The Greatest Documentaries of All Time

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Update (November 29, 2012): The poll is now closed. Stay tuned for results and reactions in the coming days…


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What’s does it mean to be the greatest? We’re being loose with the term… One might argue that the greatest documentary was the first (that might be Nanook of the North if you’re talking about feature-length films as we think of them today), or the one that the most people have paid to see (that might be Fahrenheit 9/11), or it might be the one that has won over so many critics that we might as well call it a day (Hoop Dreams).

But which film would you say is the most influential on the form? Which one best defines everything a documentary should do? Which one do you love watching over and over and over again?

When we set out to find the “greatest” documentary of all time, we knew it would be a challenge no matter how we approached it. But it’s been a while since anyone has asked film fans to help find the greatest documentaries, so POV is picking up the mantle! We’re taking inspiration from the list generated every ten years by Sight & Sound magazine, mixed in with some “American Idol”-style judging and the power of social media.

So, here’s your chance to make the case for which documentary is the “greatest.” Search for a documentary in the list above, or add one that’s missing, then give it a “thumbs up” to start pushing it in the right direction. The ranking system gives late additions a fighting chance — and don’t forget you’ve got social media by your side as well, so share your choices!

The poll closes on Thursday, November 29, 2012, at 5 PM Eastern, so vote early!

POV Staff
POV Staff
POV (a cinema term for "point of view") is television's longest-running showcase for independent non-fiction films. POV premieres 14-16 of the best, boldest and most innovative programs every year on PBS. Since 1988, POV has presented over 300 films to public television audiences across the country. POV films are known for their intimacy, their unforgettable storytelling and their timeliness, putting a human face on contemporary social issues.
  • docs!

    when i click on something to vote it up, nothing happens… how do i get my vote to register?

    • Anonymous

      Make sure that cookies are enabled in your browser before trying to vote – let us know if this fixes the problem!

      • http://www.facebook.com/elizabeth.mcmahon Elizabeth McMahon

        I’m having the same frustrating problem, too. My privacy is set to medium, and I specified your site as “allow all cookies.” Any advice?

  • docs!

    “Apur Sansar (The World of Apu)” is not a documentary. Neither is “The Story of the Weeping Camel.”

    • Allie Light

      Re: Weeping Camel. Filmmakers tried to use part of their film to make a documentary, but it was rejected as not being a doc.

  • applicant1

    Having the same problem noted below. How do I register my votes if nothing happens when I click the thumbs up icon?

  • Ryan

    I did not see this on the list http://www.absentmovie.com/ This MUST be added

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Ramona-Stagner/100000554846398 Ramona Stagner

      It is there but you cannot vote for it. Nothing happens when you click the thumbs up.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jeff.turner.146 Jeff Turner

    hoop dreams – gotta be!

  • chook

    how about the canary effect? great award winning depressing documentary. worth a shot i think

  • docs!

    Not seeing many foreign documentaries here – this is a very heavily american list. perhaps it should be described as “The Greatest Mostly American Documentaries of All Time.” Or “the greatest documentary films that have been widely released in the USA and that are probably available on netflix.” I am sure that people in England, Japan, China, Sweden, etc would have a much different list of films.

  • jp comeau

    Erm, since virtually every title is in English, might I suggest renaming the list “The Greatest English-Language Documentaries of All Time”, omitting the one or two foreign-language titles and dropping the bogus pretense of a list covering “The Greatest Documentaries of All Time”…

    • Anonymous

      Very, very good point.

  • Paula Vaccaro

    burroughs the movie (1984) by howard brookner is missing. when I try to add it it doesnt let me…

  • http://www.facebook.com/kierstyn.zolfo Kierstyn Piotrowski Zolfo

    Missing item: “Into the Arms of Strangers: Tales of the Kindertransport” (2000) – I’d vote for that!

  • RO

    Who developed this list? Missing some docs that should be on the list.

