The Ten Best Documentaries Ever Made

Documentaries. It is important not to separate these from films; I’m of the belief that a documentary is a genre of film, and not something to be separated from that of film. Just because a documentary deals wholly with fact does not mean it isn’t also a movie. Here’s a list of ten documentaries – I know that calling them the ten best is quite a stretch, but I’m fully confident that they are indeed ten of the best documentaries ever made, and all of them are must sees. In chronological order:

Nanook of the North (1922)

Regarded by many as quite possibly the first full-length feature documentary, Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North interestingly contains many scenes that were staged. However, this does not detract from the film’s title as a documentary. It does indeed document the harsh and unforgiving life of the Inuits in Northern Canada, and their simple but beautiful way of life.

Haxan (1923)

As odd, bizarre and somewhat frightening as it is, Benjamin Christensen’s Haxan is indeed one of the best documentaries ever made. It is also an effective horror movie. It chronicles the history of witchcraft in various innovative and informative ways, the end result being an interesting documentation of a subject that has had such an effect on history and the treatment of women.

Land Without Bread (1933)

One of the early shorts directed by Luis Bunuel, Las Hurdes (or Land Without Bread) has a subject matter as harsh and disturbing as its title. It documents one of the most vicious, diseased and poverty-laden slums of Spain, in which citizens live almost primitively, isolated in their world where they live without even the most basic rights all humans should possess.

The Triumph of the Will (1934)

As infamous and controversial as the American revolutionary The Birth of a Nation, The Triumph of the Will by Leni Riefenstahl is indeed sickening. It’s message is pro-Nazism, and Hitler and the Nazis are presented in a positive light, which of course, all people with a basic sense of morality will find disgusting. However, the film, while not being a great documentary, is inarguably an important one, as it documents truthfully one of history’s most painful eras, even if its sense of morality is painfully flawed.

Night and Fog (1955)

Adversely, Night and Fog takes a look at World War II from the opposite perspective to this list’s predecessor, The Triumph of the Will. This time we see the truth about the Holocaust. This French documentary by Alain Resnais examines the process in which Jews were persecuted, admitted to the concentration camps, and graphically gassed to death. Resnais documents it all unflinchingly, whilst his background narration gently weeps for the events he discusses. Make no mistake, this is a must-see film, and very easily the best documentary ever made.

Woodstock (1970)

Though I’ve only seen parts of this classic documentary, I reckon I’ve seen and read enough to confirm that it is very deserving of a place on this list. This documentary chronicles one of the most famous musical events in history. Thousands and thousands of people flocked to hear rock music, do drugs and make love, and very few complained. It was an almost perfect time; even when people were dying and trouble was about, at least there was the music.

The Sorrow and the Pity (1972)

The second of three Holocaust documentaries on this list, The Sorrow and the Pity is very long, but regardless, it is still very important and deeply moving. Marcel Ophuls documents this with vigorous intensity, focusing on the politics and the agendas of the leaders without becoming boring and dialogue-driven. It’s analysis of the events that took place in Vichy France as persecution took place, people fought back and the French government debated heavily.

Koyaanisqatsi (1983)

Godfrey Reggio’s time bending and technologically impressive ‘documentary’ is little more than a series of beautifully shot images, juxtaposed beautifully with impressive uses of slow and fast motion, oddly timed cuts and repetitive takes as well as a fantastic score by Philip Glass. A visual delight, as well as an important analysis of the way society has disintegrated.

Shoah (1985)

“What happened when the doors were opened?”

“They fell out. People fell dead like stone blocks, like rocks tumbling from a truck.”

These are some of many words spoken in various interviews throughout this nine-hour, unforgettable trek through the Holocaust. No images from that time are shown, but the images evoked by the words spoken are too horrible to describe. This is a documentary that moved me in a way I am unable to describe. I may not know a lot about the Holocaust, but I will never forget this film.

