20 Highest Rated Documentaries of All Time, According to Rotten Tomatoes

Documentaries distil the extremities of real life to show fact can often be far stranger than fiction.

Dwight Steven-Boniecki, director of Searching For Skylab: America's Forgotten Triumph, suggests these shows can their best educate as well as entertain.

"These films all have a common thread," he tells Newsweek. "They all take something we think we know well and present us with a kaleidoscope of knowledge that goes beyond anything we thought we knew about the subject.

"They are so astoundingly rich in information, they manage to achieve what many may assume is impossible: they help make us experts, and they manage to do that within the circa 90 minutes it takes to tell their story.

"Best of all, we, the viewers, do not get bored. We are engrossed in the story and come out enriched because of it."

A recent survey by BINJ found that three in four participants wanted to be "excited" and made to feel "anxiousness" by a documentary.

Reza Hashemi, the content platform's CEO, tells Newsweek: ""Amongst the top-rated films, Peter Jackson's Thou Shalt Not Grow Old and Blackfish made our audiences the most anxious. Free Solo excited audiences more than most of the other documentaries in the list."

Count down the 20 highest rated documentaries on Rotten Tomatoes, each "Certified Fresh" from at least 100 critics reviews from the movie critic aggregation site.

=19. The Act of Killing (95%)

2012 ‧ Documentary/History ‧ 2h 2m

#71. The Act of Killing (2013) (tie)
The Act of Killing reveals the mass executions of accused communists in Indonesia and those celebrated there for perpetrating their crimes against humanity Final Cut for Real

This award-winning doc reveals the mass executions of accused communists in Indonesia and those celebrated there for perpetrating their crimes against humanity.

Rotten Tomatoes critics' consensus states: "Raw, terrifying, and painfully difficult to watch, The Act of Killing offers a haunting testament to the edifying, confrontational power of documentary cinema."

=19. Amy (95%)

2015 ‧ Documentary/Musical ‧ 2h 8m

Amy Winehouse
Amy Winehouse performing at the Shepherd's Bush Empire on May 28, 2007, in London. C Brandon/Redferns

Archival clips and talking heads reveal an intimate portrait of the life and times of seminal singer-songwriter Amy Winehouse.

Rotten Tomatoes critics' consensus states: "As riveting as it is sad, Amy is a powerfully honest look at the twisted relationship between art and celebrity—and the lethal spiral of addiction."

=15. The Look of Silence (96%)

2014 ‧ Documentary/Historical Documentary ‧ 1h 43m

56 The Look Of Silence
The Look of Silence: A family that survived the genocide in Indonesia confronts the men who killed one of their brothers. Drafthouse Films

Focusing on an optometrist named Adi, The Look of Silence is Joshua Oppenheimer's powerful companion piece to the Oscar-nominated The Act of Killing.

Rotten Tomatoes critics' consensus states: "The Look of Silence delivers a less shocking—yet just as terribly compelling—companion piece to Joshua Oppenheimer's The Act of Killing."

=15. Coup 53 (96%)

2019 ‧ Documentary ‧ 1h 59m

Coup 53
Iranian director Taghi Amirani (L) and US editor Walter Murch of the film Coup 53, pose in London on October 4, 2019 Getty Images

This doc tells the story of Operation Ajax, the CIA/MI6 staged coup in 1953 in Iran that overthrew a prime minister.

Rotten Tomatoes critics' consensus states: "Rife with the political intrigue promised by its title, Coup 53 is a spellbinding documentary with the heart of a thriller."

=15. Citizenfour (96%)

2014 ‧ Documentary/Historical Documentary ‧ 1h 53m

47 image
Citizenfour: Although most of the action in this documentary is confined to a hotel room, it never fails to be anything less than gripping. Poitras finds herself in the centre of the massive NSA leaks of 2013, filming the whistleblower Edward Snowden as he pits himself against the mighty force of the U.S. government. It won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. Radius-TWC

Edward Snowden, who possesses information on the U.S. government's massive covert surveillance programs, meets with journalists to expose the scandal.

Rotten Tomatoes critics' consensus states: "Part real-life thriller, part sobering examination of 21st-century civil liberties, Citizenfour transcends ideology to offer riveting, must-see cinema."

