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Top 10 Documentary Filmmakers

VO: Dan Paradis
Script written by George Cimurt. Some of the most ground-breaking and enlightening films of all time have been documentaries, and these are the minds behind them. Join as we count down our picks for the top 10 Documentary Filmmakers. For this list, we’ll be looking at the most revolutionary and innovative directors of non-fiction motion pictures and some of their best work. These filmmakers have brought the most important topics to the big screen and taught many using their film making techniques. Special thanks to our users jkellis and willstreet24 for submitting the idea on our Suggestions Page at WatchMojo.comsuggest

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Script written by George Cimurt.

Top 10 Documentary Filmmakers

Some of the most ground-breaking and enlightening films of all time have been documentaries, and these are the minds behind them. Welcome to, and today we’re counting down our picks for the top 10 Documentary Filmmakers.

For this list, we’ll be looking at the most revolutionary and innovative directors of non-fiction motion pictures and some of their best work.

#10: Michael Apted

In addition to fiction films, this former president of the Directors Guild of America has dabbled in the art of making documentaries to commercial and critical success. “Bring on the Night,” a concert film based on Sting, as well as “Incident at Oglala,” a look into the murders of two FBI agents, were two such successes. His greatest work, however, has been with the “Up Series,” a documentary series that has followed the lives of fourteen British children from the age of seven up until the present, with a new episode about their lives made every seven years.

#9: Morgan Spurlock

Although active in the field of the performing arts as a playwright, this mustached-director and humorist’s first massive success was with the film “Super Size Me,” a chronicle of his own attempt to eat nothing but McDonalds for 30 days. His second film, “Where in the World Is Osama Bin Laden?” premiered at Sundance and was also a critical success, as he takes a first-person look at the fight on terrorism while going on a search for Bin Laden himself. With a nomination for the coveted Academy Award in his pocket, we can’t wait to see what he does next.

#8: Kevin Macdonald

While this award-winning Scottish director is known for his fiction motion pictures, his efforts in the field of documentaries are certainly renowned as well. Although he won an Oscar for his 1999 film “One Day in September,” recounting the murder of a group of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics in Germany, perhaps his most popular documentary is 2003’s “Touching the Void.” A harrowing tale of two mountaineers’ attempt to climb a peak in the Andes Mountains, it has been called Britain’s most successful documentary and is on PBS’ list of the 100 greatest documentaries.

#7: James Cameron

Nominated for 6 Academy Awards and having directed films that have grossed approximately $6 billion worldwide, James Cameron just seems to have the magic touch, whether he’s directing blue aliens or creating a documentary. Six years after releasing the box-office smash “Titanic,” the fascinating “Ghosts of the Abyss” was released, where Cameron revisits the wreckage of the legendary ship. Two years later, he teamed up with NASA scientists to explore chains of mountains deep under the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, an expedition that was captured in “Aliens of the Deep.”

#6: Martin Scorsese

The most nominated living director, and certainly one of the most influential, this eight-time Oscar-nominated filmmaker has drawn us in to many fictional worlds, but has also created some underrated documentary classics. “My Voyage to Italy” is perhaps his most award-winning effort, documenting a journey through the history of Italian cinema, and particularly movies that influenced the director himself. He has also been praised for his treatments of legendary musical artists, including his 2011 documentary based on the life of former Beatles member George Harrison.

#5: Alex Gibney

Praised for his emotionally compelling subject matter and style, Alex Gibney has shown numerous times that he isn’t afraid to deal with topics that others would be afraid to take on. For instance, “Taxi to the Dark Side,” his chronicle of a taxi driver who was tortured and killed for no reason on an Afghanistan air base in 2002, won the 2007 Oscar for Best Documentary Feature. He was also nominated for “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room,” a film that took an in-depth look into the fall of the Enron Corporation, one of the biggest scandals in the history of the United States.

#4: Ken Burns

With a unique style that includes simple musical soundtracks and the captivating use of archival footage and images, Ken Burns has won numerous Emmy Awards for his vivid All-American documentaries. He has been nominated twice for an Academy Award, once for 1981’s “Brooklyn Bridge” and another time for 1985’s “The Statue of Liberty.” Perhaps his greatest achievement, however, is the film that has garnered more than 40 major film and television awards, namely, 1990’s “The Civil War.”

#3: Michael Moore

Although he had humble beginnings as a magazine writer, he has since established himself as a filmmaking force to be reckoned with. Known for his sharp criticism and wit, Michael Moore’s 2004 hit “Fahrenheit 9/11,” an examination of terrorism and the American presidency at the time, is the highest-grossing documentary of all time. Several of his other documentaries can also be found on the top grossing documentaries list, including “Bowling for Columbine,” which won an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature.

#2: Errol Morris

It’s not for no reason that The Guardian put him in the top 10 ranking of the world's 40 best active directors. Known for his direct and natural style of documentary making, Errol Morris has tried his hand at several life stories and was successful each time, most notably so with his Oscar-winning film “The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara.” His critically-acclaimed film “The Thin Blue Line,” the story of a man sentenced to a life term for a murder he was probably wrongfully accused of, was also so powerful that the man in question was released a year after the film’s debut.

Before we unveil our top pick, here are a few honorable mentions:
- D.A. Pennebaker
- Steve James
- Barbara Kopple
- Albert & David Maysles
- Charles Ferguson

#1: Werner Herzog

He has been called the most influential film director alive, and American critic Roger Ebert once wrote that “even his failures are spectacular.” A director that has narrowly escaped death many times and who will go to any extreme to carry through with his creative vision, Herzog has certainly created his share of cinematic masterpieces. Whether he’s following a deaf and blind woman in “Land of Silence and Darkness,” a former prisoner of war in “Little Dieter Needs to Fly,” or a grizzly bear enthusiast in “Grizzly Man,” his films are captivating and always remarkable.

Do you agree with our list? Who do you think is one of the greatest documentary filmmakers? For more great top 10s published every day, be sure to subscribe to

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