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Top 10 Greatest Documentaries of All Time

A documentary is a non-fiction film about real things or incidents. The first ever film, The Workers Leaving Lumiere Factory, by Lumiere brothers, was a documentary. A vast number of them have been made since then, some of them by legendary directors. Many of these were much controversial, for laying bare the truth. Here is an attempt to list the top 10 greatest documentaries in cinematic history.

10. Nanook of the North (1922)

greatest documentaries

Nanook of the North, one of the greatest documentaries ever, is the first feature-length documentary. Directed by Robrt J. Flaherty, it follows an Inuk man named Nanook and his family in the Canadian Arctic. It revealed to the so-called modern world, an entirely foreign lifestyle. While it was criticized by many for the faking of most its sequences, so much so that the family itself was accused of being a made-up by some. The film is a remarkable achievement nonetheless.

9. Grizzly Man (2005)

Grizzly Man (2005)

Renowned German filmmaker Werner Herzog decided to take up the experiences of Timothy Treadwell, the bear enthusiast and his girlfriend. They were both killed in 2003 by a grizzly bear. It turned out to be one of the most fascinating documentaries ever made. The film uses footage recorded by Treadwell himself and interviews of his colleagues and other bear experts.

8. Titicut Follies (1967)

greatest documentaries

Directed by Frederick Wiseman, Titicut Follies is an exposition of the harsh treatment suffered by prison inmates. Though the film was about conditions of inmates of Bridgewater State Hospital, it was plain that how things were going in similar institutions. The film has scenes of inmates subjected to stripping, force-feeding and bullying. It faced several legal blockades before reaching the public and was later hailed as one of the greatest documentaries ever made.

7. The Gleaners and I (2000)

greatest documentaries

The celebrated auteur Agnes Varda travels through the French countryside and cities, looking for various aspects of gleaning, and saying without saying that she herself might be a gleaner. Shot in a handheld camera with many unusual angles, this film is more than its subject matter, personal and political at the same time.

6. Grey Gardens (1975)

greatest documentaries

Directed by Albert Maysles, David Maysles, Muffie Meyer and Ellen Hovde, Grey Gardens is an intimate portrayal of the lives of a mother and daughter. Both named Edith Beale, they lived in poverty at Grey Gardens estate in East Hampton. The women were relatives of former US first lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, with whose help their house was saved from complete destruction. The women sing and dance to the camera, and do many other things. There have been stage and television adaptations of this amazing documentary.

5. The Thin Blue Line (1988)

greatest documentaries

Directed by Errol Morris, The Thin Blue Line was born from a relentless pursuit of truth. The film tells the story of Randall Dale Adams, a man wrongly convicted and sentenced to life in prison in a murder case of 1976. Morris, a former private detective and documentary maker became interested in Adams’ case and argued for his innocence through the film. It consists of a series of interviews and the reenactments of events from the testimonies. The film had so much impact that the case was dismissed and Adams was released from prison a year after its release. Not surprising that that The Thin Blue Line ends up in the list of greatest documentaries most of the time.

4. Sans Soleil (1983)

greatest documentaries

Literally meaning ‘sunless’, this French film can be characterized as a documentary or an essay-film or a travelogue. Directed by Chris Marker, it is a meditation on the nature of human memory. Marker made the film from footages of his various travels, primarily to Japan and Guinea-Bissau, and the clips of various films, which have different contexts independently. It is certainly a unique experience.

3. Night and Fog (1955)

greatest documentaries

French auteur Alan Resnais collaborated with screenwriter Jean Cayrol, a concentration camp survivor, to craft one of the most chilling documentaries. Released a decade after the end of the second world war, it takes the viewers to the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps in half-an hour, never losing the sight of truth. Rather than stating the answers, it asks the questions, like who was that who unleashed those horrors.

2. Shoah (1985)

greatest documentaries

Shoah means holocaust in Hebrew. This eight hours long documentary directed by Claude Lanzmann is about nothing else. It is a journey to the most evil period in the 20th century. The film primarily consists of Lanzmann’s interviews of holocaust survivors, witnesses, and former German officials and visits to Holocaust sites across Poland, including three extermination camps. Many of the interviews were recorded using hidden cameras. While having received its share of criticism, Shoah is still a masterpiece to behold.

1. The Man with a Movie Camera (1929)

greatest documentaries

The Man with a Movie Camera, made by Soviet filmmaker Dziga Vertov was voted as the greatest documentary ever in the poll conducted by Sight and Sound magazine in 2001. Thoroughly dismissed as a farce by critics both in East and West when it was released, this silent film showing the Soviet urban life has now earned its right place in the filmdom. It is revered by many filmmakers as one of the greatest documentaries ever made. The cinematography is by Mikhail Kaufman, and the editor is done by Vertov’s wife, Elizaveta Svilova. In the film, Vertov uses many modern techniques such as double exposure, fast motion, slow motion, extreme close-ups, freeze frames, split screens and Dutch angles.

Top 10 Greatest Documentaries of All Time

  1. The Man with a Movie Camera (1929)
  2. Shoah (1985)
  3. Night and Fog (1955)
  4. Sans Soleil (1983)
  5. The Thin Blue Line (1988)
  6. Grey Gardens (1975)
  7. The Gleaners and I (2000)
  8. Titicut Follies (1967)
  9. Grizzly Man (2005)
  10. Nanook of the North (1922)

Written by: Nikhil Rajagopalan

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