Two of this year’s most prominent documentaries have reflected on the music of the 1960s: Ahmir ‘Questlove’ Thompson’s Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) and Todd Haynes’s The Velvet Underground. Haynes strikes an impressive balance between factual account and the capture of creative spirit in his treatment of the downtown New York milieu from which the Velvets emerged. Utilising split screens, found footage, and archival and contemporary interviews – from the band themselves to experimental filmmaker Jonas Mekas and sometime Sight and Sound critic Amy Taubin – Haynes creates a vibrant portrait backed by the constant rumble of the music.

A few miles north, Questlove’s incredible concert film rescues previously unreleased footage of the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival. Interviews provide important and emotive cultural context, but it’s in letting the footage and performances speak for themselves that Summer of Soul really shines. From Stevie Wonder to Gladys Knight to B.B. King, there is no shortage of star wattage – Nina Simone’s rendition of ‘To Be Young, Gifted and Black’ and an electrifying performance of ‘Take My Hand, Precious Lord’ by Mahalia Jackson and Mavis Staples in memory of Martin Luther King Jr are particular highlights.

Ben Russell’s mysterious travelogue The Invisible Mountain shares some DNA with Summer of Soul, itself understanding the transcendental power of music. Punctuating this European odyssey in search of an unreachable summit are musical interludes that seem to warp the reality of the landscape, most memorably in the immersive cover of Nirvana’s ‘Come as You Are’ that opens the piece.

Cow (2021)

Two equally immersive films offer strikingly different experiences in their treatment of agriculture. C.W. Winter and Anders Edström’s The Works and Days (of Tayoko Shiojiri in the Shiotani Basin) is an eight-hour study of a Japanese mountain village and its disappearing way of life. It’s a subtly hybrid doc that operates in sync with natural rhythms, riffing on the ancient Greek poem by Hesio that provides its title. In a very different mode, Andrea Arnold brings her unflinching eye to life on a cattle farm in Cow. The animal’s eyeview and lack of narration recall last year’s Gunda, but while Cow contains expressive and even playful moments, it’s a more gruelling and inherently radical watch.

Carlos Alfonso Corral’s lyrical portrait of the homeless community in US-Mexico border towns, Dirty Feathers, is no less difficult. Given melancholic poetry by its monochrome visuals and some of its subjects’ observations, it is clear-eyed in portraying the realities of their lives.

Other films took entirely different approaches to similarly political topics. Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s film Flee follows an openly gay Afghan refugee living in Denmark who, after years, finally confides the story of his escape from war-torn Kabul (rendered in beautiful hand-drawn animation). Vincent Meessen’s Just a Movement and Payal Kapadia’s A Night of Knowing Nothing both brim with revolutionary fervour. Kapadia’s film reconstitutes her own 8mm and 16mm footage of student discussions and protests to tell an epistolary tale of lost love that dovetails into the anti-caste movement and challenges the power structures of Indian democracy. Meessen, meanwhile, co-opts the febrile atmosphere of Jean-Luc Godard’s La Chinoise (1967) for his essayistic portrait of one of its performers, writer and activist Omar Blondin Diop. In a variety of forms, Meessen brings together France just before May ’68 and contemporary Senegal to examine Diop’s life, cut short when he was likely murdered in prison, at the age of 27.

All Light, Everywhere (2021)

Adopting a similarly essayistic approach was Theo Anthony’s dazzling All Light, Everywhere, an examination of surveillance, privacy and the nature of seeing. Its questioning of the nature of objectivity takes as one of its primary subjects the introduction of body cameras for American police officers, and the assumption that they capture an unquestionable truth. It’s a truth challenged by the filmmaker and further cast into doubt by the events of Alonso Ruizpalacios’s docudrama A Cop Movie. It follows Teresa and Montoya – partners on the job and in life, who are affectionately referred to as ‘the love patrol’ – as they police Mexico City. Dissolving from flashy cop show into a meta-commentary on the role of law enforcement, it also highlights the effects of the corruption rife within the Mexican police service.

The most difficult and sobering documentary of recent years is Sergei Loznitsa’s Babi Yar. Context. A compilation film about the Nazi invasion of Ukraine, and the massacre of more than 33,000 Jews in the Babi Yar ravine, it’s a devastating and effective work.

The best films of 2021

The 50 best films of 2021

The 50 best films of 2021

The best films of 2021: the year in cinema

By Isabel Stevens

The best films of 2021: the year in cinema