The 50 Best Documentaries of All Time

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This week, The Criterion Collection is giving a welcome Blu-ray upgrade to F for Fake, Orson Welles’ 1973 documentary exploration of hoaxes, fakery, and magic. It was one of his last completed films, and one of his few documentaries — and, in true Welles form, he went and made one of the greatest nonfiction films of all time. How great? Well, its re-release is as good a time as any to spotlight the finest documentaries ever made. (And just to avoid repetition, we’ll skip the music docs and concert films.)

50. After Tiller

One of the more recent entries on our list, Martha Shane and Lana Wilson’s 2013 film takes an unblinking look at an important subject. They tackle the hottest of hot-button issues, late-term abortion, by profiling the only four remaining doctors to perform the procedure following the murder of George Tiller. But it’s less about those doctors than their patients, its lengthy scenes of discussion, consultation, and recovery powerfully treating this procedure as a difficult and personal decision, rather than a political talking point.

49. Biggie and Tupac

Nick Broomfield is a soft-spoken, affable Brit who works simply, often with just himself (running sound and asking questions) and a camera operator. Maybe it is his low-tech style; maybe it is his unassuming personality. However he does it, he gets people to talk. Fascinated by the murders of Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur, Broomfield starts looking for answers and gets sucked deeper and deeper into a web of police corruption and organized crime. And at the center of it all is Suge Knight, whose jailhouse interview (proving, again, that Broomfield has balls of steel) makes for riveting viewing. Broomfield digs ever deeper, and each layer of crooked cops and would-be gangsters makes the true motive and culprit of the two murders seem less and less attainable.

48. The Atomic Café

This 1982 sleeper hit collects scores of newsreels, ads, and educational and propaganda films from the 1940s through the 1960s to paint a sometimes funny, sometimes peculiar, sometimes terrifying portrait of America in the nuclear age. In its appropriation of existing materials and juxtaposition of them for rhetorical (and/or comic) effect, Atomic Café would become one of the most influential documentaries of the modern era; it would also predate fringe cinephiles’ obsession with those old, odd educational movies, which would later become more readily available on DVD and online.

47. Waco: The Rules of Engagement

Director William Gazecki takes on one of the most controversial incidents in modern law enforcement, the 1993 standoff between ATF agents and the Branch Davidian cult in Waco, Texas, combing through home videos, surveillance footage, footage from hearings, and negotiation tapes to present a gripping, shocking, and persuasive account of a siege gone horribly awry.

46. The Central Park Five

Co-directors Ken Burns, his daughter Sarah, and David McMahon address a two-part injustice: that of the New York law and order apparatus, which erroneously sent five young men to prison for the rape and attempted murder of a jogger in Central Park, in spite of a case that relied exclusively on unreliable “confessions”; and that of the national media, which condemned the teens immediately and could barely be bothered to report their exoneration a decade and a half later. This 2012 documentary is powerful history, but it’s more than that — there’s plenty of relevant subject matter here on race, class, police, and how they’re all twisted and consumed by an increasingly tabloid-styled media apparatus.

45. Street Fight

Long before he was the junior senator from New Jersey, Corey Booker was just a City Council member and community activist running for mayor in Newark. His first, unsuccessful campaign in 2002, when he took on the political machine of corrupt incumbent Sharpe James, was captured by Marshall Curry in this thrilling documentary. The campaign corruption caught by Curry’s cameras is downright astonishing (Booker signs are destroyed, businesses holding Booker fundraisers are harassed, and city police attack the filmmakers for shooting footage of James on a public sidewalk), and it’s not a stretch to imagine that the negative PR of the film contributed to James’ decision not to run again in 2006, when Booker handily beat the James-endorsed Ronald Rice. But even without that happy ending (and James’s later conviction for fraud), Curry’s movie stands as an insightful vehicle for penetrating questions not only about mayoral but interracial politics.

44. Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room

The alarmingly prolific and endlessly gifted Alex Gibney adapts Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind’s book into a smart, vivid, blackly comic and fiercely provocative documentary. Two parts postmortem and one part sly commentary, this energetically crafted doc sidesteps both the curse of the talking head movie and the pitfalls of its own complex accounting terminology, and presents a clear portrait of greed gone awry — wrapped in a human tragedy of Shakespearean proportions. Gibney interviews Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind, who wrote the best-selling book the film is based on, in addition to reporters, analysts, and former Enron employees; he also utilizes particularly damaging footage and recordings, including the infamous “Granny Tapes” (in which Enron’s “energy traders” joked about ripping off consumers). The story of Enron — how it happened, why it happened, and how they basically got away with it — is infuriating by its very nature, but as in all of his films, Gibney does not engage in Michael Mooore-style histrionics; his tone is measured, cool, and matter-of-fact. He doesn’t reach for effects. He doesn’t have to.

