his illustrations, as can be seen in the book R. Crumb—The Complete Record Cover Collection, in which you can enjoy his artwork for bands like Big Brother & The Holding Company, Blind Boy Fuller and of course his own musical formation, R. Crumb and his Cheap Suit Serenades. Crumb tends to mix his own personal fetishes and obvious sexual preferences into his work without ever losing face with Freudian clichés.

Anyone who has ever studied his comics and other illustrations must have noted that this is not just a man who is evidently hung up on some satirically sexual identification with his characters—derived squealing from his Id—but a man who must depend upon his privacy. A documentary about himself and the people closest to him … Who could be trusted enough to be granted such an intimate insight into his family? There was only one man for the job: friend and fellow cheap suit Terry Zwigoff, who ended up spending nine years on this project. Crumb might make you blush uncontrollably at times—it will definitely leave you with a bit of a gabble in your throat—but as a piece of totally DIY insight into artistic genius, it’s achingly personal. —Roxanne Sancto


44. Lessons of Darkness
Director:   Werner Herzog  
Year: 1992

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“The collapse of the stellar universe will occur—like creation—in grandiose splendor.” — Blaise Pascal

With this quote Lessons of Darkness begins, and so it approaches the aftermath of the Gulf War from the perspective of an alien observer—not so much from another world as functionally from a different dimension, removed and slightly off, then suddenly thrust back into a reality, our reality, brimming with violence and fire. The images to which Herzog lays himself interminably bare are able to be viscerally understood, because they are grandiose: towering, apocalyptic and past the point of logistical comprehension. Every Herzog film comes with at least one near iconic image—an infant desperately gripping an immigrant’s finger; a marching line of slaves down a mountainside; a dwarf laughing himself to death; an infinite vista of windmills—and Lessons of Darkness is no different. Though, it could be said that the whole film is one of those images, a meditation on the glamor of devastation: It’s the logical sequel to Herzog’s Fata Morgana, but even more gorgeous, because there’s probably no more thrilling and unadulterated vision of the sheer cataclysm of the human condition than an oil field—burning until the end of time. —D. S.


43. Muscle Shoals
Director: Greg “Freddy” Camalier
Year: 2013

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Freddy Camalier’s masterly Muscle Shoals is about the beginnings and then the heyday of the recording scene in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, a tiny town that improbably changed the face of rock’n’roll forever. First-timer Camalier is obviously a natural storyteller, but there’s so much more to the doc than promise—the cinematography is lush and beautiful, the editing is crisp and precise, and it’s in turns heartbreaking, inspiring, wry, thought-provoking, nostalgic and genuinely funny. It’s simply a stunning debut film.

It helps that Camalier and his producing partner Stephen Badger are after more than just a lesson in musical history: They delve into the Civil Rights Movement and its effect specifically on Alabama, especially as it relates to a Muscle Shoals music scene that was, shockingly enough, lacking in any racial tension. They return again and again to the ancient Native American legend about the river that flows through the town, and the water spirit who lived there, sang songs and protected the town. Not to mention that the personal life of Fame Records founder Rick Hall, the protagonist of the film, is itself worthy of a Faulkner novel. Muscle Shoals is thrilling, it’s engaging, it’s fascinating, it’s stirring, it’s epic—whether you’re a music lover or not. —M.D.


42. Harlan County, USA
Director: Barbara Kopple
Year: 1976

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Years in the making, Barbara Kopple’s Oscar-winning Harlan County, USA joins the families standing behind the miners’ strike against the Duke Power Company at the Brookside Mine in Kentucky, which started in 1972. Though in itself, the film is near heedless examination of the ever-shifting relationships between labor unions and the corporations almost preternaturally bent on dismantling them—not to mention the unsustainable reality of small towns centered wholly around one company (see also: Roger & Me)—what’s perhaps most transgressive about Kopple’s film is the way in which her presence, and that of her crew, steered the course of the documentary’s events. When Duke hired armed guards to accompany scabs into the mines, Kopple infamously claimed that her cameras kept inevitable violence at bay—as well possibly contributing to, among other circumstances, the revelation that former union president Tony Boyle contributed money to the murder of well-loved presidential candidate Joseph Yablonski, who was found, with his whole family, dead in their home not long after the elections (which were also pretty obviously considered corrupt). What began as a documentary about union members’ attempts to unseat Boyle grew to a film about the injustice at the heart of unchecked capitalism. In that evolution Kopple proved that for some of the best documentaries, the value is in the journey, rarely in the destination. —D.S.


41. Gimme Shelter
Directors: Albert Maysles, David Maysles, Charlotte Zwerin
Year: 1970

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The December 1969 killing of Meredith Hunter at a Rolling Stones concert happened, was reported on and was commented on by this very documentary in the space of a year. A duration made to seem even shorter, perhaps, since Gimme Shelter was only the second film about the Rolling Stones that turned out to be less about the Rolling Stones and more about The End of the 1960s—the first being Jean-Luc Goddard’s One Plus One (1968). But duration makes this film important: it’s all reaction, tempered by very little perspective. So while Gimme Shelter does tend to play into the tired Baby Boomer narrative that the violence at Altamont was the straw that broke the camel of Woodstock’s back, marking a definitive end to The Hopes and Dreams of the 1960s, its depiction of the Altamont Free Concert as a series of bad decisions that led to bad results is still fascinating. The best reaction in the film comes from Jerry Garcia, stoned out of his mind and clearly only half-understanding the news that the ad hoc security at the event, the Hell’s Angels, were beating people in the crowd. He blinks, slowly, and simply drawls, “Buuummer.”

This should be watched with a critical eye. Hunter’s death is often invoked as a sad footnote that emphasizes how truly awful Altamont was, and Gimme Shelter doesn’t quite correct that—there’s no real attempt to provide character or detail to the man who can be seen sporting a lime green jacket in the crowd, and no sophisticated analysis of the race or class politics of the event or the killing. But even if the Maysles and long-time collaborator Charlotte Zwerin aren’t attempting to answer those important questions, to their credit they provide an awful lot of fascinating footage to be critical about. —M.A.

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