  • Tina Fernandez

    Looking for “I Met With An Accident”. Do not see it on the list! GREAT documentary!

  • http://twitter.com/brankamkoie Brandi

    Is there any way you can set up a search window. It’s so difficult to scan through this very large list while scrolling. Or perhaps could you maybe put the list in alphabetical order? That might help too.

  • http://www.facebook.com/louis.gonzales1 Louis Gonzales

    Was Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson apart of this?

  • http://profiles.google.com/historyphdguy Robert Karma

    I am a historian with a focus on WWII, The Cold War & The Space
    Race. I figure my choice of “greatest documentary” will be different
    than most other folks. Given my perspective I had many great docs to choose from but the one that really answered the questions you posted (But which film would you say is the most influential on the form? Which one best defines everything a documentary should do? Which one do you love watching over and over and over again) had to be “The Fog of War : Eleven Lessons from the life of Robert S McNamara” Born 85 years ago, McNamara is the quintessential man of his time, what Brokaw called the greatest generation, a sobriquet this documentary underscores. In McNamara’s words he deplored the sorrow and pity of the four great wars of his lifetime; the trenches in France; the nuclear and indiscriminate firebombing of innocent Japanese; the debacle in Korea; the flaming jungles of Vietnam. His command of statistics is breathtaking. But it is the eyes that reveal an inner truth, the precise opposite of his concise, rational words – his 11 “lessons”. We see a man who never found himself in harm’s way. We see eyes so ironically blinded by a circa 1918 vision of duty and honor that, though he loathed the horrifics of Vietnam, he was compelled to allow his true judgment to go unexpressed until nearly 60,000 Americans were dead. He was at once perhaps the most powerful man in the world and its most despicable. It is easy to see why a brilliant young President Kennedy would choose someone as Defense Secretary who seemed so like himself, but tragically without the courage. And why, with Kennedy’s death, McNamara by sheer ambition and brilliance would ascend to the very pinnacle of power. Just very sobering to have McNamara go through what he later recognized as terrible errors of judgment in prosecuting war when you are so removed from it in person. This is a documentary I have watched several times and I learn something new each time. Every American should have to watch this documentary before deciding if they are going to support or oppose our overseas military adventures.

  • metrozazie

    I keep trying to add documentaries, but they don’t appear on the list even after I refresh the page. This poll will be very skewed if the system doesn’t allow some people to add titles. So far, many of titles are merely “popular right now” docs, and this disturbs me. It would be nice to know that people are being thoughtful about their submissions and considering their breadth of knowledge on the issue (“greatest” or “most influential” does not equal “docs you like” or “docs you saw recently and enjoyed”). It seems that the newly added films, because they are kept at the bottom of the list, are likely to be seen by far fewer people than the ones on the top that have been there longer to collect more views and more votes. Could you please consider a fairer organizing principle? Also, Grin without a Cat is on there twice.

    • Tina Fernandez

      I agree. I have tried posting “I Met with An Accident”. I still don’t see it.

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  • Christ

    Lists like this are idiotic.

  • MEGAN

    VOTE FOR LIPSTICK&DYNAMITE (2005) ! OR ALMA (1999) GREAT DOC’S

  • Mellifluous

    Miss Representation should be on this list.

  • slt

    I tried to add another documentary, but I can’t see that it was added.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Richard-Green/1533204649 Richard Green

    Buena Vista Social Club is the greatest doc of all time.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Richard-Green/1533204649 Richard Green

    Someone please enter Buena Vista Social Club for me as I am unable to do so because the buttons to vote and enter remain unresponsive. Thank you.

  • http://twitter.com/ripzip Elizabeth Thompson

    Seriously?? You have Katy Perry and Justin Bieber listed but not The World at War?? Yeesh.

  • http://www.facebook.com/pam.whitworth.5 Pam Whitworth

    TRIAGE..great documentary!

