Special Report

The 50 Best Documentaries of All Time

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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.)

Click here to see the 50 best documentaries of all time

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.

Source: Courtesy of Picturehouse

50. The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2007)
> IMDb average rating: 8.1 (35,932 votes)
> Rotten Tomatoes audience score: 93% (29,245 votes)
> Director: Seth Gordon

Amidst allegations that his home arcade machine has been tampered with, an out-of-work engineer attempts to beat a Donkey Kong high score, challenging the current title-holder to a public gaming competition.

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Source: Mark Metcalfe / Getty Images

49. The Fearless Freaks (2005)
> IMDb average rating: 7.8 (1,110 votes)
> Rotten Tomatoes audience score: 94% (2,502 votes)
> Director: Bradley Beesley

Utilizing mostly interviews with members of the Flaming Lips and their families, as well as with various celebrities, this documentary explores the evolution of the Oklahoma City band, with a behind-the-scenes look at their personal trials, drug use, and musical maturation.

Source: Courtesy of Neon

48. Apollo 11 (2019)
> IMDb average rating: 8.2 (24,122 votes)
> Rotten Tomatoes audience score: 90% (1,081 votes)
> Director: Todd Douglas Miller

Using solely archival footage and photography with no narration, this documentary tells the story of the historic Apollo 11 space flight that sent the first humans to the surface of the moon. The three astronauts as well as numerous mission engineers are featured.

Source: Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

47. Inside Job (2010)
> IMDb average rating: 8.2 (72,793 votes)
> Rotten Tomatoes audience score: 91% (29,642 votes)
> Director: Charles Ferguson

This exposé narrated by Matt Damon reveals corruption within the financial services industry that caused the 2008 global financial crisis as well as government failure to pass measures that could prevent a recurrence.

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Source: By Senate of the United States - http://memberguide.gpo.gov/#top, Public Domain

46. Street Fight (2005)
> IMDb average rating: 7.9 (2,040 votes)
> Rotten Tomatoes audience score: 93% (2,990 votes)
> Director: Marshall Curry

When a young Newark Council member takes on a 16-year incumbent mayor, his campaign is repeatedly sabotaged by the powers in place, including the mayor and local law enforcement and city officials.

Source: Courtesy of The Weinstein Company

45. Pete Seeger: The Power of Song (2007)
> IMDb average rating: 8.4 (459 votes)
> Rotten Tomatoes audience score: 92% (524 votes)
> Director: Jim Brown

A tribute to legendary folk singer and activist Pete Seeger, this documentary features archival footage and interviews with members of Seeger’s family and numerous musicians about the impact his voice had on the political climate and multiple generations of fans.

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Source: Courtesy of Hemispheric Pictures

44. Lessons of Darkness (1992)
> IMDb average rating: 8.0 (5,734 votes)
> Rotten Tomatoes audience score: 92% (2,985 votes)
> Director: Werner Herzog

Utilizing striking, unearthly footage of burning oil fields in post-Gulf War Kuwait, Herzog explores themes more abstract than politics and war, with minimal narration and a haunting musical score.

Source: Courtesy of Gramercy Pictures

43. When We Were Kings (1996)
> IMDb average rating: 8.0 (17,339 votes)
> Rotten Tomatoes audience score: 94% (9,096 votes)
> Director: Leon Gast

Following the leadup to the “Rumble in the Jungle,” a 1974 heavyweight championship boxing match in Zaire between George Foreman and Muhammad Ali, this documentary displays the differences in the boxers’ strategies in the match as well as in their self-promotion tactics with the press.

42. Sigur Rós: Heima (2007)
> IMDb average rating: 8.5 (8,112 votes)
> Rotten Tomatoes audience score: 96% (4,483 votes)
> Director: Dean DeBlois

This film follows the Icelandic post-rock band Sigur Rós as they tour around their home country, playing a series of free concerts. The band’s ethereal, otherworldly music drives the documentary, along with reflections from the musicians.

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Source: Courtesy of Angel Films

41. Minding the Gap (2018)
> IMDb average rating: 8.1 (8,912 votes)
> Rotten Tomatoes audience score: 91% (641 votes)
> Director: Bing Liu

Following the lives of three young skateboarders in Rockford, Illinois, this documentary uncovers the bonds between friends, their tumultuous home lives, and effects of childhood abuse and racism that threaten their relationships.

