Film Essay: On the Top 50 Documentaries of All Time — From a Bostonian’s Perspective

I’m miffed that three of the greatest documentaries ever produced, all from around Boston, didn’t make the cut on the Sight & Sound list.

A scene from "The Thin Blue Line" - one of the greatest documentaries ever made.

A scene from “The Thin Blue Line” – according to “Sight & Sound,” of the greatest documentaries ever made.

By Gerald Peary

The very influential British film magazine, Sight & Sound, has published a list of the Top 50 Documentaries of All-Time, and it’s being circulated everywhere on the Internet and Facebook. The Boston area can rejoice. No spot on the world except Paris and New York has as many films and filmmakers who have made the coveted list. Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line is No. 5 and The Fog of War No. 37. Frederick Wiseman’s Titicut Follies is No, 27 and Welfare No. 47. The Act of Killing, made by former Harvard student, Joshua Oppenheimer, is No. 19. Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel’s Leviathan, released in 2013, is already No. 30. As for Dziga Vertov’s Man With a Movie Camera (Russia, 1929) chosen as the No.1 documentary of all time: it’s academic reputation has been transformed because of the film being pumped up, made over as modern, by the dazzling score of our own Alloy Orchestra.

Shouldn’t I also celebrate as a Beantown patriot? Certainly. But I’m also miffed that three of the greatest documentaries ever produced, all from around Boston, didn’t make the cut. I’m talking about The Gate of Heavenly Peace, the magisterial film about the Tiananmen Square massacre by Richard Gordon and Carma Hinton; Ross McElwee’s Sherman’s March, the most charming and buoyant of personal documentaries; and Ed Pincus’s The Diaries, of personal documentaries, the most daring, intimate, and revealing.

And not far behind, certainly prime candidates for the Best 100 documentaries: works by Robb Moss, Steve Ascher and Jeanne Jordan, Lucia Small, David Sutherland.

And what about WGBH’s exemplary Eyes on the Prize series?

For what it’s worth, my own favorite 20 documentaries, in no particular order:

Errol Morris, The Thin Blue Line
Albert and David Maysles, Salesman
Steve James, Hoop Dreams
Michael Apted, the Upseries
Frederick Wiseman, Public Housing
Luis Buñuel, Land Without Bread
Ed Pincus, The Diaries
Richard Gordon and Carma Hinton, The Gate of Heavenly Peace
Ross McElwee, Sherman’s March
Barbara Kopple, Harlan County USA
Patricio Guzman, The Battle of Chile
Dziga Vertov, Man With a Movie Camera
Liz Garbus and Jonathan Stack, The Farm: Angola, USA
Robert Drew, Primary
Terry Zwigoff, Crumb
D.A. Pennebaker and Richard Leacock, Monterey Pop
Werner Herzog, La Soufrière
Georges Franju, Le Sang des bêtes
Marcel Ophuls, The Sorrow and the Pity
Louis and Auguste Lumière, Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory

Gerald Peary is a professor at Suffolk University, Boston, curator of the Boston University Cinematheque, and the general editor of the “Conversations with Filmmakers” series from the University Press of Mississippi. A critic for the late Boston Phoenix, he is the author of 9 books on cinema, writer-director of the documentary For the Love of Movies: the Story of American Film Criticism, and a featured actor in the 2013 independent narrative Computer Chess.


  1. Paul Dervis on August 5, 2014 at 9:22 am


    and, while I am at it, as dispicable as she was, her OLYMPIA, Parts I & II, and TRIUMPH OF THE WILL

    What made her so dangerous was how good she was at creating these docs

  2. Robert Hanks on August 5, 2014 at 10:12 am

    Michael Apatow?

  3. Edkargir on August 16, 2014 at 6:47 pm

    My top 10
    Man with a Movie Camera
    Zapruder Kennedy Assasination Film
    Hoop Dreams
    Tokyo Olympiad
    A Thin Blue Line
    The Up Series
    Grizzly Man
    The Times of Harvey Milk

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