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Critic’s Picks: The Top 10 Documentaries Released in 2013 According to Indiewire's Film Critic

Photo of Eric Kohn By Eric Kohn | Indiewire December 9, 2013 at 10:20AM

In the 21st century, what constitutes serious documentary filmmaking? Try these films for starters.
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"Cutie and the Boxer."

In the 21st century, everyone is an amateur documentarian. From snapshots of turmoil in the streets of Syria to adorable glimpses of the world’s nuttiest pets, the volume of video documenting virtually every facet of societies around the world continues to rise at an unprecedented rate. Moving images aren’t just a record of the world as it passes by; they now document virtually every waking moment of the present.

What, then, constitutes serious documentary filmmaking? Over half a century since the cinema verite movement, there has been no real consensus on where non-fiction storytelling is headed. To some extent, the term itself restricts discussion of the documentary’s possibilities: Any kind of filmmaking forced to adhere to a set of aesthetic or technical expectations can’t possibly evolve. However, the past year has seen the release of a healthy blend of traditional documentaries and boundary-pushing works that revitalize the medium.

The following 10 titles, released over the course of the past 12 months, represent both ends of the spectrum. Collectively they show that even as some of the more straightforward approaches to documentary filmmaking continue to enthrall with topical issues, the various ways in which documentaries as a creative practice will keep developing are limitless.

10. “After Tiller”

"Everything has a risk to it," says the late Dr. George Tiller in the opening moments of "After Tiller." It's a prophetic statement that defines the movie's stance. In 2009, Tiller, one of only five licensed physicians performing third-trimester abortions, was shot to death by an extremist while the doctor was attending church. Directors Martha Shane and Lana Wilson follow the experiences of the remaining four in the wake of his death, emphasizing the nobility of their practice even as they face mounting pressure from the far right. The documentary compellingly illustrates how the regular perils of their profession make them martyrs for a tragic need.

In constructing its gripping overview, "After Tiller" maintains a generally straightforward roundup of talking heads, but its unassuming construction gradually generates an authoritative voice. Only once the arguments have been plainly established does the emotion truly take hold, with the doctors expressing their own reservations about their perilous task. In describing the experience of delivering a stillborn child, Stella asserts, "That's not tissue. It's a baby." That line alone embodies the challenge of fighting for a cause that nobody wants to face in the first place.

9. "Cutie and the Boxer"

"Art is a demon that drags you along," says 80-year-old visionary painter Ushio Shinohara in first-time director Zachary Heinzerling's delicate portrait "Cutie and the Boxer," but neither Shinohara nor his supportive wife and fellow artist Noriko are looking for a cure. Heinzerling's beautifully shot, painfully intimate look at the aging couple's struggle to survive amid personal and financial strain is both heartbreaking and intricately profound. This is a story about creative desire so strong it hurts. 

Heinzerling has chosen the right subject to make that point. Shinohara, a resident of New York's fine art scene since the late sixties, primarily indulges in a practice known as "box painting," an aggressive technique that finds him hurtling paint-covered gloves across a massive canvas, churning out loud, stream-of-conscious abstractions in under three minutes. Heinzerling first shows us this phenomenal practice in an early long take that establishes the movie's engrossing style. The filmmaker brings this world to life with a mixture of realism and vivid imagery. Set to Yasuaki Shimizu's smooth jazz compositions, animations based off Noriko's drawings and subtle camerawork that explores the crevices of Shinohara and Noriko's lives, "Cutie and the Boxer" uses each frame in expressive ways on par with its subjects' work.

8. "Lenny Cooke"

New York filmmakers Josh and Benny Safdie are known for their irreverent urban narratives "The Pleasure of Being Robbed" and "Daddy Longlegs," both of which contain a naturalistic quality that suggests they could work wonders with non-fiction. With "Lenny Cooke," they've done just that: Partly a found footage documentary about former high school basketball star Lenny Cooke, who in 2001 ranked highest in the country, the movie follows Cooke from his promising teen years through the series of disappointments that follow, constructing a beguiling American tragedy that defies genre categorization and eventually veers into magic realism even as it remains tethered to a true story.

The Safdies have stood out over the last few years for continually challenging audience expectations even while seeming to adhere to conventional storytelling traditions, and that's certainly true here: You've never seen a sports movie like this before.

7. "Blackfish"

Nobody from SeaWorld agreed to an interview for "Blackfish," Gabriela Cowperthwaite's searing take on the theme park's mistreatment of killer whales and the dozens of deaths that have resulted from it. Instead, the majority of its subjects are ex-SeaWorld trainers frustrated by the negligence they witnessed up close and willing to speak out. Nevertheless, based on the evidence on display in "Blackfish," Cowperthwaite's case against SeaWorld would change little with an opposing point of view. The movie makes a strong case against the captivity of killer whales under sub-circus conditions, but the stance is made even more horrifying because so little has changed in the history of the organization. "Blackfish" is less balanced investigation than full-on takedown of a broken system.

