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Documentaries do something that regular movies can’t do – they show us real footage of real people, giving us real insight into the human condition.
Hundreds of documentaries are released each year, but only a handful of them really get any recognition. Those who do say something remarkable about an issue or situation.
It takes special skills to excel in documentary making, and many have devoted their lives to this pursuit of documentary film. They work to communicate that true nature of things by packaging things to suit our – the viewers – how information is taken in.
Here’s our pick of the greatest documentarians of all time, why they stand out and what their best films are.
He may have only made two documentaries – and both documentaries may have covered the same subject – but they are so good they deserve Joshua Oppenheimer a spot on our list.
The act of killing (2012) is a revealing look at the perpetrators of the Indonesian mass murders that took place between 1965 and 1966. Dark, disturbing, intriguing, yet deeply moving, it is an essential film that every documentary lover must see.
It is a masterful piece of documentary cinema, which has frequently been named the best documentary of the year by critics. It is also ranked 19th on the BFI list of the best documentaries ever made.
A counterpart named The gaze of silence (2014) was later published to similar acclaim. Both films draw attention to the role played by the American government in the Indonesian genocide.
Oppenheimer’s work as a documentary filmmaker has had such a profound impact on documentary filmmaking as a whole that he deserves this place.
1994, Charles Ferguson was one of the first to start an internet software company. Two years later he sold this company to Microsoft and used this money to finance his passion: making documentaries.
Ferguson was no stranger to intense research, willingly investing years of his life in the production of a single film to ensure he had an adequate understanding – and portraying – of a given subject.
And he eventually got recognized for his talents inside job (2010), which focused on the 2008 financial crisis and ended up winning the Oscar for Best Documentary.
As a political documentary maker, Ferguson has tried to make reports on other high-profile figures – including WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton – but hasn’t been able to get them to work.
Others have been successful, however, such as his 2018 documentary on the Watergate scandal (appropriately titled water gate), which won the Cinema for Peace Award for the most political film of the year.
8. Amy Berg
amy mountain is a prodigiously talented documentary filmmaker with an equally combative attitude to challenging subjects.
her feature film debut, Deliver us from evil (2006), focused on the priest Oliver Grady, who abused and raped several children over the course of nearly 20 years. This film was nominated for an Oscar for Best Documentary.
Berg continued this success with other important documentaries, including West of Memphis (2012) and Open secret (2014), who was ahead of his time in chronicling the history of sexual abuse in Hollywood (three years before the #MeToo movement).
Berg has directed other major documentaries such as spoils of the prophet (2015), The case against Adnan Syed (2019) and Rising of the Phoenix (2022).
Long before Richard Linklater had the nefarious idea childhood (2014), Michael Apt had a similar idea for High (1964-2019).
High was a series of documentaries following the lives of 14 people we watched grow from boys and girls to adults.
It is perhaps the most emotional documentary series of all time. Watch as these children pass on their dreams and ambitions, their youthful desires and longings, to see where they eventually find themselves in real life? It’s a transcending experience.
Witnessing their successes and failures gives us a kind of insight into the human condition that few documentaries have ever given. While Apted has directed other documentaries, he will forever be known for his commitment to cinematic realism about the High Series.
Although he has kept relatively inconspicuous, SteveJames has directed some of the greatest documentaries of all time. Especially his classic Tire Dreams (1994) was hailed by Roger Ebert as “one of the best films about American life” he had ever seen.
Over 20 years later, Steve James directed the critically acclaimed film Abacus: Small enough for prison (2016) on the 2008 global recession.
Seemingly inspired by Michael Apted, Steve James then produced a documentary series by the name America to me (2016), who traced the lives of various American students across many grades over the course of an academic year.
With a 100% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, it’s clear that James’ talent for documentaries hasn’t waned.
5. Agnes Varda
Martin Scorsese called once Agnes Varda a “god of cinema”. While his claim alone would be enough to land her on this list, it’s her decades of documentary work that earns her fifth spot.
An inspirational cinematographer, much of Agnés Varda’s style as a documentary filmmaker focused on fusing fact and fiction. A great example of this is her critically acclaimed Cleo From 5 to 7 (1962).
Varda’s aesthetic was heavily inspired by Neorealism, and she herself was a seminal influence on the French New Wave.
Despite an extensive filmography of feature films, feature films and short films, among her best are documentaries Black panthers (1968), The Gleaners and I (2000), The beaches of Agnes (2008) and faces places (2017).
4. Claude Lanzmann
Before he was a celebrated documentary filmmaker, Claude Lanzman was a freedom fighter at the young age of 17, part of the French resistance fighting the Nazis in Auvergne.
Later, as a filmmaker, he devoted his entire career to one subject: analyzing the lived experiences of those who survived the Holocaust.
Shoah (1985) is still one of the most renowned documentaries of all time. It is 9.5 hours long and contains no historical footage; Instead, the film conveys the horrors of the death camps through interviews with survivors who share the traumas they have endured and witnessed.
Although Lanzmann is only famous for this one documentary, Shoah It took over a decade to make and is so good that it cements him as one of the greatest documentarians of all time.
Even if you don’t know any of the other names on this list, you’ve probably heard of them Michael Moore.
He is a visionary documentary filmmaker with a unique voice whose films regularly wrestle with themes of insidious systems, unbridled capitalism and ruthless globalization.
He is famous for Bowling for Columbine (2002), which won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature and earned it the public credibility to release several more critically acclaimed documentaries.
His history of viewed films includes Roger and I (1989), Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004), Sick (2007), Capitalism: A Love Story (2009), Where to invade next (2015) and Fahrenheit 11/9 (2018).
2. Dziga Vertov
Dziga Vertov was not only a pioneer in the documentary film movement; He was a renowned film theorist whose centuries-old ideas still influence how people think about film.
Vertovs Man with a film camera (1929) is one of the most famous films of all time. In a poll for Picture and soundCritics listed it as the eighth greatest film ever made.
His filmography includes several other great documentaries such as: Kino-Pravda (1922), cinema eye (1924) and A sixth part of the world (1926).
With accolades like this and his tremendous impact on the development of cinema, it should come as no surprise that we placed him number two on our list of best documentarians!
1. Alex Gibney
Alex Gibney has been called the most important documentary filmmaker of our time. His Taxi to the dark side (2008) focused on the killing of an Afghan taxi driver named Dilawar by American soldiers. It rightfully won the Oscar for Best Documentary.
Also, take a look at the sheer number of outstanding documentaries Alex Gibney has directed and produced:
- park road (2012)
- The Armstrong lie (2013)
- We steal secrets (2013)
- Clear (2015)
- Sinatra: All or nothing (2015)
- zero days (2016)
- Citizen K (2019)
- Totally under control (2020)
- Agents of Chaos (2020)
- Crazy not crazy (2020)
- The Eternal Prisoner (2021)
- The crime of the century (2021)
He was recognized as one of the 25 most important visionaries changing the world for his work in the documentary film Utne reader.
With the sheer number of documentaries that Gibney has either directed, produced or participated in, he deserves to be on this list. But it’s the quality of his content that puts him at the top of our list of the greatest documentarians of all time.