The Best Documentaries & Docuseries of 2021

When you're looking for a real-life story to surprise you.

the beatles get back
'The Beatles: Get Back' | Disney+
'The Beatles: Get Back' | Disney+

During the past two years, where everything has maybe felt too real, documentaries were, admittedly, not the first genre of movies or TV we'd turn to for a nice comfort watch. That said, anytime we did choose a new nonfiction film or docuseries, we were reminded why the medium is so vital. From enlightening (or even mind-bending) stories of communities we never knew about to political shockers to films that broke our expectations of the form, documentaries have provided a connection to the real world that feels especially precious in this isolating time.

For more non-fiction, read the Best Documentaries of 2020. For other films, check out our favorite movies of 2021.

all light everywhere
Super LTD

All Light, Everywhere

Release date: June 4
Director: Theo Anthony (Rat Film)
There's no shortage of documentaries about the American surveillance state, but maybe none have been done as artfully as Theo Anthony's cerebral All Light, Everywhere. Treating its topics as an extension of perception, making space for both its vastness and limitations, the film pays special attention to real-world technology like police body cams and drones that can map, say, Baltimore in real time with the perhaps naive intention of reducing crime. Unlike other docs of this nature that often peddle in the ominous tech of the future, All Light, Everywhere makes a deliberate choice to focus on the horrors of the debates happening right now. Still, it ends with a delightful epilogue of a high school film class that deserves a feature-length movie of its own. —Leanne Butkovic
Where to watch: Rent via Amazon, YouTube, iTunes, etc. (Watch the trailer.)

allen v farrow

Allen v. Farrow

Release date: February 21
Director: Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering (On the Record)
It's no surprise that this four-part HBO Max documentary, covering the minefield of sexual assault allegations against Woody Allen, as well as dissecting the disturbing recurring themes in the filmmaker's body of work, was practically immediately controversial. As one of the most publicized and messy Hollywood sagas, reopening the wounds from Allen and Mia Farrow's relationship would not be a simple task with clear-cut answers. With key interviews from Mia, Dylan, Mia's daughter who accused Allen of molesting her as a young girl, and Ronan Farrow, the series has been criticized for leaving out details to simplify the long, complicated story, but hearing about all the trauma endured by Mia and Dylan, specifically, and how Allen was able to leverage his fame to divert attention away from negative headlines results in a harrowing, frustrating, yet essential watch. —LB
Where to watch: HBO Max (Watch the trailer.)

the beatles get back

Release date: November 25
Director: Peter Jackson (Lord of the Rings trilogy)
Peter Jackson's epic rock documentary, running at 468 minutes across three parts, The Beatles: Get Back is a collection of small, intimate moments of collaboration. Despite the status of the band and the pressure they were under at the time of the recording—the film is cut from hours of from-the-vault footage during the three weeks in 1969 The Beatles wrote Let It Be—the movie has a playful, mischievous quality that's reflected in the ways the members interact with each other. John, Paul, George, and Ringo had their issues and disagreements, which Jackson and his team chronicle in exacting detail and at the great length you'd expect from the director of the Lord of the Rings trilogy and The Hobbit prequels. The lads, reeling from the loss of their manager Brian Epstein and struggling with their own individual musical ambitions, argued and fought and exchanged icy stares across the recording studio. But they also sang in silly voices and teased each other in the way friends often do. Fundamentally, it's a movie about riffing: musically, comedically, professionally, romantically, and socially. —Dan Jackson
Where to watch: Disney+ (Watch the trailer.)

billie eilish
Apple TV+

Billie Eilish: The World's a Little Blurry

Release date: February 26
Director: R.J. Cutler (Belushi)
The World's a Little Blurry is not the hagiography one expects as a film made with the full participation of the pop star that inspired it. It's instead a deep portrait of a truly unusual current icon encountering a truly unusual type of fame. R.J. Cutler buoys the narrative with concert footage and clips of the songwriting process that showcase Eilish's natural talent, but the most astounding moments are the ones when he captures her as a teenager caught in a maelstrom. She throws a Louis Vuitton sweatsuit in the backyard washing machine of her childhood home where she still lives with her tight-knit family; her dad gives her a kind-hearted, almost spiritual lecture about responsibility before she takes her car out for the first time by herself after getting her license. Even as she's reaching new peaks, she's dealing with typical teenage stuff, including a shitty boyfriend who refuses to come see her following her major Coachella performance. A touch of fear hangs over The World's a Little Blurry, the notion that it could all go wrong very quickly, but it's also a look at someone who almost has no choice but to be a star. —Esther Zuckerman
Where to watch: Apple TV+ (Watch the trailer.)

