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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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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





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