This international list includes shorts and TV one-offs but excludes episodes of TV series (e.g. the excellent Nova, Frontline); this consists of Sight and Sound’s top 50 documentaries, with the rest drawn from critical/audience consensus. As a whole, compared with the A-list and B-list, one may notice better representation of women and persons of color, in front of and behind the camera, reflecting the documentary genre’s longtime concern with the dispossessed and disenfranchised.

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Link to Letterboxd version

D1. La Sortie de l’Usine Lumière à Lyon (Lumieres, 1895) imdb LB RT wiki
stream on youtube

In the 21st century, the legend of the 19th century’s most famous film has been debunked – it wasn’t first and it wasn’t singular (there were three versions of it) – but generations believed it to represent the birth of cinema, and that mattered; it was the first film of the first paid exhibition of moving pictures on December 28, 1895 in Paris; from the start, then, cinema was men showing women mostly to men

Influenced by: Lumiere brothers’ photography experiments; Edison, other innovators

Influenced: documentary enthusiasts who like to remind us that the first films were documentaries

D2. The Battle of the Somme (Jury, 1916) imdb LB RT wiki
stream on youtube

“Industrious French peasants continue their activities just outside the firing line. Care of artillery horses. The mascot of the royal artillery field caught in France.”

This was probably the first documentary feature film whose audience could be measured in the tens of millions, not least because it was quickly (and snappily) edited to screen to British citizens during the height of the Great War; this was one of the first films to demonstrate the range and power of feature-length propaganda

Influenced by: a lot of wartime “actualities” (not yet called documentaries)

Influenced: films like this set the standard for “actualities” until Robert Flaherty came along

D3. Nanook of the North (Flaherty, 1922) clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
stream on criterion

“As soon as I showed them some of the first results, Nanook and his crowd were completely won over.”

First famous non-fiction feature, responsible for popularizing its format in Europe and Russia; first famous film focused on persons of color; considered paradigmatic of “salvage ethnography”; its American director staged and shot years of footage of Inuks hunting, fishing, making igloos, nurturing children, and the like; the film made “Eskimos” into a 1920s’ sensation

Influenced by: some Orientalism; In the Land of the Head Hunters; Flaherty said “one often has to distort a thing in order to capture its true spirit”

Influenced: cannot be overstated – became known as the first documentary and the first ethnographic film (though it was neither), and validated slippage between fact and fiction

D4. Moana (Flaherty, 1926) clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
stream on youtube

“Among the islands of Polynesia there is one where the people still retain the spirit and nobility of their great race.”

First ethnographic feature made outside Canada; first film made in panchromatic B&W film; for a year, Flaherty shot and staged the rituals and practices of Polynesians (of Savai’i in Samoa); no less than John Grierson first used the word “documentary” in explaining and imitating this film, popularizing the term/concept, though this also became known as the first “docu-fiction” film

Influenced by: Flaherty’s success on Nanook

Influenced: documentary as a concept; ethnographic films; National Geographic; some of Disney’s Moana (2016)

D5. Chang: A Drama of the Wilderness (Cooper, Schoedsack, 1927) clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
stream on youtube

“Man, the intruder, came into the jungle…He fought it…He never vanquished it…For strong is the jungle.”

This film proved Flaherty’s template could be successfully deployed by other filmmakers and thus broadened the range and dimensions of cinematic ethnography, a practice that can be useful, illuminating and culture-preserving but can also be patronizing and prejudiced (and is known for staging and re-staging “real” scenes)

Influenced by: Flaherty’s success on Nanook and Moana

Influenced: views of Siam and Southeast Asia; these two directors became leaders of ethnographic films until they turned that knowledge to fiction with a rather influential movie called King Kong (1933)

D6. Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (Ruttman, 1927) clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
stream on amazon

“Hermanntietz: Grosse Bekleidungs-Woche”

Considered one of the first, and best, of the “city symphony films,” a brief mini-genre that emerged in the 1920s trying to show, without use of titles or traditional story tropes, the greatness of certain cities; this was already an excellent film but owes some of its later renown to the way it celebrates the mighty Berlin just before the Nazis remade it and, subsequently, the Allies destroyed it

Influenced by: other city films; Ruttman’s work in abstract (or “absolute”) cinema, although this is considered less abstract

Influenced: impressions of Berlin before, during, and after the Nazis; Man with a Movie Camera

D7. Man With a Movie Camera (Vertov, 1929) clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
stream on amazon

“This experimental work aims at creating a truly international language of cinema based on its absolute separation from the language of theater and literature.”

