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Top Ten Best Documentaries

Updated on September 21, 2014
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I love watching documentaries because I always learn something interesting. It might be about the ingredients in fast food, an incredible art collection in Central Pennsylvania or the strife of US soldiers in Afghanistan.

The introduction of inexpensive film-making technology has led to a proliferation of documentary films. Because they are so inexpensive to make, documentaries are usually easily accessible through free legal means on the internet, cable TV and other sources. The filmmaker usually wants to get their message out in front of a wide audience so these are mostly non-profit endeavors. However, there have also been some extremely successful for-profit documentaries, such as Bowling for Columbine and Exit Through the Gift Shop.

Documentaries come in lot of shapes and sizes, such as war documentaries, political, social and art documentaries, to name just a few types. PBS, the BBC and National Geographic have been long-time producers of documentary movies, but in recent years the number of documentary producers has exploded. Some of the best documentaries are being produced by first time filmmakers looking to highlight a subject and create a name for themselves.

The greatest documentaries are entertaining while also conveying their message and the films on this best documentaries list definitely fill that bill. We asked our members at Rankography movies to rank the best documentaries across all genres. This top ten list is derived from the blended average of all those rankings.

There are many great resources for watching documentaries for free on the web. Because they are usually about a topic that both the filmmaker and subjects want publicized, they are happy to give away their content to publicize the topic. Besides Netflix streaming which carries many top documentaries, one of the best sites for watching free documentaries is TopDocumentaryFilms.com.

All rights reserved. Copyright 2012 Rankography

And Now the Top 10 Best Documentaries Ever

10. Dogtown and Z-Boys

The Original Rock Stars of the Half-Pipe

This top documentary movie was so compelling that they made a feature film about the Z-Boys called Lords of Dogtown and both are highly entertaining. The feature film was one of Heath Ledger's last movies and he is outstanding in the film. I suggest you watch the documentary first as it provides a more in-depth analysis on the history, economic backdrop and characters that make up the Z-Boys.

The Z-Boys were the surf team for Zephyr Surf Shop in Venice Beach, CA and they invented modern-day skateboarding after urethane wheels were introduced in the early 1970s. During a severe recession, with lots of empty houses (and swimming pools), the Z-Boy began sneaking into backyards and skateboarding the empty pools, which later evolved into today's "half-pipe" competitions. However, what really made this documentary film compelling are the main characters, Stacy Peralta, Jay Adams and Tony Alva, and their divergent paths in life.

If you liked Dogtown and Z-Boys... - You might also like Riding Giants

Riding Giants (Special Edition)
Riding Giants (Special Edition)

Riding Giants is an outstanding documentary film about one era in American alternative lifestyles, when surfing was well-suited to a radical culture of social dropouts.

 

9. F for Fake (1973)

Orson Welles Explores the Line Between Art and Forgery

In his last directorial effort, Orson Welles directs and stars in this documentary that explores forgeries, fakes and frauds, including his own fake radio broadcast about an imaginary alien invasion. His primary subject is Elmyr De Hory, who made his living forging Picasso masterpieces. But his exploration also looks at biographer Clifford Irving, whose famous fake autobiography of Howard Hughes set off a maelstrom of protest.

While weaving the tale, Welles plays a few tricks of his own on the audience. This is an intriguing documentary movie providing a view into the art of forgery and forgery of art.

If you enjoyed F is for Fake, you also might like The Art of the Steal

8. Sicko (2007)

This Might Hurt a Little

As only he can do it, Michael Moore focuses the spotlight on the US health care industry and health maintenance organizations (HMOs) in this documentary film. Along the way, he compares the US HMO to the nationalized health plans in Canada, UK and France. He interviews patients and doctors and discusses cost, quality of care and health salaries.

The story covers a wide range of health care topics including the formation of HMOs in the 1970s under President Nixon and also why President Clinton's reform effort failed in the 1990s. As always with a Moore documentary, we come away much more informed but with lots of unanswered questions to continue the debate.

If you like Moore, you might check out his MichealMoore.com.

7. Paris is Burning (1990)

Ever Wonder What Inspired Madonna's Vogue?

