The 50 best documentaries of all time, according to critics

PolygramMuhammad Ali in ‘When We Were Kings.’

Some of the greatest moments in cinematic history are scenes of non-fiction.

From a profile of boxing legend Muhammad Ali to a portrait of a renowned sushi chef, the best documentaries capture real-life phenomena in a memorable and artful fashion.

To find out which documentary films have received the most critical acclaim over time, we turned to the reviews aggregator Rotten Tomatoes for its ranking of the top documentaries in history.

The site ranked the films by a weighted critic score that accounts for variation in the number of reviews each film received.

Here are the 50 best documentaries of all time, according to critics:


50. “Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me” (2014)

IFC Films

Critic score: 98%

User score: 79%

Summary:“The uncompromising Tony and Emmy Award-winner is showcased both on and off stage via rare archival footage and intimate cinema vérité.”


49. “The Overnighters” (2014)

Drafthouse Films

Critic score: 98%

User score: 84%

Summary:“Broken, desperate men chase their dreams and run from their demons in the North Dakota oil fields. A local Pastor risks everything to help them.”


48. “The Look of Silence” (2015)

Drafthouse Films/’The Look of Silence’

Critic score: 96%

User score: 90%

Summary:“A family that survived the genocide in Indonesia confronts the men who killed one of their brothers.”


47. “When We Were Kings” (1996)

Polygram

Critic score: 98%

User score: 93%

Summary:“A documentary of the 1974 heavyweight championship bout in Zaire, ‘The Rumble in the Jungle,’ between champion George Foreman and underdog challenger Muhammad Ali.”


46. “Bill Cunningham New York” (2011)

Zeitgeist Films

Critic score: 99%

User score: 92%

Summary:“A profile of the noted and extraordinarily cheerful veteran New York City fashion photographer.”


45. “Rivers and Tides: Andy Goldsworthy Working with Time” (2002)

Roxie Releasing

Critic score: 99%

User score: 90%

Summary:“Portrait of Andy Goldsworthy, an artist whose specialty is ephemeral sculptures made from elements of nature.”


44. “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room” (2005)

PBS

Critic score: 97%

User score: 86%

Summary:“A documentary about the Enron corporation, its faulty and corrupt business practices, and how they led to its fall.”


43. “Nostalgia for the Light” (2011)

Icarus Films

Critic score: 100%

User score: 84%

Summary:“In Chile’s Atacama Desert, astronomers peer deep into the cosmos in search for answers concerning the origins of life”


42. “We Were Here” (2011)

Weissman Projects

Critic score: 100%

User score: 86%

Summary: “A deep and reflective look at the arrival and impact of AIDS in San Francisco and how individuals rose to the occasion during the first years of this unimaginable crisis.”


41. “Everyday Sunshine: The Story of Fishbone” (2011)

Pale Griot Films

Critic score: 100%

User score: 85%

Summary:“A career retrospective of Fishbone, an all African-American rock band from Los Angeles who created a high energy blend of funk, metal, ska, and punk and experienced a career as chaotic and unique as the music they created.”


40. “The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara” (2003)

Sony Pictures Classic

Critic score: 97%

User score: 93%

Summary:“The story of America as seen through the eyes of the former Secretary of Defence under President John F. Kennedy and President Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara.”


39. “Cobain: Montage Of Heck” (2015)

HBO

Critic score: 98%

User score: 81%

Summary:“An authorised documentary on the late musician Kurt Cobain, from his early days in Aberdeen, Washington to his success and downfall with the grunge band Nirvana.”


38. “This Is Not a Film” (2012)

Palisades Tartan

Critic score: 98%

User score: 69%

Summary:“It’s been months since Jafar Panahi, stuck in jail, has been awaiting a verdict by the appeals court. By depicting a day in his life, Panahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb try to portray the deprivations looming in contemporary Iranian cinema.”


37. “The Invisible War” (2012)

PBS

Critic score: 99%

User score: 84%

Summary:“An investigative documentary about the epidemic of rape of soldiers within the US military.”