Universally considered to be the greatest documentary, this is actually more avant-garde than that honorific implies; ostensibly a “day in the life” of a then-modern Russian city, this film adroitly innovates and deploys multiple exposure, split screens, tracking shots, various cuts, slow and fast motion, and various modes of self-reflexivity

Influenced by: city films; Vertov’s wife Elizaveta Svilova edited it and probably deserves equal authorial credit

Influenced: “cinema vérité” was named after Vertov; considered a leading example of Pure Cinema; sometimes called Soviet propaganda

D8. Regen (Franken, Ivins, 1929) imdb LB RT wiki
stream on youtube

Like Man with a Movie Camera, this moved the “city symphony” genre toward something more abstract; unlike that predecessor, it concerns itself with the effect of rain on a city, and uses documentary footage to spin up something poetic and lyrical (without title cards); the footage is edited in a sort of perfect 14-minute harmony, evoking emotions

Influenced by: other city films; Ivens’ other work

Influenced: impressions of Amsterdam (in more ways than one); uses of rain in cinema; abstract and documentary work of the 1930s

D9. A propos de Nice (Vigo, 1930) clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
stream on criterion

This is one of the great “city films,” and the only one to combine the unique poetic realist skills of Jean Vigo with the fluid camerawork of Boris Kaufman; beginning with, and then subverting, the then-common travelogue approach, this film portrays Nice’s glamour but then winds up as a harsh critique of the city’s bourgeois and perhaps Nice itself

Influenced by: other city films, and Kaufman’s work in the Soviet Union

Influenced: more critical looks at cities

D10. Enthusiasm (Vertov, 1931) clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
stream on amazon

This, the first Russian sound film, is a ground-level and underground-level (coal mine) view of Stalin’s first Five-Year Plan and its machinations centered around Donbass; compared to Man with a Movie Camera, this is both more avant-garde and more propaganda for Soviet Communism, which makes for a fascinating and singular combination

Influenced by: Man with a Movie Camera; Stalin; again, Vertov’s wife Elizaveta Svilova edited and probably deserves equal authorial credit

Influenced: cinema vérité, named after Vertov

D11. Land Without Bread (Buñuel, 1932) clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
stream on youtube

“On the day of our arrival, we see the village women combing each other’s hair. They are dressed in their best clothes.”

Ten years after Nanook, documentary, ethnofiction, and travelogues were ready for a surrealist deconstruction, and Buñuel provided an exquisite one here, focusing on Las Hurdes, a region of Spain so remote that it lacks the technology to make bread; the narration intentionally describes extreme misery in a flat, uninterested manner

Influenced by: Un Chien Andalou and the avant-garde applied to documentary; cruelty to animals

Influenced: Buñuel’s point, that documentarians didn’t/don’t need to travel far to find the unknown, remains salient

D12. Man of Aran (Flaherty, 1934) clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
stream on criterion

“In this desperate environment the Man of Aran, because his independence is the most precious privilege he can win from life, fights for his existence, bare though it may be.”

This was known for decades as a seminal documentary, but is now considered ethnofiction, because the daily routines of these rural subjects of the Aran Islands (near Ireland) were not, in the 1930s, quite as pre-modern as depicted; however staged and ethnographic, this brought unprecedented grandeur and majesty to the sound documentary

Influenced by: Flaherty’s success on Nanook and Moana; perhaps Bunuel’s message was received in that Flaherty ventured less far afield

Influenced: established codes for sound documentaries for decades

D13. Triumph of the Will (Riefenstahl, 1934) clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
stream on amazon

“The documentary of the Reich Party Congress, 1934, produced by order of the Fuhrer”

Perhaps the most notorious of all “great” films, this propaganda film shows a Nazi rally in Nuremberg in 1934, using long focus lenses, aerial photography, moving cameras, and music to create a sense of historical grandeur; became the center of the debate over whether a superb film can promote evil

Influenced by: the Nazi party’s considerable resources and willingness to stage things

Influenced: debates about film morality; Star Wars; also, Riefenstahl spent two-thirds of the 20thcentury as its most celebrated female filmmaker

D14. Night Mail (Watt, Wright, 1936) clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
stream on amazon

“Sheep-dogs cannot turn her course;
They slumber on with paws across.
In the farm she passes no one wakes,
But a jug in a bedroom gently shakes.”

This is a 24-minute film about a train dedicated to carrying mail; while not directed by John Grierson, it is considered the best example of his U.K.-based Documentary Film Movement, which was both liberal and lyrical; this hymn to the efficiency of an on-time postal service, complete with poetry by W.H. Auden, seems veddy English

Influenced by: Watt and Wright were hired by Grierson, who coined the term “documentary” and worked to improve Britain through documentary education

Influenced: the UK’s image of itself; a mythology that probably descended to Thomas the Tank Engine

D15. The Plow That Broke the Plains (Lorentz, 1936) imdb LB RT wiki
stream on youtube

“By 1923, the old grasslands had become the new wheatlands. 100 million acres. 200 million acres! More wheat.”

