2021: Best Documentary Films of the Year

As is tradition around these parts, I separate documentaries into their own Best of the Year list, not because I feel they should be judged any differently than narrative films, but because I want to call attention to as many great docs as I possibly can, and trying to do that and still limit my main list to 40 or 50 movies is impossible. I get such a charge from a great documentary, whether it’s on a subject I know a great deal about or if it covers ground I’d never even considered in terms of perspective, information, or fuel for outrage or celebration.

Summer of Soul
Summer of Soul / Image courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

Part of the thrill of being a living, thinking, evolving human being is absorbing new things and experiences, and allowing this newness to inspire fresh ideas. That’s the standard to which I hold documentaries: don’t just move me or teach me, but change me in some fundamental way. Here are 20 titles that did just that to me in 2021…

20. Class Action Park (Dirs: Seth Porges & Chris Charles Scott III) – Watch now on HBOMax

19. Val (Dirs: Ting Poo & Leo Scott) – Read my full review // Watch now on Amazon Prime

18. The Lost Leonardo (Dir: Andreas Koefoed) – Read Lisa Trifone’s review // Available to rent on all major digital platforms

17. The Loneliest Whale: The Search for 52 (Dir: Joshua Zeman) – Read my full review // Watch now on Hulu

16. Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain (Dir: Morgan Neville) – Read my review // Available to rent on all major digital platforms

15. Rita Moreno: Just A Girl Who Decided To Go For It (Dir: Mariem Pérez Riera) – Read my review // Watch now on HBOMax

14. Lily Topples the World (Dir: Jeremy Workman)

13. Mayor Pete (Dir: Jesse Moss) – Read my full review // Watch now on Amazon Prime

12. The Sparks Brothers (Dir: Edgar Wright) – Read my full review // Watch now on Netflix

11. Gunda (Dir: Viktor Kosakovskiy) – Read Lisa Trifone’s full review // Watch now on Hulu

10. Attica (Dir: Stanley Nelson) – Watch now on Showtime

9. The Velvet Underground (Dir: Todd Haynes) – Read my review // Watch now on AppleTV+

8. The Beatles: Get Back (Dir: Peter Jackson) – Watch now on Disney+

7. Introducing, Selma Blair (Dir: Rachel Fleit) – Watch now on Discovery+

6. My Name Is Pauli Murray (Dirs: Julie Cohen & Betsy West) – Read Lisa Trifone’s full review // Watch now on Amazon Prime

5. Procession (Dir: Robert Greene) – Watch now on Netflix

4. In the Same Breath (Dir: Nanfu Wang) – Read Lisa Trifone’s full review // Watch now on HBOMax

3. The Rescue (Dir: Jimmy Chin & Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi) – Read Lisa Trifone’s full review // Watch now on Disney+

2. Flee (Dir: Jonas Poher Rasmussen)

1. Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) (Dir: Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson)

Since I saw the film on the opening night of 2021’s Sundance Film Festival, this has been the doc to beat. Marking the feature directing debut from Roots drummer and “Tonight Show” music director Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, Summer of Soul pieces together footage that has been sitting in a basement for more than 50 years from the Harlem Cultural Festival, circa 1969, an event meant to unite a community only a year after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and pay tribute to the many cultures and influences that made Harlem so special at the time. But Thompson does more than edit together a concert film featuring such dignitaries as Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, the Staples Singers, B.B. King, Gladys Knight, David Ruffin, Mahalia Jackson, Sly and the Family Stone, and even the 5th Dimension; he also places the various music styles (R&B, gospel, Afro-Cuban jazz, blues, and funk) in the context of the times.

The most shocking moment in the documentary comes near the end when it’s revealed that the reason no one had seen or used this footage in more than 50 years is because no studio or television network wanted it because it was “too black.” Perhaps mainstream entertainment hubs were nervous about projecting such positive and proud images of Black people, but I can only imagine how much the rest of the country at the time—still very much steeped in the horrors of the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights movement, and a re-evaluation of the lengths non-white people would go to to achieve equality—would have reacted to seeing a sea of Black faces in Harlem so thrilled to be at the center of such a celebration.

Watch Summer of Soul… now on Hulu.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.

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