Hoop Dreams (1994)

William Gates and Arthur Agee were two nobody teenagers from poor families, who rose to stardom through their astonishing basketball ability. Forget the cliches, forget the tiresome storyline, this is real life. And it feels real. Not a single second is exaggerated. We are witnessing true talent, and we’re shocked that so many people were unable to perceive it. This is long, at three hours, but every moment is worth it.

There. That’s my list of the ten best documentaries. Are there any you’d add to the list? What are some of your favourites? Have you seen any of these? What did you think of the ones here that you have seen? Leave a comment below.

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Posted on November 7, 2011, in Lists, Movies and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 32 Comments.

  1. I’d actually really love to watch Shoah. But there’s no way I could get it from Fatso or any other rental place because it would probably take me ages to watch it. Oh well, I shall try track it down one day.

    Night and Fog was so good, but I don’t think I could ever watch it again. It was simply too sad. I haven’t seen any of the others, since I’m not so big on documentaries (I just haven’t watched all that many, apart from An Inconvenient Truth quite a few times). I’ll be sure to check a few out, though!

    • The important thing to remember is that SHOAH doesn’t have to be watched all at once. That would be far, far too much. They have it on Fatso as a 4-disc box set, so I would recommending watching it one disc at a time, ingesting it slowly. It would be a FANTASTIC film to write an essay on, believe me. But there’s no rush to see it or anything.

      Of the others on this list, there’s only one film I’d really press YOU to watch: KOYAANISQATSI. It’s a beautiful, melodic movie that can be watched in parts on YouTube last time I checked, and it’s just so… worth it, really. The visuals are extraordinary, the soundtrack is stellar… if you liked 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, you’ll love KOYAANISQATSI.

      Another one you’d like is HOOP DREAMS, which believe it or not, they’ve played on Maori Television TWICE in the last few months.

      • I saw that Hoop Dreams played twice. Damn, they have some really good movies on that channel!

        I haven’t seen 2001: A Space Odyssey yet, but if I get a chance, I’ll check out Koyaanisqatsi. It looks intriguing.

      • You haven’t seen 2001? I thought you had. Hmm.

        They do have some fantastic movies on Maori TV. I believe they played Abbas Kiarostami’s THE WIND WILL CARRY US not too long ago.

  2. Actually Frank Hurley’s Home of the Blizzard beats Nanook in the feature-length doco stakes by nearly a decade. Still, you know how these things are, if the Americans don’t innovate something they just ignore all the prior examples until they get to the first American one :)

    • Sorry. I didn’t ignore that film; sadly, I didn’t even know it existed. Sorry if I caused offense by labelling it the first full-length feature doco.

  3. Great list of films I have never seen or will ever see probably. LOL

    I am not the best with Documentaries at the best of times!! Thanks for sharing!

    • Hehehe that’s fine. To be fair I probably put a few too many obscure documentaries here, but what can I say? I like em better than the more recent Morgan Spurlock and Michael Moore stuff!

  4. I’m a big fan of documentaries (I even have made a seperate blog just for them), but have not seen any of these yet! This post is getting bookmarked!

    • Yes, well I’m sure you’ll enjoy these greatly (with the exception of TRIUMPH OF THE WILL, a film that cannot be ‘enjoyed’). I recommend you start with NIGHT AND FOG as it’s only 30 minutes long and can be found on YouTube.

  5. Hi, Tyler and company:

    Great selection!

    I’ll go along with ‘The Triumph Of The Will’, ‘Night And Fog’, ‘Shoah’ and ‘Koyaanisqatsi’. The only memorable moment from ‘Woodstock’ was Jimi Hendrix and his impromptu ‘Star Spangled Banner/Reville’. The finest demonstration of what can be done with of a Fender Statocaster, ever.

    • Hehe not sure if I remember that scene from WOODSTOCK, but I’m sure it was there. Glad you liked my list, and hope you enjoy the ones you haven’t seen yet, if indeed there are some here that you haven’t seen.

