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The Best Documentaries of 2021

January 30, 2022

By John Corrado

Last weekend, I published my list of the best movies of 2021. Now it’s time for my rundown of the best non-fiction films of last year. I spent the last week catching up on ones that I missed (including the one that became my number one pick, which I missed during its festival run), and have put together what I think is a solid selection, including a few titles from Hot Docs and TIFF. First up is my top ten, followed by a handful of honourable mentions.

#10: Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street

I grew up watching Sesame Street, so director Marilyn Agrelo’s documentary Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street was damn near irresistible to me. Agrelo’s film, based on the book of the same name by Michael Davis, explores how the show was initially designed to fill gaps in the education system for poor, inner-city kids. Through interviews and archival footage, the film is a testimony to how groundbreaking the show was for its time, with it being set on a street inspired by Harlem and featuring an integrated cast. It’s not only an engaging and informative overview of the show’s early history, but also a genuinely heartwarming film that stirred up a lot of nostalgia for viewers like me. (Review)

#9: Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)

In the summer of 1969, the same year as Woodstock, the Harlem Cultural Festival took place. But why has this event, a massive celebration of Black music staged in the middle of Harlem with performances from the likes of Stevie Wonder, Sly and the Family Stone, The Staple Singers and Nina Simone, gone unrecognized for so long, with the footage having sat in a basement for fifty years? That’s the question Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson asks in his directorial debut Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised).

The film combines beautifully restored archival footage of the performances alongside interviews with attendees and others discussing the historical importance and impact of the festival. Moreover than being a Woodstock-style concert film simply showing the performances (which I honestly would have been fine with as well), Questlove’s film works to recontextualize the footage, to offer a complete portrait of the time and place. Come for the music, stay for the history lesson.

#8: Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain

Director Morgan Neville’s latest, the aptly named Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain, looks at the life and death of the celebrity chef and foodie TV star, piecing together the puzzle of why someone so seemingly full of life would ultimately take their own life in a hotel room in France. While not without controversy, both for its handling of Bourdain’s relationship to Asia Argento and the choice to digitally recreate his voice to read part of a private email, Roadrunner nevertheless offers a compelling and moving portrait of his life that probes the realities of celebrity burnout. (Review)

#7: President

In her absorbing documentary President, director Camilla Nielsson intimately follows Nelson Chamisa, a young populist candidate running in Zimbabwe’s 2018 presidential election. Chamisa is taking on sitting leader Emmerson Mnangagwa, the replacement for Robert Mugabe following the country’s military coup, and the ruling party ZANU-PF. But, despite promises from military leaders that the vote will be held democratically and without interference, Chamisa’s fight for a free and fair election in order to secure victory for the people isn’t an easy one. Nielsson gains close access to Chamisa and his advisors, following them before and after the vote as they try to cut through corruption while facing social unrest and bursts of political violence. The result is an engaging, on the ground look at how hard it is to change things when democracy is just a buzzword and elections are easily stolen.

#6: Ascension

Assembled from footage shot in 51 different locations, filmmaker Jessica Kingdon’s documentary Ascension offers a compelling portrait of modern China that is at once hypnotic, fascinating and occasionally surreal. Kingdon’s camera simply functions as an observer to bustling human activity, whether showing us assembly lines spitting out bottled water and workers putting springs in pumps for hand soap, or taking us inside military training academies and etiquette classes. In one of the film’s most bizarre (and bizarrely funny) sequences, we are taken inside the factory where they make silicon sex dolls, as the workers are tasked with carefully painting their nipples.

Presented without narration, these images come together to create an engrossing portrait of a society on the precipice of communism and consumerist capitalism, interspersed with flashes of discussions about modern China and human rights abuses taking place in the country. Kingdon’s film is named for a poem written by her great-grandfather, but the title perfectly encapsulates the ascendant visual journey it takes us on as well.

