The 100 Best Documentaries of All Time

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40. West of the Tracks
Director: Wang Bing
Year: 2003

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Length is hardly ever a demarcation of where quality begins and ends, but the nine-hour running time of Wang Bing’s excruciatingly measured account of the decay of China’s industrial Tiexi district (in Shenyang) is crucial to truly understanding the region’s fate. Segregated into three parts (the alliteratively blank “Rust,” “Remnants” and “Rails”), West of the Tracks creeps toward oblivion, watching sullenly as the director winnows down his focus—from a group of factory workers caught between disastrous working conditions and idle hours waiting for their livelihoods, and lives to end, down to a boy and his dad who pick through rail yards in order to find raw materials for the emptying factories—attempting somehow to zero in on one reason, one feeling, one reality that could sum up, or at the very least provide consolation for, why life is this way for these people. If you’re able to make it through this meandering spiral, down to its empirical roots, there’s no guarantee you will be rewarded for what you did—there is only the knowledge that you had the endurance to do so. —D.S.


39. In the Year of the Pig
Director: Emile de Antonio
Year: 1968

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Consider this a flawless companion piece to Hearts and Minds (spoiler alert: look further down this list), a dedicated investigation into the political and social context that somnambulantly found America embroiled in a disastrous war effort during a time when it felt as if America was capable of anything but staying out of the business of others. Sharing a few key interviews and footage with Peter Davis’s film, Antonio’s bleakly atonal documentary expresses nearly identical contempt for the inscrutability of American actions. And yet, In the Year of the Pig is the better glimpse into Vietnamese culture at the time, and so is one side of an equation that Hearts and Minds would rather complete with a film about America—all of it—during the Vietnam War. Today, Antonio’s more experimental editing choices feel a little too obvious—especially the sequence in which he pairs “patriotic” music with a blatantly jingoistic recruitment film for anti-communist North Vietnamese—but on the whole In the Year of the Pig is no less incendiary: frank, full of rage and so scrappy it might as well be every young idealistic American’s introduction to the reality of our supposedly time-tested democracy. —D.S>


38. Paradise Lost
Directors: Joe Berlinger, Bruce Sinofsky
Year: 1996

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If you’ve never heard of the West Memphis Three, do some research before you begin—you’ll want to be prepared. Within only a minute of the film’s opening, as Metallica’s “Welcome Home (Sanitarium)” noodles forebodingly over pixelated camcorder videos, intolerable images taken straight from police evidence glance across frame, so quickly and frankly you’ll immediately question if they are, in fact, real. Of course, they are—they are images no person should ever have to see, and yet Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky use them only to expose the unbelievable horror at the heart of the appropriately named Paradise Lost. What unfolds over the following two and a half hours is just as heartbreaking: a trio of teenage boys (one with an IQ of 72) is put to trial for the brutal murders of three prepubescent boys, the only evidence against them a seemingly forced confession by the young kid with the below-average IQ, and laughably circumstantial physical proof. The film explores the context of West Memphis, its blindly devoted Christian populous, and how the fact that these teenagers dressed in black and listened to Metallica somehow led to their predictable fates at the hands of a comprehensively broken justice system. With surprising access to everyone involved in the trial, as well as a deft eye for the subtle exigencies of any criminal case such as this, Paradise Lost is a thorough, infuriating glimpse of the kind of mundane evil that mounts in some of America’s quietest corners. Welcome home. —D.S.


37. Buena Vista Social Club
Director: Wim Wenders
Year: 1999

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A good 15 years before Obama moved to lift the embargo, Wim Wenders helmed this exuberant introduction to a members club in Havana that closed in the 1940s, only to find worldwide popularity in the 1990s. Wenders’ camera follows his friend, American musician Ry Cooder, as he gets the band of legendary Cuban talents back together for an album and a few transcontinental performances. The soundtrack is, unsurprisingly, exceptional. So too are the individual players and their stories: Take Ibrahim Ferrer, a soft-spoken septuagenarian with a dulcet falsetto, or Omara Portuondo, a soulful chanteuse and dancer who once performed with Nat King Cole. Wenders’ film is more than just a journey of discovery for Cooder and his accompanying son Joachim, or for the group’s members, many of whom had never been to the U.S. (where they sold out Carnegie Hall); it’s the viewer’s passport to an indigenous African-Spanish sound theretofore blockaded by politics. Back in the studio, back in front of a crowd, back with each other, the Club’s members are positively radiant. It’s damned near impossible for audiences to not bask in that warmth. —A.S.


36. Burden of Dreams
Director: Les Blank
Year: 1982

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Werner Herzog  is no stranger to the ecstatic toil of movie-making, and so it comes as no surprise that one of the greatest films ever filmed about filmmaking is Les Blank’s The Burden of Dreams, a documentary ostensibly about the harrowed making of Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo in the jungles of South America, and really about, like Hearts of Darkness, what an artist is willing to do to wrench his or her vision free from the mind’s morass.

