The Best Documentaries & Docuseries of 2021 (So Far)

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

some kind of heaven
'Some Kind of Heaven' | Hulu
'Some Kind of Heaven' | Hulu

During this past year and change, 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 non-fiction 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. We're collecting the best of these new movies and TV shows—check back as we'll be adding new titles throughout the year. 

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

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: In theaters (Watch the trailer.)

allen v farrow
HBO Max

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.)

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.)

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: Rent on Amazon Prime (Watch the trailer.)

flee
Neon

Flee

Release date: TBA 
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: TBA (Watch the trailer.)

framing britney spears
Hulu

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

A Glitch in the Matrix 

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.)

gunda
Neon

Gunda

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: 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: In theaters (Watch the trailer.)

mlk/fbi
IFC Films

MLK/FBI

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
Netflix

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.—Dan Jackson
Where to watch: Netflix (Watch the trailer.)

roadrunner, anthony bourdain
Focus Features

Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain

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: In theaters (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
HBO

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: HBO Max (Watch the trailer.)

summer of soul
Hulu

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 and in theaters (Watch the trailer.)

the truffle hunters
Sony Pictures Classics

The Truffle Hunters

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: In theaters (Watch the trailer.)

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