Welcome to our annual movie preview! Here is a ranking of our most-anticipated documentaries of 2021, which mostly showcases the films we’re looking to at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
Thank goodness that 2020 is behind us. Well, maybe 2021 will be some of the same. Also, you can probably look forward to some documentaries about the past year (there are at least three of them on the list below). We’re not out of the weeds just yet!
But, we are technically in a new year (even if some awards organizations are counting some of 2021 as part of 2020), and that’s still something to be excited about as we look ahead to the next hundred-plus great documentaries of the next bracketed twelve months, or fifty-two weeks, or three-hundred-and-sixty-five days, etc., or whatever you want to think of it as.
As usual, the following list is for new titles that haven’t already been widely seen at festivals or otherwise been reviewed and discussed (so nothing from “the future” section of our 2020 poll, such as Notturno). They’re films and series that we anticipate without more than talent involved, subject matter, and synopsis revealed, with an occasional doc already previewed in some form, via trailers or officially released footage or stills.
To find a list of great docs out in 2021 that some of us have seen in 2020, check out the poll representing the latter year. Meanwhile, I want to give a shout out to some new ongoing series, namely the Netflix sports doc spinoff Last Chance U: Basketball and the Fishing with John adjacent series Painting with John starring John Lurie and debuting on HBO and HBO Max on January 22nd.
And we’re already starting to watch Martin Scorsese‘s new Netflix series on Fran Lebowitz, Pretend It’s a City (we couldn’t resist, given how much we love his doc feature with her, Public Speaking), and Matthew Hamachek and Matthew Heineman‘s Tiger Woods series, Tiger (now on HBO). The new year is already off to a great start!
Many of the twenty-five docs below are debuting at Sundance this month. That doesn’t mean they’ll find a release in 2021. But the chances are decent enough to include them. The same goes for most of these films (the series tend to have locked broadcast or streaming premiere dates). We’re hoping for the best that they indeed come out this year.
Here are our twenty-five most-anticipated documentaries of 2021 [plus two extras announced after the main list was compiled]:
25. Life in a Day 2020
Exactly a decade ago, Kevin Macdonald and Ridley Scott curated a surprisingly breathtaking and emotional look at the world set during one specific day for the crowdsourced (a.k.a. user-generated) documentary Life in a Day. I saw it at Sundance that year and loved it. Scott followed it with Britain in a Day the next year, which saturated the idea, and in the time since, such collaborative projects have gotten rather old (especially after the depressing events of 11/8/16). But maybe it’s time to surprise me again, just like the original did, with this new Sundance entry again curated by Macdonald and Scott. At the very least, it should be interesting considering what life was like in the middle of 2020.
Premieres at the Sundance Film Festival on February 2nd.
It’s been a while since I became a fan of Chris Bell through his breakout 2008 doc Bigger Stronger Faster*, and I can’t say I’ve seen anything of his that’s blown me away since, but I’m always intrigued by what he’s working on. Meatheads is about the current science involving meat, and I’m not sure if it’s pro or con on the subject (maybe the former since the synopsis mentions “vegan propaganda,” which sounds like a knock on veganism), but maybe he’s not either. Regardless, it should be as complex a subject and representation of that subject as Bigger Stronger Faster* is about enhancement drugs.
Meatheads is due out sometime in 2021.
23. The Klarsfields
We could use some modern Nazi hunters these days, but I’ll settle for Serge and Beate Klarsfields, the activists responsible for tracking down Nazis for years after World War II, including Klaus Barbie. They’re still alive and have been interviewed anew for The Klarsfields, an animated documentary produced by Alex Gibney. The documentary will be directed by Alexis Bloom, who helmed the Gibney-produced film Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes and who produced Gibney’s We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks. But I’m more a fan of hers by way of the Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds doc Bright Lights. This probably won’t be anything like that, though.
Bleecker Street has the rights to The Klarsfields and will hopefully be putting it out this year.
