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The 40 Best Documentaries of the 21st Century

There's never been a deeper or more diverse time for documentary cinema. Here's the best of the best.

“When the Levees Broke,” “Faces Places,” “Minding the Gap,” “Honeyland,” “Gunda”

32. “Minding the Gap” (2018)

Bing Liu’s “Minding the Gap” captures the transportive power of skateboarding — its power to take people out of their lives, even when they aren’t necessarily going anywhere — better than just about any other film ever made, but it would be terribly reductive to think of it as a “skateboarding film.” For Liu, the activity seems more like a means to an end than anything else. And his unforgettable documentary feature debut, which was filmed over the course of a decade, poignantly articulates all the ways in which that’s always been true for himself and his two closest friends.

For one thing, it got them out of their Rockford, Illinois homes, and away from the rotating cast of absent or abusive men who tended to roost in them. For another, it allowed them to make the world their playground in a down-on-its-luck pocket of the country where so many young men become products of their environment. The powerlessness Liu feels when one of his friends seems to fall into that trap is made intensely palpable to us through the viewfinder of his camera, and so is the freedoms that all three of them fight for; freedom from the inherited demons of socioeconomic disenfranchisement, freedom from families, and sometimes even freedom from themselves. In a young century that’s so far been overrun with coming-of-age stories, few have stuck the landing harder than “Minding the Gap.” —DE

31. “Twenty Feet from Stardom” (2013)

“Twenty Feet from Stardom”

Morgan Neville’s Oscar winning documentary “20 Feet From Stardom” hits you like an explosion of joy that’s impossible to shake. What it lacks in narrative innovation it more than makes up for in emotion. Neville spotlights the behind-the-scenes lives of some of the most famous backup singers in music, including Darlene Love, Judith Hill, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer and Táta Vega.

Some love supporting other artists and just want to sing, others have dreams to be at the front of the stage. Each woman harbors a self-possessed artistry that is awe-inspiring, and baring witness as they get the spotlight they deserve provides a sensation that makes your heart soar. Try not to stand up and cheer as Mick Jagger listens to Merry Clayton’s stripped vocals on the “Gimme Shelter” chorus. Moments like these are pure bliss for music lovers, and “20 Feet From Stardom” is full of dozens of them. In finding an inspirational topic and telling it with confidence and respect, Neville makes the crowd-pleasing doc of the 21st century. —Zack Sharf

30. “Virunga” (2014)

Patrick Karabaranga, a warden at the Virunga National Park, plays with an orphaned mountain gorilla in the gorilla sanctuary in the park headquarters at Rumangabo in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo on July 17, 2012. The Virunga park is home to some 210 mountain gorillas, approximately a quarter of the world's population. The four orphans that live in the sanctuary are the only mountain gorillas in the world not living in the wild, having been brought here after their parents were killed by poachers or as a result of traffickers trying to smuggle them out of the park. "They play a critical part in the survival of the species" says Emmanuel De Merode, Director for Virunga National Park. He adds that the ICCN does not currently have access to the gorilla sector of the park due to the M23 rebellion. AFP PHOTO/PHIL MOORE (Photo credit should read PHIL MOORE/AFP/Getty Images)

“Virunga”

AFP/Getty Images

Orlando von Einsiedel’s Oscar-nominated documentary is a riveting, up-close look at the ongoing battles between Congolese park rangers and poachers in Virunga National Park, a UNESO World Heritage Site in the eastern region of the Democratic Republic of Congo. In the years since its release, the movie has been optioned for a narrative feature adaptation by Leonardo DiCaprio’s Appian Way with a script by Barry Jenkins. It’s easy to see why Hollywood would show interest: In addition to a dramatic backdrop with clear heroes and villains, the movie also features lovable apes.

It’s here that some of the world’s last mountain gorillas rest, alongside a rich ecosystem of wildlife that includes prides of elephants and other exotic creatures, many of whom have become fodder for swarms of poachers. The director, who lived for months in a tent alongside the park rangers, captures tense interrogation sessions and shootouts as the drama careens through a series of confrontations, while chief warden Emmanuel de Merode fights to keep the gorillas safe. While the director includes sweeping bird’s eye views of the landscape to show the full extent of the park’s natural splendor, the movie derives much of its intensity from being in the thick of the situation rather than merely surveying it as an outsider. Few activist documentaries double as first-rate action-thrillers, but “Virunga” makes the case for conservationist efforts from one tense shot to the next. —EK

29. “Dick Johnson Is Dead” (2020)

It’s hard to fathom how non-fiction stalwart Kirsten Johnson found a way to make a film that feels even more personal than her ultra-absorbing “Cameraperson” (which she stitched together from the leftover footage she had from decades of film shoots), but “Dick Johnson Is Dead” would be hard to fathom under any circumstances. A playful, bittersweet elegy for a man who’s still alive — and, as of May 2021, is still alive — Johnson’s mordantly hilarious documentary finds her trying to make peace with her father’s imminent death by staging violently elaborate visions of how it might come for him. An air-conditioning unit falling on his head as he walks down a New York City street. An absent-minded construction worker turning around too fast and accidentally slicing open Dick’s jugular with one of his tools. A tumble down the staircase of his house that ends with him face down in a growing pool of his own blood.

