The 25 “Greatest” Documentaries of All Time

We asked fans of POV to help us find the "greatest" documentaries of all time, and this is what we found...

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1. Grey Gardens

Grey Gardens (1975)

Filmmakers: Ellen Hovde, Albert Maysles, David Maysles, Muffie Meyer

View the Top 100 and analysis »

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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.
  • Mel

    Can you please not spread these out on 25 different web pages?

  • Michael Troudt

    Typically biased list from people who have no perspective on which docs are “great.” It should be called The Most Popular Documentaries of all time…

    • Nic

      Which, if any would you define as “great” and why (not)?

      • Rollins

        Honestly, the idea that Fahrenheit 9/11 (a piece about Michael Moore’s OPINIONS on the state of the union) is ranked higher than Woodstock (an OBJECTIVE Piece about an event that occurred) is enough, and I haven’t even gotten through the whole list. Honestly there is no such thing as running a vote like this and not having it end up as a popularity contest, but if you were to ask anyone who regularly watches, creates, and enjoys documentaries, this list would contain more “pure” documentaries and less “the facts through my eyes” docs. Ken Burns is an excellent example of a true documentarian. Moore less so.

        • SheriShirey

          There is no such thing as objectivity in human communication. All film editors make choices, and those choices reflect their point of view and reveal their intended audience.

        • James Bearclaw Lewis

          I’d argue that’s because Moore is a polemist. The idea is to confront, and epistemic surplus is generated from it, rather than by it.

    • WhoaPeople

      But wouldn’t you argue that if enough of an audience thought these docs were powerful enough to be put in this poll, then they would be worth watching?

    • Shawn Wallwork

      Or 100 Most Popular Documentaries of This Moment!

  • Radiohead93

    Best Worst Movie should be on here! :D

  • pcford

    Iraq in Fragments?

  • t
  • Greggory Moore

    It’s a great list. But the fact that it lacks _DiG!_ and yet includes _Madonna: Truth or Dare_ is just sad.

    • topdog


  • Cindy Torrey-Brown

    I can’t believe you didn’t include EARTHLINGS!!!

    • gforge

      Maybe it’s not a documentary. Could be included in the top 100 misrepresented snuff films though

  • DSanh

    I refuse to read anything spread across several pages. It’s a stupid way to generate revenue and hit stats.

  • bsengel1

    Lots of great choices, but my favorite, Etre Et Avoir, is missing!

  • tc

    safe very safe and out of order

  • Adam

    Atrocious. Michael Moore’s movies, while great, are far from documenting reality. Roger and Me, which is fantastic, is based on a clearly documented falsity. Then Enron?! Why?! it’s good, but there aren’t better documentaries out there?! Please revise this list or rename it “MY SHAMELESS LIBERAL LIBRARY”.

    • Madam

      Only if you rename yourself “MY IGNORANT OPINION”

  • Rich Monreal

    Why wouldn’t “Dear Zachary: A Letter To A Son About His Father” not make this list? It was extremely powerful and hands down the one that really got to me the most.

    • scalfc99


    • Gary Gray

      Rich…I read this comment and had never heard of Dear Zachary…so I went to youtube and watched it. I’m an emotional wreck and it has changed my life forever. Thanks for writing this. Everyone should do the same; it will change your life.

      • Rich Monreal

        Awesome to hear Gary. I’m so glad someone else was able to view this doc.
        I will say one great thing about this post. I’m getting a lot of ideas to watch some of these documentaries I’ve never heard about before.

        • Daria Milian

          Hey Rich, I just looked at the whole list(100) and your movie is #76. :) Can’t wait to see it!!

        • Anonymous

          Rich I also watched Zachary and wow. Just wow.

  • Glenn Washington

    I am very disappointed that Four Little Girls is not listed on the top 100. Spike Lee’s documentary was excellent and deserves recognition on this list.

  • Brian Holder

    Where is LOOSE CHANGE?

    • kid professor

      Loose Change isn’t a documentary. But then again, neither is Fahrenheit 9-11

  • pop2cas

    Final Offer… A Canadian film is gripping insight into labor negotiations

  • Keith Clemons

    This should be looked at in its proper context – not as a carefully assembled ranking from a committee of film professionals, but rather as its intro makes clear, simply submissions by fans of POV of their own personal favorites from whatever it is that they have seen. I would guess that most, if not all of them, are probably worth seeing at least once.

  • jailbee

    I didn’t see “Best Boy”.

  • Ron Williams

    Totally unbelievable – “Nanook of the North” at 43 and “Night Mail” unlisted. Parochial and ahistoric.

  • doug miller

    How can anyone take a list seriously that doesn’t include The Sorrow and the Pity, or ANYTHING by Ophuls or Flaherty??!! This list should be titled “Docs I recently saw and sorta remember”.

