The Ten Best Documentaries of 2021

If you love documentaries, 2021 was a banner year for them. I once again covered the AFI DOCS festival and took part in the Critics Choice Documentary Awards. These things, along with regular reviewing, allowed me to see several dozen non-fiction films over the past twelve months. Here are my picks for the ten best.

10. The Lost Leonardo - This investigation into what may or may not be a previously unknown-about painting by Leonardo da Vinci plays like a great detective story, with lots of twists and turns you won't see coming. (On demand at Amazon Prime Video and other services)

9. The Slow Hustle - The Wire actress Sonja Sohn directs this politically-charged examination into the 2017 death of police officer Sean Suiter, who was mysteriously shot in the head while on the job, possibly by other cops. In so doing, it also dives into how much major city police forces can be trusted when self-protection often seems to outweigh protection of the public. There's lots to chew on with this film. (On HBO Max)

8. Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street - The creation of the classic children's educational program is the subject of this doc, which is guaranteed to warm the hearts of anyone who grew up with Big Bird and clan. (On HBO Max)

7. All Light, Everywhere - Director Theo Anthony tackles the subject of surveillance, especially as it pertains to policing, in this meditative, slightly impressionistic work. His approach prods you into thinking deeply about observer bias. (On Hulu and available to rent on VOD)

6. Woodstock '99: Peace, Love, and Rage - The 1999 Woodstock festival was pretty much the opposite of the '69 concert that inspired it. Using archival footage, the movie harrowingly shows how what was supposed to be a fun gathering instead became an eruption of male anger. (On HBO Max)

5. The Sparks Brothers - Shaun of the Dead director Edgar Wright takes a deep dive into the career of the rock band Sparks. Over the course of twenty-five albums, they sold millions of records and influenced dozens of popular acts, yet never quite broke into the American mainstream. It's a wonderful tribute to an innovative group. (On Netflix and available to rent on VOD)

4. The Rescue - You may have heard about the 2018 incident in which twelve young boys and their coach were trapped deep inside a flooded cave in Northern Thailand. This film takes you through the effort to save them, including the Hail Mary approach rescuers took, which had roughly a one-in-a-million chance of working. Prepare to grip your armrests for two hours. (On Disney+)

3. Four Hours at the Capitol - Footage of the January 6 insurrection – much of it filmed by the insurrectionists themselves – is combined with interviews from reporters, politicians, and police officers who were in the thick of that day's shameful occurrences. Even if you think you know all there is to know about the event, there's perspective in here that will be new to you. Show it to your friends/family members who think January 6 was non-violent or “just a protest.” (On HBO Max)

2. Introducing, Selma Blair - This raw, revealing documentary follows the Cruel Intentions actress as she battles Multiple Sclerosis. What makes the movie so potent is that there's nothing Blair doesn't allow the cameras to capture. We see the breakdowns, the treatments, the depression, etc. Yes, the film can be difficult to watch; it's nevertheless a remarkable portrait of a star waging the fight of her life. (On Discovery+)

And my choice for the Best Documentary of 2021 is:

1. Procession - Director Robert Greene assembles a group of men who were all sexually abused by Catholic priests, then has them work with a drama therapist to make short film sequences about their experiences. Of course, doing so brings a lot of trauma to the surface, yet it also proves undeniably cathartic for the men. Here is a great documentary not only about the long-lasting impact of sexual abuse, but also about the power of therapy to heal. (On Netflix)