The Top 25 Greatest Documentary Films for Progressives of All Time

by EmboldenedLoser | created - 16 Dec 2014 | updated - 4 weeks ago | Public

As an unabashed progressive like myself, I love watching political and socially-aware documentaries to learn new and more information or to strengthen my argument about a subject. I lean towards watching documentaries that have a political bias and have a point to be made. The majority of documentaries I watch are left-leaning, or are meant to be, but I perceive them as such. I think I have a pretty well grasp on documentaries that would fit the taste for liberals or slightly left-leaning moderates, and these in my opinion are the best there is. IMDb says that I have rated 150+ documentaries on this website, and if I had to guess, I would guess that probably around like 90% of those documentaries are politically or socially-themed. So these documentaries are the very best of the many political documentaries that I've watched.

To be included in the list, a documentary film must be at least 60+ minutes total in length. Also, the film must actually be a documentary film in itself, and not an episode for some TV series.

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Although not exactly documentary films like those below, I would highly recommend anybody who leans to the left or is interested in documentaries like any below to watch "Frontline" on PBS. They produce one-hour, and sometimes two-hour long documentary episodes about political issues both worldwide and domestically, similar to many of the issues discussed in the documentary films ranked below. Due to the inability to add TV episodes to an IMDb list, I can't rank documentary episodes of the show on this list. If I could though, half of this list would probably consist of "Frontline" episodes in all honesty. You can go to their website (https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/) to watch their superb documentary episodes for free. It ranks among the more reliable and progressive investigative journalism shows/programs covering news and politics on U.S. television of this current period, alongside the likes of absolutely spectacular shows such as "Last Week Tonight with John Oliver" - the best political television show of our modern era. (I would include episodes of Oliver's show to this list - similarly to how "Frontline" is formatted below - but the short 30-minute duration of each episode doesn't meet the criteria to qualify for a feature-length documentary/political segment.)

Below are all of the "Frontline" documentaries that I've rated an '8' and above (listed by chronological order of when they were aired):

"Frontline" episodes that I've rated 9 (out of 10) - Losing Iraq, Secrets Politics and Torture, Children of Syria, Exodus, Bitter Rivals: Iran and Saudi Arabia (Part One), Bitter Rivals: Iran and Saudi Arabia (Part Two).

"Frontline" episodes that I've rated 8 (out of 10) - League of Denial: The NFL's Concussion Crisis, Solitary Nation, Putin's Way, Growing Up Trans, Netanyahu at War, Chasing Heroin, Saudi Arabia Uncovered, Benghazi in Crisis/Yemen Under Siege, The Secret History of ISIS, Exodus: The Journey Continues, Myanmar's Killing Fields, Trafficked in America, UN Sex Abuse Scandal, Our Man in Tehran - Part 1, Our Man in Tehran - Part 2.

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1. Waltz with Bashir (2008)

R | 90 min | Documentary, Animation, Biography

91 Metascore

An Israeli film director interviews fellow veterans of the 1982 invasion of Lebanon to reconstruct his own memories of his term of service in that conflict.

Director: Ari Folman | Stars: Ari Folman, Ron Ben-Yishai, Ronny Dayag, Ori Sivan

Votes: 52,690 | Gross: $2.28M

My rating - 9.5/10.

I debated whether I should put this in here because it isn't your conventional documentary, as it's an animated documentary film, but I included it because in the end, it's still a documentary. The Israeli documentary from filmmaker Ari Folman, portrays Folman's memories of his experiences with the horrors of his time serving in war, that both he and his platoon endured during it, and how it had ultimately affected them many years afterwards. This is without a doubt in contention for the title as the greatest anti-war film of all time. This is one of the very few war films out there that actually show the ugliness of war and its negative effects on not just the innocent civilians that are caught up in the middle of the war, but on the soldiers fighting in the war themselves as well.

2. No End in Sight (2007)

Not Rated | 102 min | Documentary, War

89 Metascore

A comprehensive look at the Bush Administration's conduct of the Iraq war and its occupation of the country.

Director: Charles Ferguson | Stars: Campbell Scott, Gerald Burke, Ali Fadhil, Omar Fekeiki

Votes: 7,921 | Gross: $1.43M

My rating - 9.5/10.

This documentary, by one of the great documentary filmmakers around, Charles Ferguson, describes how the Bush administration didn't properly plan out what they were going to do once they invaded Iraq. It's a great piece of work because it shows the ignorance and lack of morality by the neoconservatives who wanted the war in Iraq in the first place.

3. 13th (2016)

TV-MA | 100 min | Documentary, Crime, News

88 Metascore

An in-depth look at the prison system in the United States and how it reveals the nation's history of racial inequality.