36. “Last Train Home” (2009)

PBS

Critic score: 99%

User score: 84%

Summary:“A couple embarks on a journey home for Chinese new year along with 130 million other migrant workers, to reunite with their children and struggle for a future. Their unseen story plays out as China soars towards being a world superpower.”


35. “Sound City” (2013)

Variance Films

Critic score: 100%

User score: 90%

Summary:“A documentary on the fabled recording studio that was located in Van Nuys, California.”


34. “The Act Of Killing” (2013)

Dogwoof Pictures

Critic score: 96%

User score: 85%

Summary:“Challenges former Indonesian death-squad leaders to reenact their mass-killings in whichever cinematic genres they wish, including classic Hollywood crime scenarios and lavish musical numbers.”


33. “Iris” (2015)

Magnolia Pictures

Critic score: 98%

User score: 80%

Summary:“A documentary about fashion icon Iris Apfel from legendary documentary filmmaker Albert Maysles.”


32. “Capturing the Friedmans” (2003)

Magnolia Pictures

Critic score: 97%

User score: 89%

Summary:“Documentary on the Friedmans, 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.”


31. “How to Survive a Plague” (2012)

Sundance Selects

Critic score: 99%

User score: 83%

Summary:“The story of two coalitions — ACT UP and TAG (Treatment Action Group) — whose activism and innovation turned AIDS from a death sentence into a manageable condition.”


30. “The Interrupters” (2011)

PBS

Critic score: 99%

User score: 82%

Summary:“A year in the life of a city grappling with urban violence.”


29. “Waltz with Bashir” (2008)

Sony Pictures Classic

Critic score: 96%

User score: 90%

Summary:“An Israeli film director interviews fellow veterans of the 1982 invasion of Lebanon to reconstruct his own memories of his term of service in that conflict.”


28. “Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr.” (1999)

Lions Gate

Critic score: 100%

User score: 86%

Summary:“A cinematic portrait of the life and career of the infamous American execution device designer and holocaust denier.”


27. “Citizenfour” (2014)

Radius-TWC

Critic score: 96%

User score: 87%

Summary:“A documentarian and a reporter travel to Hong Kong for the first of many meetings with Edward Snowden.”


26. “Afghan Star” (2009)

Zeitgeist Films

Critic score: 100%

User score: 76%

Summary:“A look at how contestants on the a musical contest program ‘Pop Idol’ in Afghanistan risk their lives to appear on the show.”


25. “Hoop Dreams” (1994)

Fine Line Features

Critic score: 98%

User score: 92%

Summary:“A film following the lives of two inner-city Chicago boys who struggle to become college basketball players on the road to going professional.”


24. “Amy” (2015)

A24

Critic score: 94%

User score: 87%

Summary:“Archival footage and personal testimonials present an intimate portrait of the life and career of British singer/songwriter Amy Winehouse.”


23. “Waste Land” (2010)

Arthouse Films

Critic score: 100%

User score: 90%

Summary:“On the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro is Jardim Gramacho, the world’s largest landfill, where men and women sift through garbage for a living. Artist Vik Muniz produces portraits of the workers and learns about their lives.”


22. “Project Nim” (2011)

Roadside Attractions

Critic score: 98%

User score: 84%

Summary:“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.”


21. “The Square (Al Midan)” (2013)

Participant Media

Critic score: 100%

User score: 90%

Summary:“A group of Egyptian revolutionaries battle leaders and regimes, risking their lives to build a new society of conscience.”


20. “Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds” (2017)

HBO

Critic score: 100%

User score: 85%

Summary:“An intimate portrait of actress Debbie Reynolds and her relationship with her beloved children, Carrie Fisher and Todd Fisher.”


19. “Spellbound” (2002)

ThinkFilm

Critic score: 98%

User score: 83%

Summary:“Spellbound follows eight teenagers on their quest to win the 1999 National Spelling Bee.”


