Images of 'great' documentaries, as chosen by fans of POV

Which documentary came out on top?

In November 2012, POV asked its viewers, “What do you think are the greatest documentaries of all time?” Viewers were allowed to define “greatest” however they wished, whether that meant the most expertly crafted, influential, illuminating, impactful, form-defining, beloved or those that were the most successful at the box office. After 30 days of voting on over 1000 submissions, these 25 came out on top. How many have you seen?

Get started with #25 »

Or view the Top 100 on a single page »

25. Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room

Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005)

Filmmaker: Alex Gibney

24. Woodstock

Woodstock (1970)

Filmmaker: Michael Wadleigh

23. Fahrenheit 9/11

Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004)

Filmmaker: Michael Moore

22. Super Size Me

Super Size Me (2004)

Filmmaker: Morgan Spurlock

21. Man With a Movie Camera (Chelovek s Kino-Apparatom)

Man With a Movie Camera (Chelovek s Kino-Apparatom) (1929)

Filmmaker: Dziga Vertov

20. Salesman

Salesman (1968)

Filmmakers: Albert Maysles, David Maysles, Charlotte Zwerin

19. An Inconvenient Truth

An Inconvenient Truth (2006)

Filmmaker: Davis Guggenheim

18. King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters

King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2007)

Filmmaker: Seth Gordon

17. Food, Inc.

Food, Inc. (2008)

Filmmaker: Robert Kenner

16. Jesus Camp

Jesus Camp (2006)

Filmmakers: Heidi Ewing, Rachel Grady

15. Crumb

Crumb (1994)

Filmmaker: Terry Zwigoff

14. Capturing the Friedmans

Capturing the Friedmans (2003)

Filmmaker: Andrew Jarecki

13. The Up Series

The Up Series (1964-)

Filmmakers: Paul Almond, Michael Apted

12. The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara

The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara (2003)

Filmmaker: Errol Morris

11. Man on Wire

Man on Wire (2008)

Filmmaker: James Marsh

10. Exit Through the Gift Shop

Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010)

Filmmaker: Banksy

9. Roger & Me

Roger & Me (1989)

Filmmaker: Michael Moore

8. Grizzly Man

Grizzly Man (2005)

Filmmaker: Werner Herzog

7. The Times of Harvey Milk

The Times of Harvey Milk (1984)

Filmmaker: Rob Epstein

6. Harlan County, USA

Harlan County, USA (1976)

Filmmaker: Barbara Kopple

5. Bowling for Columbine

Bowling for Columbine (2002)

Filmmaker: Michael Moore

4. The Thin Blue Line

The Thin Blue Line (1988)

Filmmaker: Errol Morris

3. Hoop Dreams

Hoop Dreams (1994)

Filmmaker: Steve James

2. Paris is Burning

Paris is Burning (1990)

Filmmaker: Jennie Livingston

1. Grey Gardens

Grey Gardens (1975)

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

View the Top 100 and analysis »

The 100 “Greatest” Documentaries

In November 2012, POV asked its viewers, “What do you think are the greatest documentaries of all time?” Viewers were allowed to define “greatest” however they wished, whether that meant the most expertly crafted, influential, illuminating, impactful, form-defining, beloved or simply those that were the most successful at the box office. After 30 days of voting on over 1000 submissions, these 100 came out on top. How many have you seen?

