The Best Documentaries of 2021

'Summer of Soul' was voted the top documentary of the year in the 9th annual Nonfics year-end poll.

Summer of Soul best documentary 2021
Searchlight Pictures

Welcome to the 9th annual year-end Nonfics poll results. Once again, we surveyed critics, filmmakers, and others within the documentary community for their favorite nonfiction features, shorts, and series released in the last 12 months. From those entries, we have compiled a ranked list of the 50 best documentaries of 2021.

As continued proof there is an overwhelming amount of great documentaries out there, this year’s submissions included 150 titles qualified as official 2021 releases. There are some deemed better than others, however. For the third year in a row, the top doc on this list matches the winner of the Critics Choice Award for Best Documentary Feature.

These results won’t help you pick the next Oscar winner for Best Documentary Feature. The last winner there, My Octopus Teacher, ranked #40 on the best of 2020 list. But two of the top three were Oscar nominees. We’ll see how this year’s ranking fits with the Academy’s tastes. The top five ranked below are on the Oscar shortlist, at least.

I should acknowledge that a lot of the lower-ranking films, and especially those listed outside the top 50 best documentaries of 2021 section, are probably only there because they haven’t been seen by as many of our participants. So, don’t feel bad if you’re the director of a film that is placed in a seemingly less-desirable spot. If you’re mentioned below, you’ve done very well.

You can find some contributors’ submissions, including our own favorite docs, on another page here. Below are the best documentaries we all saw last year and where you can watch them now.

The 50 Best Documentaries of 2021:

1. Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) (Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson)

Questlove’s directorial debut resurrects never-before-seen footage shot during the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival and surrounds that concert material with deep historical context. Streaming on Hulu.

2. Flee (Jonas Poher Rasmussen)

This animated documentary chronicles the coming-of-age story of Amin, a gay man born in Afghanistan, following his family to Russia in the 1980s and following him eventually to Denmark.

3. The Rescue (Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi)

From the directors of Free Solo, this film recounts, through a variety of storytelling tools, the 2018 rescue of a boys soccer team who became trapped in a cave. Streaming on Disney+.

4. Procession (Robert Greene)

Six men who were sexually abused as children by Catholic priests work through their trauma by creating films within this film that dramatize their experiences. Streaming on Netflix.

5. The Sparks Brothers (Edgar Wright)

Edgar Wright’s first documentary follows the lengthy career and influence of Ron and Russell Mael, otherwise known as the band Sparks. Streaming on Netflix.

6. The Velvet Underground (Todd Haynes)

Todd Haynes’ first documentary follows the history of The Velvet Underground in an editing style befitting the iconic art-rock group. Streaming on Apple TV+.

7. All Light, Everywhere (Theo Anthony)

Like a modern-day Man with a Movie Camera, this mix of essay film and straightforward documentary tackles ways of seeing, primarily focused on the blurred line between cameras and weapons. Streaming on Hulu.

8. Introducing, Selma Blair (Rachel Fleit)

Rachel Fleit’s feature directorial debut intimately follows along with Selma Blair after the actress is diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. Streaming on Discovery+.

9. Val (Ting Poo and Leo Scott)

Val Kilmer looks back on his life and acting career using home video footage and on-set diaries he’s been shooting for decades. Streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

10. Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain (Morgan Neville)

As it says on the thin, this is a film about Anthony Bourdain, the prolific chef, food writer, and TV show host who shockingly committed suicide in 2018. On VOD.

A Glitch in the Matrix

11. A Glitch in the Matrix (Rodney Ascher) – Hulu
12. Attica (Traci Curry and Stanley Nelson) – Showtime
13. Julia (Julie Cohen and Betsy West) – VOD
14. The First Wave (Matthew Heineman) – The First Wave
15. In the Same Breath (Nanfu Wang) – HBO Max
16. Listening to Kenny G (Penny Lane) – HBO Max
17. Faya Dayi (Jessica Beshir) – Criterion Channel
18. Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry (R.J. Cutler) – Apple TV+
19. State Funeral (Sergey Loznitsa) – Mubi
20. Ascension (Jessica Kingdon) – Paramount+

Street Gang documentary

21. Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street (Marilyn Agrelo) – HBO Max
22. The Beatles: Get Back (Peter Jackson) – Disney+
23. Pray Away (Kristine Stolakis) – Netflix
24. Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It (Mariem Pérez Riera) – Netflix
25. MLK/FBI (Sam Pollard) – Hulu
26. The Truffle Hunters (Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw) – VOD
27. Cusp (Isabel Bethencourt and Parker Hill) – Showtime
28. Becoming Cousteau (Liz Garbus) – Disney+
29. The Lost Leonardo (Andreas Koefoed) – VOD
30. The Viewing Booth (Ra’anan Alexandrowicz) – Streaming Pass