18. “Seymour: An Introduction” (2015)

IFC Films

Critic score: 100%

User score: 80%

Summary:“Meet Seymour Bernstein: a beloved pianist, teacher and true inspiration who shares eye-opening insights from an amazing life. Ethan Hawke helms this poignant guide to life.”


17. “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” (2012)

Netflix

Critic score: 99%

User score: 92%

Summary:“A documentary on 85-year-old sushi master Jiro Ono, his renowned Tokyo restaurant, and his relationship with his son and eventual heir, Yoshikazu.”


16. “The Missing Picture” (2014)

Strand Releasing

Critic score: 99%

User score: 76%

Summary:“Rithy Panh uses clay figures, archival footage, and his narration to recreate the atrocities Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge committed between 1975 and 1979.”


15. “Anvil! The Story of Anvil” (2009)

Abramorama

Critic score: 98%

User score: 90%

Summary:“Since 1978, Anvil has become one of heavy metal’s most influential yet commercially unsuccessful acts. In 2006, after a fledgling European tour Anvil sets out to record their thirteenth album and continue to follow their dreams.”


14. “Inside Job” (2010)

Sony Pictures Classics

Critic score: 98%

User score: 91%

Summary:“Takes a closer look at what brought about the 2008 financial meltdown.”


13. “Deliver Us from Evil” (2006)

Lions Gate

Critic score: 100%

User score: 89%

Summary:“Documentary about Father Oliver O’Grady, a Catholic priest who was relocated to various parishes around the United States during the 1970s in an attempt by the Catholic Church to cover up his rape of dozens of children.”


12. “Jodorowsky’s Dune” (2014)

Sony Pictures Classic

Critic score: 98%

User score: 89%

Summary:“The story of cult film director Alejandro Jodorowsky’s ambitious but ultimately doomed film adaptation of the seminal science fiction novel.”


11. “Kedi” (2017)

Oscilloscope Laboratories

Critic score: 98%

User score: 85%

Summary:“A profile of an ancient city and its unique people, seen through the eyes of the most mysterious and beloved animal humans have ever known, the Cat.”


10. “Murderball” (2005)

ThinkFilm

Critic score: 98%

User score: 89%

Summary:“Quadriplegics, who play full-contact rugby in wheelchairs, overcome unimaginable obstacles to compete in the Paralympic Games in Athens, Greece.”


9. “Blackfish” (2013)

Suzanne Allee/Magnolia Pictures

Critic score: 98%

User score: 90%

Summary:“A documentary following the controversial captivity of killer whales, and its dangers for both humans and whales.”


8. “Tower” (2016)

PBS

Critic score: 100%

User score: 90%

Summary:“Animation, testimony, and archival footage combine to relate the events of August 1, 1966 when a gunman opened fire from the University of Texas clock tower, killing 16 people.”


7. “Taxi to the Dark Side” (2007)

ThinkFilm

Critic score: 100%

User score: 88%

Summary:“Alex Gibney exposes the haunting details of the USA’s torture and interrogation practices during the War in Afghanistan.”


6. “Weiner” (2016)

Motto Pictures

Critic score: 97%

User score: 83%

Summary:“An examination of disgraced New York Congressman Anthony Weiner’s mayoral campaign and today’s political landscape.”


5. “The Last Waltz” (1978)

MGM

Critic score: 98%

User score: 94%

Summary:“A film account and presentation of the final concert of The Band.”


4. “20 Feet From Stardom” (2013)

Radius-TWC

Critic score: 99%

User score: 82%

Summary:“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.”


3. “Life Itself” (2014)

Magnolia Pictures

Critic score: 97%

User score: 89%

Summary:“The life and career of the renowned film critic and social commentator, Roger Ebert.”


2. “Man on Wire” (2008)

Magnolia Pictures

Critic score: 100%

User score: 87%

Summary:“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.'”


1. “I Am Not Your Negro” (2017)

I Am Not Your Negro – Velvet Film Company

Critic score: 98%

User score: 84%

Summary:“Writer James Baldwin tells the story of race in modern America with his unfinished novel, ‘Remember This House.'”

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