cusp documentary


Release date: November 27
Directors: Isabel Bethencourt and Parker Hill
Cusp is like a spiritual sequel to Minding the Gap, swapping three young men in the Rust Belt for three young women in a Texas military town. Co-directors Isabel Bethencourt and Parker Hill embedded themselves amid the trio’s lethargic summer days, juxtaposing magnificent sunsets with malignant situations. The girls binge-drink, gossip, and partake in other sleepy suburban hobbies, but darker forces—violent parents, automatic weapons, boys who don’t understand consent—ensure their lives are anything but breezy. (“I’m not scared of shit,” one declares.) Cusp makes no grand sociological pronouncements about The State Of Kids Today, and it’s better as a result. This is vérité filmmaking through and through, no matter how ravishing the images look. —Matthew Jacobs
Where to watch: Showtime (Watch the trailer.)

the dissident
Briarcliff Entertainment

The Dissident

Release date: January 8
Director: Bryan Fogel (Icarus)
The disturbing murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi remains a developing story, with headlines still trickling out since the news broke in 2018. The Dissident is an absolutely damning film about the event, retracing Khashoggi's steps back to long before he became a journalist, at first more of a Twitter provocateur and activist, through to his premeditated assassination inside the Saudi consulate in Turkey, where he went to pick up paperwork for his wedding, and the investigation and outcry afterwards. Those who haven't been following this closely will be shocked and appalled at the body of evidence that's laid out, and those who have will be incensed that something more has yet to be done. —LB
Where to watch: Rend on Amazon, YouTube, iTunes, etc. (Watch the trailer.)

exterminate all the brutes

Exterminate All the Brutes (2021)

Release date: April 7
Director: Raoul Peck (I Am Not Your Negro)
This sprawling four-part docuseries from Raoul Peck deprograms centuries worth of whitewashed history lessons taught in American schools with the frank truth about the barbaric, exploitative greed of white people (typically men) that erased Native populations and drained resources worldwide in ugly, ruthless efforts to colonize continents. Realizing the concept and title of Swedish author Sven Lindqvist's nonfiction book, itself a line taken from Joseph Conrad'sHeart of Darkness, Peck's work—a hybrid of reenactments, where Josh Hartnett stands in across all episodes as the white specter of history, reflective, downright philosophical narration, and often offensive archival material from pop culture that speaks for itself—is a hugely important and deeply researched reframing of the whitewashed record of the past. —LB
Where to watch: HBO Max (Watch the trailer.)



Release date: December 3 
Director: Jonas Poher Rasmussen (What He Did)
Flee, which has already been picked up by distributor Neon, is truly unique. This largely animated documentary, executive produced by Riz Ahmed and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, is a memoir come to life that is as much about the story it's telling as it is about what the act telling that story means to the subject. Director Jonas Poher Rasmussen allows Amin Nawabi to narrate his experiences at his own pace. At present, Nawabi is an Afghan refugee living in Copenhagen with his boyfriend and working with an academic, but Flee uses drawing and archival footage to describe the arduous process of escaping the Mujahideen. The documentary appears to be as revelatory for Nawabi as it is for the audience watching it. Flee is not just about what Nawabi endured, but about the psychological tolls of a childhood constantly on the run. —EZ
Where to watch: In theaters December 3 (Watch the trailer.)

framing britney spears

Release date: February 5
Director: Samantha Stark
This installment in The New York Times Presents: series has forced a cultural reckoning about the nature of how we, as a society, treat famous women and the influence of the nasty gossip-driven tabloid culture of the '00s. (Even Justin Timberlake has apologized for his behavior in light of the documentary.) Told through the lens of the #FreeBritney movement, Framing Britney Spears turns back the clock to parse Spears' rise to fame as the biggest pop star on the planet, analyzing the disgustingly sexist tone with which celebrity media talked about her and the intensity with which the paparazzi—there's no other word for it—stalked her every move, circling back to her ongoing dispute regarding her father's chokehold conservatorship. Both infuriating and sad, this pop-culture doc forces a perspective shift on antiquated attitudes toward women and pleads for all of us to do better. Chris Crocker was right all along: Leave Britney alone. —LB
Where to watch: Hulu (Watch the trailer.)

a glitch in the matrix
Magnolia Pictures

Release date: February 5 
Director: Rodney Ascher (Room 237)
Rodney Ascher is well-practiced when it comes to making documentaries about the rabbit holes pop culture can send people down, and A Glitch in the Matrix is another haunting trip from the director of Room 237. Ascher's latest film centers on those living among us who believe that our own world is just a simulation. Using the work of Philip K. Dick, scientific studies, and, of course, The Matrix as guideposts, Ascher doesn't seek to prove or debunk simulation theory, but to investigate why people gravitate towards it and what those implications could mean. What results is a haunting trip. —EZ
Where to watch: Hulu; rent on Amazon Prime (Watch the trailer.)



