The 14 Best Documentaries Of 2021, Ranked

I did not expect The Beatles to trend on social media amongst "Annie!," "Sports," and "America's Favorite Thanksgiving Foods" in 2021, and yet there the lads were in the third week of November, receiving deafening Twitter buzz for a clip of Paul McCartney writing the iconic "Get Back" in Peter Jackson's "Get Back" in ~45 magical seconds. It was a real "Is this real life?" moment, the sort that confirms The Beatles are who we thought they were and then some, the kind that makes old heroes flesh, blood, and even more mythic all at once.

And it got at the heart of why documentary films mattered so much to so many this year. 

In 2021, truth was a difficult pill to swallow. Every day offered a confrontation between what was real and what wasn't, about everything from vaccines to Chris Pratt's latest voice casting. Sifting through the wreckage of a pandemic, it turns out, is almost as fraught as living through one — and one would think films which confront the highs and lows of real life would be less palatable than escapism. That didn't prove true. If anything, this year's documentaries provided a sturdy, necessary frame for the complexities of human experience. This year, they were more important than ever. 

Here, then, are the 14 best documentaries of 2021, ranked. 

14. Framing Britney Spears

In 2007, a 19-year-old named Chris Crocker sat down in front of a camera. For two-plus minutes, he tearfully outlined why the media and the gossip-craving public needed to leave pop star Britney Spears alone. His most haunting thought was this: "Have we learned nothing from Anna Nicole Smith?"

As 2021's "Framing Britney Spears" proves, we haven't. Not really. Over 14 years after Crocker's impassioned screed, it's clear that he was right and that we, the people, understood far less about Spears' situation than we thought we did. Director Samantha Stark outlines Spears' conservatorship with stark clarity, establishing both the star and those who would dim her light in brief but scarring strokes. Her father is present. Allies like Crocker are present. The lens of #MeToo, which reinvigorated interest in Spears' situation, is also here — clear-eyed and shocking to the point of pupil dilation. 

"Framing Britney Spears" cannot answer all the quandaries it outlines, but it also argues that the fame monster which chewed up stars before Spears and others since makes answers almost impossible. Real life isn't a pop song. It's angry and heartbreaking and redemptive. Like Britney being free, or the words of Chris Crocker. "Framing Britney Spears" is a 74-minute ballad that is well attuned to both. 

13. The Dissident

Some documentaries play almost like modern thrillers. The Oscar-nominated "Collective" comes to mind, or director Bryan Fogel's "Icarus," which unearths the world of sports doping with Richard Donner-worthy verve. Fogel's 2021 follow-up, "The Dissident," might be the most nerve-shredding watch of the bunch. That's all the more impressive given that its ending is never in doubt: "The Dissident" relays the granular details of journalist Jamal Khashoggi's murder, whose shocking demise made global headlines in 2018. 

Fogel's commitment to narrative suspense is both admirable and purposeful. "The Dissident" is never less than rivetingly structured, thatching classic narrative structure with Kashoggi's life and death (his courtship of Alaa Nassif, his late wife, has all the trappings of a Hollywood subplot). But it also makes Kashoggi's loss that more tragic. Somehow, despite the inevitable, Fogel instills hope for the journalist's survival. When both perish, "The Dissident" makes its audience righteously angry and aims them towards the path of justice. 

That's something Hollywood thrillers can't so easily accomplish, and watching "The Dissident" nail it so thoroughly makes it one of the year's most exciting and eye-opening films, regardless of genre. 

12. A Glitch In The Matrix

2021 was the year that an idea of a meta-verse became mainstream currency, one pounced upon by McDonald's (in the form of NFTs) and Facebook (through a name change). And after a year that found the real world burning and still firmly within the grips of a pandemic, the idea of an internet existence seemed less dystopian than borderline idyllic. 

It isn't, of course. What's more, the idea that humanity is just a simulation is old hat, decades-old and laced into cultures both popular and counter. Director Rodney Ascher of "Room 237" and "The Nightmare" tackles these notions head-on in "A Glitch In The Matrix," but rather than present the heady cocktail of conspiracy theory and philosophy which informs the arguments of true believers, he downs said cocktail and invites his audience to shotgun a few more with him. 

