Where can I find the best documentaries from the past 30 years or so?
July 18, 2013 12:38 AM   Subscribe

The Oscar nominees would be natural candidates, but as of '93, Ebert was complaining that the selection committee was completely unqualified: http://www.rogerebert.com/festivals-and-awards/oscarvoters-slight-best-documentaries . (As an aside: do his criticisms apply to the Academy Award documentary nominating committee today?) Where else should I look for credible lists of the best documentaries made recently?
posted by jtothes to Media & Arts (11 answers total) 47 users marked this as a favorite
 
Sundance has been big with documentary categories since 1984.
posted by DarlingBri at 12:44 AM on July 18, 2013


Going through the past winners of various documentary festivals would be a good start.
posted by mannequito at 1:03 AM on July 18, 2013


POV, the PBS documentary program, has a list of the top 25 (or a longer list of 100).

The IMDb keyword explorer includes documentary as a genre (and a whole bunch of user-created lists).
posted by dhartung at 3:14 AM on July 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


Rotten Tomatoes lists several documentaries in their "top reviewed of all time" section.
posted by chaiminda at 3:50 AM on July 18, 2013


I found the IMDb genre explorer confusing when it came to sorting/limiting the results, so I took their public flat files, scripted something to select all films since 1980 with more than 1000 ratings and not marked as TV shows, sorted them by a Bayesian re-estimation of their rating, selected all documentaries from the list, and selected the top 250.

Then I took all those titles, looked up their Rotten Tomatoes entries via the API, eliminated IMDb entries with no RT entry, and re-sorted by the RT score times the IMDb Bayesian score.

This may leave some weird stuff on the list--I haven't removed concert films, stand-up comedy, etc., which IMDb sometimes counts as documentary. I also can't promise there are no errors in the RT lookup--they allow inexact matches. And who knows if I made any logic errors along the way.

