The 10 best documentaries of 2021

The documentary form in 2021 was shaped almost exclusively by studies of individual characters. It could be a by-product of celebrity culture, where Twitter and television made people often more curious about famous strangers than their own parents. It could even be the result of the coronavirus pandemic, indicating a desire to know someone’s life and be a fly on their walls during the months of quarantine and social distancing.

Whatever the reason, intimate character studies have dominated the documentary landscape this year. Seven of the year’s top ten documentaries explore the lives and careers of diverse people, from volatile actors, famous footballers, dirty comics, celebrity bosses, human rights activists, and young and old musicians. These personal stories are crucial for a changing society.

So much is happening in this unrestrained culture, and the ‘individual’ is easily swept aside and forgotten in important national and global processes like climate change, coronavirus, #MeToo, Black Lives Matter, to only cite a few. Life went really fast in 2021, so it’s a real treat when you can slow down and meet interesting people through great art. Documentaries thus frame the familiar and prompt audiences to notice something different from noise, reminding viewers of the vast array of great stories so often missed among us. These are the ten best documentaries of 2021.

ten Pele


Football, or American football, is the most popular sport in the world, and Pelé is arguably its most popular player; he’s tied with Diego Maradona for FIFA’s Player of the Century, after all. A football fan’s dream, the documentary Pele details the titular legend (born Edson Arantes do Nascimento) through many of his key games and goals, placing it in the context of Brazilian history from 1950 to 1970. The man had such a rich and varied life that it makes sense that the film is mostly limited to Pelé’s football career, with this narrative device allowing audiences to follow the GOAT on his journey through what he loves. His passion and ability to Pele could even turn the enemies of “football” into believers.

9 Pray far away

Pray far away

Religions have often made terrible choices based on phobias and fears, with some of the worst concerning LGBTQ + people and in particular ‘conversion therapy. ‘ Pray far away documents this abusive and bogus practice from the perspective of those who preached and lived it, revealing how easy it is to sell a lie on behalf of God and his family. Religion itself is not to the test here, but rather the intolerance of institutions, mega-church leaders and televangelists who spouted hateful rhetoric that has kept generations of people fearful of their own identities. . Using dated images and current interviews with an interesting and subtle editing system, the film follows supporters and deniers through different phases of their beliefs, detailing the psychological (and sometimes physical) torture suffered by the movement “pray homosexuals”. It is certainly only a prospect; a more queer, more radical documentary remains to be done, but in the meantime Pray far away is a necessary and difficult reminder that these traumas exist and must be treated.

8 Val

Amazon Studios

Perhaps the most artistically ambitious and innovative biographical documentaries of the year, Val reviews the life and works of actor Val Kilmer, who casts a strange shadow over the whole affair – he writes the narration himself, which is read by his son due to the loss of Kilmer’s voice because of cancer; he is lounging, looking at pictures of himself; he becomes a philosopher on acting and art. His participation in the film makes everything much more metafictional and weird, but also surprisingly direct. The film never shies away from Kilmer’s egocentric and at times violent behavior, and is painfully genuine in documenting his disappointment with the turn of his life. Weird, seductive and brilliant, Val is a great experimental biography, warts and all.

Related: Val Trailer Explores Val Kilmer’s Career Through Home Movies Ahead of Cannes Debut

seven Roadrunner: a film about Anthony Bourdain

Focus Features

Anthony Bourdain had been in front of the cameras for decades before his tragic death, so it was oddly heartwarming to be able to posthumously spend time with the legend and those who knew him at Roadrunner: a film about Anthony Bourdain. One of the few chefs who was more personally interesting than his meals (and to say the least), the dark and troubled but brilliant Bourdain is simply magnetic to watch. Morgan Neville is quickly becoming one of the best documentary filmmakers of his time, and his expertise in deconstructing artists (especially in the highest-grossing biographical documentary of all time, Won’t you be my neighbor) is fullscreen in the poll, melancholy Roadrunner, which almost looks like a sad but beautiful wake after the death of a dear friend.

