Kick off 2022 with the best documentaries of 2021

WTOP's Jason Fraley highlights must-watch documentaries (Part 1)

At the end of 2021, we ranked the best narrative (fiction) movies.

However, what if you’re in the mood for a compelling documentary?

Here’s my countdown of must-watch documentaries from the past year:

Still to See: “The Beatles: Get Back”

Director: Peter Jackson

From the jump, I have to say that I have not yet watched Peter Jackson’s sprawling eight-hour documentary “The Beatles: Get Back” with intimate footage of their final recording sessions, but I’ll consider adding it to this list when I find the eight hours to devote to it on Disney+. Is it too long or could you watch this forever?

Now, on with the list …

10. “Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain”

Director: Morgan Neville

Oscar-winning filmmaker Morgan Neville (“20 Feet from Stardom”) delivers this profound look at the tragic life of celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain, from his rise on the CNN travelogue “Parts Unknown” to his fall in 2018 with a suicide at age 61.

9. “Rise Again: Tulsa and the Red Summer”

Director: Dawn Porter

After her 2020 civil rights documentary “John Lewis: Good Trouble,” pioneering filmmaker Dawn Porter tackles the horrific Tulsa Massacre of 1921, as well as other race massacres in other cities around the country in the “Red Summer” of 1919. It’s an eye-opening education of events that were never taught in our history books. Why be skeptical of Critical Race Theory? The truth will actually set you free.

8.“ Pray Away”

Director: Kristine Stolakis

Executive produced by Jason Blum and Ryan Murphy, this gutsy documentary chronicles the controversial history of gay conversion therapy, interviewing the church organizations who urge folks to “leave” the LGBTQ lifestyle, as well as survivors who escaped the “treatments” to live their lives as their true selves.

7. “Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street”

Director: Marilyn Agrelo

Just like the Mr. Rogers documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” (2018), “Street Gang: How We Got To Sesame Street” chronicles the creation of the most successful children’s television show ever made with priceless footage of Jim Henson’s muppets and social commentary on the show’s revolutionary ideas.

6. “Muhammad Ali” vs. “The Kings”

Director: Ken Burns vs. Mat Whitecross

Tied for the No. 6 spot is a pair of boxing documentaries that I absolutely adored. Ken Burns directs a comprehensive four-part documentary on the life and social activism of Cassius Clay becoming Muhammad Ali, while Mat Whitecross delivered a riveting four-part miniseries on “The Four Kings” of 1980s middleweights: Sugar Ray Leonard, Marvelous Marvin Hagler, Tommy Hearns and Roberto Duran.

5. “The First Wave”

Director: Matthew Heineman

The 2020 documentary “76 Days” chronicled the initial outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in Wuhan, China. Now, Matthew Heineman’s documentary “The First Wave” captures the very first cases in New York City in March 2020, featuring harrowing images of patients on respirators and families crying through the glass.

4. “The Rescue”

Directors: Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin

Documentaries don’t get any more riveting than this National Geographic film chronicling the 2018 Tham Luang cave rescue mission, where the best cave divers from around the world flew into Thailand to work with local authorities to save a junior association soccer team trapped in a dangerous underwater cave.

3. “Attica”

Director: Stanley Nelson

You heard Al Pacino shout its name in Sidney Lumet’s hostage movie “Dog Day Afternoon” (1975), but now you can learn the disturbing true story behind the 1971 Attica Prison Riot in Attica, New York, where at least 43 people were killed, including 33 inmates and 10 correctional officers and civilian employees. It’s all directed by Stanley Nelson, whose filmography includes gems like “Jonestown: The Life and Death of the Peoples Temple” and “Miles Davis: The Birth of Cool.”

2. “Flee”

Director: Jonas Poher Rasmussen

The Academy Awards have their work cut out for them because “Flee” could easily be nominated for Best Documentary Feature, Best Animated Feature and Best International Feature. Filmmaker Jonas Poher Rasmussen uses animation and real-life audio recordings to tell the true story of Amin Nawabi, who reveals his hidden past fleeing his home country of Afghanistan to Denmark as a refugee.

1. “Summer of Soul”

Director: Questlove

If you watch one documentary from this past year, make sure it’s the wildly entertaining and enlightening “Summer of Soul,” fittingly subtitled “(…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised).” The Roots drummer Questlove makes his directorial debut with never-before-seen footage from the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, which featured performances by Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight, Nina Simone, Mahalia Jackson, The Staple Singers and Sly & The Family Stone. To borrow a phrase from the 1970 documentary “Woodstock,” whose concert stole all of the headlines in the summer of ’69: “We must be in heaven man!”

WTOP's Jason Fraley highlights must-watch documentaries (Part 2)

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