The 25 Greatest Documentaries of All-Time?

IndieWire reports today on the International Documentary Association’s list of the “25 Best Documentaries.” As an introduction to the genre for people who have never seen more than one or two non-fiction films (including, say, March of the Penguins) it’s a serviceable list. On the other hand, it will probably upset a lot of people, if the comments after the IndieWire article are any indication.

It’s not worth getting too worked up over these things. Like those AFI best-of lists, they’re not so much a serious study as a marketing tool for the sponsoring organization. Still, I was pretty surprised (and a little sad) to see just how historically short-sighted and Americentric this list is, particularly coming from a group that is comprised of filmmakers and bills itself as an international association.

Almost all the films on the list are American, English-language films. As for representation throughout the decades, the last seven years are represented by ten movies; the ’80s and ’90s are represented by seven more. The other eighty years of cinema are represented by a mere eight films.

I can put aside the fact that lesser-known, esoteric personal favorites (like, say, Ichikawa’s Tokyo Olympiad, Godmilow/Farocki’s What Farocki Taught/Inextinguishable Fire, Jorge Furtado’s Ilha das Flores, or Wiseman’s High School) didn’t make the cut. But a list claiming to represent the “Greatest Documentaries of All Time” that doesn’t feature a single film by Robert Flaherty, Dziga Vertov, Jean Rouch, Michael Apted, Chris Marker, Agnes Varda, much less Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah ? Well, it’s curious, to say the least.

Ok, I said I wasn’t going to get worked up. So I’ll stop.

Here’s the list. Continue the debate in the comments, if you want….

1. “Hoop Dreams,” directed by Steve James, Peter Gilbert and Frederick Marx
2. “The Thin Blue Line,” directed by Errol Morris
3. “Bowling for Columbine,” directed by Michael Moore
4. “Spellbound,” directed by Jeffery Blitz
5. “Harlan County USA,” directed by Barbara Kopple
6. “An Inconvenient Truth,” directed by Davis Guggenheim
7. “Crumb,” directed by Terry Zwigoff
8. “Gimme Shelter,” directed by Albert and David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin
9. “The Fog of War,” directed by Errol Morris
10. “Roger and Me,” directed by Michael Moore
11. “Super Size Me,” directed by Morgan Spurlock
12. “Don’t Look Back,” directed by DA Pennebaker
13. “Salesman,” directed by Albert and David Maysles
14. “Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance,” directed by Godfrey Reggio
15. “Sherman’s March,” directed by Ross McElwee
16. “Grey Gardens,” directed by Albert and David Maysles, Ellen Hovde and Muffie Meyer
17. “Capturing the Friedmans,” directed by Andrew Jarecki
18. “Born into Brothels,” directed by Ross Kauffman and Zana Briski
19. “Titticut Follies,” directed by Frederick Wiseman
20. “Buena Vista Social Club,” directed by Wim Wenders
21. “Fahrenheit 9/11,” directed by Michael Moore
22. “Winged Migration,” directed by Jacques Perrin
23. “Grizzly Man,” directed by Werner Herzog
24. “Night and Fog,” directed by Alain Resnais
25. “Woodstock,” directed by Michael Wadleigh

17 Responses to “The 25 Greatest Documentaries of All-Time?”

  1. Scott Eggleston Says:

    I haven’t seen enough docs to make a list such as this, but one of my favs (that does belong here) is “Hearts of Darkness”, the behind-the-scenes story of “Apocalypse Now”. It’s a fascinating story of the movie and the madness that was evidently behind it. If you are a filmmaker, it’s a must see. If not, you’ll appreciate it anyway. Hard to find, but worth finding.

  2. Paul Says:

    That is a good one, Scott. And thanks for reminding me of the fact that this isn’t available on DVD. No doubt, DVD availability helped remind voters of a lot of the movies on the list above.

  3. Darren Says:

    Wow, that’s a really bad list. Really bad. All but four are by English-speaking filmmakers (including Wenders and Herzog), and Night and Fog is the only one made more than forty years ago. It’s like these films were culled from the “Documentary” aisle at my local Blockbuster.

