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The Best Documentaries Of 2021

2020 was a transformative year for cinema. As moviegoers worldwide were largely unable to go to theaters, more and more releases became available at home. In spite of the changes that last year brought, filmmakers continued to deliver important, impactful work. 

In 2021, we've already seen a number of fascinating new films, and that's especially true in the world of nonfiction. 2021 has brought more movies that examine America's fraught political history, tell new stories about well-known people, and deliver remarkable renderings of works that originated in other media. Documentaries have continued to remind us why they can be such a stirring form of storytelling. They can shine a light on parts of the word that were previously unknown while captivating viewers the same way any great fictional story can. 

Because of the pandemic, many of these movies are also available to stream, or will be in the months ahead. Some of these titles premiered at the Sundance Film Festival to great reviews, while others have already hit one streaming service or another. Here are the best documentaries released in 2021. 

MLK/FBI

The story of Martin Luther King Jr. has already been covered fairly extensively on film. Even so, MLK/FBI finds a new angle by looking at the way the U.S. government harassed the Civil Rights icon for much of his time in the spotlight. As his power and influence grew, American intelligence agencies were constantly attempting to discredit King and the movement he led. 

Largely through the use of archival footage and recently declassified files, director Sam Pollard shows how FBI director J. Edgar Hoover used and abused the power of the federal government to undermine King's efforts. King — who was treated as an enemy of the state while he was alive, and only became the legend we now know following his death — fought back. In telling the story of the American government's opposition to the progress King was trying to bring to America, MLK/FBI complicates the simplistic narrative of King that many Americans are taught at school. 

MLK/FBI can be rented on a wide variety of streaming services, including YouTube and Amazon Prime.

A Glitch in the Matrix

Are we living in a simulation? That's the simple question at the heart of Rodney Ascher's new documentary, A Glitch in the Matrix. Through interviews, Ascher — who previously directed Room 237, a documentary about fan theories of Stanley Kubrick's The Shining – teases out the philosophies of people who believe that the world around us is a simulation. This topic has long loomed large in the popular imagination, from author Philip K. Dick's supposition that we're living in a computer-generated reality to The Matrix films (hence the title of this documentary). 

Critics have praised the movie for paying attention to this theory and for showing the harm it can cause its most ardent believers, although some viewers have criticized it for underestimating the darker side of what this theory might mean. Audiences have also appreciated Ascher's unique visual style and his willingness to interview a diverse array of individuals. Whether we're living in a simulation or not, A Glitch in the Matrix is worth diving into. 

A Glitch in the Matrix can be rented on a wide variety of streaming services, including YouTube and Amazon Prime.

In & Of Itself

Plenty of documentaries captivate their audiences with interviews, archival footage, and reenactments, but it's rare to find one that includes adapting a work that was originally designed for the stage. That's just what the inventive In & Of Itself does, capturing Derek DelGaudio's stage show of the same name on film. 

Directed by Frank Oz, the movie faithfully depicts what it was like to sit in the audience at one of DelGaudio's shows. DelGaudio is a magician by trade, and In & Of Itself is first and foremost a magic show. By incorporating a narrative and drawing in his audience, DelGaudio turns playful tricks into profundity. The tricks themselves are better seen unspoiled; just know that it's difficult to understand how exactly he pulls them off. They're amazing to behold, but also offer insight into how people see themselves, and what it means to feel conflict about who you are and what you're meant to be. 

In & Of Itself is now streaming on Hulu. 

Summer of Soul

Summer of Soul (...Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) is one of the titles on this list that only those who were at this year's virtual Sundance Film Festival have seen. The movie received rave reviews for its heartfelt depiction of the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival. The Roots frontman Questlove directed the film, which won the Documentary Grand Jury Prize at Sundance when it debuted there in January. 

Featuring swaths of never-before-seen archival footage, Summer of Soul has performances from artists like Stevie Wonder, Sly and the Family Stone, and Nina Simone. The Harlem Cultural Festival took place the same year as Woodstock, but hasn't enjoyed the same legacy as that largely rock- and folk-based festival. With Summer of Soul, Questlove and the rest of his creative team show Harlem's rightful place at the center of popular music. 

Summer of Soul has been acquired by Hulu, but no official date has been announced for the movie's premiere. 

