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The 21 Best Documentaries Of 2021

2021 has been a banner year for documentaries of all types, whether they're unraveling mysteries, telling taut stories of rescue, or detailing the histories of beloved franchises. Whatever you want to learn about, there's probably an amazing documentary about it out this year. With so many choices available, it can be hard for a cinephile to decide what to watch. The fact that 2021's offerings are largely very well-rated by critics and audiences alike complicates things further — albeit, in a way no one's particularly inclined to complain about.

To help you navigate this plethora of excellent choices, we've assembled this list of the year's very best offerings. Ready to settle in for the night with some riveting non-fiction? Then you're ready to dive into the 21 best documentaries of 2021.

Updated on December 31, 2021: As 2021 marches onward, we'll be keeping up on new documentaries hitting the large and small screens. Every time a classic emerges, we'll add it to this list. Be sure to check back for updates on 2021's most captivating documentaries.


"MLK/FBI" is essential viewing for anyone who wants a deeper dive into Martin Luther King Jr.'s history, especially regarding the way he was treated by the government. The true scope of J. Edgar Hoover's quest to undermine King and his message is explored here in a uniquely thorough fashion: Those well-versed in this chapter of history and those who know little will both be enthralled. This waning about bigotry and the dangers of government surveillance remains pertinent today.

All Light, Everywhere

Theo Anthony's thought-provoking "All Light, Everywhere" takes a less-than-linear route to exploring the subjectivity of the camera lens. Ultimately, this allows him to zero in on the ways those lenses have been weaponized in a surveillance state — especially through the use of police body cameras. The ubiquity of cameras has, for good or ill, altered our perception of reality. Who, this penetrating documentary asks, is framing our images — and why?

Derek DelGaudio's In & Of Itself

"In & Of Itself" began as a uniquely emotional stage show, in which master magician Derek DelGaudio used classic tricks and storytelling skills to probe the nature of identity. This filmed adaptation brings the show to a much wider audience, while sacrificing none of its power. Director Frank Oz, who also directed the live production, captures DelGaudio's resonant skill with aplomb and style. Even those who know nothing about magic will enjoy this unforgettable film.

Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street

"Sesame Street," arguably the most famous educational series ever made, is the subject of this in-depth documentary. Director Marilyn Agrelo focuses on the original creators, giving a thorough accounting of how the Children's Television Workshop developed and brought the iconic show to air. Never-before-seen footage and interviews are combined with spots from surviving creators and current Streeters to marvelous effect. Some behind-the-magic shenanigans are present too, providing a fresh look at this cultural institution.

Summer of Soul ( ... Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)

This thoughtful and celebratory look at the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, which took place over the course of six weeks, is a gem. The festival is placed in its socio-political context via multiple interviews, which highlight the event's importance in Black history and expose the factors that have kept it from being more widely known. There are also plenty of musical performances and never-before-seen footage present, including legends like Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, and Sly and the Family Stone, among others.


Using a unique mixture of live-action footage and animation, "Flee" tells the story of Amin Nawabi, who's been hiding a secret for many years. Amin's harrowing childhood flight from Afghanistan, which ultimately landed him in Denmark, is explored in full here, as well as his experiences as a gay man and a pop culture lover. What results is a complex exploration of humanity, displacement, and identity. "Flee" is not to be missed.

In the Same Breath

"In the Same Breath" tackles the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic in intensely personal, enlightening, and devastating ways. Director Nanfu Wang explores early responses to the virus in both China and the United States, creating a unique portrait of governmental power and its attempt to control the narrative. Watching healthcare workers recount the adversities they have faced just to do their jobs is difficult, but also intensely illuminating. This vivid honestly makes "In the Same Breath" a necessary watch.

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

Behind EGOT-winner Rita Moreno's many accolades are a lot of tough memories. Early on in this stirring documentary, Moreno pledges to answer questions honestly. She definitely does so, covering serious discussions of racism, sexism, and assault in Hollywood. Enthusiastic interviews from Lin-Manuel Miranda, Eva Longoria, and other talents paint a picture of the actress' career, activism, and personal struggles, while Moreno's own compelling presence never fails to delight. Her willingness to speak candidly makes this essential viewing. 

Playing with Sharks

Underwater photographer, scuba diver, ocean conservationist, and shark expert Valerie Taylor is the subject of "Playing with Sharks." Though the documentary contains interviews from many different luminaries, it's Taylor's own engaging personality that provides the bulk of the film's emotional weight. Her pioneering work in shark behavior and photography and marine life protection dazzles on its own, but things get even more fascinating when Taylor recounts the work she and her husband, Ron Taylor, did on 1975's "Jaws," and that film's effect on the public's understanding of sharks.

The Sparks Brothers

"The Sparks Brothers" is a comprehensive look at the 50-year career of rock duo Sparks. Sparks has always been driven by a purely creative urge, rather than a desire for success. That creativity has led to periods of feast and famine, but never stasis — something that has made them musical legends, albeit ones you might never have heard of before. This fun documentary mixes different styles of animation with filmed interviews and historical footage, creating an irreverent tone that mirrors the band's own quirkiness.

