Over the past ten years or so, documentary films have seen something of a boon in interest. Thanks in part to the rise of reality TV, the influx of celebrity filmmakers (think Michael Moore), and the taste-making influence of social media, the genre has crept out of the arthouse and into the local cinema. Now Current TV has released a list of fifty docs “to See Before You Die.” A cursory look reveals an impressive list definitely worthy of viewing, but as the New York Times notes, not a single title hails from before 1988. That means the iconic documentaries Harlan County USA, Gimme Shelter, Don’t Look Back, and the Up series are nowhere to be found. Also missing are influential pioneers of the genre: Nanook of the North, Man with a Camera, and the ever controversial Triumph of the Will (admittedly, these are not the most entertaining docs to watch. Okay, they’re kind of totally boring).

After the jump, check out the full list of documentaries. Do you agree? What’s been left out?

50. Spellbound (2002)
49. Truth or Dare (1991)
48. The Kid Stays in the Picture (2002)
47. One Day in September (1999)
46. Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1998)
45. The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years (1988)
44. Burma VJ (2008)
43. When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts (2006)
42. Catfish (2010)
41. The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2007)
40. When We Were Kings (1996)
39. Biggie & Tupac (2002)
38. March of the Penguins (2005)
37. Inside Job (2010)
36. Taxi to the Dark Side (2007)
35. Paragraph 175 (2000)
34. Brother’s Keeper (1992)
33. Tongues Untied (1989)
32. Dogtown and Z-Boys (2001)
31. Jesus Camp (2006)
30. Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004)
29. Man on Wire (2008)
28. Gasland (2010)
27. Tarnation (2003)
26. Murderball (2005)
25. Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005)
24. Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (1996)
23. The Eyes of Tammy Faye (2000)
22. Shut Up & Sing (2006)
21. Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010)
20. Capturing the Friedmans (2003)
19. Touching the Void (2003)
18. Food, Inc. (2008)
17. Street Fight (2005)
16. Bus 174 (2002)
15. Crumb (1994)
14. Dark Days (2000)
13. The Fog of War (2003)
12. Bowling for Columbine (2002)
11. Paris Is Burning (1991)
10. Grizzly Man (2005)
9. Trouble the Water (2008)
8. An Inconvenient Truth (2006)
7. The Celluloid Closet (1995)
6. The War Room (1993)
5. Supersize Me (2004)
4. Waltz With Bashir (2008)
3. Roger & Me (1989)
2. The Thin Blue Line (1988)
1. Hoop Dreams (1994)

The New York Times: The One Must-See Documentary? (via Reality Blurred)

21 replies on “50 Documentaries To See Before You Die, According To Current TV. Do You Agree?”

  1. Awesome. I LOVE lists! And I LOVE documentaries. I’ve seen a few of these, 50, 45, 40, 38, 30, 29, 28, 26, 24, 20,19, 18, 12, 10, 8, 5, 3, 2 and would recommend them all, though not at all in the order listed by the author. A few not on the list that are worth watching are – American Movie, Grey Gardens, Woodstock, Born Into Brothels, The Last Waltz, The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia. Those are a few. Also, this is a page I check out when I ‘m not OBSESSIVELY refreshing B-Side Blog http://topdocumentaryfilms.com/

    1. Oooh — Woodstock is super influential. Good call.

      I would include Startup.com too. I think it’s a great story about the Internet bubble of the late ’90s.

  2. It’s the best documentaries of the past 25 years. That’s how Spurlock introduces it in Part 1. Which means “The Life and Times of Harvey Milk” was also left out. It is one of the best documentary’s I have seen. Self proclaimed docu ho here. I’ve seen 38 of the 50 plus many not on this list.

  3. For me, Hoop Dreams and Capturing the Friedmans stand out. I guess the fact that it took 4 years to film Hoop Dreams to film. What an achievement. As for Capturing the Friedmans, their story had already been filmed by them without the thought of it being made into a movie.

  4. I need to second American Movie from Lizardqueen and add: Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead. It’s a basic “we’re fat, we need to get healthier” docu until about halfway thru, at which point my mouth just stayed agape for the rest of the movie and I questioned how it was all possible. Oh, and Yay Lists!

  5. I love the list of what is not on the list!
    I loved Start-Up.com – the documentary started out to show how a couple of guys planned to make it rich with the Internet and happened to document the initial Internet implosion/bubble.

    I was surprised not to see Hearts and Minds (circa 1974). I did not see it until the 80’s but I still have a vision of seeing a child/person running/covered with napalm making their skin fall off. I finally got the gravity of Vietnam, realized the importance of documentaries and learned how government/politics and media work to control the message.

  6. I’ve only seen 6 of these. 🙁 I was super excited about The Thin Blue Line and it bored me to tears. Adding all the others to my queue now. 😀

  7. I loved watching this series (although you kind of spoiled #1 for me bc the last show didn’t air until last night at 8 and your photo told me what movie came out on top). That being said- I’ve seen a number of these docs, as I am also a doc ho and have a few more to recommend. Word Wars (about competitive Scrabble players), Religulous, Small Town Gay Bar, Becoming Chaz, Hot Coffee, For The Bible Tells Me So, and two I can’t remember the name of. One made about 9/11 by two French brothers following the NYFD around, and one I recently saw on thw OWN about young males forced to leave the FDLS compound.

      1. It’s okay B. Accidents happen. I saw your post and was waiting to read the article until after I saw the Top 10 that night, but like I said- the pic was there. I really want to see Celluloid Closet now after hearing them talk about it. Oh- another doc I can recommend is SuperHigh Me. Sounds like a joke, but just like with fast food- overconsumption of marijuana is bad for you as well.

    1. Word Wars! TOTES! I couldn’t think of it. Or a million others. Who knew we were a bunch of documentary SLUTZ up in herr?

  8. Glad to see The Thin Blue Line so far up there, that haunts me years later after watching it. I wish the French brothers that shot that 9/11 coverage had made the list, as well as the UP series. I am surprised about the exclusion of Nanook and Triumph of the Will, since those really are groundbreaking for the documentary genre. Now I am inspired to get on Netflix and watch these!

  9. I would have liked to have seen Maxed Out on the list. It is a very good doc re: escalating U.S. consumer debt

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