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Celebrating the Best Documentaries of 2021

Jan/04/2022 / by Melanie Fourie
best documentaries
Image credits: Shutterstock

Documentaries offer a unique insight on life, as you get to view the world from varying angles. They help educate you on communities around you or globally in an engaging manner, and you get to learn so much about other cultures. Watching these can be a form of entertainment as well. With so many people spending more time at home with the pandemic, this film genre has become increasingly popular. If you’ve been meaning to watch a documentary, you may be spoiled for choice though, as there are truly a wealth of gems to choose from. Here’s a guide on some of the best documentaries of last year. Also included is a list of what may be the best documentaries of all time.

Summer of Soul

This gem is essentially Questlove’s directorial debut. It highlights the tale of the Harlem Cultural Festival. This festival has been overlooked because of Black Woodstock, a festival that also took place in the same summer. This Woodstock event showcased high-profile artists like B.B. King and songbird Nina Simone.

Hemingway

If you’re an ardent lover of this writer’s work, you have to place this one of your must-watch list. As the title suggests, it portrays the interesting life of renowned author Ernest Hemingway. The director here is Ken Burns. It tells the story of Hemingway’s hyper-masculine character and his battle with addiction. You also get a closer look at his complex sexuality, as well as his mental health challenges. Some of the women portraying the voices of his several wives include the iconic Meryl Streep, Patricia Clarkson, and the talented Keri Russell. This best documentary for 2021, premiered in March.

Made You Look: A True Story of Fake Art

Another one of the best new documentaries for 2021, this is the story of the scam that lasted for 10 years about NYC’s Knoedler Gallery. Apparently the gallery had bought several fraudulent paintings. The gallery then sold these fake works and reeled in approximately $80 in spoils from their fake paintings.

Framing Britney Spears

This documentary highlight the life of Britney Spears. It focuses on things like the controversial conservatorship she went through. This take on her life is especially empathetic.

Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry

Another documentary about a songbird, Billie Eilish who are co-chaired the 2021 Met Gala, is the protagonist here. The film was directed by RJ Cutler. It is actually an in-depth look at what went on behind the scenes of Billie’s 2019 album, titled ‘When We Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?’ The documentary premiered in February 2021. Yes, it’s been out there for a while already, so get your popcorn and Cola, and just hire it already!

Tina

We have another songstress documentary that premiered in this year, well March 2021 to be precise. It’s deemed more of a celebration, than a documentary by many who have watched it. As the name suggests, it features the life of the legendary Tina Turner. It draws your attention with scenes relating to her tumultuous relationship with her mom. You get to see how she rose to become of the biggest names in the music industry. You get to see the singer’s strength as a woman too in this must-see film.

Seaspiracy

If you’re always been a champion for the right of sea life, this environmental best documentary of 2021 is a must-watch for you. The film zooms in on how meat eating has affected the environment. It delves into the international fishing industry.

The River Runner

Another documentary that feature nature, this best documentary of 2021, is a lot like the documentary Free Solo for Kayaking. The River Runner highlights the life of the iconic Scott Lindgren. It portrays the tale of how he has overcome odds or challenges. One of his greatest challenges was a brain tumor. If you’re looking for a bit of inspiration, you most certainly have to watch the tale of this remarkable and resilient adventure sportsman.

Crime Scene: The Vanishing at Cecil Hotel

This best documentary of 2021 is a Netflix docuseries. It essentially chronicles the tale of the notorious Cecil Hotel. The story centers on the disappearance of Elisa Lam. This documentary also lets you take a sneak peak at Skid Row, which is another film you should be on the lookout for if you like a mystery docuseries.

Dirty John: The Betty Broderick Story

This film was showcased on Netflix this year, and is well worth a mention on your binge-watching list. The story unfolds very vividly, and it’s almost as if you right there in the moment. The film focuses on the life and trial of, as the title suggests, Betty Broderick. She has shot her ex-husband as a result of being abused by him for years. The accounts of the abuse are harrowing as the film unfolds. This best documentary of 2021 is deemed a true crime story.

Naomi Osaka

A world renowned tennis player, Osaka is only 23 but has already achieved tremendous fame. That being said, excessive fame has placed the athlete under tremendous pressure. The documentary chronicles her life and challenges on the court and in private. The film highlights on how she preferred focusing on her mental health, as opposed to competing at the French Open.

Roadrunner: A Film about Anthony Bourdain

This can truly be deemed as the best documentary of 2021. “Roadrunner” takes into account the life and work of esteemed chef Anthony Bourdain. This film goes behind the scenes to ascertain how an unknown chef became so well known. This documentary was directed by Morgon Neville of “Won’t you Be My Neighbor” fame.

Rebel Hearts

This documentary highlights the story of a group of nuns who go against the grain of the patriarchal order in the Catholic Church. The film is based in LA around the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in the 60s. Their rebellion saw them sent out of the order. Produced by Pedro Kos, it premiered in January this year at the Sundance Film Festival.

The Best Documentaries of All Time

Fearfully and Wonderfully Made

Directed by Dr. David Menton, it engages audiences with the development of a baby in the womb. The documentary is based on Psalm 139: 13-14, “For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”

Indescribable

Directed by Louie Giglio, it’s part Christian sermon and incredibly inspiring. It embarks on a journey to show the audience the amazing works of God’s creation. The film comes hugely recommended for teenagers.

Murder Among the Mormons

This true crime doc series features Mark Hoffman, one of the most accomplished forgers in the history of mankind. He’s apparently also notorious for designing forgeries linked to the Latter Day Saint movement. When the high-stake exploits turn lethal, it sends shockwaves through the Mormon township.

