To take a form like nonfiction cinema — as vast as it is experimental and as controversial as it is misunderstood — and whittle it down to 20 essential titles, seems almost an impossible task.
It’s best to view documentaries not only for how fascinating a subject they depict or how uniquely they execute a vision, but also for how they comment upon and evolve the notion that truth is an essential component of art. Which is not to say documentaries are ever “truly true” or “really real” but that their inherent expectation of reality can help us get at a greater understanding of certain truths. To paraphrase Orson Welles in F for Fake, “Art can never be real, but it can help us understand truth.”
The following list was assembled to illuminate films that use the expectation of truth to make viewers see reality in unexpected ways: