Welcome to Documental, a monthly column keeping fans of nonfiction films and docuseries up to date on all the documentary content coming to theaters and your favorite streaming services. Here’s a guide to all the essential documentary titles to watch in December 2021.
The holiday season is here, and that means it’s a great time to watch documentaries. They make the best gifts, and buying someone a subscription to any number of great streaming services specializing in nonfiction film and television is like many gifts in one.
This month sees a number of the best documentaries of 2021 releasing on their exclusive streaming platforms plus a few essential curations and classics to find on others. After reading about our highlights, check out everything else in our trusty calendar listing. Note: we may update over the next few weeks, so be sure to return here on occasion for additions to the chart.
In addition to providing documentary fans with streaming options through the month, we’re also expanding the Documental guide to include the now-rare occasional theatrical releases for nonfiction features and shorts as well as any known VOD and digital release dates.
Now, without further ado, here’s your guide to all the documentary films and series new to theaters and streaming in December 2021.
Pick of the Month: Flee
The very best documentary feature of the year, in my opinion, Flee is an animated film chronicling the life of a man only identified as Amin. He was born in Afghanistan, fled to Russia with his family, and then eventually made his way to Denmark, where he met and married his husband.
Reminiscent of the animated documentary Waltz with Bashir as well as Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel Persepolis and the film adaptation she co-directed, Flee made me cry multiple times, some of them happy tears and some of them sad. It’s a powerful story depicted in a magical medium.
I haven’t stopped thinking about it since seeing it at Sundance in January. In a roundup of the best of the fest at Film School Rejects, I wrote of its layered storytelling: “Throw in some unconventional structural aspects and some implicit questions about the truth and you’ve got a brilliant work of nonfiction.”
In theaters on December 3rd.
More Critics Choice Documentary Awards Favorites
Among its accolades (which are significantly being added to this month and will surely lead to Oscar glory), Flee was nominated for two Critics Choice Documentary Awards: Best Documentary Feature and Best Director, for Jonas Poher Rasmussen. But the film did not win in either category.
One of the documentaries to tie for the win for Best Director, however, is also a new release this month. Following its theatrical release, The Rescue arrives on Disney+ in the National Geographic brand tab on December 3rd. The film presents an intense record, some of it re-enacted, of the 2008 Tham Luang cave rescue, in which hobbyist divers saved a team of youth soccer players.
The honored filmmakers are previous Oscar-winners Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin (Free Solo), and they weren’t the only ones recognized for their work on the doc. Daniel Pemberton also won for his original score, and David Katznelson, Ian Seabrook, and Picha Srisansanee won for the film’s cinematography. The Rescue was also nominated for Best Editing and Best Documentary Feature.
Two other documentaries nominated at the CCDAs this year for their editing are also new to streaming this month. The First Wave, from Oscar-nominee Matthew Heineman (Cartel Land), hits Hulu on December 5th following a brief theatrical run. An observational look at the first few months of COVID-19 hospitalizations in NYC in 2020, it’s gut-wrenching but absorbing. And it was also nominated for the Best Science/Nature Documentary award.
The other Best Editing nominee to check out is The Real Charlie Chaplin, which debuts on Showtime and its app on December 11th. The biographical portrait of silent comedy film icon Charlie Chaplin gets into some serious subject matter regarding the actor and filmmaker, but the brightly engaging narration by Pearl Mackie keeps a light tone throughout. The doc was also nominated in the Best Narration and Best Archival Documentary categories.
Another documentary nominated for Best Archival Documentary, Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street, chronicles the history of the iconic PBS children’s program, and it’s available to stream on HBO Max beginning December 13th. And another documentary nominated for Best Science/Nature Documentary, as well as Best Cinematography, is Puff: Wonders of the Reef, a hypnotic underwater nature film coming to Netflix on December 16th.
Finally, and most fascinatingly, December brings the release of Listening to Kenny G, directed by Penny Lane (Hail Satan?), on the 2nd. Nominated at the CCDAs for Best Music Documentary, the film profiles the famous — and infamous — titular smooth jazz musician and songwriter, and it’s hardly the typical subject-canonizing music doc. Although it is highly respectful in spite of its recognition that Kenny G is not universally loved and admired.
Listening to Kenny G is an installment of the anthology music doc series Music Box, two more episodes of which are also releasing this month.
Spotlight on Documentaries by Women Filmmakers
Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Penny Lane are two of the greatest filmmakers working today, and they happen to be women. So, while they have new documentaries out in December 2021, it’s a fitting time to celebrate all women filmmakers. That’s what The Criterion Channel is doing with their month-long program “Female Gaze: Women Directors + Women Cinematographers.”