  • Traveled

    Many I’m not seeing here, and can’t add
    Ballet Russes (2005)
    Henri Langlois: The Phantom of the Cinematheque (2004)

    Manufactured Landscapes (2006)
    My Best Fiend (1999)
    Legendary Sin Cities (2005)
    An Unreasonable Man (2006)
    My Architect (2003)
    The Real Dirt on Farmer John (2005)
    these are just a few that I think are great

  • http://www.facebook.com/katherine.simpson.370 Katherine Simpson

    I’d like to nominate the 2007 PBS documentary WATER FLOWING TOGETHER, filmmaker Gwendolen Cates, about the life of JOCK SOTO the Navaho dancer legendary dancer with the New York City Ballet. Like others in this blog, I can not figure out how to nominate the film and will appreciate your help, Kathy Simpson

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  • Peter Steven

    The Man With The Movie Camera

  • lacorralez

    I’ve tried to voting for Paris is Burning, but nothing happened when I clicked. What’s up? Am I doing something wrong?

  • Kim Clay

    The Last Truck Closing of a GM Plant (2009) HBO

  • http://www.facebook.com/tiarra.weldon Tiarra Wade

    Paris Is Burning is everything

  • http://www.facebook.com/veronica.klaus Veronica Klaus

    What about Jazz On A Summer’s Day by Bert Stern in ’59 or ’60???? I won’t vote for any list that doesn’t include it!

  • http://www.facebook.com/torvilshot Torvil Schottenhauffen

    where is “Shoah”??

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  • A Gay

    Paris is Burning… serving you documentary realness.

  • Guest

    If you’re not voting for Paris Is Burning…What is wrong with you, are you going through it? You’re going through some kind of psychological change in your life? You went back to being a man? Touch this skin, darling, touch this skin honey, touch all of this skin! Okay? You just can’t take it! You’re just an overgrown orangutan!

  • movielover

    What is the difference between ranking and votes? I would think they are the same. A shame to see some movies with a lot of votes so far down on the list. Doesn’t seem fail at all.

    • Anonymous

      Ranking is based on an algorithm that helps prevent ballot stuffing from becoming a way to put a doc at the top. The algorithm also takes into account the “competition” the doc faces (if a film enters the list later than others, obviously it is at a disadvantage).

      Sorting by votes just places the docs based on the number of votes they have received.

      Hope this helps clear it up!

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  • wondering

    What is the difference between ranking and votes?

  • Dale

    clicking has no response..

  • Joe

    It’s not allowing us to add documentaries to this list. Several people just tried to add We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists. Is it blocking it for some reason?

    • Anonymous

      Once you suggest a title to be added, it has to be verified before it is added. It will not show up immediately, but it will make its way there. We promise!

      • Joe

        This isn’t working. It has been days, this doc has been everywhere this year, top festivals, won awards, what needs to be verified?

        • http://www.facebook.com/david.vantaylor David Van Taylor

          so the hacktivists can’t hack their way onto POV’s list? c’mon guys, get hacking!

  • Doug

    I don’t tweet so apparently I can’t vote. How about “The Selling Of The Pentagon?” It was so powerful that you can’t find it, or any evidence of it, any more.

    • http://www.facebook.com/elizabeth.mcmahon Elizabeth McMahon

      The New York Public Library has it on 16mm, as well as “The Rebuttal to ‘The Making of The Selling of The Pentagon.’”

  • Gretchen

    Southern Comfort (2001) Please add the film (I can’t see where to do that). It wonderfully opens up and transforms the attitudes of my students about transgendered people.

  • Juliagreer

    I made sure cookies are enabled and I still can’t vote — nothing happens when I click the “thumbs up.” Any more ideas?

  • Jay Stempl

    An inconvenient truth is on this list? Bye.

  • the office cat

    Do Documentary series count? If so, I’d nominate The World at War 26 parts produced by Jeremy Isaacs for Thames Televsion, London, UK widely seen in the USA

  • riromi

    Why is The Business of Being Born not in chronological order on the list????

