2021 started off with a lot of reflection and also a lot of hope– for our country, for our health, and for our humanity. Maybe it wasn’t transformative enough for most of us, but it was a start. And as we slowly got back something close to normalcy, we held on tighter than ever to our loved ones (once we were able to) and we learned to appreciate the little things (eating at a restaurant, toilet paper on the shelves, self care). If entertainment was a lifeline in 2020, it was nearly as essential to help us get through 2021.
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Whether we ventured into movie theaters again, or opted to stay home, we looked to cinematic entertainment for escape and enlightenment. The film industry was not without some chaos. Scrambled released dates, a new movie release model (limited screenings in theaters followed by a streaming TV debut, which we often had to pay extra for), postponed and scaled down awards shows,  and by the end of the year, more and more films in theaters only… We’re still waiting to see a few biggies as theaters feel risky again thanks to the omicron variant.
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Ultimately, as we looked back at the year, it was documentaries and docu-series that made the most impact on our psyche. They offered insight on topics we cared about and topics we didn’t know we cared about, reflecting the triumphs –and tragedies–  of our world, providing varied points of view on topics and public figures, and the evidence to back them up. Post-COVID and post-Trump, non-fiction chronicles have served as a vital form of entertainment and a way to educate ourselves about the past and the present. Here are our favorites. Oscars voters are going to have a difficult time choosing the best of this bunch for the documentary category, that’s for sure.

POLITICS

Day of Rage – When a Fox News-watching relative tries to deny the severity of January 6 (which occurred exactly one year ago today) just show them this well-crafted chronicle of the day’s events. The New York Times got a lot of attention for its Britney Spears doc (see below), but this is the one we should all be talking about. The reason it is so effective and should be for naysayers that claim it wasn’t Trump supporters or “wasn’t that bad”? The simple fact that most of the footage was culled from the rioters themselves. It was tough to watch as it happened, but seeing it all put together chronologically is as stunning as it is disgusting. Digital blueprints of the capital and its entry ways provide a clear explanation on how the building was breached by organized groups that clearly planned to do it all along. Some Trump supporters got swept up in the mob mentality, duped by “the big lie,” but the Times research also shows that just as many went to D.C. that day with sinister intentions, prepared to cause physical harm even to the police officers they claim to support. As right wingers continue to downplay the violence and hate on display that day, this short form film — currently being considered for an Oscar nomination– is a must see for all. Watch it right here:

Mayor Pete This was one of the most enjoyable bio-docs we saw this year, mostly because Pete Buttigeig is an enjoyable guy. Everything that made the young, relatively inexperienced but beloved mayor of South Bend, Indiana a real contender for president in 2020 is showcased in this feel-good film. Of course after making a splash in the Iowa caucus, his viability waned, but his impact, especially in terms of LGBTQ+ representation, will never be forgotten, and this doc serves as an important chronicle. Candid conversations with the subject about his life, his sexuality and relationship (husband Chasten is featured almost as much as Pete; as he should be) and his vision for democracy, make for an inspiring and authentic glimpse into an atypical political life. Watch on Prime.

Q: Into the Storm This look at the conspiracy group and its origins and key players was nearly as convoluted and WTF-inducing as Tiger King. As we wrote back in March when the series debuted, the code words, the wild theories, the in-fighting and of course, the salaciousness involving movie stars and baby blood drinking are fascinating to hear explained by people who actually believe it. You might even have to re-watch this one a couple times to fully understand the computer nerd/web-centric components and how everyone fits together.  Director/narrator/interviewer Cullen Hobeck was mostly focused on one question: who is Q?  The doc suggests 4chan/8chan’s Ron Watkins was the mastermind all along. The insidery look at the Q mass pyschosis could’ve been more critical of the damage Trump and his followers wreaked on democracy, so it’s a bit frustrating to watch as simple entertainment, but it’s fascinating none the less. Watch on HBO Max.

The First Wave – Do we really want or need to relieve the fear and chaos of the early COVID-19 pandemic? We’re still living through it, after all. Director Matthew Heineman thinks we do. Focusing on New York City, when it was the coronavirus epicenter, his doc covers the first four months, when hospitals were getting overwhelmed, everything was closed, and we all lived in lockdown and on unemployment checks.  If you lost someone to COVID you may want skip this one, as seeing people on ventilators and in body bags is part of the story. Thanks to vaccines this tale of terror isn’t as scary as it once was, but that doesn’t mean the happy ending is here yet, obviously. Watch it on Hulu.

Wojnarowicz: F**k You F*ggot F**ker A production by World of Wonder (known for RuPaul’s Drag Race) this film covers the life of queer New York City artist, writer, photographer, activist David Wojnarowicz, who spoke out as the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s overtook the city. Creating unforgettable work that challenged society’s indifference to what was occurring in the gay community, it also tackles the discrimination that LGBTQ+ people were suffering in general, and offers hope that art can still make a difference. Watch it on YouTube.


MUSIC

The Beatles: Get Back – Watching Peter Jackson’s docuseries over Thanksgiving weekend was like food for the soul after another stressful year of political division and health concerns. The three-part TV event provides context for The Beatles breakup and their interpersonal relationships, but mostly it’s just a magical, musical experience. John, Paul, George and Ringo are so ubiquitous to culture, we feel like we know them. But as Get Back illustrates, we didn’t really. They weren’t gods, they were human beings– insanely talented but flawed (as we all can be) when it came to communicating and creating with differing perspectives. Throw in industry and fan expectations, drug use, girlfriends (Yoko, Linda), and production crews, and the strained dynamics could’ve easily became total dysfunction. Instead, the Beatles’ last working sessions yielded some of the best music of all time. Seeing their work evolve on film is as beautiful as it is bittersweet, and if you’re a music lover, more than worth the 8+ hour time commitment. Watch it on Disney+.

The Sparks Brothers – Ron and Russell Mael moved to England back in the ‘70s and saw some success there, but it took years for the L.A. band to hit in the U.S. From their U.K. Top of the Pops performances to their role as the amusement park band in the 70’s cult classic Rollercoaster, Edgar Wright’s film highlights the bros’ story like the wild ride it was. The director of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and Baby Driver showed us the band’s real life journey and artistic perseverance, with talking heads including Weird Al, Beck, Flea, Bjork, Jane Wiedlin (who shared the hit “Cool Places” with the duo), Mike Myers, Todd Rundgren and more, all in stark black and white, contrasted by archival footage and very groovy animation. Watch it on Netflix.

Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) – This astounding Disney/Searchlight documentary features footage that it’s almost hard to believe hadn’t been seen much before. The Roots ubiquitous drummer Ahmir Questlove Thompson serves as director, and his choices make an inspiring look at life and racial issues in 1969. This is much more than a concert film. Set at the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, which took place over six weekends in Mount Morris Park, New York, it’s full of  epic performances from Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Mahalia Jackson, Gladys Knight & The Pips, The Staple Singers, The 5th Dimension, Sly & the Family Stone and more. Providing powerful context with news clips and personal stories, SOS is the best kind of cultural commentary, revealing tough truths while providing incredible entertainment and hope via the universal language of music. Watch it on Hulu.

The Velvet Underground – Todd Haynes artsy approach to telling the legendary New York-based band’s story has been hailed for good reason. Utilizing Andy Warhol’s footage in a way that the pop art king would surely adore, he evokes the audaciousness, experimentalism and inspired collaboration that fueled the group. He also captures the contentious relationships between Lou Reed, John Cale and Warhol that ultimately tore them apart. Watch it on Apple TV+.

The World’s A Little Blurry – Billie Eilish currently deals with the public and media judgement and expectation that most popstars do. But it’s a different era and this young woman has handled things a bit differently than her predecessors–  addressing it all as it came and her fame grew. She is also lucky to have caring, super-involved parents helping her navigate her career. R.J. Cutler’s Apple TV+ doc is as much about her family as it is about her. It’s refreshing to watch her journey, from making music with her brother Finneas in his bedroom in their Highland Park, CA home to her grueling touring schedule to winning awards and finally superstardom. Even if things get blurrier as she grows up, this kid will be alright. Watch it on Apple TV+.


POP CULTURE

Framing Britney Spears– The New York Times documentary for Hulu called Framing Britney Spears got a lot of buzz when it came out, especially since Spears was in the midst of trying to be released from the conservatorship controlled by her father. While it highlighted the #FreeBritney movement and the way the media mistreated the popstar, we felt the doc was guilty of the very thing it appeared to be commenting on– her exploitation. It’s follow-up Controlling Britney Spears was a little better, but Brit didn’t like either if her social media posts were any indication. Watch them on Hulu.

Britney vs. Spears – From director Erin Lee Carr featuring Rolling Stone‘s Jenny Eliscu, this look at the situation is a far better documentation, covering the singer’s career and her fight for freedom. It also reveals that the journalist and many others in Spears circle had been concerned about the control her family had over her for a very long time. Mostly, it tells Britney’s story with sensitivity and empathy concerning all that she went through– her marriage breakup, the custody battle for her kids, her drug use (ok, this is glossed over a bit), and her loss of autonomy as an adult, thanks to greedy lawyers, power-hungry management and over-reaching parents. It’s a heartbreaking film, but thankfully, it has a happy ending, as the 14 year conservatorship ended back in November of this year. Watch it on Netflix.

