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The Best Documentaries Of The 21st Century (So Far)

By Anton Leonard  |   Submitted On March 16, 2021

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While fiction has long been the mainstay of cinematic entertainment since the beginning of the movie industry, the ground-breaking 1922 documentary file Nanook of the North gave filmmakers a taste of their audience’s desire to view something that would give them an insight into parts of their world that they would otherwise not know about. Despite the fact that it took a while for filmmakers to really catch the documentary “bug”, recent documentaries such as An Inconvenient TruthInside Job and Fahrenheit 9/11 only reinforce the desire for filmmakers to make movies that not only entertain but also enlighten. Here’s my list of documentaries – in no particular order – that should be on any documentary aficionado’s “must see” list:

Sigur Ros: Heima (2007)

Music lovers especially will appreciate this documentary that focuses on the last few concerts of Icelandic band Sigur Ros’ World Tour. Even those people not familiar with their music will be able to appreciate the marvellous & atmospheric cinematography that depicts Iceland beautifully.

The Fog Of War (2003)

This Oscar-winning documentary focuses on the life and public service of former United States Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and also provides an insight into the security & international relations of the United States during the Second World War, the Cuban missile crisis and the Vietnam war, as well as an overview of what lessons McNamara gleaned from these pivotal moments in his life.

The Power Of Nightmares (2004)

This three-part TV documentary series created for the BBC depicts two strains of political thought whose clash resulted into today’s War On Terror: Middle Eastern Islamism and Western Neo-Conservatism. Although the documentary series admits that these two distinct political ideologies are direct polar opposites of each other, the series argues that they depend on each other for their continuing popularity and existence. While not exactly a documentaries in the strictest sense of the word, these three films are noteworthy in how the creator Adam Curtis uses the visual medium to hold the viewer’s attention.

Quants: The Alchemists Of Wall Street (2010)

An exceptionally well-made Dutch documentary showing how mathematical wizardry and the rise of the mathematician became a major factor in the explosive growth of wealth in the financial industry and how this massive growth led to the all-encompassing greed that eventually brought the world economy to the brink of disaster.

Friends of Kim (2006)

An off-beat, humorous and touching independent documentary showing how a group of die-hard anti-capitalists travel to North Korea to support the country’s “Worker’s Paradise” and how they slowly realise that their vision of North Korea as a socialist stronghold was naive and simplistic.

Here Comes The Sun (2008)

An interesting look into the future of solar energy with a particular emphasis on the development of the German renewable energy industry. While the documentary itself can be accused of being slightly over-optimistic regarding the ability of renewable energy to solve humanity’s ever-increasing energy needs, it is quite inspirational in the sense that it is a clear indication of how much easier it has become for countries to overcome political hurdles and to harness this seemingly unlimited source of power.

The Story Of The Weeping Camel (2003)

A German docudrama about a family of Mongolian shepherds in the Gobi desert trying to save the life of a rare white camel calf after it was rejected by its mother. Heartwarming with a happy ending.

Collision (2009)

A documentary film focusing on the ongoing debate between atheist Christopher Hitchens and Presbyterian pastor Douglas Wilson and which provides an overview of several days worth of debates following the release of their book “Is Christianity Good for the World?”. While Hitchens may have seemed an indomitable debating opponent by most, Douglas Wilson is one of the first “believers” who did not shy away from putting up an intellectual fight.

Right America: Feeling Wronged – Some Voices from the Campaign Trail (2009)

A documentary that highlights the sometimes strident and disturbing conservative reactions to Barack Obama’s victory of the 2008 presidential election and which premiered on HBO on President’s Day 2009. I sometimes struggled to understand the doomsday scenarios the Republican supporters conjured up once they realised that their candidate had lost the presidential race. The vitriolic rhetoric only seemed to get worse as the documentary went on.

Our Labor of Love (2010)

Heartwarming documentary focusing on the animals of Out Of Africa wildlife park (Camp Verde, Arizona) and their caretakers. Although this documentary is obviously promotional in its intent, I included it in this list because it does its job so well. Besides, there are few things finer than watching tigers playfully leap into water with wild abandon over and over again.

I’m sure many people have their own favourites, but these are definitely worth a look.

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