The 100 Best Documentaries of All Time

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20. The Act of Killing
Director: Joshua Oppenheimer
Year: 2013


Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing focuses on one of the darkest chapters of the 20th century, speaking to some members of the Indonesian death squads who slaughtered hundreds of thousands of their countrymen and women in 1965 and ’66. These people don’t live in the shadows, though—instead they’re treated like royalty in their native land, celebrated as heroes who helped “save” Indonesia from communism. The film is so shocking and depressing that its subjects’ utter disconnection from morality would almost be funny if it wasn’t so frightening. Oppenheimer amplifies those conflicting reactions further by introducing a daring gambit: In the process of interviewing these butchers—who brag about raping and killing their victims (including the occasional beheading)—the director asked if they would be interested in re-creating their murders through fictionalized, filmed scenes. The men—most notably a gentleman named Anwar Congo, who was one of the death squad leaders—leapt at the chance. What follows is a literally nauseous glimpse into the minds of men who have spent decades mentally escaping the inescapable. —T.G.

19. Histoire(s) du cinéma
Director: Jean Luc Godard
Year: 1988


Rather than making a “proper” or “good” film, Godard has always tried to create something that isn’t what we’ve seen before. After first despairing of video—“We have a strong feeling that video has nothing to do with film,” he declared in 1972—he experimented with the form in the mid-’70s with Numéro Deux, a movie about both film financing and members of a family telling their individual stories. He’s even played around with slow-motion in 1980’s stunning Every Man for Himself. But with projects such as Histoire(s) du cinema, he sought nothing less than to tie the history of movies to the history of the 20th century. At four and a half hours long, divided into eight parts, and composed wholly of visual and audio “quotes” from seemingly countless other films, the documentary essay is considered, at the very least, Godard’s densest work, let alone that it represents Godard’s willingness to see the incomprehensible manifest at that impulse’s most obsessive. Some mainstream filmmakers will attempt a change-of-pace movie by shooting with a low budget or no stars. This is seen as “brave” and “risky.” That’s where Godard has always resided.

This makes him a hero, even if it doesn’t make him particularly beloved. The combative, didactic quality of this film, of all of his films, gets him labeled a pretentious misanthrope. Even his most ardent supporters can become exasperated with him. Writing about 2010’s Film Socialisme, which uses nonsensical subtitles and divides its story into three seemingly unconnected segments, Roger Ebert groused, “This film is an affront. It is incoherent, maddening, deliberately opaque and heedless of the ways in which people watch movies.” (Ebert seemed to fall into the same trap he warned others to avoid back in the day. Here’s Ebert in 1969: “The films of Jean-Luc Godard have fascinated and enraged moviegoers for a decade now. The simple fact is: This most brilliant of all modern directors is heartily disliked by a great many people who pay to see his movies.”) Speaking generally about Godard’s oeuvre, David Thompson observed, “He is the first director, the first great director, who does not seem to be a human being.” —T.G.

18. Handsworth Songs
Director: John Akomfrah
Year: 1986


On the bridge between experimentation and journalism, John Akomfrah and the Black Audio Film Collective manage to make a film about racial violence in Birmingham sublime and beautiful. There is deadly serious subject matter and political analysis here, but Handsworth Songs is also a film experience, and one that adapts its aesthetic to the argument at hand.

The documentary isn’t really saying anything about the black diaspora that is revolutionary now, or even at the time it was produced, but it’s the way it says those things that is captivating, knocking together inspirations from free jazz and free improv, the Black Arts Movement, experimental cinema, and 1980s experimental music, crafting a film that is as much about story as it is about making the audience feel the realities of racism. In other words, it’s urgent about the things it says, prompted by the historical backdrop of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative rule. It foregrounds the idea that sound and culture have political meaning by starkly contrasting the vibrant diversity of various immigrant cultures and individuals of color with the conformity of white authorities. To do this, it employs a variety of film techniques, but while that process is fundamental, the film seamlessly exploits these techniques’ tactics to enhance the film’s analysis of empire, racism and protest. And given the resurgence of anti-immigrant sympathies in Britain today, Handsworth Songs is absolutely worth revisiting as a political statement—but it’s also always worth revisiting as one of the finest examples of how experimental art can enhance an argument. —M.A.

