Welcome to our annual movie preview! Here is a ranking of our most-anticipated documentaries of 2022, which mostly showcases the films we’re looking forward to at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
Predicting the year ahead in documentary film and television is a difficult task. For the most part, the only nonfiction features we ever know to be coming out are those programmed at the Sundance Film Festival, which is held every January. And even then, the best we can do is hope for the new films by established filmmakers to be of dependable quality. That’s why our annual preview is mostly a Sundance preview and mostly focused on familiar talents.
Honestly, though, that’s worked for us in the past. The best documentary of 2021 (according to critics via awards and our own poll) was on last year’s preview list, albeit all the way down at #15. Still, we were pretty accurate in our expectations of a lot of the features and series we highlighted, including the latest from Rodney Ascher, R.J. Cutler, and Nanfu Wang. Of course, we also showcased some disappointments and docs that never came out in 2021.
Once again, the following list excludes upcoming releases that have already been seen at festivals or have been otherwise reviewed and discussed before — that’s anything in the “future” section of our 2021 poll, such as Sergey Loznitsa’s Babi Yar. Context, plus Andrea Arnold’s Cow (due April 8th). We’re also not going to repeat any holdovers from last year’s list, so as much as we can’t wait to finally see Rory Kennedy’s Downfall: The Case Against Boeing (which is at Sundance), we covered that already.
Since we’re already well into the first month of 2022, I should mention that we’ve also already hyped some of the stuff released in January in our latest streaming guide and release calendar. And we’re already enjoying the surprise second season of Cheer, and we’re still curious about W. Kamau Bell’s We Need to Talk About Cosby, which debuts at Sundance ahead of its Showtime premiere later this month. I’m not sure I’m looking forward to it, given the troubling subject matter, but I am certainly open to watching it.
A majority of the 25 docs listed below are, as noted, debuting at Sundance. Of course, that doesn’t mean they’ll actually be released in 2022. But every Sundance selection included on last year’s preview wound up with distribution and a release date in 2021, so we’re optimistic. If any of the others are delayed, we apologize. As I said already, doc releases aren’t easily foreseen. And that’s in times when delays aren’t common like they are now.
Here are our 25 most anticipated documentaries of 2022:
25. Jeen-Yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy
To be honest, I don’t really want to know more about Kanye West (a.k.a. Ye), but I also recognize this is probably the biggest documentary of the year in terms of general interest and anticipation. So, I need to watch it and be a part of the conversation. Directed by filmmakers Coodie & Chike, who have collaborated with West on a few music videos and helmed the 30 for 30 doc Benji, Jeen-Yuhs: A Kanya Trilogy features never-before-seen footage of the rapper/producer/designer from his youth through his recent bid for president.
Jeen-Yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy premieres at the Sundance Film Festival on January 23rd before debuting on Netflix on February 16th.
24. The Princess
For different reasons, I don’t really need another film about Princess Diana. We’ve seen plenty of documentaries and biopics and Netflix series of varying degrees of quality for the past 40 years. Last year’s Spencer is one of my favorite movies of 2021, so I’m not against more material on the iconic royal. I’m just skeptical. But it makes sense that this year, the 25th anniversary of her death, we’d get additional takes on the “People’s Princess.” At least The Princess is helmed by Ed Perkins, who has done well with a variety of types of docs, from the features Garnet’s Gold and Tell Me Who I Am to the Oscar-nominated short Black Sheep. This one is apparently all archival material, which I’m okay with.
The Princess premieres at the Sundance Film Festival on January 20th.
23. Jackass Forever
Sometimes you want your nonfiction films to be serious looks at important issues, and sometimes you’re in the mood to watch real people injuring themselves for the sake of laughs. The fourth main installment in the Jackass film series brings back Johnny Knoxville, Steve-O, and others along with some new faces to endure dangerous stunts and pranks. And hopefully, they pay some homage to classic cinema again. That sort of thing keeps these movies from being too low-brow.
Jackass Forever releases in theaters on February 4th.
22. The American Dream and Other Fairy Tales
Anyone can criticize the economy and the problems with capitalism in this country, but when you’re the grand-neice of Walt Disney, such criticisms are notable for their ironic relativity to one of the biggest brands and companies in America. Documentarian and activist Abigail Disney (The Armor of Light) has had plenty to say about her family’s legacy, particularly the company’s executives and business practices, but now she’s made a film that uses her family background to talk broadly about economic disparities in the US. I look forward to the complex identity that she and her doc have in relation to this very relevant problem.
The American Dream and Other Fairy Tales premieres at the Sundance Film Festival on January 25th.
