To devotees of the medium like us, cinema has an unparalleled ability to give form and shape to previously unimagined worlds. But not all unimagined worlds are unreal, an infinite number, in fact, lurk all around us: the astounding personal history of a passerby; the human cost that the news headline crawling across our TV screen cannot capture; the treasure and trash and unclaimed bodies buried beneath our local shopping mall. But despite the unbelievable wealth of material available for it to mine, the documentary format (and we’ve been guilty of this too) has historically often been sweepingly generalized as narrative film’s less glamorous, workhorse sister.
Worthy? No doubt. Well-intentioned? Invariably. But the genre can be viewed as being as much fun as being forced to finish your vegetables. Recently, however, with the dawning realization that there is an audience for innovative, groundbreaking documentary work, and that the form itself has created its own superstars (filmmakers from Michael Moore and Errol Morris to Werner Herzog and Alex Gibney), more and better examples seem to be making their way monthly into theaters, even onto the smaller screens of your local multiplex.
And so we come to 2013. Was it a banner year for documentary features? We can’t say for sure, but we have certainly been utterly spoiled for choice when it has come to compiling a list of our favorites. In fact the wealth of high-quality and high-profile docs this year is such that really our chief issue has been that it’s been tough to keep abreast. Which means that pretty much every entry on the list is there because someone has really, really thrown down for it (and there are a few ongoing rankles over those that missed the cut). We are not documentary specialists, but the genre tells stories that are every bit as compelling, skillful an beautiful, as their higher-budgeted fiction counterparts. Here are the 15 documentaries released stateside this year that have allowed us access to unknown worlds, and made them all the more incredible for being real.
15. “A Band Called Death”
The story of one of the first proto-punk bands, Death, is one of the warmest and most heartfelt docs of the year, wrapping up themes of family, spirituality, and a tribute to vinyl in a neat rock doc package. Death, a group made up of four Detroit brothers, rocked the suburbs with a uniquely heavy funk rock sound for a time in the 1970s. Brother David was the visionary and pioneer of the group, giving the band its unique name and refusing to budge on record company pressures to change. The band broke up and the brothers drifted apart, and at the time of David’s death from cancer in 2000, their groundbreaking records were lost in an attic. Cut to a decade later, Death’s record has become a cult and coveted piece of vinyl, chased down all over the country by enterprising collectors, catching the ears even of David’s punk rocker nephews, who are completely unaware of their father and uncles’ involvement. This sets off a delightful family journey of music, fellowship, and an ability to finally mourn and understand their brother and uncle. It’s a great doc for music lovers, but the music (and it’s fantastic) is really just the showcase for the story of family and faith that shines through.
After the local mining industry has closed down and left the local economy in a state of desperation, a new line of work has emerged in Oceana, West Virginia—the drug trade. A stark documentary set in an Appalachian community, the doc derives its title from the nickname the locals have given their town (“Oxyana”), after an Oxycontin epidemic has ravaged their tiny hamlet and made every resident a potential addict. Documentarian Sean Dunne came to our attention back in 2008 at the Independent Film Festival of Boston where his LP-obsessives documentary “The Archive” screened. The doc made an impression and later went on to be Emmy nominated. He’s since directed the short Insane Clown Posse Juggalos documentary “American Juggalo” and “Oxyana” is his feature-length documentary debut. Bleak, unflinching and often difficult to watch, “Oxyana” is a transfixing portrait of a community in crisis. Featuring a haunting, dilapidated score by members of Deer Tick, “Oxyana” doesn’t editorialize outside of some key moments of music, instead eschewing drama to tell raw-nerved stories of addiction and struggle via the townsfolk themselves. Little rays of hope shine into Oceana, but Dunne’s rendering of this devastated town is hopefully a cautionary tale for anyone even thinking about going down the road of hard drugs.
