Top 20 Best Documentary Films of the Last Decade



Top 20 Best Documentary Films of the Last Decade

VOICE OVER: Rebecca Brayton WRITTEN BY: Spencer sher
This list could have easily been a Top 40. For this list, we're looking at the most greatest documentaries released between 2010 and 2019. Our countdown includes films such as “Apollo 11” (2019), “Citizenfour” (2014) and “I Am Not Your Negro” (2016). Did YOUR favorite documentary from the 2010s make our list? Let us know in the comments!

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Script written by Spencer Sher

Top 20 Documentary Films of the Decade (2010s)

This list could have easily been a Top 40. Welcome to WatchMojo, and today we’ll be counting down our picks for the Top 20 Documentary Films of the Decade (2010s). For this list, we’re looking at the most greatest documentaries released between 2010 and 2019.

#20: “Won't You Be My Neighbor?” (2018)

Honest and unassuming, Fred Rogers was nevertheless a beacon of hope and an endless source of entertainment to the millions of children who tuned into his weekly television program, “Mister Rogers' Neighborhood.” The 2018 documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” peels back the curtain on Rogers, a man who was never afraid to broach difficult topics, such as death and divorce, with his young audience; and who ultimately embodied all that is good and kind about humanity. A beautiful portrait of one man’s enduring legacy, the film would be named by Time Magazine as the second-best of 2018 and would later take home an Independent Spirit Award for Best Documentary Feature.

#19: “20 Feet from Stardom” (2013)

They might not be household names, but that doesn’t mean you haven’t heard them. Morgan Neville’s enlightening and moving documentary about background singers shifts the spotlight from the stars to the talents we seldom hear about. Filled with powerful female voices and irresistible music, “20 Feet from Stardom” is a sincere tribute to their struggles and triumphs. Thanks to eloquent, emotional interviews, deft direction, and a killer soundtrack, it met with universal acclaim from critics, and took home the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature at the 86th Academy Awards.

#18: “Minding the Gap” (2018)

By examining the lives of three friends united by their love of skateboarding, “Minding the Gap” shines a light on some of the darkest aspects of our society, including racism, domestic abuse, and poverty. Directed by Bing Liu, who also serves as one of the film’s primary subjects, the doc was shot over a 12-year period and captured the struggles faced by the three young men as they came of age in Rockford, Illinois. Dubbed “a rich, devastating essay on race, class and manhood in 21st-century America" by New York Times writer A. O. Scott, “Minding the Gap” was nominated for Best Documentary Feature at the 91st Academy Awards and holds a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

#17: “Apollo 11” (2019)

“Apollo 11” is proof that you can make an engaging and thought-provoking documentary without the use of narration or interviews. The film, which focuses on NASA’s successful 1969 attempt to land men on the lunar surface, consists entirely of archival footage; some of which had never before been seen by the public. By depicting this triumph of human achievement in a manner that’s devoid of frills, the film manages to create a truly visceral experience for the viewer; one that grabs hold and doesn’t let go. A masterwork in film restoration and editing, “Apollo 11” won over critics at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, where it was nominated for the Documentary Grand Jury Prize.

#16: “Citizenfour” (2014)

To say that “Citizenfour” was the documentary of 2014 would be a gross understatement. It pretty much swept the Best Documentary category at awards ceremonies the world over, including the Oscars. It is about Edward Snowden, the former CIA employee and computer contractor who in 2013 leaked classified NSA documents that exposed global surveillance programs run by the United States and its allies. The documentary takes place primarily inside of Snowden’s Hong Kong hotel room, as director Laura Poitras and journalists Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill interview him. A thrilling and thoughtful film about a subject that should concern us all, “Citizenfour” is an absolute must see!

#15: “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief” (2015)

This documentary is a poignant look at one of the most controversial religions in the world today: Scientology. The film provides viewers with a history of both Scientology and its founder, the infamous L. Ron Hubbard; as well as interviews with former members who are more than willing to divulge information about the abuse they faced during their time as members of the church. Director Alex Gibney, who also produced the documentary “The Armstrong Lie” in 2013, does an excellent job of crafting a film that holds nothing back in its pursuit of the truth.