17. Stop Making Sense
Director: Jonathan Demme
Year: 1984


Lester Bangs once wrote an essay about “Heaven,” the Talking Heads song that kicks off Jonathan Demme’s concert film. In it, Bangs fixated on one of David Byrne’s iconic lines: “Heaven is a place where nothing ever really happens.” Heaven, he explained, is—to Byrne’s coke-addled mind—a way of life where all of the stimuli of modern society couldn’t reach him. Couldn’t affect him. Couldn’t whip him up into a frenzy. This, according to both Bangs and Byrne, is truly Nirvana.

Stop Making Sense happened over two nights at the Pantages Theater in 1983, and the second song on the setlist is “Heaven,” set against a bare stage on the cusp of a drastic remodel. From there, the set, as well as the band, builds itself—instruments and writhing bodies and elaborately weird backdrops are added, one upon another, until the stage is absolutely seething with life. And so, not only was Stop Making Sense a document of a legendary band at the height of their powers, but it even today seems like an unheralded synergy of movement and sound, of image and artist—so much so that the band allows us to watch as they destroy, and then re-do, their own idea of Heaven. There hasn’t really been a concert film like it since. —D.S.

16. Salesman
Director: Albert Maysles, David Maysles, Charlotte Zwerin
Year: 1969


The Maysles’ ode to the can-do attitude of the so-called “Greatest Generation” is an ever-saddening study in charisma: Who has it, what it is and just how deeply, unintentionally ingrained it is in our whole model of the American Dream. In following four Bible salesmen, each with an animalistic nickname to handily keep them apart, we’re able to observe the pitch process from seemingly every persuasive angle. Some salesmen are wise and respectful, others enthusiastic and joking, and still others resort to bullying nervous stay-at-home moms or emasculated husbands into signing a pay stub. Couple that ethical conundrum with the product they’re hocking—the original “Good Book,” apparently—and it’s no surprise when one of the salesmen (Badger, who hits a streak of shitty luck, never living up to his name) loses all hope in his vocation and spends every night in his shared hotel room complaining to his fellow salesmen that what they’re doing is existentially bound to fail. And yet, Rabbit has no trouble keeping his sales up, and the Bull always walks out with scribbled-on chits. Badger just happens to be a dying breed of salesman, a guy whose charisma refuses to adapt. What’s worse: He’s got no one to blame but himself. —D.S.

15. Gates of Heaven
Director:   Errol Morris  
Year: 1978


In a recent interview with the Criterion Collection regarding the re-release of Gates of Heaven, Errol Morris responded to a criticism often leveled at his work. He said, “To love the absurdity of people is not to ridicule them, it’s to embrace on some level how desperate life is for each and every one of us—including me. If the thought is for a moment that I see myself on a pedestal, on some kind of elevated position with respect to these people who I put in my films … not so. It’s just not so.” We have to trust him. We just do.

The film that famously got Werner Herzog to eat his own shoe, Gates of Heaven is about those who bury their deceased love ones within a pet cemetery, and those who operate it. It’s why Herzog even bet his shoe in the first place: no one ever figured that a film about rich peoples’ dead animals could ever amount to an investigation of mortal purpose.

Morris’s greatest talent is his patience. He’s unwilling, almost down the marrow of his soul, to intrude upon the lives, perspectives and proclamations of the subjects he films. Unlike later entries—like The Fog of War or The Unknown Known—in this, his very first feature, he devotedly keeps himself out of the picture. And so, as his many subjects reflect upon the loyalty of their pets, or the creatures and things they love, or the ways in which their religions account for a dog’s spiritual side, Morris proves he’s one of cinema’s most vital documentarians: He’s a natural-born listener. —D.S.