  1. Grey Gardens (Ellen Hovde, Albert Maysles, David Maysles, Muffie Meyer, 1975)
  2. Paris is Burning (Jennie Livingston, 1990)
  3. Hoop Dreams (Steve James, 1994)
  4. The Thin Blue Line (Errol Morris, 1988)
  5. Bowling for Columbine (Michael Moore, 2002)
  6. Harlan County, USA (Barbara Kopple, 1976)
  7. The Times of Harvey Milk (Rob Epstein, 1984)
  8. Grizzly Man (Werner Herzog, 2005)
  9. Roger & Me (Michael Moore, 1989)
  10. Exit Through the Gift Shop (Banksy, 2010)
  11. Man on Wire (James Marsh, 2008)
  12. The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara (Errol Morris, 2003)
  13. The Up Series (Paul Almond, Michael Apted, 1964-)
  14. Capturing the Friedmans (Andrew Jarecki, 2003)
  15. Crumb (Terry Zwigoff, 1994)
  16. Jesus Camp (Heidi Ewing, Rachel Grady, 2006)
  17. Food, Inc. (Robert Kenner, 2008)
  18. King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (Seth Gordon, 2007)
  19. An Inconvenient Truth (Davis Guggenheim, 2006)
  20. Salesman (Albert Maysles, David Maysles, Charlotte Zwerin, 1968)
  21. Man With a Movie Camera (Chelovek s Kino-Apparatom) (Dziga Vertov, 1929)
  22. Super Size Me (Morgan Spurlock, 2004)
  23. Fahrenheit 9/11 (Michael Moore, 2004)
  24. Woodstock (Michael Wadleigh, 1970)
  25. Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (Alex Gibney, 2005)
  26. American Movie (Chris Smith, 1999)
  27. Night and Fog (Nuit et brouillard) (Alain Resnais, 1955)
  28. The Civil War (Ken Burns, 1990)
  29. March of the Penguins (Luc Jacquet, 2005)
  30. Titicut Follies (Frederick Wiseman, 1967)
  31. Sherman’s March (Ross McElwee, 1986)
  32. Planet Earth (Alastair Fothergill, 2006)
  33. Eyes on the Prize (Henry Hampton, 1987)
  34. Religulous (Larry Charles, 2008)
  35. The Last Waltz (Martin Scorsese, 1978)
  36. Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (Joe Berlinger, Bruce Sinofsky, 1996)
  37. Spellbound (Jeffrey Blitz, 2002)
  38. Born into Brothels (Zana Briski, Ross Kauffman, 2004)
  39. Dogtown and Z-Boys (Stacy Peralta, 2001)
  40. Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse (Fax Bahr, George Hickenlooper, Eleanor Coppola, 1991)
  41. Koyaanisqatsi (Godfrey Reggio, 1982)
  42. The Cove (Louie Psihoyos, 2009)
  43. Nanook of the North (Robert J. Flaherty, 1922)
  44. The Corporation (Jennifer Abbott, Mark Achbar, 2003)
  45. The Celluloid Closet (Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman, 1995)
  46. Buena Vista Social Club (Wim Wenders, 1998)
  47. Sicko (Michael Moore, 2007)
  48. Waltz with Bashir (Ari Folman, 2008)
  49. Gimme Shelter (Albert Maysles, David Maysles, Charlotte Zwerin, 1970)
  50. Stop Making Sense (Jonathan Demme, 1984)
  51. Shoah (Claude Lanzmann, 1985)
  52. When We Were Kings (Leon Gast, 1996)
  53. Who Killed the Electric Car? (Chris Paine, 2006)
  54. Inside Job (Charles Ferguson, 2010)
  55. Hearts and Minds (Peter Davis, 1974)
  56. Murderball (Henry Alex Rubin, Dana Adam Shapiro, 2005)
  57. The Gleaners & I (Agnès Varda, 2000)
  58. Restrepo (Tim Hetherington, Sebastian Junger, 2010)
  59. Bill Cunningham New York (Richard Press, 2010)
  60. Sans Soleil (Sunless) (Chris Marker, 1983)
  61. Dont Look Back (DA Pennebaker, 1967)
  62. Touching the Void (Kevin Macdonald, 2003)
  63. Everyday Sunshine: The Story of Fishbone (Lev Anderson, Chris Metzler, 2010)
  64. Baraka (Ron Fricke, 1992)
  65. This Film Is Not Yet Rated (Kirby Dick, 2006)
  66. Tongues Untied (Marlon Riggs, 1989)
  67. Brother’s Keeper (Joe Berlinger, Bruce Sinofsky, 1992)
  68. High School (Frederick Wiseman, 1968)
  69. F for Fake (Orson Welles, 1973)
  70. Capitalism: A Love Story (Michael Moore, 2009)
  71. Dark Days (Marc Singer, 2000)
  72. Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Werner Herzog, 2010)
  73. Cosmos (Adrian Malone, 1980)
  74. Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father (Kurt Kuenne, 2008)
  75. Helvetica (Gary Hustwit, 2007)
  76. Why We Fight (Eugene Jarecki, 2005)
  77. Winged Migration (Jacques Perrin, Jacques Cluzaud, Michel Debats, 2002)
  78. The Aristocrats (Paul Provenza, 2005)
  79. Last Train Home (Lixin Fan, 2009)
  80. The Atomic Cafe (Jayne Loader, Kevin Rafferty, Pierce Rafferty, 1982)
  81. Jiro Dreams of Sushi (David Gelb, 2011)
  82. Wordplay (Patrick Creadon, 2006)
  83. Burden of Dreams (Les Blank, 1982)
  84. Monterey Pop (D.A. Pennebaker, 1968)
  85. The Battle of Chile (Patricio Guzman , 1975-1979)
  86. The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill (Judy Irving, 2003)
  87. Gasland (Josh Fox, 2010)
  88. The Interrupters (Steve James, 2011)
  89. Catfish (Henry Joost, Ariel Schulman, 2010)
  90. The Endless Summer (Bruce Brown, 1966)
  91. Marwencol (Jeff Malmberg, 2010)
  92. If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front (Marshall Curry, 2011)
  93. Triumph of the Will (Triumph des Willens) (Leni Riefenstahl, 1934)
  94. King Corn (Aaron Woolf, 2007)
  95. Madonna: Truth or Dare (Alek Keshishian, 1991)
  96. No Direction Home: Bob Dylan (Martin Scorsese, 2005)
  97. Sweetgrass (Ilisa Barbash, Lucien Castaing-Taylor, 2009)
  98. The Kid Stays in the Picture (Nanette Burstein, Brett Morgen, 2002)
  99. The Decline of Western Civilization (Penelope Spheeris, 1981)
  100. Fast, Cheap and Out of Control (Errol Morris, 1997)