Director: Ava DuVernay | Stars: Melina Abdullah, Michelle Alexander, Cory Booker, Dolores Canales

Votes: 20,334

My rating - 9/10.

Filmmaker Ava DuVernay (director of the supreme 2014 film "Selma") overviews the history of racial injustice in the U.S. prison system since the passing of the 13th amendment in this documentary. From that amendment on, the 'War on Drugs', 'tough-on-crime' laws, private prisons, and other initiatives have all rapidly increased the rise of mass incarceration of people of color in U.S. prisons, most notably of black people. With the use of racism, dog-whistle rhetoric, and fearmongering, politicians have applied these tactics to shift public opinion to supporting policies that have caused major damage to the lives of black people.

4. Inside Job (2010)

PG-13 | 109 min | Documentary, Crime

88 Metascore

Takes a closer look at what brought about the 2008 financial meltdown.

Director: Charles Ferguson | Stars: Matt Damon, Gylfi Zoega, Andri Snær Magnason, Sigridur Benediktsdottir

Votes: 65,876 | Gross: $4.31M

My rating - 9/10.

The Academy Award-winning documentary by Charles Ferguson puts forth how big, greedy corporations caused the U.S. to go in a recession in 2008 and how they seem to still get away with it.

5. The Square (2013)

Not Rated | 95 min | Documentary, News

84 Metascore

A group of Egyptian revolutionaries battle leaders and regimes, risking their lives to build a new society of conscience.

Director: Jehane Noujaim | Stars: Ahmed Hassan, Khalid Abdalla, Magdy Ashour, Ramy Essam

Votes: 8,100 | Gross: $0.12M

My rating - 9/10.

This Academy Award-nominated Egyptian documentary by the phenomenal Egyptian-born American-citizen filmmaker, Jehane Noujaim, shows the hope and spirit of a country's people to come together to overthrow a dictatorship. The revolution was driven by the anger of human rights abuses and political oppression, where the younger revolutionaries wanted to establish a government that would respect its citizens more, but the Islamists protesters ultimately conquered and briefly established a government of their own.

6. The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara (2003)

PG-13 | 107 min | Documentary, Biography, History

87 Metascore

The story of America as seen through the eyes of the former Secretary of Defense under President John F. Kennedy and President Lyndon Baines Johnson, Robert McNamara.

Director: Errol Morris | Stars: Robert McNamara, John F. Kennedy, Fidel Castro, Richard Nixon

Votes: 21,899 | Gross: $4.20M

My rating - 9/10.

In legendary director Errol Morris' Academy Award-winning documentary, the Secretary of Defense during the Vietnam War lays out the dangers of war and the problems that arises when the tragedies of war aren't properly discussed when entering war.

7. The Gatekeepers (2012)

PG-13 | 101 min | Documentary, History, War

91 Metascore

A documentary featuring interviews with all surviving former heads of Shin Bet, the Israeli security agency whose activities and membership are closely held state secrets.

Director: Dror Moreh | Stars: Ami Ayalon, Avraham Shalom, Avi Dichter, Yaakov Peri

Votes: 5,253 | Gross: $2.42M

My rating - 9/10.

In this Israeli Academy Award-nominated documentary by Dror Moreh, six former heads of Israel's internal security service, the Shin Bet, describe how the State of Israel has conducted in violent attacks and stirred up many problems against Palestinians since 1967, mainly due to right-wing hysteria.

8. Bus 174 (2002)

R | 122 min | Documentary, Crime

83 Metascore

Documentary depicts what happened in Rio de Janeiro on June 12th 2000, when bus 174 was taken by an armed young man, threatening to shoot all the passengers. Transmitted live on all ... See full summary »

Directors: José Padilha, Felipe Lacerda | Stars: Sandro do Nascimento, Rodrigo Pimentel, Luiz Eduardo Soares, Anonymous

Votes: 7,570 | Gross: $0.22M

My rating - 9/10.

The Brazilian documentary co-directed by the highly-successful Jose Padilha, discusses the tense moments during a tragic bus hostage crisis, but most importantly, humanizes its subject by discussing his troubling and depressing upbringing, and the mistreatment and discrimination he faced as a poor citizen in Brazil, a life and childhood that many lower-classed Brazilians have to endure.

9. Let the Fire Burn (2013)

Not Rated | 88 min | Documentary

86 Metascore

A history of the conflict of the City of Philadelphia and the Black Liberation organization, MOVE, that led to the disastrously violent final confrontation in 1985.

Director: Jason Osder | Stars: Birdie Africa, Ramona Africa, Wilson Goode, William Brown III

Votes: 1,163 | Gross: $0.06M

My rating - 9/10.