If that sounds OK to you, here are the top 202 documentaries since 1980.
IMDb Histo      Voters Score   Bayesian RT   RT * Bayes Title
0000001222	35374	8.2	8.164	98	8.001	Inside Job (imdb)
0000001321	9206	8.1	7.982	100	7.982	Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse (imdb)
0000001222	8724	8.0	7.887	100	7.887	The Thin Blue Line (imdb)
0000001222	14683	8.1	8.023	98	7.863	The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara (imdb)
0000001321	23363	7.9	7.859	100	7.859	Man on Wire (imdb)
0000001223	25989	8.4	8.344	94	7.843	The Cove (imdb)
0000001222	3542	8.1	7.836	100	7.836	The Times of Harvey Milk (imdb)
0000000233	27232	8.5	8.443	92	7.768	Senna (imdb)
0000001222	13054	8.0	7.922	98	7.764	Hoop Dreams (imdb)
0000000123	9227	8.4	8.253	94	7.758	Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father (imdb)
0000001312	5416	7.9	7.744	100	7.744	Taxi to the Dark Side (imdb)
0000001322	19542	8.1	8.042	96	7.720	Searching for Sugar Man (imdb)
0000001222	6433	8.2	8.025	96	7.704	Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (imdb)
0000001321	3378	7.9	7.672	100	7.672	Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory (imdb)
0000001222	98559	8.0	7.989	96	7.669	Bowling for Columbine (imdb)
0000001312	5296	7.9	7.741	99	7.664	Deliver Us from Evil (imdb)
0000001321	10097	7.9	7.810	98	7.654	Anvil: The Story of Anvil (imdb)
0000001321	31240	8.0	7.966	96	7.647	Exit Through the Gift Shop (imdb)
0000001321	9803	7.8	7.717	99	7.640	Jiro Dreams of Sushi (imdb)
0000001311	2567	7.9	7.620	100	7.620	Burden of Dreams (imdb)
0000000113	3884	7.8	7.616	100	7.616	Shoah (imdb)
0000001222	5941	8.2	8.013	95	7.612	No End in Sight (imdb)
0000001223	6070	8.0	7.844	97	7.609	Stop Making Sense (imdb)
0000001321	13278	7.9	7.830	97	7.595	Capturing the Friedmans (imdb)
0000001223	3090	7.8	7.580	100	7.580	TT3D: Closer to the Edge (imdb)
0000001321	5089	7.7	7.569	100	7.569	Waste Land (imdb)
0000001213	2789	7.8	7.562	100	7.562	Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media (imdb)
0000001321	9169	7.8	7.711	98	7.557	When We Were Kings (imdb)
0000001321	33107	7.9	7.871	96	7.556	Vals Im Bashir (imdb)
0000000223	2000	7.8	7.500	100	7.500	Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage (imdb)
0000002311	2632	7.7	7.480	100	7.480	The Atomic Cafe (imdb)
0000002211	18591	7.5	7.469	100	7.469	Roger & Me (imdb)
0000001321	2415	7.8	7.536	99	7.461	Bill Cunningham New York (imdb)
0000001311	26139	7.8	7.767	96	7.456	Food, Inc. (imdb)
0000001311	6865	7.8	7.686	97	7.455	Microcosmos: Le peuple de l'herbe (imdb)
0000001321	7517	7.7	7.606	98	7.454	Murderball (imdb)
0000001312	3711	7.6	7.451	100	7.451	Sound City (imdb)
0000001222	54207	8.0	7.980	93	7.421	Sicko (imdb)
0000000223	1017	7.9	7.404	100	7.404	The Act of Killing (imdb)
0000001222	8729	7.8	7.707	96	7.399	Le peuple migrateur (imdb)
0000001212	1635	7.7	7.396	100	7.396	4 Little Girls (imdb)
0000001321	18111	8.0	7.942	93	7.386	Touching the Void (imdb)
0000002311	7153	7.7	7.602	97	7.374	Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (imdb)
0000002310	3624	7.5	7.370	100	7.370	Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. (imdb)
0000001211	2026	7.6	7.369	100	7.369	Brother's Keeper (imdb)
0000002311	6282	7.7	7.590	97	7.362	GasLand (imdb)
0000001321	1300	7.7	7.352	100	7.352	Street Fight (imdb)
0000001212	1754	7.6	7.346	100	7.346	Paris Is Burning (imdb)
0000001212	2851	7.7	7.492	98	7.342	For the Bible Tells Me So (imdb)
0000001222	10231	7.8	7.720	95	7.334	Crumb (imdb)
0000001212	1137	7.7	7.326	100	7.326	The Decline of Western Civilization (imdb)
0000000223	1109	7.7	7.321	100	7.321	White Light/Black Rain: The Destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (imdb)
0000002211	2248	7.5	7.315	100	7.315	The Interrupters (imdb)
0000002212	1346	7.6	7.302	100	7.302	Hype! (imdb)
0000001312	6537	7.8	7.681	95	7.297	Marley (imdb)
0000002211	3143	7.4	7.279	100	7.279	The Invisible War (imdb)
0000001212	1138	7.6	7.273	100	7.273	Iraq for Sale: The War Profiteers (imdb)
0000000114	1748	7.7	7.409	98	7.261	Chavez: Inside the Coup (imdb)
0000001222	4149	7.9	7.706	94	7.244	In the Shadow of the Moon (imdb)
0000001211	4208	7.7	7.546	96	7.244	Control Room (imdb)
0000001321	4090	7.7	7.543	96	7.241	One Day in September (imdb)
0000001311	4012	7.7	7.540	96	7.238	Dig! (imdb)
0000001321	1644	7.8	7.460	97	7.236	Burma VJ: Reporter i et lukket land (imdb)
0000002311	27812	7.8	7.769	93	7.225	Grizzly Man (imdb)
0000002311	7980	7.6	7.522	96	7.221	Bigger Stronger Faster* (imdb)