Release date: April 16
Director: Victor Kossakovsky (Aquarela)
Effective without a single human face, words, or music—just farm animals and their noises, occasionally plodding boots or the grinding of tractor wheels turning through mud—experimental documentary director Victor Kossakovsky's Gunda hangs around a pig's-eye-view of life on a Norwegian farm, also occupied by a herd of paired-up cows and a roaming one-legged chicken. This black-and-white film, executive produced by notable vegan Joaquin Phoenix, doesn't need words to get across its unflinching life-cycle portrait of a mother sow, Gunda herself, raising a new litter of piglets in a pastoral pen. You'll learn things about animal behavior and their own sentience; the end will inevitably leave you in tears. —LB
Where to watch: Hulu; rent on Amazon Prime (Watch the trailer.)

the hidden life of trees
Constantin Film

The Hidden Life of Trees

Release date: July 16
Director: Jörg Adolph 
If you're hip to what the conservationists and ecologists and nature documentarians of the world have been chatting about these days, or if you simply think plants are kinda interesting, you've probably heard of, or even read, Peter Wohlleben's The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate, the international bestseller that acts both as a naturalist's handbook of German forestry, and an exhilarating and illuminating body of knowledge about some of nature's oldest and deceptively complex organisms. Through his work managing a forest in western Germany, Wohlleben has come to understand the woods as more of a superorganism, constantly trading information, nutrients, and generational traits between its sylvan members, an infinite web of connections that humans are only now beginning to understand. Wohlleben and his first book are the subjects of Jörg Adolph's documentary The Hidden Life of Trees, which follows Wohlleben and his efforts to educate his audiences about the richness of life found in the most unexpected of places. —Emma Stefansky
Where to watch: Rent on Amazon (Watch the trailer.)

IFC Films


Release date: January 15
Director: Sam Pollard (Black Art: In the Absence of Light)
Deftly explaining how and why J. Edgar Hoover's FBI came to spy on Martin Luther King Jr., regarding the civil rights leader as a threat to national security, MLK/FBI is less an examination of what is in the bureau's files on King—those are still sealed until 2027—and more an investigation into the culture of the institution that targeted him. Sam Pollard gives audiences a succinct history of the FBI's place in American society, using the propaganda that fueled its venerated status, to illuminate its place in the public's conscience. Narrated by historians and associates of King's, MLK/FBI details Hoover's obsession with King and how it was fueled by the racism ingrained in the country. Similarly, it shows how King was reluctant to give his confidantes' worries any credence until the paranoia became impossible to ignore. It's a clear and vital look into how law enforcement actively tried to curb progress. —EZ
Where to watch: Hulu (Watch the trailer.)

murder among the mormons

Release date: March 3
Director: Jared Hess and Tyler Measom
Over the course of three twist-filled episodes, Murder Among the Mormons, Netflix's true-crime docuseries about a series of deadly bombings in Utah in 1985, reveals itself to be a canny study of belief, entangling Mormons in a con-man's web of lies. On what a prosecutor interviewed in the series describes as a "beautiful day," two pipe bombs exploded at different locations in Salt Lake City, killing two; a third bomb blew up in a car the next day, injuring the rare document dealer Mark Hofmann, who the police eventually learned planted the first two bombs in an effort to get out of an elaborate scheme involving a set of potentially valuable papers to the church. Though Hofmann's story is disturbing, there's a warmth and curiosity to the series that helps it stand out from more traditionally grisly true-crime fare, shedding light on how a master of deception can move through the world with such relative ease. —DJ
Where to watch:Netflix (Watch the trailer.)

playing with sharks
National Geographic

Playing With Sharks

Release date: July 23
Director: Sally Aitken (David Stratton: A Cinematic Life)
Wildlife photographer and environmentalist Valerie Taylor didn't start off as an advocate for some of the most misunderstood creatures on the planet. Sally Aitken's beautiful documentary tracks Taylor's life story, from her flashy beginnings as a champion spearfisher (one of the few women to dare back in the '60s) to her pioneering work in underwater filmography and ocean activism, even offering an assist to none other than Steven Spielberg for his summer classic Jaws—and managing the fallout when the first ever Hollywood blockbuster unwittingly made her favorite animals the worldwide enemy number one. Taylor's unique respect, admiration, and affection for sharks will turn even the most skeptical scaredy-cat, providing a personal and deeply emotional look at the planet's oldest predators, and the woman who loves them still. —ES
Where to watch: Disney+ (Watch the trailer.)



