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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 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.)