The 15 Best Documentaries Of 2013

The Armstrong Lie3 The 15 Best Documentaries Of 2013

Does there seem to be more outstanding documentaries produced with each new year, or is my memory so unreliable that every December I feel even more astounded by the surplus of excellent non-fiction filmmaking from the past year? This may merely be a feeling, an illusion. It seems to occur every year. Still, along with the influx of award-worthy narrative features that get released in December and early January, many of the year’s best documentaries are finally available for most people to actually see.

This was a strong year for movies. I’ve thought that every year for the past decade or so. The fact that new ideas and stories are being told, or old ideas and stories are being presented in new and interesting ways, sometimes just makes a person marvel at the human mind, and its capacity for limitless creativity. What documentaries can offer is not only new ways of looking at ideas and stories, but an earnest quest for veracity and brand new information or perspectives that would not have entered our minds otherwise.

The documentary class of 2013 demonstrated a remarkable range from devastating looks at societal violence to the intimate inner workings of individual families. Here are 15 of the best documentaries that this year had to offer.

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1) The Act of Killing

act of killing thumb 630xauto 34801 The 15 Best Documentaries Of 2013

One of the most talked about documentaries from 2013 is also one of the most chilling pieces of non-fiction cinema ever. In a medium that prizes manufactured horror as a celebrated genre, The Act of Killing takes real life horrors and from their dramatization shines a light on a genocide, all while indicting and learning about, even perhaps enlightening its perpetrators. That may sound impossibly ambitious, and it’s certainly not the outcome director Joshua Oppenheimer and his team were anticipating when they embarked on this project.

My understanding before seeing the film was that it focused on Indonesian death squad leaders who were personally responsible for carrying out thousands of state-sanctioned murders of alleged communists in the country in the mid-1960s. The movie—at least the version I saw; there have been at least a couple of different cuts released—actually seems to focus primarily on one such former paramilitary leader, Anwar Congo, who openly describes for the cameras his methods of killing and his utter lack of remorse.

That the country at large seems to revere the men responsible for such a massacre is probably the most disturbing element of The Act of Killing. The personal response of Anwar to recounting and reenacting some of his acts from decades ago is some of the most fascinating footage to emerge anywhere this year.

Check out a clip from the film below and please do yourself a favor and give this one a watch as soon as possible.


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2) Stories We Tell

Stories We Tell1 The 15 Best Documentaries Of 2013

I talked about Sarah Polley’s masterpiece of personal cinema last year when it was released here in Canada, but since it wasn’t released in the US until 2013, and is making a number of critics’ year-end lists and taking home awards this season, I might as well reemphasize how incredible Stories We Tell is. It’s incredible, you guys.

The less that’s revealed about it before seeing it, the more power it has. It’s a story about Polley’s family, with personal details that were withheld by the press specifically for the sake of Polley being able to put her version of the story out herself (she’s actually a fairly well known former child star in Canada).

What results is a deep exploration of the nature of story itself: the role and importance of narrative in the human impulse to make sense of our lives and relationships, the often under-appreciated involvement of the storyteller in the presentation of a story, and the countless perspectives from which a story—or more accurately, stories—can be told. The thing I forget when I think about the film’s high-minded ideas, but truly one of the pleasures of the film, is how candid and lovely this family is. They make you forget that this documentary is indeed a brilliantly thoughtful and subtle work of utter genius.

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3) Blackfish

Blackfish The 15 Best Documentaries Of 2013

Four years ago, The Cove shocked audiences with its footage of the brutal dolphin hunt in Taiji, Japan. This year saw another deeply troubling documentary featuring marine mammals, but in this one, it’s Seaworld that is indicted for its dishonest and horrific treatment of its captive whales. It’s the type of movie that will fill you with righteous anger, which for some will translate into insufferable self-righteousness but for many others an anger that could lead to action and real life results. Or at least that’s the effect the filmmakers would like the movie to have.

Documentaries like Blackfish are often referred to, pejoratively at times, as single-issue movies, or preachy films, but I fail to see a weakness in a film with such an intense focus, and at least an interest in a fair assessment of the organization it’s seeking to interrogate. Its look at SeaWorld’s treatment of its captive orca entertainers goes directly to the trainers most familiar with the facilities’ practices and the ways those practices run counter to the actual safety of its staff, not to mention the animals. It’s heavy on emotion, but the purportedly intellectual counterarguments to the movie’s claims seem far less persuasive than the testimonies from the subjects themselves.