Tiger

A two-part documentary, Tiger tracks Tiger Woods from his childhood through his rise to prominence in the world of professional golf — and to his eventual downfall following allegations of affairs and sex addiction. 

From minute one, Tiger makes it clear why Woods was once one of the highest-profile athletes in the world: He was ground-breaking, exceptionally skilled, and highly photogenic. Woods was an athlete who broke boundaries, and the movie celebrates this even as it highlights his flaws and shows how the scandal-hunting media machine tragically consumed him. Although Woods is no longer in his prime, Tiger ends on an optimistic note, reminding viewers that he's returned to the world of professional golf in recent years with some success. 

Tiger is available to stream on HBO Max. 

Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street

Another Sundance title, Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street tells a lighter story than many of the entries on this list. The movie is a sprawling, expansive look at how Sesame Street decided to educate children instead of selling them a product. It's an uplifting story, to be sure, and one that sits nicely alongside Morgan Neville's 2018 documentary about Mr. RogersWon't You Be My Neighbor?  

Street Gang, directed by Marilyn Agrelo, takes a look at the lives of the many people who helped create Sesame Street. As the documentary suggests, Sesame Street's goal was to create a TV show that kids would like to watch that would also be good for them to watch. The task was easier said than done, but the show eventually became an enormous success and made the lives of everyone who watched it better. 

Street Gang will air on HBO sometime this year. 

Flee

Flee tells a compelling, moving story in an unconventional way. As he prepares to get married, a man named Amin feels compelled to tell his secret life story and does so in interviews with his friend, director Jonas Poher Rasmussen. The animated documentary shows how Amin endured years of horror after the Taliban's rise to power forced him and his family to leave Afghanistan

Rasmussen weaves these explorations of Amin's past with his present, where he's living in relative safety and thinking about buying a house with his partner. As Flee makes clear, though, Amin's past still affects every decision he makes. The movie's animation only makes the brutal reality of what he went through feel more immediate. It's a moving portrait of trauma and the way it can color everything about a person's worldview. 

Flee was picked up by Participant and NEON out of Sundance, but is still awaiting a release date.

In the Same Breath

COVID-19 is still very much an issue for people around the world. In the Same Breath is one of the first documentaries to explicitly focus on the pandemic and how it was allowed to spread in early 2020. The film comes from director Nanfu Wang, who grew up in China but now lives in the U.S. The movie is a frank look at how multiple governments misled their citizens in the early days of the pandemic, ultimately worsening the degree of suffering related to the virus. 

The movie examines the way the Chinese government repressed information about what was really happening in Wuhan, but it also puts other countries, including the U.S., under a microscope. The movie is riveting in spite of its focus on the recent past, and will likely be the first of many documentaries to tackle COVID-19. 

In the Same Breath will premiere on HBO Max in the spring of 2021. 

Try Harder!

Getting into college is a trying experience for every high school student who decides to apply, but it's especially so for the students at San Francisco's Lowell High School. Lowell, one of the most competitive high schools in the country, is the focus of Debbie Lum's film Try Harder! Lum tells the stories of the predominantly Asian-American students at the school who are taking extraordinary measures to get into the college of their choice. 

The film is honest about the ways that college admissions boards tend to be biased against Asian-American students. Although the documentary highlights this sad reality, it's generally a pretty light, engaging watch. The students at Lowell are brilliant and would be stand-out stars at nearly any other school in the country, and it begins to feel ridiculous that any university wouldn't be interested in them. In underlining the outsized value many Americans place on a small number of prestigious institutions, Try Harderintelligently pokes fun at the flaws of the U.S. higher education system. 

Try Harder! will debut on PBS' Independent Lens at some point in 2021. 

Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It

Rita Moreno, the widely beloved actress, is perhaps best known for her role as Anita in West Side Story, but as Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It emphasizes, there's much more to her than any one role. Even as the hilarious actress reflects on her success, the documentary also highlights some of the more vulnerable chapters in her life, including her attempted suicide.

Although Moreno's career paved the way for many of the Latina actresses who came after her, she was largely unaware of the trailblazing career she had as it was happening to her. Now, as she looks back on her life in this documentary, it's clear that Moreno's influence can be felt across a wide array of movies and TV shows. A humble, warm, and engaging figure, Rita is someone well worth this retrospective. 

Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It was produced by PBS, but has no official release date.