Tom RostonIndependent journalist Tom Roston checks in and writes about the world of documentaries in his column, Doc Soup.

You can follow Tom on Twitter @DocSoupMan.

Doc Soup: Best Reviewed Docs from

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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, 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
By Claude Lanzmann (1985)
Rating: 9
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.

Tom Roston
Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He comes to us as a ten-year veteran of Premiere magazine, where he was a Senior Editor, and where he wrote the column, Notes from the Dream Factory. Tom was born and raised in New York City. He graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom has also written for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, GQ, New York, Elle and other publications. Tom's favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi - Godfrey Reggio 2. Hoop Dreams - Steve James 3. The Up series - Michael Apted 4. Crumb - Terry Zwigoff 5. Capturing the Friedmans - Andrew Jarecki
  • Daniel

    FOREIGNID: 15422
    I find it interesting that all of the listed are before 2000. Has the quality gone down? Are interesting subjects dried up? I don’t think so. Part of it may have to do with the politicization of docs (Michael Moore), but I also think there have just been SO MANY more in the last 10 years that it’s difficult to stand out from the pack.

  • Tom

    FOREIGNID: 15423
    Yeah, I think that it makes sense that there are so many more before 2000. Are the best film at the dawning of a medium better than the best films that come later? Well, yeah, because the later filmmakers have learned from their predecessors. There would be no Michael Moore without Robert Flaherty. You have to give credit for something that’s groundbreaking. And I think the critics reflect that bias, especially when they write their reviews 10 or more years after the original release. It’s hard to tell what film will stand the test of time—a sure sign of greatness. Salesman does. But what films will from the past five years?

  • Emily

    FOREIGNID: 15424
    Depending on how you search documentary ratings on Rotten Tomatoes, you may come up with a different list of the top films. While I agree that many of the films listed above are some of the best documentaries ever made, I wouldn’t disclude more recent films from the list based on Rotten Tomatoes findings. Documentary films are receiving more attention from viewers and critics these days and so it makes sense that more critics will take the time to review documentary films. And with more critics, comes more critique and a more competitive critical landscape for these films. For example, on Rotten Tomatoes only 6 critics (2 “top critics”) were counted in giving Harlan County, USA a score of 9.3 whereas 57 reviews were counted (including 23 “top critics”) in giving Taxi To The Darkside a score of 8.2. Both of these films have 100% Tomatometer ratings. I’m not saying that Taxi To The Darkside is better than Harlan County, USA nor that they are equals (nor am I arguing the opposite). I’m simply saying that it is hard to base our judgment of “the best” documentary films of all time on the critical reception of the films (without having a constant – e.g. same reviewers, same system of scoring, etc).

  • Jessica

    FOREIGNID: 15425
    i think there’s something to be said also, of people who have access to the internet and who spend their time “rating” films/docs. it sort of makes me think about how documentary is changing – or how it hasn’t changed.

  • Tom

    FOREIGNID: 15426
    I am curious to hear how you think documentary isn’t changing. Points well taken above–especially Emily’s breaking down the numbers on Taxi and Harlan County–but I think we all know that the nature of rating and ranking anything, especially documentary film, is an exercise of sorts. And, really, a game. I think it’s important to have fun with docs. And I’m not totally sure what you’re getting at, Jessica; your comment is laced with innuendo. Care to flesh out a bit?