Show Me the Picture: The Story of Jim Marshall – He’s not as well known as Mick Rock or Annie Leibowitz or even Ethan Russell or Bob Gruen, but Jim Marshall took some of the most shared photographs of rock stars out there today. The famous Johnny Cash shot flipping off the camera at San Quentin? That was his. Backstage antics of The Rolling Stones that we’ve all seen hundreds of times? Him. The Beatles playing Candlestick Park? That was Jimbo too. This doc attempts to capture the brash photog’s work and often tempestuous nature, which ultimately led to drug use and jail time. Marshall died in 2010, but he left behind a badass legacy on film. This bio-doc highlighting his amazing work featuring the likes of Janis Joplin, Miles Davis, Jim Morrison, The Who and The Grateful Dead, is nice way to honor his pioneering fly-on-the-wall approach, which so many shutterbugs continue to strive for. Watch it on Apple TV+.

Like a Rolling Stone: The Life and Times of Ben Fong-Torres – Those of us who actually get to write about music know we’re a lucky bunch. Interviewing your idols about their sonic visions and actually making a name for yourself (and getting paid for it), is, we can all agree, the coolest thing ever. Ben Fong-Torres definitely had name recognition, even before Cameron Crowe immortalized him as his Rolling Stone editor in Almost Famous. As we learn in the new-ish doc about his life, he was an important presence and voice for the publication in its infancy, starting in 1967. Interviewing the likes of The Doors, Marvin Gaye, Elton John, Tina Turner, and Ray Charles, in thoughtful and insightful stories, the Chinese-American writer made an impact in more ways than one. Suzanne Kai’s documentary tells his life story, which is as much about his culture clashing experiences and family life as it is his work. It’s a heartfelt and fascinating feature thanks to Torres himself, who shares stories about his writing process and rock n’ roll experiences. In theaters. More info here.

Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain – Posing questions about suicide while it also captures the witty, cool and charismatic foodie, Roadrunner is an emotional journey that’s as multi-faceted as the man himself. Bourdain’s passion for food, travel and connecting with others made him a star and a sex symbol. But as this film exposes, he wasn’t always as confident as he appeared. Though it gets real about the demons the No Reservations and Parts Unknown host battled, especially later in his life, the film also serves as homage to the man’s unapologetic zest and his quest to share the diversity and flavors of the world. Watch it on You Tube.

Explant – When pop singer turned TV personality Michelle Visage had her breast implants removed last year, she revealed that she had Hashimoto’s Disease, which she says was caused by the boob job. In the World of Wonder documentary, Explant, Visage takes us along on her personal journey— from her days as a young singer in the girl group Seduction, to her busty transformation and career as a radio and TV figure, to her gig alongside her pal RuPaul on RuPaul’s Drag Race. Mostly it covers her research about medical issues tied to breast implants and her decision to have “explant” surgery. It’s a fascinating investigative look at a link that the medical industry surely doesn’t want highlighted and a must-see for anyone considering getting the surgery. It’s also entertaining thanks to Visage’s charisma and fittingly, her realness. Watch it now on Prime/Paramount+.


CRIME

Allen vs. Farrow – In the HBO docuseries Allen vs. Farrow,  Woody Allen’s son Ronan Farrow (known for his work writing about victims of sexual assault) presents eye witness accounts and piles of research to back up its stance that the famous director is in fact, a predator. The four-part doc directed by Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering (who tackled similar territory in On the Record, about the sexual misconduct in the hip-hop world) makes a compelling case mostly because Dylan Farrow, his adopted daughter, comes forward to share her story. She is not only believable but assured, as is everyone who shares their memories and perspectives. Of course, Allen has said repeatedly that the allegations are not true and that his ex Mia Farrow concocted the whole thing. Whatever you might believe as a viewer, it’s a fascinating reconsideration of an iconic filmmaker’s sometimes questionable artistic choices and character. Watch it on HBO Max.

Crime Scene: The Vanishing at Cecil Hotel – The Cecil Hotel in Downtown L.A. saw its sinister reputation solidified after Canadian tourist Elisa Lam went missing while staying there back in 2013. Her body was eventually found lifeless and decaying (spoiler alert if you don’t know the story) in the hotel’s water tank on the building’s roof. Thanks to overzealous web sleuths and true crime fanatics, things got a bit out of control before the mystery was solved. This docuseries, which was particularly popular here in Los Angeles for obvious reasons, recounts the Lam case in meticulous detail and explores how the true crime trend and social media obsessives amplified the L.A. landmark’s infamy. Watch it on Netflix.

Tiger King 2 – The first one was fun and exactly the wacky escape we needed during the pandemic. But part 2 felt like a grab for more trash and eyeballs. The saga of Joe Exotic, Carol Baskin and the rest is still a wild ride,  but in the end, it’s the animals that we’re still concerned and thinking about. Watch it on Netflix.

LA Weekly