Documentary movies form one of the largest movie genres. More than that though, they can be an important way to educate, and help us better understand real world events. They can even be life changing. We all love watching movies, but watching documentary movies is something else, it’s a whole other world of entertainment and education.
So the documentary genre as a whole is no doubt incredible, but what are the top documentary movies of all time? Read on to find out what we’ve classed as the best ones.
There are so many Holocaust documentaries that people value for the light they shed on events that we still struggle to understand. Shoah is perhaps the most notable Holocaust documentary out there though. It took director Claude Lanzmann 11 long years to make, and the film is nine and a half hours long.
The amount of effort that went into this documentary movie plays a huge part in its place in this list of the top documentary movies of all time, as when we watch, we can’t help but appreciate how difficult it must have been to make. Lanzmann conducted each and every interview himself, collecting the memories of survivors and perpetrators alike. Seeing one of the biggest acts of human cruelty explained by both the perpetrators and the perpetrated makes this one of the most emotional and horrific documentary movies, and one that hid hard when it was released in 1985.
The Thin Blue Line (1988)
Nearly all documentary movies help us understand or learn about something, but the influence that this documentary had is what makes it so significant. Rather than explaining the truth, it questioned it, and in doing so proved the innocence of a wrongly accused man. This nonfiction detective film recounted the events of a shooting in Dallas, a shooting of a police officer.
Director and Private Investigator Errol Morris proved the innocence of one man, and the guilt of the real culprit through this documentary shedding light on the different events that led to the murder. By having such a direct influence on the murder case, The Thin Blue Line gained a lot of public and media attention, and so is one of the most notable and worth-watching documentary movies of all time.
Harlan County U.S.A (1976)
This documentary shows the struggle of coal miners in Kentucky, as they fight for an improvement in their living standards. The documentary is one that pulls at our heart strings, as we watch people working harder than most of us will ever work, but being rewarded only with poverty and dangerous living conditions.
It’s been called violent and terrifying, but ultimately, it sheds light on the severity of America’s class war and at the time it was produced, called for a change. What makes this documentary so shocking is perhaps the fact that it’s difficult to believe that in one of the greatest countries of the world, people suffered from such poor treatment and economic conditions not so long ago.
Man on Wire (2008)
This is a more modern documentary movie, but one that’s just as worth watching. Man on Wire tells the story of Philippe Petit’s tightrope walk between the twin towers in 1974.
The dramatized re-enactment is suspense filled and beautiful, showing the potential of man, as Philippe Petit tackles the impossible. It’s also been called a tribute to a pre-9/11 New York, a place where people believed they could do and achieve anything, as we see the beauty of the city from a height. This is a truly uplifting documentary movie.
Man with a movie camera (1929)
This is an old one, but a good one. The director, Vertov, made this movie before documentary movies had even warranted their own genre, yet still this is seen as one of the most influential and notable documentary movies.
The film aimed to capture the chaos of urban life in the Soviet Union, only without sound. The movie focuses only on visual effects to tell the story of people’s working lives, which proved effective and artistic.
The main reason this documentary movie is considered one of the greatest of all time is Vertov’s experimental use of cinematic effects like split screens, slow and fast motions. This paved the way for modern effects and has inspired many filmmakers.
Hoop dreams (1994)
This is another more modern documentary movie, but one that really impressed when it first came out. It won awards and was even nominated for an editing Oscar – something that was rare for documentary movies.
We follow two African American boys through their teenage years, high school and into their basketball careers, and we become emotionally invested in every aspect of their lives. Everyone loves a movie where you grow attached to the characters, but Hoop Dreams takes it to the next level.
Aside from being incredibly entertaining, it’s also important in terms of the issues it raises. Along the way we meet race and class issues, we witness economic hardship, and we’re forced to question what we value.
Sans Soleil (1983)
In this documentary movie we follower a traveller through several countries, starting in San Francisco and working his way through Africa, Iceland and Japan. Whilst we follow the traveller, the movie is narrated through a series of letters, read out by a female voice, which makes the documentary feel like a diary. The filming is more of a collage, a collection of memories played silently to the voice of narrator.
The director Chris Marker claimed that the film was intended to be more of a home movie, and this is perhaps what has made it so popular. It has a genuine and sentimental feel to it, and the lack of synced sound makes the movie seem more artistic than many other documentaries, and makes the narration even more mesmerising. You can’t help but be drawn in.