43. Deliver Us From Evil

You may have seen Hannibal Lecter, you may have seen Michael Myers, but you’ve never seen sheer evil portrayed on-screen as vividly and as thoroughly as it is in Amy Berg’s Deliver Us From Evil — and it’s nonfiction. At it center is Catholic priest Oliver O’Grady (“Father Ollie” to his parishioners), and in the film’s most chilling scene, he stands in a park in Ireland, a free man, and talks about exactly what gets him off: little girls and boys. Deliver Us From Evil is a tough film to watch, and it doesn’t shy away from the horror of O’Grady’s crimes; his matter-of-fact (sometimes leering) descriptions of his actions will make your flesh crawl. But one of the key powers of great documentary filmmaking is to make you mad — and this one is absolutely infuriating.

42. Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse

No less an authority than Gene Siskel picked Fax Bahr and George Hickenlooper’s doc as the best film of 1991 — not the best documentary, but the best film of the year, of any kind. And he may be right; this warts-and-all account of the famously contentious production of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now is riveting viewing, detailing how the film’s shooting schedule and budget (to say nothing of the sanity of all involved) were demolished by a steady stream of bad weather, health woes, cast changes, egos, uncertainty, and general malaise. It’s a gloriously gripping descent into moviemaking madness, and a fascinating look at the length an artist will go to in order to realize their vision.

41. Italianamerican

Martin Scorsese’s documentary subjects have included such renowned figures as Bob Dylan, George Harrison, and Fran Lebowitz, but he made his best nonfiction movie when he turned his camera on his own parents. Asked to participate in a National Communications Foundation series on the immigrant experience, Scorsese spent a weekend at his parents’ apartment in Little Italy, talking to them about their experiences and watching his mother make her famous pasta sauce — or, as she calls it, gravy. It’s warm, witty, and enlightening, a home movie from one of our finest filmmakers (and, as a bonus, the end credits include that first-rate gravy recipe).

40. King: A Filmed Record… Montgomery to Memphis

Sidney Lumet (Dog Day Afternoon) and Joseph L. Mankiewicz (All About Eve) co-directed this lengthy (over three hours), thoughtful, and moving portrait of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., originally shown in theaters as a one-time event, roughly two years after his assassination. The film still conveys the sorrow of that loss, but it’s no funeral dirge — by presenting archival footage of the charismatic leader without frills, narration, or talking head interviews, it serves as a powerful testament to his rhetorical skill and inspirational presence.

39. When We Were Kings

The story behind Leon Gast’s 1996 documentary is one of loss and rediscovery: it was initially shot in 1974, at the “Rumble in the Jungle” in Zaire where Muhammad Ali reclaimed the heavyweight title from George Foreman, but was left incomplete due to lack of funds. Yet that twenty-plus year interval made the footage even more valuable — from its later perch, and with the help of eloquent observers and commentators like Norman Mailer, George Plimpton, and Spike Lee, Kings stands as a testimonial to the cultural significance of Ali, and the power of his unexpected comeback.

38. Man on Wire

Early on the morning of August 7, 1974 (the day before Nixon’s resignation), a French street performer and wirewalker named Philippe Petit stunned New York City, and the world, by walking a high-wire between the two towers of the World Trade Center without a net. Director James Marsh’s extraordinary and joyous Man on Wire tells the remarkable story of Petit’s journey to that wire, via new interviews, archival footage, and stylish black-and-white reenactments. It’s equal parts heist movie (explaining, point-by-point, how they pulled it off) and a celebration of those towers, and of Petit’s stunt, seeing both as an act, a work of art, and a thing of beauty.

37. No End in Sight

Economist-turned-filmmaker Charles Ferguson helms about as fair and evenhanded a documentary as you could ask for about the Iraq boondoggle, and it’s still absolutely enraging. Clear, concise, and hard-nosed, Ferguson’s film gathers a wealth of information, and while most of it will be familiar to those who tracked the quagmire, Ferguson’s true accomplishment is to a) get it from the real insiders (who are themselves still stunned by the incompetence of the occupation), and b) to see the progression of events, the actions and their consequences, so clearly and eloquently distilled. There is very little in the way of commentary from the filmmaker, and for good reason; the facts (and the impressions of those on the inside) say it all.

