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The Top 25 Best Documentary Feature Winners So Far (Updated)

Here comes another one folks! Continuing a tradition I’ve been keen on for years, I’m ranking the new crop of Academy Award winners. For nearly all of the Oscar categories, you’ll see me list the top 25 recipients of that prize. Sometimes, our newest winner will appear. Other times, they’ll be relegated to the Honorable Mention category. Who knows, maybe one or two won’t even make the cut? It’s a list series that I’ll do each and every single year, in the weeks after the ceremony concludes. So, while this is a fun way to think about the Oscars in the aftermath of the latest telecast, it’s also a beginning for another column here on the site. Of course, definitely show us your own lists as well, in the comments section below. We’re definitely keen to know what you think!

Today, I’m looking at the Best Documentary Feature category. Non-fiction cinema is its own beast, and one look at the winners in this field reveal some all-time classics. At the same time, anyone who pays attention to how the Best Documentary races have gone in recent years will know that the best films are rarely even nominated by Oscar. So, the Academy Awards do more recently pull from a reduced field. Still, there’s tons of movies I was able to pull from. For me, Michael Moore‘s Bowling for Columbine is still the best of the bunch, but there’s no shortage of quality here. Where does the most recent winner in Summer of Soul debut, ranking-wise? Find out below…

Here now are what I consider to be the 25 best winners of the Best Documentary Feature Oscar, to date:

Bowling for Columbine

25. Woodstock
24. Inside Job
23. Undefeated
22. 20 Feet from Stardom
21. I Am a Promise: The Children of Stanton Elementary School
20. Searching for Sugar Man
19. The Last Days
18. In the Shadow of the Stars
17. American Dream
16. Anne Frank Remembered
15. Born into Brothels
14. Free Solo
13. Citizenfour
12. Taxi to the Dark Side
11. Harlan County, USA
10. One Day in September
9. Man on Wire
8. The Fog of War
7. March of the Penguins
6. OJ: Made in America
5. When We Were Kings
4. The Times of Harvey Milk
3. An Inconvenient Truth
2. The Cove
1. Bowling for Columbine

Honorable Mention: American Factory, Amy, Icarus, Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport, My Octopus Teacher, and Summer of Soul

B.B. King performing at the Harlem Cultural Festival in 1969, featured in the documentary SUMMER OF SOUL. Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2021 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved

Stay tuned for another category later on this week or early next week!

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Robert Hamer
6 months ago

My personal answer to “What’s the best winner for Best Documentary Feature ever?” always has been (and probably always will be) Harlan County, U.S.A.

Not only an indispensable and harrowing chronicle of a brutal labor rights fight, but even evaluated solely on a logistical level, what that camera crew was able to record and the access they were afforded was damn-near miraculous.

Brian H.
Brian H.
5 months ago

Great list. Very late on this but below is what I came up with. My top 9 are all pretty amazing in my opinion. I did leave OJ off completely because 1. I don’t think it should have been eligible and 2. I’m bitter it beat both I Am Not Your Negro and 13th. Not that it wasn’t also great…just shouldn’t have been in play. OJ would have been in my top 15…13th in my top 10 and I Am Not Your Negro in my top 2.

1.      Bowling for Columbine
2.      Fog of War, The
3.      Searching for Sugar Man
4.      Inside Job
5.      Taxi to the Dark Side
6.      Times of Harvey Milk, The
7.      Harlan County, USA
8.      One Day in September
9.      When We Were Kings
10.  Citizenfour
11.  Cove, The
12.  Murder on a Sunday Morning
13.  Free Solo
14.  Undefeated
15.  Icarus
16.  Amy
17.  Last Days, The
18.  American Factory
19.  Woodstock
20.  Inconvenient Truth, An
21.  Summer of Soul
22.  Anne Frank Remembered
23.  20 Feet from Stardom
24.  Born into Brothels
25.  Long Way Home, The
H/M – American Dream, Broken Rainbow, Genocide, In the Shadow of Stars and Man on Wire

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Written by Joey Magidson

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