Source: Paul Hawthorne / Staff / Getty Images Entertainment

40. The Cats of Mirikitani (2006)
> IMDb average rating: 8.2 (733 votes)
> Rotten Tomatoes audience score: 94% (932 votes)
> Director: Linda Hattendorf

On the streets of post 9/11 New York City, homeless Japanese-American artist Jimmy Mirikitani meets a young filmmaker who takes him in and begins the process of finding him a permanent home, while uncovering his amazing life story.

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Source: Courtesy of Phase 4 Films

39. The Crash Reel (2013)
> IMDb average rating: 8.2 (4,780 votes)
> Rotten Tomatoes audience score: 94% (2,107 votes)
> Director: Lucy Walker

“The Crash Reel” follows two childhood friends and rival professional snowboarders as they push each other to the limits, performing ever more dangerous stunts until one has a near fatal half-pipe crash and the other goes on to win an Olympic gold medal.

Source: Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

38. No End in Sight (2007)
> IMDb average rating: 8.2 (8,345 votes)
> Rotten Tomatoes audience score: 94% (8,140 votes)
> Director: Charles Ferguson

Through archival footage and interviews with key and behind the scenes players, this film explores the U.S. occupation of Iraq, revealing the lack of insight, planning, and expertise that led to the disastrous war effort.

Source: Michael Ochs Archives / Michael Ochs Archives via Getty Images

37. Long Strange Trip (2017)
> IMDb average rating: 8.2 (1,559 votes)
> Rotten Tomatoes audience score: 90% (1,089 votes)
> Director: Amir Bar-Lev

This four-hour retrospective on the Grateful Dead covers their early days, their impact on the American cultural landscape, and how they dealt with the fame and intense adoration of their fans and followers.

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Source: Courtesy of National Geographic Channel

36. LA 92 (2017)
> IMDb average rating: 8.2 (6,162 votes)
> Rotten Tomatoes audience score: 93% (204 votes)
> Directors: Daniel Lindsay, T.J. Martin

This film covers the 1992 Los Angeles civil unrest following the acquittal of four LAPD officers who brutally beat Rodney King, as well as the targeting of Koreatown after a Korean store owner fatally shot 15-year-old Latasha Harlins.

Source: Courtesy of National Geographic Documentary Films

35. Free Solo (2018)
> IMDb average rating: 8.2 (59,831 votes)
> Rotten Tomatoes audience score: 93% (3,005 votes)
> Directors: Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, Jimmy Chin

An intimate view at the intensive training, friendships, and psyche of Alex Honnold (the first person to climb Yosemite’s El Capitan without ropes,) this film contains hair-raising footage of his death-defying ascent.

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Source: Courtesy of the U.S. National Archives

34. The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On (1987)
> IMDb average rating: 8.2 (1,706 votes)
> Rotten Tomatoes audience score: 91% (598 votes)
> Director: Kazuo Hara

A Japanese WWII veteran attempts to uncover the truth about the unexplained deaths of two of his fellow soldiers in New Guinea, unravelling sordid tales of cannibalism at every turn.

Source: Bim / iStock via Getty Images

33. Best Boy (1979)
> IMDb average rating: 7.9 (638 votes)
> Rotten Tomatoes audience score: 95% (390 votes)
> Director: Ira Wohl

“Best Boy” is an immersive day-to-day look at the life of a middle-aged man with a mental disability as he begins taking classes on how to live independently, preparing for the imminent death of his eldery parents.

32. The Revolution Will Not Be Televised (2003)
> IMDb average rating: 8.3 (2,515 votes)
> Rotten Tomatoes audience score: 92% (2,050 votes)
> Directors: Kim Bartley, Donnacha Ó Briain

While covering the presidency of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela in 2002, an Irish film crew happened to be present during the attempted coup that ousted Chávez from office for two days before he was restored to power. The crew captured footage of protests, violence, and upheaval in the presidential palace.

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Source: Courtesy of TC Films International

31. The Times of Harvey Milk (1984)
> IMDb average rating: 8.3 (5,974 votes)
> Rotten Tomatoes audience score: 94% (4,094 votes)
> Director: Rob Epstein

San Francisco’s first openly gay city supervisor, Harvey Milk, rose from grassroots activism to a successful political career, and was then assassinated by a former fellow supervisor. This film follows his rise, death, and the murder trial of his killer.