President Franklin Roosevelt commissioned this propaganda which blamed 19th-century settlers and previous administrations for the Dust Bowl; this film, influenced by John Grierson and other British documentarists, was perceived as being on the side of the working classes and was probably the most important single American documentary film of the 1930s

Influenced by: the March of Time series; John Grierson 

Influenced: class consciousness in the 1930s

D16. Olympia (Riefenstahl, 1938)

D17. Listen to Britain (Jennings, 1942)

D18. Why We Fight: Prelude to War (Capra, 1943)

D19. The Negro Soldier (Heisler, 1944)

D20. A Diary for Timothy (Jennings, 1945)

D21. Blood of the Beasts (Franju, 1949)

D22. Helen Keller in Her Story (Hamilton, 1954)

D23. The Mad Masters (Rouch, 1955)

D24. Toute la memoire du monde (Resnais, 1956)

D25. Night and Fog (Resnais, 1956)

D26. On the Bowery (Rogosin, 1956)

D27. I, A Negro (Rouch, 1958)

D28. Primary (Drew, 1960)

D29. Chronicle of a Summer (Morin, Rouch, 1961)

D30. The House is Black (Farrozhad, 1963)

D31. Le Joli Mai (Marker, L’homme, 1963)

D32. Culloden (Watkins, 1964)

D33. The War Game (Watkins, 1965)

D34. The Eleanor Roosevelt Story (Kaplan, 1965)

D35. Unsere Afrikanreise (Kubelka, 1966)

D36. Dont Look Back (Pennebaker, 1967)

D37. Titicut Follies (Wiseman, 1967)

D38. Portrait of Jason (Clarke, 1967)

D39. High School (Wiseman, 1968)

D40. The Hour of the Furnaces (Solanas and Getino, 1968)

D41. Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Part One (Greaves, 1968)

D42. Black Panthers (Varda, 1968)

D43. Salesman (Maysles, Maysles, Zwerin, 1969)

D44. The Sorrow and the Pity (Ophuls, 1969)

D45. Diaries, Notes and Sketches (Mekas, 1969)

D46. Woodstock (Wadleigh, 1970)

D47. Gimme Shelter (Maysles, Maysles, Zwerin, 1970)

D48. The 7up Series (mostly Apted, 1964, 1970, 1977, 1984, 1991, 1998…)

D49. Land of Silence and Darkness (Herzog, 1971)

D50. The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes (Brakhage, 1972)

D51. An American Family (Raymonds, 1973)

D52. F for Fake (Welles, 1973)

D53. Seasons of the Year (Peleshin, 1975)

D54. The Battle of Chile Part 1, 2, 3 (Guzman, 1975, 1976, 1979)

D55. Welfare (Wiseman, 1975)

D56. Grey Gardens (Maysles, Hovde, Meyer, 1975)

D57. Harlan County, U.S.A. (Kopple, 1976)

D58. The Decline of Western Civilization (Spheeris, 1981)

D59. Koyaanisqatsi (Reggio, 1982)

D60. Burden of Dreams (Blank, 1982)

D61. Sans Soleil (Marker, 1983)

D62. Stop Making Sense (Demme, 1984)

D63. Shoah (Lanzmann, 1985)

D64. Handsworth Songs (various, 1986)

D65. The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On (Hara, 1987)

D66. Histoire(s) du Cinema (Godard, 1988-1999)

D67. The Thin Blue Line (Morris, 1988)

D68. Tongues Untied (Riggs, 1989)

D69. Roger & Me (Moore, 1989)

D70. Paris is Burning (Livingston, 1990)

D71. Close-Up (Kiarostami, 1990)

D72. The Civil War (Burns, 1990)

D73. Night Cries (Moffatt, 1990)

D74. Belovy (Kossakovsky, 1992)

D75. Lessons of Darkness (Herzog, 1992)

D76. Nitrate Kisses (Hammer, 1992)

D77. The Quince Tree Sun (Erice, 1992)

D78. Crumb (Zwigoff, 1994)

D79. Hoop Dreams (James, 1994)

D80. When We Were Kings (Gast, 1996)

D81. 4 Little Girls (Lee, 1997)

D82. The Gleaners and I (Varda, 2000)

D83. Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks (Wang, 2002)

D84. Bowling for Columbine (Moore, 2002)

D85. Capturing the Friedmans (Jarecki, 2003)

D86. The Fog of War (Morris, 2003)

D87. Fahrenheit 9/11 (Moore, 2004)

D88. Darwin’s Nightmare (Sauper, 2004)

D89. The March of the Penguins (Jacquet, 2005)

D90. Grizzly Man (Herzog, 2005)

D91. An Inconvenient Truth (Guggenheim, 2006)

D92. When the Levees Broke (Lee, 2006)

D93. Man on Wire (Marsh, 2008)

D94. Waltz with Bashir (Folman, 2008)

D95. Nostalgia for the Light (Guzman, 2010)

D96. Leviathan (Castaing-Taylor and Paravel, 2012)

D97. The Act of Killing (Oppenheimer, 2012)

D98. 20 Feet From Stardom (Neville, 2013)

D99. Blackfish (Cowperthwaite, 2013)

D100. What Happened, Miss Simone? (Garbus, 2015)

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