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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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)
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
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
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.”
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