If I were to compile a list of my top 10 films for 2021, at least half would be documentaries. In fact, while Hollywood is having something of an existential crisis right now, the documentary has never felt so alive as subjects both micro and macro compete for our attention.
Yet while the Hollywood hype machine makes it impossible not to know when the next Tom Cruise movie is coming out, documentaries often rely on personal recommendations and positive reviews to get the word out.
That’s why I penned as comprehensive a list as possible of 2021 documentaries worthy of your attention – even if I am ultimately still left feeling like Oskar Schindler and lamenting that I could have watched so many more.
Here are my favorite 21 documentary films and TV series, and while they are ranked in order of preference, pretty much any one of the top 10 could have topped the list such is the depth of quality here…
1. ‘The Rescue’
Once upon a time, I might have watched a large-scale documentary and said, “Wow! Can’t wait to see what the Hollywood adaptation of this looks like.” Now, though, as documentaries have become more ambitious and better equipped to tell epic stories, I’m likelier to say: “Thank God I saw the documentary before Hollywood ruins it.”
The National Geographic documentary “The Rescue” is a perfect example of that phenomenon.
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Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin’s film recounts the remarkable tale of the attempts to save 12 Thai boys and their soccer coach after they became trapped in a flooded cave system in northern Thailand in the summer of 2018. They focus on the geeky group of middle-aged, amateur cave divers, aka “the crazy foreign cavers,” who led the rescue mission – using reenactments and actual footage to recreate what became the greatest “boy-in-a-well” news story of all time.
Watch it and share our heroes’ sense of despair and euphoria, and marvel at what happens when people across the globe are able to actually work together to resolve a seemingly unfixable crisis.
And as you watch the knowingly unhip British cave divers at the center of the story, just bear in mind that Ron Howard has cast Viggo Mortensen and Colin Farrell to play them in the upcoming Hollywood feature adaptation, “Thirteen Lives.”
2. ‘Summer of Soul’
Two films that fill you with a sense of hope top my list this year, because who doesn’t need some positivity in their lives right now?
Hulu’s “Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)” is in some ways the flip side to the Tulsa race riots of 1921: pivotal moments in Black American history that were left unrecorded but are finally being revealed.
While the deadly Tulsa riots were a tragic moment in U.S. history, the Harlem Cultural Festival in the summer of 1969 was a unique celebration of Black culture. The reason you have probably never heard of “the Black Woodstock” is one of the key questions explored in this vibrant film by musician-turned-director Questlove.
The footage from Mount Morris Park (now known as Marcus Garvey Park) looks and sounds stunning, and seeing Nina Simone perform “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” is something that will live long in the memory.
3. ‘The First Wave’
I saw three COVID-19 documentaries in 2021, and while “76 Days” and “In the Same Breath” had powerful moments, National Geographic’s “The First Wave” is the only one for the ages.
Somehow, director Matthew Heineman managed to craft the most beautiful-looking documentary from a war scene: the Long Island Jewish Medical Center during the first four months of the pandemic (March-June 2020) as doctors and nurses were overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the catastrophe.
Heineman wisely offers us hope among all the devastation, focusing on several patients who are battling to stay alive and to return to their partners and young children. But there are also numerous scenes of heartbreak as we witness unsuccessful attempts at CPR, patients literally taking their last breath with fear in their eyes, and distraught medical staff having to notify families of sudden deaths where hours earlier they had filed optimistic progress reports.
This is a fitting tribute to all who helped navigate us through “a storm nobody’s ever been in before,” as one doctor puts it – though the end credit that the film was made “in honor of the health workers who fought COVID-19” is perhaps a little too optimistic using the past tense.
Equal parts horrifying and inspiring, I’d make “The First Wave” mandatory viewing for all anti-vaxxers and anti-maskers.
4. ‘Burning’ / ‘Bring Your Own Brigade’
It’s telling that two films about the wildfires that ravaged California and Australia in 2018 and 2019 have one horrific shot in common: a heavily burned koala whimpering in pain as it is rescued – one of 3 billion animals either killed or harmed during the “Black Summer” as brushfires turned parts of southeastern Australia into a living hell.