  • VenusSisInLaw

    PARIS IS BURNING! In loving memory of Venus! We love and miss you everyday!

  • TLF

    Disappointing to see that “Shoah” has so few votes.

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  • F4AFilms

    why don’t added film titles show up? is there another way to do this?

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  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Richard-Iaconelli/100001964317607 Richard Iaconelli

    Idiotic. Where is Kevin Brownlow’s “Hollywood?” It is BY FAR the greatest documentary film ever made. 13 parts, 12 hours, made for public television in 1980.

  • Guest

    How are the documentaries ranked?

    • Anonymous

      Ranking is based on an algorithm that helps prevent ballot stuffing from becoming a way to put a doc at the top. The algorithm also takes into account the “competition” the doc faces (if a film enters the list later than others, obviously it is at a disadvantage).

      Sorting by votes just places the docs based on the number of votes they have received.

      Hope this helps clear it up!

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  • PBsSir

    Spellbound! This little docu about the national spelling opened my eyes to what docs could do. It inspired at least a dozen copycat docs that follows kids or people in the same format. But this first one here is and was the best. Moving, funny and gave me great insight into America.

  • Roe

    “In Whose Honor?” got my vote!

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Linda-M-Black-Ochsenbein/1621221094 Linda M Black-Ochsenbein

    I added two, but can’t see them to vote on them. “Bukowski: Born Into This” and “The Eyes of Tammy Faye”; I hope they show up before voting is over.
    –incidentally, one thing this voting list is good for is finding the names of documentaries I missed!

  • http://www.facebook.com/robb.mitchell Robb Mitchell

    I blink response would be “The Sorrow and the Pity” by Marcel Ophüls but I would also add “F for Fake” by Orson Wells from 1973.

  • Austin Sierra Club

    How do I get the Austin, Texas 12/12/12 screening of “Sushi: the Global Catch” on the map of showings near you? http://tugg.com/events/2242

  • Marit

    If you are talking about best documentaries of ALL time: why are there so few listings of films from before 2000? What about a century of brilliant documentary filmmaking that precedes this? From Vertov, to East Europe during the cold war, to the NFB, to the French New Wave, and what about all the great Americans, Flaherty, Pennebaker, Leacock, Wiseman, de Antonio, Mekas, etc etc- argh! This list better expand before the vote…

  • Ethan Vesely-Flad

    It’s a brand-new doc, which hasn’t yet had major distribution, but I hope you’ll take a look at including the festival award-winning film “Doin’ It In the Park”: http://www.facebook.com/doinitinthepark

  • Ethan Vesely-Flad

    Other excellent docs missing from this list and worth inclusion: “Breath Control: The History of the Human Beat Box”; “Jimmy Carter: Man From Plains”; “Traces of the Trade”; “Have You Heard From Johannesburg?”; “Thelonius Monk: Straight No Chaser”

  • CourtMonty

    Paris Is Burning

  • emeraldlizard

    “The Thin Blue Line” still haunts me, as does, “There’s Something Wrong With Aunt Diane.” Also, anything by Wiseman!

  • Michael Vidargas

    Good luck Robbin

  • UnbiasedEye

    I have a question. I recall watching a multi-part documentary on television, probably in the late 90s, on the movie business. There were interviews on all facets of the business. I particularly recall a segment on the trials and tribulations of screen writers. Does anyone know the name of this, and where it appeared, and whether it’s on DVD?

  • http://www.facebook.com/BurleyBT Burent Thomas

    War paint…… i dig that one, is it on there

  • http://www.facebook.com/BurleyBT Burent Thomas

    Cocaine Cowboys

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  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Cheryl-Oakley/100003345022219 Cheryl Oakley

    This list is lacking a lot of good documentaries.

    http://documentarylovers.com/films/