21. Nothing Compares
Given her very recent tragedy of losing her teenage son to suicide and then her own hospitalization for suicidal threats, the story of Sinéad O’Connor (a.k.a. Shuhada’ Sadaqat) is going to feel incomplete in this documentary. However, Nothing Compares is said to focus on the singer-songwriter’s life and career in the late ’80s and ’90s, following her rise and then fall from the spotlight. Kathryn Ferguson’s feature debut is also interested in her legacy since then and is said to look back through a “contemporary lens.” If anything, perhaps the doc will help us to understand her current state even if the latest news is too new to be included.
Nothing Compares premieres at the Sundance Film Festival on January 21st.
20. The Captain
I have to include at least one documentary I’m looking forward to just for personal interest in the subject matter. The Captain is the latest series from ESPN profiling an iconic athlete, and this time that figure in focus is Derek Jeter. As a Yankees fan, I’m sold. I don’t really know what to expect from the director, Randy Wilkins (Dear…), nor have I heard about anything extraordinary due to come out of the series, but I presume greatness will be on display, even if it’s only from the baseball Hall-of-Famer (which I doubt, coming from ESPN).
The Captain is expected to premiere on ESPN sometime in 2022.
19. To the End
Three years ago, Rachel Lears made her mark at Sundance thanks to what the media kept referring to as “the AOC documentary.” Now, here’s a kind of follow-up to that film, actually titled Knock Down the House, which follows four women running for congressional seats in 2018. Like that doc, To the End does also star AOC (US Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez), but it’s not an election film. It follows Ocasio-Cortez, Rhiana Gunn-Wright, Varshini Prakash, and Alexandra Rojas in their efforts to pass the legislation known as the Green New Deal. Hopefully, it’s not a film that just preaches to the choir on the idea and the issues.
To the End premieres at the Sundance Film Festival on January 23rd.
18. My Old School
I didn’t realize this is a documentary at first because it stars Alan Cumming. That makes me excited for two reasons: I love when documentaries are different, and I love Alan Cumming. The synopsis of My Old School, telling only of a legendary Scottish schoolboy, doesn’t help much, nor does the fact that this is the first feature from director Jono McLeod. But it does seem to be a film about a fraud of some kind, maybe with echoes of The Imposter. I hope so.
My Old School premieres at the Sundance Film Festival on January 23rd.
17. Fire of Love
I first learned of Maurice and Katia Krafft from Werner Herzog’s 2016 volcano-focused documentary Into the Inferno. The couple were both volcanologists and they died together while exploring and documenting a volcano in Japan. Now their story has a documentary all its own, in the form of Sara Dosa’s Fire of Love. It appears to be a rather poetic film, maybe an essay film, and I think I saw somewhere it described as inspired by the French New Wave. I assume it entails a lot of the Krafft’s own footage. Actress and filmmaker Miranda July narrates the thing, so that should be pretty interesting.
Fire of Love premieres at the Sundance Film Festival on January 20th.
16. Lincoln’s Dilemma
Jeffrey Wright narrates this docuseries, which also features the voices of actors Bill Camp and Leslie Odom Jr. as Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, respectively. Consisting of four episodes, Lincoln’s Dilemma is about the president’s efforts to end slavery in America. Could it be that Apple is attempting to offer their own take on the Ken Burns sort of historical docuseries? One of its directors is Barak Goodman, who has done well with PBS docs like Scottsboro: An American Tragedy and episodes of Frontline and American Experience (including the essential Oklahoma City). He also produced the related Looking for Lincoln. The other director is similarly PBS material: Jacqueline Olive, who has done work for Frontline and Independent Lens. That’s a pretty amazing team.
Lincoln’s Dilemma premieres on Apple TV+ on February 18th.
15. We Met in Virtual Reality
I really haven’t a clue what to expect with this one. We Met in Virtual Reality is a documentary set and was filmed entirely in the world of VR. That could be cool, or it could be frustrating. Or it could be a doc that’s difficult to decide whether it’s “good” or “bad” or likable or angering, a la A Glitch in the Matrix, which features talking heads consisting of digital avatars.
We Met in Virtual Reality premieres at the Sundance Film Festival on January 21st.
14. Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power
As part of Reject Media, the company that owns One Perfect Shot, we love the intersection of documentary and film studies discourse. Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power is concerned with “the politics of cinematic shot design” and looks at numerous film clips going back to the start of motion pictures to investigate depictions of sexual abuse and assault as well as discrimination of women. Considering film critics are drawn to docs about film, this should be one of the more heavily reviewed works of nonfiction this year.
Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power premieres at the Sundance Film Festival on January 22nd.
13. This Much I Know to Be True
Apparently, Andrew Dominik just makes documentaries about Nick Cave now? This Much I Know to Be True is the director’s first feature since 2016’s One More Time with Feeling, which follows Cave as he records the album Skeleton Tree while still mourning the death of his son (we named it one of the best music docs of the year). This time Dominik follows Cave and Warren Ellis in their collaboration on the albums Ghosteen and Carnage, and if it’s even half as good, we’ll be happy. Will we ever get tired of docs about Cave? Not a chance.
This Much I Know to Be True is expected to release sometime in 2022.
12. Lucy and Desi
Like The Princess, here’s a documentary about people we just got a biopic for in the past year. But given that Being the Ricardos was rather disappointing and also not very factually accurate, I’m actually interested in a doc on Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. Plus, Lucy and Desi is directed by Amy Poehler, her first nonfiction feature, so it ought to be pretty fun and surely a more appreciative tribute than Aaron Sorkin’s dramatic take on the couple.
Lucy and Desi premieres at the Sundance Film Festival on January 21st before arriving on Amazon Prime Video on March 4th.
11. Phoenix Rising
Another Sundance, another high-profile documentary about abuse/assault, and that’s a good thing. Well, not a good thing that such subject matter exists, but a good thing that it continues to be addressed. And unlike the Cosby docuseries, and many other docs of the sort, Phoenix Rising is thankfully not about a perpetrator but a survivor. The film features actress Evan Rachel Wood (whom we also recently saw in the doc Showbiz Kids) and is focused on her experience with domestic violence. At the helm of this platform for Wood’s story is Amy Berg, who directed the Oscar-nominated Deliver Us from Evil, which was probably the first doc I saw — and remains one of the best — that deals with abuse by a Catholic priest.
Phoenix Rising premieres at the Sundance Film Festival on January 24th.
10. Medical Racism
Ken Burns has another big docuseries on PBS this year, this one about Benjamin Franklin, and I am looking forward to it. But I do think PBS needs more diversity in its programming, especially for major projects like that one. So, I’d rather spotlight Medical Racism, which isn’t a biographical work nor a series but is part of the PBS show NOVA. The film shines a necessary light on the issue of racism in the arena of health and health care of Black Americans. If you are also interested in biographies about Black persons made by Black filmmakers on PBS, the broadcaster also just announced new docs produced and directed by Nelson about Frederick Douglass (Becoming Frederick Douglass) and Harriet Tubman (Harriet Tubman: Visions of Freedom) due to air in the fall.
Medical Racism is expected to premiere on PBS via NOVA sometime in 2022.
9. Meet Me in the Bathroom
From the directors of the phenomenal LCD Soundsystem doc Shut Up and Play the Hits comes another music doc of great interest. Meet Me in the Bathroom is based on Lizzy Goodman’s book of the same name (subtitled “Rebirth and Rock and Roll in New York City 2001-2011”) which takes its title from a song by The Strokes. It’s about the NYC music scene of the first decade of the 21st century, including bands such as The Strokes, LCD Soundsystem, Interpol, and Vampire Weekend. Even if I hadn’t been hanging out on the fringes of that scene at the time and knew some of the people involved, I’d want to see this just for it being made by Will Lovelace and Dylan Southern.
Meet Me in the Bathroom premieres at the Sundance Film Festival on January 23rd.
8. The Last Movie Stars
Another new streaming service focused on nonfiction content is coming soon! It’s called CNN+ because everything has to have that sort of name now, and among its offerings will be this docuseries about the marriage of Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. Very little has been seen of their private life because they were such a private couple. But they were also a very famous Hollywood pair and one of the most successful unions in the industry. Now, thanks to their daughters, Newman and Woodward’s life together will be shared in the open, for the curious and those looking for marital inspiration. If that wasn’t enough of a selling point, The Last Movie Stars is produced by Martin Scorsese and directed by Ethan Hawke, who previously helmed the underrated doc Seymour: An Introduction.
The Last Movie Stars is expected to premiere on CNN+ sometime in late 2022.
7. Confessions of a Good Samaritan
We just received the wonderful gift of Listening to Kenny G, so maybe I’m being too hopeful that another Penny Lane documentary will be out so soon afterward. But Confessions of a Good Samaritan is listed on IMDb as being in post-production and is dated for 2022, so I’m including it here fueled by so much optimism and excitement that I’m stupidly not even going to personally confirm its future with Lane, which I could easily do. This doc is more first-person than we tend to get from Lane. It’s about her own experience donating one of her kidneys to a stranger and her “quest to understand the nature of altruism.” Whenever it might come out, it’s definitely on the top of our most-anticipated docs of the foreseeable future.