Maybe the most brilliant aspect of “Blackfish,” easily one of the best and most gripping nature documentaries in recent years, is how it’s structured like a murder mystery. In this case: the 2010 death of Dawn Brancheau, a 40-year-old SeaWorld trainer who was drowned during a performance with killer whale Tilikum. From there, filmmaker Gabriela Cowperthwaite, spurred by her own feelings that something about Dawn’s death was fundamentally wrong, investigates Tilikum’s murderous history (this was actually the third person Tilikum had killed), the cruelty that the whale faced at SeaWorld and other parks, and the operational practices that allowed for an accident like this to happen. The whole movie is cloaked in tragedy, and it says something that SeaWorld has been violently fighting back against it ever since. (If there was no validity to the documentary, the park would probably just ignore it.) Some of the most haunting moments of 2013 occurred within “Blackfish”: the description of SeaWorld handlers separating a young orca from its mother (the mother produced sounds that had never been heard in science before; they later found out it was some kind of long-range distress call); the scientific evidence that there is a part of the brain that orcas have that humans don’t that allows for a more deeply felt emotional sensitivity; and the first-hand accounts of SeaWorld trainers about the lax security protocols and haphazard training that they would receive before being thrust into a tiny tank with one of evolution’s most streamlined killing machines. If you’ve ever thought about visiting a SeaWorld park, “Blackfish” will cause you to think again.
12. “20 Feet From Stardom”
After watching “20 Feet From Stardom,” we’ll never be able to hear “Gimme Shelter” by the Rolling Stones again without thinking of Merry Clayton. It’s an impressive song at its most basic elements, but Clayton’s backing vocals elevate the song to incredible heights, overshadowing even Mick Jagger. While that song prominently features backup singers, most of the time they’re relegated to the background, supporting the greatest artists in music history on both recordings and in live performances. This film, from rock doc veteran Morgan Neville, tells the story of some of the profession’s best, including Clayton, Darlene Love, Judith Hill, Claudia Lennear, Lisa Fischer, Táta Vega and The Waters. These women and men have backed up some of the biggest stars, including Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles and Sting. While these artists are often big enough to be known by a single name, most music fans couldn’t pick their backing vocalists if given multiple choices. “20 Feet From Stardom” explores just how close (but how very far) these incredibly talented singers are to fame. Our favorite songs wouldn’t sound the same without them, but we rarely give them a second thought. The film gave us new appreciation for not only the classic songs these artists appear on but also for the vocalists themselves, in fact, when we saw a public screening of the film, there were several moments where the perfection of their voices caused people to clap in the middle of the screening: the first time we’ve seen that happen. We’re often proud cynics, but we couldn’t help but join in.
11. “God Loves Uganda“
Taking a broader view of some of the same territory as this year’s equally powerful “Call Me Kuchu,” but examining the root causes of the issue, “God Loves Uganda,” the feature debut of Oscar-winner Roger Ross Williams (who took the documentary short prize in 2010 for “Call Me Prudence“) is a clear-headed, quietly furious look at the insidious influence of American evangelical churches on the virulently anti-homosexual laws in Uganda. While homophobia in certain parts has been widely reported, the most prominent incidents have been in Uganda: after a wave of moral panic, M.P. David Bahati introduced a bill that would punish homosexuality with the death penalty, causing a worldwide outcry (along with the killings of a number of prominent Ugandan gay men, most notably David Kato, the late subject of “Call Me Kuchu”). Williams’ film deals with the men and women suffering from persecution on the ground, and those like Bahati that are causing it, but also convincingly puts forward the thesis that the injustice trickles down from the effect of missionaries from evangelical mega-churches in the U.S. The sights in particular are focused on the International House of Prayer, and the frankly terrifying leader Lou Engle, whose teary-eyed fanaticism is one of the scariest things we saw on screen all year. Williams is from the give-them-enough-rope approach of advocacy documentary, and the film is positively enraging when it comes to the level of blind bigotry on display, but he’s not bashing religion either—the eloquent excommunicated bishop Christopher Senyonjo and exiled-to-Boston Ugandan Reverend Kapya Kaoma are reminders of how against the spirit of Christianity the International House Of Prayer and their cohorts really are.
