24 Best Documentaries of All Time and Where to Watch Them

Truth is stranger than fiction and the best documentaries of all time are here to prove it. Our ongoing fascination with life’s strangest or most compelling stories has put us smack bang in the middle of a golden age. What’s more, streaming services such as Netflix and Hulu consistently bring the goods by way of crime documentaries, sports documentaries, food documentaries, in-depth celebrity profiles, and gripping exposés. To engage as a viewer is to peel back the curtain on unique people, places, events, and industries, and maybe even learn something in the process.

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Obviously, our list of the best documentaries of all time might not match your list. That’s especially true if you’re a fan of 20th-century legends such as Errol Morris or Frederick Wiseman. In our defence, there are too many great documentaries from the last few decades and we figured those would be the ones you’re most likely to watch. For good measure, we did include a few older classics.

Moving on, here is a list of the best documentaries of all time.

1. Searching for Sugarman

His name is Rodriguez and he just might be the greatest folk artist you’ve never heard of…until now. Discover the true story of this mysterious Detroit-based musician, who failed to break out in the states but became a legend in South Africa.

Year of Release: 2012
Director:
 Malik Bendjelloul
You Might Also Like: A Band Called Death

Buy it here

2. AMY

Iconic singer Amy Winehouse took the planet by storm before succumbing to the pitfalls of addiction and success. Culled from behind-the-scenes footage, this gripping doc puts you in the passenger seat for her meteoric rise and dramatic fall. While utterly tragic, it’s also one of the best documentaries of all time.

Year of Release: 2015
Director:
Asif Kapadia
You Might Also Like: What Happened, Miss Simone?

Buy it here

3. Three Identical Strangers

Three identical twins are separated at birth and unaware of each other’s existence. One of the twins goes to college and gets mistaken for the other twin and eventually all three get in touch. It only gets weirder from there.

Year of Release: 2018
Director:
Tim Wardle
You Might Also Like: The Imposter

Buy it here

4. Tell Me Who I Am

At the age of 18, Alex Lewis lost his memory after a motorcycle accident. With help from his twin brother, he pieces together the fragments of his missing past. As it turns out, his brother is leaving out a shocking secret.

Year of Release: 2019
Director:
Ed Perkins
You Might Also Like: The Devil Next Door

Buy it here

5. Man on Wire

One of the best documentaries of all time tells a story of persistence, practice, and triumph. Set in 1974, it follows tightrope walker Philippe Petit as he prepares for (and executes) the ultimate challenge: an illegal high-wire routine between New York’s Twin Towers.

Year of Release: 2008
Director:
James Marsh
You Might Also Like: Free Solo

Buy it here

6. Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck

The story of Kurt Cobain’s rise and fall is about as depressing as most of his songwriting output would suggest. Nevertheless, this revealing and uncompromising documentary is a must-watch for Nirvana fans. It features material and footage from Cobain’s own archives and paints a fairly bleak portrait of the iconic artist.

Year of Release: 2015
Director:
Brett Morgen
You Might Also Like: Dig!

Buy it here

7. I Am Not Your Negro

Artist and activist James Baldwin was not your negro and he’s got the legacy to prove it.  This Oscar-nominated doc puts that legacy centre-stage as it tells the story of racial injustice by way of Baldwin’s unfinished novel, “Remember this House.” Actor Samuel L. Jackson narrates.

Year of Release: 2016
Director:
Raoul Peck
You Might Also Like: When They See Us

Buy it here

8. Capturing the Friedmans

Crime documentaries wouldn’t be what they are today if not for this 2003 film, about a seemingly normal upper-middle-class Jewish family. Lurking beyond the mundane facade is an unspeakable secret of disastrous proportions. The extensive use of home footage makes a creepy thing that much creepier.

Year of Release: 2003
Director:
Andrew Jarecki
You Might Also Like: Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father

Buy it here

9. Jiro Dreams of Sushi

Calling all foodies! This is one of the best documentaries about not just the art of sushi, but dedication to craftsmanship in general. You will be both hungry and inspired by the time it’s over.

Year of Release: 2011
Director:
David Gelb
You Might Also Like: 42 Grams

Buy it here

10. Sound and Fury

The Artinian family has both deaf members and non-deaf members alike. When five-year-old Heather is given the potential chance to hear, she must choose between two worlds.

Year of Release: 2000
Director:
Josh Aronson
You Might Also Like: Gleason

Buy it here

11. How to Survive a Plague

At the height of the AIDS epidemic, cries for help were met with various forms of indifference and hostility at the highest of levels. This documentary chronicles the efforts of coalitions and activists, who fought back using every tool in their arsenal.

Year of Release: 2012
Director:
David France
You Might Also Like: We Were Here

Buy it here

12. O.J.: Made in America

This sprawling masterpiece was part of ESPN’s 30-for-30 series, but don’t confuse it with your standard sports documentary. On the contrary, it brings you the “trial of the century” as you’ve never seen or understood it before. Not a single minute is wasted during the 7+ hour runtime.

