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The 20 best documentaries of 2021

In a year where the ‘fake news’ epidemic continues to seep into the very pores of western society, the documentary film medium couldn’t be more important, telling stories that contain an inherent truth that exists in the factuality of its images. From the likes of UK distribution company, Dogwoof to the American company, Neon, the genre has brought some of the finest films of 2021 to the fold. 

The slate of the top 20 best documentaries of 2021 includes music documentaries that take audiences into the creative process of some of the mediums finest minds, politically charged investigations and socially pertinent conversation-starters. Where documentaries are more easily consumed by modern audiences, thanks to the true-crime stories on Netflix, the genre has become a more compelling way to start a debate in the contemporary landscape of cinema.

Such was seen in the likes of Seaspiracy, Tiger King and Procession, each released on Netflix to introduce viewers to a brand new way of telling stories and consuming information. Covering real lives from all across the world, the landscape of documentaries in 2021 has taken us to multiple countries including Syria, Denmark, France, Florida, Germany on its noble quest to enrich the soul and collapse the structures of borders, religions and creeds. 

The 20 best documentaries of 2021:

20. Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry (R. J. Cutler)

As an icon of millennial culture, Billie Eilish is an utterly fascinating figure whose music amplifies the fears and anxieties of a contemporary generation that struggles with the modern constructs of social media and much more. 

Whilst R. J. Cutler’s film doesn’t go into great detail when it comes to the working process of Eilish and her brother Finneas, the documentary does provide a fascinating insight into the culture behind the musician and her intimate relationship with her own craft. Already possessing seven Grammy awards as well as being credited as the songwriter for the latest James Bond film, Billie Eilish is a captivating individual who has marked her cultural stomp on contemporary music. 

19. The Lost Leonardo (Andreas Koefoed)

An extraordinary story about a painting you’ve likely never heard of, The Lost Leonardo is as much about art history as it is about world politics, telling the story of the discovery of a painting that may or may not have been created by Leonardo da Vinci.

Truly, the provenance of the painting doesn’t matter. What does matter is the fiction and myth that art historians and the baying public wish to ascribe to it. This myth, in turn, becomes truth in Andreas Koefoed’s fascinating documentary, The Lost Leonardo, a film that stands as an example of the lunacy of modern consumerism as well as an important sociological study into the beauty and greed of the art world. 

18. Sabaya (Hogir Hirori)

Documenting an extraordinary human effort that would otherwise go unnoticed, Hogir Hirori’s Sabaya follows the work of a group who trek into Syria’s Al-Hol camp in the Middle East, risking their lives to save women being held by ISIS as sex slaves.

Tracking the movements of the group as they look to extract the women in the darkness of night, Sabaya is an intense watch but a truly rewarding one too. Saving 206 young girls from the camp, with 2000 still missing, Hirori’s film documents a fascinating human effort of selflessness, as the work of the Yazidi Home Center reunite families and seek justice no matter the personal risk.

17. The Reason I Jump (Jerry Rothwell)

An extension of the extremely popular book about Naoki Higashida who managed to find a way to articulate his experiences even though he suffered from nonverbal autism, a feat that has been questioned and dismissed by scientists.

Jerry Rothwell’s latest work explores the condition by documenting the lives of other people who also live with nonverbal autism, learning to navigate the labyrinths of the world in unconventional ways. A very moving documentary, The Reason I Jump is one of the best works to come out this year.

16. All Light, Everywhere (Theo Anthony)

A fascinating insight into the act of seeing and perceiving, Theo Anthony’s pertinent documentary is a pivotal film for contemporary society, looking onto the bias of how we see the world around us, whilst focusing on the use of police body cameras. 

In a society that has a pervasive obsession with security and surveillance, All Light, Everywhere presents several thought-provoking questions as to the objectivity of such technologies. It’s a chilling, profound investigation that will make you think differently about the epidemic of surveillance that follows you everywhere, whether you’re walking the streets or surfing the web online. 

