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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


‘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.)