Source: Courtesy of Fathom Events

30. They Shall Not Grow Old (2018)
> IMDb average rating: 8.3 (32,070 votes)
> Rotten Tomatoes audience score: 91% (2,297 votes)
> Director: Peter Jackson

Commemorating 100 years since the end of World War I, this film focuses on the experience of the soldiers, revealing previously unreleased footage of the war and interviews with British servicemen.

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Source: Courtesy of Lionsgate

29. The Cove (2009)
> IMDb average rating: 8.4 (48,801 votes)
> Rotten Tomatoes audience score: 94% (25,751 votes)
> Director: Louis Psihoyos

Using underwater footage that was secretly filmed near Taiji, Japan, “The Cove” questions the ethics of current dolphin-hunting practices in Japan while also highlighting the health hazards of eating dolphin meat, which is extremely high in mercury.

Source: Courtesy of HBO Documentary Films

28. Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory (2011)
> IMDb average rating: 8.1 (9,809 votes)
> Rotten Tomatoes audience score: 93% (1,064 votes)
> Directors: Joe Berlinger, Bruce Sinofsky

“Purgatory” is the third of three films exploring the questionable conviction — with scant evidence — of three teenage boys (known as the West Memphis Three) for the murder of a group of children in Arkansas.

Source: Courtesy of Producers Distribution Agency

27. Senna (2010)
> IMDb average rating: 8.5 (67,544 votes)
> Rotten Tomatoes audience score: 95% (17,996 votes)
> Director: Asif Kapadia

This documentary covers the life of Brazilian racing champion Ayrton Senna, who has been called the greatest race car driver who ever lived. Senna, who fought to improve safety standards in racing, met a tragic fate at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix.

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Source: Courtesy of Netflix

26. Virunga (2014)
> IMDb average rating: 8.2 (10,927 votes)
> Rotten Tomatoes audience score: 92% (1,769 votes)
> Director: Orlando von Einsiedel

Set in Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a UNESCO world heritage site and home to the last mountain gorillas on earth, this film explores the efforts of a small team dedicated to protecting the gorillas from encroaching war, poachers, and a British oil company.

Source: Courtesy of Warner Bros.

25. Woodstock (1970)
> IMDb average rating: 8.2 (16,726 votes)
> Rotten Tomatoes audience score: 92% (9,343 votes)
> Director: Michael Wadleigh

Highlighting the performances of dozens of bands that played at the legendary Woodstock music festival, this film brings the audience on an immersive journey that captures the counterculture spirit of the era.

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Source: Courtesy of United Artists

24. The Last Waltz (1978)
> IMDb average rating: 8.2 (17,122 votes)
> Rotten Tomatoes audience score: 94% (13,903 votes)
> Director: Martin Scorsese

“The Last Waltz” depicts the farewell performance of the rock group The Band at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco, with special guests including Bob Dylan, Muddy Waters, and Joni Mitchell.

Source: Sion Touhig / Hulton Archive via Getty Images

23. Have You Heard from Johannesburg (2010)
> IMDb average rating: 8.7 (13 votes)
> Rotten Tomatoes audience score: 86% (159 votes)
> Director: Connie Field

This seven-film series follows 45 years of the global humanitarian struggle against South Africa’s apartheid, focusing on the multifaceted efforts of activists, sports teams, solidarity groups, and others around the world who pressured their governments and corporations into taking up the cause.

22. Encounter Point (2006)
> IMDb average rating: 7.9 (114 votes)
> Rotten Tomatoes audience score: 96% (1,921 votes)
> Directors: Ronit Avni, Julia Bacha

A tender, hopeful look inside the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, this film follows a handful of affected individuals, some of whom have lost loved ones, who are organizing to end the violence.

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Source: Courtesy of Fine Line Features

21. Hoop Dreams (1994)
> IMDb average rating: 8.3 (25,532 votes)
> Rotten Tomatoes audience score: 93% (12,623 votes)
> Director: Steve James

This film follows the families of two black Chicago youths who are scouted by a predominantly white high school, as they attempt to earn college basketball scholarships and eventual NBA positions.

