2021 Year in Review: Top Documentaries

If you’re like me, you love a good documentary. In 2021, I saw more than 70 documentary features and shorts for the first time, including a fair number that contended in the last Academy Awards. As 2021 draws to a close, we’re looking back at the year’s best. As such, I’m presenting my Top 5 documentaries from the year. This focuses only on films eligible for the 2022 Academy Awards. My Top 5 appear below in ascending order and, where possible, I’ve included a place to watch them.

5. Woodstock 99: Peace, Love and Rage (HBO Max): This documentary was the first of the Music Box series released by HBO Max and produced by Bill Simmons. Previously, Simmons helped create the 30 For 30 series for ESPN, bringing that same passion and storytelling to stories about music. There have been some great ones in the series, but this first film, telling the story of the Woodstock Festival in 1999, really captured my attention. I was drawn into the stories of those who experienced it and thought the film really captured the event and gave me a lot of new information to consider.

4. Summer of Soul (…or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) (Hulu): This documentary from Questlove tells the story of the Harlem Cultural Festival. It took place in New York the same summer as Woodstock but is a festival seemingly forgotten to history. I really enjoyed the film, which was a mix of festival footage and contemporary interviews. It tells a powerful story of an even that is meant to be remembered.

3. Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street (HBO Max): Another documentary that made the festival circuit early in the year, it dropped on HBO Max in December. A few years ago, a documentary on Fred Rogers captured my heart and made me think of my childhood. Street Gang does something similar, celebrating the creation and legacy of Sesame Street while celebrating those who poured their creative talents into making it possible.

2. 9/11: Inside the President’s War Room (Apple TV+): This year represented the 20th Anniversary of the terror attacks on 9/11. It’s hard to re-live those moments, but impossible to forget where you were during that time. This documentary released on Apple TV+ focuses on the events as experienced by President George W. Bush and his administration. It features modern interviews and an exploration of the day. It was surprisingly captivating and emotionally engaging. Of all the anniversary content I watched. This was the one that stuck with me the most.

1. The Rescue (Disney+): This National Geographic documentary looks at the efforts to rescue as Thai soccer team trapped in a cave due to monsoon rains in 2018. The interviews with those who risked their lives and came up with the rescue plan are powerful, and the high-risk plan keeps you on your toes as you watch it play out even though you know what happens. The best documentaries shed light on a subject and draw you into the story with an emotional connection. This does that in spades and was my favorite among many, many documentaries I saw in 2021.

Matthew Fox is a graduate of the Radio, Television and Film program at Biola University, and a giant nerd. He spends his free time watching movies, TV, and obsessing about football. He is a member of the FSWA. You can find him @knighthawk7734 on Twitter and as co-host of the Fantasy Football Roundtable Podcast.

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