15. The Most Beautiful Boy in the World (Kristian Petri, Kristina Lindström)

Shining a disturbing light on the practices of an archaic entertainment industry, The Most Beautiful Boy in the World details the casting of Björn Andresen in Luchino Visconti’s Death in Venice. 

Announcing that his young star was “the most beautiful boy in the world”, the filmmaker forced Björn Andresen into a world of hardship and turmoil where his image was seized and taken advantage of. An often harrowing film, Kristian Petri and Kristina Lindström’s documentary is a personal journey of realisation for Björn Andresen, with the audience along for the ride as he uncovers the raw, perplexing concepts of beauty, desire and sacrifice that circled around his young identity. 

14. The Alpinist (Peter Mortimer, Nick Rosen)

Eclipsing the quality of its climbing documentary counterpart, Free Solo, The Alpinist takes us on an inspiring journey, unravelling the extraordinary life of the daredevil climber Marc-André Leclerc. 

Going into the psychology and backstory of Leclerc’s life, we are given time to bath in his company, becoming closely accustomed to his morals and aspirations as a climber, making his every move on his unharnessed ascents all the more nervewracking. The story of Marc-André Leclerc is an endlessly inspiring one that will make you want to pack your bags and head for the wilderness before the credits have come to an end.

13. Our Defeats (Jean-Gabriel Périot)

A brilliantly executed investigation of the political sensibilities of modern youth, Our Defeats makes school children enact important scenes from political masterpieces that came out during the late ’60s in France. It is an intellectual exercise that highlights the exigency of appropriate political education.

We see students saying with conviction that “a revolution is not a dinner party… A revolution is an insurrection, an act of violence by which one class overthrows another,” only for them to falter and recede when questioned about what it all means which is emblematic of the moral and political crisis that we have found ourselves in.

12. Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue (Jia Zhangke)

Jia Zhangke is one of the most prominent Chinese filmmakers, responsible for producing modern masterpieces such as Still Life and Pickpocket among many others. Apart from his incredible features, Jia Zhangke also has a fantastic corpus of documentary works.

His new documentary Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue revolves around three well-known Chinese writers who unite for a literary festival and reflect on their childhoods and the sociopolitical changes in their country during an era of rapid globalisation.

11. In The Same Breath (Nanfu Wang)

A timely documentary about the governmental response to the Covid-19 outbreak in the US and China, In The Same Breath documents how hyper-nationalism shaped the media narratives of the pandemic and influenced the political sensibilities of unwitting subjects.

Due to the filmmaker’s use of personal experiences, it becomes strikingly clear how the disinformation tactics of China and America adversely affected the lives of people who were caught up in the middle of all of it and were endangered by the virus.

10. Procession (Robert Greene)

Robert Greene’s striking documentary is undoubtedly one of the greatest Netflix projects of the year, following the lives of six men searching for some sort of justice after being subjected to horrible abuse by local Catholic priests who took advantage of them.

It is extremely hard to articulate one’s trauma but these six men took it one step further, voluntarily re-enacting what happened to them in order to shed light and spread awareness about the prevalence of child abuse in religious institutions.

9. Some Kind of Heaven (Lance Oppenheim)

Truly one of the most unique documentaries of the year, Lance Oppenheim’s unusual documentary exists in a space that isn’t quite reality and isn’t quite fiction, much like the subjects of his strange world. 

Telling the story of The Villages in Florida, the world’s biggest retirement home, Oppenheim creates a disorientating, absorbing piece of surrealism that utilises some dreamlike cinematography to tell the story of the fantastical residents of a fabricated utopia. Ultimately questioning the audience as to whether ignorance is indeed bliss, Oppenheim’s film questions the structures of a disturbingly prevalent truth. 

8. Gunda (Viktor Kossakovsky)

Called a “jaw-dropping” piece of “pure cinema” by Licorice Pizza filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson, Gunda is truly a documentary like no other, tracking the lives of a pack of farmyard animals including a large pig and a one-legged chicken. 