Misha and the Wolves

Misha Defonseca earned enormous acclaim for "Misha: A Memoire of the Holocaust Years," the 1997 memoir that purportedly explores her experiences of the Holocaust. In truth, it's a total fabrication. This documentary unravels the years-long deception at the heart of this story with all the propulsive intensity of a thriller. Director Sam Hobkinson peels back layers of falsehoods through interviews with people taken in by Defonseca's fabrications: Jane Daniel, who became embroiled in a legal battle with Defonseca, and Evelyne Haendel, a genealogist and Holocaust survivor who helped discover the truth, are particularly fascinating. This film is a mesmerizing trip into how we fool ourselves — and others.


Combining footage of Alvin Ailey and interviews with those who knew him, "Ailey" is both a straightforward telling of the dance icon's life story and a celebration of Black joy. "Ailey" traces the eponymous man's trajectory, from his impoverished childhood to his destiny as a preeminent American dancer and choreographer. This journey is not without troubles, which the documentary masterfully captures. It's also chock-full of footage of his masterworks, including 1958's legendary "Blues Suite." An ecstatic and emotional watch, this film manages to be both a good introduction to Ailey and his work, and a delight for longtime fans.

Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain

The somewhat controversial "Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain" does its best to capture the iconic chef with the openness that defined him. Filled with deeply affecting memories from Bourdain's friends and family, as well as interviews with the often-acerbic Bourdain himself, this documentary immerses viewers in Bourdain's life. What results sheds sympathetic light on his inner turmoil, and gives audiences a fuller understanding of a figure who often seems larger-than-life.


"Tina" never flinches in recounting Anna Mae Bullock's journey to becoming musical icon Tina Turner. It pays particular attention to the 16 years she spent with Ike Turner, a time Turner later revealed was filled with abuse. That she managed to emerge from this trial is a testament to her strength, but her status as a survivor has loomed over her ever since. This film helps exorcise those memories by celebrating Turner's amazing talent and her path to peace and balance.

At the Ready

"At the Ready" follows three Texas high schoolers as they train for careers in law enforcement and the Border Patrol. Though these jobs promise stability, they also clash with the students' family lives and their Mexican-American roots. Crow's decision to let these complex teens tell their own stories pays off massively. Emotional and telling scenes involving instructors, some of whom are retired officers, are especially enlightening. You won't soon forget this contemplative look at the choice between career and self.

Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir

"Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir" offers a touching exploration of the titular author's life. Tan herself discusses her many tethers to the past, especially her relationship to her mother, which is brilliantly combined with talking head interviews, animation, photos, and clips from 1993's "The Joy Luck Club." This kaleidoscopic approach dovetails nicely with Tan's own memories of drawing as a child, a practice that was cut short when a teacher told her she wasn't imaginative enough for art. Though there is sadness here, there is also resolve. This is a must-watch for fans of the literary giant.


"Sabaya" follows attempts to rescue kidnapped Yazidi women from ISIS' Al-Hol camp in Syria. The documentary is as tense as you might expect, especially as the rescuers infiltrate the camp. But it is also contemplative, as when it explores the lingering effects of trauma these women endure. Going back to their homes isn't easy or even always possible. "Sabaya" captures how one small group is trying to make a big difference against overwhelming odds.

The Rescue

In 2018, a boys' soccer team and their adult coach became trapped in Thailand's Tham Luang Nang Non cave. "The Rescue" details the response to this emergency, which became ever more intense as the world grew invested in the team's fate. Directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, known for 2018's award-winning "Free Solo," bring their trademark intensity to this captivating tale. Although the story's outcome is widely known, there's still a gripping tension present as the days wear on and the threat of further flooding looms.

The Procession

This searing documentary tackles the long-term effects of sexual trauma. Six men who were abused by Catholic priests as children work with a drama therapist to reenact the incidents of their past. What results is powerful, disturbing, and empowering. "The Procession" is credited as "a film by" everyone involved — a testament to its sincere exploration of collaboration as catharsis, and an affirmation of the men's agency in telling their own stories.

If you or anyone you know has been a victim of sexual assault, help is available. Visit the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network website or contact RAINN's National Helpline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).

Writing with Fire

"Writing with Fire" is an electrifying documentary following the journalists of India's only woman-run Dalit newspaper, Khabar Lahariya, as they transition to digital and build their internet presence. Led by their chief reporter, Meera Devi, the work they do is important but dangerous, especially as the Dalits are outside India's caste system. Apart from political peril to themselves as journalists and police indifference to the plight of the abused Dalit women whose cases they cover, the women deal with their own families' desire for them to simply not work. Their journalism has a positive impact, which keeps them going despite the societal obstacles they face.

Try Harder!

"Try Harder!" shows the seniors at Lowell High School in San Francisco — a public school with a majority Asian-American population where everyone excels at something — as they prepare to apply for college. How do you shine brightest when everyone around you is also a diamond? The film dissects the application process, which can be nightmarish on its own, but the students have added pressures of racial stereotyping, class division, and tight competition for the limited spots available. "Try Harder!" shows the kids dealing with those issues while keeping hold of their own identities.