The selection consists of around 50 films, all directed and shot by women, and they cover narrative and nonfiction works and include both features and shorts. Among the big names that overlap multiple quadrants (though not necessarily in this curation) are Agnes Varda, Chantal Ackerman, and Sarah Polley. You can find docs by all of them and more in the bunch.
The nonfiction favorites that we recommend as priority viewing include the following Polley’s incredibly personal Stories We Tell, Chantal Ackerman’s hybrid “structuralist city symphony” News from Home, Laura Poitras‘ Oscar-winner Citizenfour, and Varda’s muralist-focused masterpiece Mur Murs. Others in the program are marked as such in the calendar below.
Documentary Release Calendar for December 2021
|12/1||20 Feet from Stardom (2013)||HBO Max|
|Adrienne (2021)||HBO Max||HBO Original|
|The Beaches of Agnès (2008)||The Criterion Channel|
|By Way of Canarsie (2021)||The Criterion Channel|
|Candified: Home for the Holidays (2021)||Hulu|
|Citizenfour (2014)||The Criterion Channel||Female Gaze: Women Directors + Women Cinematographers|
|Cleanin’ Up the Town: Remembering Ghostbusters (2019)||Crackle|
|Clorae and Albie (1975)||The Criterion Channel||Female Gaze: Women Directors + Women Cinematographers|
|Cocaine Cowboys 2: Hustlin' With The Godmother (2008)||Crackle|
|Control Room (2006)||HBO Max|
|Conversations with Intellectuals About Selena (1999)||The Criterion Channel||Female Gaze: Women Directors + Women Cinematographers|
|Daguerréotypes (1975)||The Criterion Channel||Female Gaze: Women Directors + Women Cinematographers|
|Finding Jesus: Faith, Fact, Forgery (2015)||HBO Max|
|Fruitcake Fraud (2021)||Discovery+|
|Girls at 12 (1975)||The Criterion Channel||Female Gaze: Women Directors + Women Cinematographers|
|I Am Not Your Negro (2016)||Crackle|
|Jane B. par Agnès V. (1988)||The Criterion Channel||Female Gaze: Women Directors + Women Cinematographers|
|Joyce at 34 (1972)||The Criterion Channel||Female Gaze: Women Directors + Women Cinematographers|
|Man on Wire (2008)||Crackle|
|Mur Murs (1981)||The Criterion Channel||Female Gaze: Women Directors + Women Cinematographers|
|News from Home (1976)||The Criterion Channel||Female Gaze: Women Directors + Women Cinematographers|
|The Oath (2010)||The Criterion Channel||Female Gaze: Women Directors + Women Cinematographers|
|Pope: The Most Powerful Man In History (2018)||HBO Max|
|Right to Try (2021)||Peacock|
|Shooting Women (2008)||The Criterion Channel||Female Gaze: Women Directors + Women Cinematographers|
|Stories We Tell (2012)||The Criterion Channel||Female Gaze: Women Directors + Women Cinematographers|
|Venus and Serena (2012)||Crackle and DOX|
|The Willmar 8 (1981)||The Criterion Channel||Female Gaze: Women Directors + Women Cinematographers|
|The Wolfpack (2015)||HBO Max|
|The Wrecking Crew! (2008)||HBO Max|
|12/2||The Alpinist (2021)||Netflix|
|Listening to Kenny G||HBO Max||HBO Original - Music Box Episode|
|12/3||Coming Out Colton - Season 1 (2021)||Netflix||Netflix Original Series|
|Flee (2021)||In Theaters|
|The Great British Baking Show: Holidays - Season 4 (2020)||Netflix||Netflix Original Series|
|The Hunt for the Chicago Strangler (2021)||Discovery+|
|Koshien: Japan's Field of Dreams (2019)||Ovid.tv|
|The Johnnyswim Show (2021)||Discovery+|
|To Live and Die in Alabama (2021)||Hulu||The New York Times Presents Episode|
|Love and Fury (2021)||Netflix|
|The Rescue (2021)||Disney+|
|We Are X (2016)||Amazon Prime Video|
|12/5||90 Day Journeys: The Other Way Couples (2021)||Discovery+|
|At the Ready||HBO Max|
|The First Wave (2021)||Hulu|
|12/6||Águilas (2021)||PBS||POV Shorts|
|The Forever Prisoner (2021)||HBO Max||HBO Original|