0000001222	13915	8.1	8.020	90	7.218	The Corporation (imdb)
0000001222	2334	8.1	7.740	93	7.198	For All Mankind (imdb)
0000000223	1976	7.8	7.498	96	7.198	Promises (imdb)
0000001211	5789	7.6	7.497	96	7.197	Born Into Brothels: Calcutta's Red Light Kids (imdb)
0000012310	4734	7.4	7.313	98	7.167	Project Nim (imdb)
0000002311	9167	7.7	7.621	94	7.164	Encounters at the End of the World (imdb)
0000001211	3882	7.6	7.457	96	7.159	The Celluloid Closet (imdb)
0000002211	11284	7.5	7.451	96	7.153	Restrepo (imdb)
0000001223	18141	8.1	8.037	89	7.153	Koyaanisqatsi (imdb)
0000001411	2435	7.9	7.609	94	7.152	Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple (imdb)
0000001321	7016	7.8	7.688	93	7.150	Indie Game: The Movie (imdb)
0000001213	2143	7.7	7.445	96	7.147	Nanking (imdb)
0000001312	2211	7.8	7.520	95	7.144	End of the Century (imdb)
0000001211	1824	7.5	7.288	98	7.142	In film nist (imdb)
0000001321	3368	7.9	7.671	93	7.134	Little Dieter Needs to Fly (imdb)
0000002311	1713	7.5	7.279	98	7.133	Marwencol (imdb)
0000001212	1163	7.6	7.276	98	7.130	The Devil Came on Horseback (imdb)
0000002311	5090	7.6	7.485	95	7.111	Side by Side (imdb)
0000001311	1582	7.7	7.390	96	7.094	Deep Water (imdb)
0000001222	2434	7.7	7.467	95	7.094	The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill (imdb)
0000002311	4155	7.7	7.545	94	7.092	Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey (imdb)
0000002310	13133	7.5	7.458	95	7.085	The Imposter (imdb)
0000001311	2122	7.7	7.444	95	7.072	West of Memphis (imdb)
0000002311	1781	7.5	7.284	97	7.065	Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (imdb)
0000001211	7705	7.5	7.431	95	7.059	Pina (imdb)
0000001212	50882	7.6	7.587	93	7.056	An Inconvenient Truth (imdb)
0000002311	1602	7.6	7.331	96	7.038	The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers (imdb)
0000001212	2607	7.6	7.406	95	7.036	5 Broken Cameras (imdb)
0000001211	2660	7.7	7.481	94	7.032	My Winnipeg (imdb)
0000001222	1747	7.9	7.536	93	7.008	Lake of Fire (imdb)
0000002311	3783	7.5	7.375	95	7.006	The Filth and the Fury (imdb)
0000001213	3803	7.8	7.613	92	7.004	Sans soleil (imdb)
0000001222	7423	7.9	7.781	90	7.003	Metal: A Headbanger's Journey (imdb)
0000001312	1002	7.8	7.350	95	6.982	Charlie: The Life and Art of Charles Chaplin (imdb)
0000002311	1889	7.7	7.423	94	6.978	Visions of Light (imdb)
0000001322	2946	7.7	7.497	93	6.972	Riding Giants (imdb)
0000001222	1610	7.6	7.332	95	6.965	Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present (imdb)
0000012211	6485	7.3	7.247	96	6.957	Cave of Forgotten Dreams (imdb)
0000001312	1664	7.7	7.400	94	6.956	The House I Live In (imdb)
0000002311	2261	7.6	7.385	94	6.942	Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation! (imdb)
0000012211	3509	7.4	7.289	95	6.925	Best Worst Movie (imdb)
0000001222	1370	7.7	7.362	94	6.920	Children Underground (imdb)
0000002311	3344	7.6	7.439	93	6.918	The Tillman Story (imdb)
0000001212	1915	7.7	7.426	93	6.906	Scratch (imdb)
0000002311	1111	7.6	7.268	95	6.905	One Life (imdb)
0000002311	1390	7.5	7.249	95	6.887	The Trials of Henry Kissinger (imdb)
0000002311	2420	7.5	7.325	94	6.885	The White Diamond (imdb)
0000001212	1120	7.7	7.323	94	6.884	Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport (imdb)
0000002212	2612	7.7	7.479	92	6.881	Imagine: John Lennon (imdb)
0000012311	2077	7.4	7.238	95	6.876	The War Room (imdb)
0000012311	58785	7.4	7.392	93	6.875	Super Size Me (imdb)
0000001211	4169	7.7	7.545	91	6.866	Dark Days (imdb)
0000012310	1695	7.5	7.277	94	6.840	Woody Allen: A Documentary (imdb)
0000002311	7421	7.5	7.429	92	6.835	Dogtown and Z-Boys (imdb)
0000013310	7441	7.3	7.253	94	6.818	Lost in La Mancha (imdb)
0000001223	2023	8.3	7.837	87	6.818	The Last Lions (imdb)
0000002311	5668	7.5	7.410	92	6.817	Armadillo (imdb)
0000001322	5232	7.8	7.656	89	6.814	The Devil and Daniel Johnston (imdb)
0000002211	2347	7.6	7.391	92	6.800	Standing in the Shadows of Motown (imdb)
0000002311	1421	7.6	7.311	93	6.799	The Central Park Five (imdb)
0000001222	23543	8.1	8.051	84	6.763	The King of Kong (imdb)
0000001312	1255	7.7	7.345	92	6.757	An Unreasonable Man (imdb)
0000001222	3077	7.7	7.504	90	6.754	Young @ Heart (imdb)
0000002311	2457	7.6	7.398	91	6.732	The Weather Underground (imdb)
0000001212	1234	7.5	7.231	93	6.725	Paragraph 175 (imdb)
0000002211	9642	7.4	7.353	91	6.691	Buena Vista Social Club (imdb)
0000012211	2061	7.4	7.237	92	6.658	A Brief History of Time (imdb)
0000012211	4777	7.3	7.231	92	6.653	The Kid Stays in the Picture (imdb)
