It's the stuff of cliche, that the truth is often stranger than fiction, but that doesn't make it wrong. When documentaries are bad, they feel like formulaic PSAs, or dry-as-dust college essays with a single point to drive into your brain one dull interview at a time. But when they're good they ask you to consider the world from perspectives—plural—that you haven't had access to before. A good documentary can be just as rich in character as the best narrative feature, can be just as complex and persuasive as the most necessary criticism. Like all great art, it changes you.

The documentaries here are intended to cover the history of the form, as well as discuss as many subjects as possible. Think of it as a primer before you pursue the other work of the directors mentioned, or other films dealing in the same subject. These are the 50 Documentaries to See Before You Die.