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4) We Steal Secrets/The Armstrong Lie

The Armstrong Lie The 15 Best Documentaries Of 2013

I used to compare Alex Gibney to Woody Allen for the way he released a new movie every year, an amazing achievement in artistic productivity that seemed nearly impossible to accomplish without sacrificing the superior quality of his work. Then he came out with two terrific films in 2013, both of which are receiving attention in summations of the year in documentary.

We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks is almost definitely the WikiLeaks movie to see this year, rather than the Benedict Cumberbatch fictionalized version that I am told is less than stellar. Those looking for the story of WikiLeaks, despite the perhaps slightly misleading title, may not be entirely satisfied with the documentary, but it offers some fascinating and new insights into the personal and political motivations—and how those intersect on an individual level—of both Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning and Julian Assange.

The Armstrong Lie is, in my view, the stronger of the two, detailing what Gibney has called “the anatomy of a lie” and providing the most fascinating portrait of Lance Armstrong to date. Unlike his previous documentaries, Gibney appears in this one, as he is forced to factor in his own biases and changing perspective when he gets swept up in, and subsequently disillusioned with, Armstrong mania.

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5) When Jews Were Funny

When Jews Were Funny The 15 Best Documentaries Of 2013

He’s far from a household name even in his native Canada, but Alan Zweig is one of the country’s finest documentarians, and 2013 saw the domestic release of his latest feature documentary, When Jews Were Funny. It’s a characteristically introspective piece of work from Zweig, whose past documentaries border on self-obsession, but he has a way of making his narcissism interesting and engaging to an audience that exists outside his own mind. What is it about Canadians like Zweig, Polley and Guy Maddin that allows them to make such personal works of art that aren’t unbearably indulgent?

Limited by my Gentile perspective (I am, at best, a vicarious Jew), there was obviously a notable portion of the interviews conducted in this movie that went over my head. Nevertheless, Zweig finds a way of sewing his personal Jewish background together with a brief history of professional Jewish comedy in North America in a way that made his insider perspective a little more relatable and understandable to us outsiders. With his subjects, Zweig examines questions of cultural identity, Jewish exceptionalism, the role of humor in an individual’s life as well as the life of a community, and the way different sources of humor, such as suffering, can influence a specific brand of humor. Zweig says nothing is funnier to him than the thought of his father eating soup, which sums up the movie for me: I don’t understand this at all, and yet it somehow also makes perfect sense.

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6) McConkey/The Crash Reel

The Crash Reel The 15 Best Documentaries Of 2013

Two notable films were released this year that featured extreme snow sports, but their points of divergence could not be more stark. McConkey, a character-centered documentary on extreme skier and BASE jumper Shane McConkey, is essentially an extension of the ski movie genre, but spans the entire life of a larger than life figure. It’s the ski movie meets Grizzly Man, exploring the life of an individual who frequently put himself in danger in the pursuit of idiosyncratic fulfillment.

The Crash Reel, on the other hand, is one of the best documentaries of 2013 for the way it subverts the typical sports narrative even further than McConkey does. Lucy Walker, known best for the brilliant Oscar-nominated Waste Land, assembles footage of snowboarder Kevin Pearce from his days of going head-to-head with decorated Olympian Shaun White, until a horrific accident leaves him with a traumatic brain injury. In his recovery we’re not only exposed to the effects of brain injury but the heart-wrenching toll death-defying competitions such as action sports can take not only on the participants but their families. The Pearce family are the stars of The Crash Reel, which surprises you at every turn.

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7) Room 237

room 237 2 The 15 Best Documentaries Of 2013

A lot of people seem to think that Room 237 is a movie that endorses a number of outlandish theories regarding the meaning of Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining, that it takes the analyses of its contributors as seriously as they do. I didn’t get that sense at all. What I saw was a movie that explores the breadth of interpretations a beloved and somewhat perplexing movie can inspire, particularly when the filmmaker behind is surrounded by the kind of mythology that surrounds Kubrick.