|The Hairdresser (2021)||PBS||POV Shorts|
|Lydia Lunch: The War Is Never Over (2019)||The Criterion Channel|
|Voir - Season 1 (2021)|
|12/7||Alaskan Killer Bigfoot (2021)||Discovery+|
|All About My Sisters (2021)||Ovid.tv|
|Poor Kids (2021)||PBS||Frontline Episode|
|The Slow Hustle (2021)||HBO Max||HBO Original|
|Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine (2015)||DOX|
|12/8||The Great Christmas Light Fight - Season 9 (2021)||Disney+|
|Life Below Zero: Northern Territories - Season 1 (2021)||Disney+|
|Welcome to Earth (2021)||Disney+||National Geographic Original Series|
|Wicked Tuna: Outer Banks - Season 8 (2021)||Disney+||National Geographic Original Series|
|12/9||Bathtubs Over Broadway (2018)||Netflix|
|The Family That Sings Together: The Camargos - Season 1 (2021)||Netflix|
|Mr. Saturday Night (2021)||HBO Max||HBO Original - Music Box Episode|
|12/10||Family Dinner (2021)||Discovery+|
|Joy Womack: The White Swan (2021)||VOD|
|Tiger King: The Doc Antle Story (2021)||Netflix||Netflix Original Series|
|Twentysomethings: Austin - Season 1 (2021)||Netflix||Netflix Original Series|
|12/11||The Pioneer Woman: Hometown Stories (2021)||Discovery+|
|Radford Returns (2021)||Discovery+|
|The Real Charlie Chaplin (2021)||Showtime|
|12/12||Ken and Barbie Killers: The Lost Murder Tapes (2021)||Discovery+|
|12/13||Elaine is Almost (2021)||PBS||POV Shorts|
|Integrate.Me (2021)||PBS||POV Shorts|
|The Rise and Fall of LuLaRoe (2021)||Discovery+|
|Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street (2021)||HBO Max|
|12/14||Discovering David Dobrik (2021)||Discovery+|
|A Fierce Green Fire (2012)||Ovid.tv|
|The Future Diary - Season 1 (2021)||Netflix||Netflix Original Series|
|The Murders at Starved Rock (2021)||HBO Max||HBO Original Series|
|Noma: My Perfect Storm (2015)||DOX|
|12/15||Black Ink Crew New York - Seasons 3 & 4 (2015-2016)||Netflix|
|The Challenge - Seasons 12 & 25 (2006 & 2014)||Netflix|
|Life Below Zero - Season 17 (2021)||Disney+||National Geographic Original Series|
|The Repair Shop (2021)||Discovery+|
|Science Of Stupid - Season 8 (2021)||Disney+|
|Selling Tampa - Season 1 (2021)||Netflix||Netflix Original Series|
|Teen Mom 2 - Seasons 3 & 4 (2011-2012)||Netflix|
|12/16||Dead Asleep (2021)||Hulu|
|Diego, The Last Goodbye (Diego, el último adiós) (2021)||HBO Max||Max Original|
|Juice WRLD: Into the Abyss (2021)||HBO Max||HBO Original - Music Box Episode|
|Prince Philip: The Royal Family Remembers||Discovery+|
|Puff: Wonders of the Reef (2021)||Netflix||Netflix Original|
|12/17||President (2021)||In Theaters|
|12/18||Drew’s Dream Car (2021)||Discovery+|
|My Dream Kitchen: Carla Hall (2021)||Discovery+|
|My Dream Kitchen: Giada De Laurentiis (2021)||Discovery+|
|12/19||Home Town: Ben’s Workshop (2021)||Discovery+|
|12/21||Gonzo: The Life and Work of Hunter S. Thompson (2008)||DOX|
|Gustav Stickley: American Craftsman (2021)||Ovid.tv|
|12/22||The Velvet Queen (2021)||In Theaterss|
|12/23||Dead Man’s Switch: A Crypto Mystery||Discovery+|
|12/24||King Tut In Color (2020)||Disney+|
|Lost Tombs Of The Pyramids (2020)||Disney+|
|12/25||Stories of a Generation – with Pope Francis - Season 1 (2021)||Netflix||Netflix Original Series|
|12/27||Le Frère (2021)||PBS||POV Shorts|
|Unapologetic (2020)||PBS||POV Episode|
|12/28||Hillside Strangler: Mind of a Monster (2021)||Discovery+|
|I'm Still Here (2010)||DOX|
|12/29||Crime Scene: The Times Square Killer - Season 1 (2021)||Netflix||Netflix Original Series|
|12/31||'80s Top Ten - Season 1 (2021)||Disney+|
|The Established Home (2021)||Discovery+|
|Queer Eye - Season 6 (2021)||Netflix||Netflix Original Series|
|Restoration Road with Clint Harp (2021)||Discovery+|