Henry Shipes hunting

Documentaries can fulfill any number of purposes. Some of them advocate for specific positions, delivering passionate and even polemical arguments for their cause. Some seek to tell an intrinsically interesting story, and some portray specific corners of life or culture. And they’re as varied in style as they are in content. Direct interviews, voiceovers, asynchronous footage without explanations, reenactments, animation — the sheer breadth and depth of the field made assembling this list a definite challenge, but we did our best to round up the all-time best documentaries from all across the spectrum. The one thing these have in common is that they’re all excellent in their own particular ways.

Updated on August 6, 2021: Even as we’re writing this, new documentaries are being released, so it’s our goal to make sure that we only feature the best of the best. We’ll update this article periodically to account for any new hits or recently rediscovered gems — films that will make you learn something, feel something, or both.

Anwar Congo happy
unnamed man in Mardi Gras costume
Aretha Franklin singing with gospel choir
Mark Borchardt making movie
Neil Armstrong listening
Tilikum performs
Michael Moore interviewing Charlton Heston
Ward brother talking
Werner Herzog talking
Jacques Derrida smiling
David Friedman talking
Harvey Fierstein interviewed
crowd protests racism
Tessie Prevost sits with mother
Edward Snowden works on laptop
Catalin Tolontin talking
R. Crumb drawing
Kate and David Bagby interviewed
Darby Crash with spider crawling on arm
Dick Johnson in simulated heaven
Bob Dylan plays guitar
Banksy interviewed in shadows
Orson Welles wearing hat
Agnes Varda smiling
Dave Hoover taming lion
Vivian Maier photos
astronaut on space walk
Waad al-Kateab filming herself in mirror
Alex Honnold climbing cliff
Billy McFarland with phone
Alice Waters with garlic cloves
Mick Jagger singing
Agnes Varda carrying wheat
Little Edie Beale adjusts scarf
Timothy Treadwell with bear
Lois Scott pulls handgun from bra
General William Westmoreland interviewed
Francis Ford Coppola interviewed
principal assigns detentions
William Gates plays basketball
James Baldwin looking up
Frédéric Bourdin close-up
Akira Hamada close-up
Barack Obama making speech
Jane Goodall with binoculars
Jiro Ono studies order pad
Alejandro Jodorowsky talking
Kate Lyn Sheil playing Christine Chubbuck
Truck billows smoke
Ronnie Hawkins and Robbie Robertson performing
Kuwait oil field burning
Roger Ebert talking
Inong in optometrist lenses
Philippe Petit stepping on tightrope
Unnamed man and tripod on top of camera
penguin parents stand with chick
Ida Orliffe points to picture
Keire Johnson smiling
Ravi Shankar playing sitar
Mark Zupan playing wheelchair rugby
Nanook smiling
concentration camp fence
O.J. Simpson interviewed
Jay Reinke leaning in
Venux Xtravaganza with stereo
Jackie Siegel holds dog
crowd of people in masks
Sixto Rodriguez in sunglasses
Pierre Mendès France talking
David Byrne dances
Sarah Polley editing film
Randall Dale Adams interview
Jafar Panahi sitting at table
Bobby Shafran, Eddy Galland, and David Kellman together
Harvey Milk campaigning
Jim walking
Jojo colors
Athletes running
Claire Wilson James rotoscoped
Judith Hall ready to sing
Nick laughing
Henry Shipes gestures
Man carries gorilla
Boaz and Ari Folman talk in bar
James Carville talks on phone
Warrendale workers hold student
Anthony Weiner talking on phone
Muhammad Ali giving speech
Fred Rogers talks to kid
Joe Cocker singing