It's one of the most thrilling and eye-popping documentaries that you will ever see, and is an astute portrayal retold through old videos of police brutality and hawkish-behavior by the officers in blue. First-time filmmaker Jason Osder's documentary's beauty lies in its unbiased and non-partisan take on telling the horrific actions taken by the Philadelphia Police Department against the MOVE members in 1985.

10. The Untold History of the United States (2012–2013)

58 min | Documentary, History, War

Oliver Stone's re-examination of under-reported events in American history.

Stars: Oliver Stone, Alan Shearman, Jim Ward, André Sogliuzzo

Votes: 7,155

My rating - 9/10.

(Documentary Mini-Series - 10 one-hour long documentary episodes.)

In this documentary TV series by the controversial liberal filmmaker Oliver Stone, it shows the history of U.S. foreign policy from World War II to 2012 from a different perspective than it's usually told: instead of documenting the history of the U.S. from World War II to today from the usual 'American exceptionalism' perspective, it is told solely based off of facts, and doesn't whitewash the U.S. from any of their countless number of wrongdoings. The series gives our "enemy" a face and a voice, so to speak, as we see it from their perspectives as well. One downside of the series is the far-left 'tankie' feel of it all.

11. The Power of Nightmares: The Rise of the Politics of Fear (2004)

157 min | Documentary, History

78 Metascore

A series of three documentaries about the use of fear for political gain.

Stars: Gilles Kepel, Melvin Goodman, Stephen Holmes, William Kristol

Votes: 3,723

My rating - 9/10.

(Documentary Mini-Series - Three one-hour long documentary episodes.)

The three-part documentary lays out how the right-wing in the U.S. and in the Middle-East both brought upon the wars between the two parties because of their actions and decisions. Although it has that moonbattery and alternative media nuttery feel and look to it, it strays away from that mostly.

12. Banaz: A Love Story (2012)

69 min | Documentary, Biography, Crime

This is a documentary film chronicling the brutal Honour Killing of Banaz Mahmod, a young British Kurdish woman in London, killed by her own family for choosing a life for herself.

Directors: Deeyah Khan, Darin Prindle | Stars: Nazir Afzal, Bobbie Cheema, Andy Craig, Caroline Goode

Votes: 174

My rating - 9/10.

Human rights activist Deeyah Khan's debut documentary film revolves around the death of Banaz Mahmod; a young British woman of Iraqi-Kurdish descent who was killed in 2006 in a so-called 'honor killing' as ordered by her family. The film chronicles how Banaz's western upbringing clashed with her family's traditionalist attitudes. It should be noted how Khan (who comes from an immigrant Muslim family background) does a masterful job at discussing a tough subject such as so-called 'honor killings', without ever demonizing Muslims, nor immigrants from that region of the world.

13. TIME: The Kalief Browder Story (2017– )

Documentary, Biography

After his arrest at age 16, Kalief Browder fought the system and prevailed, despite unthinkable circumstances. He became an American hero.

Stars: Kalief Browder, Venida Browder, Jay Z, Paul Prestia

Votes: 1,427

My rating - 9/10.

A searing documentary mini-series chronicling the endearing abuses and judicial mishandlings within the U.S. criminal justice system told through the lens of Kalief Browder - a young black man incarcerated at Rikers Island for being accused of stealing a backpack as a high school student. Destroyed psychologically from his three-year prison stint due to the vicious beatings he took (at the hands of both his fellow prison inmates and the prison correctional officers) and the 800+ days he spent in mind-debilitating solitary confinement, Browder ultimately died by suicide (after having made multiple attempts prior). The documentary not only discusses the issues of racism in the U.S. and the need for criminal justice reform, but it too discusses the issues of mental health and the lasting effects of psychological abuse (in the context of racial injustice, in this particular case).

14. The Cove (2009)

PG-13 | 92 min | Documentary, Crime

84 Metascore

Using state-of-the-art equipment, a group of activists, led by renowned dolphin trainer Ric O'Barry, infiltrate a cove near Taijii, Japan to expose both a shocking instance of animal abuse and a serious threat to human health.

Director: Louie Psihoyos | Stars: Richard O'Barry, Louie Psihoyos, Hardy Jones, Michael Illiff

Votes: 45,551 | Gross: $0.87M

My rating - 9/10.

The Academy Award-winning documentary by Louie Psihoyos is a painful one to watch because of the horrific actions humans do towards animals. This is a must watch for animal-rights advocates and conservationists alike.

15. Blackfish (2013)

PG-13 | 83 min | Documentary, News

83 Metascore

A documentary following the controversial captivity of killer whales, and its dangers for both humans and whales.

