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The results of Sight & Sound's first Greatest Documentary poll revealed

1 August 2014

The results of the BFI's Sight & Sound magazine's first ever poll to decide the world's greatest ever documentaries were announced today.

The winner of the title of Greatest Documentary went to Dziga Vertov's extraordinary silent film Man with a Movie Camera (1929), shot in the cities of Odessa, Kiev and Khadliv. Vertov created a film of dazzling beauty and bewitching complexity, which unleashed the camera in a teasingly surrealist fashion to capture everyday life in a unique and hugely influential way. As the world's eyes are focused on Ukraine for other reasons this is a timely celebration of an enduring achievement of Ukrainian and world culture.

The well-known Sight & Sound magazine poll of filmmakers and critics to decide the Best Film has taken place once a decade since 1952, with Hitchcock's Vertigo receiving the most votes in the last edition in 2012. The vast majority of films nominated were fiction features although in the most recent poll Man With a Movie Camera came in at a surprising 8th place and was the only documentary in the Top Ten. Now, for the first time, the magazine has launched a poll to discover the greatest documentaries. Over 1,000 films were nominated by over 200 critics and 100 filmmakers from around the world; over 100 of them voted for Man with a Movie Camera.

Nick James, editor, Sight & Sound said:

"What's remarkable about this Top 50 is that it feels so fresh. One in five of the films were made since the millennium, and to have a silent film from 1929 at the top is equally surprising. That essay films feature so strongly here shows that nonfiction cinema is not a narrow discipline but a wide open country full of explorers."

Ivan Kozlenko, Deputy Director, Oleksandr Dovzhenko National Centre, Kyiv:

Man with a Movie Camera was created at the Odessa VUFKU Film Factory in Ukraine in 1929. It is full of an almost incomprehensible lyricism which offers a powerful sense of the city. Researchers often overlook the fact that the film was made mostly in Odessa, Ukraine but to ignore it makes a thorough interpretation of the film impossible. This is a very 'Odessian' film: it has so much sun, sea, and space in it; its emotion is lively and vital likely inspired by "romantic vita-ism" a popular theme in Ukrainian art in 1920s. It comes from a long line of brilliant propaganda films by Vertov but is in fact itself totally apolitical, although its 'non-Russian' aesthetic was rejected by Sovkino in Moscow and it could only be made in the Ukraine, which had become a haven for artists fleeing from Russia where attacks on dissent had begun. We are absolutely thrilled that such a great film should win the Sight & Sound poll for best documentary."

The poll report is released in the September edition of Sight & Sound published today, Friday 1st August. The full lists of all the votes received and films nominated will be available online from 14th August. Join the conversation on Twitter at #BestDocsEver

The Critics' Top 10 documentaries aare listed below. It's worth noting that six of the chosen ten have been reviewed by us in the past, four them not to mark a new disc release but because they were some of our favoiurite documentary films, so it's gratifying to see so many of them on the list. You can read the reviews in question by clicking on the highlighted title. There are also a few more in the personal lists further down the page.

    1. Man with a Movie Camera, dir. Dziga Vertov (USSR 1929)

    2. Shoah, dir. Claude Lanzmann (France 1985)

    3. Sans soleil, dir. Chris Marker (France 1982)

    4. Night and Fog, dir. Alain Resnais (France 1955)

    5. The Thin Blue Line, dir. Errol Morris (USA 1989)

    6. Chronicle of a Summer, dir. Jean Rouch & Edgar Morin (France 1961)

    7. Nanook of the North, dir. Robert Flaherty (USA 1922)

    8. The Gleaners and I, dir. Agnès Varda (France 2000)

    9. Dont Look Back, dir. D.A. Pennebaker (USA 1967)

    10. Grey Gardens, dirs. Albert and David Maysles, Ellen Hovde and Muffie Meyer (USA 1975)

The statistics make for fascinating reading. 11 out of the first 56 nominations are for films made since 2000, including 2012's The Act of Killing and Leviathan, bearing out suggestions that we are currently experiencing a golden age of documentary filmmaking. Critics' and filmmakers came remarkably close to the same list.