22. Howard the Doc or: How I Learned to Start Quacking and Love the Bomb
I’m not expecting much of this latest fan-driven documentary in terms of production quality, but I just can’t deny its subject matter. I’ve been a huge unapologetic fan of Howard the Duck since its release. If it weren’t for me going to see it a number of times in the theater, the notorious comic book adaptation would have been an even bigger box office flop. I’m down for star Lea Thompson, writer/director Willard Huyck, effects genius Phil Tippett, and more talking about the disastrous production and legacy of this lovable turkey, as well as my colleague Grae Drake on board as an interviewee.
Howard the Doc is expected to release sometime in 2021.
21. The Lady and the Dale
You’re familiar with the DeLorean and maybe the story of its creator (maybe thanks to a few docs), but what do you know about the Dale? Maybe you’ve at least seen this three-wheel automobile from the ’70s, but you likely don’t know its story or that of the con artist and trans woman Liz Carmichael behind its manufacture. Honestly, I didn’t either before the trailer for The Lady and the Dale dropped, but now I’m very intrigued to watch the four-part docuseries to learn all about the woman and the car. And how great is it to see that one of the series’ directors, Zackary Drucker, is also a trans woman?
The Lady and the Dale debuts on HBO and HBO Max on January 31st.
20. My Name is Pauli Murray
Three years ago, Julie Cohen and Betsy West broke out with the hit Ruth Bader Ginsburg documentary RBG, which was West’s directorial debut. And they earned an Oscar for the effort as well. Now they’re back with a follow-up that also has ties to Ginsburg. My Name is Pauli Murray is about the titular civil rights activist, women’s rights activist, author, lawyer, poet, and priest, who died more than 35 years ago. Murray was an influential figure in the careers of Ginsburg and fellow (but not contemporary) Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. It’s about time we got a documentary about this little-known yet pioneering figure.
My Name is Pauli Murray premieres at the Sundance Film Festival on January 31st.
19. Untitled Rihanna Documentary and/or Untitled Chris Cornell Documentary
I’m listing two separate projects here because maybe only one of them actually releases this year. Both are directed by Peter Berg, both are still untitled, and both are about music artists, albeit two very different individuals. The Rihanna documentary, which follows the pop star (who also acted in Berg’s Battleship) on tour in Europe, seems to be finishing first, and it’s already got Amazon as its distributor, so that is probably also coming out first. The Chris Cornell documentary, which is focused on the late Soundgarden and Audioslave singer/guitarist, is being produced by Brad Pitt and Cornell’s widow, Vicky, and was reported two years ago to involve dramatized scenes featuring an actor (Lauchlin MacDonald) playing the subject. At the time, it was also said to be titled Like a Stone.
At least one of these documentaries is expected to release in 2021.
18. Untitled Boeing 737 Max/Rory Kennedy Project
Another untitled project that we’re hoping comes out this year but aren’t totally sure about, the next documentary from Rory Kennedy (Last Days in Vietnam) covers the tragic plane crashes in October 2018 and March 2019 involving new Boeing 737 MAX airliners and the ongoing story of what happened and why the 737 MAX was subsequently grounded worldwide for over a year. I wish this doc was debuting at Sundance or otherwise debuting early this year given that its story is so timely with last week’s $2.5 billion settlement and the semi-related 737 Classic airliner crash that happened a couple of days ago. Presumably, it’ll arrive before another 737 MAX doc in the works from directors Barak Goodman and Rachel Dretzin.
Netflix is expected to release Rory Kennedy’s documentary sometime in 2021.
17. The Nailbomber
Another Netflix documentary in the works and presumably due this year is called The Nailbomber. Fitting into the streamer’s true-crime interests yet with a right-wing terrorism specificity, the feature will present the story of a man who bombed three locations in London in 1999, killing three people and injuring more than a hundred others. His targets were Black, Bangladeshi, and gay communities. It definitely sounds like a compelling narrative.