The concept could easily devolve into the stuff of a twee exercise in navel-gazing, but in so boldly confronting the many faces of death that are always watching us from the shadows, Johnson’s film is able to revel in the fullness of life at the same time that it threatens to slip away forever. —DE

28. “Capturing the Friedmans” (2003)

“Capturing the Friedmans”

In 2003, Andrew Jarecki’s “Capturing the Friedmans” quickly became a landmark achievement in the history of non-fiction film, snatching up a Grand Jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival, generating massive buzz and heated controversy in the wake of its release, and eventually landing an Oscar nomination. The filmmaker’s dark investigation into the pedophilia charges against the late Great Neck resident Arnold Friedman and his teenage son Jesse, partially told through the family’s uncomfortably intimate home movies from the ’80s, captured the dissolution of an American family in extraordinary detail.

There are many ways to engage with this unsettling documentary thriller: It’s an exposé of the he-said, she-said dynamics that complicate virtually every sexual assault case, a treatise on the voyeuristic nature of home movies and what can happen when their initial function gets subverted, and an epic tragedy about the American dream gone sour. But more than anything else, “Capturing the Friedmans” is astonishing filmmaking that draws you into a seemingly comfortable family unit, takes a dark turn, and leaves you feeling as uncertain about the victims and the perpetrators as many of the people involved in the case. —EK

27. “The Mole Agent” (2020)

There’s a certain immersive thrill that comes from documentaries that hide themselves, and “The Mole Agent” epitomizes that appeal. Chilean director Maite Alberdi’s delightful character study unfolds as an intricate spy thriller, with a sweet-natured 83-year-old widower infiltrating a nursing home at the behest of a private detective. The plan goes awry with all kinds of comical and touching results, so well assembled within a framework of fictional tropes that it begs for an American remake. But as much as such a product might appeal to companies hungry for content, it would be redundant from the outset, because “The Mole Agent” is already one of the most heartwarming spy movies of all time — a rare combination of genres that only works so well because it sneaks up on you. —EK

26. “American Factory” (2019)

American Factory

“American Factory”

Netflix

Veteran documentary filmmakers Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert’s Oscar-nominated short “The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant” tracked the final days an Ohio factory that left some 3,000 people without jobs. The Oscar-winning “American Factory” serves as a kind of sequel to that drama, revealing the strange odyssey of the company that moved in. The saga of Fuyao Glass America, a Chinese-run company that overtook the old GM plant and rehired thousands of locals, unfolds as a fascinating tragicomedy about the incompatibility of American and Chinese industries. Arriving in town as its saving grace, Fuyao instead brings a whole new set of bureaucratic problems and enterprising goals often lost in translation.

“American Factory” takes off two years into the factory’s arrival, as over 1,000 people have been employed by the glassmaker and optimism runs high. The company’s hawkish leader, the beady-eyed billionaire Chairman Cao Dewang, arrives at the facility beaming with pride — but it doesn’t take him long to start micromanaging every facet of the plant, leaving his English-speaking senior staff agape. As Cao wanders the grounds with a translator in tow, “American Factory” shifts from an optimistic portrait of a Chinese rescue mission to a dispiriting comedy of errors, like an episode of “The Office” for fans of “The World Is Flat.”

While the movie finds a natural end point, the saga of Fuyao Glass America is far from over. The payoff leaves something to be desired, but understandably so, as the very existence of this documentary sets the stage for a new phase of factory life unlikely to smooth out its troubles anytime soon. —EK

25. “Fire at Sea” (2016)

“Fire at Sea”

Gianfranco Rosi’s riveting non-fiction drama takes place on the Italian island of Lampedusa, where thousands of migrants are rescued from Africa throughout the year. (Others aren’t so lucky.) While the bracing footage of rescue efforts are enough to make the movie a terrifying peek beyond the headlines, Rosi compliments them with the portrait of Pietro Bartolo, a kindly doctor who treats new arrivals to the island and speaks to the lonely, DIY efforts involved in addressing a problem when the broader system falls short of solving it. Rosi juxtaposes these moments with the carefree exploits of a young boy who lives on the island, a stand-in for the innocence that much of the world experiences in relation to this global crisis. It’s harrowing filmmaking with a razor-sharp message. —EK

24. “Leviathan” (2012)

“Leviathan”

Harvard University’s Sensory Ethnography Lab has dedicated itself to pioneering new frontiers of immersive documentary filmmaking, and efforts like “Sweetgrass” and “Manakamana” have proven that there are any number of compelling ways of fulfilling that mission statement. But the outfit’s magnum opus remains 2012’s “Leviathan,” in which directors Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel provided a peerlessly immediate look at the commercial fishing industry by sticking GoPro cameras on the hull of a ship.