36. The Fog of War

At 85 years old, Robert S. McNamara explains, “I can look back and derive some conclusions about my actions.” Does he ever. In Errol Morris’ 2003 Oscar-winner, the man who served as Secretary of Defense for seven years under Kennedy and Johnson, during the Cuban Missile Crisis and the beginning of the Vietnam War, looks Morris’ camera right in the eye and tells his story — what he did, and what he learned. The film’s place as a history is inarguable; what is surprising is its emotional intensity. It’s an urgent film, and one might wonder why Morris is so worked up over the past, until realizing that he and McNamara are commenting on our frightening present.

35. Brother’s Keeper

Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky met at Maysles Films, producing and editing for documentary legend Albert Maysles before striking out on their own in 1991. Their first feature directorial effort was Brother’s Keeper, the keenly observed yet increasingly shocking story of upstate New York farmers the Ward brothers — William, Delbert, Lyman and Roscoe — and the death of William, killed in what appears to be a mercy killing by Delbert (though the truth is ultimately far more complicated and unknowable). “It’s as exhilarating as watching a theatrical courtroom trial,” raved The Washington Post. “Errant disciples of the movement that produced Salesman, Don’t Look Back, and other cinéma vérité classics, Berlinger and Sinofsky leaven truth-gathering, objective-camera techniques with Hollywood values.” The duo would find an even more compelling story in the years following Brother’s Keeper, when they made Paradise Lost.

34. The War Room

Filmmakers D.A. Pennebaker (Don’t Look Back, Monterey Pop) and Chris Hegedus initially hoped to focus their document of the 1992 presidential campaign on Bill Clinton and campaign manager David Wilhelm, but when they weren’t granted that access, they decided to focus instead on the brains of the organization, lead strategist James Carville and communications director George Stephanopoulos. By mostly staying in the so-called “war room” in Little Rock with Carville and Stephanopoulos, the film becomes less about the day-to-day grind of the campaign trail than about their theoretical discussions and attentiveness to the tiniest of details. And in doing so, it captures not only the making of a president, but a turning of the page in how politics are conducted.

33. Little Dieter Needs to Fly

Early in Werner Herzog’s 1997 documentary, Dieter Dengler takes us on a tour of his home, pointing out the window-heavy layout, artwork that emphasizes open doors, and full pantry — including thousands of pounds of provisions under the floor. He’ll never need it, he explains, but he sleeps better knowing it’s there; as he tells his story, it’s easy to get where he’s coming form. The Vietnam War POW tells the story of his capture, torture, and escape as he literally retraces his steps, Herzog’s camera following him back through his ordeal three decades earlier. It’s just one man talking, but it’s never less than gripping — so much so that Herzog’s own (well-made) dramatization of the events, 2006’s Rescue Dawn, is somehow less effective than this simpler telling of Dengler’s story of survival.

32. Inside Job

Charles Ferguson followed up No End in Sight with this pointed, angry, post-meltdown howl at the financial sector. The former economist is really in his wheelhouse here, carefully explaining exactly what happened, and how, with appropriate background, context, and history; best of all, he pinpoints the conflicts of interest that will prevent any real resultant regulation (much to the chagrin of the persons in question). Conducted like a 60 Minutes segment and paced like a heist thriller, this Oscar winner remains the definitive documentary account of an astonishing chapter in modern history.

31. Waltz With Bashir

A breathtakingly original hybrid of documentary and narrative, fused together with the help of stylish, eye-catching animation, director Ari Folman’s acclaimed 2008 effort is a a serious film with some horrifying images, a reflection of a troubling time and an indictment of the evils of war. But it is also exhilarating cinema, infused with the energy and enthusiasm of a filmmaker who has found a new and remarkable way to tell a story.

30. Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist

Director Kirby Dick’s impressive filmography includes The Invisible War, Outrage, and This Film Is Not Yet Rated, but his most haunting and powerful films remains this 1997 profile of Flanagan, a performance artist dying of cystic fibrosis, who insists on maintaining his artistic voice and — via BDSM — a sense of control over his deteriorating body. At times all but impossible to watch, but a stunner nonetheless.