  • Liz

    A downloadable PDF of this list would be nice…

  • shiloh376

    Best comment was that this is simply a list people’s favorites. Here are a few of mine that didn’t make this particular list. Murder On A Sunday Morning, The Staircase, Young At Heart, The Devil Came On Horseback, Paperclips, Four Little Girls, The Pixar Story, and on and on.

  • Anonymous

    “One Day in September”, a documentary about the 1972 Munich Olympic Games terror attack, deserves to be on this list.

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  • Matthew L Wallis

    I was going to read this article but since you spread it out to 29 pages… nope.

  • omubriosa

    The power oh nightmare, century of self, the trap? These are way better than any on the list, and paint a economic and political image of US society way better than moore documentaries, but somehow are left out. Yea, a shitty list indeed. Plus supersize me is bullshit.

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  • paul

    forgot “crazy love”. a masterpiece

  • Anthony Miller

    Control Room, Wall (Mur).

  • Guest


  • mike

    The 25 “Greatest” Documentaries of All Time
    … so glad the editors put greatest in inverted commas – thus taken with the very large bag of salt it merits….does reveal an awful lot about the ‘international’ reach of POV though…

  • Damn Annoying

    POV has made my Top most annoying web pages of all time.. with this compilation.

  • John

    Catfish and Madonna? Riiiiiiiiiiight.

    • John

      I of course, was looking at the list of the Top 100.

    • PeachyBreyer

      Couldn’t agree more.

  • Craig Corpora

    Dear POV Staff, “F for Fake” is not a documentary.

  • cpierre

    I think ” When the Leevees Broke and Four Little Girls- should have been included. I can’t believe you would not included Spike Lee films.

  • Pete

    What about Civilization? Life in the Undergrowth? The Ascent of Man? And Cosmos at #73? Planet Earth at #32? The Artistocrats made the list?! And beat out The Interrupters?! Yikes.

  • Colin McAndrew

    Where on earth are One Day In September and The Rape of Europa?!?!

  • TornadoAlli

    No “Between the Folds”??!!

  • Karen Sch

    I can’t believe “Engineering an Empire” and “Besieged Fortress” and especially “Wild America” (a PBS series!) were not on this list! My heart weeps! At least a few I really like made it, though, and now I’ve got lots to look for at the library.

  • Javier

    Well to me the most glaring omission is the Michael Apted 7 Up, 14 Up, 21 Up series.

    • PeachyBreyer

      It’s #13!

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  • Scaliger

    This is totally biased to and by people who are under a certain age and who do not have the perspective of cinema history. Many of these are indeed great; some less so. But the great ones of a more distant past are missing.

  • Thomas

    I haven’t even heard of about 20 of these. And to have not even mentioned the BBC’s “World at War” documentary series is just ignorant.

  • chipOwood

    Totally biased! Jurassic Park and Blair Witch Project didn’t make the cut. I do agree with the top two, but there are holes all in this list.

  • rubba

    Wow POV fans. Great list but no “Senna” in the top 100? He’s only the most beloved athlete in the world’s no. 2 sport.

  • John

    It was an interesting list. I can’t say it would my list but then again I didn’t vote for these documentaries.

  • Richard W. Honoski


  • Anonymous

    I bookmarked this page so I can watch the docs recommended by the commenters!!! Thanks!!!

  • Clint

    I’m fine with this being spread about several pages, but how is Dear Zachary not at the top?!

  • JTA

    Salesman was #20? are you kidding me?
    Should be in the top 5

  • Jules

    Wow, where are all of Ken Burns’ and Ric Burns’ films? I see Civil War, but where is Jazz, Baseball, NYC, The West, Brooklyn Bridge? Documentary film now has it’s own sub-genres within it, there are the true doc pieces that the Burns’ Brothers put out, then there are the opinion documentaries which are more the Michael Moore style. (Kind of how news has changed too, there isn’t much straight news on tv anymore, the talking heads on cable are just opinions and often inaccurate, ie rachael maddow, bill o’reilly, and people think they are the real news instead of spewed biased opinions. So I guess what I am saying is take the list with a grain of salt. Grey Gardens at the top tho? What? Seriously? I have seen a good amount of these films and some bored the heck out of me and some really tugged at me emotionally and sensibly (Jesus Camp scared the crap out of me)
    Anyway, I don’t think this is an all encompassing list. We should just all make our own top 25 lists and be done with it. (my list would include some of these, but also just about any Burns’ film and Forks Over Knives)

  • SLL

    I would love a gift set for a holiday gift. Can they only be bought individually?

