Are you as much of a Rotten Tomatoes junkie as I am? I’ve always enjoyed perusing the site’s compilations of critical reactions to a film. It’s about as indispensable to me as imdb.com, the Internet Movie Database, where you can get information about the producers, cast, release dates and more on a film. Well, last week, I was intrigued by the polarizing reaction to Brett Morgen‘s Chicago 10 (The New York Times hated it, while The Boston Globe and Washington Post loved it). While looking at the various reactions to the film on Rotten Tomatoes, I began wondering what highest rated docs of all time might be. After an exhaustive (though admittedly not very scientific) search, this is what I found at the top of the list:

Harlan County U.S.A.  by Barbara Kopple

Still from Barbara Kopple’s Harlan County, U.S.A.

Harlan County, U.S.A.
By Barbara Kopple (1976)
Rating: 9.3
Ken Burns’ The Civil War
By Ken Burns (1991)
Rating: 9.2
American Dream
By Barbara Kopple (1990)
Rating: 9.1
Shoah
By Claude Lanzmann (1985)
Rating: 9
Salesman
By Albert Maysles (1968)
Rating: 8.8

Hearts and Minds
By Peter Davis (1975)
Rating: 8.8
Night and Fog
By Alain Resnais (1955)
Rating: 8.8
28 Up
By Michael Apted (1984)
Rating: 8.8
Nanook of the North
By Robert Flaherty (1922)
Rating: 8.7
Sherman’s March
By Ross McElwee (1986)
Rating: 8.6
The Thin Blue Line
By Errol Morris (1988)
Rating: 8.6
The Sorrow and the Pity
By Marcel Ophuls (1971)
Rating: 8.6
The War Game
By Peter Watkins (1965)
Rating: 8.5
Dear America — Letters Home From Vietnam
By Bill Couturie (1988)
Rating: 8.5
A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies
By Martin Scorsese (1995)
Rating: 8.5
Hoop Dreams
By Steve James (1994)
Rating: 8.5
Burden of Dreams
By Les Blank (1982)
Rating: 8.5

The list is not entirely surprising — it’s made up of all the classics, except for a few notables that are missing (Titticut Follies, Gimme Shelter, Grey Gardens and Don’t Look Back come to mind) — but it’s still pretty interesting, huh? Incidentally, when I say that my list is not scientific, I mean that the Rotten Tomatoes system is totally skewed because sometimes a film has been reviewed by a small number of critics who raved about it, and thus unfairly launched it to the top of the list. (I cut The Shark Is Still Working — about the making of Steven Spielberg‘s Jaws — from the list for this reason; Dear America, The War Game and Lion in the House also don’t belong on the list for the same reason.) Still, I enjoyed the exercise — so much so that, next week, I may just take a look into the basement to see what the worst reviewed documentaries are of all time.

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Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He is a former Premiere magazine senior editor, who graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom's freelance work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter and other publications. He has written several Kindle Singles, including the bestselling Kindle Singles Interview: Ken Burns. Tom's current list of favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi by Godfrey Reggio; 2. Hoop Dreams by Steve James; 3.Stories We Tell by Sarah Polley; 4.Crumb by Terry Zwigoff; 5. Montage of Heck by Brett Morgen