10. “These Birds Walk”
Ostensibly a documentary about poor runaway children in Karachi, Pakistan, the Omar Mullick and Bassam Tariq-directed “These Birds Walk” could easily take on the attributes of social-realism documentary porn, the kind of made-for-guilt docs that Sally Struthers might narrate. But the film, which is almost more like a neorealist art film, has more complex aims tracking a runaway boy, a reluctant ambulance driver and their intersection with a dying humanitarian upon whom so much of their daily lives depend. Quietly heartbreaking and yet unsentimental and matter of fact, this atmospheric and gorgeously shot documentary chronicles the unlikely symbiotic relationship between this trio. Abdul Sattar Edhi runs a shelter for homeless children, Asad has to not only pick up dead bodies, but transport boys back to their families, and Omar is an escapee from Taliban country. When we discover Omar is homeless by choice and knows where his family lives, a distressing truth of socio-economic reality hits home; sometimes it’s easier for children to be sheltered at a homeless center than by their parents struggling to get by in huts without electricity or water. Shot over a three-year period, “These Birds Walk” isn’t particularly expansive in scope, but the carefully realized humanity depicted in stark, beautiful imagery transcends time and evinces deep empathy and observation in the details.
9. “The Punk Singer”
Kathleen Hanna always seemed a reluctant hero—feted by the media as the pin-up for modern feminism (as contradictory as that sounds), she never seemed to enjoy her time in the spotlight outside of being on stage with her bandmates. Whatever you want to call her, hero, one-woman zeitgeist, lightning rod, etc., she inspired people all around the globe, and a documentary about her is as much about the Riot Grrrl scene she helped create and foster and eventually, take to the mainstream. For Hanna, the personal is always political, and it’s reflected in her music, which director Sini Anderson manages to capture in what is an authentic, intimate and charismatic portrait. Even though the documentary zips by at 80 minutes, it manages to stop for a worthwhile pause on more reflective moments like Hanna’s recent return to stage with her new band The Julie Ruin. It’s gratifying for fans to see the side of Hanna that always shied away from media, her marriage to Adam Horovitz and the shock of her leaving Le Tigre and the music scene she helped nurture in 2005, and of course her previously unknown battle with Lyme disease. Far and away the best thing about a film like “The Punk Singer” however, is all the new people it will introduce to Hanna and her music both past, present and future.
8. “Inequality For All”
Towards the end of “Inequality For All,” the documentary featuring current Berkeley professor and former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, he recounts a heartbreaking story about the childhood bullying he suffered as a result of his Fairbanks disease. The older kids who protected him instilled a sense of fairness and standing up for the little guy in the future Rhodes’ scholar, and this concept permeates his work as an economist, policy maker and public intellectual. “Inequality For All,” based on Reich’s book, “Aftershock: The Next Economy and America’s Future,” posits a deceptively simple solution to the host of economic woes in America: stand up for the little guy—the middle class that is. Part Reich biopic and part Reich lecture, the film weaves lecture materials from his Wealth and Poverty class at Berkeley with the story of his life, and an explanation of just how we got here (hint: Reagan) and just what we can do to fix it. Though “commie” and “socialist” are thrown around by the likes of Bill O’Reilly, Reich really believes in properly regulated capitalism. His reasonable nature, easy charm, and determination to stand up for what’s right are a winning and inspiring combination and the film perfectly captures this. Incredibly educating, and surprisingly emotional, “Inequality For All” helps us to understand the world just a little bit more through Reich’s lens.
7. “Let The Fire Burn“
Surely the mayor of an American city wouldn’t firebomb his own people, right? Wrong, as the rigorous and gripping “Let The Fire Burn” demonstrated. Using only archival footage, which gives it the drive and propulsion of a thriller, director Jason Osder relates the story of the MOVE organization, a controversial group in 1970s and ’80s Philadelphia of mostly black membership, which to some was a harmless hippie-type commune, and to others was a sinister cult-like terrorist group. Either way (and Osder is careful to show the positive and negative side of the group), there’s no excusing the events on Osage Avenue on May 13, 1985, when during an armed standoff between the Philadelphia Police and the group, a police helicopter dropped a small explosive device on the MOVE house, designed to drive them out, but which instead ignited a blaze that destroyed 60 homes and killed eleven MOVE members, including five children. It’s a series of events that defies belief, and Osder’s razor-sharp assembly of the archival footage does a beautiful job of establishing the players and telling the story. By eschewing reflective present-day interviews or voiceover, the film does occasionally feel a little lacking in context, but it makes up for it with an immediacy that makes it feel closer to a Paul Greengrass docudrama than a talking-heads non-fiction film. Required viewing.
