The Best Documentaries of All Time, According to Critics

From a doomed film set via Japanese dolphin coves and genocide in Indonesia, to a sporting rivalry and a daring feat of skyscraper acrobatics.Newsweek
50. Lost In La Mancha (2003, Quixote Films). Critics' score: 94%. Audience score: 77%. Directed by: Keith Fulton, Louis Pepe. Starring: Terry Gilliam, Johnny Depp, Jeff Bridges. Synopsis: Terry Gilliam's doomed attempt to get his film, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, off the ground.Quixote Films

“In feature films the director is God; in documentary films God is the director,” the legendary Alfred Hitchcock once said. The genre is certainly a fascinating one—while documentaries lay claim to witnessing an objective truth, as Hitchcock suggests, they’re still constructed and stitched together by humans, and so can fall prey of their bias and blind spots.

Documentaries can have radically different relationships to the idea of objectivity. Movies such as 2014’s Citizenfour, which follows Edward Snowden as his NSA leaks hit the headlines, present events as if they were simply unfolding before the viewer.

On the other hand, some directors acknowledge the difficulty of presenting objective truth. Waltz With Bashir (2008) is a deep dive into the director’s psyche as he tries to discover his lost memories of the 1982 Lebanon War. The film cleverly uses both animation and actual war footage to explore this tension between the real and constructed.

As they’re dealing with real people and events, documentaries also have to make sure they don’t exploit or defame their subject. Asif Kapadia’s Amy Winehouse documentary Amy (2015) was accused of being a “tragedy porn” depiction of the late singer, despite a number of favorable reviews.

Documentaries also have enormous power to change the world around them. Blackfish (2013) exposed SeaWorld’s treatment of orca whales. after it was released, Southwest Airlines severed ties with the company, and SeaWorld’s attendance and stock prices both fell.

All of these films feature on Rotten Tomatoes’ list of the best documentaries of all time, which was made by averaging out critic scores.

The list takes us from a doomed film set via Japanese dolphin coves and a genocide in Indonesia, all the way up to a sporting rivalry and a daring feat of skyscraper acrobatics. Hitchcock himself even makes an appearance. Join us as we travel through cinematic history to find out which documentary is the very best of all time.