This is an excellent film documentary that is both an art documentary and a social commentary. The story is a behind the scenes look at the "drag balls" in New York City during the 1980s. And yes, these fashion obsessed drag queens did invent "voguing".

The movie also explores the storyline behind many of its stars and ventures into the world of drug addiction and aids among this largely poor underclass community of dancers. However, it is mostly a celebration of a movement and an art form invented by these free spirit New Yorkers.

6. The Kids Stays in the Picture (2002)

The Life of a Hollywood Legend

This top documentary movie follows the life story of Robert Evans, a long-time head of Paramount Pictures. Evans started as an actor and later moved in to Producing and ultimately took over management of the studio. During his tenure, the studio released such legendary films as The Godfather, Chinatown, Love Story, Rosemary's Baby and The Odd Couple.

Sometimes life is even stranger than fiction and while he produced great films, his life also played out like a Hollywood script. During Evan's career, he suffered a failed marriage to Ali McGraw, a cocaine bust and rumored involvement in the Cotton Club murders. This documentary is an interesting story with the backdrop of Hollywood as the set.

5. Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010)

This has been a Banksy Production...

Banksy was a mythical, underground graffiti artist before this 2010 documentary film. He had become an international sensation with the advent of Youtube, but was utterly reclusive and only a few people knew his true identity. However, this film changed all that. The documentary is the story of a persistent amateur filmmaker, Thierry Guetta, documenting the graffiti artist underground who stumbles upon Banksy and begins documenting his work.

However, along the way the tables are turned completely upside down when Thierry parlays his relationship with Banksy into a crazy graffiti "career" of his own. Ultimately, Banksy takes over the documentary movie project and takes a hard-edged look into art form that he helped popularize. It is a fascinating film with unexpected twists and turns that keep you mesmerized throughout.

If you liked the movie, you should check out Banksy's Official Website. Its very cool.

4. Roger & Me (1989)

The Film that Started it all for Moore

In his directorial debut, Michael Moore follows General Motor's CEO, Roger Smith, around Michigan like a pitbull on a pork chop. With his unassuming manner and his comedic wit in posing questions, Moore entertains us as he tries to get to the bottom of why GM closed a plant in Flint, MI, that resulted in the loss of 30,000 jobs.

To complete this documentary, Moore sold his house, held yard sales and organized bingo games. Ultimately, he was able to get it completed and launched a fantastic career producing some of the best documentaries ever. This is the film that started it all and is a must see if you like Moore's work.

If you enjoyed Roger and Me... - You should also check out

Slacker Uprising
Slacker Uprising

in 2004, Michael Moore went on a 62-city tour to persuade non-voters to do their civic duty. This political documentary is the result.

 

3. American Movie (1999)

The American Dream to make the American Movie

This top documentary movie explores one man's journey through hell and back to complete his dream project, "Covan", a no budget short horror film. However, this is really a window into the American underclass and the trials and tribulation of living at or below the poverty line. But while that sounds serious, the movie is actually quite funny in the same way that we watch the show Cops to marvel at the crazy people and their crazy crimes.

I was not always sure that I was laughing for the right reasons, but I was laughing all the same.

2. Hoop Dreams (1994)

Chasing the Impossible Dream

Some films leave a lasting impression on you long after the viewing and Hoop Dreams is such a film. The documentary filmmaker, Steve James, decided to conduct a social experiment and film two talented, inner city hoops players as they entered high school and follow them through their graduation. He chose two kids, William Gates and Arthur Agee, who were recruited to play at St. Joseph's High School in Westchester, IL, an elite basketball high school that produced Isiah Thomas and more recently, Evan Turner.

However, at its core this top documentary film is a glimpse into the deep psyche of inner city boys, many of which place all their chips on a bet with incredibly long odds - playing for a professional sports franchise. It also exposes life in the inner city and the incredible obstacles that kids face to stay out of trouble and off of drugs.

If you enjoyed Hoop Dreams... - You may also like The Street Stops Here

The Street Stops Here
The Street Stops Here

The amazing story of Bob Hurley, Sr, who has coached St. Anthony's in NJ for over 35 years. He has won over 24 state championships and saved hundreds of young men's lives on the mean streets of Jersey City.

