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The 10 Best Documentaries of 2021

From a host of legendary music docs to portraits of a still-in-progress pandemic and a Civil Rights leader’s persecution — the highlights of a banner year in nonfiction filmmaking

Photo Illustration by @photoeidtorjoe . Images in Illustration: HBOMax; Apple Corp/Disney+; Atzmor Productions; Searchlight Pictures

Gimme some truth, a wise man once said — and in 2021, documentaries did their damnedest to deliver exactly that in a variety of shapes, sizes and forms. Some of it came from straight reportage, tinged with personal touches. Other times, things veered a lot closer to what Werner Herzog memorably referred to as “ecstatic truth.” It was a very good year for nonfiction movies that utilized a host of creative tricks, in the name of both workarounds and wild, swing-for-the-fences conceptual gambles. (Dramatic recreations! Animated therapy sessions! Avant-garde split-screen-a-go-go!) It was a great year for music docs, with everyone from the Beatles to the Velvet Underground getting gamechanging looks back at their long and winding roads. And it was a banner year for documentarians using longform, multi-episodic storytelling to their advantage — you’ll notice that we’ve included two entries that are great examples of how TV docuseries have become such a vital part of our vérité-with-benefits diet.

Here’s our list of the 10 best documentaries we saw this year, from a portrait of a pandemic still-in-progress to a restored concert movie for the ages, an essay on the evils of colonialism to an examination of a Civil Rights leader’s persecution. (Shout-outs also to: The Rescue, Gunda, I Carry You With Me, State Funeral, The Truffle Hunters, Attica, Listening to Kenny G and Adam Curtis’ mind-blowing “emotional history of the modern world” Can’t Get You Out of My Head.)

From Rolling Stone US


‘In the Same Breath’

We got our share of extraordinary documentaries this year on the early days of the Covid outbreak and its continuing aftermath, from the anonymously sourced 76 Days to Matthew Heineman’s The First Wave. Yet it’s Nanfu Wang’s portrait of a pandemic that’s lingered with us the most in 2021, and the way the One Child Nation filmmaker seamlessly transitions from the personal to the political to the panoptical captures a host of perspectives while remaining clear-eyed about what went wrong. Starting with her own trip back to China for New Year’s celebration — “the last moment I can remember when life still felt normal” — right before Wuhan went into lockdown, the filmmaker takes us on a tour of overtaxed ICUs, grief-filled memorials, rage-fuelled protests and press conferences where make-or-break decisions kept landing on the latter. Simmering underneath it all is Wang’s indictment of how governments, politicians and the media used misinformation to “calm” the general public, and ended up metastasizing a medical crisis into a plague upon all of our houses.



After seeing a press conference in which several Kansas City men, all of whom had suffered sexual abuse at the hands of priests, asked for a criminal investigation regarding the Catholic Church’s handling of these incidents, Robert Greene reached out to the lawyer handling their case. He asked: Would your clients be interested in collaborating on a project with him? These men, and a few fellow survivors, would re-enact their traumas with a drama therapist. Greene would help them film the projects, which ranged from the baroque to corrective. Procession is a harrowing watch, to be sure, but also sensitive to what’s happening with these subjects in a way that doesn’t go for easy emotional button-pushing, or playing down the white-knuckle struggle they endure while processing all of it. (The movie’s title contains multitudes.) As with his previous work Bisbee ’17 (2018), the documentarian is using a mix of performance, testimonials, advocacy and activism in the name of reckoning with the past. Yet the stakes feel higher, and far more personal with this  — it’s an extraordinary gamble that everyone is taking here. And by the time you watch one of these survivors destroy a recreated rectory room with a sledgehammer, you realize how the power of art can help pave the way for the possibility of healing.



A young boy growing up in Afghanistan in the 1980s watches as his older brother goes AWOL after being forcibly recruited by the Mujahideen to fight the Soviets. Thanks to the efforts of another sibling living abroad, the whole family is able to leave the country and eventually settle in Europe. Years later, this nameless, now-grown protagonist is a successful academic who’s settled down with a supportive boyfriend. When the Danish director Jonas Poher Rasmussen asks him to recount his story for the camera, however, you can see how being uprooted from his home has never quite been resolved. The result is both an intimate exploration of trauma as well as a chronicle of the universal 20th-century refugee experience, in which that word in the title is a constant way of life. The fact that Rasmussen animates this immigrant’s tale somehow makes it even more graceful and gutting; there’s a sequence near the end that earns the sobs it inspires precisely because of how it’s presented.


