1. The Battle of the Somme (1916)
No list would be complete without the film that started the genre. Arguably the first documentary, this film was shot by two official British war cinematographers in the early days of the Battle of the Somme. Premiering in August of 1916, it showed British forces in trench warfare, marching infantry, artillery firing on German positions, British troops waiting to attack on 1 July, treatment of wounded British and German soldiers, British and German dead and captured German equipment and positions. One scene was even staged for cameras. The film was hugely successful, seen by 20 million people in the first six weeks of exhibition and went on to be distributed in 18 other countries.
In 1920, the film became part of the archives of the Imperial War Museum, and was released on DVD in 2008 after being added to UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register in 2005.
2. Man on a Wire (2008)
In 1974, Philipe Petit covertly strung up a high wire between the Twin Towers and walked across. The performance lasted for a heart-stopping hour and resulted in Petit’s arrest, but the 94 minute film also includes footage of the preparation, still photographs, re-enactments, and present-day interviews. This award-winning documentary is a must see.
3. Civil War (1990)
Ken Burns is the master of the documentary, and Civil War is one of his award-winning (40 film and television honors in all) best. 40 million viewers watched the five-night documentary of more than 10 hours, making it the most-watched program ever to air on PBS.
4. Weiner (2016)
For fans of politics, schadenfreude, or a combination of the two, this 2013 documentary is not to be topped. The documentary follows Anthony Weiners run for mayor of New York, which he hopes will be a comeback after he was forced to resign from congress after a sex scandal. However, during the filming of this 96-minute film, Weiner gets caught in a brand-new one. Just try to look away.
5. March of the Penguins (2006)
A little something for the animal lovers out there. This film follows emperor penguins in Antarctica as they “march” from the ocean to their breeding grounds, court their mate, and hatch a chick. They then go back and forth from the ocean several more times over the next few months. This film captured the hearts of audiences worldwide, more than $127 million- and the Oscar for best documentary.
6. Spellbound (2002)
I’ll admit it, I really love words. I just do. So do the eight kids in this film, which was nominated for an Academy Award, that follows eight students as they prepare for the 1999 Scripps National Spelling Bee. It’s an intense experience as the kids study and train, and you’ll find yourself as invested as you are in any sporting event.
If you like this one, you should also check out Wordplay.
If you’re into true crime, you’ll be riveted by TalHotBlond tells the story of a young woman who was involved in a love triangle with two coworkers: a man her age and a much older man. When things go bad, one of them ends up dead, and you’ll have to watch the documentary to see how it all ends.