I love Room 237 because it reveals that at least one some level, all film criticism is bullshit. Someone can applaud The Shining as an utter masterpiece, one of the greatest films ever made, but if their reasons for believing this include that Kubrick was referring to the faked moon landing, does that invalidate that evaluation of the movie? I’m not sure it does. To some degree, the quality of the movie itself has spoken to the viewer, even if their interpretation of the movie’s significance is batshit crazy. And the fact that a movie like The Shining has had such a profound effect on so many people who have derived these insane meanings from it seems to cement its status as a rich and mysterious work of art. To me, this effect, as it develops over a significant period of time, is the closest thing to an objective evaluator of movies we can look to, and all that indicates is that most movie criticisms are deeply subjective. In a good way though!

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8) Dirty Wars

Dirty Wars The 15 Best Documentaries Of 2013

Journalistic movies inherently imbue a sense of importance, and so it’s sometimes hard to determine whether you’re simply being swept up by the content of the investigative reporting, or appreciating the documentary as first and foremost a movie—or whether this is even a distinction worth making. Dirty Wars is an example of a movie that follows a journalist—here it’s Jeremy Scahill, as he investigates America’s involvement in a number of Southwest Asian countries.

The documentary itself is based on, or rather coincides with, Scahill’s reporting released in his book by the same, in the same year. So people can choose the medium that suits them best. For me, seeing Scahill on the ground, interviewing Afghani subjects and military operatives in the region is more engaging than reading transcripts of their conversations. The big revelation of Scahill’s reporting is the role of JSOC, the Joint Special Operations Command, in the targeted killings of alleged terrorists (as well as collateral casualties) abroad. Scahill has developed a reputation for being an uncompromising foreign affairs journalist, and Dirty Wars allows him to bring information to us directly, troubling as it may be.

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9) 20 Feet From Stardom

20 Feet from Stardom The 15 Best Documentaries Of 2013

It’s easy to think that all a documentarian has to do is luck into a fascinating story and simply point a camera at that story and hit record. This is, of course, preposterous—the storytelling and filmmaking bears the brunt of the effectiveness of any documentary. That preamble is necessary when discussing a movie like 20 Feet From Stardom, which chronicles the lives of notable backup singers from music history.

The subject seems so obvious that it’s almost unbelievable that no one has thought about profiling relatively anonymous musical collaborators before. We’re offered in insight into episodes of music history that very few were privy to, and from perspectives that were previously unexplored and unrepresented in cultural discussions.

The collaborative nature of so many artistic pursuits that are widely perceived to be more individualistic works really comes out in this movie’s concern with supporting players. It should be especially relatable to the world of movies, which are often attributed to one person considered the author, the director. But this is, of course, only a fraction of the work that goes into such a massive project.

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10) At Berkeley/After Tiller/The Square/Tim’s Vermeer

At Berkeley The 15 Best Documentaries Of 2013

Rounding out this list of the best documentaries of 2013 are 4 titles that I have not had the pleasure of viewing at the time of this publication. Their distribution has been spotty, and my opportunity to see the ones that played at TIFF this year were limited. So I have yet to see At Berkeley, Frederick Wiseman’s direct cinema epic on America’s post-secondary education system; After Tiller, a look at the four remaining late-term abortion providing physicians in the United States; The Square, an inside look at the Egyptian Revolution of 2011 (this one, at least, is going to be available on Netflix in January); and Tim’s Vermeer, a fascinating (sounding) portrait of a strange inventor—and friend of Penn and Teller, the latter of whom directed the film—who sets out to prove a hypothesis about the role of technology in 17th century art.

These are just a few of this year’s non-fiction offerings that I have yet to see, and am expecting big things from. But just the size of this list, and the number of other documentaries that have affected people this year to the point of inclusion in year-end discussions, is quite impressive. While non-fiction filmmaking is far from being a mainstream pursuit, with the documentary blockbuster continuing to be an oxymoron, the availability of independent filmmaking and the fact that so many popular things today live in niche markets certainly contributes to the quantity and quality of current documentary work.

Are there any other films you consider to be the best documentaries of 2013? List your favorites in the comments section below!

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  • Juniper

    I didn’t feel inspired to watch any on your list, I don’t share your opinion they either don’t look interesting, or maybe there just haven’t been many documentaries of a good quality released…with…the exception of Blackfish. Highly recommended.