6 Billie Eilish: The world is a bit hazy

Billie Eilish The world is a little blurry
Neon / AppleTV +

RJ Cutler was in the right place at the right time when he started filming the early career of pop star Billie Eilish. It captures the carefree first moments of the singer composing and performing with her brother in her bedroom, unaware that more cameras than Cutler’s were about to intrude into her life every moment of the day. day before. The world is a little blurry follows Eilish through it all, and it’s often painful to see someone so young and introspective being thrown into such a demanding, high-energy world. Cutler is wise to keep his distance most of the time, just observing Eilish and letting her be herself, which record companies and fans don’t often. The result is a deeply intimate look at one of the greatest musical acts of recent years, and the cost of that success.

Related: Billie Eilish Lives Her Dream Happier Than Ever: Los Angeles Love Letter Trailer

5 The Sparks Brothers

The Sparks Brothers
Focus Features

The Sparks Group has had an exciting year. Ron and Russell Mael, the duo behind the music, appeared as themselves in Leos Carax’s baffling musical Annette with Adam Driver, but it’s Edgar Wright (of Shaun of the Dead and Baby Driver glory) who best documents them in his film The Sparks Brothers. While Wright is as ever bombastic as ever with his playful and alluring direction, and the delicious music infects the film with earworms, it’s the brothers themselves who steal the show here. Witty and charming, it’s just a joy to watch the underrated Mael engulf every scene he’s in, and audiences are lucky to hang out with them.

Related: Annette The final trailer plunges Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard into a tidal wave of love

4 The rescue

The rescue
Greenwich Entertainment

The year’s most poignant documentary brings together footage from the 2018 Tham Luang cave rescue and combines them with artful reconstructions. Couple Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin are no strangers to extremely tense and daring physical acts, having won the Oscar for their documentary Free Solo, and are ready for another appointment with The rescue, which looks at the 18 Days from the perspective of the motley group of fans who have come together to save an association junior football team. The directors form a day-to-day narrative, accentuating the drama of this almost unbelievable, miraculous story, and it all plays out like a great fictional movie.

3 Hate Peter Tatchell

Hate Peter Tatchell

Peter Tatchell was not a household name, but I hope the 2021 documentary about the activist will change all of that through his exploration of his life as an activist spanning more than half a century since he was a teenager. . Legendary and inspiring, Tatchell was the first person to organize a protest for gay rights in a communist country, was violently assaulted hundreds of times, and was infamous beaten and arrested by Russian forces in 2007. Dividing in his confrontational style and often antagonistic approach (like the time he rushed to the stage of a church sermon in protest), equally despised and worshiped, Tatchell is the perfect subject for an activism documentary – complex, difficult, urgent, necessary, angry and passionate, it is all on display in Hate Peter Tatchell.

2 Patrice O’Neal: Killing is easy

Patrice O Neal Killin is easy
Central comedy

Patrice O’Neal died so young, but he was a comedian who “killed” or who did so well that his audience often burst out laughing; he was more interested, however, in being himself. “Killing is easy,” a friend said, “but that’s not what he wanted. He wanted the truth.” Combining years of O’Neal’s stand-up career with extremely direct conversations with family, friends and a fiancé, Killing is easy documents one of the greatest but also troubled and complicated comedians of all time. Although he was hilarious, he was also arrogant, sexist, rude and difficult to work with. His friends in the comedy scene might have liked him, but they’re quite honest that “he screwed a ** hole”, as one comic puts it; O’Neal would hardly disagree, often saying “I am a complete misogynist” and wondering why anyone would be with him. The price of authenticity is on display here, with the extremely genuine and genuine O’Neal alienating so many around him without ever compromising his identity. “To stand upright is to dissect humanity and the faults of being human,” said a woman in Killing is easy, and by that characterization, the film is beautifully human.

1 Summer of the soul

Projector photos / Hulu

While Woodstock was celebrated as one of the most cultural events of the last century, it took the directorial debut of Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson for people to see the deep meaning of Harlem Cultural Festival of the same year. Questlove brings together nearly 50 hours of obscure and forgotten footage from 1969, combined with news footage and interviews to tell a quintessential story about this cultural moment from a black perspective. The musicians in the film (who often watch and comment on each other 60 years ago) are brilliantly fiery – Gladys Knight, Mavis Staples, Stevie Wonder, Mahalia Jackson, Nina Simone, Sly Stone, BB King and Billy Davis, Jr. perform emotional interpretations of classics, and it’s amazing to see them all in one place. Summer of the soul is the block party of the year.

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