The result is a cinematic head-trip that continuously pushes at the visual boundaries nonfiction storytelling is accustomed to. Ascher realizes that the horror, wonder, and strangeness of simulated life are in discomforting concert with a real-world where a digital sandwich becomes as coveted as the real deal. Glitch or not, it's a set of connections worth documenting. 

11. Billie Eilish: The World's a Little Blurry

It took approximately three years for the Sphinx, one of the world's eight wonders, to be constructed. Later Egyptians worshiped it in conjunction with the sun god; some considered it to be a blasphemous idol. But no matter who revered or desecrated it, no one truly knows how the Sphinx was erected or why.

If you're wondering why I'm discussing the Sphinx in conjunction with Billie Eilish, purveyor of murder-pop, that's understandable. The reality is that "The World's A Little Blurry," which was released on Apple TV+ in February, concerns itself both with how modern idols are made and how quickly they become praised and disdained. Director RJ Cutler turns to Eilish as a narrative frame and conjures a portrait of a "The Office" super-fan who happens to emerge from artistic chrysalis before the camera's eyes, becoming a megastar in realtime. 

The results are funny, heart-shredding, and frequently gorgeous (Cutler jumps from the casual to concert-film-ready images with speed and clarity throughout). Just as importantly, "The World Is A Little Blurry" demystifies an icon before her narrative becomes toxically cannibalized by those who would wish her harm, and asks us to examine why we elevate pop stars in the first place. The world may be blurry, but Cutler's film is crystal clear. 

10. The Sparks Brothers

Edgar Wright is a narrative magician. To know his movies is to see every element of its spectacular tricks laid out — the pledge, the trick, the prestige — and get sucked into their larger story, anyway, knowing full well they'll still leave you surprised. That's especially true of Wright's Cornetto trilogy ("Shaun Of The Dead," "Hot Fuzz," "The World's End"). It was also true of this year's "Last Night In Soho." And it was even true of "The Sparks Brothers," the Edgar Wright film released this year that didn't tear Film Twitter apart. 

In reality, "The Sparks Brothers" feels like a film the British director was destined to make. Wright is an idiosyncratic storyteller turning his lens on an equally unique set of artists, Ron and Russell Mael, whose off-kilter pop songs as the group Sparks are a sort of skeleton key for successful modern music (As no less than Jack Antonoff claims during the film, "All pop music is rearranged Vince Clarke or rearranged Sparks. That's the truth."). 

Wright takes on the exploration of why Sparks' time never arrived by employing a visual language whose kaleidoscopic aims match that of the group's sound. There are animated sequences; ditto detours into puppetry. But neither of those nor any of their inherent playfulness dull the power of the trick Wright pulls over the film's admittedly too-long run time, one that you see coming but still hits like a life-affirming gut punch. Seeing is believing. 

9. Secret Base: The History Of The Atlanta Falcons

I'm cheating a little bit by including "Secret Base: The History Of The Atlanta Falcons" on this list, but hear me out. 

For one, Jon Bois Alex Rubenstein and Joe Ali's four-hour documentary opens on Tom Brady's New England Patriots — cheating feels par for the course.

For another, documentaries are meant to elucidate not only our real-world experiences, but to bring soul, heft, and illumination to the way we discuss the world at large. What's remarkable about "The History Of The Atlanta Falcons" (and Secret Base, in general) is that it casts a new light on all the sports talk that is nothing more than white noise to those who don't care for it. To witness the somehow graceful barrage of charts, illustrations, and photos the film deploys against intelligent yet casual narration is to get plugged in to all of football's nonsense and elation, to understand that this silly game carries personal, economic, and cultural repercussions that are fault line shifts. More than any other film on this list, "The History Of The Atlanta Falcons" wires its audiences to see and hear differently, a generous gift for an era where listening has been as difficult as it's ever been. Even Tom Brady could appreciate that. 