Both films also share the same structure: Their first halves are given over to remarkable footage of the infernos, followed by a search for solutions later on. “Burning” (Amazon Prime) is an unashamed clarion call for action on climate change – and you will not be surprised to learn that the Murdoch media and fossil fuel-loving politicians are leading the way in climate change denial Down Under.
“Bring Your Own Brigade,” meanwhile, is a more nuanced look at how efforts to prevent wildfires have actually regressed in California in recent times. Sadly, it also highlights how members of the public are unwilling to see themselves as part of the problem and stubbornly refuse to do anything to prevent the next such disaster, even when their own homes and lives are at stake.
5. ‘The Alpinist’
If you thrilled/closed your eyes while watching “Free Solo” from “The Rescue” directors Vasarhelyi and Chin in 2018, you’re going to love “The Alpinist” by co-directors Peter Mortimer and Nick Rosen.
Before watching this, I didn’t even know “alpinist” was a word (noun: a mountain climber specializing in high, difficult ascents), so I certainly had never heard of Marc-André Leclerc.
Then again, the thing about this Canadian free soloist is that even fellow climbers hadn’t heard of this young daredevil who would scale the most daunting rock – and ice – faces with nary a thought for his own safety.
The directors track down Leclerc in the British Columbian town of Squamish – a wonderfully phonesthemic name given a natural squeamishness at watching him and girlfriend Brette ascend mountain faces without safety ropes – and he reluctantly lets them follow him as he prepares for the climb of his young life.
“Free Spirit” may have been an even apter title for this frequently breathtaking documentary.
6. ‘The Crime of the Century’
Prolific documentarian Alex Gibney’s name is on almost as many things as the Sackler family’s these days, so it was appropriate that he make this gripping two-part documentary about the OxyContin pandemic and the Jewish family at its core.
In May I called HBO’s “The Crime of the Century” a stunning documentary that tears the childproof lid off the opioid crisis that brought a horrible new meaning to the word “painkiller” in the 25 years since the Sackler family launched the OxyContin drug into the American market.
Since then, the Hulu drama series “Dopesick” has doubled down on the actions of Purdue Pharma – a company that is still in the news today despite filing for bankruptcy in 2019. See both for the good of your health.
7. ‘Get Back’
I wrote about Peter Jackson’s wonderful three-part Beatles documentary on Disney+ recently, so will limit my comments to this: If you’re a Beatles fan – mazel tov, you can now die happy. And if you’re a music fan, marvel at being offered a glimpse into the creative process of a group of geniuses.
I keep remembering the look of total glee on Paul McCartney’s face when the police turn up to try to close down their iconic concert on the rooftop of Apple Corps HQ in London.
I never would have found “Found” on Netflix if it weren’t for a colleague’s recommendation. So, consider this your own recommendation to watch one of this year’s most touching films, as three adopted American girls discover they are cousins and go on a roots trip to their native China.
As I wrote last month, “Found” is a powerful and moving film about motherhood, cousinhood, identity, what it feels like to be given up for adoption and, conversely, what it feels like knowing you gave your child up for adoption. Out of all the films on this list, “Found” is the one I’ll be returning to and rewatching soon.
9. ‘Getting Away with Murder(s)’
I’d be lying if I said I was looking forward to watching David Wilkinson’s three-hour epic about how and why 99 percent of Nazi war criminals evaded punishment for their actions. More fool me, because I was blown away by this illuminating, disturbing labor of love from the British filmmaker.
Embarking on a whistle-stop tour of Holocaust sites and memorials in Europe, Wilkinson passionately makes his case for how so many victims of the Nazis (and their all-too-willing non-German accomplices) were denied justice, calling an impressive roster of witnesses to state his case.
Look out for this one on the festival circuit in 2022.
Some documentaries suffer from an embarrassment of riches when it comes to storylines, and that’s definitely the case with the amazing “Whirlybird.”
Matt Yoka’s film starts off recounting the story of husband-and-wife newshounds Bob and Marika Tur, and how they graduated from chasing stories at street level to pursuing them in a helicopter (“Soaring with eagles rather than walking with turkeys,” as Bob puts it).
Yet as well as being a film about the inevitable psychological damage caused when your livelihood depends upon you being the first at a crime scene – both due to what you witness and the 24/7 nature of news, especially when your beat is 1990s Los Angeles – “Whirlybird” soon takes off in other, utterly unexpected directions.
