The 25 Best Documentaries of The 21st Century

17. Faces Places (2017, Agnes Varda & JR)

Faces Places

Legendary French director Agnes Varda and muralist JR combined to create one of the most acclaimed documentaries of 2017, Faces Places. The film shows Varda and JR as they journey through rural France, creating murals of locals in the community, and forming an unlikely friendship between themselves.

The duo travel in JR’s van which is equipped with a photo booth and large-format printer. The two complement each other in their travels as Agnes speaks to the factory workers, farmers, and waitresses and JR honors them with large artistic murals placed in areas for the community to see. Varda’s own history comes into play as she discusses fellow legendary French New Wave director Jean-Luc Godard.

Varda tells JR (who always wears dark sunglasses and refuses to take them off) that Godard would do the same, and the two recreate a scene from Godard’s “Band of Outsiders” running through the Louvre. Her relationship with Godard sets up the film’s finale, which is upsetting, but ultimately celebratory. Faces Places was nominated for Best Documentary at the 2017 Academy Awards and won Best Documentary at won Best Documentary at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival.


16. The Keepers (2017, Ryan White)

The Keepers

This seven-part docuseries explores the 1969 unsolved murder of Catholic school teacher Sister Cathy Cesnik, and its relation to a former priest at the school who was accused of sexual abuse by several students. The case returned to the spotlight after one of Cesnik’s former students claimed that she was taken to her corpse and threatened.

Director Ryan White pieces together the story through conversations with friends, relatives, journalists, government officials and Baltimore citizens, hoping to uncover the truth. The Keepers received a nomination for most outstanding Documentary series at the 2017 Primetime Emmy Awards. With recent accusations against additional Catholic priests coming to light, The Keepers proves to be unfortunately still a quite relevant story.


15. Bus 174 (2002, José Padilha & Felipe Lacerda)

Bus 174

Bus 174 tells the story of a young, poor man from the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, who in the year 2000 hijacked a bus and held passengers’ hostage, all of which was captured on live Brazilian television. The film examines the events in the young man’s life which led up to him taking the bus hostage, and more importantly the societal and political treatment of the poor in modern Rio de Janeiro.

Film critic Roger Ebert gave “Bus 174” 3 ½ out of 4 stars stating, “Sandro do Nascimento is not merely poor, or hungry, or doomed to poverty, but suffers from the agonizing psychic distress of being invisible. Yes, says the movie, literally invisible: Brazilians with homes and jobs go about their lives while unable to see people like Sandro, who exists in a parallel universe.”


14. Man on Wire (2008, James Marsh)

Man on Wire (2008)

French tightrope walker Philippe Petit’s 1974 high-wire walk between the New York’s Twin Towers is told in riveting fashion in the 2008 documentary “Man on Wire”. The documentary uses interviews, archival footage, and recreations to tell the story of how Petit illegally scaled the tower and spent almost an hour walking, dancing, and performing various stunts on a wire he and friends strung between the towers rooftops.

Man on Wire received wide critical acclaim upon its release in 2008, winning both the Jury and Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival, and winning the Best Documentary Oscar at the 2009 Academy Awards.


13. Grizzly Man (2005, Werner Herzog)

Grizzly Man (2005)

Legendary filmmaker Werner Herzog, known for his documenting of fascinating characters, released one of his most successful films in 2005 with “Grizzly Man”. Herzog accessed more than one hundred hours of footage filmed by Timothy Treadwell, a bear activist who traveled to Alaska for several years to live among grizzly bears, studying and protecting them.

Tragically, Treadwell and his girlfriend Amie Huguenard were attacked and killed by a bear in 2003, and the footage was found after his death. Grizzly Man tackles the story of an obsessive lover of animals whose compassion and recklessness comes to a tragic and ironic end.


12. Weiner (2016, Josh Kriegman & Elyse Steinberg)

2016’s “Weiner” follows former Democratic congressman Anthony Weiner and his wife Huma Abedin as Weiner attempts to run for Mayor of New York City in 2013. Weiner resigned from his congressional position in 2011 after risqué photos emerged which he sent to young women.

Weiner’s campaign for mayor appears to be going well at first with many New Yorkers willing to give him a second chance, then additional examples of his online sexual activity surface and the mood of the campaign quickly shifts along with his relationship to his wife. Weiner won the documentary prize at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, and was nominated for Best Documentary at the 2017 BAFTA Awards.


11. Jesus Camp (2006, Heidi Ewing & Rachel Grady)

Jesus Camp

This Oscar-nominated documentary looks at the grooming of young Christian fundamentalists at the Kids on Fire summer camp in Devil’s Lake, North Dakota. At the camp children are taught the community’s religious and political messages, led by Pentecostal minister Becky Fischer.

Footage from inside the camp shows young children crying as they promise to stop sinning. In one scene Fischer brings out a life-sized cutout of George W. Bush to have the children stretch their hands toward him in prayer.

Leader of the National Association of Evangelicals, Ted Haggard is shown in his ministry as he speaks out against homosexual relationships (Haggard would later resign after accusations came forth that he was in a homosexual relationship). The film is juxtaposed throughout with a conversation between Fischer and Mike Papantonio, a more moderate Christian radio talk-show host.


10. When the Levees Broke (2006, Spike Lee)

When the Levees Broke (2006)

Legendary film director Spike Lee documents life in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the city in 2005. Lee interviews former residents as they tell their stories of the hurricane and the ensuing incompetence of the local, state and national leaders after the tragedy.

The film also delves into the possibility that the disaster was preventable if not for levees poorly designed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Lee interviews a several activists, musicians, and politicians during the film to hear varying opinions of the storm and responses to the its destruction including Harry Belafonte, Ray Nagin, Sean Penn, Al Sharpton, Kanye West, Terence Blanchard, and Wynton Marsalis. When the Levees Broke won outstanding Documentary, and Spike Lee won Outstanding Documentary Director at the 2007 Primetime Emmy Awards.


9. Born into Brothels (2004, Zana Briski & Ross Kauffman)

Born into Brothels

“Born into Brothels” documents photographer Zana Briski as she ventures into the red-light district of Calcutta, India. Briski uses photography and film to explore the lives of children of prostitutes in the area, offering to teach the children the basics of photography so the kids can document their own experiences on the streets.

The resulting photographs were shown in exhibits around the world, with hope to use the proceeds for the children’s education at boarding schools. Born into Brothels won the Audience Award at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival, and won the Best Documentary Oscar at the 2005 Academy Awards.