8. Cusp

One of the year's finest television shows, Hulu's absurd and discomforting "Pen15," relies on audiences recognizing that the horror show of adolescence lingers long into adulthood. By contrast, Isabel Bethencourt and Parker Hill's "Cusp" (currently available on Showtime) cannot see the forest being grown for the trees of youth they're currently lost in. The two first-time feature directors turn the camera on three small-town Texas teens to craft what is incidentally an insightful portrait of Gen Z but more deliberately a slice of life docudrama overflowing with revelations. 

To say more would spoil the many surprises of "Cusp," but it's worth noting that the film, like teenagers themselves, is both searing and nonchalant. This is a post-social media documentary. Subjects know what it means to share their inner worlds brazenly yet recognize that sharing isn't inherently brave. When "Cusp" becomes vulnerable (and it does, very often), it carries a power older filmmakers might struggle to harness correctly. Bethencourt and Hill are documenting truths, a world, and a way of being they know all too well, and "Cusp" invites adult life into that world, not the other way around. It is not a film on the cusp of greatness but in the throws of it. 

7. Gunda

If you Google the synopsis of "Gunda," it is as follows: "A glimpse into the raw and simple power of nature through encounters with farm animals, the eponymous Gunda, a mother pig, two cows and a one-legged chicken." 

There are very few worlds in which one can imagine a film described this way amassing wrecking-ball weight. Luckily, we're living in one of them. Viktor Kossakovsky's simple but gorgeous documentary sears its four protagonists into its audiences' memories through an experiential symphony of pure picture and sound. As it does, it questions the human conventions we often strap to these species for narrative purposes; I'm of a generation that vividly remembers 1995's "Babe" and E.B. White's award-winning novel "Charlotte's Web," both of which present animals with the capacity to speak."Gunda" takes those kid gloves off. 

"Gunda" shows how much emotion, heart, and life can simply be in farm animals when we look close enough. Once you've seen it, its impossible to look away. No synopsis can accurately convey that experience. See "Gunda."

6. The Rescue

To describe "The Rescue" as breathless filmmaking is an understatement. If anything, the latest film from "Free Solo" filmmakers Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin communicates the value of a single breath with blood-drawing precision as it chronicles the rescue of a Thai youth soccer team and their coach that gripped the world in 2018. From the moment the movie begins, oxygen is of the essence. By the time the credits roll, you're more grateful for your lungs than ever.

More than anything, however, "The Rescue" is a testament to how incredible, odds-defying, and remarkable life can actually be. If it were a fictional film going before the studio for notes, it is likely executives would ask for the story and stakes to be toned down a notch. It defies plausibility. To actually witness it is to understand that some stories are more amazing than fiction, that we keep writing stories about superheroes not simply because they're commodifiable but because they make sense of the incredible men and women who brought this soccer team out of the darkness and back to the real world. Seeing truly is believing and, in the case of "The Rescue," seeing is a cinematic thrill-ride, to boot. 

5. In The Same Breath

In a recent article for The Atlantic, Christina Paz details the degrees to which Gen Z is done with the COVID-19 pandemic. "They haven't gotten sick; their parents haven't gotten sick; they don't know someone directly connected to them who has died ... and that's the general kind of invincibility of adolescence: 'Those bad things you're talking about, those are other people; that's not me.'"

I don't mean to indict Gen Z when writing of Nanfu Wang's "In The Same Breath." If anything, their increasing inability to see the cost of our almost two-year-long dark age is also increasingly understandable, the dissonance between being back and a quickly spreading variant reaching its apex.

This is why "In The Same Breath" is so good and necessary: Wang's film returns us to the pandemic's origins, chronicling COVID's initial spread through Wuhan but with a broader sociopolitical lens than last year's nerve-wracking "76 Days." It concerns itself deeply with how disinformation can be as contagious as any virus, how disinterest turns into one of its symptoms. That renders "In The Same Breath" something akin to film as medicine, a cure for the common burnout of living amongst COVID, hard to swallow but more necessary than ever. It's sharp, healing filmmaking. 

4. Procession

Robert Greene's "Procession" is going to be many viewers' first window into the world of "drama therapy," a burgeoning practice of therapeutic treatment. If Greene's film is any indication, their primary takeaway may be "unimaginable catharsis." 