    Super Size Me? The 11th best doc of all time? Really?

  4. Stewart Says:

    the fact that every Michael Moore documentary, short of Sicko, is also on this, is a sure sign of “WTF?” list making. They couldn’t pick ONE of his films to represent his body of work? and I have to agree – Super Size Me? C’mon… It was interesting and funny, but defenitely not noteworthy as one of the best of all time. Where are all of the old schoolers? Is anything before 1980 only worthwhile if it has come out on Criterion DVD?

  5. bscenefilms Says:

    Not a single Burns film in there…

  6. Brian Gordon Says:

    Where’s Les Blank?

  7. Paul Says:

    The optimist in me says that Les Blank has produced such a huge number of films ( that it’s easy to imagine that the vote for Les might be split among a lot of his movies. The pessimist in me says a lot of the IDA voting members would wonder, “Who’s Les Blank?”

  8. Dan Says:

    Hour of the Furnaces (which I just saw recently)? Or the so-called “more creative” doc ventures like Garlic is as Good as Ten Mothers? They are esoteric, but surely a list as broad as “Best Documentaries of All Time” needs to be well-rounded.

    But honestly…what do I really care? I really don’t believe in lists anyway. No no no. No film/literature/music lists for me.

  9. Chris Cagle Says:

    Looking at the list, I can’t help but feel the subtext is “How can we encourage people to watch documentaries? I know, we’ll ride the coattails of the new commercially successful docs to sneak in a few canonical choices.”

    That said, the list isn’t completely tragic, and there are some solid choices there. If I had to add one title missing, it might be “In the Year of the Pig,” which is one of my favorites.

  10. Jon Says:


    Maybe not one of the best, but I still remember how much I loved Sound and Fury when you showed it in screenwriting. I agree that one Michael Moore is plenty.

  11. Shannon Silva Says:

    Would love to see an Agnes Varda or Alan Berliner film in the bunch. I agree with Chris though, it does seem that there’s an underlying desire to encourage people to watch more docs. Yeah for that. Now if we can just get them to broaden their ideas of what a doc can be.

    Outside of the list debate (though it seems most feel about the same way)….if anyone hasn’t seen Aluminum Foul (a recent short doc I came across at Ann Arbor last year) I highly recommend it.

  12. Shannon Silva Says:

    And just reread Paul’s original list of those left out…good lord. It is hard to not get worked up.

  13. Paul Says:

    Funny. Ashley and I were discussing the list yesterday — both “Nobody’s Business” and “Sound and Fury” came up. Two fairly recent docs, admittedly, but they would earn my vote for at least replacing two of the Michael Moore movies.

  14.   Listmania: IDA’s Top 25 Docs by Resources Says:

    […] As a member, I voted. I remember looking through the original list of some 600 films to choose plus write-in spots… well, let’s just say it’s impossible to choose 25 and of course, many of us haven’t seen all or even nearly all of the possibilities. I approached my vote by trying to pick some newer films (because often such lists feel irrelavant with the lack of acknowledgment for modern work) as well as foreign films in with the more widely known domestic choices. I don’t remember thinking about choosing for diversity of filmmaker or subject, or topically limiting myself. Some of the films I chose are on the list and some are not. I was surprised by the backlash of criticism both here, here, and on Doculink, a listserv in the doc community. […]

  15. Brenda Klien Says:

    What about Marquette Williams indie doc Buckle Brothers? One of the best doc I have ever seen. Check it out

  16. Thomas Barthle Jr Says:

    One I was hoping to see was “The Devil and Daniel Johnston” directed, written by Jeff Feuerzeig. Growing up listening to bands like Nirvana and Sonic Youth, I greatly enjoyed this film, from concept to end product. Daniel’s life is the perfect story for a film, fiction or non fiction. Check it out.

  17. Steve Namkoong Says:

    Although I have seen 20/25 of the top 25 docs, I’d like to thank the above posts for their recommendations on future viewing selections. New stuff is always welcomed; and IFP: Keep up the good doc work!