Netflix is expected to release The Nailbomber sometime in 2021.
16. Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street
I can’t resist a documentary regarding anything formative PBS children’s programming, whether it’s something on the life of Fred Rogers or a profile on a Sesame Street puppeteer. Street Gang looks to cover a broader story, chronicling the unlikely beginnings of Sesame Street and its legacy while featuring interviews with original writers, cast, and crew plus tons of behind-the-scenes footage. Surprisingly, it’s also the first major feature documentary from Marilyn Agrelo since her hit film Mad Hot Ballroom back in 2005.
Street Gang premieres at Sundance on January 30th before a Spring theatrical release and later broadcast/streaming on HBO and HBO Max.
15. Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)
How is Questlove as a documentary filmmaker? I have no idea, but he’s got a lot of help as far as most of the footage goes for Summer of Soul. The new doc takes material shot by the late Hal Tulchin for his 1969 feature Black Woodstock, a concert film capturing The Harlem Cultural Festival, a series of events in NYC that same year focused on African American talent. The performers we’ll see with this cinematic time machine include Nina Simone, Stevie Wonder, Sly and the Family Stone, Gladys Knight & The Pips, B.B. King, Moms Mabley, The Staple Singers, and Mahalia Jackson.
Summer of Soul premieres at Sundance on January 28th.
14. Untitled Ben Crump Documentary (a.k.a. Untitled Kenya Barris/Netflix Project)
I seem to be in the minority among my peers on this, but I really love Becoming, the Michelle Obama documentary put out by Netflix last year. If it’s self-serving propaganda on the part of its subject, I don’t give a damn. It’s a well-produced and well-directed and well-shot feature debut for Nadia Hallgren. Now she’s at the helm for her sophomore effort under the watch of Black-ish creator Kenya Barris and it’s a profile on Ben Crump, the attorney famous for representing the families of Black victims killed by police officers. The film began with coverage of George Floyd‘s funeral last June. Considering he took on two more big cases afterward in August 2020, there is, tragically, a lot to include in a feature film about Crump.
This still-untitled project is expected to debut on Netflix sometime this year.
In the last decade, Peter Nicks has given us two incredible yet underrated documentaries set in Oakland institutions. The Waiting Room embeds us in the Highland Hospital waiting room for a fascinating angle on the healthcare crisis. The Force takes us on rides-along with the Oakland PD for a film focused on the current issues involving police in America. Now he’s enrolling us in Oakland High School along with students in the class of 2020. Yeah, the one that concludes with kids graduating (or not) during a pandemic. Surely, Nicks expected Homeroom to be a different entity when he started on the project. But that only makes this film more interesting, for representing the unpredictable, as nonfiction cinema rarely does well enough these days.
Homeroom premieres at the Sundance Film Festival on January 29th.
12. Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry
R.J. Cutler, who’ll always get a pass anyway for being a producer on The War Room, doesn’t always win me over with his subject matter, and Billie Eilish isn’t necessarily a person I’m dying to learn anything about (not that I’m against it either; I just don’t need to). But I’m still in a place of respect from watching Cutler’s Belushi fairly recently. The World’s a Little Blurry is a totally different sort of celebrity profile, of course, more of the sort we see with every pop star these days. But so many of them are actually really good, and I trust that Cutler will make this year’s great mainstream music doc.
Billie Eilish: The World’s a Litle Blurry arrives on AppleTV+ on February 26th.
For their next PBS docuseries, Ken Burns and Lynn Novick are tackling a singular subject: Ernest Hemingway. The three-part, six-hour event follows the life of the iconic but very complicated American writer, whose words are voiced by Jeff Daniels. Hemingway also features the voices of Patricia Clarkson, Mary-Louise Parker, Keri Russell, and Meryl Streep, who portray each of Hemingway’s wives, and Peter Coyote, who serves as narrator.