#14: “Searching for Sugar Man” (2012)

Endlessly entertaining, thoroughly engaging, and totally delightful, “Searching for Sugar Man” was a breath of fresh air for cinemagoers in 2012. The wildly unexpected doc tells the story of a mysterious American musician named Sixto Rodriguez, who captured the hearts and minds of Apartheid-era South Africans despite being a complete unknown in his home country. The film is primarily about the efforts of two men to locate Rodriguez, who they had long considered to be dead. “Searching for Sugar Man” won ALL the awards upon release, including the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature, and after watching it you’ll understand why. Few docs from the 2010s will make you laugh, cry and cheer as much as this one.

#13: “I Am Not Your Negro” (2016)

This documentary was inspired by the unfinished memoir “Remember This House”, written by the late outspoken social critic James Baldwin. The original manuscript focused on notes and letters written by Baldwin that discuss the lives of his friends and civil rights leaders Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. “I Am Not Your Negro” expands upon Baldwin’s work in order to examine racism in America; both today and in the past. Narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, the film is a stark and honest look at a societal blemish that continues to permeate the country. The film was highly acclaimed and in 2016 scored a nomination for Best Documentary Feature at the Academy Awards.

#12: “Tickled” (2016)

If “Searching for Sugar Man” was the most unexpected documentary of the past decade, then “Tickled” was its most bizarre. It follows David Farrier, a New Zealand journalist, who discovers an odd video for “competitive endurance tickling." Despite the inherently humorous nature of the subject matter, the truth at the heart of this documentary is anything but fun. Rebuffed at every turn and facing legal action from the producers of the videos, Farrier presses on and discovers something so sinister, it needs to be seen to be believed. Critics called the documentary “a stranger-than-fiction voyage” and “not a film you'll soon forget.” Uh, yeah, we can vouch for that.

#11: “O.J.: Made in America” (2016)

Produced by ESPN Films, this documentary tackles one of the most infamous and divisive figures in American history: former football player, celebrity and murder suspect O.J. Simpson. “O.J.: Made in America” is the documentary everybody and their grandmother was talking about in 2016. Through a combination of news footage and interviews director Ezra Edelman crafts a compelling film series that uses Simpson’s rise and fall as a microcosm for the bigger issues that plagued America in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Winner of the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, “O.J.: Made in America” is a rollercoaster of a film that will keep you on the edge of your seat from start to finish.

#10: “Fyre” (2019)

One of the most talked about documentaries of 2019, “Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened” was on everybody’s radar when it premiered on Netflix. It details the infamous story of Fyre Festival, a failed business venture in the Bahamas spearheaded by the now-notorious fraudster, Billy McFarland. Through candid interviews with the people McFarland enlisted to help him pull off his insane scheme, “Fyre” slowly reveals how one man with a vision for the greatest party ever can ruin countless lives with a mix of hubris and ineptitude. A cautionary tale of epic proportions, “Fyre” is a must-watch.

#9: “They Shall Not Grow Old” (2018)

Loaded with previously unseen WWI footage, Peter Jackson’s seminal documentary transformed century-old footage through the use of voiceover and modern colorizing techniques. The result was a stunning and immensely visceral cinematic experience that garnered rave reviews from critics, leading to a 100% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. When asked why he chose to modernize the footage of British soldiers fighting on the Western Front, Jackson succinctly replied: “[The men] saw a war in colour, they certainly didn’t see it in black and white. I wanted to reach through the fog of time and pull these men into the modern world, so they can regain their humanity once more.” If that doesn’t convince you to see this film, nothing will.

#8: “Amy” (2015)

Just as “Citizenfour” was the documentary of 2014, so was “Amy” the doc of 2015. The film is about the tumultuous life of British singer Amy Winehouse, who at 27 died from alcohol poisoning. An incredible talent with a personality to match, this documentary did an excellent job of presenting viewers with an unfiltered look at both Winehouse’s musical ability as well as her self-destructive nature. The success of “Amy” likely came as little surprise to director Asif Kapadia, seeing as how his 2010 documentary “Senna”, about former Brazilian Formula One champion Ayrton Senna, was met with similar acclaim.