Critics' top filmmakers:

1. Dziga Vertov (110 votes across 5 films)

2. Chris Marker (91 votes across 8 films)

=3. Claude Lanzmann (68 votes across 1 film)

=3. Alain Resnais (68 votes across 5 films)

5. Errol Morris (67 votes across 6 films)

6. Werner Herzog (65 votes across 13 films)

7. Jean Rouch

8. Frederick Wiseman (43 votes across 14 films)

=9. Robert Flaherty (41 votes across 43 films)

=9. Patricio Guzmán (41 votes across 3 films)

Filmmakers' top filmmakers:

1. Frederick Wiseman (33 votes across 11 films)

2. Dziga Vertov (31 votes across 3 films)

=3. Werner Herzog (30 votes across 9 films)

=3. Chris Marker (30 votes across 7 films)

5. Albert & David Maysles (28 votes across 4 films)

6. Errol Morris (26 votes across 5 films)

7. Robert Flaherty (22 votes across 3 films)

8. Alain Resnais (20 votes across 5 films)

9. Jean Rouch (19 votes across 5 films)

10. Claude Lanzmann (17 votes across 2 films)

Below is a small selection of filmmakers and their votes. You can read the rest in the September issue of Sight & Sound.

Mark Cousins

  • The House Is Black (Farokhzad) A cubist movie about Iranian people with leprosy.

  • Minamata: The Victims and Their World (Tsuchimoto) The great protest film? The greatest environmental film? One of the greatest movie epics.

  • The Emperor's Naked Army Marches On (Hara) A film that suggests that some truths are so unpalatable and buried that they need to be exploded out of the ground.

  • The Last of the Unjust (Lanzmann)

  • Siddheshwari devi (Kaul) Visconti meets Satyajit Ray.

  • Letter from my Village (Faye) Simple and sublime.

  • Wednesday (Kossakovsky) Most documentaries have a handful of characters. This one has 70.

  • November Days: Voices and Choices (Ophüls) The Berlin Wall, with a touch of Dietrich.

  • Zidane: a 21st Century Portrait (Gordon & Parreno)

  • The Battle of Chile (Guzmán)

For me, documentary is the greatest movie genre – the richest, most diverse, alert and compelling. I'd have loved to have included movies directed by Pelechian, Kawase, Ogawa, Patwardhan, Longinotto, Frammartino, Grigsby, Sokurov, Herzog, Varda, Glawogger, Cavalcanti, Kieslowski, Vertov, Welles, Maximilian Schell, Honkasalo, Mograbi, Michael Moore and Herz Frank; to think of these is to see the vast range of the field. My ten are, like life, intense and often tragic, but have touches of Visconti or Lubitsch.

Paul Greengrass

  • Dont Look Back (Pennebaker)

  • The Battle of the Somme (Malins & McDowell)

  • Nanook of the North (Flaherty)

  • Man with a Movie Camera (Vertov)

  • The Demonstration (Sheppard & Woodhead)

  • Primary (Drew)

  • London Can Take It! (Watt & Jennings)

  • Man on Wire (Marsh)

  • Harlan County U.S.A. (Kopple)

Asif Kapadia

  • The Up series (Apted) This series is incredible. The simplicity of the idea. The nerve of the filmmakers and the financiers to keep it going. It only improves with time.

  • Sans soleil (Marker)

  • The Thin Blue Line (Morris) Before I saw this film, I had no idea that a documentary could be a thriller, so cinematic and so dramatic.

  • Fourteen Days in May (Hamann) Saw this on the BBC while still at school and was so angry afterwards with the injustice. Clive Stafford Smith became my hero; this film affected me in a way few dramas ever had.

  • Hoop Dreams (James) An epic story of two ordinary kids following their dreams. My first experience of the master Steve James. Truth can be far more complex and emotional than fiction.

  • A Great Day in Harlem (Bach) An entire movie created from a single image and a rostrum camera.

