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The best documentaries of 2021 on Netflix, Hulu, Apple TV Plus and more

SF Gate logo SF Gate 4/30/2021 Dan Gentile

Documentaries give insights into subjects that viewers might never otherwise even know exist. While there are many ways to learn about new cultures and topics, from podcasts to YouTube rabbit holes to classes, there may be no easier way to explore a new world than by simply scrolling through a streaming service like Netflix or Hulu and pressing play on a feature-length documentary or docuseries.

True crime has obviously become hugely influential in the growing popularity of documentaries, but less dramatic subjects also claim the spotlight, from a heartwarming film about a Chilean nursing home to a deep dive into the history of one of the most ill-fated TV shows of all time.

Here are the best documentaries we've seen so far in 2021, including a few older films that were new to us.

"WeWork: Or the Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn”

Hulu

"Hulu’s new documentary “WeWork: Or the Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn” opens with a chorus of voices summarizing the company’s downfall and its charismatic co-founder and former CEO Adam Neumann. The most striking quote sums up Neumann’s tendency to distort reality.

“If you tell a 30-something male that he’s Jesus Christ, he’s inclined to believe you,” says Scott Galloway, professor of marketing at NYU Stern School of Business." — Dan Gentile, read more

"Sasquatch"

Hulu

"The most interesting true crimes are often the ones that sound so unlikely that they verge on fiction, spiraling from headlines into myths. Hulu’s new series “Sasquatch” covers that type of crime, investigating rumors that three cannabis farmworkers were murdered in a gruesome fashion attributed to legendary forest monster Sasquatch.

"Directed by Joshua Rofé (“Lorena”), the Hulu series follows gonzo journalist David Holthouse as he investigates an anecdote he heard at a cannabis farm in Northern California in the 1990s. The area best known as a hotbed of cannabis cultivation has gained a reputation in popular culture as a particularly dangerous region, partially due to the Netflix series “Murder Mountain.” While the series has been criticized as sensational, its sentiments are echoed by the longtime cannabis farmers interviewed in “Sasquatch.”" — Dan Gentile, read more

"The Mole Agent"

Hulu

"One could be forgiven for not having heard about a Chilean documentary filmed in a nursing home, but it’s become something of a phenomenon based on its 2020 premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, after which Indiewire called it “the most heartwarming spy movie ever made.” It picked up nominations for the Independent Spirit Awards, Goya Awards and was named to the National Board of Review’s list of top five foreign language films, then was broadcast on PBS in January before coming to Hulu (and for rent on Amazon Prime Video). And it’s got a good chance at winning the 2021 Academy Award for best documentary." — Dan Gentile, read more

"The World's A Little Blurry"

Apple TV Plus

"In one of the closing scenes of the new Billie Eilish documentary “The World’s A Little Blurry” on Apple TV Plus, the 19-year-old mega pop star sits in her jet-black Dodge Charger flexing her new driver’s license and reflecting on her rise to fame.

“I’m nominated for six Grammys. I have my dream car. Finneas has his dream car. It’s raining. I have my pooch doggy in the car. I had donuts last night. I’m not in a relationship, thank the lord. My relationship with my family is good. I am pretty, somewhat. I am famous, as f—k. Life is good.”" — Dan Gentile, read more

'alone together'

Not yet available to stream

"In a flurry of Zoom calls, self-recorded vignettes and distorted animation sequences, the film follows Charli XCX and her fanbase — known as her “Angels” — on an unexpected mission. The pop star enlists the help of the Angels to release said album, “how i’m feeling now,” in a matter of just five weeks. We learn how deeply collaborative that process was, as Charli holds demo listening sessions for her fans, workshops lyrics with them over Instagram live, and asks them to contribute footage and creative oversight for her music videos." — Amanda Bartlett, read more

"This Is a Robbery"

Netflix

"When you think of the “biggest art heist in the world,” your mind likely fills with romantic images of slinky cat burglars, "Ocean’s Eleven" schemers in three-piece suits or Tom Cruise dropping down from a glass ceiling. In all likelihood, you did not immediately think of seedy car repair shops and a bunch of mafia guys named Bobby.

"But that’s the portrait painted by “This Is a Robbery,” Netflix’s wildly engaging four-part docuseries hitting the platform Wednesday. With a new true crime doc dropping seemingly every day, the genre’s a dime a dozen right now. But both novices and experts will find much to enjoy in this gripping retelling of the Isabella Stewart Gardner robbery in which 13 works of art were lifted on March 18, 1990 by a pair of mystery men dressed as cops." — Katie Dowd, read more

"Strip Down, Rise Up"

Netflix

"In the newly released Netflix documentary, “Strip Down, Rise Up,” the camera closely follows Bond and her students as they prepare to compete in the Golden Gate Pole Championships, the regional competition for professional and amateur pole dancers in the Bay Area. But rather than titillate viewers, director Michèle Ohayon peels away any misconceptions they might have about the intimate, acrobatic art form by showing how it can be used as a meditative, healing practice for those who take part in it." — Amanda Bartlett, read more

"The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel"

Netflix

"“The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel” bills itself as an exploration of Lam’s disappearance and the online firestorm it elicited. It is instead an unethical mess, relying on sensationalism, cheap narrative tricks and conspiracy theories to perpetuate the least relevant parts of her story.

"The true crime genre is inherently, at the very least, problematic. It takes real human suffering and turns it into entertainment for the masses. At its best, though, true crime can be illuminating, thoughtful and just. An admirable example is the searing “Surviving R. Kelly” series, which gave victims the primary voice and used experts to provide meaningful context. “Cecil Hotel” rarely does this, instead valuing melodrama over truth. — Katie Dowd, read more

“We Are As Gods”

Not yet available to stream

"The title stems from a quote that served as the Whole Earth Catalog’s mission statement: “We are as gods and might as well get good at it.” The quote summed up the do-it-yourself nature of Stewart Brand and his encyclopedic publication, but has now taken on a literal slant. De-extinction may sound like science fiction, but it’s no joke. Revive & Restore is staffed by a serious team of scientists and conservationists, and they just posted a $75,000 job opening for a post-doc to research the science behind woolly mammoth de-extinction at Harvard Medical School, led by superstar geneticist George Church. The group is currently using CRISPR genome engineering to past DNA from the mammoth genome into elephant cell cultures, and had success generating mammoth-like cells." — Dan Gentile, read more

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Older documentaries we love

"Exploratorium"

Youtube

"In the 1974 Academy Award-nominated documentary “Exploratorium,” the camera zooms in on a hypnotic spiraling “Depth Spinner,” an exhibit designed to show how the eye and brain process motion (and make you a little dizzy in the process).

“Look at the center, just keep looking at the center of it,” commands a woman’s voice off-screen. A man responds: “This is beautiful, I’m just tripping out on this.”" — Dan Gentile, read more

"Too Funny to Fail: The Life & Death of The Dana Carvey Show”

Hulu

"The Hulu film, which premiered in 2017 but has resurfaced in their documentary section perhaps because of Carvey’s viral Joe Biden impression, chronicles the seven episode lifespan of Dana Carvey’s doomed sketch comedy show. Raised in San Carlos and reportedly still a resident of Marin County, one of Carvey’s earliest comedic successes came when he won the 1977 San Francisco Comedy Competition while a student at San Francisco State University. He joined the cast of “Saturday Night Life” in 1986. When he retired from the show in 1993, after appearing in two blockbuster "Wayne's World" films, the news made the cover of Rolling Stone and he was offered David Letterman’s late night time slot.

“I almost had too much heat on me,” said Carvey." — Dan Gentile, read more

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