0000001322	1490	7.7	7.379	90	6.641	The White Stripes Under Great White Northern Lights (imdb)
0000001212	2058	7.6	7.371	90	6.634	Neil Young: Heart of Gold (imdb)
0000000123	1389	7.7	7.365	90	6.629	My Flesh and Blood (imdb)
0000002212	9142	7.6	7.531	88	6.627	Who Killed the Electric Car? (imdb)
0000002212	1119	7.6	7.270	91	6.616	Deep Sea (imdb)
0000001213	1255	7.7	7.345	90	6.611	New York Doll (imdb)
0000001222	2090	7.8	7.509	88	6.608	Waco: The Rules of Engagement (imdb)
0000012210	6870	7.3	7.249	91	6.597	Into the Abyss (imdb)
0000001311	6147	7.9	7.760	85	6.596	Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures (imdb)
0000000223	18054	8.3	8.227	80	6.582	Baraka (imdb)
0000001212	1400	7.6	7.308	90	6.577	The Last Days (imdb)
0000002311	1818	7.4	7.223	91	6.573	Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest (imdb)
0000000016	2271	7.7	7.455	88	6.560	The Other Dream Team (imdb)
0000001222	4089	7.9	7.703	85	6.548	George Harrison: Living in the Material World (imdb)
0000002211	7896	7.4	7.344	89	6.536	Waiting for Superman (imdb)
0000002311	2358	7.5	7.321	89	6.516	Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten (imdb)
0000001311	2635	7.8	7.552	86	6.495	The Pixar Story (imdb)
0000001212	3969	7.5	7.379	88	6.494	Shut Up & Sing (imdb)
0000002311	14763	7.5	7.462	87	6.492	Jesus Camp (imdb)
0000002211	10347	7.4	7.356	88	6.473	Metallica: Some Kind of Monster (imdb)
0000001311	2488	7.6	7.399	87	6.437	The Pervert's Guide to Cinema (imdb)
0000001212	3779	7.6	7.454	86	6.410	Crossing the Bridge: The Sound of Istanbul (imdb)
0000002311	9471	7.6	7.533	85	6.403	Spellbound (imdb)
0000001312	2102	7.7	7.442	86	6.400	Hubble 3D (imdb)
0000002311	1391	7.6	7.307	87	6.357	Happy People: A Year in the Taiga (imdb)
0000002211	8732	7.4	7.349	86	6.320	The Road to Guantanamo (imdb)
0000001212	5118	7.5	7.402	85	6.292	Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism (imdb)
0000002311	18979	7.5	7.470	84	6.275	This Film Is Not Yet Rated (imdb)
0000002311	8364	7.5	7.436	84	6.246	Tyson (imdb)
0000002211	1494	7.5	7.259	86	6.243	I.O.U.S.A. (imdb)
0000001222	7853	7.9	7.787	80	6.230	Why We Fight (imdb)
0000001212	92908	7.5	7.494	83	6.220	Fahrenheit 9/11 (imdb)
0000001212	4464	7.7	7.554	82	6.194	Collapse (imdb)
0000001223	7277	8.2	8.043	77	6.193	Samsara (imdb)
0000001321	1818	7.7	7.416	83	6.155	Bukowski: Born into This (imdb)
0000002211	1310	7.5	7.240	85	6.154	The Art of the Steal (imdb)
0000001212	3092	7.7	7.504	82	6.153	American: The Bill Hicks Story (imdb)
0000001212	1037	7.7	7.307	84	6.138	The Future of Food (imdb)
0000002311	5478	7.8	7.661	80	6.129	Mein liebster Feind - Klaus Kinski (imdb)
0000001312	1355	7.7	7.360	83	6.109	Klitschko (imdb)
0000001222	2399	7.8	7.535	80	6.028	Bill Cosby: Himself (imdb)
0000001211	9556	7.6	7.534	80	6.027	Life in a Day (imdb)
0000001222	2312	7.8	7.528	80	6.022	War Photographer (imdb)
0000002211	7067	7.5	7.426	80	5.941	It Might Get Loud (imdb)
0000002211	5386	7.3	7.237	82	5.934	Beyond the Mat (imdb)
0000001213	3044	7.7	7.502	79	5.927	Sharkwater (imdb)
0000001213	5866	7.7	7.583	78	5.915	Tupac: Resurrection (imdb)
0000001213	1022	7.7	7.304	80	5.843	Latcho Drom (imdb)
0000002211	3407	7.5	7.364	79	5.818	The Yes Men Fix the World (imdb)
0000012211	11494	7.3	7.268	80	5.814	Eddie Murphy Raw (imdb)
0000002211	2556	7.4	7.259	80	5.807	Standard Operating Procedure (imdb)
0000000123	13399	8.4	8.296	70	5.807	Home (imdb)
0000002311	1711	7.6	7.342	77	5.653	A Decade Under the Influence (imdb)
0000001223	1400	7.6	7.308	77	5.627	The War on Democracy (imdb)
0000002211	25750	7.3	7.285	75	5.464	Capitalism: A Love Story (imdb)
0000001311	6600	7.8	7.682	69	5.301	Cocaine Cowboys (imdb)
0000001212	39819	7.7	7.680	69	5.299	Religulous (imdb)
0000000123	1609	7.6	7.332	72	5.279	How to Make Money Selling Drugs (imdb)
0000001223	4488	8.0	7.800	67	5.226	Pearl Jam Twenty (imdb)
0000002212	2991	7.4	7.275	71	5.165	We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists (imdb)
0000002212	2839	7.4	7.270	71	5.162	More Than a Game (imdb)
0000000124	2440	7.7	7.467	67	5.003	U2 3D (imdb)
0000001212	2379	7.6	7.393	67	4.953	Fat, Sick & Nearly Dead (imdb)
0000012211	2152	7.4	7.241	67	4.851	Deep Blue (imdb)
0000001212	10685	7.7	7.632	61	4.656	American Movie (imdb)
0000001212	2708	7.4	7.265	59	4.286	Forks Over Knives (imdb)
0000001321	1841	7.8	7.483	40	2.993	Stevie (imdb)
0000000115	2039	7.7	7.437	27	2.008	America: Freedom to Fascism (imdb)
0000001312	10332	7.9	7.812	21	1.641	Earth (imdb)