Confessions of a Good Samaritan is expected to release sometime in 2022.
Ancestry has become a huge hobby and industry in recent years, thanks to DNA tests and greater tools for researching individuals’ heritage. And the stories of descendants of enslaved Americans continue to be among the most compelling, in part because so much of that narrative was shrouded for a long time. Descendant, the latest from Margaret Brown (The Order of Myths), delivers more of these stories, focusing on descendants of the survivors of the Clotilda, the last slave ship to transport captured Africans to the US. Be sure to save this one with your kids since they’re unlikely to learn about it in public school now.
Descendant premieres at the Sundance Film Festival on January 22nd.
5. Framing Agnes
One of the best under-seen documentaries of last year is No Ordinary Man, about transgender music icon Billy Tipton. One of its directors, Chase Joynt, is already back with another film, and it’s also focused on trans people and trans history. Framing Agnes looks back at early, unknown stories of the UCLA Gender Clinic, and like No Ordinary Man it looks to feature trans actors reenacting these stories. If it’s truly anything like Joynt’s previous effort, this doc will be both an essential light shed on an unfamiliar subject matter while also delivering that subject matter in a unique manner.
Framing Agnes premieres at the Sundance Film Festival on January 22nd.
4. Last Exit: Space
Werner Herzog goes to space… again. Actually, Last Exit: Space (which Herzog executive produced and narrated while his son, Rudolph Herzog, directed) is even more focused on outer space than his 2020 feature Fireball. That doc mainly concentrates on celestial objects, namely meteors and comets, from the perspective of their impact on the geology and culture of Earth. Now the Herzogs are looking at the concept of space colonization. Someone should let Werner Herzog take a free trip on one of the private space flights and film from the actual cosmos. But even if they don’t, this is sure to be a fascinating work of science-nonfiction.
Last Exit: Space is expected to premiere on Discovery+ sometime in 2022.
3. 2nd Chance
When I fell in love with the work of Ramin Bahrani in the early 2000s with Man Push Cart and Chop Shop, it was partly because of those films’ realism aspects. Goodbye Solo was even programmed on PBS as an installment of Independent Lens! He’s since gone deeper into the dramatic (see last year’s The White Tiger), but now he’s back to — and more so tackling — the really real with his first feature documentary (following a handful of shorts over the past decade). With 2nd Chance, Bahrani spotlights Richard Davis, inventor of the kevlar bulletproof vest, and it sounds like a wild story considering the synopsis focuses on how he would constantly shoot himself to prove the effectiveness of his product.
2nd Chance premieres at the Sundance Film Festival on January 22nd.
2. Riotsville, U.S.A.
If you don’t already know the name Sierra Pettengill, you should, and you will, thanks to her greatest directorial effort yet. Pettengill has been an important part of the doc scene for the past decade as a researcher and archival producer, and on occasion, she’s directed some films of her own (see Town Hall, The Reagan Show, and the recent short The Rifleman). With fully-archival docs being something of a trend — one I never want to end — her brand of filmmaking is ripe for success. Riotsville, U.S.A. tackles a subject that ought to pique doc fans’ interest, too: it’s about the US Army’s efforts to handle riots and other acts of civil unrest following such violent events in Watts, Newark, Detroit, and other locations in the country in the mid-’60s. The doc’s visuals are centered around footage of staged riots on a fake city street on an army base, so I expect a touch of the absurd and surreal in addition to the harsh truths on display.
Riotsville, U.S.A. premieres at the Sundance Film Festival on January 21st.
1. Last Flight Home
Ondi Timoner is one of the smartest and most important figures in the nonfiction film scene, whether it’s evident in her award-winning docs such as Dig! and We Live in Public or her work as a talk show host focused on interviewing documentary filmmakers. She’s not just in the practice of making steller docs but is also a fan and a scholar. Even when she’s working for hire and/or tackling controversial subject matter, a la Cool It and Brand: A Second Coming, her films are not to be missed. With Last Flight Home, Timoner is taking on a more personal subject: her father. Eli Timoner, the co-founder and president of Air Florida, died of his own decision at age 92 last March, and his daughter filmed his final days, which are joined by the story of his life. So many documentarians have made films about their fathers, and they don’t always work, but if I trust anyone to be successful with the idea, it’s Timoner.
Last Flight Home premieres at the Sundance Film Festival on January 22nd.