This is a film about a lesser-known form of addiction – the adrenaline rush – and what happens when your abusive work partner also happens to be your life partner. And in case the surname sounds familiar, the Turs’ daughter is NBC news correspondent Katy Tur. Watch “Whirlybird” and you’ll understand both why she went into “the family business” and her brother opted for a completely different life.
11. ‘Camp Confidential: America’s Secret Nazis’
At just 36 minutes, Netflix’s “Camp Confidential: America’s Secret Nazis” is the breeziest documentary you’ll see all year about such a shameful moment in American history. Told through a mix of animation and to-camera interviews, Israeli filmmakers Daniel Sivan and Mor Loushy’s film will make you question why you’ve never heard of PO Box 1142 – the secret camp in Virginia where Jewish soldiers were asked to guard and, ultimately, befriend Nazis and welcome them to America.
There are numerous scenes verging on the surreal, including one where a Jewish soldier is ordered to take his prisoners shopping so they can buy gifts for their families back home in Germany. Appalled at the thought, he makes sure to take them to a Washington department store owned by Jews.
12. ‘The Velvet Underground’ / ‘The Sparks Brothers’
Music documentaries are the gift that keeps on giving, and we received two more wonderful presents this year: Todd Haynes’ “The Velvet Underground” (Apple TV+) and Edgar Wright’s “The Sparks Brothers.”
What’s notable about both is how these distinctive directors managed to imprint their own styles on two equally distinctive music acts. Haynes gave us a beautifully crafted, wilfully idiosyncratic look at the career of Lou Reed, John Cale et al – one the famously belligerent band might even have appreciated themselves.
Wright, meanwhile, proves the perfect match for the eccentricities of Ron and Russell Mael, memorably described here as the best British band to ever come out of America.
Even if you aren’t a fan of their music, these are visually alluring documentaries that offer a perfect fusion of sound and vision. A double bill would surely prove the No. 1 viewing party in heaven.
13. ‘The Lady and the Dale’
Initially, I couldn’t remember the name of this four-part documentary from the start of the year, but found it immediately after doing a Google search for “Crazy HBO car documentary.”
Set in the 1970s, “The Lady and the Dale” is one of those jaw-dropping tales that makes you wonder how its protagonist, Liz Carmichael, was so quickly consigned to the archives. Her plastic three-wheeler car, which promised to do 70 miles to the gallon just as a fuel crisis was raging, was far from being the most interesting thing about Liz – who had been born Jerry Dean Michael and needed a much faster getaway car than the Dale to evade all the law enforcement agencies in pursuit of her.
Cheer the chutzpah of a woman prone to sentences like “I don’t want to sound like an egomaniac, but I’m a genius.” And jeer the misanthropy of TV news reporter Dick Carlson, who clearly demonstrates where son Tucker got his traits from.
14. ‘The Forever Prisoner’
Alex Gibney makes his second appearance on this list with his HBO documentary about Abu Zubaydah and his (mis)treatment at the hands of the CIA in the years following 9/11.
You may have come across Zubaydah in the smart 2019 Scott Z. Burns thriller “The Report,” about the Senate investigation into the agency’s Detention and Interrogation Program, in which it perfected enhanced interrogation techniques on detainees at black sites.
Gibney doesn’t need to use EITs to get former secret service officials to talk about the various forms of torture the CIA shamelessly used in what started out as desperation to prevent another 9/11 but soon devolved into a horrible misuse of power.
He can’t speak with Zubaydah, who is spending the rest of his days rotting away in Gitmo, without facing trial. But he does have illustrations drawn by the detainee detailing the numerous ways he was tortured – including being waterboarded a staggering 83 times in a single month. And, trust me, Zubaydah now has reason to hate the Red Hot Chili Peppers even more than you or I.
15. ‘Surviving 9/11’
Talking of 9/11, the 20th anniversary saw a glut of films and TV shows being released to mark the tragic event. Some seemed to merely recycle footage from the day, content to give us new angles of the Twin Towers crumbling. But the best managed to both reexamine events of the day itself and show how, 20 years on, September 11 inexorably changed so many lives.