Herzog, an experimental documentarian in his own right, seems to at times toy with Blank, posturing himself as a madman on the brink of a psychotic break, unleashing one bout of intimidating crazy talk after another; years later, Blank admitted as much on his end, claiming that he fussed with the film’s vérité style, asking Herzog, for example, to repeat rants the director once shared off-camera.

Whether Herzog’s playacting or not, his horrific monologues only service the narrative Blank’s building: that sometimes an artistic vision must be seen through, no matter the cost. Whether Blank was instigating drama in the director’s reality or not, Herzog was on board: the audience must understand the seriousness of his vision. And leave it to Herzog to describe such primeval urges in Conquest of the Useless: Reflections from the Making of Fitzcarraldo, the director’s own diary-like chronicle of the production:

“A vision had seized hold of me, like the demented fury of a hound that has sunk its teeth into the leg of a deer carcass and is shaking and tugging at the downed game so frantically that the hunter gives up trying to calm him. It was the vision of a large steamship scaling a hill under its own steam, working its way up a steep slope in the jungle, while above this natural landscape, which shatters the weak and the strong with equal ferocity, soars the voice of Caruso, silencing all the pain and all the voices of the primeval forest and drowning out all birdsong. To be more precise: bird cries, for in this setting, left unfinished and abandoned by God in wrath, the birds do not sing; they shriek in pain, and confused trees tangle with one another like battling Titans, from horizon to horizon, in a steaming creation still being formed. Fog-panting and exhausted they stand in this unreal misery—and I, like a stanza in a poem written in an unknown foreign tongue, am shaken to the core.”

Just try to not imagine that in Herzog’s now infamous voice: the voice of a man at war with the wide world around him—and the voice of a man who may win. —D.S.


35. The Look of Silence
Director: Joshua Oppenheimer
Year: 2015

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Like The Act of Killing, Joshua Oppenheimer’s companion film—the syntactically similar The Look of Silence—asks you to contemplate the literal meaning behind its title. Again returning to Indonesia, a country languishing in the anti-communist genocides of the 1960s, Oppenheimer this time sets his eye on Adi, a middle-aged optician whose brother was murdered by the men who were the focus of the first film, people today treated as local celebrities. Without question, the film is an interrogation of what it means to watch—as those who led the genocides; as those who are loved ones of those who led the genocides; as those who must repress the anger and humiliation of living beside such people every day; and, most palpably of all, as those of us who are distant observers, left with little choice but to witness such horror in the abstract. As in its predecessor, Oppenheimer’s patience and ability to acquaint himself intimately with the film’s subjects make for one gut-scraping scene after another—the sight of Adi’s 100+ year-old father, especially, is harrowing: blind and senile, the man is abjectly terrified as he scoots around on the floor, flailing and screaming that he’s trapped, having no idea where, or when, he is. Yet, moreso than in The Act of Killing, Oppenheimer here demands our undivided attention, forcing us to confront his quiet, sad documentary with the notion that seeing is more than believing—to see is to bear responsibility for the lives we watch. —D.S.


34. The Fog of War
Director:   Errol Morris  
Year: 2004

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The primary thrust of The Fog of War is a series of interviews Morris did with Robert McNamara, beginning in May 2001 and continuing through the winter of 2002-03. For those who lived through the ’60s, the name Robert McNamara provokes an entire range of emotions and experiences. But even those too young to remember the former U.S. Secretary of Defense will find The Fog of War an incredibly relevant portrait of a man who helped shape the 20th century.

Not enough can be said of Morris’s rhythmic editing style. He’s a master of the subtle use of slow- and fast-motion. It’s reminiscent of Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera, one of Morris’s favorite documentaries. The propulsive minimalism of the musical score by Philip Glass perfectly matches Morris’s editing, creating both energy and drive. At other times, it heightens what the director calls the “existential dread” of war, as archival footage from WWII and Vietnam flash on screen.

The Fog of War is principally a movie about war, which is why McNamara’s 13-year reign as the president of the World Bank is unfortunately ignored. However, the film raises enough issues, provokes enough questions and challenges enough assumptions to make it essential viewing. —J. Robert Parks


33. For All Mankind
Director: Al Reinert
Year: 1989

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“You recognize that you’re not there because you deserve to be there—that you were just lucky. You were a representative of humanity at that point in history, having that experience, in a sense, for the rest of mankind.”