29. Roger & Me

Michael Moore’s first and most personal feature centers on the Reagen-era havoc wreaked upon his hometown of Flint, Michigan by GM. It’s a scathingly funny movie, but more a tragedy than comedy, with sequences veering from thought-provoking to exasperating to disturbing (bunny meat, anyone?). He is, to put it mildly, a divisive filmmaker, but this initial outing — 25 years old this year — is as relevant and biting as the day it appeared.

28. Nanook of the North

The groundbreaker, the trendsetter, the very first feature-length documentary film, in which director Robert J. Flaherty shows us the life and struggles of the Inuit Nanook and his family. The picture is somewhat controversial among documentary filmmakers and historians these days, since Flaherty (partially due to the constraints of filming at the time, partially per the traditions of the day) staged much of the film’s action and events. But the fascinating film’s value cannot be disputed — Nanook set the stylistic template for decades of documentary, and remains a fascinating and engrossing film.

27. Pressure Cooker

Mark Becker and Jennifer Grausman’s 2009 documentary focuses on the Culinary Arts program at Philadelphia’s Frankford High School — politely called an “inner city” school, a little rough, where most of the students are black kids from lower-income families. Wilma Stephenson, the program’s tough-as-nails instructor, doesn’t cut anyone a break, though: she speaks distastefully of the “ghetto palate,” calls her students out (loudly) when they make mistakes, and expects them to come in before school and over spring break for extra class. But it’s all for their benefit, for their opportunities and their future, and by the end of Pressure Cooker, we have a rooting interest in their outcome. It doesn’t have quite the same epic scope (or length) as Hoop Dreams, but it’s cut from the same rich cloth; it is a warm and intimate picture, and its closing scenes are indescribably moving.

26. Bus 174

In June of 2000, Sandro do Nascimento, a street kid from the slums of Rio de Janeiro, bungled a robbery on a city bus, took its passengers hostage, and captured national attention. Directors Felipe Lacerda and José Padilha painstakingly reconstruct the events of that fateful day through use of interviews, traffic cameras, home movies, and electrifying news footage. But the filmmakers also expertly crosscut Sandro’s childhood and formative years with the unfolding of the bus tragedy (the result, it is argued, of those years), creating palpable, excruciating suspense and continuing impact as it steams towards its inevitable conclusion.

25. Taxi to the Dark Side

Alex Gibney won the Oscar for this penetrating look at America’s aggressive policies of torture and “enhanced interrogation” in the post-9/11 years, masterfully moving from a single story — of an Afghan taxi driver beaten to death by American soldiers — into an examination of an entire foreign policy philosophy. Haunting, brutal, unforgettable filmmaking.

24. Crumb

Terry Zwigoff’s 1995 profile of cult cartoonist R. Crumb is funny and tragic in pretty much equal measure, spotlighting a figure both perversely talented and deeply disturbed (and created by a director who often meets the same description). It’s not just a profile of an artist, but of a troubled life done no favors by a deeply dysfunctional family; in presenting an unvarnished look at the man and his demons, Zwigoff created what Roger Ebert called “a film that gives new meaning to the notion of art as therapy.”

23. Harlan County USA

To spotlight the plight of 180 striking coal miners in Harlan County, Kentucky, director Barbara Kopple embedded herself with the striking miners and their families for over a year; she even put herself in danger of harm from the energy company’s armed goons, who fired at the strikers and physically assaulted not only the workers, but also Kopple and her crew. Her film is remarkable for its authenticity and presence, as well as the specificity of her voice — because it is from a female documentarian (in the 1970s, when they were even more scarce than now), it takes a keen interest in the sexual politics of the time and place. She’s as interested in the wives as the miners, in how they stand their ground and provide support (“I would hate to think that my wife could play this kind of role,” tsks tsks one of the coal company muckety-mucks), and in a key scene, elderly Florence Reese stands at a meeting and sings the song she wrote during an early Harlan County strike: “Which Side Are You On?,” which becomes both the film’s literal and figurative theme.

22. Salesman

Co-directors Albert and David Mayseles and Charlotte Zwerin aimed to make the cinematic equivalent of Truman Capote’s “nonfiction novel” In Cold Blood with this 1969 feature, which tracks a quartet of door-to-door Bible salesman up and down the Eastern seaboard. The film they came up with is a kind of documentary counterpart to Glengarry Glen Ross, capturing the desperation (and black humor) of these busted-out men.

