Documentary movies do something that regular movies can't do—they show us real footage of real people, and in doing so they provide us with real insight into the human condition.
Hundreds of documentary films are released every year, but only a handful of them really gain any recognition. The ones that do are the ones that say something noteworthy about a subject or situation.
It takes a special skillset to excel at documentary filmmaking, and many have dedicated their lives to this pursuit of cinematic documentation. They work to communicate the true nature of things by packaging things to fit our—the viewers—ways of absorbing information.
Here are our picks for the greatest documentary filmmakers of all time, why they stand out, and what their best films are.
10. Joshua Oppenheimer (The Act of Killing)
He may only have made two documentaries—and both of those documentaries may have been on the same subject—but they're so good that they earn Joshua Oppenheimer a spot on our list.
The Act of Killing is an eye-opening look at the perpetrators of the Indonesian mass killings that took place between 1965 to 1966. Dark, disturbing, intriguing, yet deeply moving, it's an important film that every documentary lover needs to see.
It's a masterful piece of documentary cinema that was frequently cited among critics as the best documentary of its year. It also ranks 19th on BFI's list of best documentaries ever made.
A companion piece named The Look of Silence (2014) was later released to similar acclaim. Both films call attention to the role that the American government played in the Indonesian genocide.
Oppenheimer's work as a documentarian has had such a great influence on documentary filmmaking as a whole that he deserves this spot.
9. Charles Ferguson (Inside Job)
In 1994, Charles Ferguson was one of the first to start an internet software company. Two years later, he sold that company to Microsoft, then used that money to finance his passion: making documentaries.
Ferguson was no stranger to intense research, as he willingly poured years of his life into making a single film, all to ensure that he sufficiently understood—and properly depicted—a given subject.
And he was eventually recognized for his talents with Inside Job, which focused on the financial crisis of 2008 and ended up winning the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.
A political documentarian if there ever was one, Ferguson has tried to make features about other high-profile figures—including WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton—but couldn't get them up and running.
Others were successful, however, such as his 2018 documentary about the Watergate scandal (aptly titled Watergate), which was awarded the Cinema for Peace Award for Most Political Film of the Year.
8. Amy Berg (Deliver Us From Evil)
Amy Berg is a fiercely talented documentarian, with an equally fierce attitude to taking on challenging subjects.
Her debut feature, Deliver Us From Evil, focused on priest Oliver Grady, who was guilty of molesting and raping several children over the course of nearly 20 years. That film was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.
Berg followed up that success with other important documentaries, including West of Memphis (2012) and Open Secret (2014), the latter of which was ahead of its time in chronicling the history of sexual abuse in Hollywood (three years before the #MeToo movement).
Berg has headed up other great documentaries, such as Prophet's Prey (2015), The Case Against Adnan Syed (2019), and Phoenix Rising (2022).
7. Michael Apted (The Up Series)
Way before Richard Linklater infamously had the idea for Boyhood (2014), Michael Apted had a similar idea in Up (1964–2019), a series of documentary films that followed the lives of 14 people, whom we watched grow from boys and girls into adults.
It's perhaps the most emotive documentary series of all time. Watching as these children relay their dreams and ambitions, their youthful wants and desires, all to see where they eventually find themselves in real life? It's a transcending experience.
As we witness their successes and failures, it 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 via the Up series.
6. Steve James (Hoop Dreams)
Though he has kept a relatively low profile, Steve James has directed some of the best documentaries of all time. In particular, his classic Hoop Dreams was celebrated by Roger Ebert as "one of the best films about American life" that he had ever seen.
Over 20 years later, Steve James directed the critically acclaimed Abacus: Small Enough to Jail (2016) about the 2008 global recession.
Seemingly inspired by Michael Apted, Steve James then went on to produce and direct a documentary series named America to Me (2016), which followed the lives of various American students across many grades over the course of an academic year.
With an approval rating of 100% on Rotten Tomatoes, it's clear that James's talent for documentary filmmaking hasn't waned.
5. Agnés Varda (Cleo From 5 to 7)
Martin Scorsese once called Agnés Varda a "God of cinema." While his assertion alone would be enough to land her on this list, it's her decades of documentary work that earns her the number five spot.
An inspirational artist of cinema, much of Agnés Varda's style as a documentary filmmaker centered on the blending of fact and fiction. One great example is her critically acclaimed Cleo From 5 to 7.
Varda's aesthetic was heavily inspired by Neorealism, and she herself would have a pioneering influence on the French New Wave.
Despite a vast filmography of fiction, features, and shorts, her best documentaries include Black Panthers (1968), The Gleaners and I (2000), The Beaches of Agnés (2008), and Faces Places (2017).
4. Claude Lanzmann (Shoah)
Before he was a celebrated documentarian, Claude Lanzmann was a freedom fighter at the young age of 17, part of the French resistance that battled against the Nazis in Auvergne.
Later, as a filmmaker, he dedicated his entire career to one subject: analyzing the lived experiences of those who survived the Holocaust.
Shoah is still one of the most renowned documentaries of all time. It's 9.5 hours long and features no historical footage; instead, the film communicates the horrors of death camps via interviews with survivors, who share the traumas they lived through and witnessed.
Though Lanzmann is famous for only that one documentary, Shoah took over a decade to make and is so good that it solidifies him as one of the greatest documentarians of all time.
3. Michael Moore (Bowling for Columbine)
Even if you don't recognize any of the other names on this list, you've probably heard of Michael Moore.
He's a documentary filmmaker with vision and a unique voice, whose films regularly wrestle with themes of insidious systems, unrestrained capitalism, and relentless globalization.
He's famous for Bowling for Columbine, which won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature and earned him the public credibility to bang out several more critically acclaimed documentaries.
His history of well-regarded films includes Roger and Me (1989), Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004), Sicko (2007), Capitalism: A Love Story (2009), Where to Invade Next (2015), and Fahrenheit 11/9 (2018).
2. Dziga Vertov (Man With a Movie Camera)
Dziga Vertov wasn't just a pioneering force in the documentary film movement; he was a renowned film theorist, whose century-old ideas still influence how people think about film.
Vertov's Man With a Movie Camera is one of the most celebrated movies of all time. In a poll for Sight and Sound, critics listed it as the eighth greatest film ever made.
His filmography includes several other great documentaries, like Kino-Pravda (1922), Kino-Eye (1924), and A Sixth Part of the World (1926).
With such commendations plus his huge influence on the progression of cinema, it shouldn't be a surprise that we ranked him as number two on our list of best documentary filmmakers!
1. Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side)
Alex Gibney has been described as the most important documentarian of our time. His Taxi to the Dark Side focused on the killing of an Afghani taxi driver named Dilawar by American soldiers. It rightfully won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.
On top of that, take a look at the sheer number of stellar documentaries that Alex Gibney has directed and produced:
- Park Avenue (2012)
- The Armstrong Lie (2013)
- We Steal Secrets (2013)
- Going Clear (2015)
- Sinatra: All or Nothing (2015)
- Zero Days (2016)
- Citizen K (2019)
- Totally Under Control (2020)
- Agents of Chaos (2020)
- Crazy, Not Insane (2020)
- The Forever Prisoner (2021)
- The Crime of the Century (2021)
For his work in documentary filmmaking, he was labeled as one of the 25 most important visionaries who are changing the world by Utne Reader.
With the sheer number of documentaries Gibney has either directed, produced, or been part of, he deserves to be on this list. But it's the quality of his content that lands him at the very top of our list of greatest documentary filmmakers of all time.