For the most part, Rotten Tomatoes seems to have its finger on the pulse, at least when it comes to quality. Every rating portal has its flaws, but we all need a reference of some sort. When it comes to documentaries and the recording of human behaviour, here are the best ones according to the folks running the fresh-o-meter.
1. Man On Wire – 100%
IN 1974, daredevil Philippe Petit walked between New York’s Twin Towers on a thin wire, and this is a 2008 documentary of that feat. It tells of the immense planning that went into getting it done, and keeps you on the edge of your seat throughout.
2. 20 Feet From Stardom – 99%
We know everything about our favourite rockstars, but what about the backup singers? They’re a vital part of the sound of everyone from the Rolling Stones to David Bowie, and this 2013 documentary shines a light on their passion and hard-work.
3. I Am Not Your Negro – 99%
This documentary takes a look at the simmering racial relations and tensions in America, based on a manuscript from 1979 by James Baldwin. Raoul Peck made this in 2017, envisioning the parallels between then and now.
4. Blackfish – 98%
This 2013 documentary film directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite tells the story of Tilikum, a captive killer whale. Humans and performance killer whales have a storied history, and this film looks at how we understand very little of these creatures. Basically, it’s a total takedown of places like SeaWorld.
5. Exit Through The Gift Shop – 96%
This 2010 British documentary was directed by the notorious street artist Banksy. It’s an illuminating look at the borderline illegal world of underground art, as told through the eyes of Banksy and fellow artist Thierry Guetta.
6. Kedi – 98%
This 2016 Turkish film directed by Ceyda Torun is a step away from usual direction that documentaries take. It’s about the 100s of thousands of cats that roam the metropolis of Istanbul, how the locals live around them, and the frantic modernization of an ancient place with a unique feline history.
7. Waltz With Bashir – 96%
This heart-rending 2008 Israeli animated war documentary was directed by Ari Folman. The film tells the story of Ari himself trying to recollect memories of the 1982 Lebanon War, in which he served as an infantry soldier. This one is not for the weak of heart, but it is truly masterful.
8. Inside Job – 98%
Matt Damon narrates this documentary by Charles Ferguson about the consequences of the 2008 global financial meltdown on the American people. It examines the key elements that led to the collapse, as well as the powerful people who played a part in making it happen. Over the course of the unofficial investigation, you’re taken to China, the US, and even Iceland.
9. Anvil! The Story Of Anvil – 98%
This Canadian rockumentary is about a heavy metal band named Anvil that released an album in 1982. This album went on to inspire and influence everyone from Metallica to Anthrax, yet Anvil itself dropped into obscurity, consistently touring and suffering the rigours of the road without ever finding fame. It’s comical, touching, and surprisingly emotive.
10. Project Nim – 97%
This 2011 British documentary focuses on a science experiment from the 1970s that involved a chimpanzee named Nim. The basis of the project was to establish that an ape could communicate through language if raised as a human child. However, it soon devolved into a heart-wrenching indictment of how terribly humans treat animals in the name of science.
11. Life Itself – 98%
This 2014 biographical documentary chronicles the storied life of legendary film critic Roger Ebert. From his battles with the film industry to his battles with alcohol, this one pulls no punches.
12. Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room – 97%
Enron, one of the most notorious American corporations in history, a name synonymous with corruption and the evils that companies get up to. This 2005 documentary is based on the book of the same name, and tells the story of how Enron traders resorted to all manner of illegal schemes, at the cost of the public, to keep their high paying jobs.
13. Citizenfour – 96%
This 2014 documentary film directed by Laura Poitras was one of the first to have direct contact with Edward Snowden after the NSA spying scandal made his a notorious figure who was constantly on the run. While the information he provided is now decently documented, it’s still almost surreal to see what things were like at the time, when history was being made.
14. Wiener – 97%
This documentary chronicles the life of the charismatic and headstrong Anthony Weiner, as he runs for mayor of New York in 2013. Unfortunately for him, his political and personal life comes crashing down after a sex scandal involving him sending a picture of… well, his wiener. The irony was not lost on anyone.
15. One Child Nation – 98%
This 2019 documentary was directed by Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang, and chronicles the lost-lasting, often tragic consequences of China’s One Child Policy, which lasted from 1979 to 2015. It affected entire generations in a way that can only be described as devastating.