6. “The Trials of Muhammad Ali”
As New York Times writer Robert Lipsyte points out in Bill Siegel’s deeply fascinating, and often surprisingly moving “The Trials Of Muhammad Ali,” the boxer was one of the most recognizable faces on the planet in the ‘60s and ‘70s. It’s a fact that bears repeating, particularly for an icon who is so often categorized simply as a boxer who had activist leanings, and a deep connection to his faith. But it’s the way those identities intersected, with the responsibility the pugilist took on his shoulders for an entire people, and the manner in which Muhammad Ali used his celebrity to further the causes he cared about and spur a very public discussion about race and class, that made him a very complicated legend. And in “The Trials Of Muhammed Ali”—which tracks in detail Ali’s life during the years he was barred from boxing following his legal battle after declaring conscientious objector status to the Vietnam draft—Siegel puts together a powerful and honest look at Ali during that period. A masterful assembly of vintage footage and news reports combined with contemporary interviews manages to shine a whole new light on Ali, one we don’t often experience. Here is a man who risked his very livelihood and the facet of his life that defined who he was in the public eye, to take an initially very unpopular stand, one that put both himself and the Muslim faith on the line. ‘Trials’ doesn’t shy away from the mistakes Ali made, or the more outrageous statements that escaped his lips and it’s for the better. The result is a deeper appreciation and understanding of a man who swung just as hard outside the ring as inside it and who grappled very openly with his own shifting persona, helping to inspire not just a new generation of athletes, but young black men looking for a role model during a tumultuous time in American history.
5. “Cutie and the Boxer“
Ostensibly “Cutie and the Boxer” is about the somewhat tumultuous, decades-long relationship between Japanese painter Ushio Shinohara, known for his giant papier-mâché motorcycles, and his wife, Noriko, an artist in her own right (primarily for her autobiographical, cartoonish doodles). But like any good documentary, the Zachary Heinzerling-directed picture is about so much more. Structured around a joint art show, the movie reveals layers upon layers exploring the dynamic of artistic relationships, the hidden ego of even the most supposedly “grounded” artist, and the inner mechanisms of the art world—how, even after being proclaimed an underground sensation in the late ’60s (dramatized via authentic, historic news footage of Ushio that aired during a special on Japanese artists), you can still live in the same crummy, overstuffed studio, getting the runaround from gallery owners and museum curators. (Their agent is as cartoonish as anything Noriko draws.) But ultimately, “Cutie and the Boxer” (its name taken from Noriko’s cartoon alter ego and Ushio’s paintings where he dons boxing gloves and pummels the canvas) is a story of enduring love. Illustrated, quite literally, through animated versions of Noriko’s autobiographical drawings, their relationship has been more than rocky, with Ushio spending much of his earnings on alcohol and basically manipulating Noriko into bankrolling his work. It may have been a relationship that was founded out of necessity (and, given their huge age difference, a strain of sexually predatory behavior), but it’s blossomed into something both bizarre and healthily relatable. Some of the most riveting moments in the movie involve the couple bickering over the dinner table at one another. It’s a sight anyone who has ever been in a relationship can identify with and it becomes perfectly understandable where both artists’ tormented output comes from. And the amazingly powerful score by Yasuaki Shimizu adds even more to the almost operatic weight of the movie’s central love story. Shimizu’s music has the rare distinction of being one of the best scores of the near, nestled inside one of the year’s best documentaries.
