The Best Documentaries of 2021 Challenge Our Memory of the Past
At this stage in the boom times of prestige documentaries, there are a few things you can rely on seeing each year. Among them: the Defining Portrait of a sports icon, most recently found in Tiger and The Last Dance; the batshit Netflix true crime doc, featuring the Joe Exotics and Carol Baskins of the world; and finally, you're likely to have a supposedly candid look at a modern-day pop star, something like Miss Americana or ariana grande: excuse me, i love you.
If you're a fan of any of the three categories, some good news: 2021's slate of documentaries is stuffed with all three. We finally saw a Pelé documentary with the involvement of the elusive icon. Plus, some behind-the-scenes action with Billie Eilish and The Beatles. And yes, in Night Stalker: The Hunt For a Serial Killer, we got our Netflix-branded true crime watch. More recently, in The Rescue, The Velvet Underground, and The First Wave, we've found genuine Oscar contenders. Here are the best documentaries of the year.
Karen Dalton: In My Own Time
In a year full of blockbuster music documentaries, one of the quietest entries was also the most captivating. Karen Dalton: In My Own Time tells the story of the reclusive folkie from Oklahoma who, according to the film’s many talking heads, made a bigger impact than Bob Dylan when she first arrived in Greenwich village in the early ‘60s. Dalton’s world might’ve at times been dark and despairing, but her music lit a path for a new generation of folk artists to follow, and “In My Own Times” deftly explores the entirety of this unique artist’s legacy.
The Velvet Underground
Director Todd Haynes uses a wide lens to explore the seminal New York rock band The Velvet Underground. Taking cues from the avant garde art and film scenes that coincided with the band’s rise, Haynes injects The Velvet Underground with a level or artistry that makes watching this music documentary as much a feast for the eyes as it is the ears.
The Yup'ik village of Newtok, Alaska is crumbling into the water. Climate change has flooded the local homes and eroded the way of life for this small community, where the once nomadic indegenous people were forced to settle in 1949 by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. For more than two decades, the residents of Newtok have fought to secure federal funding needed to move their village to a safer location 10 miles away. With footage from four years living in the town, directors Andrew Burton and Michael Kirby Smith offer a window into this tight-knit community, and the challenges of a climate disaster. With long shots of melting ice, and intimate portraits of the people facing the threat of global warming every day, Newtok makes clear the impact climate change has on this country right now.
The Beatles: Get Back
When the documentary Let It Be premiered in May 1970, The Beatles had already been officially broken up for more than a month. That 80-minute documentary has long been considered the official record of the demise of the most important rock band of the 20th century. Grim and dark, it was patched together from more than 60 hours of footage from a marathon recording session in which The Beatles were trying to write, record, and create a full-package album, TV special, and film in just 22 days in January 1969. But that was only a small part of the story. With The Beatles: Get Back, director Peter Jackson expands that footage, plus 150 hours of audio recordings, into a three-part, six-hour documentary. With modern technical remastering and loving, almost-obsessive treatment of the original footage, Jackson has re-focused the history of The Beatles. Yes, Yoko Ono is there. Yes, George quits for a few days. Yes, Ringo is just an absolute delight in literally every moment. Yes, John is aloof and disinterested and combative. And yes, Paul is an unfathomably gifted songwriter, perhaps annoyingly so. But, Jackson’s documentary proves that there was a lot of joy in those days. At times, the fly-on-the-wall camera cuts through the mythos of these twenty-somethings (yes they were that young when The Beatles ended). We see four lads who had been best friends since they were teens. There are The Beatles, making dick jokes while also writing fucking “Let It Be.” There will always be more to the story, but with Get Back, this may be the closest we ever get to being there for a defining moment in music history.
It's no surprise to us that Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin followed up their Oscar-winning documentary, Free Solo, with arguably an even more impressive effort. The Rescue tells the story of the 2018 Thai cave rescue, giving us one of the most thrilling and human documentaries of the year.
Leave it to the team at HBO Sports to give us what might end up as the sports doc of the year. Dear Rider tells the story of Jake Burton Carpenter, the man who turned snowboarding into the thrilling, still-unbelievable sport of today.
The First Wave
For The First Wave, director Matthew Heineman tracked the first four months of the coronavirus pandemic in the U.S. through the eyes of doctors, nurses, and patients in Queens's Long Island Jewish Medical Center. Equally brutal and beautiful in its portrait of human resilience, The First Wave will surely be watched decades from now.
At the very beginning of 2021, Bryan Fogel (you might remember him from the Oscar-winning Icarus) brought his investigative genius to the assassination of Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The end result is a touching memorial to a man who is still being grieved by those who loved him—and a call to arms.
Framing Britney Spears
Framing Britney Spears, from The New York Times, was essential in bringing awareness of the artist's abusive conservatorship to the general public. Thankfully, not even a year after the documentary's premiere, Spears is finally free.
Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain
In Roadrunner, director Morgan Neville dived into what he told us was a "sea of grief" to memorialize and tell Bourdain's story. The final result is an essential portrait of the late chef, one that every fan and follower of Bourdain shouldn't miss.
Tiger didn't tell the story of Tiger Woods, who has been championed and derided so many times that even he's probably even losing count. It rewrites it. Directors Matthew Heineman and Matthew Hamacheck put together a two-part documentary that shows who the villains were in Tiger's story all along: the tabloid media, who tried to take him down at nearly every turn of his career.
Night Stalker: The Hunt For a Serial Killer
As long as the sun still rises, there will always be a gruesome true crime documentary trending on Netflix. The genre is rarely more shocking than it is in Night Stalker: The Hunt For a Serial Killer, which details the crimes of Richard Ramirez, who terrorized California in the '80s.
Acasa, My Home
You might not hear much about Acasa, My Home this awards season (hopefully, we're wrong about that), but this might just be one of the best films you'll watch this year. Period. Acasa, My Home follows a large family who, after living in the rural Bucharest Delta for 20 years, is forced to move and adapt to the city.
Yes, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is regarded in 2021 as an American hero—but don't forget how he was treated and viewed during the Civil Rights movement. MLK/FBI dives into the government's treatment of the activist as an enemy of the state, fueled by the racism of J. Edgar Hoover.
The sports doc scene is knocking out each GOAT's life story, one by one. We had The Last Dance for Michael Jordan. Tiger for Tiger Woods. Man in the Arena for Tom Brady. Now? We have Netflix's Pelé, which features rare interviews with the Brazilian soccer legend to tell the story of his unforgettable career.
Billie Eilish: The World’s A Little Blurry
In Billie Eilish: The World’s A Little Blurry, we get an inspiring glimpse into the life of Eilish, following her on tour and during the making of When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?
Summer of Soul (… Or When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)
Questlove's directorial debut is far and beyond enough to have sold us on Summer of Soul (… Or When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised). The subject is even more enticing: a deep dive on the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, which featured performances from Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, and B.B. King.
The Day Sports Stood Still
For a ton of people—sports fans, especially—the coronavirus pandemic didn't become real until March 11, 2020. It's when the NBA shut down its season after Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19. It caused a whiplash-inducing shutdown of nearly every other sports league, leaving an entire industry at a standstill. HBO's The Day Sports Stood Still stands to be the definitive oral history of that day, interviewing the athletes and reporters who were right in the middle of the chaos.
From: Esquire US