  • james

    wow…somebody needs to watch CBC’s The Passionate Eye……

  • meme

    Eye on the prize is too far down. Insulting

  • Joel

    Missing IMO: American Movie, Queen of Versailles, Camp Jesus

  • Luke McGuire

    American Movie is not a documentary.

    • Luke McGuire

      its in doc format but it is a comedy, a mockumentary as they say. and where’s this is spinal tap?

      • Micah Joseph Loving

        what does it matter if it is comedy based? a mockumentary is when its all actors pretending to be in a documentary, i dont think you understand what a mockumentary is

    • Micah Joseph Loving

      lol whut?

  • Danica

    I agree, spreading these out is annoying…nope, not gonna bother.

  • Celeste Dani Campbell

    I’m surprised “Being Elmo” didn’t make the list…

  • jrlexjr

    Best Boy?? Probably my favorite. Wasn’t That a Time? Possibly best music documentary.

    • jennywren1420

      Oh, yes, and “Being Elmo, too!

  • ChgoGal

    Consider us to be literate, and provide a list.

  • Abby Grace

    I hate guns! But Bowling for Columbine was propaganda not fact. Same is said for POV.

  • Trevor Polas

    Did Michael Moore comprise this? His films are not very good.

  • Noel E. PARMENTEL Jr

    to POV re: “The (your) 25 ‘Greatest’ Documentaries of All Time”.
    your top 25 list held three places for the likes of Michael Moore ,
    couldn’t help noticing there was no sign of Robert Flaherty;Ricky
    Leacock or D.A. Pennebaker. Ho Ho. Me no get Western joke.
    s/ Noel E. PARMENTEL Jr / NoelJr@OptOnline.Net / 12-14-12

    • Anonymous

      Thanks Noel… I was shocked too. xx

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  • Neil Bigmista Strawder

    What? No Ken Burns: Jazz or Smokestack Lightning by Lolis Eric Elie? I’m out.

  • Shawn Wallwork

    Edward R. Morrow’s Harvest of Shame doesn’t make this list? That’s like leaving Citizen Kane off the Best 100 Films list. Incredible.

  • sarafenix

    Genghis Blues — Mongolian Throat singing documentary…excellent!

  • Lefty

    Where is Young at Heart?

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  • Ross Tyler

    How about a documentary on how lazy humanity has become that they’re not willing to skim through pages on a website for some information. Imagine once people had to walk to the library of video store and borrow and rent things!

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  • Not DSanh

    seriously, you’re going to complain that these are too spread out so you won’t look at them? Can’t click an arrow? I didn’t know people like you watched documentaries..


    You have to remember that these are results from a survey. I’m sure a vote from the staff at POV would look a little different.

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  • Anonymous

    For the documentaries “Primary” and “Crisis” by my father Richard Leacock and Robert Drew (and D.A. Pennebaker and Albert Maysles) not to even be in the top 100 – when they should both be in the top 10 – is shocking to me. They invented handheld non scripted documentaries with “primary” – I guess this should really be a popularity contest and called as much. And my father’s “Happy Mother’s Day” is an American classic and should be shown on POV if many seem to have not seen it. That is also a profoundly influential film. And perhaps “Toby and the Tall Corn” of my father’s and also “Jazz Dance” which my father shot for Roger Tilson. Anyway – just had to say this.

    Best, Victoria Leacock Hoffman

  • Anonymous

    ffs i have to cache 30 odd pages? why dont you just list them. 1 page load and you dont piss off your visitors… then perhaps they might return.

  • tppatriot

    I don’t know what I love the most, the fact that people are to stupid to see the the ‘see all these on one page’ link. Or the fact that they’re complaining of the content of the list when it’s stated that: “We asked fans of POV to help us find the “greatest” documentaries of all time, and this is what we found…”

    Ignorance of people online is astounding, someone should make a documentary about it.


    so relieved you included ‘Fast Cheap and Out of Control’ I loved the heart of this, how it was presented. Really fascinating. Our world is a better place because of people like them.

  • Jamie

    Here’s a website to help ease the frustration of this 29 page article

  • Cheryl Oakley

    I would check out for top films.

  • Pete and Repete

    WHY are there no Adam Curtis documentaries? He makes thee best documentaries I have ever seen such as ‘All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace’, ‘Century of the Self’ and ‘The Power of Nightmares’, utterly SUPREME documentaries, all written and directed by Curtis as well as the Voice Over.

  • Will McLane

    I must speak for “The World at War”, created by Jeremy Isaacs, produced by Thames Television, and originally broadcast by ITV in the UK in 1973-1974. It is a masterpiece and should be in the Top 5, if not number one. I daresay it will be remembered centuries from now, which cannot be said about any but a few of the others in this Top 100.

    • Andy Harris

      I’d put it in the top 5 just for the haunting theme music and Olivier’s narration. It cannot be made now because virtually everyone who was interviewed has now passed away.

