Writer’s Note: This is one in a series of articles on The Movie Blog looking back at some of movies most notable highlights, big trends, and best features of 2013.
2013 was another exceptional year for a wide variety of documentaries. As technological advancements in the 21st Century allow for filmmakers to access knowledge and transmit ideas and footage around the world, we are witnessing a renaissance in the genre and overall revolution in the stylistic format of documentaries. In providing a polar opposite alternative to Reality TV, documentaries still challenge our world views (or sometimes re-enforce them as audiences prefer to watch what they want). These movies can impact culture and alter the dialogue to hot button topics (Super-Size Me and Inconvenient Truth brought issues of nutrition and obesity as well as environmental sustainability to the mainstream American conversation improving the situation for the better.)
The following are documentary trends from the year followed by my Top Ten List for Best Documentaries of 2013:
Act of Killing: A Game Changer for Documentaries
Hands down, the best documentary of 2013 was the haunting and informative The Act of Killing. Distributed by Alamo Drafthouse, the fun loving, alcohol infused theater chain in Austin, TX recently is contributing to releasing important movies. Act of Killing will have an impact as a prominent theatrical distributor opening up the new studio to a variety of possibilities. From the shocking graphic re-enactments (decapitations, screaming crowds) to goofy moments (the dancing women) to the stark commentary on violent regimes, The Act of Killing had it all for a documentary and was easily the best one of the year. One day I hope to watch the longer version not released in the United States.
CNN Films: An Emerging Leader for a New Platform Release
As Fox News and MSNBC get suckered into the bitter and pointless culture war fights to further inflect sensationalism to American partisans, it is admirable that CNN distributes thoughtful and (mostly) even handed non-fiction features to mass audiences. Case in point: Blackfish. The highly rated documentary provided a platform for viewers and earned the network high ratings. Both my parents watched and my meat eating loving, conservative father texted me in shock in the middle of the broadcast stating, “SeaWorld is finished.” (Thanks to Michael Moore, he views most documentaries with suspicion.) Informative documentaries airing on cable news is refreshing change of pace. CNN could once again be a leader in providing informative content to viewers. How could those other networks copycat success? Fox News airing Money for Nothing: Inside the Federal Reserve and MSNBC playing Inequality for All would be a start while complementing their commentary.
Dancing in the Seats: Music Docs Became a Favorite Topic.
It started this year with the resurgence of Searching For Sugarman‘s solid re-release in urban art houses to its expected Best Documentary Oscar win. Attending the South by Southwest Film Festival was eye opening for how many music docs were released this year. And what better venue to showcase of music focused documentary than at SXSW? The feel good (and potentially Oscar winning) 20 Feet from Stardom, the gritty Muscle Shoals, the entertaining The Great Hip Hop Hoax, the informative Spark: A Burning Man Story, the activist infused Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer, the rock concert Sound City, Napster’s saga in VH1’s Downloaded, the revelatory A Band Called Death all screened during the festival (while mostly premiering elsewhere). Documentaries featuring Journey, Bruce Springsteen, Harry Dean Stanton, One Direction, and Justin Bieber screened this year, too. Also, a Metallica film played in theaters. (I’m sure more music documentaries were released this year). VH1 would benefit airing more movies like these than shallow reality TV series.
Top Ten Best Documentaries of 2013:
1. Act of Killing
A devastating expose the genocide and massacre in Anwar Congo in Medan, Indonesia. When the government of Indonesia was overthrown by the military in 1965. They were recruited from the recently established rebellious army to kill more than one million supposedly communists, some ethnic Chinese, and intellectuals in around a year. Reflecting on the dehumanizing attitude and comparing it to today’s global chaos was haunting and revelatory. It stalks the viewer weeks after watching.
2. Tim’s Vermeer
Debuting in the fall festival circuit and barely qualifying for awards, Penn & Teller crafted an amusing and thought provoking exploration of the duality of art and innovation. Focusing on Tim Jenison, a Texas inventor, seeks to solve one of the great mysteries in art: 17th century Johannes Vermeer (“Girl with a Pearl Earring”) paint photo-realism (150 years before photography was invented)? The result plays well for curious left brained and right brained audiences which combine a PBS style expose of art culture with a sense of (old school) Discovery Channel intrigue and experimentation. Fascinating subject matter.
