Five of the Best Underrated Documentary Films

So far, 2021 has brought us some exceptional home streaming entertainment in the form of TV shows like Katla and The Hitman’s Wife. While we have been spoilt for choice with small screen releases, we’re now in that summer-limbo season where the next big-screen bonanzas are still a good few weeks away.

But, not to worry, you can still get your summer screening fix by giving one of these criminally underrated documentary films a whirl.

1.Searching for Sugar Man (2012)

Director: Malik Bendjelloul

If you’re one of the rare few to have heard Mexico’s answer to Bob Dylan in his prime, you’ll love Bendjelloul’s reflection on his life. And, if you haven’t, now’s the perfect time to discover this often-forgotten singer-songwriter.

Mexican-American Sixto Rodriguez, aka just “Rodriguez”, began his musical career in 1970s America, but despite his activist spirit, he remained largely unknown in his homeland. However, a chance discovery by an Australian radio DJ initiated a surge of interest in his work in the Southern Hemisphere and served as a prelude to the eventual success Rodriguez would find in South Africa, of all places.

Bendjelloul’s Searching for Sugar Man weaves Rodriguez’s evocative, almost gentle, back catalog through his film to tell the story of the artist’s life. It’s a compelling watch and you’re sure to be inspired.

2. Kedi (2016) 

Director: Ceyda Torun

What’s better than a spiral of YouTube cat videos? Why, a whole documentary devoted to our feline friends, of course.

Turkish documentary filmmaker Ceyda Torun explores our inherent fascination with cats, tracing the relationship between human and feline across Istanbul – a city renowned for its reverence of these four-legged wonders.

Kedi features some great interviews with a diverse cast of locals, but it’s the cats that are undoubtedly the real stars of the film.

3. Nosebleed (2014) 

Director: Victor Saumont

A low-key indie doc that delves into the real-life world of professional poker, Nosebleed gained critical acclaim in gaming industry media but remains largely unknown to the wider movie-going population. Saumont’s doc is not just for poker buffs, however – it packs in just as much appeal for the layman who wants a look behind the scenes in the almost esoteric world of pro poker.

Himself a long-time player of the game, Saumont approaches his topic with professional curiosity and, consequently, is able to gain unprecedented access to the two pro players at the centre of the doc – Alex “Alexonmoon” Luneau and Sebastien “Seb86” Sabic.

The narrative follows the pair during their trip to Las Vegas to compete in the prestigious World Series of Poker. At times, the players forget the cameras are rolling and the result is a truly authentic look at the lives of professional poker players.

4. Faces Places (2017)

Director: Agnes Varda

A prominent figure in France’s cinema scene, director and photographer Agnes Varda played a central role in the creation of the French New Wave. Faces Places was her penultimate film before she passed away in 2019 and it’s one in which her creative vision was never more clear.

Teaming up with French street artist VR, Faces Places documents the pair as they set off across rural France with a mobile photo booth, capturing both the idiosyncrasies of the people who inhabit the villages they pass through and those of life itself.

This film is charming, life-affirming and a poignant meditation on the impermanence of human life and what happens to the images that we leave behind.

5. Free Solo (2018) 

Director: E. Chai Vasarhelyi

Extreme sports always make for an exciting documentary and there are few that are more extreme than free climbing.

In Free Solo, E. Chai Vasarhelyi documents professional climber Alex Honnold as he embarks on the biggest challenge of his career to date: climbing the 3000ft rock face of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park without a rope.

As much a love letter to the awe-inspiring power of the wilderness as it is a testament to the strength of the human spirit, Free Solo manages to capture the obsession that drives Honnold as he sets out to either achieve perfection or plummet to his end.

Theo Gill
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