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The best documentaries of 2021 and how to watch them

It was a boom year for nonfiction.

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A four-item panel with images from each film: a black-and-white image of a pig, the head of a lifelike doll, a hand-drawn image of a man, and John Lennon.
Gunda, Ascension, Flee, and The Beatles: Get Back are among the year’s best documentaries.
Neon; Paramount; Neon; Disney

Fiction films tend to take up most of the air in the room when it comes to “best movies of the year” lists. But avid movie lovers know that the greatest innovations and most forward-thinking filmmakers are working in nonfiction, turning our shared realities and individual perspectives into absorbing, enlightening films. And in recent years, there’s been a resurgence of interest in the form.

Great documentaries challenge not just what we think about the world but the way in which we look at it, and force us to think about ourselves in new ways. They ask us to reevaluate the very act of watching a movie, or think about the roles we perform in our daily lives.

So it’s no wonder that so many of this year’s best films were nonfiction. Below I’ve collected 16 of the best documentaries, which explored everything from groundbreaking artists and musicians to democracies and surveillance society to the difficult act of healing from trauma, and a lot more.

Ascension

China is undergoing a drastic transformation, and across the country, workers are chasing the “Chinese dream” — upward mobility and affluence. Ascension is a riveting portrait of the ladder they’re climbing. Director Jessica Kingdon captures, in an observational style with an engrossing score, the labor that Chinese workers perform, starting with factory work (jeans, patches for jackets, sex dolls) and moving through everything from bodyguard and butler training courses to aspiring social media influencers. Messages of loyalty and responsibility toward country and company mix with individualistic aspirations for personal branding and wealth accumulation. What emerges is a snapshot of a vast population sorting out what it means to live a good life, and trying to live out that vision one way or another.

How to watch it: Ascension is playing in limited theaters and streaming on Paramount+.

All Light, Everywhere

We undeniably live in a surveillance society. Cameras are ubiquitous, from body cameras on cops to drone-enabled cameras that capture views from above to the phone cameras we hold in our hands every day. But what do cameras miss? Do they really give us a more objective view of reality? Those are the questions Theo Anthony (Rat Film) tackles in All Light, Everywhere, a sprawling essay film about “blind spots” in the technologies we trust (or don’t trust) to keep us safe and the illusions they too often depend upon. Watching All Light, Everywhere is informative, but more importantly, it’s an experience, and a sobering one.

How to watch it: All Light, Everywhere is streaming on Hulu and available to rent or purchase on digital platforms.

The Beatles: Get Back

In January 1969, the Beatles decided to write and rehearse 14 songs, with the intention of performing them on live TV — in less than three weeks. Things did not exactly go as planned, but a film crew was on hand to document the sessions, and 81 minutes of the resulting footage went into their 1970 film Let It Be. But the other 59 ½ hours has been sitting around till now, as Peter Jackson culled it down to an eight-hour, three-episode documentary that culminates in the band’s famous rooftop performance. It’s a fascinating watch for aficionados and casual fans alike — the consummate hangout film that will give you an appreciation for the band’s work and a new perspective on their working dynamic.

How to watch it: The Beatles: Get Back is streaming on Disney+.

Cusp

Cusp is a little staggering and incredibly beautiful. It centers on three teen girls in a Texas military town and one summer in their lives, but it’s not a joyride. Directors Isabel Bethencourt and Parker Hill only gradually reveal their subject: the pervasiveness of sexual assault in not just the girls’ lives, but also in the lives of their entire age cohort. They talk obliquely about the older men — often friends of their parents — who molested them when they were children. They discuss rape with painful familiarity. It’s to Cusp’s credit that there’s still a sense of magic and possibility throughout the film, as if the girls have some hope for their futures. But Cusp makes it clear that sexual assault is a problem of culture, not of individuals — and that the fault lies with generations that don’t take action to change it.

How to watch it: Cusp is streaming on Showtime Anytime.

Flee

It’s rare to see animation as the main medium in a documentary, but Flee uses it to great effect. Director Jonas Poher Rasmussen interviews his friend, Amin, who endured years of horror after fleeing Afghanistan with his family in the 1990s following the Taliban takeover. Flashbacks to Amin’s experiences are mixed in with his current uncertainties surrounding his relationship with his partner, Kasper, who desperately wants to buy a house, get married, and settle down. The effect of his past is a strong one, showing how even after finding safety and relative stability, Amin’s previous experiences will never stop reaching their long fingers into his present. Flee is heartbreaking and moving, and hard to forget.