3. Stories We Tell
Sarah Polley paints a complex picture of the legacy of her mother as she seeks to find information about her real father. A heartwarming investigation unravels like a complex jigsaw puzzle and emotional engaging experience for Polley and the viewer’s caught up in the mystery and the revelations. More people should see this movie. At the core is a woman learning about her and the family she hardly knew based upon storytelling and memory? And sometimes in the end, this shows how perceptions could play tricks on you.
The enraged activist documentary full of righteous anger for Animal Rights crowd has mainstream appeal for concerned citizen, families with little children, and people who grew up with SeaWorld. The interviews are haunting, the footage cringe worthy. CNN brought awareness to the issue. The famous performing orca whale Tilikum is the focus in Blackfish which rightfully takes to task SeaWorld. This had an impact on me more than the Oscar winning documentary The Cove.
5. (tie) Inequality For All / Money For Nothing: Inside the Federal Reserve
One of the reasons why I wasn’t as gung ho about Inside Job was because there is more to the economic American decline than the Oscar winning documentary portrayed (besides Restrepo was better). Both Inequality for All and Money for Nothing: Inside the Federal Reserve blame American financial woes on various factors painting a complex picture of the eroding Middle Class. Also, Inside Job neglected the negative impact of the Federal Reserve. As a double feature, this is gut punch for concerned economists that need to translate to the average working individual. Both are highly recommended.
6. 56 Up
The epic conclusion to the Up Series (first in 1964 with Seven Up) focuses as a whole on the aging progression of a select few Britain’s who age and dream through the years. Nothing featured is really too-special nor sensationalized. How refreshing and even intriguing! Simply put, this is a masterful documentary providing a snapshot of the progression of aging. For such a standard look at life, it’s vivid, articulate, remarkable, dense, and complex documenting experience.
7. 20 Feet from Stardom
As previously stated, music documentaries were a big topic and overall contribution to the non-fiction subject matter format in 2013.This music documentary showcased the backup singers to very recognizable stories going as the popular VH1 Doc Series was named “Behind the Music.” Screening in very few theaters with a robust $4 million gross, the summer sensation 20 Feet from Stardom was a lot of fun. I remember the audience dancing in their seats at my advanced screening.
8. (tie) Caucus and The Square
Political revolutions can be painful and messy movements. Two contrasting documentaries with similar subject matters had more in common than one would initially realize. The resurgence of the Middle East Arab Spring and the erosion of American white male Protestant influence make for an interesting comparison for documentary subjects. I saw similarities with both the GOP Iowa Presidential contest documentary feature Caucus and the Egyptian political turmoil in The Square. Both offer a rare, insightful peak at grassroots frustrations seeking political change.
9. Unhung Hero
The funniest movie of 2013 that few people watched was the documentary Unhung Hero. An outrageous premise with incredible delivery, the doc focused on comedian Patrick Moote who had his marriage proposal rejected due to the below average size of his penis. He goes on a global quest of self-discovery and deprecation to find out if size matters. When stale comedies like Identity Thief and We’re The Millers sucked the energy and money from gullible movie goers this year, Unhung Hero deserves your time, money, and recommendation to others. On DVD, it is waiting to be discovered.
10. Rewind This
A little seen SXSW premiere available on DVD, Rewind This an amusing and insightful, nostalgic throwback to the post-Beta, Pre-DVD days of watching movies at home. This fun, pop culture infused documentary about how the VHS format paved the way for the underground cult movements and the distribution of pornography. What’s great about Rewind This is how the doc reflects how studios were leery of technological changes of distribution. True today as a reminder not to ignore consumer demands. Viewers had control of the movie medium unleashed freedom we take for granted on the Internet.
Even though 2013 was another stellar year for documentary features, I am looking forward to see what other documentaries open during 2014. This list was featured in NonFics.com first annual NonFics Critics Poll. The results can be found here.