#7: “Free Solo” (2018)

A documentary that makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, “Free Solo” is the story of rock climber Alex Honnold. A daredevil of the highest order, Honnold has made a name for himself as one of the world’s preeminent free soloists. That is to say, for climbing some of the biggest rock walls on earth without the use of ropes, harnesses, or protective gear of any kind. “Free Solo” is about Honnold’s quest to conquer El Capitan, an imposing rock formation in Yosemite National Park that stands 3000 feet tall. The doc delves into Honnold’s motivations, as well as the challenges faced by the film crew attempting to capture his record-breaking climb. Trust us, this Oscar winner is worth your time.

#6: “Life Itself” (2014)

Film critic Roger Ebert was a legend in his lifetime; so it’s only fitting that this biographical documentary about his life was a cinematic masterpiece. Begun before his passing in 2013, “Life Itself” takes its name from Ebert’s memoir, and looks back at a career that spanned over four decades. Featuring footage filmed during his final months, as well as interviews with his peers and loved ones, it’s a tribute to an influential cultural voice that manages to be celebratory, poignant, and humorous all at once. It’s a crime that “Life Itself” wasn’t nominated for an Oscar.

#5: “Icarus” (2017)

An investigation into the world of illegal doping wound up uncovering one of the largest sports scandals of all time. From the very beginning, filmmaker Bryan Fogel was there to document it all. It all started when Fogel connected with the director of Russia's national anti-doping laboratory, Grigory Rodchenkov, who revealed to him that Russian athletes had long been participating in a state sponsored doping program. The twists come hard and fast in this documentary, which wound up taking home the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. Many a documentary has started with the goal of uncovering some hidden truth, but few have managed to succeed quite like “Icarus.”

#4: “Exit Through the Giftshop” (2010)

Directed by the elusive street artist Banksy, “Exit Through the Giftshop” is the documentary the world didn’t know it needed. Nominated for Best Documentary Feature at the Academy Awards, the film is an exploration into both the world of underground street art and a biographical look at Thierry Guetta, a French videographer who ultimately transforms into the artist Mr. Brainwash. Though the film received considerable praise upon its release, people quickly began to speculate that it was all an elaborate hoax perpetrated by none other than Banksy himself. However, the film’s producers vehemently deny these accusations. We think that a story this crazy has to be true!

#3: “Blackfish” (2013)

“Blackfish” is a prime example of how documentary films can have lasting consequences. Focusing on a captive orca called Tilikum, and his drowning of three people, the doc is an exposé of SeaWorld’s treatment of killer whales. The film took the world by storm upon its release, creating fierce opposition to SeaWorld’s use of these majestic marine mammals in their theme parks. A critical success, the film picked up a nomination for Best Documentary at the 2014 BAFTA’s. Cleary the film had an impact on the industry, as SeaWorld announced in 2016 that it would no longer use orcas for live performances.

#2: “13th” (2016)

In “13th,” director Ava DuVernay tackles one of America’s worst dilemmas: mass incarceration. Named for the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which prohibited slavery but failed to abolish the government from using it as a form of punishment, “13th” claims that since its inception, this oversight has been exploited in order to lock up a disproportionate number of African Americans. An examination of the cruel distortion of the law and a passionate call to end its negative effect on black America, “13th” isn’t just one of the best documentaries of this decade, but of all time. Variety described the film as having a “piercing relevance” to our current social, economic and political climate, and we’re inclined to agree.

Before we unveil our top pick, here are a few honorable mentions:

“Faces Places” (2017)

“The Imposter” (2012)

“Stories We Tell” (2013)

#1: “The Act of Killing” (2012)

If you still haven’t seen this documentary stop what you’re doing and go watch it. No seriously, we’ll wait. “The Act of Killing” is about the infamous Indonesian Mass Killings of the ‘60s, but told in a wholly unique way. Director Joshua Oppenheimer tasked Anwar Congo, a former death squad leader, to reenact his killings for the camera, but in the style of whichever film genre he’d like. The result is a documentary unlike any other. As Anwar begins to recreate his own atrocities, a glimmer of humanity begins to emerge within him. An emotional roller coaster unlike any you’ve ever seen, “The Act of Killing” is one of the most powerful documentaries of the decade.