The 2021 Documentaries That Deserve a Spot on Your Watchlist

For when you're looking to be inspired, amazed, or a little creeped out.

billie eilish documentary 2021
Apple

The world of cinema is full of overused tropes: rom-com meet-cutes, those scenes where action heroes walk way too slowly away from a massive explosion, and, perhaps most tired of all, the idea that documentaries are only for dads and a very specific type of film student. That last one is simply not true, as anyone who's ever held their breath for all of Free Solo, sobbed happy tears at RBG, or felt galvanized by I Am Not Your Negro can surely attest. There's something to be said for the goosebump-inducing power of a documentary, whether it follows a revered musician or politician throughout the most influential period of their life, illustrates the impact of a particularly noteworthy event or institution, or recreates the horrors of a prolific serial killer. In short, documentaries are often more inspiring than the most tear-jerking "based on a true story" biopic, more informative than a period drama, and more terrifying than a fictional horror flick—because everything in them is completely real. Not convinced yet? Keep an eye out for these films—the best documentaries of 2021 that have been announced so far—and prepare to be amazed. (Docs debuting at the Sundance Film Festival can be viewed via one of the festival's many virtual ticket options, available here.)

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1 Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer

Is there anything more terrifying than a serial killer with no identifiable M.O., meaning he's wholly unpredictable and can't be easily tracked by detectives? Didn't think so! This four-part docuseries will revisit Richard Ramirez's reign of terror across California in the mid-'80s, which included more than a dozen murders, plus a bevy of break-ins, robberies, carjackings, and sexual assaults.

Premieres Jan. 13 on Netflix.

2 Summer of Soul (...Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)
summer of soul questlove documentary 2021
CBS Photo ArchiveGetty Images

This doc, Questlove's directorial debut, will tell the story of the Harlem Cultural Festival, which has long been overshadowed by another massive music festival that took place the same summer: Woodstock. "Black Woodstock" featured performances from Nina Simone, Stevie Wonder, B.B. King, and more, and the film will include footage of these performances and the festival as a whole that hasn't been seen in 50 years.

Premieres Jan. 28 at Sundance Film Festival.

3 Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It
rita moreno documentary 2021
Amy SussmanGetty Images

If by "going for it" this documentary's makers mean "starring in 70 years' worth of movies and TV shows and earning an EGOT along the way," then yes, Rita Moreno is just a girl who decided to go for it. The doc will examine Moreno's illustrious life, from her early years in Puerto Rico to her rise to stardom. It's directed by Mariem Pérez Riera, with Lin-Manuel Miranda and Norman Lear among its executive producers.

Premieres Jan. 29 at Sundance Film Festival.

4 Rebel Hearts
rebel hearts documentary 2021
Ralph CraneGetty Images

If you haven't heard of the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, prepare to fall down a Wikipedia spiral. In the 1960s, this group of L.A.-based nuns refused to back down from their challenges to the patriarchal system of the Catholic Church, and shook things up so much that they were fired by the archdiocese. Their fascinating story will be shared in this film, directed by Pedro Kos.

Premieres Jan. 29 at Sundance Film Festival.

5 Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street

Sesame Street has been bringing joy to children (and their parents) for more than half a century since it was created in 1969 by a group of activist-minded artists and educators—and this doc will explore how, exactly, the long-running and endlessly delightful series achieved its iconic status. It's directed by Marilyn Agrelo and released by HBO, meaning it'll be arriving on HBO Max sometime after its Sundance debut.

Premieres Jan. 30 at Sundance Film Festival.

6 My Name Is Pauli Murray
pauli murray documentary 2021
BettmannGetty Images

Another documentary highlighting a long-overlooked subject, this project from the directors of RBG, Betsy West and Julie Cohen, will bring the hugely impactful life and work of Pauli Murray into the spotlight. Murray was a non-binary Black activist, civil rights lawyer, and poet who influenced fellow trailblazers like Thurgood Marshall and RBG herself; the doc will include previously unseen video footage and audio recordings of Murray.

Premieres Jan. 31 at Sundance Film Festival.

7 Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir
amy tan documentary 2021
Alberto E. RodriguezGetty Images

You probably read The Joy Luck Club in high school or, at the very least, have seen the 1993 film adaptation, which proved to Hollywood the necessity of sharing the stories of Asian and Asian-American people onscreen. Tan's life and cultural impact are documented in this upcoming film, which was the final work of Robert Redford's son James before his Oct. 2020 death.

Premieres Feb. 2 at Sundance Film Festival.

8 Billie Eilish: The World's a Little Blurry

Billie Eilish's rise to fame has been nothing short of meteoric: She went from recording songs in her bedroom with her brother to sweeping the Grammys (while still recording songs in her bedroom with her brother). This doc, directed by R.J. Cutler, will give a behind-the-scenes look at the making of her 2019 album When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?

Premieres Feb. 26 on Apple TV+.

9 Untitled Rihanna documentary
rihanna documentary 2021
Paras GriffinGetty Images

After four years of anticipation (almost as long as we've been waiting for Rih's next album, *nudge, nudge*), the Peter Berg-led documentary about Rihanna—who he also directed in Battleship—is finally set to be released this summer. As Berg told Collider, the film took so long to make because every time he thought it was finished, Rihanna would launch a new venture. Fair point.

Premieres "sometime hopefully around the Fourth of July" on Amazon Prime.

10 The Beatles: Get Back

This very meta project, helmed by Peter Jackson of Lord of the Rings fame, will re-cut another Beatles documentary: 1970's Get Back, which had an altogether very negative tone and seemed to hint heavily at the band's then-upcoming breakup. Jackson's take on the footage will attempt to paint a much rosier portrait of the quartet, proving that there was still a sense of camaraderie among John, Paul, George, and Ringo.

Premieres Aug. 27 on Disney+.

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