Director: Gabriela Cowperthwaite | Stars: Tilikum, Dave Duffus, Samantha Berg, Dean Gomersall

Votes: 57,314 | Gross: $2.06M

My rating - 9/10.

It's a tough one to watch, in this documentary by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, because of the depressing stories and information told in the documentary. Animal-rights people and everyone should watch this to learn how companies like SeaWorld exploit whales for profit and ruin their lives.

16. Cries from Syria (2017)

TV-MA | 111 min | Documentary, Drama

76 Metascore

CRIES FROM SYRIA is a searing, comprehensive account of a brutal five-year conflict from the inside out, drawing on hundreds of hours of war footage from Syrian activists and citizen ... See full summary »

Director: Evgeny Afineevsky | Stars: Hadi Al Abdullah, Raed Al Saleh, Riad Al-Asaad, Bashar al-Assad

Votes: 826

My rating - 8/5/10.

Although maybe not the strongest documentary that I've seen which discusses the countless horrors and war crimes committed by Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad's regime (see the "PBS Frontline" documentary episodes listed in this list's introduction for that), I appreciated this huge human tragedy getting major coverage in the West for once (as this was produced and shown on "HBO"). Most western discourse and conversation about Syria revolves around Daesh because it attracts the attention of westerners much more so than Assad (as that is because Daesh represents the 'scary Muslim foreigner' that westerners fear, as Assad is seen as a good-guy simply because of his so-called 'western' physical appearance and business suits), so it was refreshing to see this from a large platform in the U.S.

17. Tickling Giants (2016)

TV-14 | 111 min | Documentary

78 Metascore

While the Egyptian revolution of 2011 is underway, surgeon turned comedian Bassem Youssef airs a television show that makes him popular to his countrymen but disliked by the government.

Director: Sara Taksler | Stars: Bassem Youssef, Jon Stewart, Shadi Alfons, Khaled Mansour

Votes: 1,417 | Gross: $0.04M

My rating - 8.5/10.

The documentary chronicles Egyptian comedian and satirist Bassem Youssef, inspired and friends with Jon Stewart, as his raw political humor in his show, aptly titled "The Show," inflicts searing criticism of the three Egyptian dictators (Hosni Mubarak, Mohamed Morsi, and Abdel Fattah el-Sisi) during the initial four years of the Arab uprisings (2011-2014). His program's approach, a combination of unflinching social/political commentary and direct satirical punches at Egypt's authoritarians in power, grew a wide and large base of fans not only across Egypt, but also across the Arab world as well. The progressive-minded humorist is forced to flee the nation after his TV show is cancelled by (the current) President Sisi's orders and his life is endangered by Sisi's forces. Youssef, as well as the enduring and fantastic young crew from "The Show," should be forever admired for their brave and unapologetic political humor in the face of tyranny and threats from the regime (whomever it was at the time -- aging strongman, Islamist enforcer, or military ruler).

18. O.J.: Made in America (2016)

TV-MA | 467 min | Documentary, Biography, Crime

A chronicle of the rise and fall of O.J. Simpson, whose high-profile murder trial exposed the extent of American racial tensions, revealing a fractured and divided nation.

Director: Ezra Edelman | Stars: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Mike Albanese, Muhammad Ali, Marcus Allen

Votes: 15,311

My rating - 8.5/10.

This five-part documentary follows the life and criminality of O.J. Simpson, but more importantly traces the racial injustice in Los Angeles brought upon by the racist and brutal L.A.P.D. This film documents the notorious racism in both L.A. courtroom rulings and actions by their police.

19. Surviving R. Kelly (2019– )

360 min | Documentary, Music

A six-part series about the controversial R&B star R. Kelly which features several women making allegations of abuse by him.

Stars: Tarana Burke, Kathy Chaney, Andrea Kelly, Candice Norcott

Votes: 2,027

My rating - 8.5/10.

The 2019 docuseries looks beyond R&B singer R. Kelly's notorious horrifying acts of sexual assault, pedophilia, and domestic violence, to understand the damage and trauma it left on the young female survivors as they grew older. The six-part series pierces the core of the toxic music industry that permitted and willfully looked the other way as R. Kelly abused the livelihoods of young girls and women of color - a gender racism that relegated their bodies as allowable prey for a predator like R. Kelly to target. It was pretty troubling to see controversial voices like radio host Charlamagne tha God (with his own history of transphobia and colorism) provide some commentary in the series. Additionally, here's an excellent review of the docuseries from "Vulture" (the pop culture website of "New York" magazine) that criticizes its exploitation of these survivor's pains for good TV drama - https://www.vulture.com/2019/01/surviving-r-kelly-review.html.