President 2021 documentary

31. President (Camilla Nielsson)
32. Homeroom (Peter Nicks) – Hulu
33. Some Kind of Heaven (Lance Oppenheim) – Hulu
34. The Velvet Queen (Marie Amiguet and Vincent Munier)
35. Clerk. (Malcolm Ingram) – VOD
36. Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue (Jia Zhangke) – Mubi
37. Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror (Kier-La Janisse) – VOD
38. No Ordinary Man (Aisling Chin-Yee and Chase Joynt) – VOD
39. Not Going Quietly (Nicholas Bruckman) – VOD
40. Sabaya (Hogir Hirori) – Paramount+

My Name is Pauli Murray documentary

41. My Name is Pauli Murray (Julie Cohen and Betsy West) – Amazon Prime Video
42. The Real Charlie Chaplin (Peter Middleton and James Spinney) – Showtime
43. The Annotated Field Guide of Ulysses S. Grant (Jim Finn) – OVID
44. The Neutral Ground (CJ Hunt) – VOD
45. Britney vs Spears (Erin Lee Carr) – Netflix
46. The Witches of the Orient (Julien Faraut) – Mubi
47. Sisters with Transistors (Lisa Rovner)
48. Wojnarowicz (Chris McKim) – Kino Now
49. LFG (Sean Fine and Andrea Nix) – HBO Max
50. Jacinta (Jessica Earnshaw) – Hulu

14 Peaks documentary

104 more favorite documentaries of 2021:

14 Peaks: Nothing is Impossible (Torquil Jones)
499 (Rodrigo Reyes)
A Choice of Weapons: Inspired by Gordon Parks (John Maggio)
A Cop Movie (Alonso Ruizpalacios)
Acasa, My Home (Radu Ciorniciuc)
Adrienne (Andy Ostroy)
Ailey (Jamila Wignot)
Allen v. Farrow (Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering)
The Alpinist (Peter Mortimer and Nick Rosen)
Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir (James Redford)

At the Ready documentary

At the Ready (Maisie Crow) – HBO Max
Audible (Matthew Ogens) – Netflix
Bad Trip (Kitao Sakurai)
Being James Bond: The Daniel Craig Story
(Baillie Walsh)
Bring Your Own Brigade (Lucy Walker)
Buddy Guy: The Blues Chase the Blues Away (Devin Chanda, Matt Mitchener, and Charles Todd)
Bulletproof (Todd Chandler)
Burning (Eva Orner)
Can You Bring It: Bill T. Jones and D-Man in the Waters (Tom Hurwitz and Rosalynde LeBlanc)
Can’t Get You Out of My Head (Adam Curtis)
The Capote Tapes (Ebs Burnough)
Captains of Za’atari (Ali El Arabi)

Cenote documentary
Cenote (Kaori Oda) – Mubi
Changing the Game
(Michael Barnett)
Citizen Ashe (Rex Miller and Sam Pollard)
Civil War (or Who Do We Think We Are) (Rachel Boynton)
Crestone (Marnie Ellen Hertzler)
Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel (Joe Berlinger)
The Day Sports Stood Still (Antoine Fuqua)
Derek DelGaudio’s In & Of Itself (Frank Oz)
Don’t Try to Understand: A Year in the Life of Earl ‘DMX’ Simmons (Christopher Frierson and Clark Slater)
Dreamland: The Burning of Black Wall Street (Salima Koroma)

exterminate all the brutes
Exterminate All the Brutes (Raoul Peck)
Fauci (John Hoffman and Janet Tobias) – Disney+
Film About a Father Who (Lynne Sachs)
Final Account (Luke Holland)
Finding Kendrick Johnson (Jason Pollock)
Four Hours at the Capitol (Jamie Roberts)
Four Seasons Total Documentary (Christopher Stoudt)
Framing Britney Spears (Samantha Stark)
Fruits of Labor (Emily Cohen) – PBS
Gunda (Viktor Kosakovskiy)

Her Socialist Smile documentary

Her Socialist Smile (John Gianvito)
The History of the Atlanta Falcons (Jon Bois and Alex Rubenstein)
The Human Factor (Dror Moreh)
Hysterical (Andrea Blaugrund Nevins)
Inside (Bo Burnham)
Jagged (Alison Klayman)
The Jesus Music (Andrew Erwin and Jon Erwin)
Juice WRLD: Into the Abyss (Tommy Oliver)
Just Don’t Think I’ll Scream (Frank Beauvais)
Kevin Garnett: Anything Is Possible (Daniel B. Levin and Eric Newman)
Krabi, 2562 (Ben Rivers and Anocha Suwichakornpong)