=15. Waltz with Bashir (96%)

2008 ‧ War/Documentary ‧ 1h 30m

47 Waltz With Bashir
Waltz with Bashir: A vet is haunted by visions about the 1982 Lebanon War in which he served as an infantry soldier Sony Pictures Classics

A vet is haunted by visions about the 1982 Lebanon War in which he served as an infantry soldier.

Rotten Tomatoes critics' consensus states: "A wholly innovative, original, and vital history lesson, with pioneering animation, Waltz With Bashir delivers its message about the Middle East in a mesmerizing fashion."

=11. Project Nim (97%)

12 2011 ‧ Documentary/Drama ‧ 1h 33m

40 Project Nim
Project Nim: Audience score: 84%.Tells the story of a chimpanzee taken from its mother at birth and raised like a human child by a family in a brownstone on the upper West Side in the 1970s. Red Box Films

This documentary follows a chimp who in the 1970s became the focus of a landmark experiment aiming to illustrate apes can communicate with language if raised and nurtured like humans.

Rotten Tomatoes critics' consensus states: "Equal parts hilarious, poignant, and heartbreaking, Project Nim not only tells a compelling story masterfully but also raises the flag on the darker side of human nature."

=11. Weiner (97%)

2016 ‧ Documentary ‧ 1h 36m

Former congressman Anthony Weiner arrives at a New York courthouse for his sentencing in a sexting case on September 25, 2017 in New York City. Weiner's sentence has been reduced by three months for good behavior. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

A sex scandal ruins former Republican Anthony Weiner's attempt at a political comeback when running as mayor of New York.

Rotten Tomatoes critics' consensus states: "Weiner uses sharp insight and untrammeled access to offer a portrait of a political and personal collapse that's as queasy as it is undeniably compelling."

=11. Capturing the Friedmans (97%)

2003 ‧ Documentary/Mystery ‧ 1h 47m

The Friedmans are a seemingly typical, upper-middle-class Jewish family whose world is instantly transformed when the father and his youngest son are arrested and charged with shocking and horrible crimes. Magnolia

While preparing a documentary about children's birthday party entertainers, a filmmaker discovers that one of his subjects was related to men convicted of child sexual abuse

Rotten Tomatoes critics' consensus states: "A haunting depiction of a disintegrating family and a powerful argument on the elusiveness of truth."

=11. Spellbound (97%)

2002 ‧ Documentary ‧ 1h 35m

Spellbound: Eight kids of wildly disparate ethnic, class, and regional backgrounds are followed from their individual hometowns to Washington D.C. for the National Spelling Bee Finals. ThinkFilm

This documentary follows children as they work their way toward the finals of a prestigious national spelling bee competition.

Rotten Tomatoes critics' consensus states: "A suspenseful, gripping documentary that features an engaging cross-section of American children."

=6. Jodorowsky's Dune (98%)

2013 ‧ Documentary/Epic ‧ 1h 30m

44 Jodorowsky's Dune
Jodorowsky's Dune tells the story of cult film director Alejandro Jodorowsky and his ambitious but ultimately doomed film adaptation of the seminal science fiction novel. Highline Pictures

A moviemaker discusses how he would have adapted Frank Herbert's classic sci-fi novel Dune for the big screen.

Rotten Tomatoes critics' consensus states: "Part thoughtful tribute, part bittersweet reminder of a missed opportunity."

=6. Murderball (98%)

2005 ‧ Documentary/Sport ‧1h 25m

44 8e9a2ba8-a477-42dc-83b3-b4e7dfce0d40
Murderball: Like any other great sports story, Murderball features fierce rivalry, stopwatch suspense, dazzling athletic prowess, larger-than-life personalities and triumph over daunting odds. ThinkFilm

This doc follows the U.S. quad rugby team as they prepare for and play full-contact competitive rugby,

Rotten Tomatoes critics' consensus states: "An entertaining and gripping documentary that shows being confined to a wheelchair doesn't mean the fun has to end."

=6. Blackfish (98%)

2013 ‧ Documentary ‧ 1h 30m

23 Blackfish
Blackfish: A documentary following the controversial captivity of killer whales, and its dangers for both humans and whales. Magnolia Pictures

Blackfish tells the story of Tilikum, a performing killer whale that killed several people while in captivity.

Rotten Tomatoes critics' consensus states: "Blackfish is an aggressive, impassioned documentary that will change the way you look at performance killer whales."