Next: Trivia from the “Greatest” Documentaries poll »

“Greatest” Documentaries Poll Trivia

Match the filmmaker to what they said about POV’s attempt to find the greatest documentary of all time.

1) “absurd”
2) “basically ridiculous”
3) “Borat”

a) Marshall Curry (Street Fight, If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front)
b) Errol Morris (The Fog of War, The Thin Blue Line)
c) David Van Taylor (A Perfect Candidate, Dream Deceivers)

Answers: 1a, 2c, 3b. Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line, another film that could be considered a hybrid documentary, finished 3rd in the poll.

How many documentaries were entered in the poll?

1082.

What was the highest ranking new film (with a 2012 release date)?

Searching for Sugar Man at #154 – POV’s uber-documentary fans added 45 films from 2012, some of which haven’t yet made it to video, and some cases even the theaters. As a side note, our aggregated list of the “best of the best” documentaries of 2012 has Marina Abramovi?: The Artist Is Present at No. 1 (as of December 3, 2012).

What was the oldest documentary in the list?

Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat – The 50-second long Lumiere Brothers film was first shown in 1896. It had too few votes (3) to give it a ranking in our 2012 poll.

Which documentary got the most votes?

Paris Is Burning (1549 votes) – The film finished in second place in the poll because the ranking algorithm takes more voting factors into account (see below). Here are the top 10 by votes:

  1. Paris is Burning (1990)
  2. Everyday Sunshine: The Story of Fishbone (2010)
  3. Bahrain: Shouting in the Dark (2011)
  4. Grey Gardens (1975)
  5. Stranger with a Camera (2000)
  6. Hoop Dreams (1994)
  7. Manda Bala (Send a Bullet) (2007)
  8. Harlan County, USA (1976)
  9. Give Up Tomorrow (2011)
  10. The Thin Blue Line (1988)

In a blind ballot of Top 10s, which film did POV’s Editorial Committee pick among its “greatest” documentaries more than any other?

The Thin Blue Line (Errol Morris, 1988) – POV’s Editorial Committee is an advisory board of independent filmmakers and public television representatives who assist POV in its broadcast programming. More trivia: Errol Morris’s Gates of Heaven aired as part of POV’s first season, on August 30, 1988, five days after the theatrical release of The Thin Blue Line.

Which filmmaker made the most appearances in the Top 100?

Michael Moore (5) – Albert Maysles, David Maysles and Errol Morris appeared three times, while Joe Berlinger, Rob Epstein, Steve James, Werner Herzog, DA Pennebaker, Martin Scorsese, Bruce Sinofsky, Frederick Wiseman and Charlotte Zwerin each appeared twice.

What was the highest-ranked non-American documentary?

The Up Series (#13) – In this case, a series of documentaries from the UK.

Images of 'great' documentaries, as chosen by fans of POV

Any surprises? New personal discoveries? Films that were completely overlooked? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.

A note on the methodology: What’s the difference between By Ranking and By Votes? “Votes” takes into account every “thumbs up” given to an entry in the poll. As you can imagine, this number can be can be manipulated — and it usually is. So, the poll filters out stuffed ballots and, along the same lines, gives less weight to a ballot that only has one vote. Also, because the poll is dynamic, with new films being added every day, new entries are given more credit because they face steeper competition. The result of all of these considerations is the “By Ranking” list.