How to watch it: Flee is playing in limited theaters.

Gunda

You could say filmmaker Viktor Kossakovsky is unconventional. His last film, Aquarela, was a portrait of water set to a soundtrack by the Finnish symphonic metal band Apocalyptica; his new film Gunda swaps out the massive scope and ear-splitting music for an intimate portrait of a pig and her piglets, two cows, and a one-legged chicken. There’s no dialogue; we just watch the animals go about their lives while we experience the quietly dawning recognition that these animals have real lives. Joaquin Phoenix is an animal rights activist — as you may recall, he championed veganism when accepting his Best Actor Oscar for Joker in 2020 — and his interest in Gunda is no surprise. It’s a recognition of animals’ creatureliness and a quiet argument for their dignity.

How to watch it: Gunda is streaming on Hulu and available to rent or purchase on digital platforms.

In the Same Breath

It’s hard to imagine any pandemic documentary being more piercingly insightful than In the Same Breath. The film from director Nanfu Wang — who grew up in China but now lives and works in the US — takes a fearless approach to the often willful misinformation spread by multiple governments as the Covid-19 pandemic began to take hold in early 2020. It’s a daring exploration of how the Chinese government repressed information about what was really happening. But it also exposes how other governments — most notably in the US — contributed to the ongoing misinformation crisis and made the entire situation much worse than it needed to be. The result is a chilling, truly absorbing film with big implications for the future.

How to watch it: In the Same Breath is streaming on HBO Max.

Listening to Kenny G

Listening to Kenny G is a documentary about the smooth-jazz sax crooner that sets out to ask a few barely answerable questions: Why do people love Kenny G? Why do people hate him? And what do their responses to him say about taste, preference, and art? In films like Hail Satan? (about the Satanic Temple) and The Pain of Others (about women who believe they have Morgellons disease), director Penny Lane has consistently refused to take the easy route.

There are no pat answers in her movies, and Listening to Kenny G is no exception. The sax player himself is the film’s main interviewee, but he’s flanked by music critics who point out all his shortcomings. What right do they have to tell someone who walked down the aisle to a Kenny G song that they’re wrong? That’s the question Listening to Kenny G raises and doesn’t try to answer outright. Instead, it focuses on a vital secondary question: Is there a dividing line between “I like this” and “This is good”? And should we care?

How to watch it: Listening to Kenny G is streaming on HBO Max.

Philly D.A.

When Larry Krasner was elected as Philadelphia’s district attorney in 2018, he became very powerful — and took many Philadelphians by surprise. Krasner had been a civil rights lawyer for decades, often finding himself in opposition to the DA’s office, and the new position came with some real challenges. Philly D.A. is an eight-part documentary series about Krasner’s new role, and it’s thrilling and intriguing to watch. The first two episodes, which premiered at Sundance, are engrossing, fast paced, and clear about the stakes of the DA office trying to implement a new agenda while retaining public trust, and the challenges of trying to turn a ship in a new direction.

How to watch it: Philly D.A. is streaming on Topic, which offers a free seven-day trial.

President

President is a truly incredible achievement and an illuminating look into how authoritarians seek to keep people from participating in a “democracy.” Director Camilla Nielsson returned to Zimbabwe, the site of her 2014 film Democrats, to follow the 2018 presidential campaign of Nelson Chamisa, president of the opposition party. The election was a hotly contested one, with layers of history and politics specific to Zimbabwe, but President manages to draw out those layers to create a compelling portrait of what a stolen election really looks like. It is a thrilling, enraging film, and its intimate access to Chamisa and his advisers is extraordinary.

How to watch it: President is playing in limited theaters and will be released on digital platforms on February 18.

Procession

Indelible, gutting, and hopeful, Procession is a documentary unlike any you’ve seen before. The filmmakers, led by director Robert Greene, reached out to six men in the Kansas City, Missouri area who were abused as boys by Catholic priests and clergy. Rather than proceeding as an exposé, Procession is a collaborative project in healing, as each of the six men creates and films traumatic memories in a drama therapy-informed quest to find ... well, what, exactly? That’s what they’re exploring: the meaning of healing, the ways we perform to cope and to crack ourselves open, and the possibilities, such as they are, for redemption. It’s a must-see.

