20 greatest documentaries

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Anna Pollitt
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Fact is stranger than fiction, and often so much more entertaining. With that in mind we've gathered 20* of the best documentaries from the worlds of music, sport, art, human interest, politics, history and yes sorry - we couldn't resist - mockumentaries. Some subjects are too cool - think DA Pennebaker’s portrait of Bob Dylan in Dont Look Back - a rock documentary rebellious even in its use of apostrophes, while others are fascinating in their fragility, like the fallen socialites Big Edie and Little Edie living in their crumbling mansion in Grey Gardens. We've included those who used the powerful medium for good, like Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth and Eroll Morris' Thin Blue Line to the talented filmmakers like Leni Riefenstahl who used revolutionary techniques to promote a lie. Next time you're in the mood for some real life but there's only TOWIE on the TV, consider checking out some of the great works, listed in no particular order, below.

*There are thousands of documentaries and hundreds of great ones - Stylist has picked 20 we like, but why not let us know the ones that make your top list in the comments section below, or on Twitter.

Words: Anna Pollitt. Picture credits: Rex Features

1. Man On Wire

In 1974 French tightrope walker Phillippe Petit, 24, committed "the artistic crime of the century" when he defied New York authorities and walked, danced and performed acrobatics, on a wire he had illegally rigged from one World Trade Center to the other.

Directed by James Marsh, this 2008 Oscar-winning documentary uses archive footage, contemporary interviews and recreated scenes to tell the tale behind the artist, the stunt and how it changed his life and the lives of those around him.

2. Valentino: The Last Emperor

“An evening dress that reveals a woman's ankles when she is walking is the most disgusting thing I have ever seen.”

Valentino Garavani, one of the fiercest perfectionists in high fashion, is the subject of a fascinating 2009 documentary by Vanity Fair’s Matt Tyrnauer, who spent two years shooting more than 250 hours of the great Italian designer at work and at play and his unique 45-year sponsored_longform with Giancarlo Giametti.

3. Dont Look Back

"Give the anarchist a cigarette".

Pioneering director DA Pennebaker’s single camera followed the poetic, enigmatic, Bob Dylan’s every move on his 1965 three-week concert tour of England, as the 23-year-old star was teetering on an extreme change in musical direction.

With no fancy camera work, close-ups or explanations, the viewer is allowed to share intimate moments with the singer, including the famous party scene in which he effortlessly trampled over the talents of Scottish rival Donovan by following up his rendition of “To Sing for You” with an astounding “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.”

4. This Is Spinal Tap

"There's such a fine line between clever and stupid"

Almost 20 years on from one of the greatest of all rock documentaries, Dont Look Back, came the father of all mockumentaries, the genre-defining This is Spinal Tap.

The depiction of the “world’s loudest band” on their 1982 US comeback tour, supposedly filmed by a fan, was so brilliantly shot and improvised that many cinema-goers at the time of the film's release were unaware it was a parody.

5. Best In Show

“Now tell me, which one of these dogs would you want to have as your wide receiver on your football team?”

This hilarious mockumentary follows the surreal lives of five dogs and their proud owners as they head for Philadelphia’s Mayflower Kennel Club Dog Show. Written and directed by Christopher Guest, of This Is Spinal Tapfame, his skeleton script is made brilliant by the improvisational talents of actors including Catherine O’Hara, Eugene Levy and Parker Posey.

6. Man with a Movie Camera

“Attention viewers: This film is an experiment in cinematic communication of real events without the help of intertitles, a story, or theatre. This experimental work aims at creating a truly international language of cinema based on its absolute separation from the language of theatre and literature.”

In 1929 Russian propaganda director Dziga Vertov released a sensational, experimental silent documentary film with no story and no actors - relying on the most advanced cinematic techniques of the period to portray the vibrant potential of post-revolutionary Russia.

Edited by his wife, Elizabeth Svilova, the daily routine of a city, from its inhabitants morning rush through to relaxed evenings, is depicted through split-screens, double-exposure, slow motion and ampliation. The film is still considered one of the most influential of all time.

7. Senna

“Pure driving, pure racing, that's what makes me happy.”

Both thrilling and heartbreaking, Asif Kapadia’s 2011 documentary examines Brazilian F1 legend Ayrton Senna’s 10 years in the limelight and how the strength of his passion and ambition made him one of the greatest racing drivers the world has ever seen.

8. An Inconvenient Truth

"I've been trying to tell this story for a long time and I feel as if I've failed to get the message across."

In 2006 Gore tried to get his message about global warming across through a movie. Directed brilliantly by Davis Guggenheim, An Inconvenient Truth not only starkly highlights the damage that man-made pollution brings to the planet, it really manages to entertain its terrified audience. A critical and box-office success, it won two Oscars.

9. Grey Gardens

“It's my mother's house and she owns it. She wanted the people she wanted in it, and she didn't want the people that I wanted in it.”

This 1975 documentary by Albert and David Maysles explores the reclusive existence of two eccentric, yet charming, former socialites, who were aunt and first cousin to Jackie Kennedy, as their mansion Grey Gardens descended into squalor.

Residents of the upper-class East Hamptons area of New York complained to the authorities about the smell and animal infestation - there were over 300 cats in the house - and the cult documentary follows the women as their home underwent what they termed “raids” by environmental inspectors, and their fate after Onassis and her sister Lee Radziwill provided the funds to repair the house.