Hemingway kicks off on PBS on April 5th.
10. Untitled Magic Johnson Documentary
We’re all in The Last Dance withdrawal, but fortunately, there’s another basketball icon from the same period as Michael Jordan with the same initials (sort of) getting his own new documentary: Magic Johnson. Sure, it’s got a lot to live up to since every report about this feature film is referencing the must-watch sports docuseries of 2020. The project is under the production of Bryn Mooser, who has a number of upcoming docs listed on IMDb but not this one, so we’ll just have to see if it does indeed fill the demand this year.
Showtime is expected to release the untitled Magic Johnson documentary sometime in 2021.
Liz Garbus is starting to give Alex Gibney a run for his money in terms of productivity. In 2020 alone, as a producer and/or director, she gave us the best true-crime docuseries of the year, an essential political documentary for our time, a true-crime narrative feature, the Ariana Grande doc, and the underrated Innocence Files docuseries. For 2021, she’s kicking things off with a bang as well, helming a new feature doc about Jacques Cousteau. Doc fans should already be well-versed in some of the subject’s work, namely his own documentary films, but Garbus’ Cousteau will give him more of a biographical profile, highlighting his many important scientific achievements and contributions. We’re ready to dive in whenever it’s ready for us.
Cousteau is expected to debut on Disney+ via National Geographic sometime in 2021.
8. The Sparks Brothers
Who are The Sparks Brothers? I have no idea, but that’s a good reason to anticipate a documentary about them. Especially when it’s a documentary by Edgar Wright. Mind you, he’s never directed a nonfiction feature before, but he’s proven to be well-versed in every other genre and form of filmmaking (and other media) with his narrative works, so I don’t have any concerns about him doing well in the documentary mode.
Wright is also obviously very hip when it comes to music, so even though I’m not an easy audience for most music docs, one from him definitely piques my interest. By the way, according to the synopsis, the Sparks brothers are actually the Mael brothers, Russell and Ron, who formed a band called Sparks, who had some little-remembered hits in the ’70s and ’80s.
The Sparks Brothers premieres at Sundance on January 30th.
7. Bring Your Own Brigade
With all the political turmoil and the COVID-19 tragedy occupying the news of last year, it’s easy to forget that wildfires are still a major issue in the US, especially in California, with many lives lost and property damaged, and little to show that it won’t keep happening. Lucy Walker won’t be the first filmmaker to tackle the subject matter, but I’m certain she will make a more compelling and complex feature investigating the problem than anyone else has or will. Bring Your Own Brigade promises to be one of the hottest docs of 2021 in more ways than one.
Bring Your Own Brigade will premiere at Sundance on January 29th.
6. In the Same Breath
Nanfu Wang is the filmmaker you want for documentaries that are both intimate and broadly insightful about modern China while also representing both insider and outsider perspectives, giving the films a wide international appeal without feeling too Western in its approach. The Hooligan Sparrow and One Child Nation director is therefore a perfect person to now handle the subject of China’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. In the Same Breath appears to be focused on the Chinese government but also seems to link to the US response as well. I honestly didn’t think I wanted to see another documentary about the coronavirus story so soon, but I can’t say no to this one.
In the Same Breath premieres at Sundance on January 28th.
Doug Liman is currently working on the Hollywood dramatic telling of the story of the 1971 Attica Prison riot, but I’m much more interested in Stanley Nelson‘s documentary option, which is likely to arrive sooner anyway. The director behind such historical docs as Freedom Riders and The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution does tend to offer more of the straightforward standard-format talking-head type of doc, but he does what he does very well. And with Attica, I’m looking forward to him informing me about why this incident is still worth talking about fifty years later.
Showtime is expected to release Attica sometime in 2021.
4. The Velvet Underground
The Velvet Underground is the first solo documentary effort from Todd Haynes (he co-directed Six by Sondheim). That’s it. That’s the blurb.
