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Cartoon drawing of a man against a patterned background, from the documentary Flee Image: NEON via Polygon

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The 10 (or 11) best documentaries of 2021

Where to stream the year’s most provocative, thought-provoking, and educational movies

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It’s hard to remember any year for documentaries quite like 2021 — and not just because the overall quality was so high. This year, an unusual number of non-fiction films set off spirited public debates about what makes a documentary, and what counts as one.

Was it okay for director Morgan Neville to use “deepfake” technology to approximate Anthony Bourdain’s voice in his bio-doc Roadrunner? What about Vanessa Lapa’s team hiring actors to recreate (from an altered script) taped conversations between a screenwriter and an ex-Nazi in Speer Goes to Hollywood? Should HBO have released a movie about Alanis Morissette that she agreed to participate in, but later rebuked? Even the crew behind the widely loved music doc Summer of Soul were criticized for claiming they’d rescued long-locked-away footage that had actually been found and circulated years before.

These are healthy conversations to have about the sometimes innately deceptive techniques documentarians use to illustrate their stories, and about the biases they bring to a project. It’s important to note, though, that showmanship and even outright trickery shouldn’t automatically be disqualifying when it comes to documentaries. The 11 films on the list below often rely heavily on re-enactments, theatricality, and slanted perspectives… which is what makes them so memorable. Understanding their goals and limitations — really seeing them — makes these docs more rewarding.

(One quick note: This list easily could have been filled just with the terrific music documentaries released this year, so let’s give an honorable mention to Tina, The Sparks Brothers, Under the Volcano, Listening to Kenny G, and all eight hours of Peter Jackson’s Get Back.)

All Light, Everywhere

A bald man with his eyes closed and electrodes on his head, superimposed with a glowing close-up image of the surface of a sun Photo: Hulu

In the audacious 2016 debut feature Rat Film, cinematic essayist Theo Anthony explores the racial and economic divides in Baltimore by tracing the history of vermin infestations. His follow-up, All Light, Everywhere, approaches a similar subject from a different direction. Here, Anthony covers the development of surveillance cameras, while simultaneously weighing some people’s perpetual insistence that if everything was recorded and processed by purportedly “neutral” sources, then both criminal activity and authoritarian malfeasance would be reduced. Anthony doesn’t dismantle this argument so much as approach it from multiple angles. His provocative vignettes explore related topics, like the stealthily subjective ways people process images, and the state’s natural inclination to control who ultimately gets watched.

All Light, Everywhere is streaming on Hulu.


Attica

A black-and-white, grainy video image of dozens of men lying on the ground with an armed guard standing over them in the documentary Attica Photo: Showtime

Stanley Nelson’s oral history of the 1971 Attica prisoner uprising is impressively focused, beginning in its opening minutes with the initial riots, and ending with the dehumanizing punishment meted out to the convicts who survived. Nelson briefly pulls back just a bit to cover how the civil-rights movement inspired the Attica protest. But for the most part, he uses contemporaneous news footage and new interviews to deliver a moment-by-moment report on what happened over those five days in a rural New York town with a prison-rooted economy. The institutional culture, the locals’ attitudes, and a larger American backlash to anti-racist reforms combined to produce an atrocity that still feels fresh.

Attica is streaming on Showtime.


Flee

An animated image of a man perched on a windowsill, talking to a friend in the documentary Flee Image: NEON

The first-person testimony of an Afghani refugee given the protectively anonymous name of “Amin” becomes an animated drama rendered in multiple styles, overseen by director Jonas Poher Rasmussen. The story itself is remarkable, following a boy who fled with his family to an anarchic post-communism Russia — and then spent years trying to escape yet again, to one of the Scandinavian countries. But what really makes Flee so gripping is the contrast between the flat “everyman” character design and the specificity of Amin’s story, which isn’t just about a kid running and hiding, but about someone who did all this while struggling with secrets he was afraid to share even with his loved ones.

Flee is currently playing in limited theatrical release.


Operation Varsity Blues / A Cop Movie

A policewoman, face lit in red, leans down into a blue-hued cop car in A Cop Movie Photo: Netflix

Sure, it’s a bit of a cheat to sneak two movies into one slot. But these two have a lot in common, aside from both being available on Netflix, which has become a nurturing home to some adventurous documentaries. Chris Smith’s Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal tells the story of the recent university-admissions cheating scandal (the one that embarrassed celebrities like Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman), by combining interviews with dramatic re-enactments of the recorded conversations between parents and a persuasive standardized testing and college application “fixer” (played by Matthew Modine). And in Alonso Ruizpalacios’ A Cop Movie, the idealized tale of two romantically involved Mexico City police officers turns into a quasi-fictionalized saga, played out by a pair of actors who in their real lives distrust law enforcement. Both films present abstracted versions of “the truth” — while also encouraging the audience to notice how any established system can be manipulated by the powerful.

