The 25 Best Documentaries of The 21st Century

2018 has been proved to be a banner year for documentary films with the likes of “RGB”, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor”, and “Three Identical Strangers”. Additionally, Netflix has become an outstanding resource for finding great documentary films and series. What better time to revisit some of the great documentary’s the 21st century has provided.

The following is a listing of 25 of the most memorable and acclaimed documentaries of the century thus far. Along with the list is an “Honorable Mention” to the following films which just missed the cut: Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2011), The Fog of War (2003), Dear Zachary (2008), God Grew Tired of Us (2006), Please Vote for Me (2007), The Cove (2009).


25. Cameraperson (2016, Kirsten Johnson)


The first of two films from cinematographer Kirsten Johnson on this list, “Cameraperson” presents footage collected over the twenty-five-year career of Johnson, providing a memoir of her work from around the world.

This film collage includes footage from Johnson’s work in Bosnia and Guantánamo Bay, to more personal subjects including a midwife in a maternity hospital in Nigeria, and a boxer in New York who is distraught after losing a match and rages to find his mother. Cameraperson is a thoughtful reflection on a life’s work, connecting an array of footage into one solid piece. Cameraperson is available on the Criterion Collection.


24. Ghosts of Cite Soleil (2006, Asger Leth & Milos Loncarevic)

Ghosts of Cité Soleil

Ghosts of Cite Soleil is not an easy movie to watch. There are scenes are young men literally running after each other with a gun attempting to kill each other, there is a scene of woman carrying a new born baby like a doll with the umbilical cord still attached.

The film documents the lives of two brothers over the course of a couple years in the slums of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, one of the poorest places in the world. These brothers are named Haitian 2Pac and Billy, and they become leaders of rival gangs.

The footage which the filmmakers are able to get is remarkable as they were brave enough to venture into one of the most dangerous places in the world. Some of this access becomes available from a romantic relationship which formed between a French aid worker and he brothers, a relationship which seems genuine but is still somewhat troublesome in intent. Ghosts of Cite Soleil paints Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s Haiti in a vivid light, showing how desperate people interact in a desperate environment.


23. Anvil: The Story of Anvil (2008, Sacha Gervasi)


Canadian heavy-metal band Anvil has toiled in obscurity for decades despite releasing a seminal album in the genre in the early 1980’s. Director (and Anvil fan) Sacha Gervasi follows the group as they travel on a European tour that goes sideways.

Few people turn out to their concerts and they receive little money for their performances, the band continues on however, grateful for the opportunity to tour in the first place. Anvil: The Story of Anvil is a story of friendship, dreams, and perseverance while rocking out to some classic heavy metal.


22. Waste Land (2010, Lucy Walker & Karen Harley)

2010’s Waste Land focuses on the world’s largest garbage landfill in Jardim Gramacho, Brazil, and the workers who pick through the refuse for recycled materials. Despite what would be considered unbearable work to many, the workers keep in good spirits in the face of their lot in life forming friendships with each other and fulfillment in the work which they do.

Artist Vik Muniz works with the “catadores” to create art out of the recycled materials which they have recovered. The money created by the selling of the artworks was given back to the catadores to help them and their community. Waste Land won the Audience Award at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival and also received a Best Documentary Oscar nomination at the 2011 Academy Awards.


21. Wild Wild Country (2018, Maclain Way & Chapman Way)

2018’s “Wild Wild Country” is an unbelievable account of widely forgotten story of Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, and his Rajneeshpuram community of followers who migrate to Oregon in the early 1980’s. The Rajneeshpuram community proceed to create a utopian city in the Oregon desert, causing conflict with locals in the area and the county itself.

What results is the first bioterror attack in the United States, mass drugging of unaware community members, and investigations into illegal wiretapping. Wild Wild Country is a story without obvious heroes or villains, with everything we are told feeling like an urban legend or spin toward one’s personal belief. It truly is a wild, wild ride.


20. The Two Escobars (2010, Jeff Zimbalist & Michael Zimbalist)

ESPN Films 30 for 30 series released the documentary “The Two Escobars” in 2010. The film tells the story of Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar and Andres Escobar (no relation), and how their lives intertwined during a turbulent period of Colombia’s history during the 1990’s.

This connection became a result of Pablo using soccer clubs to launder his drug money, turning Colombia’s national team into South American champions, favored to win the 1994 World Cup in Los Angeles.

Andrés became a star player for the national team, ultimately committing one of the biggest errors in World Cup history by scoring an own goal in a match against the United States which eliminated Colombia from the competition. The life and death of both Escobars are chronicled in compelling fashion in the 2010 documentary, becoming what may be the best documentary of the 30 for 30 series.


19. Super-Size Me (2004, Morgan Spurlock)


Documentary filmmaker Morgan Spurlock makes himself a test subject with this 2004 documentary about the fast food industry. Spurlock consumes a diet of only McDonald’s food, three times a day for a month straight. Spurlock also provides a look at the food culture in America interviewing experts on fast food as well as regular consumers.

Spurlock’s diet spirals him into physical and emotional changes that not even his doctors could have predicted at the start of the experiment, giving an eye-opening look at the food industry and the meals we intake.


18. Waltz with Bashir (2008, Ari Folman)

Israeli filmmaker Ari Folman wrote, directed and starred in this autobiographical film about the 1982 war with Lebanon. Folman has no memory of the event, and seeks out others who were involved to discuss their memories.

Waltz with Bashir won a slew of international industry and critics’ awards upon its release in 2008, including nominations for the for the Palme d’Or at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival, Best Foreign Language Film at the 2009 BAFTA and Academy Awards, and winning Best Foreign Language Film at the 2009 Golden Globe Awards.