It would be easy to try to find some magic throughline between the best documentaries of 2021. Sure, on some basic level, all of these films and TV series are about connection. They show how we relate to the past, whether our own or some greater truth of years gone by.
But it might make more sense to celebrate the fact that documentaries thrive on the uncommon. The harder it is to find something comparable, odds are good that whoever is in control of the camera has stumbled on something extraordinary.
That can happen through animated retellings or tense minute-by-minute accounts or hazy portraits of a time filled with discovery. They can unfold over the course of a single sitting or be designed as an ongoing education of sorts, something to immerse yourself in as you give yourself over to a specific time, place, and state of mind.
In many cases, what you’re left with is the possibility or awareness of a new path. What to do with this newfound knowledge or appreciation or fuel for change is hardly an answer given, but knowing that your world is a little different than when you started is why we keep coming back to these kinds of stories year after year.
And now, in alphabetical order, here are our documentary and docuseries picks for 2021.
David Ehrlich, Kate Erbland, Ryan Lattanzio, Tambay Obenson, and Ben Travers also contributed to this list.