Al Reinert did mankind a solid by poring over nearly six million feet of film and 80 hours of NASA interviews to piece together an immersive, elegant and above all awe-struck cinematic document of humankind’s first missions to the moon. Laying astronauts’ VO accounts over lunar vistas that even today ply the imagination, For All Mankind is really the only thing Reinert’s known for—though he did write the script for Apollo 13, because duh—and even then he acts more like an expert curator than a director. Yet, there is an intimate, intuitive grace to the voices he chooses, and the quotes he places delicately throughout, splicing the astronauts’ insightful testaments to wonder and the fragility of life with mundane descriptions of how to go pee in space. Plus, having Brian Eno compose an original score for the film was nothing less than a genius decision.

“Already I was getting the impression that this was such an amazing thing, that I’m going to forget these things. And more: I’m going to lose this image; it’s going to be replaced with another. Each image came up, it was there for a flash to be appreciated and savored and then reluctantly let go because you know it’s going to be superimposed with others.”

More than a necessary historical record of our species finally pressing into the incomprehensible beyond, For All Mankind is a searching glimpse into what it’s like to be—on the simplest of levels—in the midst of an experience you desperately want to keep with you forever. Because, for all of the prestige and unbelievable luck attached to their being on such missions, the astronauts in this film are portrayed as uncomplicated, good-natured men—and really only that. In their ordinary lives aboard the shuttle, in the countless hours they spend spinning junk through zero gravity, in the way they pull some dumb fun out of playing the theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey—in all of that Reinert finds a perfect way to portray both the immensity of their accomplishments and the insignificance of so-called “mankind” against the vastness of the universe we’ve only begun to explore. —D.S.


32. American Movie
Director: Chris Smith
Year: 1999

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In 1996, Chris Smith joined unknown Wisconsin filmmaker Mark Borchardt as the Midwesterner did everything in his power to finish a little horror film called Coven. The two-year account of Coven’s rigmarole, which Smith deigned to name American Movie, finds Borchardt, a good-hearted but estranged father of three battling his burgeoning alcoholism, obsessed with only one dream: to be a filmmaker. He sees Coven as the gateway to eventually making his real pet project, another film called Northwestern, a film whose success on which he’s seemingly hung his whole adult life. Northwestern of course, and Coven subsequently, represent so much more to Borchardt than a distant ambition or idealistic art project—instead, he’s convinced that the films are his only way to redeem himself after years of personal failings.

As we watch Smith watching Borchardt desperately keep his production going, despite lack of financing, disorganization and poor communication with a meager crew, the title of the documentary becomes ever ominous. “Making movies” in America is a vocation best left for the hardheaded dreamers, Smith implies, and Borchardt is probably out of his depth. But even when Coven inches ever closer to completion, failure is never far from the film’s purview, which leaves us with a heartbreaking question: why do we ever even participate in such a hellacious process as filmmaking? Why do we even make art at all? If the Jodorowskys and Herzogs and Coppolas of the world are the rare kinds of people so obnoxiously headstrong they can survive a process most directors would abandon, maybe they don’t have the noblest of intentions in when it comes to holding the art of filmmaking above the fray. Maybe they just have something to prove. It’s this realization that leaves American Movie so honestly, endlessly heartbreaking. —D.S.


31. Style Wars
Director: Tony Silver
Year: 1983

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Affectless and workmanlike, Style Wars takes a surprisingly in-depth snapshot of hip-hop culture in the early ’80s in New York, just as the form was poised to break from street devotion to commercial acclaim. The film elects to focus on the (relatively) least popular elements of hip-hop—namely breakdancing and, especially, graffiti—joining these burgeoning, and young (my god, so young), artists as they navigate the New York underground, trading jargon and insider’s critiques on the art and lifestyle they love, holding no doubt that the work they were conjuring nightly would someday become the stuff of legend. Meanwhile, director Tony Silver stops by mayor Ed Koch’s office to get his smarmy take on what will or won’t deter such hoodlums, and then saunters over to the head of the Metropolitan Transit Authority to hear a voice of sympathy, only to have that voice devolve by film’s end into yet another disciplinary finger-wagging.

Yet, Silver’s best accomplishment isn’t in painting authority figures as the artists’ archnemeses, but instead casting as super-villain that of anonymous graffiti “bomber” Cap, who confesses throughout the documentary that, in so many words, the most beautiful pieces (created by, among others, Seen, Kase2, Dondi and Skeme) deserve to be hastily sprayed over with his haphazard tag. Cap may seem like a monumental jackass—and war room meetings between the City’s other prominent burners reveal as much in their opinions—but his actions are laced with respect, bringing to light the competition and fleeting nature of hip-hop’s earliest manifestations. That a climactic scene involves a few artists already showing their work in hoity-toity art galleries only reinforces the already doomed nature of what they were trying to accomplish: They were literally rewriting, in miraculously constructive and non-violent terms, the rules of an urban jungle they felt no longer had room for them. —D.S.

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