How to watch it: Procession is streaming on Netflix.

Some Kind of Heaven

Lance Oppenheim was 22 when he first visited the Villages, America’s largest retirement community, which sprawls across three counties about 70 miles north of Orlando. He ended up filming there to craft the documentary Some Kind of Heaven, a stunning directorial debut and the kind of work that far more experienced directors would be proud to have made.

Some Kind of Heaven follows several subjects: Reggie, who is experimenting with psychedelics, and his long-suffering wife, Anne; Barbara, who is looking for love after the death of her husband; and Dennis, who is living out of a van and looking for a wealthier woman with whom he might strike up a relationship. The film at times feels like a dreamscape rather than just an observational portrait. It’s clear that the relentless positivity of the Villages takes its toll on residents, but it’s also a glimpse into an idealized version of America, and the fantasy at its core.

How to watch it: Some Kind of Heaven is streaming on Hulu. It’s also available to digitally rent or purchase on Apple TV, Amazon, YouTube, Vudu, and Google Play.

Summer of Soul

Summer of Soul (... Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) was one of the biggest crowdpleasers of the year at its Sundance debut in January, and that’s no surprise. Ahmir Thompson — better known as Questlove, the drummer and frontman for the Roots — directed the film about the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, sometimes dubbed “Black Woodstock.” The staggering concert, held over a series of weekends in Harlem’s Mount Morris Park, featured everyone from Sly and the Family Stone to Nina Simone to Stevie Wonder to Mahalia Jackson. The events were filmed, but the footage sat in a basement for 50 years. Now it’s compiled into a documentary about a pivotal moment in Black cultural history, and the result is absolutely infectious to watch.

How to watch it: Summer of Soul is streaming on Hulu.

The Truffle Hunters

Certainly the year’s most charming movie, The Truffle Hunters unfolds as a series of vignettes documenting the lives of several older men and their dogs. They live in Piedmont, northern Italy, where they spend their days hunting for rare and costly white Alba truffles in the forest. Nearly every frame of The Truffle Hunters is wide and steady, focusing on the men as they discuss business, talk to their beloved canines, root around in the dirt, and take part in a simple way of life that, it’s clear, is slipping away. (We do occasionally get a dog’s-eye view, too.) It’s a sweet and simple movie with a healthy dose of bittersweet wistfulness for a fading world, and it’s beautiful.

How to watch it: The Truffle Hunters is streaming on Starz and available to purchase on digital platforms.

The Velvet Underground

Todd Haynes directs a highly satisfying documentary about the legendary Velvet Underground, the rock band that formed in New York City in 1964 and came to embody an important moment in the history of rock. (Plus, they rock.) Haynes is no conventional director, and while he takes a fairly standard approach to the story — beginning with Lou Reed’s childhood on Long Island and moving forward from there — he weaves together more of a tapestry than a clunky paint-by-numbers documentary.

The Velvet Underground is as much about the culture of 1960s New York City, dominated by Andy Warhol’s in-crowd and the work they made at his Factory, as the band itself. That’s to the film’s benefit. Using the screen as a window and collaging together images and footage with audio from interviews, Haynes evokes a mood and an era; he reminds audiences that some success comes from talent and hard work, and some of it just comes from being in the right place at the right time.

How to watch it: The Velvet Underground is streaming on Apple TV+.

The Viewing Booth

Israeli director Ra’anan Alexandrowicz has focused his past films on questions about Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories, but in The Viewing Booth, he confronts the act of viewing itself. Alexandrowicz set up a lab-like room in which he invited American students interested in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to view videos uploaded by activists and verbalize their thoughts. He centers the film on the reactions of one young woman, Maia Levy, whose views of videos originating in the West Bank city of Hebron stand in opposition to Alexandrowicz’s.

Through their conversations, the ways our preconceived ideas shape and dictate the way we view the same images are explored and exposed. The Viewing Booth forces the audience into confrontation with their viewing biases and probes not just how people think about a conflict in the Middle East, but the limits of nonfiction films regarding their ability to persuade and explore reality as it is — and whether such a thing is even possible.

How to watch it: The Viewing Booth is available via a 48-hour digital rental on the film’s website.