#5: Procession

A group of six men who were sexually abused by Catholic priests in Kansas City, Missouri work with a trained drama therapist to turn their childhood trauma into filmed dramatic scenes. This is the premise behind director Robert Greene’s documentary Procession, which serves as a powerful look at healing through cinema. Greene follows along as the men go back to locations where their abuse took place, from a church confessional to a lake house where priests used to take the “special” altar boys.

The idea is for them to diffuse the power that these spaces have over them by writing scripted scenes based around their experiences, and filming them with a child actor (though clearly no actual abuse is depicted). We witness the anger that they continue to have at the priests who abused them, and at the Catholic Church for allowing it to happen and covering it up. Scenes of the men breaking down in tears and having panic attacks are genuinely hard to watch, but there is also great catharsis to be found in how they deal with their trauma.

#4: Flee

An animated documentary, Danish filmmaker Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s Flee is unlike any other film on this list. Through interviews with his high school friend Amin Nawabi, that have been drawn over to protect his identity, Rasmussen’s film tells the harrowing story of how Amin escaped Afghanistan as a child and fled to Europe, where he can live openly as a gay man. It works as both a powerful immigrant tale and a moving coming out story as well, with the animation providing a unique viewing experience that allows the film’s many flashbacks to come alive in a vibrant way. (Review)

#3: The Sparks Brothers

Edgar Wright made two films last year; the psychological thriller Last Night in Soho and this one, a sprawling, wildly entertaining documentary about the quirky musical duo Sparks. Made up of brothers Ron and Russel Male, the musical career of Sparks spans fifty years and over two dozen albums, and Wright’s aptly titled film The Sparks Brothers takes us through their entire discography. It functions as a loving celebration for fans, and a thrilling introduction to Sparks for viewers like myself, who weren’t really aware of their music before but now can’t stop listening to it. If the ability to convert people into fans is one of the signs of a successful music documentary, than Wright’s film is a knockout. (Review)

#2: In the Same Breath

In the Same Breath, the latest fearless work of documentary filmmaking from director Nanfu Wang, offers a compelling portrait of the first few months of the COVID-19 pandemic in China. Wang left Wuhan to return to the US the same day the city went into lockdown in January 2020. Sensing that the Chinese government was not being completely honest about the situation, she hired a team of freelance videographers to capture on the ground footage, cutting through official propaganda. The one aspect of the coverup that Wang doesn’t get into is the lab leak theory (which was once dismissed as conspiracy but now seems like the most plausible origin of the virus), though this omission is likely due to not having enough facts at the time. Wang’s last film, the Oscar-nominated One Child Nation, looked at the horrific realities of communist China’s one child policy, and In the Same Breath works in a similar way to cut through authoritarian lies. It’s powerful, essential stuff. (Review)

#1: The Rescue

Directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin follow up their Oscar-winning Free Solo with The Rescue, an incredible documentary about the 2018 Thai cave rescue that seamlessly mixes news footage, interviews and reenactments to suspenseful and highly emotional effect. The film explores how, when twelve young soccer players ended up trapped deep inside the Tham Luang cave with their 25-year-old coach after the entrance flooded with water, a team of cave divers from the UK assisted the military in the rescue.

Like Free Solo, Vasarhelyi and Chin have crafted another documentary that is wrought with tension, which is no small feat for a story so well documented by the media. The divers discuss figuring out the logistics of navigating several kilometres of the cave’s narrow channels, while dealing with depleting oxygen levels and trying to keep excess water out, making us acutely aware of the stakes. While almost everyone who watches it will already be aware of the outcome, hearing personal testimonies from the divers and seeing the little details of how it all unfolded makes for an extremely gripping and moving experience. For that, I’m calling The Rescue the best documentary of 2021.

Honourable Mentions (Alphabetical Order): Acts of Love, All Light, Everywhere, Gunda, Hell or Clean Water, Kímmapiiyipitssini: The Meaning of Empathy, Pray Away, Val, The Velvet Underground.

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