Documentaries have long been a powerful medium for storytelling, shedding light on pressing issues, and inspiring change. Over the years, they’ve evolved in style, technique, and reach, with countless productions leaving their mark on the world. As we explore the most influential documentaries, it’s important to note that they now account for 7% of the global film market, a testament to their growing influence.
With streaming platforms on the rise, the demand for documentaries has skyrocketed, with 62% of adults in the United States having watched a documentary in 2021. In this post, we’ll dive into the top 10 most influential documentaries of all time, examining their impact, unique perspectives, and the reasons behind their enduring appeal.
1. “An Inconvenient Truth” (2006)
“An Inconvenient Truth,” released in 2006, is widely regarded as one of the most influential documentaries ever made, exposing the devastating effects of global warming and climate change to a wide audience. Produced and narrated by former US Vice President Al Gore, the film blends a mixture of eye-opening scientific research, personal anecdotes and vivid visuals to deliver a powerful message about the impact of human activity on our planet.
Since its release, “An Inconvenient Truth” has been credited with influencing a shift in attitudes towards climate change and even shaping government policies in many developed countries. With its impact still being felt more than a decade later, it’s no surprise that “An Inconvenient Truth” is considered an essential watch for anyone concerned about the future of our planet.
2. “The Thin Blue Line” (1988)
“The Thin Blue Line” (1988) is a captivating and groundbreaking documentary that shook the foundations of documentary filmmaking. Directed by Errol Morris, it tells the story of Randall Adams, a man who was falsely convicted and sentenced to life in prison for murder. Through interviews, reenactments, and investigatory journalism techniques, Morris unravels the flawed and unreliable evidence that led to Adams’ conviction.
This documentary not only exposed the faults in the American criminal justice system but it also showcased the potential of documentary filmmaking as a tool for advocacy and justice. In 2014, it was admitted to the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” “The Thin Blue Line” remains one of the most influential and impactful documentaries of all time.
3. “Hoop Dreams” (1994)
This film follows the lives of two high school basketball players from Chicago over the course of five years as they pursue their dreams of playing in the National Basketball Association (NBA).
Directed by Steve James, this documentary covers important themes such as race, class, and the American Dream. “Hoop Dreams” was praised for its in-depth look at the realities of inner-city life and the struggles that young people face in their pursuit of success.
It was also recognized for its groundbreaking use of editing and cinematography to tell the story of these two aspiring athletes. Overall, “Hoop Dreams” is widely regarded as one of the most important and influential documentaries of all time, and its impact on the genre cannot be understated.
4. “Bowling for Columbine” (2002)
Michael Moore’s 2002 documentary “Bowling for Columbine” examines topics related to gun violence, mass shootings, and American culture. The Columbine High School massacre in 1999 and how it affected Americans’ perceptions of gun violence are the main topics of the documentary. Moore conducts interviews with people from many walks of life, including lawmakers, gun enthusiasts, and victims and families of gun violence.
The documentary is known for its provocative approach and its willingness to ask tough questions about America’s relationship with guns. It won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 2003 and has since become a widely recognized and influential film, sparking important debates about gun control and societal violence.
5. “The Fog of War” (2003)
“The Fog of War” is undoubtedly one of the most influential documentaries of all time, claiming the fifth spot on our list. Directed by Errol Morris in 2003, this film is an intense personal and political portrait of Robert McNamara, the former US Secretary of Defense.
Through a series of interviews, Morris explores McNamara’s role in some of the most significant events of the 20th century, including the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Vietnam War. In this documentary, Morris effectively showcases McNamara as a complex and ultimately tragic figure.
By doing so, he manages to provide insights into some of the most critical geopolitical crises of the 20th century, leading audiences to question government authority and the decisions made by those in power. The innovative use of archival footage, stylized reenactments, and Morris’s unique interviewing techniques ensure that “The Fog of War” stands the test of time as an essential documentary film.
