Every year feature films based on true stories and films based in fiction get love. But where is the love for documentaries? You know, the films that help you take a look at historical moments in time by chronicling reality. And this year, we wanted to honor them by pulling together top documentaries of 2021 film list. Some focus on a period of time we need to know about, others focus on people who have been overlooked by history despite their impact, and others took a look at a harrowing moment in history. And all of them had something powerful to say.
Now, there were a few requirements to make our Top Documentaries of 2021 list. First, to make the list, the film had to have released to audiences in the calendar years of 2021 in the United States either in theaters or on streaming—this could be both wide or limited release. Additionally, to make the top documentaries of 2021 list, the film must be billed as a documentary and not just a biopic or “based on true events.” So, without further ado, here are our top 10 documentaries of 2021.
10. My Name is Pauli Murray
9. Summer of Soul (…Or When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)
Director: Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson
Where to Watch: Hulu
Summer of Soul is part music film, part historical record created around an epic event that celebrated Black history, culture, and fashion. Over the course of six weeks in the summer of 1969, just 100 miles south of Woodstock, The Harlem Cultural Festival was filmed in Mount Morris Park (now Marcus Garvey Park). The footage was never seen and largely forgotten–until now. SUMMER OF SOUL shines a light on the importance of history to our spiritual well-being and stands as a testament to the healing power of music during times of unrest, both past and present. The feature includes never-before-seen concert performances by Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Sly and the Family Stone, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Mahalia Jackson, B.B. King, The 5th Dimension, and more.
8. The Lost Leonardo
Unravelling the hidden agendas of the world’s richest men and most powerful art institutions, The Lost Leonardo reveals how vested interests became all-important, and the truth secondary.
Director: Sam Hobkinson
Writer: Sam Hobkinson
Where to Watch: Netflix
A woman’s Holocaust memoir takes the world by storm, but a fallout with her publisher-turned-detective reveals her as an audacious deception created to hide a darker truth.
Six midwestern men — all survivors of childhood sexual assault at the hands of Catholic priests and clergy — come together to direct a drama therapy-inspired experiment designed to collectively work through their trauma. As part of a radically collaborative filmmaking process, they create fictional scenes based on memories, dreams and experiences, meant to explore the church rituals, culture and hierarchies that enabled silence around their abuse. In the face of a failed legal system, we watch these men reclaim the spaces that allowed their assault, revealing the possibility for catharsis and redemption through a new-found fraternity.
5. A Cop Movie (Una película de policías)
Director Alonso Ruizpalacios takes us deep into the Mexican police force with the story of Teresa and Montoya, together known as “the love patrol.” In this thoroughly original and unpredictable documentary, Ruizpalacios plays with the boundaries of nonfiction and immerses the audience into the human experience of police work within a dysfunctional system.
Director: Nanfu Wang
Where to Watch: HBOMax
With emotional first-hand accounts and startling, on-the-ground footage, IN THE SAME BREATH weaves a revelatory picture of cover-ups and misinformation, while also highlighting the strength and resilience of the healthcare workers, activists, and family members who risked everything to communicate the truth.
Director: Jessica Kingdon
Where to Watch: Paramount+
Ascension examines the contemporary “Chinese Dream” through staggering observations of labor, consumerism and wealth. In cinematically exploring the aspiration that drives today’s People’s Republic of China, the film plunges into universal paradoxes of economic progress.
In FLEE, the Grand Jury Prize winner at this year’s Sundance Festival, filmmaker Jonas Poher Rasmussen tells a poignant story of belonging and the search for identity. Amin’s life has been defined by his past and a secret he’s kept for over 20 years. Forced to leave his home country of Afghanistan as a young child with his mother and siblings, Amin now grapples with how his past will affect his future in Denmark and the life he is building with his soon-to-be husband. Told brilliantly through the use of animation to protect his identity, Amin looks back over his life, opening up for the first time about his past, his trauma, the truth about his family, and his acceptance of his own sexuality.
1. The Rescue
The Rescue chronicles the enthralling, against-all-odds story that transfixed the world in 2018: the daring rescue of twelve boys and their coach from deep inside a flooded cave in Northern Thailand. Academy Award-winning directors and producers E. Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin keep viewers on the edge of their seats as they use a wealth of never-before-seen material and exclusive interviews to piece together the high stakes mission, highlighting the efforts of the Royal Thai Navy SEALs and US Special Forces and details the expert cave divers’ audacious venture to dive the boys to safety. THE RESCUE brings alive one of the most perilous and extraordinary rescues in modern times, shining a light on the high-risk world of cave diving, the astounding courage and compassion of the rescuers, and the shared humanity of the international community that united to save the boys.
With a lot of documentaries, there are some honorable mentions on here that just barely missed the top documentaries of 2021 list: Try Harder!, A Man Named Scott, Attica, The Witches of the Orient, and Julia. Did your favorite film make our top documentaries of 2021 list? Let us know on social media: @butwhythopc.
Synopses for films on the Top Documentaries of 2021 list were taken directly from details pages for the films.