‘Summer of Soul’

If Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s look back at the series of shows that took place in Harlem’s Mount Morris Park in the summer of ’69 had been nothing but musical performances, the fruits of his labor-of-love would still make for a near-peerless concert film: A 19-year-old Stevie Wonder jumping in front of his keyboard before banging out a manic drum solo. Nina Simone turning “Backlash Blues” into the equivalent of a boxing match. Sly and the Family Stone at their peak, reminding you that funk is both a noun and a verb. Mahalia Jackson and Mavis Staples together, taking everyone to church. What he gives us instead, however, is far more vital. It’s a contextualized look at a specific moment — in Harlem’s history, in African-American history, in American history — that reminds you just how much the music acted as a salve for state-institutionalized violence, a catalyst for change, and a celebration. The mere fact that it’s taken decades for anyone to see this footage is a crime. Thompson’s film is a step towards righting that wrong. It’s a reclamation in more ways than one.


‘The Velvet Underground’

Only Todd Haynes could have made a documentary about the Velvet Underground — iconoclastic art rockers, downtown-boho dark stars, the missing link between the Brill Building and Rimbaud — and turned it into something that you might have seen projected behind the band during one of Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable shows. A masterpiece of a music-group portrait, this chronicle of the rise and flame-out fall of the V.U. borrows the vocabulary of that era’s experimental filmmaking, complete with abstract montages and Chelsea Girls split screens; more importantly, it gives you a great sense of the avant-garde environments (music, cinema, literature) and pop-to-Pop Art intersections that made the initial combination of Lou Reed and John Cale so combustible. There are talking-heads interviews and archival clips galore, of course, but it’s all presented in a way that frames the good, the great and the ugly of the band beautifully. And visually, it’s a note from the underground that somehow ended up on Apple TV+ — talk about subversive.


‘Exterminate All the Brutes’

Raoul Peck’s sprawling, massive four-part history lesson reminds you that behind every empire is a crime, or two, or thousands — and that colonialism has been responsible for centuries of cultural upheaval and annihilation across the globe. Interweaving archival footage, personal anecdotes film clips, animated vignettes and dramatic recreations (all starring Josh Hartnett as the embodiment of imperialistic evil) and using Joseph Conrad’s title quote as a jumping-off point, the I Am Not Your Negro director weaves his way through examples of European powers subjugating indigenous peoples: the transatlantic slave trade, the use of religion and resettlement to destabilize populations, the countless massacres that enforced various nations’ versions of manifest destiny. It is not only possible to connect the dots between the transatlantic slave trade and the killing of Native Americans and the Holocaust, the film suggests; it is necessary to do so in order to see how a policy of white supremacy has been so prevalent in so many horrible origin stories.


‘The Beatles: Get Back’

We knew that Peter Jackson’s epic remixing of the footage shot during the Fab Four’s recording of Let It Be would alter our perspective on both the album and the 1969 documentary of the same name — especially when it was announced that it would no longer be a three-hour film but a docuseries unfolding over three nights on Disney+. What we hadn’t figured on, however, was just how insightful this nearly eight-hour portrait of a recording session would be on the creative process itself, much less radically change our view of the Beatles’ final act. Songs and riffs go nowhere, practically in real time. Then, poof: Paul has found a riff, others join in, and soon they have “Get Back.” Blood is spilled, tears are shed, and then, one sweaty week later, “Two of Us” is almost ready for public consumption. There are too many bangers here to count (the full rooftop concert! the flowerpot-mic summit!), though that didn’t stop our resident Beatles expert from trying. You get a ringside seat to the quartet’s dynamic, which yes, did cause friction — but you also have the chance to watch how they produced so much incredible music together, and see the shared history between these four men play into everything they do. It wasn’t all scowls and passive-aggressiveness and what’s-Yoko-doing-here? glaring. It was also smiles and in-jokes and frank conversations and goofing around and basking in the joy of each other’s company before the curtain goes down. Amazing.


‘The Viewing Booth’

Israeli filmmaker Ra’anan Alexandrowicz had an idea: Put out an open call to Jewish-American university students, have them view a variety of news clips regarding interactions between soldiers and Palestinian citizens (a situation which Alexandrowicz knew about firsthand) and interview them about their thoughts on what they see. He’d document the results on film. One participant in particular, a young woman named Maia Levy, fascinated him; their interactions fall somewhere between conversational and combative. And as we watch him watch her watching these snippets on the Occupation, all of which range from highly partisan to outright propaganda, the entire notion of whether our belief systems can be changed — or are merely reinforced by the information we receive — is put through the proverbial ringer. What starts as a social experiment becomes something much deeper, and by the end of Alexandrowicz’s extraordinary buffet for thought, you realize this documentary is only partially about Israel. It’s about seeing freedom fighters versus insurrectionists, a leader versus a con man, a plague versus a hoax. It’s about arguing over whose lives matter. It’s about the culture divide and the reality gap that’s quickly turning into a collective abyss that we’re all staring down into. An absolute must-see. (You can check out the movie here.)