Operation Varsity Blues is streaming on Netflix. A Cop Movie is also streaming on Netflix.


Procession

An altar boy in front of a stained glass window in the documentary Procession Photo: Netflix

For this stirring documentary, director Robert Greene worked with a group of adult survivors of sexual abuse — all molested as boys by Catholic priests — to help them process their trauma by recreating some of their most painful memories on film. Procession deals with the anger these men feel toward the authorities for letting the crimes against them still mostly go unpunished. But the story here is more about how therapeutic it is for these guys to have their experiences validated, either by sharing similar details with each other, or by revisiting the places where the abuse happened. After they’ve been told for most of their lives to forget about what happened (mainly because their testimony makes people uncomfortable), it’s epiphanic for some of them to make the pain real again.

Procession is streaming on Netflix.


Summer of Soul

Sly Stone in performance with a huge crowd in the background in Summer of Soul Photo: Searchlight Pictures

To tell the story of the long-forgotten Harlem Cultural Festival of 1969 — a series of performances featuring a stunning lineup of jazz, pop and R&B legends — director Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson and his team made some bold creative choices, by integrating interviews and vintage news clips into the old performance footage. Anyone hoping just to see uncut numbers from the likes of Sly and the Family Stone, Nina Simone, the Staple Singers, and the 5th Dimension may harrumph a bit at how Questlove approached Summer of Soul (...Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised). But the resulting film preserves plenty of electrifying live music, while also creating a historical context and generating a reflective tone, combining to make the songs all the more meaningful.

Summer of Soul is streaming on Hulu.


The Truffle Hunters

An old man and a floofy dog sitting on a table in The Truffle Hunters Photo: Sony Pictures

In the wilds of Northern Italy, a handful of eccentric old connoisseurs and their adorable dogs search for one of the most prized foodstuffs on Earth — and then they gather with their friends, family, and colleagues to complain that the business isn’t what it used to be. Filmed by the directing team of Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw in long, beautifully composed takes, The Truffle Hunters is like a series of fine-art portraits, depicting a storied culture now under threat by industrialization, deforestation, and climate change. The movie has a relevant social message, but it’s presented as a collection of quirky sketches, featuring clever humans who just want to keep providing something special to chefs and diners.

The Truffle Hunters is streaming on Starz.


Val

Young Val Kilmer in a cowboy hat in a slightly pixelated video-era screenshot from the documentary Val Photo: Amazon Studios

Val Kilmer has shot home-video footage of himself and his castmates throughout his acting career — even back when he was still a promising young student, he documented both behind-the-scenes goofing around, and his own rehearsal process. Now slowed considerably by his long struggle with throat cancer, Kilmer and the directing team of Leo Scott and Ting Poo (plus some skilled editors, and Kilmer’s own son Jack as the narrator) have turned those old tapes and some new slice-of-life scenes into an unusual kind of cinematic autobiography. Val only tells one side of the movie star’s story, but Kilmer is disarmingly self-critical throughout the film, both appreciating how good his life has been and lamenting that he didn’t make the most of it.

Val is streaming on Prime Video.


The Velvet Underground

A collage of images related to Velvet Underground  from the band’s documentary Photo: Apple TV Plus

The Velvet Underground is one of the most influential bands of all time, pioneering a sound that melded primitivist garage-rock, avant-garde noise, and poetic explorations of the demimonde. Yet during their 1960s heyday, the group was largely ignored — or actively dismissed as a minor pet project from one of their early backers Andy Warhol. Since there isn’t a lot of vintage VU footage, for his documentary The Velvet Underground, director Todd Haynes shot new handsomely lit and framed new interviews — including several with people who ran in the same cultural circles as the band’s frontman Lou Reed and their cellist John Cale — and then threaded them between mesmerizing clips from old experimental films. Haynes effectively recreated the experience of being an adventurous New York art-lover, back in a heady era of creativity and decadence.

The Velvet Underground is streaming on Apple TV+.


The Viewing Booth

A close-up of a woman’s thoughtful face in The Viewing Booth Photo: Roco Films

One of the most simply constructed documentaries released in 2021 is also one of the most riveting and disquieting. Director Ra’anan Alexandrowicz invited college kids to watch and comment on scenes of Israeli soldiers interacting with Palestinians in the West Bank. He became fascinated with the reactions of one bright, thoughtful young woman: a well-read, pro-Israeli student whose shock and dismay over some of the videos gradually changed to skepticism about what she was seeing, followed by some subtle reinterpretation of the images to fit her biases. The Viewing Booth is an illuminating counter to all those late-night TV comedy bits where a reporter interviews and mocks ill-informed political protestors. Far from a rebuke aimed at a person with strong opinions, this film documents how even those of us who claim to have open minds tend to filter information through our pre-existing worldviews.

The Viewing Booth can be rented directly from the filmmakers.