14. Chronicle of a Summer
Directors: Jean Rouche, Edgar Morin
Year: 1961


In a post-Catfish world, Jean Rouche and Edgar Morin starring in their own documentary film seems almost quaint. But at the time, their questions about the documentary form warranted plenty of investigation: If you stick a camera in a person’s face, doesn’t that violate the truth you’re trying so fervently to free? This they ask by joining their subjects in conversation, attempting to capture France—with all of its political turmoil, social upheaval and artistic transmutation—during the Summer of 1960 in a single cinematic snapshot. And so Chronicle of a Summer joins a Holocaust survivor who attempts to couch her racism towards black people in the context of her own suffering; an African admittedly ignorant of the Holocaust; a factory worker who fully admits to the futility of modern life; and a young couple trusting in love over the hopelessness of their economic situation. There’s no question that the directors fail in their ambitious plan, but they do stumble upon beauty in that failure. By opening up the final act of their film to `a showing of the film they’ve made up until that point—played for a crowd of the subjects starring in the film they’ve made up until that point—they leave themselves totally vulnerable to their own creation destroying them, like Frankenstein’s monster driven berserk by its own reflection. It’s thrilling and sad and infuriating all at once, and it’s documentary filmmaking distilled down to its most essential function. —D.S.

13. The Gleaners & I
Director: Agnès Varda
Year: 2000


There’s an argument that the explicit subject of The Gleaners & I—gleaners, their habits and practices—isn’t nearly as important as the woman at the center of the film, director Agnès Varda. Her place in the film is deliberate—in telling the story of French gleaners, rural and urban scavengers protected by a series of hilariously specific but often debated French laws, Varda is deliberately framing herself as a gleaner, a fellow traveller in a world of thrift-minded men and women who survive on what others throw away. As Varda follows gleaners who comb farmer’s fields for leftover produce and urban landscapes for food and other curiosities, the story mutates into a semi-autobiographical narrative about Varda herself, and the simple pleasures of finding.

I love the film because it pings several intellectual currents in the late 1990s and early 2000s related to the sharing of information and memory thanks to the Internet. The Gleaners & I becomes a lo-fi take on memory, curating, nostalgia and the reframing of discarded cultural detritus, which itself becomes a metaphor for the film’s argument: that the world of poverty might also be reframed, because her exhaustive studies show the spirit of gleaning is strong among people of all walks of life. Varda’s wonderful presence at the center of these discussions makes the film deeply personal and brimming with optimism, but also far more profound than its subject matter might suggest. —M.A.

12. The Sorrow and the Pity
Director: Marcel Ophüls
Year: 1969


With tragedy still stinging, and wounds still fresh across Europe, Marcel Ophüls crafted something of a four-hour harangue about the Vichy government’s collaboration with Nazi Germany during the bulk of World War II. Assembled from interviews with officers, sympathizers, resistance fighters and bystanders—perspectives originating from every angle—The Sorrow and the Pity reveals many excruciating truths about France during the occupation, but none more plangent than the idea that war has no sides, no good guys, no winners. There’s only the sorrow, and then the pity—and everything else is just a series of long, heartsick discussions about right and wrong and how there’s pretty much no difference. —D.S.

11. Man with a Movie Camera
Director: Dziga Vertov
Year: 1929


It definitely isn’t the first documentary ever made, nor was it the first to ever prove that truth could be communicated through less than truthful means (look back to #77 for something closer to the primordial manipulation of truth), but Man with a Movie Camera sure feels like the first. With this hour-long smorgasbord of relentless movement—as if he wanted to put in all-caps the “motion” part of motion picture—director and all-around instigator Dziga Vertov practically invented (or at least honed and popularized) so many cinematic techniques we today take for granted, that, when watching the film nearly nine decades later, we barely even register what’s happening. Dutch angles, extreme close-ups, stop motion animation, split screens, freeze frames, and so on and so on—in sum total it reflects modern Soviet life with an abandon restrained only by a rigorous concern for “documentary” filmmaking, meaning non-actors, no scripts and a total disregard for the then-burgeoning narrative filmmaking industry. Except, rather than adhere to the cinematic “club” of his own devising—they dubbed themselves kinoks, bearing more than a passing resemblance to the Dogme movement—Vertov treated his self-imposed shackles in much the same way his film treats space and time: by setting it on fire. Man with a Movie Camera is a frenzy of images and imagination—an experience that can take us, literally, everywhere. —D.S

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