posted by Monsieur Caution at 4:30 AM on July 18, 2013 [36 favorites]


That pbs 100 list is great! Many thanks.

As it was published in December 2012, there have been a number of new documentaries that I think deserve to be on such a list.

First and foremost, this year's astonishing and remarkable documentary The Act of Killing.
posted by Mister Bijou at 4:37 AM on July 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


OK, Monsieur Caution's list will be hard to match, but here is something I have been using as a reference to look for great documentaries:
The 200 best documentaries

This list is compiled by Kevin Nelly and is very well done. In case you can't get the pdf at the link above, you can find it here.

A great documentary from 2012 is Chasing Ice.

Also, not to be overlooked, is the fantastic documentaries on offer at PBS Frontline. Truly a great source for in-depth exposés on all sorts of topics.
posted by Vindaloo at 4:57 AM on July 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm in the biz and I go by the IDA awards and nominations.
posted by Ideefixe at 5:30 AM on July 18, 2013


The DGA's awards are also good, but the Oscars haven't gotten any better.
posted by Ideefixe at 5:35 AM on July 18, 2013


I've seen a lot of the movies on Mr. Caution's list, and it's a DAMNED good list. I'm copying it to keep right now.
posted by cnc at 1:02 PM on July 18, 2013


Toronto has the annual Hot Docs film festival, and they keep an iTunes library of fan favourites.
posted by heatherann at 6:18 AM on July 19, 2013


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