4. “After Tiller“
In 2009, George Tiller, one of the last remaining doctors in the United States willing to perform valuable, oftentimes life-saving late-term abortions, was shot and killed by a pro-life zealot while serving as an usher at his church in Wichita, Kansas. His death was a tragedy, of course, and reignited the endless debate over women’s reproductive rights in the United States. It also meant that the number of doctors qualified to perform these risky late-term abortions was whittled down to four, and those doctors are at the center of this gripping documentary. What’s so great about “After Tiller” is that it’s structured like a workplace drama. These are doctors just doing their job, which happens to be highly controversial, specific, and dangerous. Fearless young filmmakers Martha Shane and Lana Wilson take us into the clinics, offering fly-on-the-wall documentation of what these women and girls are faced with (and what the doctors deal with too). Many times we get dense biographical background on the doctors through their own words; they’re all very humble people who, even after violent threats against their lives (including one doctor whose stable full of beloved horses was burned down, with the horses still inside) are committed to their job and to carrying on the legacy of Dr. Tiller. It’s not an outwardly confrontational film, and encourages discussion rather than heated debate, and is all the more powerful because of it. Sometimes it’s easier to change hearts and minds with a reasoned whisper rather than a furious scream.
3. “At Berkeley”
Frederick Wiseman is one of the true masters of the form, and has remained hugely prolific into his 80s, but we’d be lying if we said we’d flipped for some of his more recent efforts, like “Crazy Horse” and “Boxing Gym.” But with four-hour epic “At Berkeley,” he’s made a late masterpiece, probably his best film in a few decades. Wiseman turns his all-encompassing, ever-observing lens to UC Berkeley, arguably the last great public university, and one that finds itself increasingly under threat from funding drops. The normally neutral Wiseman quietly makes this into one of his more dialectic works (while maintaining a certain objectivity at the same time), mounting an irrefutable argument for the benefits of higher education not just for the students, but for society as a whole. There’s a lot more on the film’s mind than just that—a four-hour runtime doesn’t just come from nowhere—with philosophy, student politics, literature, race and science all touched on in places, but it’s the emphasis on community that makes “At Berkeley” feel like a film not just about a university, but about society in general. Wiseman’s mosaic-like structuring has rarely been put to better use, and the result is one of the most rousing and curiously moving films—fiction or non-fiction—of 2013.
2.”Stories We Tell”
It’s no coincidence that the rise of digital filmmaking over the past decade has coincided with the rise of documentary films. This year alone saw 151 films eligible for just five slots at the Oscars but a flood of new voices does not necessarily translate into an overflow of quality films. Most docs fall into a few basic categories (political, narrative, entertainment) and one’s interest in the film can usually be gauged based on your interest in its subject. (I like the band The National, therefore I might enjoy their new documentary, etc.) This leads to an unfortunate side effect where docs are praised or dismissed more for what they’re about rather than how they’re executed, conflating an interesting subject with an interesting film. But every so often a documentary comes along that seems to break the form wide open and reminds us of the limitless possibilities that the format provides. Enter Sarah Polley’s lovely, magnificent “Stories We Tell,” an autobiographical doc that examines the filmmaker’s own tangled family history centering on her mother, an actress whose big personality left an indelible mark on everyone she was close to. On the surface this would seem to be an exercise in extreme navel gazing, but what may have begun as a family photo album blossoms into an exploration of the fleeting nature of memory and how the truth may be a little bit different depending on who’s telling it. While the events that occur in the film are interesting, the way that they unfold is unforgettable. Through interviews, old home movies, newly staged voiceover and a few other surprises, Polley follows the story through its many unexpected twists, uncovering secrets she hadn’t set out to expose and uses the structure of the film to reflect and underline the themes of the story itself. It’s a truly rare doc where the story being told is enhanced so dramatically by the way in which it’s being told. Polley may have happened into the twisty nature of her film by accident but that doesn’t make it any less brilliant.