10. 9/11: The Falling Man

“Did that person have so much faith that he knew God would catch him, or was he so afraid to experience the end up there?”

This 2006 TV documentary explores the iconic AP image of a man falling from one of the burning Twin Towers on 9/11 - a picture that represented the fate of many victims who were forced to jump from the buildings but one that provoked criticism of the papers that chose to run it. The man in the picture was later identified as restaurant worker Jonathan Briley, though this has not been possible to confirm.

11. The Lumière Brothers - First Films

The French brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière are credited with making the first ever documentary films in the 1890s. With titles such as The exit from the Lumière factory in Lyon, the short films were primitive steps into the genre but the slapstick of L'Arroseur Arrosé, or The Tables Turned on the Gardener, as it is known in English, demonstrated an early move towards comedy.

12. Bowling For Columbine

“I'm here to open up an account … I want the account where I can get the free gun.”

Michael Moore provocatively explored the causes of the 1999 Columbine High School massacre and the link between the American public’s widespread gun ownership and the country’s high crime rate in his Oscar-winning 2002 documentary.

The film saw him needle National Rifle Association president Charlton Heston over his appearance at a pro-gun rally a few days after the school massacre, and interview singer Marilyn Manson over his vilification by social pundits who claimed his music was a contributing factor to the killings.

13. Woodstock

“This is the largest group of people ever assembled in one place, and I think you people have proven something to the world: that a half a million kids can get together and have three days of fun and music and have nothing but fun and music. And I God bless you for it!” Farm owner Max Yasgur, who provided the land for Woodstock

Billed as three days of Peace and Music, the famous 1969 Woodstock Festival was documented from preparation to clean-up, with music, drugs and naked mud-sliding in between, in an Oscar-winning movie by Michael Wadleigh, edited by Thelma Schoonmaker and Martin Scorsese.

It may be three and a half hours long, but the movie provides such a unique and entertaining snapshot of the people, music and ideologies that made the 60s swinging it’s still billed as one of the most entertaining of all time.

14. Koyaanisqatsi

"It's not for lack of love of the language that these films have no words. It's because, from my point of view, our language is in a state of vast humiliation. It no longer describes the world in which we live." Godfrey Reggio

Also known as Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance, this visually stunning art-house hit uses slow motion, time-lapse footage and powerful music to convey humans’ impact on nature. Reggio spent years filming the 1983 cult classic and followed it up with sequels Powaqqatsi and Naqoyqatsi.

15. Shoah

Jewish-French filmmaker Claude Lanzmann’s nine-and-a-half hour film about the Holocaust features survivors, witnesses and even perpetrators, as well as visits to key Holocaust sites.

Described by movie critic Roger Ebert as “an act of witness,” this 1985 film is an epic masterpiece that makes for difficult but important viewing.

16. The Thin Blue Line

Not many films can take the credit for saving an innocent man from the electric chair but that’s exactly what Errol Morris did with his 1988 film study of Randall Dale Adams, who was wrongly convicted of murdering a Dallas police officer during a routine traffic stop in 1976.

The techniques Morris applied in The Thin Blue Line - gripping crime scene reenactments and face-to-camera interviews - changed the face of documentaries forever and led the genre into a thrilling new era.

17. When We Were Kings

“I'm young, I'm handsome, I'm fast, I'm pretty and can't possibly be beat.” Muhammad Ali

Leon Gast documented Ali’s legendary 1974 “Rumble in the Jungle” with a youthful George Foreman, but due to legal and financial setbacks the Oscar-winning movie did not hit cinema screens until 1996.

The revealing portrait laid bare an ageing Ali’s talent, charisma and doggedness during the world heavyweight championship fight in Zaire. A relentless Ali pioneered the rope-a-dope technique, whispered insults such as “you punch like a girl” in reigning champion Foreman’s ear as they fought, and still managed a wink for a ring girl while he was lying half beaten - despite having a wife at home and a girlfriend on tour - before eventually knocking Foreman out in the eighth round.

18. Supersize Me

"My body ... officially hates me."

Motivated by the increasing spread of obesity throughout the US, in 2004 the intrepid Morgan Spurlock examined the influence of the fast food industry by making himself the subject of a unique experiment - to eat nothing but McDonalds for 30 days.

With three square Maccy D meals a day averaging around 5,000 calories, the resultant damaging effects on his physical, mental and sexual well-being certainly provided food for thought.

19. Triumph of the Will

"Next to Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock, Leni Riefenstahl was the most technically talented Western film maker of her era". Mark Cousins, The Story of Film

Riefenstahl 's infamous 1935 pro-Nazi film is one of the best-known examples of propaganda in film history, using techniques that are still copied in political campaigns and advertisements today. The power of the film, which centred on the Nuremberg rally, also provokes questions on the very concept of a documentary and how reality is manipulated.

20. The Up Series

This remarkable series of documentaries follows the lives of 14 British kids from 1964 through into adulthood, with the participants - who were chosen from a wide range of backgrounds - interviewed every seven years.

The original hypothesis of Michael Apted's Granada Television series was that the UK's class system would predetermine a person's life path. The next installment is due next month.


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Anna Pollitt

Anna is a freelance writer and editor who’s been making her dime from online since 2007. She’s a regular at, ITV News and Emerald Street and moonlights as a copywriter and digital content consultant.