Cowperthwaite's framing device is the February 2010 death of veteran SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau, who was ripped to shreds by the notorious Tilikum, a whale responsible for two other deaths along with other human injuries since getting captured in the early 1980s. However, "Blackfish" tracks countless other incidents across several decades of orca whale training, all of which coalesce into a stinging assertion that SeaWorld both relies on animal abuse and carelessly puts its employees in constant danger.

Because it involves the abuse of intelligent sea animals, the easiest point of comparison in the documentary arena is the dolphin slaughter documentary "The Cove," but a more relevant precedent of recent memory is "Project Nim," where an ill-fated attempt to domesticate chimps leads to the realization that you can't tame nature. "Blackfish" hails from that same school of thought, making the unsettling case that SeaWorld's live acts of entertainment are in fact a expensively veiled form of torture.

6. "The Last of the Unjust"

Claude Lanzmann's sprawling 1985 documentary "Shoah" deserves its slot as the definitive non-fiction Holocaust movie, but even its eight-hour running time can't fully encompass the director's years of research. Lanzmann spent a decade gathering interviews exploring virtually every angle of that tumultuous period, wisely relying on first-hand testimonies and the haunting quality of contemporary locations where the genocide took place to give his chronicle weight. With "The Last of the Unjust," he proves the approach maintains its gripping power. Now in his late eighties, Lanzmann continues to unload the footage he gathered during his initial production. In 2011, a half-hour interview with concentration camp whistleblower Jan Karski aired on French television as "The Karski Report," but that was little more than a slim profile compared to Lanzmann's current achievement. "The Last of the Unjust," a 218-minute look at the Czech ghetto Theresienstadt and one of the Jewish men tasked with running it, magnifies a previously underexplored tale of persecution with incredible dexterity. By unearthing a series of interviews conducted in 1975 with the elderly Benjamin Murmelstein, the only survivor of the so-called "Elder of the Jews" in charge of the ghetto, Lanzmann resurrects the aesthetics of "Shoah" while extending its narrative into a new chapter.

5. "First Cousin Once Removed"

Documentarian Alan Berliner is frequently the focus of his movies, but his aim extends beyond his neuroses. Rather than the star of the show, he's a vessel for bigger ideas and evades the perils of self-indulgence that could result from putting himself in front of the camera. That tricky balance is on display better than ever in the stirring "First Cousin Once Removed," which deepens an oeuvre that has already dealt with the tender issues of father-son relationships ("Nobody's Business") and insomnia ("Wide Awake") by exploring his fears of senility to devastating effect. Using a powerful focal point to manifest the movie's central concerns, Berliner makes his interest in the topic relevant to everyone.

His case study is Edwin Honig, the first cousin of Berliner's mother, a bond that gives the movie its title. But there's more about Honig -- once a world-class poet and founder of Brown University's creative writing program -- that has been removed beyond his relationship to the filmmaker. Suffering from Alzheimer's disease before the movie begins, Honig has lost grasp of his identity or any firm understanding of his relationships to those around him. Still haunted from his own father's death from the disease, Berliner sets out to understand the nature of Honig's increasing frailty by working to unlock the older man's dwindling memories.

Just as Berliner's father overtook "Nobody's Business" with his wisecracking responses to the filmmaker's questions, Honig eventually subsumes the perspective of "First Cousin Once Removed," and Berliner allows his elder's crumbling subjectivity to dominate. A final credit chillingly tests the audience's own mental capacity, broadening the movie's perspective so that nobody can escape its clutches without contemplating the cold fate that awaits us all. It's the biggest idea Berliner has engaged to date -- and for the same reason, it's also his crowning achievement.

4. "Stories We Tell"

Sarah Polley's efforts behind the camera have showcased tender performances attuned to nuanced fluctuations in shared screen chemistry. Both her Oscar-nominated 2006 directorial debut "Away from Her" and the recent "Take This Waltz" explore the deterioration of relationships in minute detail. While her third feature, "Stories We Tell," marks a shift to nonfiction for the filmmaker, it similarly foregrounds the subtleties of human expression and the secrets embedded within it. A blatantly personal account of her Toronto-based family's rocky developments, "Stories We Tell" marks the finest of Polley's filmmaking skills by blending intimacy and intrigue to remarkable effect.

Part of the reason why "Stories We Tell" works so well is that at first it doesn't seem like it should. Setting up interviews with her father, Michael, in addition for various family and friends, Polley embarks on an account of her actor-mother Diane, who died of cancer when Polley was still a child. While obviously heartfelt, the drama lacks an immediate hook for those unacquainted with Polley's personal history, and she doesn't back away from it. "Who the fuck cares about our family?" her sister asks, establishing a challenge that Polley cautiously navigates for the first 45 minutes before reaching a point where the allure is self-evident.

Even before then, however, "Stories We Tell" is a fluid, engaging memoir by virtue of its construction. Polley apparently spent five years threading together conversations with Michael in addition to her other relatives and friends, and the effort shows. Coming full circle, the director eventually turns the camera on herself, but avoids coming across as mopey or narcissistic. Instead, the storyteller enters the story in order to understand its significance. "The crucial function of art is to tell the truth," she's told, but she posits her mission as an attempt to find "the vagaries of truth" and ultimately leaves us with a slew of ambiguities. By the end, only a handful of certainties have bubbled to the surface, none more affecting than the case for the movie's existence.