The Velvet Underground is expected to debut on AppleTV+ sometime in 2021.
3. A Glitch in the Matrix
It’s understandable that in recent years, people hoped we were stuck in some simulation gone wrong. Or, maybe, just that we were in a bad timeline ever since the election of Donald Trump as the President of the United States. Thankfully, the man who gave us Room 237 had the bright idea to make a documentary about the science and philosophy associated with theories that we’re actually living in “the matrix.”
Hopefully, A Glitch in the Matrix also addresses those people who like to live in a pretend bubble of ignorance — the ones who are fine just eating the fake steak, as The Matrix depicts them as — despite all the horrible stuff going on around them (and maybe in their political party). Even with the title hinting at being movie-related, I assume Rodney Ascher will be catering less to the cinephile crowd with this one than his film on The Shining, and I might actually prefer it that way.
A Glitch in the Matrix premieres at Sundance on January 30th and then releases theatrically and on VOD on February 5th courtesy of Magnolia.
2. The Beatles: Get Back
I love The Beatles. Not enough to watch every documentary about them, but this is clearly not just any documentary about them. Peter Jackson, who blew me away with his 3D colorized World War I footage doc They Shall Not Grow Old, is the director behind The Beatles: Get Back, a newly compiled look at the recording sessions for the 1970 album Let It Be featuring material shot for the film of the same name. Even if there winds up being no band drama in this doc, I’m fine watching pristine clips of John, Paul, George, and Ringo having a great time, as is what we get a glimpse of in the below sneak peek.
The Beatles: Get Back will debut on Disney+ on August 27th.
1. Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time
I’ve been waiting for this documentary for more than twenty years. I’m pretty sure I first heard about it from Robert B. Weide (an Oscar-nominee for Lenny Bruce: Swear to Tell the Truth) in some form in the ’90s when I became acquainted with him via newsgroups online. Now, he and Don Argott (Framing John DeLorean) are finally delivering what I believe will be the ultimate film on the life and work of Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
Admittedly, I am giving a lot of points to this film solely because it’s about my favorite author. Still, given the two directors involved and the time that has gone into the thing lead me to believe that Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time will be, at the very least, an immensely satisfying work on a subject that can be appreciated by all audiences. At best, I hope it might be the best damn biographical documentary on a writer since Life Itself.
Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time is expected to release sometime in 2021 via IFC Films.
BONUS LATE ADDITIONS
Apollo 11: Quarantine
It was ridiculous that Todd Douglas Miller’s Apollo 11 wasn’t even nominated for an Oscar. It’s an archival masterpiece. Well, now Miller has a short spinoff/sequel titled Apollo 11: Quarantine, and Neon and CNN Films are pushing for a Academy recognition again. This film shows more of the three-week quarantine that Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins experienced after their monumental Moon-landing mission. It sounds like more of the same, which means more magnificent footage, and it’s actually a pretty relatable subject (or should be more-so) in these times of a pandemic.
Apollo 11: Quarantine hits IMAX screens on January 29th.
The Lost Sons
CNN Films also just announced a new documentary from Ursula Macfarlane (Untouchable) that sounds like it could be one of the most fascinating and twist-filled stranger-than-fiction type docs of the year. Check out this synopsis:
At the age of 10, while searching for Christmas presents, Paul Fronczak unearthed a hoard of newspaper clippings about his parents: images of them grieving for a kidnapped baby and then celebrating two years later over a toddler found abandoned and returned to them. Is Paul that kidnapped baby? If so, where was he for two years? The investigation launched a deeper look into a life shrouded in mystery. Decades later, as questions continue to mount, Paul embarks on a journey for answers, plunging him into the dark depths of the secrets that families keep.
Yeah, it does sound like it could be the new Three Identical Strangers, which is fitting since it’s coming from some of the same producers as that film.
The Lost Son looks to be set for a 2021 release.