Year of Release: 2016
Director:
Ezra Edelman
You Might Also Like: The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst

Buy it here

13. Harlan County, USA

Documentarian Barbara Kopple takes you deep into a 1973 coalminer’s strike, which lasted over a year and delivered no shortage of violent confrontations. What emerges is a striking portrait of blue-collar America and an Oscar-winning one at that.

Year of Release: 1976
Director:
Barbara Kopple
You Might Also Like: Hearts and Minds

Buy it here

14. Hoop Dreams

One of the best sports documentaries of all time follows two inner-city basketball players as they pursue their athletic dreams. Their respective journeys are chronicled as they unfold, meaning the filmmakers had no idea where each one was going. To say anything more is to ruin the experience so just watch it.

Year of Release: 1994
Director:
Steve James
You Might Also Like: Senna

Buy it here

15. 13th

Shining a light on America’s prison system, Ava DuVernay exposes racial injustice from both a historical and contemporary perspective. If you’re not mad, then you’re not paying attention.

Year of Release: 2016
Director:
Ava DuVernay
You Might Also Like: LA 92

Buy it here

16. Fyre

Turning schadenfreude into a work of art, this documentary chronicles the disastrous Fyre music festival. Prepare to point and laugh.

Year of Release: 2019
Director:
Chris Smith
You Might Also Like: Fyre Fraud

Buy it here

17. Icarus

What begins as a sports documentary about athletic doping becomes a white-knuckle thriller with geopolitical dimensions. Don’t miss it.

Year of Release: 2017
Director:
Bryan Fogel
You Might Also Like: Beyond the Mat

Buy it here

18. The Act of Killing

Former Indonesian death squad leaders reenact their previous deeds with a cinematic flourish and personal zest. This might be one of the best documentaries of all time, but it’s also one of the most disturbing. You’ve been warned.

Year of Release: 2012
Director:
Joshua Oppenheimer, Anonymous, Christine Cynn
You Might Also Like: The Look of Silence

Buy it here

19. Blackfish

Here’s a documentary so influential that it actually prompted SeaWorld to end its orca breeding program. You may never look at animal captivity the same way again.

Year of Release: 2013
Director:
Gabriela Cowperthwaite
You Might Also Like: The Cove

Buy it here

20. Bowling for Columbine

Can filmmaker Michael Moore be overly sentimental or downright manipulative on occasion? Yes, he can. But he also makes some of the best documentaries of all time and this is one of them. In fact, some might say it kicked off the modern era.

Year of Release: 2002
Director:
Michael Moore
You Might Also Like: Roger & Me

Buy it here

21. When We Were Kings

The true David and Goliath battle, When We Were Kings tells the tale of former World Heavyweight Champion Mohammad Ali returning to the arena against a far younger and more favoured opponent. The documentary sheds a light on the preparation and pre-fight drama that foreshadowed the most famous boxing match of all time; Rumble in the Jungle.

Year of Release: 1997
Director:
Leon Gast
You Might Also Like: Murderball

Buy it here

22. King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters

Two hardcore “Donkey Kong” gamers square off for the title of supreme champion and the battle is as epic as it is unbelievable. You will be entertained!

Year of Release: 2007
Director:
Seth Gordon
You Might Also Like: Finders Keepers

Buy it here

23. Exit Through the Gift Shop

This insane documentary from Banksy is even more clever and satirical than you’d expect it to be. We first saw it 10 years ago and we’re still trying to figure out what was real and what was staged.

Year of Release: 2010
Director:
Banksy
You Might Also Like: Banksy Does New York

Buy it here

24. Stop Making Sense

Widely considered the ultimate concert film, this one captures the Talking Heads at the height of their performative power. Come for the songs, stay for David Byrne’s famously giant suit.

Year of Release: 1984
Director:
Jonathan Demme
You Might Also Like: The Last Waltz

Buy it here

General FAQ

What is the best true crime documentary of all time?

Each respective era brings forth a deluge of terrific true crime documentaries or miniseries. Some of the best are as follows: The Thin Blue Line, The Jinx, Capturing the Friedmans, The Staircase, Murder on a Sunday Morning, F for Fake, O.J.: Made in America, and Cocaine Cowboys.

What is the best sport documentary?

Some of the best sports documentaries of all time are Hoop Dreams, The Endless Summer, Senna, Icarus, Free Solo, Pumping Iron, and When We Were Kings.

What is the best Netflix documentary?

Some of the best documentaries on Netflix are as follows: 13th, Icarus, Fyre, Wild Wild Country, What Happened, Miss Simone?, Quincy, Tell Me Who I Am, LA 92, The Staircase, and Tiger King.

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