Source: stellalevi / E+ via Getty Images

20. The Inner Tour (2001)
> IMDb average rating: 7.6 (120 votes)
> Rotten Tomatoes audience score: 100% (180 votes)
> Director: Ra’anan Alexandrowicz

“The Inner Tour” chronicles the three-day sightseeing trip of 20 Palestinians who travel through Israel, sharing their stories of loss, imprisonment, and the effects of the occupation.

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Source: Courtesy of 3DX Media

19. TT3D: Closer to the Edge (2011)
> IMDb average rating: 8.0 (6,362 votes)
> Rotten Tomatoes audience score: 95% (2,195 votes)
> Director: Richard De Aragues

A close-up look at the 2010 Isle of Man TT Motorcycle Race, this film explores the motivations and commitment of the racers that participate in this dangerous competition that has claimed over 200 lives since its inception.

Source: Courtesy of Triton Pictures

18. Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse (1991)
> IMDb average rating: 8.1 (20,154 votes)
> Rotten Tomatoes audience score: 94% (9,399 votes)
> Directors: Fax Bahr, George Hickenlooper, Eleanor Coppola

Initially conceived by Eleanor Coppola, this documentary details the harrowing trials that her husband, Francis Ford Coppola, went through during the filming of his epic Vietnam War film “Apocalypse Now.”

Source: Courtesy of Cinema 5 Distributing

17. Harlan County U.S.A. (1976)
> IMDb average rating: 8.3 (5,473 votes)
> Rotten Tomatoes audience score: 92% (2,842 votes)
> Director: Barbara Kopple

When a group of Kentucky coal miners go on strike at the Brookside Mine in 1973, a violent year-long conflict ensues. This film reveals the horrid living conditions of many of the miners and their families, as well as the community effort to bring about safer working conditions and higher wages.

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Source: Courtesy of Focus Features

16. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (2018)
> IMDb average rating: 8.4 (24,561 votes)
> Rotten Tomatoes audience score: 94% (4,439 votes)
> Director: Morgan Neville

Utilizing interviews with the friends, family, and colleagues of children’s show host Fred Rogers, this film explores the impact that one man had on countless individuals as he strived to create nurturing, quality content for kids and became a role model in the process.

Source: Courtesy of Public Broadcasting Service

15. For Sama (2019)
> IMDb average rating: 8.5 (10,583 votes)
> Rotten Tomatoes audience score: 92% (233 votes)
> Directors: Waad Al-Kateab, Edward Watts

Filmed amidst the Syrian Civil War, “For Sama” is a look at one woman’s struggle to raise her daughter while violence erupts around her, and the impossible choices she must make as a journalist and rebel who is dedicated to the cause of freedom.

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Source: Courtesy of Sender Films

14. The Dawn Wall (2017)
> IMDb average rating: 8.1 (17,581 votes)
> Rotten Tomatoes audience score: 95% (360 votes)
> Directors: Josh Lowell, Peter Mortimer

This film follows two climbers as they prepare, train, and attempt to scale the Dawn Wall, a smooth rock face on Yosemite’s El Capitan that is nearly impossible to climb for the lack of cracks or finger holds.

13. Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father (2008)
> IMDb average rating: 8.5 (35,139 votes)
> Rotten Tomatoes audience score: 96% (7,185 votes)
> Director: Kurt Kuenne

This emotional rollercoaster of a film started as a visual scrapbook created by the friend of a murdered man for the man’s unborn son, who would never know his father. It turned into a true crime story revealing the failings of Newfoundland’s legal system and bail laws.

Source: Courtesy of Moxie Pictures

12. AlphaGo (2017)
> IMDb average rating: 7.9 (5,674 votes)
> Rotten Tomatoes audience score: 98% (128 votes)
> Director: Greg Kohs

AlphaGo follows a world-renowned South Korean master of the ancient Chinese strategy game Go as he competes against an AI opponent in the Google DeepMind Challenge Match.

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Source: Courtesy of Creative Thinking International Ltd.

11. Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (1996)
> IMDb average rating: 8.3 (16,151 votes)
> Rotten Tomatoes audience score: 93% (7,035 votes)
> Directors: Joe Berlinger, Bruce Sinofsky

The first of three films about the trials of the West Memphis Three, this documentary interviews families of the victims and defendants after three young boys are found murdered in a small, Christian town, and allegations of Satanic worship surround the defendants.

