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  • Don’s Favorite Documentaries of 2013

    Best of 2013

    By | December 23, 2013

    Thanks (again) in no small part to the impeccable programming at the True/False Film Festival (as well as strong documentary programs at Sundance and SXSW), I saw more documentaries in 2013 than ever before (even more than 2012!). As with the last couple of years, 2013 was an incredibly strong year for non-fiction filmmaking, making it incredibly difficult to whittle my favorites down to a mere 15 films. Thanks to Sarah Polley for making such a masterful and incredibly personal documentary, the only simple part of making this list was choosing the top documentary film of 2013. Actually, the top five films on this list all seem like obvious choices for the very best documentary films of 2013. Other than that, the ranking of most of the films on this list has been incredibly fluid all year long. In the end, it felt like I was essentially just playing “eeny, meeny, miny, moe” to figure out the final placement for the 6-15 slots. All 15 films on this list are totally incomparable and therefore un-rankable, so please take the numbers to the left of the film titles with a grain of salt.

    This list only includes documentaries that were theatrically released in 2013, unlike previous year-end lists that also included undistributed films. Unfortunately, this means that there is some overlap between this list and my 2012 list, but I felt that it wouldn’t hurt anyone if I spotlighted films such as Leviathan, Off Label, These Birds Walk and Herman’s House once again.


    15. Fire in the Blood

    While very traditional and dry in delivery, the subject matter of Fire in the Blood is persuasive enough to ignite a fiery passion under the collective butts of its audience. (Check out my full review of Fire in the Blood.)


    14. The Crash Reel

    The Crash Reel is an amazing documentary that will blindside you with some really unsuspecting narrative twists; so, do yourself a kindness and watch it before you start doing any research. (Check out my full review of The Crash Reel.)


    13. Herman’s House

    Herman’s House revels in Jackie Sumell’s tenacity and Herman Wallace’s sage-like presence. Angad Singh Bhalla portrays Wallace as a kind and thoughtful soul who has learned to continue living his life within the confines of his mind (since he spends 23 hours a day alone in his cramped cell). (Check out my full review of Herman’s House.)


    12. Let the Fire Burn

    This is a part of Philadelphia history that is never acknowledged, so now I want everyone to experience Let the Fire Burn to make sure we avoid situations like this in the future. I hope the reverberations of this film will haunt Wilson Goode for the rest of his life; but, first and foremost, I hope the truth behind these events continues to bubble towards the surface. (Check out my full review of Let the Fire Burn.)


    11. Call Me Kuchu

    An emotional tsunami, Call Me Kuchu is about sticking together and not conforming to popular opinion despite the ever-present dangers of not abiding by the government’s tyrannical rules; looking forward into the future and making sacrifices for the greater good. (Check out my full review of Call Me Kuchu.)


    10. Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?: An Animated Conversation with Noam Chomsky

    If I expected Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy? to be a biographical documentary about Chomsky, I would have been disappointed; but I knew that with Gondry at the helm, this film would be anything but traditional. (Check out my full review of Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?)


    9. These Birds Walk

    These Birds Walk is an intriguing documentary, not just because of its subject matter, but because of its approach to non-fiction storytelling. (Check out my full review of These Birds Walk.)


    8. Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer

    Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer is the first documentary out of the gate about this historical event. Mike Lerner and Maxim Pozdorovkin document the events adequately, combining archival footage with talking head interviews; yet I was hoping for Pussy Riot to be given more of a voice. (Check out my full review of Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer.)


    7. Off Label

    More poetic, illuminating and thoughtful than Michael Moore’s Sicko, hopefully Off Label will have a better chance at convincing people that the health care industry in the U.S. is totally fucked up. (Check out my full review of Off Label.)


    6. Leviathan

    The kinetic pacing lends Leviathan the air of a sea-faring action flick, while the off-kilter perspective of the low resolution cinematography turns the film into an experimental art piece; regardless, this film is one hell of an experience, hell being the operative word. (Check out my full review of Leviathan.)


    5. Dirty Wars

    Dirty Wars is an amazing piece of investigative journalism that slugs you right in the gut, then kicks you a few times while you’re down. (Check out my full review of Dirty Wars.)


    4. Blackfish

    By documenting the whales’ stressful living environments and their recorded histories of abuse, Blackfish provides undeniable evidence that SeaWorld knowingly (and repeatedly) risked the health and safety of their trainers and then had the audacity to blame the trainers if they were injured or killed by the whales. (Check out my full review of Blackfish.)


    3. The Act of Killing

    Just as the perpetually discomforting The Act of Killing will forever hold a sacred place in the history of non-fiction cinema, the film will certainly rattle around within your subconscious for an eternity. (Check out my full review of The Act of Killing.)


    2. After Tiller

    On the surface, After Tiller may seem like it is just another pro-choice documentary, but this is a film about human beings faced with very difficult — and often dangerous — situations. (Check out my full review of After Tiller.)


    1. Stories We Tell

    We all tell stories. We all have our own unique perspectives and interpretations of events. There is no absolute Truth. Everything is filtered through the various lenses of our past and present. Sarah Polley approaches Stories We Tell knowing full well that stories are just that: stories. (Check out my full review of Stories We Tell.)


    Also, check out my favorite undistributed films of 2013.

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