 

1. Bowling for Columbine (2002)

Michael Moore Explores Gun Laws and the Columbine Tragedy

I remember coming out of Bowling for Columbine more confused than going in, about the root cause of violence in the US. I went into the film with one notion but that notion was turned on its head and left me questioning all of my assumptions about school violence. That is the genius of Michael Moore. He starts us down a path and slowly enlightens us with other possibilities that expand our total perspective.

This is a must see documentary for anyone living in the US. Not because of any political or social message but rather because of the questions it asks about our children, violence, guns and our entire national ethos.

If you were moved by Bowling for Columbine... - You should also watch Why We Fight

Why We Fight
Why We Fight

This political documentary surveys a half-century of military conflicts, asking how - and answering why - a democratic nation relies on an Orwellian state of constant war to survive.

 

Vote for the Greatest Documentaries

Which of the top documentaries is your favorite (including a few not mentioned here)?

See results

Give us your thoughts on the Top Ten Documentaries lens.

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    • NoYouAreNot profile image

      NoYouAreNot 4 years ago

      @Rankography: Yep, the majority rule... according to Thoreau... ;)

    • Rankography profile image
      Author

      Rankography 4 years ago

      @NoYouAreNot: I tend to agree but that is how the masses voted.

    • NoYouAreNot profile image

      NoYouAreNot 4 years ago

      Too much Michael Moore, indeed.

      But I liked the list of Documentary-watching sites.

    • kabbalah lm profile image

      kabbalah lm 4 years ago

      I don't like Michael Moore. He is really full of it

    • norma-holt profile image

      norma-holt 4 years ago

      A new blessing on this lovely lens and may you have a wonderful, successful and happy 2013. Hugs

    • profile image

      anonymous 4 years ago

      I have to look into these beautiful documentaries, haven't yet seen them.

    • profile image

      myspace9 4 years ago

      Great selection and wonderful lens.

    • watchreviews lm profile image

      watchreviews lm 4 years ago

      I've started building a documentary site which I hope will become greater than topdocumentaryfilms and documentaryjungle with time.... a lot of time... but I will get there eventually http://bestdocumentary.org/

    • GetFactsnotHype profile image

      GetFactsnotHype 4 years ago

      This is a good list, however there is another HUGE topic of concern in approximately 38 of 50 US states as well as abroad and that is hydrofracking, with the movie "Gasland" and now in the making an update to Gasland, see my page on "Hydrofracking Not Sexy Enough for Politics".

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      Great selection. I enjoyed this lens.

    • TolovajWordsmith profile image

      Tolovaj Publishing House 5 years ago from Ljubljana

      In last years I enjoyed in documentaries more than in fiction. I have just seen part of the movie about legal drugs we eat every day, from kids to eldest citizens. We are becoming walking labs... Spooky!

    • profile image

      documentarylovers 5 years ago

      all these are available free at docolovers.com

    • Camden1 profile image

      Camden1 5 years ago

      Another great list! I enjoy documentaries, but haven't seen many of these.

    • cinefile profile image

      cinefile 5 years ago

      F for Faked was such a surreal experience, wasnât it? So strange and unique.

      Exit through the gift shop was a journey into a world I would never otherwise have seen so that was interesting.

      American Movie was depressing. Iâve seen that story played out so many times because I have a lot of indy filmmaker friends. It was hard to watch for me because it was so painfully personal.

      The Kids Stays in the Picture was a magical peek behind the Hollywood curtain that I really enjoyed. Iâd been aware of the story and the documentary for some time so I relished finally getting to watch it.

      My favorite documentary was Beyond the gates of splendor (2005)http://www.squidoo.com/beyond-the-gates-of-splendo... A story that is just so wonderfully different that you have to watch it.

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      I often find myself watching History Channel, NGC or Discovery! Glad to discover this list too!

    • norma-holt profile image

      norma-holt 5 years ago

      My preference is for dosumentaties over movies so had to come back here to feature on Blessed by Skiesgreen 2012-2 Hugs

    • profile image

      wolawl6 5 years ago

      I usually watch documentaries hotdocumentaries.com

    • profile image

      sherioz 5 years ago

      Got some ideas here for movies I should see. Thanks for coming along to my lenses and getting me back to your lists again and again.