21. Hearts and Minds

Peter Davis’ 1974 Oscar winner uses no narration and gives no illusion of objectivity, ironically employing archival footage and sly editing to argue a political point of view. In this case, the POV is that Vietnam was a disaster, and while Davis talks to the expected military and government figures, he also puts his camera in front of vets (both pro- and anti-war) and the Vietnamese people themselves. The controversial film is a model of editing efficiency, and the footage of bloodshed and carnage hasn’t lost any of its considerable power.

20. The Act of Killing

The men who overthrew the Indonesian government and murdered over one million “Communists” in the mid-‘60s still walk free in that country, and are celebrated as heroes — “war crimes are defined by the winners,” one explains. Director Joshua Oppenheimer doesn’t tell their shocking story in the standard fashion, however; he offered these paramilitaries and gangsters the opportunity to create their own reenactments of their crimes, in a variety of styles (gangster movie, Western, war film, and musical among them). And he documents that process, capturing not only the chilling work of these amateur directors (one, to his sobbing grandchild: “Your acting was great, but stop crying… you’re embarrassing me”), but the way that the dramatizations eventually seem to reframe these crimes in the eyes of the unapologetic men who committed them.

19. The Paradise Lost Series

There is no doubt that the light shined on the wrongful convictions of Jessie Misskelley, Damien Echols, and Jason Baldwin (aka “The West Memphis Three”) was a direct result of Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s 1996 documentary Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, a harrowing account of the merciless brutality in the woods of Arkansas that took the lives of three young boys, but also of a miscarriage of justice that nearly took the livelihoods of three more. In that film and its two sequels, Berlinger and Sinofsky focus on the whispers and suspicion that landed the WM3 in jail, resulting in more than a typical true-crime picture; they craft a stunning portrait of fear and paranoia in small-town America.

18. The Times of Harvey Milk

Rob Epstein and Richard Schmiechen’s 1984 profile is a visceral, emotional film: it taps the viewer right into its events, from the joy of the Gay Pride movement to the hope of Milk’s time in office to the sadness and then anger that followed his death. The power of this film lies in those moments, in the bravado with which the filmmakers bring them to life, and make us part of them. Its genius, in fact, is right there in its title: it isn’t just about Milk. It’s about his times — the world he was a part of, the world he left behind, and now, more than a quarter century after its release, the world that this acclaimed documentary about him was released into. It’s more than a profile; it’s a time capsule.

17. Titicut Follies

Legendary (and still busy) documentarian Frederick Wiseman was just starting out in the field when he directed this searing slice of cinéma vérité, which was shot at the Bridgewater State Hospital for the criminally insane in Bridgewater, Massachusetts. Wiseman’s cameras caught the unsettling treatment of inmates, who were frequently bullied, force fed, and humiliated by the institution’s staff. State authorities (clearly fearing the repercussions of the film) tried to prevent it from being screened, on the grounds that Wiseman had violated the patients’ right to privacy. Though it was shown at the 1967 New York Film Festival, Massachusetts Superior Court judge Harry Kalus ultimately ruled that it should not only be pulled from distribution, but that all copies should be destroyed (!). Wiseman thankfully managed to appeal that decision to the Massachusetts Supreme Court, but they ruled that the film could only be shown to doctors, lawyers, judges, healthcare professionals, social workers, and students; the court effectively banned the film from general distribution, a ban which held until 1991, when a Superior Court judge ruled that enough time had passed to render the privacy concerns moot (PBS aired it in 1992). Yet even in those lost years, it was a living testament of film’s power to capture injustice, and to instigate change.

16. Capturing the Friedmans

Director Andrew Jarecki helms this portrait of the unhinging of a seemingly average family; emotionally exhausting and deeply unsettling, it’s unquestionably a work of unblinking fairness and uncommon honesty. Much of the story — of an upwardly mobile Great Neck family whose patriarch (and later, one of his sons) is accused of pedophilia — is told by the subjects themselves, with the filmmakers relying heavily on the family’s own home videos and audio recordings (they were obsessive documenters, recording everything), adding an element of voyeurism to the already-uneasy mix. You’re watching this family come apart, right there on the screen, and you can’t take your eyes off it.

15. 4 Little Girls

Spike Lee’s first feature-length documentary proved he was just as adept at nonfiction as fiction (perhaps even more so) with his bravura account of the deaths of four girls in the bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church one Sunday morning in 1963. Lee’s film engages the story on both the micro and macro levels: he talks to the family and friends of those girls, while also engaging with civil rights leaders (and enemies) to understand how this tragedy marked a terrible turning point in the movement.

14. Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father

This painfully sad and profoundly moving 2008 film begins with the brutal murder of Dr. Andrew Bagby, an affable young Philadelphia family practitioner, and the unbelievable story that follows is told, in an almost-but-not-quite first-person fashion, by his friend, filmmaker Kurt Kuenne. The director, a friend of Bagby since childhood, grabbed his camera and went across the country to interview everyone who he could think of that new Bagby — so that his slain friend’s unborn son could somehow, hopefully, know his father. Kuenne (who also edited) uses overlapping dialogue, repeated phrases, photos, clips, phone calls, and every media imaginable to create a dizzying mosaic of words and of emotion, which still can’t quite prepare us for the harrowingly heart-breaking story that he’s set out to tell.

13. Night and Fog

For our purposes, we’ve stuck with feature-length documentaries — but an exception must be made for Alain Reinais’ 1955 meditation on the horrors of the Holocaust, which packs several features’ share of horror and sorrow into its 32-minute running time. Sight and Sound’s recent, esteemed Documentary Poll selected it as the fourth-best documentary ever made, with writer Phillip French calling it “a touchstone, the greatest, most crystalline film on the subject, the one every filmmaker must come to terms with before amplifying on this most challenging of topics.”

12. The Sorrow and the Pity

Audiences today may very well know The Sorrow and the Pity primarily for the key role it plays in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, but this is one of the most detailed and comprehensive films on World War II — specifically, the infuriating collaboration between the Nazis and the Vichy government. As The Guardian’s Xan Brooks wrote a decade ago, it is a film “so boldly conceived, richly textured and beautifully paced that its marathon running time feels more like a sprint.”

11. Grizzly Man

Werner Herzog explored his most persistent themes in this riveting 2005 profile of Timothy Treadwell and Amie Huguenard, who attempted to live among grizzly bears in Alaska, and paid for the optimism with their lives. Herzog contemplates not only their acts (and his own as a filmmaker, when given access to a recording of their final moments), but giant, eternal questions of man and nature, and their interactions with each other.

10. Sans soleil

Chris Marker (La Jetee) helms this tricky, innovative, and gorgeous 1982 film, which came in third on the Sight & Sound documentary poll. Adam Nayman writes that the picture “not only withstands multiple viewings, but never seems to be the same film twice. It addresses memory even as its different threads seem to forget themselves; it parses geopolitics without betraying any affiliation; it might be Marker’s most elaborately self-effacing film, or his most plangently personal.”

9. F for Fake

Orson Welles hesitated to call this 1973 masterwork a documentary; he preferred the description “film essay,” and the connotations there are looser, more freewheeling. It’s apt for this anything-goes exploration of fakery, hoaxes, magic, and filmmaking itself, a picture in which Welles takes on his own livelihood and persona with insight and a wink. Actor, gambler, and historian Ricky Jay picks it as one of his favorite films, noting, “As a longtime student of deception, and occasional practitioner, I find much to admire in this playful paean to the psychology of the con.”

8. Primary

This behind-the-scenes look at the 1960 Wisconsin Democratic Primary battle between John F. Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey was the breakthrough picture of the “direct cinema” movement, as well as a collaboration between several figures who would define it together and individually: Robert Drew produced and directed, while Richard Leacock, Albert Maysles, and D.A. Pennebaker were among the photographers. There is a low-key intimacy to Primary that is still remarkable, even after all of these years of imitation; we see (seemingly) unguarded views of the candidates glad-handing, hand-shaking, and signing autographs, and (via the hand-held camera) we follow them to photo shoots, TV shows, and public appearances (including a famous shot that seems right on Kennedy’s shoulder as he goes from the sidewalk, through a mob, and onto a rally stage). Thanks to the mobility of the crew, it feels like we are there, in those rooms and in those cars and at those rallies with Kennedy and Humphrey. How close they got to the real men, we may never know. But it feels honest, and that’s about all that matters.

7. Man With a Movie Camera

Producer/director Dziga Vertov started making newsreels, specifically the Kino-Pravda newsreel series of the 1920s, which showed Russia in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution. He took many of the techniques he had developed there, sifted them through editor’s trickery and his vivid imagination, and created this 1929 experimental feature, his most enduring work. It topped the Sight & Sound documentary poll; of it, Brian Winston wrote, “Vertov’s agenda in Man with a Movie Camera signposts nothing less than how documentary can survive the digital destruction of photographic image integrity and yet still, as Vertov wanted, ‘show us life’.”

