Paste Magazine: The 100 Best Documentaries of All Time

Paste Magazine: The 100 Best Documentaries of All Time's icon

Created by Rodolfo.

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In documentary filmmaking, truth is almost always filled with lies.

It’s just the nature of the form, really—of any filmmaking at all, for that matter. Even a home video recording, if you’ve ever made or watched or starred in one, is marred by manipulation: Whether you’re aware you’re being “watched” or not, your truth is a sort of surreal quilt of camera placement, cuts and atmosphere, totally mitigated by the lens and then, further down the food chain, the ultimate observer. If you know you’re being watched, you act accordingly; if you don’t, the recording may carry a subtle tone of voyeurism, of intrusiveness—the feeling that something isn’t quite right.

And yet, from direct cinema to Dogme 95, truth has always been an idealistic goal for many filmmakers, and not necessarily the purity of it, but the translation of its most deeply held essentials. Arguably, documentary filmmaking has always been at the forefront of that aim, though during much of its primordial beginnings—especially throughout the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s—documentary filmmakers trolled truth as if it was yet another stuffy branch of bourgeoisie power.

In Land Without Bread (1933), Luis Buñuel parodied the white guilt of popular travelogue docs of the time, pointing out that sadness and economical devastation existed in Spain itself—no need to travel to some faraway land. In Nanook of the North (1922), the life of an Inuit clan was notoriously messed with. And Man with a Movie Camera (1929) pretty much just made a bunch of shit up. Their goals weren’t to leave truth unfondled, but to say that an unfondled truth is an unexplored one: shallow and meaningless.

Once Jean Rouche, Frederick Wiseman, D.A. Pennebaker and the Maysles, however, pioneered and then defined throughout the 1950s and ’60s what came to be known as cinéma vérité, documentary filmmaking shouldered the burden of truth, resolving to allow life to operate on its own, brushed only briefly by the manipulative fingers of the filmmaker. This was coupled with advances in filmmaking technology, notably that equipment became lighter, and more mobile. In turn, crews shrank, and coverage became paramount. That Nick Broomfield’s films are filmed with a minute crew on minute budgets, or that Oscar-winning Searching for Sugar Man (2012) was captured partly on an iPhone camera, means that today, as it is with most art, anyone can be a documentary filmmaker.

Which isn’t a bad thing. Because truth belongs to the people, by definition—it is ours to shape and hone and mold into something that enriches each of our lives and each of our worldviews however we see fit. That the following list leans heavily on films released in the past five years isn’t a coincidence, nor is it a factor of some shortsighted list-making. Instead, it points directly to our increased capacity to capture, reproduce and respect truth. If anything, we’re coming full circle.

Will the truth set you free? Probably not, but we believe the following 100 documentaries are the all-time greatest attempts to find out.

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  1. 1 -

    Hoop Dreams

    1994, in 13 top lists Check
  2. 2 -

    Shoah

    1985, in 17 top lists Check
  3. 3 -

    Sans soleil

    1983 — a.k.a. Sans Soleil, in 15 top lists Check
  4. 4 -

    Grey Gardens

    1975, in 10 top lists Check
  5. 5 -

    Nuit et brouillard

    1956 — a.k.a. Night and Fog, in 16 top lists Check
  6. 6 -

    Grizzly Man

    2005, in 9 top lists Check
  7. 7 -

    The Thin Blue Line

    1988, in 11 top lists Check
  8. 8 -

    Titicut Follies

    1967, in 7 top lists Check
  9. 9 -

    Hearts and Minds

    1974, in 6 top lists Check
  10. 10 -

    Los Angeles Plays Itself

    2003, in 4 top lists Check
  11. 11 -

    Chelovek s kino-apparatom

    1929 — a.k.a. Man with a Movie Camera, in 21 top lists Check
  12. 12 -

    Le chagrin et la pitié

    1969 — a.k.a. The Sorrow and the Pity, in 11 top lists Check
  13. 13 -

    Les glaneurs et la glaneuse

    2000 — a.k.a. The Gleaners & I, in 11 top lists Check
  14. 14 -

    Chronique d'un été (Paris 1960)

    1961 — a.k.a. Chronicle of a Summer, in 8 top lists Check
  15. 15 -

    Gates of Heaven

    1978, in 3 top lists Check
  16. 16 -

    Salesman

    1969, in 10 top lists Check
  17. 17 -

    Stop Making Sense

    1984, in 5 top lists Check
  18. 18 -

    Handsworth Songs

    1987, in 3 top lists Check
  19. 19 -

    Histoire(s) du cinéma: Toutes les histoires

    1989, in 0 top lists Check
  20. 20 -

    Histoire(s) du cinéma: Une histoire seule

    1989, in 0 top lists Check
  21. 21 -

    Histoire(s) du cinéma: Seul le cinéma

    1994, in 0 top lists Check
  22. 22 -

    Histoire(s) du cinéma: Fatale beauté

    1994, in 0 top lists Check
  23. 23 -

    Histoire(s) du cinéma: La monnaie de l'absolu

    1999, in 0 top lists Check
  24. 24 -

    Histoire(s) du cinéma: Une vague nouvelle

    1998, in 0 top lists Check
  25. 25 -

    Histoire(s) du cinéma: Le contrôle de l'univers

    1999, in 0 top lists Check
  26. 26 -

    Histoire(s) du cinéma: Les signes parmi nous

    1998, in 0 top lists Check
  27. 27 -

    The Act of Killing

    2012, in 4 top lists Check
  28. 28 -

    Nostalgia de la luz

    2010 — a.k.a. Nostalgia for the Light, in 5 top lists Check
  29. 29 -

    Nema-ye Nazdik

    1990 — a.k.a. Close Up, in 19 top lists Check
  30. 30 -

    Seven Up!

    1964, in 5 top lists Check
  31. 31 -

    7 Plus Seven

    1970, in 2 top lists Check
  32. 32 -

    21 Up

    1977, in 2 top lists Check
  33. 33 -

    28 Up

    1984, in 5 top lists Check
  34. 34 -

    35 Up

    1991, in 2 top lists Check
  35. 35 -

    42 Up

    1998, in 3 top lists Check
  36. 36 -

    49 Up

    2005, in 4 top lists Check
  37. 37 -

    56 Up

    2012, in 2 top lists Check
  38. 38 new

    Leviathan

    2012, in 2 top lists Check
  39. 39 -

    Primary

    1960, in 6 top lists Check
  40. 40 -

    Capturing the Friedmans

    2003, in 6 top lists Check
  41. 41 -

    Dont Look Back

    1967, in 9 top lists Check
  42. 42 -

    When We Were Kings

    1996, in 4 top lists Check
  43. 43 -

    Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One

    1968, in 3 top lists Check
  44. 44 -

    The Times of Harvey Milk

    1984, in 6 top lists Check
  45. 45 -

    Style Wars

    1983, in 0 top lists Check
  46. 46 -

    American Movie

    1999, in 4 top lists Check
  47. 47 -

    For All Mankind

    1989, in 2 top lists Check
  48. 48 -

    The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of...

    2003, in 5 top lists Check
  49. 49 -

    The Look of Silence

    2014, in 2 top lists Check
  50. 50 -

    Burden of Dreams

    1982, in 4 top lists Check
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Last updated on Jun 5, 2015 by Rodolfo; source