Best Documentaries

WTOP Film Critic Jason Fraley ranks the best documentary films of all time in the gallery below.

Not seeing your favorite movie? It’s probably in a different genre! Check out the full list here.


The list below does not include documentary TV series, but rather feature film releases. However, if you enjoy episodic docs, here are five of my favorites in recent memory:

5. “Five Came Back” (2017) – Laurent Bouzereau
4. “O.J. Made in America” (2016) – Ezra Edelman
3. “The Civil War” (1990) – Ken Burns
2. “The Keepers” (2017) – Ryan White
1. “The Jinx” (2015) – Andrew Jarecki

Now, on with the list of films…

30. ‘Won’t You Be My Neighbor?’ (2018) – Morgan Neville

After his Oscar-winning music documentary “20 Feet from Stardom,” Morgan Neville explored the inspiring life of Mr. Rogers a year before Tom Hanks played him as a reminder of the need to make America good again.

29. ‘Close-Up’ (1990) – Abbas Kiarostami 

Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami blurred the lines between documentary and fiction with real-life figures re-enacting events of an impersonation trial.

28. ‘Borat’ (2006) – Larry Charles

Sacha Baron Cohen has made a “very nice” career out of playing unique fictional characters to interview real people and elicit real reactions.

27. ‘Grey Gardens’ (1975) – Albert & David Maysles

The very title has become a part of our vernacular for decadent decay as the aunt and cousin of Jacqueline Kennedy live in a derelict mansion in East Hampton in this haunting window into a crumbling Camelot.

26. ‘Super Size Me’ (2004) – Morgan Spurlock

Morgan Spurlock got McDonald’s to scrap its “super size” campaign by showing the human consequences of eating solely fast food for a month.

25. ‘Hoop Dreams’ (1994) – Steve James

Snubbed for an Oscar, this landmark sports doc was hailed by Roger Ebert for its portrait of two NBA hopefuls grinding it out on the courts of Chicago.

24. ‘Harlan County, USA’ (1976) – Barbara Kopple

This Oscar-winning doc explores the Brookside Strike by 180 coal miners in blue-collar Harland County, Kentucky, in 1973.

23. ‘Taxi to the Dark Side’ (2007) – Alex Gibney

Alex Gibney exposed the haunting details of U.S. torture and interrogation practices in the aftermath of 9/11.

22. ‘Citizenfour’ (2014) – Laura Poitras

Laura Poitras gained unprecedented access to NSA leaker Edward Snowden as he blew the whistle on U.S. cyber surveillance.

21. ‘Don’t Look Back’ (1967) – D.A. Pennebaker

D.A. Pennebaker pioneered music docs with folk hero Bob Dylan flipping cards to “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” paving the way for the Rolling Stones rockumentary “Gimme Shelter.”

20. ‘Woodstock’ (1970) – Michael Wadleigh

“We must be in heaven, man!” This Oscar winner uses split-screens to capture the iconic 1969 music festival with Jimi Hendrix, The Who, Janis Joplin, Joe Cocker, Crosby, Stills & Nash and Sly & The Family Stone.

19. ‘The Last Waltz’ (1978) – Martin Scorsese

Martin Scorsese’s seminal rock doc explores the final concert of The Band, featuring performances by Joni Mitchell, Eric Clapton and Emmylou Harris.

18. ‘When We Were Kings’ (1996) – Leon Gast

This Oscar-winning boxing documentary chronicles the 1974 title bout between heavyweight champion George Foreman and “rope-a-dope” challenger Muhammad Ali dubbed “The Rumble in the Jungle” in Zaire.

17. ‘The Silent World’ (1956) – Jacques Cousteau & Louis Malle

Cousteau pioneered underwater docs to show the colorful ocean depths in this Palme d’or winner, but he was so ashamed of his mistakes (destroying coral reefs, killing sharks and whales) that he later became the founding father of marine conservation.

16. ‘Blackfish’ (2013) – Gabriela Cowperthwaite

This searing damnation of killer whale treatment at aquatic theme parks was so great it actually got Sea World to end its live shows involving orcas.

15. ‘Grizzly Man’ (2005) – Werner Herzog

Can man coexist with nature? Timothy Treadwell learned the hard way when his “best friend” bear ate him in 2003.

14. ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ (2006) – Davis Guggenheim

Even haters of Al Gore must admit that Davis Guggenheim’s documentary was way ahead of the curve in warning about the dangers of climate change.

13. ‘Triumph of the Will’ (1935) – Leni Riefenstahl

Horrific in its moral stance, this Nazi propaganda piece is vital viewing to understand audience manipulation.

12. ‘Shoah’ (1985) – Claude Lanzmann

This 9 1/2-hour Holocaust documentary took 11 years to compile chilling interviews with Jewish survivors, German executioners and Polish witnesses.

11. ‘The Act of Killing’ (2012) – Joshua Oppenheimer

Murderous dictator Anwar Congo dry heaves as he is forced to grapple with the Indonesian genocide he carried out in 1965.

10. ‘Bowling for Columbine’ (2002) – Michael Moore

While “Fahrenheit 9/11” (2004) won Cannes’ Palme d’Or chronicling America’s post 9/11 involvement in the Iraq War, Moore’s best documentary explored the epidemic of gun violence in America.

9. ‘I Am Not Your Negro’ (2016) – Raoul Peck

Samuel L. Jackson narrates the profound writings of civil rights activist James Baldwin for a brilliant expose on racism in America.

8. ‘Man on Wire’ (2008) – James Marsh

Released after 9/11, this true story chronicles Philippe Petit’s 1974 high-wire walk between New York’s Twin Towers.

7. ‘Gates of Heaven’ (1978) – Errol Morris

Errol Morris launches his career with this creative look at the pet cemetery business featuring quirky interviews with grieving pet owners.

6. ‘Salesman’ (1968) – Albert and David Maysles

This deceptively profound documentary follows four door-to-door Bible salesmen as they canvass Florida and New England seeking converts.

5. ‘Titicut Follies’ (1967) – Frederick Wiseman

Imagine cameras documenting the horrific abuses of a real-life “Cuckoo’s Nest” and you get an unforgettable masterpiece.

4. ‘Up’ (1984-2012) – Michael Apted

Long before “Boyhood,” this ambitious documentary series has arrived in 7-year increments to track the lives of 14 British children since 1964, when they were 7 years old.

3. ’13th’ (2016) – Ava DuVernay

Ava DuVernay’s systematic breakdown of systemic racism in the United States urged viewers to overhaul the American criminal justice system.

2. ‘The Thin Blue Line’ (1988) – Errol Morris

The ultimate true-crime documentary pioneered reenactments to exonerate a Texas death-row inmate wrongly convicted of murder.

1. ‘Night and Fog’ (1955) – Alain Resnais

Ten years after the liberation of Nazi concentration camps, chilling footage of Auschwitz and Majdanek demanded to the world: never again.

Check out the other genres below!

Action | Adventure | Animation | Biopic | Comedy | Coming of Age | Courtroom | Crime | Documentary | Drama | Epic | Family Comedy | Family Drama | Fantasy | Film Noir | Gangster | Horror | Musical | Mystery | Politics & Media | Prison | Romance | Romantic Comedy | Science Fiction | Showbiz | Silent | Sports | Thriller | War | Western

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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