The 20 Greatest Documentary Filmmakers of All Time

7. Steve James

In 2014, the world was on its way to coming around to what most people with even passing knowledge of documentary already knew: Steve James’ compassionate approach to psychologically damaged and sociologically unfortunate Americans might be the most important voice we have today. That realization was to come because of James’ sensitive portrait of film critic Roger Ebert’s last days in Life Itself. Yet, the awards and acclaim came to an abrupt stop when James was once again snubbed by the Academy Awards, just as he has been throughout his career.

Granted an award is ordinarily a useless barometer of a filmmaker’s success, especially considering the trophies already sitting on James’ shelf, but for a man attempting to show hidden heroes to the most people possible to be shunned by a resource with the most power in movies it’s telling of how dangerous James’ films can subtly be.

Hoop Dreams

It may sound reductive to say that James has an eye for unknown supermen, but this may very well be the best way to describe his sensibilities. In 1994, James made Hoop Dreams, which may well put all that nonfiction can do in the spotlight. Starting as a modest basketball documentary for television, James wound up following two promising hoopsters for four years of high school, capturing the ups and downs of sports recruiting and cut throat selection biases.

Folded into his eventual 3-hour epic are indictments of a capitalistic process that spots opportunities in the poorest neighborhoods, only to spit them away if they no longer serve the needs of a ruling class. With hardly an opinionated moment, James lets his scenes do the talking. Taken together, James’ work creates one of the most American canons cinema has ever afforded us.


8. Claude Lanzmann

As with others on this list, Claude Lanzmann’s greatness has less to do with the amount of work he’s created as the lasting impression his most important work has left. In Shoah, Lanzmann trains his camera on people of various backgrounds, linked only by their involvement in the Holocaust.

Where Alain Resnais’ Night and Fog resonates because of its close proximity to the gruesome event – seeming to arrive before the dust has even formed – Shoah comes almost 40 years later and this distance becomes a major part of the point. With time, wounds don’t heal so much as life simply goes on. And within that movement of time comes accepted justifications of the past, allowing perpetrators to make sense of their guilt, and hoping they can avoid being defined by it. All while survivors must proceed with a life now scarred and severely detoured.


Shoah isn’t so much about the Holocaust as it is a meditation on ways that we see the past. In books we get one image of the forgotten moments of time. While still, from the memories of those who lived that past, a subjectivity can blossom that stilts the truth through one specific lens. The blurred line between truth and fiction is fundamentally at the core of any nonfiction work. Lanzmann uses the document of memory to illustrate that the line isn’t so much blurred as it’s hardly there at all.

Night and Fog drops in on the Holocaust in the direct aftermath and the effect is like making sense of a murder scene without any facts beyond the blood that has barely dried. Lanzmann’s film comes after many of the Nazis have died or moved on, as have anybody who was victimized by them. So, where does a history stand if not only in our minds? On camera? In text? Or only as a figment of a collective imagination? And when that memory fades, can we grow from it, or is the only thing we learn from the past that nothing is learned from the past?


9. Chris Marker

Like Jean Rouch and Alain Resnais, Chris Marker made his life’s work on the periphery of the French New Wave. While never fully inside the circle of merry pranksters who shredded accepted notions of cinema, he was also hardly far from it. As such, Marker’s films are always a good bit of nonfiction with narrative constructions. Again like Rouch, Marker made the presence of his technique known with a self-awareness that was, even when theoretically fiction, closer to documentary.

His films, such as 1984’s San Soleil, are constructed around a point, with moments of reality used to illuminate via atmosphere and naturalism. Furthermore, his less obviously nonfiction efforts, such as La Jetée, a remarkable photo-film, also makes known that there’s a hand constructing moments around an idea – this time a narrative one. As Rouch not only allowed viewers to be aware of the camera but also made that awareness part of the greater point, so to does Marker see the very construction of cinematic elements as folded into his greater choices.

San Soleil

Films are constructed like memories, where the parts that make sense are simplified and combined to get a way of understanding the complex realities of life. San Soleil uses cinema to confound and expand upon selective memory as well as collective historical memories.

We are not only one as individuals but one as a collective whole whose memories grow combined via conditioning. Just as the Up series displays an understanding that film, at its core, is primarily about the passage of compressed time, Marker’s work bends that time to fit the convoluted loss of time that comes from how our memories blotting out pieces while creating fabricated truths.


10. Albert and David Maysles

If you can’t tell the difference between Direct Cinema and Cinema Verite, only the very pretentious might blame you. But the short version goes something like, the Maysles brothers along with other Robert Drew Associates took an even more drastic approach to filming their subjects by attempting to allow their cameras to be flies on the walls of where they filmed.

In the years since, this term and Cinema Verite have both been declared reductive as all filmmakers, if not especially the Maysles brothers, put a specific stamp on their films. Yet, it’s too the Maysles’ credit that what is mostly memorable in their work are the characters they captured. In fact, the popularity of such work as Grey Gardens and Gimme Shelter may actually understate the dynamism of their true impact.

Gimme Shelter

The Maysles’ are skilled at turning the camera on small moments, such as Little Edie and Big Edie touching hands while each lying in bed, or Mick Jagger looking on in distinct horror while watching the stabbing that occurred as the Rolling Stones played Altamont. While Direct Cinema may purport to be just a fly on the wall, the Maysles’ efforts to create a staged moment is paramount, not unlike Rouch with Chronicle of a Summer, because within these contained situations the truest form of performance can be shed.

