The Best Documentaries Of 2021 (So Far)

By Joe Robberson

Documentary filmmaking over the years has been the arena of the burgeoning director. It's a good genre to start out in — where craft and style can be honed through real-life experience without having to worry about actors. Some directors, like Frederick Wiseman and Ken Burns, make careers of it. But most filmmakers move on to feature films, where the money is.

So it's a precious thing to see established directors return to the documentary, lately. This year, Todd Haynes and Edgar Wright subitted music docs and they are each spectacular in their own ways. The collision of talent and subject jumps off the screen. World-class filmmakers making new documentaries? It's like Bubba Wallace driving an Uber. Behold: the best documentaries of 2021.

'The Truffle Hunters'
Directed by Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw
Release date: Available now to rent
Truly, The Truffle Hunters is one of the great documentaries of the last 10 years. It's the rarest of things — a transportive cinematic experience. Set in a part of northwest Italy that exists out of time, the film follows several lovable old men (and their well-trained dogs) who hunt the rarest (and most expensive) of ingredients: the white Alba truffle. The men devote themselves to their specialized craft while living off the land, away from the trappings of modern life. 
What separates The Truffle Hunters, however, is the exquisite technique with which it's made. Directors Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw amplify their fairy-tale material by framing shots dollhousestyle — a perfect choice considering the simple lives of the hunters and their families. Wes Anderson would approve. And don't think there's no fun involved. One sequence is shot from the point of view of a dog. This is a joyous film about people who've found their place in the world and purpose with it.

'The Velvet Underground'
Directed by Todd Haynes
Release date: October 15 in theaters and on Apple TV+
More an immersion into The Velvet Underground than a mere documentary, Todd Haynes's newest film is also a reinvention of the genre itself. The Velvet Underground is a film so thoroughly soaked in the blood of the '60s NYC band, that it demands more viewings. Haynes matches the experimental spirit of the Underground with a visual narrative just as exciting as it is informative. It's one of the greatest rock docs ever made.
Haynes, whose place in film history is already assured (Safe, Far from Heaven), begins at the beginning. He traces the origins of The Velvet Underground through interviews with original members Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison, and Angus MacLise. Their words are sometimes heard in voice-over, sometimes in video interviews. Interviews are framed off-center, and in other surprising ways. And the footage — this is a treasure trove of rock classics, pop art legends, and much more. Feast.

Directed by Julie Cohen and Betsy West
Release date: November 5, 2021
Julie Cohen and Betsy West's (RBG) latest documentary is an authoritative look at the life of the world's first superstar chef — Julia Child. Today, there are a thousand chefs on TV, but back in the '60s and '70s, there was one. Julia delves into the life of the hugely influential cookbook author and TV star. From her time spent in France, where she began her revolutionary book Mastering the Art of French Cooking, to her journey in front of the camera, to her later years serving as the world's food ambassador, Julia tells a massive tale with grace, humor, and wit.

'The Rescue'
Directed by Directed by E. Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin
Release date: October 15, 2021 in theaters
The Rescue tells the unbelievable story of the diving heroes who located and extracted 12 boys and their soccer coach from a flooded cave in Northern Thailand in 2018. The news riveted the globe and world-class documentarians Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin (Free Solo, Meru) take you inside the tale — where the details astound. 
The Rescue should not exist. The 13 survivors should be dead. But that is not how fate unfolded. Imagine being trapped inside a maze, two kilometers deep in the ground. Oxygen is scarce and rescuers, if they can even find you, would then have to knock you unconscious and tow you underwater through the maze, through dirty, disgusting water, in the dark. Somehow, the plan worked. And The Rescue unveils the effort in inspirational fashion.

'Becoming Cousteau'
Directed by Liz Garbus
Release date: October 22, 2021
There are a number of cinematic portraits of the life of Jacques-Yves Cousteau, perhaps the most famous and well-known ocean explorer in history. But Becoming Cousteau is likely the best and most comprehensive. Director Liz Garbus is highly decorated and does not make ordinary films. When she takes a subject on, she lives it, and then exhales everything through her lens. 
Becoming Cousteau tells the title explorer's tale from his humble beginnings, in stark black and white footage, to his amazing oceanographic voyages, which brought the alien-like sea floor to living rooms around the world. Cousteau's glorious camera work litters the doc and Garbus matches the hero's passions and hopes with equal vigor.

'The Sparks Brothers'
Directed by Edgar Wright
Release date: Available now to rent
Sparks, the criminally underrated band featuring brothers Ron and Russell Mael have been influencing rock 'n' roll since the '60s. So why hasn't anyone heard of them? Outside of the music business and avid fans, Sparks remains a curiosity. Perhaps you recognize Ron and his Hitler-esque mustache, or you've heard "This Town Ain't Big Enough For Both Of Us," but chances are Sparks remain a mystery to you and yours. Not anymore.
Directed with furious detail by Edgar Wright, The Sparks Brothers takes you inside the world of the band as it traces their career from the start. Wright proves, through archive footage and interviews, how influential Sparks has been. At the very least, you'll up your music acumen seeing this one. At best, you'll have a new favorite band afterward.

Directed by Sam Pollard
Release date: Available now on Hulu
From Oscar-nominee Sam Pollard, MLK/FBI is the shocking inside story of the surveillance and harassment of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. by J. Edgar Hoover and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. "The moral leader of our nation" was seen as a dangerous, existential threat by the largest law enforcement power in the country? Why? Wasn't King, the non-violent minister preaching peace? Well, yes, but the FBI wanted dirt. They saw King as a communist and someone who could lead Blacks down the same road — at least, that was their claim.

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