20. The House I Live In (2012)

Not Rated | 108 min | Documentary

77 Metascore

From the dealer to the narcotics officer, the inmate to the federal judge, a penetrating look inside America's criminal justice system, revealing the profound human rights implications of U.S. drug policy.

Director: Eugene Jarecki | Stars: Eugene Jarecki, David Simon, Shanequa Benitez, William Julius Wilson

Votes: 5,044 | Gross: $0.21M

My rating - 8/5/10.

The documentary by the underrated director Eugene Jarecki details the failure of the War on Drugs, as well as the drug policies affects on the American prison system. There's a whole lot of information and you'll leave having been greatly educated on the effects of criminalizing drugs.

21. Bowling for Columbine (2002)

R | 120 min | Documentary, Crime, Drama

72 Metascore

Filmmaker Michael Moore explores the roots of America's predilection for gun violence.

Director: Michael Moore | Stars: Michael Moore, Charlton Heston, Marilyn Manson, Salvador Allende

Votes: 135,545 | Gross: $21.24M

My rating - 8/5/10.

The Academy Award-winning documentary that made Michael Moore a household name has the aforementioned satirizing gun rights in America and the people like those in the N.R.A. that are against gun control and its devastating effects on communities.

22. City of Ghosts (2017)

R | 92 min | Documentary, War

86 Metascore

A documentary that follows the efforts of "Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently," a handful of anonymous activists who banded together after their homeland was taken over by ISIS in 2014. ... See full summary »

Director: Matthew Heineman | Stars: Abdelaziz Alhamza, Mohamad Almusari, Hamoud Almousa, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi

Votes: 3,025 | Gross: $0.13M

My rating - 8/5/10.

The documentary revolves around the courageous and heroic people behind the Syrian civilian journalist group "Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Slightly." After taking part in pro-democracy protests in their city against Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, these protesters witnessed Daesh (ISIS) take over their city of Raqqa as it was in a state of disarray. The group bravely documents the horrors and atrocities committed by Daesh in Raqqa, and try to provide political voice for those that are being silenced in Syria to the international audience.

23. Taxi to the Dark Side (2007)

R | 106 min | Documentary, Crime, News

82 Metascore

Alex Gibney exposes the haunting details of the USA's torture and interrogation practices during the War in Afghanistan.

Director: Alex Gibney | Stars: Alex Gibney, Brian Keith Allen, Moazzam Begg, Christopher Beiring

Votes: 13,945 | Gross: $0.27M

My rating - 8.5/10.

The Academy Award-winning documentary from the exceptional filmmaker Alex Gibney discusses the gross treatment of suspected-terrorist prisoners under U.S. military and C.I.A. control and how it was allowed by the Bush administration and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

24. The World Before Her (2012)

TV-PG | 90 min | Documentary

77 Metascore

Two young women follow completely divergent paths in the new, modernizing India-one wants to become Miss India, the other is a fierce Hindu Nationalist prepared to kill and die for her beliefs.

Director: Nisha Pahuja | Stars: Pooja Chopra, Manasvi Mamgai, Marc Robinson, Ankita Shorey

Votes: 789

My rating - 8/10.

Juxtaposing two stridently different realities for girls and women in present-day India, the documentary film seeks to portray and contrast a conservative, traditional India to a western-influenced India. The film documents young women (aged 15-25) participating in far-right Hindu nationalist training camps - where traditional values are preserved and non-Hindus are viewed with hate - and documents young women (college-aged, roughly) training to become Miss India by adopting to western beauty standards - hoping to appeal to "the modern world." Above all, the documentary discusses the limited avenue of choices for women in patriarchal India.

25. Best of Enemies: Buckley vs. Vidal (2015)

R | 87 min | Documentary, Biography, History

77 Metascore

A documentary on the series of televised debates in 1968 between liberal Gore Vidal and conservative William F. Buckley.

Directors: Robert Gordon, Morgan Neville | Stars: Gore Vidal, William F. Buckley, Dick Cavett, Noam Chomsky

Votes: 5,597 | Gross: $0.89M

My rating - 8/10.

Providing some context to the world of political punditry and debate today, this documentary film showcases the memorable debates between the right-wing William F. Buckley and staunch liberal Gore Vidal. Beneath the fiery tension spewed from both sides (though, Buckley looks the worst) displayed in the documentary's debates, what the film really shows is how politics has been sensationalized for the purpose of entertainment in the age of television, where legitimate political discourse is blurred in favor of "good TV" (i.e. when Buckley insults and threatens Vidal on live TV in their penultimate televised debate).



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