What makes a documentary “important”? What makes it worth referencing, or remembering, or even watching in the first place? Why, at a moment when world events are often stranger than fiction, would we veer from the vaunted, glorious escapism of big feature films and opt for something small and rooted in the real, instead?
Documentaries can be a hard sell, but it’s one that’s getting easier all the time. Once viewed as something stiff and obligatory, documentary film has, in recent years, risen to the top of the heap—thanks in no small part to some of the earth-shaking, needle-pushing, and ultimately world-changing films that are listed here, which find their focus in war, love, sex, death, art, and everything in between. And as for this list—its only qualifier is that these are the critically acclaimed, historically important, and pivotal films that a person who cares about film (and humanity in general) should really get to know.
Below, the 82 best documentaries of all time:
The Deepest Breath (2023)
Plunge into the depths (pun very much intended) of the extreme world of competitive deep-sea diving with The Deepest Breath, which follows the record-setting odyssey of Italian free-diving champion Alessia Zecchini, as well as her love affair with Irish safety diver Stephen Keenan. “Addictive and alarming,” as Taylor Antrim put it in a review.