Kurt Vonnegut Unstuck in Time

Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time (Robert B. Weide and Don Argott)
La Vocera (Luciana Kaplan)
The Last Autumn (Yrsa Roca Fannberg)
The Last Cruise (Hannah Olson)
Like a Rolling Stone: The Life & Times of Ben Fong-Torres (Suzanne Kai)
Lily Topples the World (Jeremy Workman)
Little Girl (Sébastien Lifshitz)
Lovers of the Night (Anna Frances Ewert)
LuLaRich (Jenner Furst and Julia Willoughby Nason)
Martha: A Picture Story (Selina Miles)
Mayor Pete (Jesse Moss)

McCartney 321

McCartney 3,2,1 (Zachary Heinzerling)
Moments Like This Will Never Last (Cheryl Dunn)
Murder Among the Mormons (Jared Hess and Tyler Measom)
My Name is Gulpilil (Molly Reynolds)
Notturno (Gianfranco Rosi)
Once Upon a Time in Queens (Nick Davis)
Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal (Chris Smith)
Pharma Bro (Brent Hodge)
Playing with Sharks (Sally Aitken) – Disney+
Prism (Rosine Mfetgo Mbakam, An van Dienderen, and Éléonore Yaméogo)

The Queen of Basketball documentary

The Queen of Basketball (Ben Proudfoot)
Queens of Pain (Cassie Hay and Amy Winston)
The Reason I Jump (Jerry Rothwell)
Rebel Hearts (Pedro Kos)
The Rifleman (Sierra Pettengill)
Schumacher (Hanns-Bruno Kammertöns, Vanessa Nöcker, and Michael Wech)
Seaspiracy (Ali Tabrizi)
Simple as Water (Megan Mylan)
Sisters on Track (Tone Grøttjord-Glenne and Corinne van der Borch)
The Slow Hustle (Sonja Sohn)

Stray dog documentary

Stray (Elizabeth Lo)
Tiger (Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian)
Tina (Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin)
Tom Petty: Somewhere You Feel Free (Mary Wharton)
Tony Parker: The Final Shot (Florent Bodin)
Torn (Max Lowe)
Try Harder! (Debbie Lum)
‘Twas the Fight Before Christmas (Becky Read)
Untold: Malice at the Palace (Floyd Russ)
The Village Detective: a song cycle (Bill Morrison)
WeWork: Or the Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn (Jed Rothstein)

What Drives Us documentary Dave Grohl

What Drives Us (Dave Grohl)
What Happened, Brittany Murphy? (Cynthia Hill)
What We Left Unfinished (Mariam Ghani)
Whirlybird (Matt Yoka)
Without Getting Killed or Caught (Tamara Saviano and Paul Whitfield)
The Wonderful: Stories from the Space Station (Clare Lewins)
Woodstock 99: Peace Love and Rage (Garret Price)
Writing with Fire (Sushmit Ghosh and Rintu Thomas)
Young Plato (Declan McGrath and Neasa Ní Chianáin)

Babi Yar Context

22 favorites for the future:

All These Sons (Joshua Altman, Bing Liu)
Babi Yar. Context
 (Sergey Loznitsa)
Blind Ambition (Robert Coe and Warwick Ross)
Cannon Arm and the Arcade Quest (Mads Hedegaard)
Dark Rider (Eva Küpper)
Django & Django (Luca Rea)
The Glance of Music (Giuseppe Tornatore)
Hold Your Fire (Stefan Forbes)
The Last Archer (Dacil Manrique de Lara)
Life of Ivanna (Renato Borrayo Serrano)
The Metamorphosis of Birds (Catarina Vasconcelos)
North by Current (Angelo Madsen Minax)
On a Clear Day You Can See the Revolution from Here (Emma Charles and Ben Evans James)
Radiograph of a Family (Firouzeh Khosrovani)
The Return: Life After ISIS (Alba Sotorra)
Returning to Reims (Fragments) (Jean-Gabriel Périot)
Satoshi Kon: The Illusionist (Pascal-Alex Vincent)
Searchers (Pacho Velez)
Seeds of Deceit (Miriam Guttmann)
Television Event (Jeff Daniels)
Three Minutes: A Lengthening (Bianca Stigter)
We Are the Thousand (Anita Rivaroli)

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