Release date: November 12
Director: Robert Greene (Bisbee '17)
Robert Greene's Procession is without a doubt one of the most emotionally and creatively ambitious documentaries this year. It's a searing indictment of the Catholic Churches' practices of shielding sex offenders, while also a remarkable depiction of how art can unpack trauma. Greene is not so much a director as a collaborator here. He worked alongside a drama therapist and survivors of child sexual abuse by priests in the Kansas City area. The project was not just to have these men share their stories, but to have them confront their experiences through scenes that they would write, stage, and film. Procession is as much about putting those on screen as it is about the process of creating them and the healing that can do.  —EZ
Where to watch: Netflix (Watch the trailer)

the rescue
National Geographic

The Rescue

Release date: October 8
Directors: Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi (Free Solo)
From Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, the Oscar-winning directors of the climbing documentary Free Solo, comes another incredible film about an extraordinary feat and the type of person who craves this kind of adventure. Chin and Vasarhelyi turn their eyes toward the cave divers that rescued the trapped Thai soccer team and their coach in 2018. Using astounding footage, the directors document the improbability of the task, but The Rescue is also just as much about what drives someone to be a cave diver to begin with, looking into how the only way these boys and their coach could have been saved was by a group of eccentrics who simply love plunging themselves into the deepest reaches of the Earth. —EZ
Where to watch: In select theaters (Watch the trailer.)

roadrunner, anthony bourdain
Focus Features

Release date: July 16
Director: Morgan Neville (Won't You Be My Neighbor?)
Morgan Neville's part-biography, part-wake for Anthony Bourdain, Roadrunner is a raw wound of a documentary, which sets out to explain why the chef, host, and writer was so beloved, as well as explore the pain he left behind when he died by suicide in 2018. In interviewing Bourdain's friends and colleagues, Neville unearths a well of sorrow and even anger and resentment that is emotionally frank and often devastating. The film stumbles, however, in trying to investigate the why of Bourdain's death and, towards the end, becomes too focused on the unknowable, inadvertently casting blame as it goes along. —EZ
Where to watch: Rent on Amazon, YouTube, iTunes, etc. (Watch the trailer.)

some kind of heaven
Magnolia Pictures

Some Kind of Heaven

Release date: January 15
Director: Lance Oppenheim
It's easy to fall for the men and women of a certain age who populate Lance Oppenheim's debut feature Some Kind of Heaven, a gorgeously shot glance inside the world of The Villages, a vast retirement community in Florida. Oppenheim, a wunderkind still in his 20s, focuses on a few of the residents, some happy and others disillusioned, and the occasional hanger-on to unveil the different facets of this supposed Disneyland for the old and investigate what the pursuit of happiness means for people as they near the ends of their lives. Both funny and deeply tragic, Some Kind of Heaven, produced by Darren Aronofsky, is the announcement of a wonderful new talent and an astute portrait of the perils of paradise. —EZ
Where to watch: Hulu (Watch the trailer.)

the sparks brothers
Focus Features

The Sparks Brothers

Release date: June 16 
Director: Edgar Wright (Baby Driver)
I knew practically nothing about the band Sparks, made up of the brothers Russ and Ron Mael, going into Edgar Wright's loving and long documentary, but I emerged a fan, which is some of the highest praise I can give a film like this one. Wright sets out to explain the underground phenomenon behind Sparks, which has weaved in and out of the public eye since the early 1970s. The director methodically goes through the Maels' discography, highlighting their pop experiments and deeply amusing and bizarre lyrics. It's meticulous and also enormously funny, featuring insight from the Maels themselves as well as devoted fans like Flea, Weird Al, and Mike Myers. There are animated recreations, recreations acted out by the elder Maels, and tons of archival footage. Mostly, you leave feeling a towering affection for these weirdos and their weirdo music, which is, I assume, exactly what Wright intended. —EZ
Where to watch: Rent on Amazon Prime (Watch the trailer.)

street gang, oscar the grouch

Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street

Release date: April 23
Director: Marilyn Agrelo (Mad Hot Ballroom)
There's so much to love in director Marilyn Agrelo's warm survey of the creation of Sesame Street, from the footage of Frank Oz and Jim Henson goofing off when the cameras were still rolling to the tender reminder of the way the show handled the death of Will Lee, otherwise known as Mr. Hooper. Based on the 2008 book by Michael Davis, it's an origin story detailing how the crew behind Sesame Street set out to make a new kind of children's television program, using techniques from advertising to push education, that was more interested in reaching minority and low income audiences than well-to-do suburban children. It's a largely rosy portrait, mentioning more complicated topics but then quickly moving past them, but any annoyance with its good nature is quickly forgotten. As a history lesson about one of the most important pieces of pop culture to ever grace the airwaves, it will have you smiling and singing. (It's worth noting that it was produced by HBO Documentary Films. HBO broadcasts Sesame Street in a controversial move that pushed the show farther away from its public television roots, which the film doesn't touch.) —EZ
Where to watch: Rent on Amazon, YouTube, iTunes, etc. (Watch the trailer.)