  • When We Were Kings (Gast) My hero Ali captured in the prime of his life. One of the most charismatic men ever, I don't want to see an actor playing him. I don't want someone pretending to move like him, I want the real thing. Love the music, editing, the use of archive, Norman Mailer, the humour, the poetry! This film was my main reference while making Senna.

  • Koyaanisqatsi: Life out of Balance (Reggio) Pure cinema. Incredible images and music. I still dream about making a film like this one day.

  • Dark Days (Singer) Love this incredible film. A friend gave me the DVD. I sat at home alone, watched it, then watched every deleted scene, then watched it over again, cried buckets. The story behind the making of the film is every bit as emotional and powerful as what is on screen.

  • The Act of Killing (Oppenheimer, Cynn & anonymous) I've never seen anything quite like this. Astonishing. Shocking. Brave filmmaking.

Kevin Macdonald

  • Gimme Shelter (Maysles brothers & Zwerin) I love the fact that the editor, Charlotte Zwerin, gets a directing credit on this. So often in documentaries the editor is at least as important to the finished film as the director. This is the best film ever made about performance – but also manages to say so much about the hippy dream turning sour.

  • The Unseen (Janek) The Unseen is generally unseen but is a film that had an enormous impact on me when I saw it at the inaugural It's All True doc festival in Brazil. It tells the story of blind children who become obsessed with taking photographs.

  • Now (Alvarez) The most potent campaigning film ever made. Only five minutes long, it is raw, technically innovative and angry.

  • Listen to Britain (Jennings & McAllister) Jennings was a genius at yanking together unexpected images, the John Donne of cinema. This film is pure poetry and makes patriotism seem not just acceptable but admirable.

  • The Thin Blue Line (Morris) I love its intelligence, its coolness and its humour. It influenced every film I have ever made.

  • When We Were Kings (Gast) The most exciting and uplifting nonfiction experience I have had in a cinema.

  • Darwin's Nightmare (Sauper) An imaginative, fiendishly gothic tale about the the survival of the fittest and the Nile Perch.

  • Roger & Me (Moore) Michael Moore brought entertainment back into documentary films – and made it the strange bedfellow of anger.

  • Hotel Terminus (Ophüls) Ophüls is a genius and I could just have easily chosen The Sorrow and The Pity for this list.

  • Waltz with Bashir (Folman) Because it did something new.

James Toback

  • F for Fake (Welles) Having called it my favourite film for many years, I was excited to read Welles himself refer to it as "the only original movie I've made since Citizen Kane".

  • The Goldberg Variations (Monsaingeon) Filmed and recorded shortly before Glenn Gould's tragic death, the film unites two of music history's heroic figures and transports us – to borrow one of Gould's phrases – into a realm of "beatific felicity".

  • Hotel Terminus (Ophüls) A great, rough, rich epic work of cinematic pursuit that leaves one with the frustration of having been robbed of the joy of murdering Klaus Barbie personally. Haunting in every regard.

  • Baseball (Burns) This is 20th-century American history dramatically and poetically rendered through the classic American sport.

  • Jim Brown: All American (Lee) An unsparing celebration of the most fascinating and complex American athlete of the 20th century with the best and most unexpected ‘happy' ending in movie history.

  • The Fog of War (Morris) A tortured portrait of the crumbling man most responsible for grinding America into and through the most significant and permanently staining military misadventures in its history.

  • Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession (Cassavetes) A thrilling survey of great films through an exploration of the ground-breaking Los Angeles-based movie channel and its tragic creator.

  • Grizzly Man (Herzog) The most seductive and relentless cinematic portrayal of man's doomed desire to communicate with non-human animals.

  • Seduced and Abandoned (Toback) False modesty has always been lost on me. Since the necessary – if not sufficient – cause for distinction in a film is that it not resemble any other film, Seduced and Abandoned becomes an instant candidate for inclusion.

  • The Story of the Jews (Bahaire & Kirby ) Simon Schama seamlessly weaves himself into the narrative in a miniseries written, photographed, edited and delivered with a perfect balance of passion and intellect.