The Best Documentaries of 2013


It’s been said plenty—by myself and more than a few others—but 2013 has to be one of the very best years documentary filmmaking has ever seen. It’s a sentiment I seem to come back to year after year, to be honest. Part of that is me discovering the form, but I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say we’re in a golden age of non-fiction movies.

Directors are playing with the template in inventive and incredible ways, and never has that been truer than in 2013. This list of my 10 favorite documentaries of the year reflects that to a certain extent. Some of the most acclaimed documentary titles of 2013—The Act of Killing, Leviathan, At Berkeley—didn’t crack my top 10 for various reasons, but their achievements aren’t lost on me. Nor are the achievements of more traditional talking-head pieces—like Alex Gibney’s We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks—or “character”-focused tales—like Running from Crazy, featuring the tragic figure who was Margaux Hemingway.

Then, of course, there’s the deep list of films I wasn’t able to catch up with in time, ones that very well might crack the addendum to this list I publish in a few months. They include 20 Feet from Stardom, The Crash Reel, Tim’s Vermeer, and The Armstrong Lie.

But the ten below stuck with me and deserve commemoration nonetheless. They’re exceptional films by any measure:

10.) Evocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie

There have been more important documentaries this year—documentaries that ask tough questions about various controversies. There have been more impactful documentaries this year—documentaries that probe current or historical events in an effort to affect much-needed change. There have not, however, been many documentaries this year that are more entertaining than Evocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie.

9.) Stories We Tell

I wrote in my capsule review of Sarah Polley’s latest that I responded to it lukewarmly, but months later, I think that gut response had more to do with with the general critical consensus—which is nearly unparalleled this year—than the quality of the film itself. Who am I kidding—Stories We Tell is objectively exceptional. I maintain that it was a tad uncomfortable to watch a family discussed a deceased loved one’s most personal secrets, but they do it with love pouring out of every word.

8.) Narco Cultura

This cinema verite doc covers a slice of the Mexican cartel scene that’s rarely talked about. It cross-cuts between the law enforcement of Juarez and Mexican singers in America who glorify murdering drug lords. Director Shaul Schwarz’s thesis is clear—that the drug trade/culture relationship is dangerously symbiotic, i.e. young Mexicans see these two routes as the only ways to escape a life of poverty in the murder capital of the world, so bad men become heroes worth looking up to. It’s a tragic notion, and the film itself is tragically open-ended. Narco Cultura presents questions, not answers, which I suppose is a minor criticism. Ultimately, however, it’s a skillfully put together documentary that’s enlightening and emotionally present.

7.) These Birds Walk

In Karachi, Pakistan, there’s a home for boys run by a massive charitable organization called the Edhi Foundation, which provides services for the city’s ill, hungry, homeless, and otherwise afflicted. It’s the subject of this fantastic, very observational documentary from directors Omar Mullick and Bassam Tariq, who introduce us to vulnerable, fascinating young boys and a culture that’s almost impossible to fathom from your couch or a darkened movie theater. These Birds Walk is poetic, but the circumstances playing out on camera are anything but. These kids have great soul, but they’re living life from behind the eight ball, and your heart goes out to them. Spending 80 minutes with them is a real joy, however, and Mullick and Tariq deserve a great deal of credit for going above and beyond in crafting a film that’s organically powerful and improbably entertaining.

6.) Blackfish

Blackfish does everything a good documentary should. It’s enlightening and thorough. It engages your emotions. And it follows the most important rule of journalism—show, don’t tell. Unlike a lot of cinematic non-fiction (from every year but this one, it seems), Blackfish actually makes use of the medium. Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite presents horrifying footage of the mistreatment of captive killer whales by marine parks and the whales’ acting out violently against the human employees of these parks to tell a tale that’s damning and infuriating. And when she does need to rely on first-hand, talking-head accounts, she finds sources that have been visibly affected by their own actions or the actions of their employers. It’s a polished film filled with a quiet rage that stems from its willingness to let the facts do the talking.

5.) Let the Fire Burn

From the Senna school of documentary filmmaking (which calls on directors to use archival footage exclusively to craft their films) comes this frightening movie about forgotten tragedies in my home(ish) city. The approach, which allows director Jason Osder to implicate some higher-profile political figures who’d probably love to pretend this incident never happened, lends an air of “the truth is stranger than fiction” to the entire film, which chronicles the war—not an exaggeration—between the city of Philadelphia and the MOVE organization during the late 1970s and early 1980s. This war ended when the city literally bombed the fortified row house many MOVE members called home, and while it’s tough to get into the nuances of the two parties’ differences here, Osder lays it all out very clearly and doesn’t let his footage place blame at the feet of one side or the other. Great stuff.

4.) Call Me Kuchu

There’s courage, and then there’s what the men and women at the center of Call Me Kuchu display. This exceptional documentary chronicles the fight for LGBT rights in Uganda where homosexuality is illegal and almost became a capital offense. For these individuals, among them Uganda’s first openly gay man David Kato, leaving the country to escape persecution isn’t an option. If they leave, who will remain to protect those still in the closet or future generations who will try to live as out men and women among violent zealots? But each stays knowing any day, a bigot will end his or her life, and tragically, over the course of Call Me Kuchu, that will be the case for someone. And there’s no preparing for the tragedy that is this person’s funeral. It’s unrivaled when it comes to the year’s most powerful and overwhelming cinematic moments.

3.) After Tiller

There are few topics—hell, there are few words—out there that engender as much debate and blind passion as abortion. But if we can’t have a reasoned, level-headed conversation about the subject, at least we now know such a film can be made about it. After Tiller is not a fire-breathing piece of pro-choice propaganda, nor is it even a fact-based policy polemic. After Tiller is concerned with people—specifically the only four American doctors who actively perform late-term abortions. The approach gives the film a calm air, which is novel to both the subject matter and, frankly, the entire genre.

2.) Muscle Shoals

I struggled mightily with these last two, and Muscle Shoals ultimately lost the battle for #1 because it’s fluffier and less radical than its competition, but that shouldn’t take anything whatsoever away from Greg ‘Freddy’ Camalier’s absolutely joyful portrait of the tiny Alabama town that produced some of music’s greatest artists and songs. Aretha Franklin, Percy Sledge, Etta James, Clarence Carter, The Rolling Stones, Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Allman Brothers, Bono, and others are all on hand to to pay deference to a place that’s given them, and all of us as listeners, an unforgettable sound—a sound that’s the heart and soul of an unforgettable movie.

1.) Dirty Wars

The best documentary of 2013 is a film that chews up your hopeful, idealistic illusions regarding American leadership, spits them out, and leaves a cruise-missile-sized hole in your heart for good measure. Drone strikes and extra-covert military operations (including those that occur in nation-states we aren’t formally at war with) have been covered with regularity—if not tenacity—by the media over the past few years. Dirty Wars does what all of these news reports have failed to. It holds truth to power and shines a light on the ugliest side of our international affairs. It’s an utterly devastating cinematic experience.

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