  6. Wow, I’m surprised that I’ve only seen two of these, Woodstock and Hoop Dreams. It’s refreshing to see lots of older movies instead of more recent documentaries that I’d expect to see on there. Nice work.

  7. I’ve not really seen many documentaries but each one on your list sounds very interesting. I particularly like the sound of Koyaanisqatsi.

    • I think they make film students watch it. If they don’t, they should. It’s really worth seeing, and it’s a fantastic thing to experience.

  8. Great list! I have seen a lot of the oldies when studying filmhistory! I agree on Hoop Dreams that I might be consider as top doc of all time.

    I would have added thin blue line by Errol Morris which is really good as well. Sweden also have a nice history of docs mostly from filmmaker Stefan Jarl.

  9. Ahah I was looking for Hoops Dream the whole time and I was like “how could he omit Hoops Dream, the best doc ever???” but then no, it’s there at the end. Props to you sir.

  10. I love history, particularly the 20th century, so the ones about the Holocaust and WWII seem really interesting. It’s almost bizarre to think that such horrid things happened not that long ago, especially for someone who was born after all of it, like me. So even though it will probably be really hard to sit through most of them, I will most definitely try. Thanks for recommending them.

  11. Night and Fog and Koyaanisqatsi are two of my favorites. The former, in particular, I think is THE great documentary that gets to the core internal tension of the documentary. Koyaanisqatsi is an elegant, bold piece that, for me, stretches at the bounds of what people traditionally consider film in the best possible way.

    And yes, Triumph of the Will is supremely important and well-crafted, even though the content itself is highly charged in ideas that are morally objectionable.

    The Sorrow and the Pity is a film that I honestly found rather dull. There are some compelling insights, but the presentation is the kind of placid, stale documentary style that, while informative, does not make an engaging film experience.

    Hoop Dreams is a film I desperately need to see. Maybe over Thanksgiving Break I’ll finally watch it.

    • I agree that at times SORROW got kind of boring, but I still see it as a vitally important artwork; I watched it in parts, as it was too much for me to ingest in one sitting.

  12. I’m a documentary fanatic and I haven’t seen half of these! I seriously need to get my hands on Shoah…

    A few of my faves:

    Blood of the Beasts is one of two films that actually changed my life (it is an extra on Franju’s EYES WITHOUT A FACE criterion.) A must see.

    Titcut Follies
    The Up Series
    Deliver Us From Evil
    The Thin Blue Line
    Capturing the Friedmans
    When the Leeves Broke

    and pretty much any doc Herzog makes

    • I’ve just added BLOOD OF THE BEASTS to my watchlist. Hopefully I can find it without buying the Criterion. I like your suggestions… I haven’t seen any of them, but I’ve seen some Herzog and I love his films.

  13. Just when I thought I was getting around watching all the must see documentaries you give me 8 more that I knew nothing of. :-)

  14. Hoop Dreams is the best documentary ever made. I was a little surprised not to see the Up series of movies listed on here. Finally, a recent documentary that didn’t get a wide release, but that I thought was terrific was The Way We Get By. If you have not seen it, I highly recommend it.

    • Haven’t seen any of the UP documentaries, but I have read about them. Haven’t heard of THE WAY WE GET BY, but it looks good. Thanks for the recommendations.

  15. Eric Roalson

    Love your lists even if I don’t always agree on all of the selections. I appreciate your taste and widespread knowledge of films. I would disagree with you, however, on NOT separating documentaries from other films. I know almost no one agrees with me (judging from countless Best of lists I have seen online and in print), but I do think documentaries are a distinct category apart from other films. When I see lists of the greatest novels of the 20th Century, for example, non-fiction books and poetry books are never included along side of them. Novels can, of course, be a range of genres, just like films. But I do think documentaries are a unique enough venture to be honored in their own category, just like non-fiction books are.

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