=6. Inside Job (98%)

2010 ‧ Documentary/Crime ‧ 1h 48m

43 Inside Job
Inside Job takes a closer look at what brought about the 2008 financial meltdown. Sony Pictures Classics

Inside Job provides detailed examinations of the elements leading to the 2008 financial collapse.

Rotten Tomatoes critics' consensus states: "Disheartening but essential viewing, Charles Ferguson's documentary explores the 2008 Global Financial Crisis with exemplary rigor."

=6. Anvil! The Story of Anvil (98%)

2008 ‧ Documentary/Rockumentary ‧ 1h 20m

13 Anvil_Tokyo5
Anvil! The Story of Anvil: Toronto school friends Steve "Lips" Kudlow and Robb Reiner made a pact to rock together forever. Their band, Anvil, went on to become the "demigods of Canadian metal," releasing one of the heaviest albums in metal history. Abramorama

This documentary lifts the lid on little-known Canadian metal band Anvil, who would help inspire bands such as Anthrax and Metallica.

Rotten Tomatoes critics' consensus states: "A touching, uplifting and inspirational rockumentary about an aging metal band, both hilarious and heart-warming in equal measure."

=4. Kedi (98%)

2016 ‧ Documentary ‧ 1h 20m

Kedi follows the itinerant lives of the hundreds of thousands of cats La Termita Films

This documentary explores the ancient city of Istanbul and its unique people, through the eyes of its incredible cat population.

Rotten Tomatoes critics' consensus states: "Kedi is a cat fancier's dream, but this thoughtful, beautifully filmed look at Istanbul's street feline population offers absorbing viewing for film goers of any purr-suasion."

=4. Life Itself (98%)

2014 ‧ Documentary ‧ 2 hours

life itself
Life Itself: The life and work of legendary movie critic Roger Ebert are explored in this documentary, focussing in particular on his occasionally savage rivalry with fellow film critic Gene Siskel Kartemquin Films, Film Rites, CNN Films

A filmmaker charts the life and career of movie critic Roger Ebert, paying particular attention to his periodically ruthless rivalry with fellow critic Gene Siskel.

Rotten Tomatoes critics' consensus states: "Rich in detail and warmly affectionate, Life Itself offers a joyful yet poignant tribute to a critical cinematic legacy."

=2. I Am Not Your Negro (99%)

2016 ‧ Documentary ‧ 1h 35m)

I Am Not Your Negro
I Am Not Your Negro explores racism through the stories of three legendary activists Velvet Film, Close Up Films, Artemis Productions

This powerful documentary explores racism through the words of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.

Rotten Tomatoes critics' consensus states: "I Am Not Your Negro offers an incendiary snapshot of James Baldwin's crucial observations on American race relations—and a sobering reminder of how far we've yet to go."

=2. 20 Feet from Stardom (99%)

2013 ‧ Documentary/Musical ‧ 1h 31m

49 20 Feet From Stardom
20 Feet From Stardom: Backup singers live in a world that lies just beyond the spotlight. Their voices bring harmony to the biggest bands in popular music, but we've had no idea who these singers are or what lives they lead, until now. Tremolo Productions

This doc delivers a long-overdue spotlight on the hit-making contributions of backup singers like Darlene Love and Merry Clayton.

Rotten Tomatoes critics' consensus states: "Rich, insightful, and occasionally heartbreaking, 20 Feet From Stardom is an energetic tribute to the passion, talent, and hard work of backup singers."

1. Man on Wire (100%)

2008 ‧ Documentary/Indie film ‧ 1h 34m

41 Man on Wire
Man on Wire: A look at tightrope walker Philippe Petit's daring, but illegal, high-wire routine performed between New York City's World Trade Center's twin towers in 1974, what some consider, "the artistic crime of the century". Magnolia Pictures

Filmmaker James Marsh recreates high-wire adrenaline junky Philippe Petit's 1974 acrobatics on a thin wire strung between the Twin Towers

Rotten Tomatoes critics' consensus states: "James Marsh's doc about artist Phililppe Petit's artful caper brings you every ounce of suspense that can be wrung from a man on a (suspended) wire."

Editor's pick

Newsweek cover
  • Newsweek magazine delivered to your door
  • Unlimited access to Newsweek.com
  • Ad free Newsweek.com experience
  • iOS and Android app access
  • All newsletters + podcasts
Newsweek cover
  • Unlimited access to Newsweek.com
  • Ad free Newsweek.com experience
  • iOS and Android app access
  • All newsletters + podcasts