49. Life, Animated (2016, A&E IndieFilms). Critics' score: 94%. Audience score: 81%. Directed by: Roger Ross Williams. Starring: Jonathan Freeman, Gilbert Gottfried, Alan Rosenblatt. Synopsis: A coming-of-age story about a boy and his family who overcame great challenges by turning Disney animated movies into a language to express love, loss, kinship and brotherhood.A&E IndieFilms
48. The Cove (2009, Diamond Docs). Critics' score: 94%. Audience score: 94%. Directed by: Louie Psihoyos. Starring: Richard O'Barry, Louie Psihoyos, Hardy Jones. Synopsis: Using state-of-the-art equipment, a group of activists, led by renowned dolphin trainer Ric O'Barry, infiltrate a cove near Taijii, Japan to expose both a shocking instance of animal abuse and a serious threat to human health.Diamond Docs
47. Touching The Void (2004, IFC Films). Critics' score: 94%. Audience score: 92%. Directed by: Kevin Macdonald. Starring: Simon Yates, Joe Simpson, Brendan Mackey. Synopsis: The true story of two climbers and their perilous journey up the west face of Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes in 1985.IFC Films
46. Best Of Enemies: Buckley vs. Vidal (2015, Tremolo Productions). Critics' score: 94%. Audience score: 86%. Directed by: Morgan Neville, Robert Gordon. Starring: Gore Vidal, William F. Buckley, Dick Cavett. Synopsis: A documentary on the series of televised debates in 1968 between liberal Gore Vidal and conservative William F. Buckley.Tremolo Productions
45. Searching For Sugar Man (2012, Red Box Films). Critics' score: 94%. Audience score: 92%. Directed by: Malik Bendjelloul. Starring: Rodriguez, Stephen 'Sugar' Segerman, Dennis Coffey. Synopsis: Two South Africans set out to discover what happened to their unlikely musical hero, the mysterious 1970s rock n’ roller, Rodriguez.Red Box Films
44. Room 237 (2013, Film Sales Corp). Critics' score: 94%. Audience score: 55%. Directed by: Rodney Ascher. Starring: Bill Blakemore, Geoffrey Cocks, Juli Kearns. Synopsis: An exploration of various interpretations of Stanley Kubrick's horror film, The Shining.Film Sales Corp
43. Stories We Tell (2013, National Film Board of Canada). Critics' score: 94%. Audience score: 78%. Directed by: Sarah Polley. Starring: Michael Polley, John Buchan, Mark Polley. Synopsis: A film that excavates layers of myth and memory to find the elusive truth at the core of a family of storytellers.National Film Board of Canada
42. Lo And Behold, Reveries Of The Connected World (2016, Saville Productions). Critics' score: 94%. Audience score: 67%. Directed by: Werner Herzog. Starring: Elon Musk, Lawrence Krauss, Lucianne Walkowicz. Synopsis: Werner Herzog's exploration of the Internet and the connected world.Saville Productions
41. March Of The Penguins (2005, National Geographic Films). Critics' score: 94%. Audience score: 80%. Directed by: Luc Jacquet. Starring: Morgan Freeman, Charles Berling, Romane Bohringer. Synopsis: In the Antarctic, every March since the beginning of time, the quest begins to find the perfect mate and start a family.National Geographic Films
40. Amy (2015, A24). Critics' score: 94%. Audience score: 87%. Directed by: Asif Kapadia. Starring: Amy Winehouse, Mitch Winehouse, Mark Ronson. Synopsis: Archival footage and personal testimonials present an intimate portrait of the life and career of British singer/songwriter Amy Winehouse.A24
39. Born Into Brothels: Calcutta's Red Light Kids (2004, Red Light Films). Critics' score: 95%. Audience score: 91%. Directed by: Zana Briski, Ross Kauffman. Starring: Kochi, Avijit Halder, Shanti Das. Synopsis: Two documentary filmmakers chronicle their time in Sonagchi, Calcutta, and the relationships they developed with children of prostitutes who work the city's notorious red light district.Red Light Films
38. The Wild Parrots Of Telegraph Hill (2005, Pelican Media). Critics' score: 95%. Audience score: 85%. Directed by: Judy Irving. Starring: Mark Bittner, Ivan Stormgart, Jane Eyrich. Synopsis: A homeless musician finds meaning to his life when he starts a friendship with dozens of parrots.Pelican Media

“In feature films the director is God; in documentary films God is the director,” the legendary Alfred Hitchcock once said. The genre is certainly a fascinating one—while documentaries lay claim to witnessing an objective truth, as Hitchcock suggests, they’re still constructed and stitched together by humans, and so can fall prey of their bias and blind spots.

Documentaries can have radically different relationships to the idea of objectivity. Movies such as 2014’s Citizenfour, which follows Edward Snowden as his NSA leaks hit the headlines, present events as if they were simply unfolding before the viewer.

On the other hand, some directors acknowledge the difficulty of presenting objective truth. Waltz With Bashir (2008) is a deep dive into the director’s psyche as he tries to discover his lost memories of the 1982 Lebanon War. The film cleverly uses both animation and actual war footage to explore this tension between the real and constructed.

As they’re dealing with real people and events, documentaries also have to make sure they don’t exploit or defame their subject. Asif Kapadia’s Amy Winehouse documentary Amy (2015) was accused of being a “tragedy porn” depiction of the late singer, despite a number of favorable reviews.

Documentaries also have enormous power to change the world around them. Blackfish (2013) exposed SeaWorld’s treatment of orca whales. after it was released, Southwest Airlines severed ties with the company, and SeaWorld’s attendance and stock prices both fell.

All of these films feature on Rotten Tomatoes’ list of the best documentaries of all time, which was made by averaging out critic scores.

The list takes us from a doomed film set via Japanese dolphin coves and a genocide in Indonesia, all the way up to a sporting rivalry and a daring feat of skyscraper acrobatics. Hitchcock himself even makes an appearance. Join us as we travel through cinematic history to find out which documentary is the very best of all time.