  • Micah Joseph Loving

    a joke of a list. they just crammed in a bunch of semi popular modern docs to make 100. no hands on a hard body says it all.

  • Anonymous

    I don’t consider Michael Moore’s movies as documentaries anymore. He fabricates too much. He himself says they’re not even documentaries.

    • rgray222

      Moore admits his “films” are not documentaries. He admits they are slanted to achieve a political point and he even admits that he is a part of the 1%. If I want to watch a politically slanted information I just need to turn on the mainstream media news.

      • PeachyBreyer

        You mean like FOX News?

        • rgray222

          No I really do mean like Moore! These are his words, he openly claims that his ‘films’ are politically slanted and motivated. Therefore they are not completely honest. He also openly admits he is part of the 1% who is says is a big part of the problem in America.

          Now, we do know one thing, if someone makes a comment like your about Fox then they have been influenced by the mainstream media. The mainstream media tells people like you what to think, what to protest, when to complain and even what networks to watch. The mainstream media is no longer a source for news, they are a source for slanted politics, unreliable news and a source for people that are too lazy to think for themselves!

  • Anonymous

    A known, fake, propaganda film like that Al Gore POS beats out Woodstock? For Real???

    • PeachyBreyer

      Known fake? I think the extreme weather conditions in the years since AIT was released only prove the film’s concept. It was freezing & snowing today… in L.A. This is the first year in all recorded weather history that Anchorage, Alaska’s temps did NOT go below zero. Polar glaciers are receding faster than expected. And that’s just the news from this week. Climate change is all too real & fossil fuels HAVE to go if we are to pull ourselves out of very likely destruction, says the scientific community.

  • Niklas Olsson

    “Vernon, Florida” (1981) by Errol Morris, “For All Mankind” (1989) by Al Reinert, “Triangle of Death” (1990) by Jerzy Sladkowski and should have made this list.

  • JNM

    What about Shoah for top place?

  • Anonymous

    Composed of 6 parts and topping in at 9 hours, Evidence of Revision is perhaps the best assemblage of historical audio, video, and film footage illuminating the power of business interests and elected officials to execute their agendas while shaping the official narrative of some of the United States’ most controversial events of the 20th century. Highly recommended.

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  • Marilyn Ferdinand

    Michael Moore is the worst documentarian to ever hold a camera. The fact that all his movies are on this list only goes to show that a lot of people have no idea what makes a good documentary.

    • hardy

      Where ‘Roger and me’ is concerned I’d strongly disagree. His politics are bogus and hes is merely milking Roger and me.
      But that documentary is an engaging piece on the human condition.

      • JSC1227

        I believe all of the negative posts for michael moore documentaries are trolls who get paid by the medical and monsanto and other evil corporations only focused on profit. You find this same nut cases arguing 180 degrees different than the concensus on bill moyer episodes. I wish these misinformed lying folks will go back to fox news and russ limbaugh lies where they belong. Michael moore did america a great service by exposing all the corporate greed in our economy.

        • Ali

          An andequate theory, but ask yourself this. what solution does he hold to any of these views he puts forth. I believe it is the social system itself which creates all of the issues across all aspects of the globe. The only way to combat this is to seek an alternative system. my advice would be watch the zietgiest movies.

    • Jim Bunion

      His is a POS liar.

  • truckproductions

    Wow my list would look very similar

  • Jim Bunion

    Except the Liberal POS Moore is scum and so is Al Gwhore.

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  • Nicole

    I didn’t vote. But would have voted for ” The Fog of War” Glad to see it on this list.

  • steve

    some of them are in my list..

  • Maria

    The one doc from this year that needs to join this list is THE ACT OF KILLING, amazing!

  • refriedfood

    Grey Gardens… really? Grey… Gardens… number 1. Okay.

  • jeand

    I’d add Two Days in October and The Roosevelts.

  • Karelle McCabe Downen

    I definitely agree with Grey Gardens as #1…loved it, watched it many times.

  • jscott07

    Wow you have what 3 michael moore films, a film about a guy eating McDonalds for a month, and one about a dysfunctional family, yet not one Ken Burns or George C. Stoney documentaries. I don’t find that this list is valid. It appears to be created by those who really have no idea what makes a documentary great. This list is rather embarrassing and offensive and hopefully those who created it will have their intellect mature over time. Right now the logic is frankly, immature. Sad.

    • Matt Wood

      here’s to “maturing intellect” and the forbearance to suffer the “offense” of a list someone posted on the internet with grace. we all have room to grow I suppose.

  • Diane Reaves

    Just one Ken Burns on there – very surprised.

  • Docusnob

    A lot of these were made in the last decade. Some bias towards NYC dudes directors, I think? Geeshh…