The 25 Best Documentaries of The 21st Century

8. Citizenfour (2014, Laura Poitras)


2014’s “Citizenfour” chronicles documentarian Laura Poitras and reporter Glenn Greenwald as they travel to Hong Kong to meet Edward Snowden who has information on the U.S. government’s surveillance programs. Snowden’s release of these classified materials has made him a controversial figure, with some calling him a patriot, and others a traitor.

Citizenfour is a riveting portrayal of the weeks and months after Snowden’s release of classified materials, providing a first-hand look at a political crisis as it occurs. The film closes with Snowden in Russia with his girlfriend, where he still currently resides under temporary asylum. Citizenfour received wide critical acclaim upon its release, and won the Best Documentary Oscar at the 2015 Academy Awards as well as Best Documentary at the 2015 BAFTA Awards.


7. Searching for Sugarman (2012, Malik Bendjelloul)

Searching for Sugar Man

“Sugar man, won’t you hurry cause I’m tired of these scenes, for a blue coin won’t you bring back all those colors to my dreams”. Since the 1970s two South Africans, a record shop manager and his music journalist friend have been fascinated by the singer Sixto Rodriguez from two records he made in 1970 and 71.

The records made a big impact in South Africa, becoming a somewhat of a soundtrack to the youth of the time. Rodriguez had become a musical legend in the country, but rumors spread that he had killed himself on stage long ago after a concert.

The two South Africans set about tracking Rodriguez down, and what follows is an unbelievable story that may leave some audience members in tears while they rock along to an amazing soundtrack of folk-rock music. Searching for Sugarman won the Audience Award for Best Documentary at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, and won Best Documentary at the 2013 BAFTA Awards, and won the Best Documentary Oscar at the 2013 Academy Awards.


6. The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2007, Seth Gordon)


2007’s “The King of Kong” tells the story of Steve Wiebe and Billy Mitchell, two gamers who compete for the highest score in the arcade game Donkey Kong. This might seem like a trivial story of two men playing video games, however the passion which both men show towards the game, and the resulting rivalry which occurs between them, takes the view on a wild and unexpected ride.

As this rivalry becomes more cutthroat, Steve and Billy engage in a tense cross-country feud which takes a toll on themselves and their family. The story of “The King of Kong” is still ongoing today as Billy Mitchell was stripped of his gaming records in 2018, and Wiebe was recognized as the first person to score over a million points in the game.


5. Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010, Banksy)


Infamous street artist Banksy, known for the stencil art which he places in random locations, befriends Thierry Guetta, a Los Angeles-based Frenchman who carries a camera everywhere constantly filming his surroundings. After Banksy suggests Guetta create his own art show, Guetta transforms into a phenomenon known as “Mr. Brainwash”, and sells almost a million dollars’ worth of art to galleries around the world.

The line between what is real and what might be fake blurs, and the viewer is left to wonder whether the film is a hoax from Banksy, or did Guetta really evolve into a famous artist overnight. Exit Through the Gift shop won Best Documentary at the 2011 Independent Spirit Awards, and was nominated for Best Documentary at the 2011 Academy Awards.


4. Bowling for Columbine (2000, Michael Moore)

Bowling for Columbine

Political documentary filmmaker Michael Moore sets out to explore the mass shooting at Columbine High School in 1999 and how gun culture in America may have been an influence. Moore looks at the proliferation of guns and the high homicide rate in America compared with other countries, and how America’s culture of fear, bigotry and violence may play a part.

Moore contrasts the U.S. attitude toward guns with that of Canada where gun ownership is at similar levels, and looks at how the media may be driving America’s fear and need for protection.

Moore interviews a variety of people including Marilyn Manson, South Park co-creator Matt Stone, and Charlton Heston, the former President of the National Rifle Association. Bowling for Columbine was both a critical and commercial success for Moore, winning numerous awards including a special prize at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival, and winning the Best Documentary Oscar at the 2003 Academy Awards.


3. Marathon Boy (2010, Gemma Atwal)

Marathon Boy

Gemma Atwal’s 2010 documentary “Marathon Boy” was a film festival favorite upon its release and premiered on HBO in 2011. The film follows Budhia Singh, a four-year-old foul-mouthed boy from the slums of India who became an international sensation for his ability to run marathons (by the age of four he had run in 48 marathons). 

Singh was discovered and later coached by Biranchi Das, a charismatic man who helps to shelter and feed local orphans in the area. Marathon Boy chronicles the lives of Budhia and Biranchi over five years, from 2005-2010. 

The film was originally expected it to be completed in a much shorter time, but no one could have foreseen the events which were to occur in the lives of both individuals. 

In the end, the film leaves many questions unanswered or unpursued, and the viewer may wonder whether this was a case of child exploitation for publicity and financial gain, or the rescue and genuine love for a child. The story of Budhia Singh was later made into a feature film in India in 2016 titled “Budhia Singh: Born to Run”. The documentary Marathon Boy is currently available to watch in its entirety on Youtube.


2. OJ: Made in America (2016, Ezra Edelman)

O.J. Made in America – Ezra Edelman

With a run time of close to 8hrs, Ezra Edelman’s 2016 documentary “OJ: Made In America” uses the OJ Simpson trial to tell a broader story of modern America – specifically Los Angeles, California, and the history of race, celebrity, and the criminal justice system. 

Edelman uses historical news footage and interviews to highlight the backdrop of mounting racial tensions within the city, and the history of distrust between the African American community and the Los Angeles Police Department. 

These tensions are used to set up and explain what happened during the Simpson trial, and how these issues continue to affect the country to this day. OJ: Made in America became the longest film ever to be nominated for an Oscar, and won the Best Documentary Oscar at the 2017 Academy Awards.


1. The Act of Killing (2012) & The Look of Silence (2014) – Joshua Oppenheimer

Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer and co-produced by legendary documentary film makers Werner Herzog and Errol Morris, “The Act of Killing” and its follow up companion piece “The Look of Silence” interview individuals who participated in the Indonesian mass killings of the mid 1960’s. 

The first installment of the films challenges death-squad leaders to reenact their crimes in Hollywood style movie form, going back to the actual crime scenes and discussing their involvement. The most charismatic of these death-squad leaders is Anwar Congo, who is said to have personally killed hundreds of people during the genocide and is today revered by many. 

As the film begins Anwar galivants around town like a celebrity, and enjoyably depicts his involvement in the mass killings for the documentary cameras. As the film continues Oppenheimer asks Anwar to switch roles from the death-squad leader to the actual victim, and the effect is stunning on Anwar’s psyche and conclusion to the film.

The second installment of the films, “The Look of Silence” Oppenheimer shows and Indonesian man whose survived the genocide confront the men who killed members of his family. Together, both films reveal why violence thought to be unimaginable is not only possible, but routinely occurs. 

Both the Act of Killing and The Look of Silence received Best Documentary Oscar nominations. The Act of Killing won Best Documentary at the 2014 BAFTA Awards, and The Look of Silence won Best Documentary at the 2015 Independent Spirt Awards.

Author Bio: Raised in South Florida and a University of Florida alumni, Andre’s passion for film first began with the 1998 release of AFI’s 100 Greatest American Films. He would soon continue on to watching films from other lists such as Roger Ebert’s ‘Great Movies’ and BFI’s ‘Sight & Sound’s Top 250’. Currently residing in Atlanta, he enjoys going to art house cinemas to watch indie and foreign films.