An extraordinary achievement from the Russian filmmaker Viktor Kossakovsky, Gunda is a meditative, transportive experience captured in gorgeous monochrome. A visual, non-narrative documentary, Viktor Kossakovsky takes us on a compelling journey that gives us a profound view into the lives of animals, acting as a rousing call to arms for a plant-based diet and improved animal welfare.

7. State Funeral (Sergei Loznitsa)

A strange mixture of fantasy and history, Sergei Loznitsa’s enigmatic documentary State Funeral records the public reaction to the death of Joseph Stalin – a momentous event which signified the end of an era and the impending change of the sociopolitical framework.

The greatest achievement of State Funeral is that it keeps us guessing, using a mixture of real footage from the archives as well as staging elements to maintain a coherent and complete cinematic experience. It is a heavy meditation on the death of a man whose life resulted in the execution of countless others.

6. The American Sector (Courtney Stephens, Pacho Velez)

The American Sector is the execution of a truly fascinating idea, attempting to track down all the pieces of the Berlin Wall that are spread all over the United States. By doing so, the filmmakers create a collection of historical accounts of the people who have possession of the fragments.

Through the various pieces, it becomes increasingly evident how one single object can become fractured into a million pieces and become completely different things – a metaphor for the tyranny of time and the inevitable confrontation with our own mortality.

5. Little Girl (Sébastien Lifshitz)

This emotionally riveting work picked up a lot of accolades in the foreign film festival circuit and rightly so. Little Girl is an important documentary that revolves around an eight-year-old who learns about the heteronormative prejudices of society after raising questions about gender.

If anything, Little Girl is a look at how the pernicious machinations of conservative ideology can restrict a child’s ability to express themselves fully and inhibit their emotional and social development. Thankfully, the eight-year-old in the film has accepting parents.

4. Velvet Underground (Todd Haynes)

This expansive insight into the career of one of music most influential bands is an utter triumph from Poison, Safe and Far From Heaven director Todd Haynes, who shines a light on the band with loving adoration. 

With the likes of songs such as ‘Sunday Morning’, ‘Pale Blue Eyes’ and ‘Oh! Sweet Nothin’’, The Velvet Underground helped to create a brand new sound that would forever influence the face of world music. Gradually absorbed into the popular culture of the 20th century, their Avante Garde attitudes would join the likes of Andy Warhol as they ploughed their own path of influence on the contemporary times. With unseen footage, interviews and much more, Haynes creates a special portrait of The Velvet Underground. 

3. Summer of Soul (Questlove)

Detailing one of the most iconic music moments of the 20th century, which was unfortunately overshadowed by the iconic Woodstock that took place in the same year, American musician and filmmaker, Questlove, creates a celebratory musical wonder. 

Casting light on The Harlem Cultural Festival of 1969 that featured the likes of Mahalia Jackson, Nina Simone and Stevie Wonder in its celebration of black history, culture, fashion and music, Questlove creates a compelling document that well memorialises the time. Performed at a time of great difficulty in the realms of civil rights, the Cultural Festival is truly one of the most pivotal moments of the ongoing battle for equality, with Summer of Soul giving validation and affirmation to the festival that would otherwise be forgotten. 

2. Flee (Jonas Poher Rasmussen)

Flee isn’t just one of the top documentaries of the year but it has also topped several charts listing the best films of 2021. It follows the life of a refugee who decides to open up about his past to his soon-to-be husband, after a lot of hesitation and fear.

The ambiguous story complemented with the shifting, vivid animation style contributes to the creation of a cinematic experience that is simply unforgettable. Referred to as an “instant classic” when it first came out, Flee won the Best Documentary Award at Sundance.

1. Mr. Bachmann and his Class (Maria Speth)

The most exigent documentary of 2021, Mr. Bachmann and his Class is a mesmerising exploration of the life of an old elementary school teacher who spends a lot of his time trying to educate young foreigners about how to deal with the socio-cultural aspects of living in Germany.

At a time when the discourse around immigration has been coarsened by xenophobic ideas, Maria Speth’s opus shows us that it is possible to co-exist through means of education and information. Mr. Bachmann also leads by example, proving that educational systems in many countries still have a lot to learn about better approaches.