The 10 Best Documentaries of 2013

It was another strong year for documentaries. Find out which films made the top of our best of 2013.

It was another strong year for documentaries, even though I missed a number of movies I am still dying to see, including Frederick Weisman’s At Berkely , Emma Davie I Am Breathing, Roger Ross Williams’ God Loves Uganda and Martha Shane and Lana Wilson’s At Tiller. Of what I did catch this year, here are my top ten, with two honorable mentions.

10. 56 Up

In the more than a half-century since the idea was hatched, Michael Apted’s Up series has become an unique anthropological document, following the lives of a handful of British youngsters for the entirety of their lives, checking in every 7 years to mark their accomplishments and failures (as well as hear a little criticism for being roped into such an relentless cinematic project). 56 Up, like its predecessors, is equal parts fascinating and sensitive, offering its own rarefied and particular insight into who we are and how we live.

9. Room 237

Room 237 plays like a conspiracy film for cinema buffs. The particular way Kubrick shot his classic horror film The Shining, chock-full of subliminal messages, visual cues, and elusive cognitive symmetry, has spawned a subculture of devotees who obsess over unpacking its secret and hidden meanings. There’s a pleasure in merely being submerged in the film in this way, but the documentary also doubles as an off-beat hermeneutics of cinema.

8. The Trials of Muhammad Ali

Bill Siegel’s film focuses on Ali’s religious and political education during the time he was banned form the ring due to his conscientious objection to the Vietnam War. In doing so, it resurrects the image of the legendary sportsman as a radical and social revolutionary. As much as it offers new insight into Ali, the film serves as a critique of the tendency to white wash our heroes in a way that diminishes our cultural icons.

7. Our Nixon

Using footage shot by two of Nixon’s closest aids, director Penny Lane retells the story of the Nixon administration through the eyes of those who admired him. The result is a fascinating historic and cinematic document, one which deepens the complexity of an already complex moment in American history and offers naked insight into the inner workings of our government.

6. Blackfish

John Waters called this documentary a “whale snuff-film,” which is only the slightest overstatement. The film looks at aquatic attractions like Sea World and the decades-long cover-up of animal abuse and human injury. There’s blood, maiming, and even death (both human and whale), but it’s a grisly and unsettling road the filmmakers must travel down in order to drive home the barbarism of the practice of trained killer whales, while simultaneously opening up new appreciation of these sensitive, intelligent creatures.

5. 20 Feet From Stardom

This look at the lives of the singers whose names you know but whose voices are legendary. Their stories pull back the curtain on the everyday hopes, dreams, and struggles endured in quest of the American Dream.

4. A Band Called Death

A remarkable story of music, family, punk, and Detroit, A Band Called Death retells the story of a band of African-American rockers who created a genre of music in their bedroom only to find exposure elusive and their legacy lost to the dustbin. Unearthing their history provides further twists.

3. Cutie and the Boxer

Cutie and the Boxer is a story about love, aging, purpose, and chasing life’s meaning. It offers an intimate look into the life of an artists, replete with suffering, struggles, poverty, regret, and indiscretion. These are all subjects that have been tackled before in this form, but director Zachary Heinzerling achieves and intimacy and depth of feeling in his film that makes these resonate in new and powerful ways.

2. Stories We Tell

Sarah Polley’s deeply personal film tries to piece together her own history and the history of her parents, only to unravel a complex backstory that shines light on the foggy relationship between our historical narratives and personal identity.

1. The Act of Killing

A bizarre, harrowing and endlessly fascinating movie that looks at toll of genocide, corruption, and murder on the individuals involved in an unforgettable way.


Honorable Mentions

While both flawed in the way they allow the personality of their subject obstruct the importance of their content, both Dirty Wars and Inequality for All are powerful and perspective-changing documentaries. Jeremy Scahill’s sensationalist look at the U.S. covert military involvement overseas, Dirty Wars offers a shocking view into our nation’s secret wars which will change the way you think of U.S. foreign policy and the American president. And in Inequality for All, Former Clinton Administration secretary of the treasury, Robert Reich, makes an impassioned and cogent plea for rethinking the rigging of our economic system.