The Hidden Life of Trees

This has got to be one of the best documentaries of all time for the nature lovers or conservationists. This has definitely been the buzzword of documentary film makers and ecologist for this year. Directed by Jorg Adolph, it draws its primary inspiration from the book “The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate.” It’s a global bestseller and has been deemed a naturalist’s handbook for those who are into forestry and the preservation thereof.

Playing with Sharks

Another one for the discerning conservationist, this one is for those advocating for marine life. Directed by Sally Aitken, this documentary is also on the list of best documentaries of 2021. Aitken traces the fascinating story of wild-life photographer Valerie Taylor. The environmentalist was a champion spear fisher before pursuing a career as an underwater filmmaker. She was also heavily involved with marine advocacy. She also portrays a love and admiration for sharks!

Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street

Another great documentary of 2021, this is for those who grew up with “Sesame Street.” It focuses on how the show was created, detailed about how Jim Henson and Frank Oz goofed off, and how the crew handled the passing of Will Lee. This film draws inspiration from the book penned by Michael Davis. It goes on to show the audience how the crew went about advertising to reach a vaster range of income levels, including the kids of financially poorer parents.

Evil Genius

This is the true story of the U.S.’s most wicked bank heist. It’s a true crime documentary that looks at events leading up to and following a notorious 2003 bank robbery in Pennsylvania. A pizza delivery driver had a bomb strapped to his body. The documentary is also sometimes referred to as The Pizza Bomber Case. The documentary showcases eccentric characters such as Marjorie Deal Armstrong.

The Truffle Hunters

Directed by Gregory Kershaw and Michael Dweck, it showcases the beautiful forest landscapes of Italy. Through the lens of these talented filmmakers, you see mesmerizing vegetation, picturesque Italian homes, countryside villages and folk living there, while learning about truffle-hunting.

Long Shot

This documentary is about an LA Dodgers baseball fanatic accused of a heinous crime. He says he is innocent. His legal council has to find an alibi with some raw footage from TV show, “Curb your Enthusiasm.” This documentary lasts just 40 minutes.

Drive to Survive

This series lets you take a sneak peek at the FIA Formula One Championship. You’ll be privy to F1 racers, team managers, and others who play a pivotal role here.

The Rescue

Certainly one of best documentaries of 2021, “The Rescue” was directed by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, Oscar award-winning directors for “Free Solo.” This documentary takes a look at what motivates someone to become a cave diver.

Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened

This is a gander at the fraudulent fire festival of 2017 co-founded by Billy McFarland and Ja Rule.

Grizzly Man

Released in 2005 and directed by Werner Herzog, this is a spine-chilling take on the work of two bear activists who died in grizzly bear territory in Alaska.

Hoop Dreams

Directed by Steve James, this film looks at the lives of Chicago men and the challenges they face to get accepted into their college basketball team.

Team Foxcatcher

This documentary is about the multi-millionaire John Dupont and his entanglement with the American Olympic wrestling team.

Man on Wire

Released in 2008, this is certainly the most nerve-wrecking, yet possibly one of the best documentaries of all time. Directed by James Marsh, if shows how Philippe Petit tightropes between NYC’s WTC’s Twin Towers. This occurred in 1974 and was considered by many as one of the biggest artistic crimes ever, since it was obviously illegal.

The Bleeding Edge

Written by Kirby Dick, this documentary does not pull any punches. It’s an eye-opening gander at the 400 billion dollar medical device business. It takes a look at lack of regulation evident in the industry. It also exposed the business cover-ups and the profit-driven incentives responsible for putting patient’s lives at risk. This documentary is gritty, so prepare for a no-holds barred watching experience with this one.

The Pharmacist

This documentary is based on true events that occurred in Louisiana. The tale commences in 1999 and showcases pharmacist Dan Schneider, who finds the person who killed his son in a drug-related shooting in the 9th Ward of New Orleans. He found the police slow, so he started his own investigation to help find his son’s killer.

Tiger King

This documentary exposes the world of sanctuaries and private zoos, showcasing several big cat collectors. However the main focus is on the squabbles of Joe Exotic, the showy owner of a cat zoo in Oklahoma.

Last Breath

This covers the events in 2012 of a diver stranded at the bottom of the North Sea with just a few minutes of oxygen. He has a minimal chance of being rescued for at least about half an hour. The documentary utilizes reconstructed original footage, with first-hand accounts of the nerve-wrecking experience.

The Staircase

This documentary follows the trial of Michael Peterson who stands accused of murdering his wife in North Carolina.

Icarus

This academy award-winning documentary is the work of Brian Fogle who investigates illegal doping in sports. Fogle meets a scientist who is in charge of the Russian anti-drug lab and becomes privy to information that exposes the global doping phenomenon.

FAQs

Which is the most famous documentaries of all time?

According to IMDb, some of the most famous documentaries of all time are “The Thin Blue Line,” “The Cruise,” “We Live in Public,” as well the artist-centered “Biggie and Tupac.”

Which are the best documentaries in the world?

Some of the best documentaries in the world are those that win Emmy Awards, although the list is not limited to this. Going by that measure, the best or one of the best documentaries for 2021 would have to be “Boys State,” which won the best documentary special at the Emmy’s in 2021. It was directed and produced by Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss. Documentary tastes are subjective, yet you may also ascertain popularity by gauging which one grossed the most money. By that token, “Hubble 3D,” which was released in 2010 and grossed approximately $68 million, would be the best documentary ever.