6. “Grizzly Man” (2005)
“Grizzly Man” (2005), directed by Werner Herzog, is a landmark documentary film that chronicles the life and death of Timothy Treadwell, a self-proclaimed bear activist who spent 13 summers living among the grizzlies in Alaska, where he ultimately met his tragic end.
Drawing from over 100 hours of footage that Treadwell shot himself, Herzog masterfully weaves together a poignant and intimate portrait of this controversial figure, whose passionate, misguided mission to protect the bears from hunters and other perceived threats led him to increasingly dangerous behavior.
Through interviews with Treadwell’s friends and family, as well as experts in wilderness survival and bear behavior, “Grizzly Man” explores themes of obsession, mental illness, and the delicate balance of nature that has resonated with audiences and filmmakers alike. The film’s powerful and thought-provoking message continues to influence documentary filmmakers and audiences today.
7. “Blackfish” (2013)
“Blackfish” (2013) tops the list of the most influential documentaries of all time. Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, the film exposes the dark side of captivity for Killer Whales, showcasing the cruelty of the wildly popular marine park, SeaWorld. Blackfish rocked the entertainment and animal rights industries, igniting a heated debate around SeaWorld’s treatment of captive Killer Whales.
The documentary led to a major shift in public attitude towards marine parks and spurred protests and petitions to free the Orcas. Blackfish proved that documentaries can make an impact beyond entertainment, serving as a potent tool for raising awareness about social, political, or cultural issues.
It brought new perspectives, insights, and emotions to the audience, and its impact still resonates today, cementing its place as one of the most influential documentaries and a catalyst for positive social change.
8. “The Act of Killing” (2012)
Joshua Oppenheimer’s ground-breaking documentary “The Act of Killing” (2012) analyzes the 1965 Indonesian genocide from the perspective of those who committed it. It is regarded as one of the most important documentaries of all time and has won praise for its original narrative from critics both domestically and abroad.
The film features interviews with current and former members of the Indonesian death squads who were responsible for the genocide, and encourages them to reenact their roles in the killings using various film genres, including musicals and gangster movies.
Through these reenactments, the film seeks to explore the psychological impact of mass murder on both the victims and the perpetrators, and the enduring legacy of violence and impunity in Indonesia. “The Act of Killing” has received numerous awards, including a BAFTA for Best Documentary, and has been credited with inspiring a larger conversation about the role of memory and justice in the aftermath of mass violence.
9. “Sicko” (2007)
“Sicko” is a 2007 documentary directed by Michael Moore that examines the American healthcare system and highlights the major areas where it is lacking. This thought-provoking film focuses on the experiences of everyday people who have been failed by the system, unable to receive the care they need due to financial barriers and inadequate insurance coverage.
Through interviews with patients, doctors, and healthcare professionals, “Sicko” sheds light on the struggles of millions of Americans who are battling to access basic medical care. This documentary has been credited with launching a national conversation about healthcare reform and played a significant role in the passing of the Affordable Care Act. Its enduring impact has earned it a place on the list of the top 10 most influential documentaries of all time.
10. “The Look of Silence” (2014)
The Look of Silence is a profound and intense documentary film that explores the aftermath of the Indonesian genocide that took place in 1965-1966. The film was directed by Joshua Oppenheimer and centres around a young optometrist named Adi who confronts his country’s horrifying past by seeking out the people responsible for his brother’s brutal murder.
This documentary features Adi’s growing indignation as he listens to the perpetrators boast about their heinous crimes with shocking nonchalance, and serves as a mournful reminder of the savagery of past injustices. Through its unflinching portrayal of the atrocities committed and their lingering effects on society, “The Look of Silence” has garnered widespread acclaim for its powerful and thought-provoking indictment of the aftermath of a human tragedy.
The documentaries that make up this list have had a significant impact on the world and on the genre of documentaries itself. They have brought about changes in society, challenged the status quo, and shed light on important issues that affect us all.
As we continue to be inundated with an overload of information in the digital age, it’s important to seek out and watch thoughtful documentaries that can offer a different perspective on complex issues around us.
Whether you’re a seasoned documentary watcher or just starting out, this list of influential documentaries is a great place to start.
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