During the widespread COVID lockdowns of 2020, dozens of Americans decided to learn something new in their spare time, by taking up sourdough baking, woodworking or birdwatching. Many have also turned to documentaries to stimulate their minds. The documentaries were, in fact, the the fastest growing genre on streaming platforms in 2020.
The age of streaming has made non-fiction films more popular – and lucrative – than ever before. Documentaries have become more accessible to the public, and streaming platforms and production houses are putting more and more more money in films such as true-crime documentary series, celebrity biographies and cult exhibitses. (Similar topics are also fictional, of course – not always successfully. Here are the 50 worst movies based on true events.)
To identify the 50 best documentaries of all time, 24/7 Tempo examined the 22,407 films in our database for which data was available at a time IMDban online movie database owned by Amazon and rotten tomatoesan 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. (Directing credits are from IMDb.)
Click here to see the 50 best documentaries of all time
Some are harrowing tales straight from the mouths of people who survived some of the worst atrocities of our time, including the Holocaust and the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Many are concerts and band biographies. Others are inspiring tales of great sporting feats and the perseverance of those who achieved them. (Here are the 30 most inspiring films of the past 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 best, documentaries have the power to shape our worldview and motivate change.