During the widespread COVID lockdowns of 2020, scores of Americans decided to learn something new in their idle time, taking up sourdough baking, woodworking, or bird watching. Many also turned to documentaries to stimulate their minds. Documentaries were, in fact, the fastest growing genre on streaming platforms in 2020.
The age of streaming has made non-fiction movies more popular — and lucrative — than ever before. Documentaries have become more accessible to audiences, and streaming platforms and production houses are putting more and more money into such films as true crime docuseries, celebrity biographies, and cult exposés. (Similar subjects are also fictionalized, of course — not always successfully. These are the 50 worst movies based on true events.)
To identify the 50 best documentaries of all time, 24/7 Tempo reviewed the 22,407 movies in our database for which data was available from both IMDb, an online movie database owned by Amazon and Rotten Tomatoes, an online movie and TV review aggregator, and developed an index using average IMDb ratings and a combination of audience scores and Tomatometer scores on Rotten Tomatoes. Ties were broken based on the number of IMDb votes. (Directorial credits come from IMDb.)
Some are heart-wrenching narratives straight from the mouths of people who survived some of the worst atrocities of our times, including the Holocaust and the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Many are concerts and band biographies. Others are inspiring accounts of great athletic feats and the perseverance of those who accomplished them. (Here are the 30 most inspirational movies of the last 100 years.)
Many of the best documentaries of all time are calls to arms, delving into current crises with empathy and urgency and covering topics such as racism, income inequality, and environmental devastation. At their best, documentaries have the power to shape how we view the world and to motivate change.