    • profile image

      stabforddeathrage 5 years ago

      You should check out Errol Morris' Thin Blue Line.

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      Another impressive list! Thank you!

    • MelonyVaughan profile image

      MelonyVaughan 5 years ago

      Great choices! I've never seen F for Fake and am looking forward to doing so!

    • profile image

      drdocumentary 5 years ago

      Watch Documentaries this CHRISTMAS BREAK! check my squidoos!!!

    • laki2lav profile image

      laki2lav 5 years ago

      You truly have a great list here!

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      i Watch F for Fake and it was great.

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      Good stuff! Kudos!

    • Fcuk Hub profile image

      Fcuk Hub 5 years ago

      must watch them all

    • profile image

      healthandsick 5 years ago

      great list movies

    • profile image

      Shadrosky 5 years ago

      A fine list indeed!

    • sousababy profile image

      sousababy 5 years ago

      Love Michael Moore, although I've only seen a couple of his documentaries. I especially felt moved by 'Sicko' since living in Canada made me acutely aware of the US struggles - everyone should have access to healthcare.

    • norma-holt profile image

      norma-holt 6 years ago

      Few if any of these docos has made it to Australian television as far as I know. They are my preferred programs as they teach reality. Good subject and nicely done.

    • auntjennie profile image

      Jen 6 years ago from Canada

      My favorite Documentary has to be Bowling for Columbine; though, Roger & Me sounds like a good one to check out.

    • RawBill1 profile image

      Bill 6 years ago from Gold Coast, Australia

      I am a big fan of Michael Moore's work as well as Morgan Spurlock, so he got my vote above for Supersize me. I own the Lords of Dogtown feature film, but have not seen the documentary. I knew the background though as I was heavily into skateboarding in the 1980s. Great lens!

    • Bellezza-Decor profile image

      Bellezza-Decor 6 years ago from Canada

      I like Moore's documentaries ... he goes where most dare not tread.

    • Timewarp profile image

      Paul 6 years ago from Montreal

      Nice selections and thanks for featuring my BBC documentaries lens :)

    • profile image

      RichardNorris 6 years ago

      Have you check out www.flizz.me a free online documentary portal?

    • profile image

      anonymous 6 years ago

      How did I miss this one?!? I love Documentaries, Unsolves Mysteries and so forth especially those on the Titanic, Historical Moments like Astronomical Discoveries!! Documentaries seem to bring home the Info. like no other, of course better than the New Media!! :)

    • profile image

      Ruthi 6 years ago

      Great listing of documentary films. The last documentary I saw was Iditarod-A Far Distant Place (2000) and it was fantastic.

    • PNWtravels profile image

      Vicki Green 6 years ago from Wandering the Pacific Northwest USA

      I love well done documentaries and this is a great list. I've seen several of them, but will definitely try to see the ones I've missed.

    • hlkljgk profile image

      hlkljgk 6 years ago from Western Mass

      i love documentaries - great to stream from netflix

    • profile image

      anonymous 6 years ago

      I thought the Civil War on PBS was really well done. I don't watch much TV and haven't seen most of these.

    • profile image

      GrinningFool 6 years ago

      I hadn't heard about half of these. Thanks for inspiring me to check them out!

    • Rankography profile image
      Author

      Rankography 6 years ago

      @GrowWear: Great contributions GrowWear. I will check those out.

    • profile image

      GrowWear 6 years ago

      American Hollow, The Wild And Wonderful Whites Of West Virginia, and Country Boys stick in my mind as tops or near the top. Just mesmerizing. And Bukowski: Born Into This. Thank goodness there are so many, many good documentaries out there.

    • TreasuresBrenda profile image

      Treasures By Brenda 6 years ago from Canada

      Nicely done. Great list and discussion.

    • Rankography profile image
      Author

      Rankography 6 years ago

      @Krafick: Thanks Rafick, I will check those two out. Always like to hear of other great documentaries. You should click through the link above to see the full list -- I think there are about 50 that members have ranked.

    • Krafick profile image

      Krafick 6 years ago

      I've seen most of them. Man on Wire and Encounters at the End of the World are amazing. I'll have my list of Top 10 documentaries in a few weeks. Rafick