Best Documentaries 2021

The Documentary category usually brings us the most eclectic mix of films, and 2021 was no different, offering insightful looks at everything from transgender high school athletes (Changing the Game) to racial bias in facial recognition technology (Coded Bias) and powerful portraits of real people in striking circumstances (Sabaya, Mayor). Music was, as usual, a popular subject for the genre, and while two of the three music docs in the top 10 covered the influence of specific bands — Edgar Wright’s The Sparks Brothers and Todd Haynes’ The Velvet Underground — the third chose to take a different route and ended up with the best-reviewed documentary of the year. Making his feature directorial debut with Summer of Soul, Ahmir Thompson — better known as Questlove, drummer of hip hop band The Roots — took viewers back to the Harlem Cultural Festival of 1969 with rare, never-before-seen footage of acts like Nina Simone, Stevie Wonder, and many more, and he won nearly unanimous praise from critics in the process.

The order reflects Tomatometer scores (as of December 31, 2021) after adjustment from our ranking formula, which compensates for variation in the number of reviews when comparing movies or TV shows.

#1
Adjusted Score: 110494%
Critics Consensus: Deftly interweaving incredible live footage with a series of revealing interviews, Summer of Soul captures the spirit and context of a watershed moment while tying it firmly to the present.
Synopsis: In his acclaimed debut as a filmmaker, Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson presents a powerful and transporting documentary-part music film, part historical... [More]

#2
#2
Adjusted Score: 103639%
Critics Consensus: The Velvet Underground takes a fittingly idiosyncratic approach to delivering a rock documentary that captures the band as well as its era.
Synopsis: The Velvet Underground created a new sound that changed the world of music, cementing its place as one of rock... [More]
Directed By: Todd Haynes

#3
#3
Adjusted Score: 102344%
Critics Consensus: The Truffle Hunters explores a world most viewers will know nothing about -- with delightfully savory results.
Synopsis: A handful of men search for rare, expensive and delicious white Alba truffles deep in the forests of Piedmont, Italy.... [More]

#4

Coded Bias (2020)
100%

#4
Adjusted Score: 101949%
Critics Consensus: Clear, concise, and comprehensive, Coded Bias offers a chilling look at largely unseen side effects of modern society's algorithmic underpinnings.
Synopsis: An exploration into the fallout of MIT Media Lab researcher Joy Buolamwini's discovery of racial bias in facial recognition algorithms.... [More]
Starring: Joy Buolamwini
Directed By: Shalini Kantayya

#5
#5
Adjusted Score: 103199%
Critics Consensus: Their albums may be cult favorites, but this Edgar Wright-directed documentary offers an introduction to Sparks that has something for everyone.
Synopsis: How can one rock band be successful, underrated, hugely influential, and criminally overlooked all at the same time? Edgar Wright's... [More]
Directed By: Edgar Wright

#6

Mayor (2020)
100%

#6
Adjusted Score: 101546%
Critics Consensus: A clear-eyed look at an extraordinary subject, Mayor makes essential viewing out of one politician's quest to preserve dignity in the midst of bureaucracy.
Synopsis: A look at the life of Musa Hadid, the charismatic mayor of Palestinian city Ramallah, who aspires to lead the... [More]
Starring: Musa Hadid
Directed By: David Osit

#7

Changing the Game (2019)
100%

#7
Adjusted Score: 101429%
Critics Consensus: Urgent and empathetic, Changing the Game takes an affecting and admirably nuanced look at young transgender athletes.
Synopsis: This intimate story takes us into the lives of three high school athletes from across the US -- all at... [More]
Directed By: Michael Barnett

#8

Acasa, My Home (2020)
100%

#8
Adjusted Score: 101313%
Critics Consensus: Acasa, My Home presents a powerful documentary portrait of one family's odyssey that illustrates bittersweet truths about freedom and society.
Synopsis: A rural Romanian couple and their nine children must learn to live in the big city.... [More]
Starring:
Directed By: Radu Ciorniciuc

#9

Sabaya (2021)
100%

#9
Adjusted Score: 101660%
Critics Consensus: Sabaya presents a scary and sobering look at human suffering -- and the efforts of those dedicated to ending it.
Synopsis: Members of a group risk their lives trying to save Yazidi women and girls who are being held as sex... [More]
Starring:
Directed By: Hogir Hirori

#10
Adjusted Score: 101951%
Critics Consensus: Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror takes a fascinating deep dive that'll leave like-minded viewers making numerous new additions to their streaming queues.
Synopsis: WOODLANDS DARK AND DAYS BEWITCHED is the first feature-length documentary on the history of folk horror, exploring the phenomenon from... [More]
Directed By: Kier-La Janisse

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