Source: MartinM303 / Getty Images

10. Total Denial (2006)
> IMDb average rating: 7.8 (38 votes)
> Rotten Tomatoes audience score: 100% (215 votes)
> Director: Milena Kaneva

Total Denial chronicles the efforts of a group of Burmese villagers who take a stand against two major oil companies involved in the Yadana gas pipeline project, culminating in the human rights lawsuit Doe vs. Unocal.

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Source: Courtesy of Milliarium Zero

9. Winter Soldier (1972)
> IMDb average rating: 8.2 (995 votes)
> Rotten Tomatoes audience score: 96% (250 votes)
> Director: 20 filmmakers from the Winterfilm Collective

This film covers the Winter Soldier investigation, a war crimes hearing held in Detroit in 1971, wherein dozens of Vietnam war veterans shared their accounts of horrific human rights atrocities committed by their units.

Source: Courtesy of SundanceTV

8. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers: Runnin’ Down a Dream (2007)
> IMDb average rating: 8.6 (1,867 votes)
> Rotten Tomatoes audience score: 92% (1,735 votes)
> Director: Peter Bogdanovich

This four-hour chronicle follows the rock band Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers through 30 years of music, stories, and interviews. The commercial release includes two bonus disks of the band’s 30-year-anniversary show as well as rare tracks.

Source: Courtesy of Cinema 5 Distributing

7. The Sorrow and the Pity (1969)
> IMDb average rating: 8.2 (3,734 votes)
> Rotten Tomatoes audience score: 97% (1,285 votes)
> Director: Marcel Ophuls

This documentary explores the reactions of the French populace to the Vichy French government’s acceptance of Nazi occupation and Fascism during WWII. Extended interviews reveal the various reasons for the collaboration, including xenophobia and antisemitism.

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Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

6. White Light/Black Rain: The Destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (2007)
> IMDb average rating: 8.3 (1,905 votes)
> Rotten Tomatoes audience score: 96% (933 votes)
> Director: Steven Okazaki

This film recounts the effects of the US atomic bombings on two Japanese cities through the stories of 14 survivors — most of whom were children at the time of the attack — as well as four Americans who were involved with the bombing.

Source: Courtesy of Cinecom Pictures

5. Stop Making Sense (1984)
> IMDb average rating: 8.6 (14,539 votes)
> Rotten Tomatoes audience score: 97% (7,290 votes)
> Director: Jonathan Demme

Considered one of the best concert films ever, “Stop Making Sense” is a live performance in Hollywood by the avant-garde rock band the Talking Heads as they promote their album “Speaking in Tongues.”

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Source: Courtesy of New Yorker Films

4. Shoah (1985)
> IMDb average rating: 8.7 (9,050 votes)
> Rotten Tomatoes audience score: 97% (1,531 votes)
> Director: Claude Lanzmann

This nine-hour French documentary tells the horrifying story of the Holocaust through extensive interviews with survivors, witnesses, and perpetrators at various Holocaust sites around Poland, including the Warsaw Ghetto and Auschwitz-Birkenau.

3. Edward Said: The Last Interview (2004)
> IMDb average rating: 8.5 (43 votes)
> Rotten Tomatoes audience score: 100% (343 votes)
> Director: Michael Dibb

A portrait of Palestinian-American intellectual Edward Said, this two-hour interview conducted near the end of his life includes Said’s reflections on his upbringing and education, Middle Eastern politics, and his diagnosis of incurable leukemia.

2. A Lion in the House (2006)
> IMDb average rating: 8.8 (284 votes)
> Rotten Tomatoes audience score: 97% (468 votes)
> Directors: Steven Bognar, Julia Reichart

This film follows the lives of five Ohio families over the course of six years as their children undergo cancer treatment at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, highlighting the fierce care of parents as well the disparities in treatment based on a family’s economic class.

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Source: Courtesy of ESPN Films

1. O.J.: Made in America (2016)
> IMDb average rating: 8.9 (18,706 votes)
> Rotten Tomatoes audience score: 98% (1,747 votes)
> Director: Ezra Edelman

This five-part miniseries explores racial tensions, violence, celebrity, and achievement in America through the story of former football star and celebrity O.J. Simpson, delving not only into his trial for the murder of his ex-wife, but also his conviction for robbery in 2008.

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