6. The Up Series

In 1964, director Paul Almond and assistant Michael Apted (who took over the series for its subsequent installments) began one of cinema’s most astonishing experiments: they selected a handful of British schoolchildren, filmed them talking about their daily lives, and then returned to them, every seven years, to see who they’d become in the meantime. It’s a remarkable gimmick for a film series, but the Up movies are more than just the gimmick — they represent one of cinema’s most powerful qualities, the ability to capture the passage of time and the shifts of humanity.

5. Gates of Heaven

Before Errol Morris found his signature, hypnotic style, his films were more straightforward affairs — low-key, observational, with a more modest style. But he always saw his subjects via his unique sensibilities, particularly his ear for the poetry of everyday conversation; his early films are portraits of people and their communities, showcasing folks who usually don’t show up in the movies. This 1978 story of two pet cemeteries was one of Roger Ebert’s favorite films; revisiting it in 1997, he wrote, “I have seen this film perhaps 30 times, and am still not anywhere near the bottom of it: All I know is, it’s about a lot more than pet cemeteries.”

4. Shoah

Eleven years in the making, with 350 hours of footage culled to running time of eight to ten hours (depending on which version you see), Claude Lanzmann’s 1985 documentary is a difficult film to take — not just because of its epic length, but its Holocaust subject. Over its many hours, Lanzmann refuses to let viewers off the hook: we’re presented with endless details and testimonials, and the more we know, the more the horror multiplies. Wrote its longtime champion J. Hoberman, upon its recent Criterion release, “Shoah is a great movie. It’s also a terrible fate, an absolute isolation, the stones in your passway, the abyss beneath your feet, the cop at your door, the iceberg that sank the Titanic, the sign Dante placed at the Gate of Hell, the being of nothingness, the dream you can never recall. You can see Shoah and even if you forget it you’ll never stop thinking about it because Shoah is.”

3. Grey Gardens

Few documentaries have penetrated the culture (sequels, fiction adaptations, even a stage musical) like Grey Gardens, the 1975 profile of two very strange women: Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter, “Little Edie,” relatives of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, who became tabloid fodder in the early 1970s when it was discovered that they were living in squalor at their East Hampton summer home. The two are fascinating characters; the mere rhythms of their conversations are funny, to say nothing of their wild New England accents and charmingly scrambled manner of speech. Their interactions with the filmmakers, who are trying their best to remain detached, also provide humor (Little Edie all but screams to her mother, about a particular photograph, “I WANT TO SHOW IT TO AL!”) and pain (when Little Edie tells a story that Big Edie disagrees with, she proclaims to the camera, “You’re wasting that thing on this, because that’s just nuts”). They’re always “on,” and yet never performing; they are merely present, and the Maysles’ cameras capture it all, stunningly.

2. The Thin Blue Line

Errol Morris’ “nonfiction noir” did nothing less than save a man’s life: in telling the story of Randall Dale Adams, a drifter accused, tried, convicted, and sentenced to death for a crime he did not commit, Morris’ film led to the overturning of the conviction and the release of Adams. But more importantly, The Thin Blue Line is a breathtaking work of cinema; while assembling a pretty airtight case for Adams’ innocence (Morris worked, off and on, as a private investigator in the 1980s), the filmmaker uses quietly damning interviews (Morris has a particular way of seeing his subjects, framing them, and letting them talk and talk and talk), eerie reenactments of the crime (and Rashomon-style variations on the events), and a spectral score by Philip Glass to create a unique cinematic nail-biter and a stylishly modern take on the quintessential noir story of the innocent man, wrongly accused.

1. Hoop Dreams

Producer/director Steve James and co-producers Peter Gilbert and Frederick Marx originally intended to spend three weeks shooting a 30-minute film for PBS about the kids at a basketball court. Instead, they spent eight years shooting over 250 hours of raw footage in order to craft the 170-minute story of William Gates and Arthur Agee, two promising young basketball players drafted for high school and later college teams. Thanks to the filmmakers’ unprecedented access and patience, we feel as though we know the Agees and the Gateses — we cheer their successes and mourn their failures, we identify with their struggles and share their hopes, and when their seemingly cinema-ready big moments arrive, we’re as crushed as they are by the gulf between truth and fiction. It’s stirring, personal, heartbreaking, and brilliant motion picture.