1. “The Act of Killing”
Joshua Oppenheimer‘s “The Act of Killing” is many things: shocking, absurd, sickening, and funny, despite itself, and it’s also one of the most important movies about the movies in recent history. Oppenheimer went to Indonesia to make a film about globalization and labor, and in doing so, stumbled upon the group of former gangsters who participated in one of the worst genocides in history, against the “Communists,” in 1965. These men remain in power in Indonesia, and boy, are they are not shy. The film opens with Anwar Congo‘s grisly demonstration of how he used to garrote his victims (the most efficient mode of killing), accompanied with a jaunty merengue. And therein lies the crux and conundrum of “The Act of Killing,” a tale of murder and memory careening between horror and perverse amusement. Oppenheimer decides to stage reenactments of the murders with some of the most boastful and cold-blooded killers, with Congo as his main point of reference. He admits to nightmares and drug use to drown out the horrific memories, which means he might someday be capable of understanding the ramifications of his actions, unlike some of his co-conspirators, the jolly, clueless Herman, and the cold-as-ice Adi. They readily agree to the reenactments, staged in different genres (gangster, Western, musical), because, you see, they are movie fans. Back in the ‘60s, Anwar, Adi and Herman were just a bunch of “movie gangsters” scalping tickets to Hollywood shows, when the “Communists” decided that Hollywood’s influence needed to be shut out and shut down the theaters. They were easily conscripted into death squads, eradicating the “Communists” and native Chinese one by one, and using techniques like the garrote that they picked up in gangster films. The reenactments that they stage are beyond surreal and absurd; portly Herman is most often in drag (he is a STAR, by the way), some sequences are laughable, others stomach-turning, some, like the musical number, oddly transcendent. In true cinéma vérité tradition, Oppenheimer shows Anwar the clips of himself playing the victim in a reenactment, and that’s when the veneer comes crumbling down, sledgehammered by cinematic truth and clarity. It’s a film about killing, on the surface, but it’s really a film about the power of movies: the influence of Hollywood (for better or for worse), the demands of capitalism, the exhuming of memory through storytelling. It’s unsettling, vastly important stuff, and Oppenheimer is tremendously surefooted in making his way through these morally murky waters—no easy feat. The film is not just an exposé of this genocide and its continuing repercussions, it’s a piece that pushes the boundaries of documentary form even further, cementing its place in history.
“56 Up,” the eighth entry in Michael Apted’s “Seven Up” series following the same diverse group at seven-year intervals in their lives from the time they were seven years old is every bit as wonderful and compelling as the last seven, with themes of middle age disappointment and small-scale triumph coming to the fore. A terrifically human social experiment.
“Leviathan” is a bleak but compelling, even terrifying, evocation of life at sea, a documentary framed as an art movie, according to our review from earlier this year.
“Narco Cultura” is a chilling glimpse into the codified universe of Mexico’s drug gangs that doesn’t flinch from relating the brutality of their existence to the folly of the War on Drugs. (Our review).
“We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks” is a vibrant piece of topical filmmaking that is maybe now slightly hamstrung by its very topicality—even in the months since its release, events in the world of high-level electronic espionage have moved along swiftly—but as an account of this inciting event it still fascinates. (Our review)
“Birth of the Living Dead” sees filmmaker Bob Kuhns do the unthinkable: make a new documentary about George A. Romero‘s classic “Night of the Living Dead” (roughly the nine thousandth in existence) that feels fresh and informative, thanks to talking head interviews with original crew members like Romero and cultural critics like Mark Harris and the New York Times’ Jason Zinoman—so good it’s scary.
“Room 237″: Many of us saw it on the festival circuit last year, but Rodney Ascher‘s mind-bending doc got a bigger release this year, meaning the number of theorists seeing hidden messages in Stanley Kubrick‘s horror masterpiece “The Shining” has multiplied (the home video release featured commentary by a theorist who initially refused to be a part of it, adding another level to the Bloomin’ Onion of Kubrick conspiracy docs).
And among the other films that missed out on the main list but had some of our number advocating for them were: Israeli security force doc “The Gatekeepers,” indictment of American foreign policy “Dirty Wars,” Tahrir Square doc “The Square,” Sophie Fiennes’ “The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology,” a look at the trial of Russian feminist punk collective in “Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer,” powerful Ugandan gay rights doc “Call Me Kuchu,” rock doc “Muscle Shoals,” inside baseball Cannes pic from James Toback and Alec Baldwin “Seduced and Abandoned,” and The National’s “Mistaken for Strangers.” Bearing in mind there are a few great documentaries we’ve seen at festivals that don’t get their releases until next year and so we’ve excluded those, let us know what you think of our selects, and what you think we’ve missed, in the comments.
–Katie Walsh, Drew Taylor, Oli Lyttelton, Kimber Myers, Sam Chater, Rodrigo Perez, Cory Everett & Jessica Kiang