Cinema 2021: Banner Year for Documentaries

Top Documentaries to Watch and Discuss

The directors of the year’s top documentary features–Becoming CousteauThe First Wave, Flee, Francesco, Julia, Procession, The RescueSummer of Soul and The Velvet Underground–discuss the inspirations for, challenges making and impact of their documentaries:

Discovery+’s Francesco

A portrait of the life and impact of Pope Francis, an Oscar nominee for 2015’s Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for FreedomEvgeny Afineevsky

Sony Classics’ Julia, a profile of the culinary and TV pioneer Julia Child, which she co-directed with Betsy West, an Oscar nominee for 2018’s RBGJulie Cohen

Nat Geo’s Becoming Cousteau

Exploration of the life of the trailblazing undersea explorer Jacques Cousteau

Liz Garb, an Oscar nominee for 1998’s The Farm: Angola, USA and 2015’s What Happened, Miss Simone?

Netflix’s Procession

Depiction of the effects of drama therapy on six survivors of sexual abuse by the Catholic Church, Robert Greene

Apple’s The Velvet Underground

Look the titular band and the era from which it emerged

An Oscar nominee for 2002’s Far from HeavenTodd Haynes

Neon’s The First Wave, a view from inside a New York hospital of the terrifying first months of the COVID pandemic, an Oscar nominee for 2015’s Cartel LandMatthew Heineman

Netflix’s Found

A chronicle of three girls’ journey from America, where they were raised, to China, where they were born and put up for adoption due to the one-child policy, Amanda Lipitz

Neon and Participant’s Flee

A story of how an Afghan refugee persevered through trauma and tragedy en route to a better life, Jonas Poher Rasmussen

Searchlight’s Summer of Soul

A presentation of long-buried footage of the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival with context about why this “Black Woodstock” was so important, Amir “Questlove” Thompson

NatGeo’s The Rescue, a look at the remarkable effort undertaken to save a group of boys from a flooding Thai cave in 2018, which she co-directed with Jimmy Chin, an Oscar winner for 2019’s Free SoloElizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi

The Docs to Watch Panel has hosted the filmmakers of 14 of the 35 eventual best documentary feature Oscar nominees — Finding Vivian Maier in 2014; AmyCartel LandWhat Happened, Miss Simone? and Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom in 2015; O.J.: Made in America and Life, Animated in 2016; Icarus and Strong Island in 2017; Free Solo and RBG in 2018; American Factory and The Cave in 2019; and Crip Camp and Time in 2020.

Five of those docus went on to win the Oscar in their respective years: AmyO.J.: Made in AmericaIcarusFree Solo, and American Factory.