3. "Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?"

At one point in "Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy? An Animated Conversation With Noam Chomsky," Michel Gondry's free-roaming animated portrait of his discussions with the famed MIT linguist, the filmmaker makes it clear that the chief audience he hopes to please is his subject. Gondry, who narrates the documentary throughout, explains his desire during production to complete the project before the octogenarian Chomsky dies. The revolutionary thinker, who turns 85 this December, showed no signs of a premature departure, but Gondry's admission suggests the deadline mainly reflects his own mortal fears. It's a tender observation that taps into the self-defined urgency behind his creative drive, providing a reminder that the capricious nature of his work obscures far more substantial philosophical inquiry.

It also connects the seemingly loose, blithe style of Gondry's hand drawn framing device with the typically pensive Chomsky at the story's center. A rather bizarre mismatch on paper, Gondry's eccentric look at Chomsky's intellectual proclivities leads to a thoughtful examination of both director and star. In its introductory sequence, the director explains (with a handily subtitled voiceover he provides to wade through his thick French accent) his attraction to Chomsky's ideas about the secrets of the human mind after encountering several of his books. For Gondry, whose initial narrative features "Human Nature" and "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" took cues from the epistemologically off-beat screenplays of Charlie Kaufman, the prospects of talking through Chomsky's intellect has personal stakes. The gamble pays off: "Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?" bears the stamp of Gondry quirk but allows it to feel a lot more intimate than anything he's done since "Eternal Sunshine."

The centerpiece of "Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?" is as much Gondry as Chomsky; the contrast between them wryly juxtaposes measured and chaotic introspection. By extension, its real topic is the elusive nature of all thought processes, and it effectively shares the dual speakers' collective journey without revealing any tangible destination. The movie ends, but the discussion resonates indefinitely.

2. "Leviathan"

The Harvard Sensory Ethnographic Lab has churned out remarkable non-fiction inventions like “Sweetgrass,” “Foreign Parts” and this year’s festival sleeper hit “Manakamana,” which took place entirely within the confines of a cable car. But none of them feature the sheer masterful inventiveness of “Leviathan,” an expressonistic look at life onboard (and slightly off-board) a fishing boat in Massachusetts.

There are moments in "Leviathan" so breathtaking that it's easy to forget they're also familiar. Captured on small digital cameras fixed to fishermen helmets, tossed beneath the waves and strewn across the deck among the dead-eyed haul, the barrage of visuals populating "Leviathan" contain a routinely dissociative effect. The dialogue is sparse and distant, drowned out by hulking machinery, wind and water. The movie could take place on another planet; instead, it peers at this one from a jarring and entirely fresh point of view.

Despite the overload of sights and sounds, "Leviathan" adheres to a remarkably cogent aesthetic filled with innumerable painterly touches, from the red and blue gloves of the fishermen to the dark yellows of the ship interiors. Even as its perspective grows increasingly alien, "Leviathan" is full of life.

1. "The Act of Killing"

In Joshua Oppenheimer's "The Act of Killing," a pair of gangsters -- responsible for murdering an untold number of suspected communists in the years following the 1965 overthrow of the Indonesian government -- get the chance to recount their experiences. At first showing no visible remorse, the men boast of their achievements, and Oppenheimer capitalizes on their enthusiasm with a twisted gimmick: The men are given numerous opportunities to reenact the murders for Oppenheimer's camera, sometimes emphasizing their brutality and occasionally delivering surreal, flamboyant takes that offer a grotesque spin on classic Hollywood musicals. Playing make believe with murderers, Oppenheimer risks the possibility of empowering them. However, by humanizing psychopathic behavior, "The Act of Killing" is unparalleled in its unsettling perspective on the dementias associated with dictatorial extremes.

Oppenheimer's main focus is a lean man named Anwar Congo, one of several former members of the Indonesian paramilitary organization Pancasila Youth. Drawing from American movie clichés for his image as a menacing bad guy, Congo and one of his colleagues indulge Oppenheimer with stories of their murderous achievements while also complaining about the perception they face from the rest of the world. "We have too much democracy," one of them says. Frequently, the men refer to their power of gangsters as "free men," but Oppenheimer gradually reveals that no matter how much they justify their past, they remain trapped by the lingering feelings of discomfort that their horrific deeds have planted in their heads.

The case can be made that Oppenheimer lets Congo and the other participants off too easy. They never receive a direct comeuppance. However, "The Act of Killing" vilifies these men by implication. It's possible they might not mind the way they come off for the camera, as they're all to eager to explain themselves; it's that very eagerness, however, that confirms their guilt.

For more on "The Act of Killing," check out our profile of director Joshua Oppenheimer in our Awards Season Spotlight section.

This article is related to: Critic's Picks, Reviews, Documentary, Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?: An Animated Conversation with Noam Chomsky, The Act of Killing, Stories We Tell, After Tiller, First Cousin Once Removed, Blackfish, The Last of the Unjust, Lenny Cooke, Cutie and the Boxer