M.N. Miller’s Film Year in Review: 2021’s Best Documentary Films

January 3, 2022
M.N. Miller 0
Film, News, Ranked

This is one of my favorite annual articles to write, and in all the years I have been doing this, I’m not sure there has been a year like this for Documentary films. There may have been years with stronger efforts, but the genre found a sweet spot this year. How? Having several of the year’s best pushing the boundaries of what the genre could be and accomplish.

Please enjoy my list of the best the medium has had to offer this year, presented in alphabetical order.

M.N. Miller’s Film Year in Review: 2021’s Best Documentary Films

All Light Everywhere

A visionary film of the perils of innovation and the unintended consequences that lead to absolute power’s exploitation offers a warning: What will stop privacy violations within our walls and from getting inside our heads.

The First Wave

Has there ever been a more sobering and powerful scene than the one in The First Wave? The capturing of someone laying on their back, in the middle of the street, still clutching grocery bags in their hands, while fellow human beings walk on by? Matthew Heineman’s documentary film is an eye-opening and haunting film on the first days of the COVID-19 pandemic that honors the ones only brave enough to face it.

Flee

Click these words to read about the documentary Flee in my list of Top 25 films of 2021.

Found

Here is a culturally relevant look at international adoption that is a much more personal and intimate look at the unintended consequences of the international adoption caused by the One Child Rule—unpretentious, raw, and full empathy.

Found is not just about personal identity, but a cultural one.

Jacinta

Jacinta reminds us that great art pushes boundaries, and artists fortify them. The subjects are just addicted to drugs. They are human beings who most likely suffered something traumatic, like sexual abuse, that leads to all roads ending here — addiction, prison, home, recovery, repeat. Ms. Earnshaw’s film is a powerful story about the never-ending cycle of generational trauma and self-medication.

Could Jacinta be called Mother Prisoner Daughter? Absolutely. What about Mother, Junkie, Daughter? Sure, if you lack empathy. Mother, Victims, Daughter? That’s far more accurate.

Homeroom

What’s remarkable about Homeroom is the resolve of these students. Instead of conceding to a system of preconceived limitations, they refuse to acknowledge the series of walls and ceilings that have asked them to sit boxed in. Even during the pandemic, that their determination has never been derailed is a remarkable example of resiliency.

Peter Nicks’ documentary is nothing short of triumphant. A wide-eyed look inside advocacy at its most pure.

The Lost Leonardo

There has been a handful of excellent documentaries made recently on the seedy underbelly of the art world. The Lost Leonardo shines a light on human nature and the industry: We turn a blind eye if the money is right and art has become criminal/political leverage.

Pray Away

Click these words to read about the Netflix documentary Pray Away in my list of Top 25 films of 2021.

Private Network: Who Killed Manuel Buendia?

Private Network: Who Killed Manuel Buendía? is a crime documentary on the cartels’ deadly and immoral attacks on journalists in Mexico as Buendía began to draw connections to political leadership. Director Manuel Alcalá never loses their focus on the human element of the case, and it’s all the better for it.

Like Alcalá does with Private Network: Who Killed Manuel Buendía? he never forgets that. Neither should we.

Procession

A powerful and immersive documentary experience, Netflix’s Procession looks at six men who suffered sexual abuse by the Catholic Church. What happens next is what amounts to a cinematic exposure therapy session that puts the viewer in the minds of the men going through the healing process.

The Rescue

Elizabeth Chai and Jimmy Chin do not quite surpass their award-winning documentary Free Solo, but offer an exhilarating, suspenseful, and powerful testament to human courage. The Rescue raises your pulse, lifts your spirits, and leaves you breathless.

Road Runner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain

Like any disease, mental health doesn’t care about your success. That’s what makes Morgan Neville’s investigation into the reason for Mr. Bourdain’s passing so absorbing. He seeks to understand why a man, with a zealous appetite for life, decided to end his own.

Seaspiracy

The new Netflix documentary Seaspiracy is a consistently surprising and thought-provoking piece. My takeaways are even more eye-opening: Go ahead and keep those plastic straws if you want, avoiding the McDonalds Filet-O-Fish is a must, and marketers are the devil’s allies.

The Sparks Brothers

Edgar Wright’s freshman swing at a documentary film is the perfect pairing that makes The Sparks Brothers what of the most stimulating and creative tabulated cinematic experiences I have had this year. 

Summer of Soul

The resurrection of the lost 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival is a prime example of the era’s racial capitalism. Director Quest Love’s Summer of Soul glimpse of a culturally significant event is the quiet before the storm of the neighborhood’s block-busting, mass exodus, and remarkable resiliency.

Val

You can’t help but come to love the documentary Val, a self-portrait of an acting enigma. A born movie star who burned Jim Morrison in our memories and taught us how to greet an enemy by talking about Huckleberries. This is not about his justification, our sympathy or even pity, but only honest insight.

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