As Jagger loses his act for a moment in Gimme Shelter, Little Edie never stops putting on a show in Grey Gardens. With Salesman, bible sellers are in situations where their entire livelihoods depend on how good of an act they put on. Life, for the Maysles’ brothers, is a stage and the only way to view it is from a close distance.


11. Michael Moore

While Michael Moore may be credited for or vilified for the recent deluge of over-manipulated documentaries and reality programs infesting our culture, his roots as a documentary filmmaker never entirely came from a naturalistic place. It’s not as if Moore’s boisterous approach ever made any bones about the intention to make a real world point as loudly, aggressively, and entertainingly as possible. In Moore’s oeuvre, cutting to the core of a cultural problem means opening as many eyes to that problem as possible. Or, putting as many butts in the seats as possible.

A concept that only a few decades ago felt laughable for documentaries. He did this first in 1989 with an auspicious debut, Roger and Me, wherein the titular ‘Roger’ is Roger Smith, the then CEO of GM and the ‘Me’ is Moore himself. Only Roger never does make an appearance in the film and it’s that very disconnect between the average citizen and the corporations that absorb so much of their earnings that Moore is getting at.

From the very title, Moore establishes his intention to be involved in the film in every way and his hand remained on everything he did from his The Awful Truth TV Series to the Academy Award-winning Bowling For Columbine all the way to the groundbreaking and controversial Fahrenheit 9/11.

Fahrenheit 9-11

Beyond the controversy that must be addressed in any discussion of Moore’s canon, his filmmaking is undeniably magnetizing. Often using segues into humor to make difficult topics palatable, he grew out of the path paved by biting stand-up comedians and made way for offbeat news such as The Daily Show and The Colbert Report to grow in popularity.

It may be a matter of good timing, but Moore’s brand of docu-entertainment landed at the moment more and more networks were appearing, springing for cheap nonfiction content and prosumer cameras allowed anybody with a story to tell to potentially bring it to life. In short, after Michael Moore documentaries came out from under the rock of academia that had hidden it for decades and became a form people of all kinds took as serious entertainment.


12. Errol Morris

Legend has it that Werner Herzog was so convinced that Errol Morris, at the time a Philosophy Grad living in Wisconsin, wouldn’t follow through on his hopes of making a finished documentary that he would eat his shoe if the young man actually did. Well, he did, and Herzog ate the shoe, and Les Blank filmed it. Perhaps no better story of three great documentarians could ever be told. But the real story is that from that bet, a tremendous film called Gates of Heaven was born, as was a the career of perhaps America’s most dynamic nonfiction voice.

After Gates of Heaven and the follow-up Vernon, Florida, each of which use a decidedly unobtrusive style, Morris has gone on to be perhaps the most well-known documentary filmmaker of the past few decades. His break onto the international scene came with 1988’s The Thin Blue Line, which used cinematic recreations and the interrogation-style interviews that would become a staple of Morris’ pursuits of truth.

The Thin Blue Line movie

The Thin Blue Line is perhaps as famous for exonerating a wrongfully convicted murderer as it is a groundbreaking piece of filmmaking. Since The Thin Blue Line, Morris has used cinema as a way to pursue a sense of reality that he believes to be subjective. In fact, in Morris’ films, characters are allowed to contradict themselves, lie to our faces, and contort the facts.

For Morris, unlike most documentarians, the very effort to tell a true story is flawed, as regardless of how hard we may try to get at a unified truth, the actual facts lie only in us as individuals. No more is this the case than in Morris’ The Fog of War, wherein former Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, tells his side of the story behind the Vietnam War. At first McNamara evades, escapes, and runs, but by the end he regrets. It’s fascinating to watch justification and confession happen all in one space, in front of one camera.


13. Marcel Ophuls

Before Michael Moore became the poster child for bringing serious subjects to a broad audience, Marcel Ophuls’ The Sorrow and the Pity was the standard bearer. Seeming to play in theaters for decades, The Sorrow and the Pity may be as much a joke as it is a sobering examination of the Nazi occupation of France during World War II. The movie even pops up in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall as a way to further expose the neurotic central character as someone who revels in self-pity and morbidity.

However, on a larger scale, The Sorrow and the Pity may well be the first film to gain large scale attention, not only as an academic history but, for lack of a better word, entertainment. Not unlike Ken Burns’ films years later, Ophuls was interested in the amusement value of information.

Like his brother Max, Marcel directed narratives as well. Ophuls even made Banana Peel, a smash hit that starred Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jeanne Moreau. That sensibility doesn’t on the surface match the material from his documentary work, though it may be precisely what that material needed after decades of being swept under the rug.

The Sorrow and the Pity

Beyond The Sorrow and the Pity, Ophuls also made a handful of other successful documentaries. In 1972, he made Sense of Loss, one of the first and still only documentaries to look at the persistent struggles of Northern Ireland. The following year he bankrupted himself making a difficult comparison between the American occupation in Vietnam and the Nazi regime in The Memory of Justice.

The film proceeded Peter Davis’ Hearts and Minds by only a year and more bluntly examines the dark, manipulative techniques of America’s foreign policy. Ophuls, after years working on TV documentaries, returned with Hôtel Terminus: The Life and Times of Klaus Barbie, for which he won the Academy Award for Best Documentary. 

Hôtel Terminus is a damning, though intricate, look at the life of a Nazi war criminal, from his unassuming upbringing to his deportation to Bolivia after years with the Gestapo. A theme running through all of Ophuls’ work is the idea that justification is at the very heart of all evil and acts of horror are only a matter of perception.