“Turning Point: 9/11 and the War on Terror” came out just weeks after U.S. troops withdrew from Afghanistan, and had some fascinating insights into the “not-quite-forever war.” But even better was “Surviving 9/11,” which caught up with people inextricably linked with the attacks – either being in the World Trade Center or Pentagon, having loved ones there or rushing to respond to the attacks, or, in one case, being the wife of a pilot on the most well-known of the hijacked planes.
It’s a subtle representation of how people respond to trauma and grief in myriad ways, and looks much more cinematic than any film about such an ignominious day has any right to be.
16. ‘100 Foot Wave’
There are a lot of sports documentaries these days, and “100 Foot Wave” was my favorite of the year (sorry, but I don’t really see “The Alpinist” as a sports film).
This HBO six-parter may have been a little bloated, but then again, this is an epic story about an extreme surfer, Garrett McNamara, chasing the ultimate giant wave off of the coast of Portugal.
As an indication of how much McNamara lives for surfing, he named one of his kids Barrel. And that’s the least of his obsessiveness as he ventures out into the Atlantic looking for monster waves – and boy does he find them. I spent most of my time dropping F-bombs, awestruck by the sheer scale of it all.
17. ‘The Truffle Hunters’
Technically, this one (like “Whirlybird”) was released in 2020, but it only reached our screens in Israel this year so it would be remiss of me not to mention one of the most unique documentaries you’ll see in many a year.
Watching “The Truffle Hunters,” there are times when you will forget you’re watching a documentary and instead believe you’re watching an Italian comedy. Certainly, there are surreal moments that had me howling with laughter – like when a priest blesses a truffle-hunting dog in church; or when another truffle hunter is sitting in the bath with his dog, serenading and cleaning it.
This is a paean to a disappearing rural existence in northern Italy, one seemingly populated almost exclusively by elderly single men and their hounds. Much like those loyal dogs, it’s a thing of real beauty.
18. ‘Allen v. Farrow’
This controversial HBO four-parter was the documentary that generated the most comments to my work email this year, as fans of Woody Allen rushed to defend his honor. Nearly 10 months on, I’m still not sure whether “Allen v. Farrow” was acceptable journalism given its one-sidedness when Allen refused to participate. But I’m convinced of two things: Allen’s daughter, Dylan Farrow, absolutely had the right to share her experiences; and I’ll never be rehanging my “Manhattan” poster.
19. ‘Catch and Kill: The Podcast Tapes’
I expected to get some abuse from Allen fans for not defending the filmmaker. But after reviewing HBO’s “Catch and Kill,” I was not expecting to get quite so many emails from men supporting convicted sex offender Harvey Weinstein.
In truth, “Catch and Kill” added little to the original podcast from a few years ago. But anything that lets Weinstein’s victims speak out – especially following last week’s disturbing news that he may win his appeal in New York on technical grounds – demands to be seen by as wide an audience as possible, lest we forget the shamed producer’s actions.
20. ‘Operation Varsity Blues’
I can live without two things in documentaries: true crime stories and reenactments. Yet Netflix’s “Operation Varsity Blues” somehow got away with both. This retelling of the 2019 college admissions scandal in America, which ensnared actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, centers on the man running the $25-million scam, Rick Singer. Despite pleading guilty to the racketeering, Singer is yet to serve jail time as he’s still helping the Feds with the case.
Thirty parents have been sent to jail thus far, including one father who attempted to pass his 5-foot-5-inch (1.65 meters) son off as a 6-foot-1-inch basketball player. Like so many of the abovementioned documentaries, you couldn’t make this stuff up.
21. ‘WeWork: Or the Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn’
Has any other modern-day business story been covered as exhaustively as the rise and fall of Israeli entrepreneur Adam Neumann? In addition to Apple TV+’s upcoming “WeCrashed,” with Jared Leto playing the barefoot boy wonder, there have been two books, podcasts and this thoroughly entertaining Hulu documentary.
There are plenty of examples here of the WeWork culture that flourished at the company’s “galactic headquarters” in NYC, but my favorite revolves around Neumann’s coffee order. Rather than tell their boss that what he – and other Israelis – referred to as a cappuccino was actually a latte, they preferred instead that everyone visiting would order the “wrong” coffee from the full-time barista. I look forward to hearing Leto’s coffee order in his supposedly decent Israeli accent in “WeCrashed.”