The footage they brought back to dry land is borderline hallucinatory, as viewers are plunged into a grey-blue word of frigid terror, every image overwhelmed by the raw elemental power of the world’s most indifferent work environment. The glimpses from inside the ship are almost as harrowing, as cock-eyed shots of a foul mess hall indicate that the ship’s crew are capable of creating a hellscape of their own. There’s vérité and then there’s vérité, and “Leviathan” remains a shining (if shivering cold) example of the latter — the film is such a transportive and tactile experience of working the high seas that it feels like it should end with a paycheck. —DE

23. “Kate Plays Christine” (2016)

“Kate Plays Christine”

On the morning of July 15, 1974, a Sarasota news reporter named Christine Chubbuck read through a few of the day’s top stories and then calmly shot herself in the head on live television. Footage of the (ultimately fatal) event has never been seen since, though a tape supposedly exists under a law firm’s lock-and-key. For “Actress” filmmaker Robert Greene, who has always been fascinated by the mythic power of images and the implications of creating them, Chubbuck’s performative suicide was an irresistible subject. He decided to recreate the missing video.

Casting actress Kate Lyn Sheil as Chubbuck, taking her down to the coast, and goading her to get into character, Greene’s characteristically self-reflexive and increasingly hypnotic film wedges fact against fiction until the two are subsumed by each other under the haze of the Florida sun. Richer, more compelling, and more aggressive than anything Greene had made before, “Kate Plays Christine” leverages a morbid historical footnote into an essential documentary about the ethics of exhuming the dead on screen. —DE

22. “Honeyland”

"Honeyland"

“Honeyland”

Neon

Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov’s two-time Oscar nominee “Honeyland” is a bitter and mesmerically beautiful documentary that focuses on a single beekeeper as though our collective future hinges on the fragile relationship between her and her hives.

But Hatidze Muratova is no ordinary apiarist. In fact, she’s apparently the last of Macedonia’s nomadic beekeepers, although — like every other bit of context in this strictly observational film — that detail is never made explicit. It doesn’t need to be: The more time we spend watching Muratova stick her bare hands into natural stone nests and sing old folk songs to her buzzing swarms, the more obvious it becomes that she’s one-of-a-kind.

Kotevska and Stefanov respect Muratova’s interiority, and don’t presume to know what she’s thinking. Their six-person crew lived on the lot beside her for three years, and some of the stray moments they captured — such as the one where Muratova sits inside the cold stone of her unelectrified hut and fusses over the exact color of her hair dye — hint at all the moments they never could.

When Hussein Sam, his wife, and their seven kids drive into Muratova’s neck of the woods in the film’s opening minutes, they bring a powder-keg of a plot conflict along with them. By reflecting Muratova’s relationship with her hives against the social contract that she’s formed with her mother — and that binds Hussein to his family — Kotevska and Stefanov shine a light on what the bees have always told us: They survive by serving each other. And if they ever disappeared completely, people would only have themselves to blame. —DE

21. “Don’t Leave Me” (2013)

don't leave me

“Don’t Leave Me”

If Jim Jarmusch made a movie about two alcoholic friends hanging out in the woods, it might look something like the Dutch documentary “Don’t Leave Me” (“Ne Me Quitte Pas”). Directors Sabine Lubbe Bakker and Niels van Koevorden’s hilariously touching portrait of bitter men drowning their sorrows in booze is the ultimate buddy comedy with brains. Shot in the isolated forests of Wallonia, in French-speaking southern Belgium, it manages a fascinating naturalistic tone that’s infectiously lighthearted without obscuring the downbeat quality of its subjects’ lives.

The filmmakers focus on the meandering exploits of middle-aged native Marcel and his slightly older Flemish chum Bob, whose destructive antics have cut them off from any source of companionship aside from each other. As they stumble through a seemingly abandoned world defined by their vices and self-deprecating wit, “Don’t Leave Me” marks the finest example of deadpan humor to come along in years. That’s largely because it never strays from an emotional foundation that makes Marcel and Bob so likable no matter how much they screw up. —EK

20. “Citizenfour” (2014)

“Citizenfour”

“I am not the story,” says Edward Snowden to documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras and journalist Glenn Greenwald in “Citizenfour,” but like Snowden himself, there’s nothing simple about that statement. Poitras’ bracing look at the former National Security Agency contractor, whose intel about government surveillance launched a firestorm of global inquiries following his exodus from the country in 2012, gives us everything we already knew about Snowden and his findings in a tightly-wound package — while hinting at a fascinating bigger picture filled with new information. “Citizenfour” would be a remarkable experience even if were simply a behind-the-scenes look at the biggest government leak in modern history, but Poitras also happens to be a terrific filmmaker, transforming Snowden’s paranoid world into a microcosm of our uncertain, fragmented times. —EK

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