"Procession" is the story of six sexual abuse survivors who each incurred their trauma at the hands of the Catholic church. Green put the men in contact with  Monica Phinne, a "drama therapist" who specializes in utilizing theater conventions as a means to mold feelings of victimization into empowerment. "Procession" documents her and the men's work and it is never less than stunning.

The content of "Procession" alone will elicit visceral reactions in many (I won't spoil it here), but Greene's unwavering yet gentle lens deserves equal praise. The film is shaped with as much love and care as the difficult work of drama therapy itself, creating an ebb and flow relationship between those in practice and those bearing witness to it. That, in turn, encourages the audience to see and listen to stories from which many turn away.  More than any other movie released this year, "Possession" speaks to the steadfast and potentially healing power of true collaboration. Seek it out, stat. 

3. Jacinta

I've already had the honor of writing about the next two entries on this list for Slash Film's "The 12 Best Hulu Original Movies of the Year" list, but the incredible thing about "Jacinta" and "Summer Of Soul" is how much more there is to say about them. In the case of "Jacinta," it's worth discussing codependency. 

Addiction is forged from tensile-strength dependency. Sometimes that strength is powered-up by family. In other instances, it's alchemic. But what "Jacinta" highlights brightly yet heartbreakingly is how often codependency, defined as "excessive emotional or psychological reliance on a partner," can also be a part of the picture. Here's how Jacinta speaks of her mother Rosemary early on in the film: "I wanted to be like her ... Not that I wanted to pick up her mistakes, but if that's what it took, I was willing to do it."

We then witness that reliance in all its swooning joy and devastating disappointment, from the pair's reunion in New Hampshire to the moment where addiction takes hold once more. It's not just that "Jacinta" places a human face on a nationwide opioid crisis — it's how much it reminds us that some of that crisis' fuel is familiar to our own hearts, that the terrifying fires which engulf and take so many start with a spark that's within all of us. That's what makes it one of the year's best and most important movies. 

2. Summer of Soul

If you've read many "Best Of" lists this year, you may have noticed a theme where music is concerned: 2021 was a strange year.  With the exception of Adele, Olivia, and a 10-year-old Taylor Swift record, this year's blockbuster offerings were largely letdowns. And whether you think charting pop matters or not, it's hard to argue that, at its best, a brilliant song or album forges meaningful connection in relatively bite-size intervals. That was the joy of "Driver's License" blowing up in frigid January, heating our coldest month with the cauterizing fire of shared experience. 

"Summer of Soul" documents a concert that, for all who attended, was both cauterizing and cathartic (I called it the year's most entertaining movie and, with many great December releases on the calendar, I stand by that assessment). But "Summer of Soul" is also a feature-length act of resurrection, one which restores and revitalizes mostly forgotten footage in an effort to remind us that knowing history is as much an act of spiritual healing as elder respect. 

To watch Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, B.B. King, and countless others celebrate Black history at a moment when the Doomsday clock was halfway to midnight is to understand they are a mirror, not a metaphor, for our own, currently fraught moment. That's not just great documentary filmmaking — that's an astonishing act of art. It's one "Summer of Soul" performs more succinctly than any pop tune which dropped this year. Listen to its message.

1. Flee

Animation provides an escape from real life, no matter its content. A Disney film about singing dogs on the New York streets may offer the same foundational break from flesh and blood naturalism as Richard Linklater's "Waking Life" or "A Scanner Darkly," yet none of those films can offer an audience (or its protagonist) the sort of freedom that "Flee" promises and then delivers on

Simply put: "Flee" is a movie that uses the medium of animation to shatter boundaries while telling a story about a man who crosses borders to find both himself and his independence. Its conceit is also its thesis. That alone would lend "Flee" a certain floor of artistic brilliance. What's even more remarkable about it, then, is how often Jonas Poher Rassmussen's film reaches its ceiling only to smash through it and aim higher. 

The story of Rasmussen's childhood friend, here known only as Amin, "Flee" traverses a number of landscapes both brutally and impressionistically, from those of the immigrant experience to memory itself. It does so with such fleet and unflinching grace that it feels like a landmark — as both an animated and documentary effort. I can't say that about any other project released this year, much less the last few years, so "Flee" unquestionably takes the top spot of Best Documentary for 2021.