summer of soul

Summer of Soul (...Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)

Release date: July 2
Director: Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson
The footage alone would be worth recommending The Roots' drummer Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson's directorial debut, which sold at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival for a record-breaking sum. These recordings of the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, a weeks-long musical event that happened the same year as Woodstock, have been unavailable to the public until now, an example of a Black historical artifact being buried. The archival material is incredible, capturing unparalleled performances from Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, The Staples Singers, Mahalia Jackson, Sly and the Family Stone, and so many more acts. Thompson frequently lets the music speak for itself, but also uses it as a guide through the place and the period, showing how Black artists were responding and evolving during the era. Summer of Soul is thoroughly joyous and also enormously vital. —EZ
Where to watch: Hulu (Watch the trailer.)

the truffle hunters
Sony Pictures Classics

Release date: March 5 
Director: Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw (The Last Race)
This immersive new documentary functions both as a breathtaking, painterly look into the lush forests of Italy, populated by old-growth trees, picturesque little houses, and kind, pastoral villagers, and a stunning portrait of a dying art: the insular, competitive profession of truffle hunting, digging up fungi that can fetch for thousands of dollars with the help of sensitive dog noses. (Call Me By Your Name director Luca Guadagnino, owner of a truffle dog, is an executive producer.) The Truffle Hunters feels like a love poem to something the world is in danger of losing, the fires and clangs of industry and capitalism having no place in the small yet teeming world of this mysterious profession. Like its namesake little fungus, a movie like this is a rare, valuable treat. —ES
Where to watch: Rent on Amazon, YouTube, iTunes, etc. (Watch the trailer.)

try harder documentary
Greenwich Entertainment

Try Harder!

Release date: December 3
Director: Debbie Lum (Seeking Asian Female)
There are plenty of documentaries about ambitious kids, but Try Harder! has an irresistibility that speaks to the charms of self-motivated smarties and the problems of an education system where test scores are king. The movie follows a handful of San Francisco teenagers at Lowell, a competitive, predominately Asian American high school, as they maneuver a college admissions process wherein only the country’s top schools are an acceptable endgame. Try Harder! is at once heartwarming and damning, showcasing a reality that strips high-achieving students of their adolescence and convinces them that academics are all that matter. But you’ll fall in love with the kids along the way, as well as many of their parents and teachers, who are supportive and demanding in equal measure. —MJ
Where to watch: Rent on iTunesYouTube, etc. (Watch the trailer.)

the velvet underground
Apple TV+

Release date: October 15
Director: Todd Haynes (Dark Waters)
Todd Haynes’ documentary of the coolest band there ever was is a comprehensive overview of The Velvet Underground’s most, well, groundbreaking material, as well as an empathetic and unflinching portrait of the volatile personas and the experimental pressure cooker that made it all happen. From Lou Reed to Andy Warhol to Nico, Jonathan Richman, David Bowie, Amy Taubin, from 56 Ludlow St to the Cafe Bizarre, the film paints a picture of subversive artists obsessed with music, film, sex, counterculture, and the 60-cycle hum of their apartment fridge, incorporating it all into some of the best music ever written. —ES
Where to watch: Apple TV+ (Watch the trailer.)

the year of the everlasting storm

The Year of the Everlasting Storm

Release date: September 9
Director: Multiple
If the thought of any film "about the pandemic" still makes you inwardly groan, don't let that keep you from checking out The Year of the Everlasting Storm, a collection of seven short films from seven international directors, some documentary and some narrative fiction, all depicting life in lockdown, in quarantine, in isolation. China's Anthony Chen films a young family struggling with the shared responsibilities of caring for their son during strict lockdown; American director David Lowery's short depicts a woman who follows a box of mysterious letters to an unmarked grave; Thailand's Apichatpong Weerasethakul sets up a camera and films a bed in a room full of insects; Iran's Jafar Panahi follows his own family's early experiences living under quarantine. Each short brings a new perspective to a shared experience. There's something in this unique collection for everyone, a comfort rather than a harsh reminder. —ES
Where to watch: Rent on Amazon, iTunes, Google Play, etc. (Watch the trailer.)

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