The 15 Best Documentaries of 2013

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It’s been a bit of a strange year for documentaries, especially for the editorial staff here at Paste. Much of national critics’ most ardent praise revolved around three documentaries that we liked a lot, but didn’t find quite as earth-shattering as did their most vocal proponents. You’ll find them in the Top 15 list below, but neither The Act of Killing, Blackfish, nor even 20 Feet From Stardom occupies our top spot. We were a little closer to the consensus on the stunning Let the Fire Burn, but even that isn’t our #1. That honor belongs to a film we’d stack it up against the rest of those guys any day.

15. Blackfish
Director: Gabriela Cowperthwaite
Blackfish delivers ominous chills not because it documents orca attacks, but because it makes a clear, strong case that the attacks are of humankind’s making. It’s more Frankenstein than Jaws. Orcas are highly intelligent animals, susceptible to psychological scars, boredom, frustration and anger. The attacks didn’t spring from base animal instinct—killer whales aren’t known to attack humans in the wild—but from lives of mistreatment.—Jeremy Mathews

14. The Armstrong Lie
Director: Alex Gibney
Those going to The Armstrong Lie to savor the moment of Armstrong’s comeuppance may be disappointed: Even when Armstrong tries to be contrite near the end of the film, he seems to be holding back. It’s not remorse we see so much in his eyes as it is a begrudging acceptance that he’s been found out. Writing professors will tell their students that the best villains are the ones who think that they’re actually the hero. It helps explain why Lance Armstrong proves to be a formidable nemesis—and why, even after his fall from grace, he’s still so damn compelling.—Tim Grierson

13. Running From Crazy
Director: Barbara Kopple
Other than the Kennedys, perhaps no high-profile American family has endured more tragedy than the Hemingways. Most of the public is familiar with the suicide of Ernest and the overdose death of Margaux, but the sad story runs far deeper than that, with several other suicides, and mental illness issues running through many branches of the family. So Mariel Hemingway could be excused for feeling a bit hesitant about participating in a documentary about her family. But when a two-time Oscar winning master like Barbara Kopple knocks on the door, you really have to answer. It was a great decision, as Kopple takes Hemingway—and us—on quite a journey.—Michael Dunaway

12. The Crash Reel
Director: Lucy Walker
Walker’s favored extremity in The Crash Reel is snowboarding, which, as extreme sporting events go, appears rather mild—its traumas and injuries are thoroughly wince-inducing, but compared to, say, wingsuit diving, the mortality rate among its practitioners remains low. But Walker has seized upon snowboarding just as it approaches a newly hazardous precipice, and one of the remarkable things about The Crash Reel is how it chronicles the sport’s sudden drop off the other end. The catalyst, as the Cold War-like dramatics of the form dictate, is rivalry: Kevin Pearce and Shaun White, former friends and embittered adversaries, come to represent the film’s evenly matched hero and villain—Pearce the good-natured underdog on his way up, White the vainglorious champion whose years-long reign seems threatened. Of course, story, in a documentary, is nothing more than a pretense in thrall to the life from which it’s fashioned, and a filmmaker can only do so much to sculpt reality to her liking. But Walker has no need to anyway: here she’s happened upon a real-life conflict of almost inherently cinematic interest.—Calum Marsh

11. The Act of Killing
Director: Joshua Oppenheimer
Documentary filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing focuses on one of the darkest chapters of the 20th century, speaking to some members of the Indonesian death squads who slaughtered hundreds of thousands of their countrymen and women in 1965 and ’66. These people don’t live in the shadows, though: They’re treated like royalty in their native land, celebrated as heroes who helped “save” Indonesia from communism. The film is so shocking and depressing that its subjects’ utter disconnection from morality would almost be funny if it wasn’t so frightening. Oppenheimer amplifies those conflicting reactions further by introducing a daring gambit. In the process of interviewing these butchers—who brag about raping and killing their victims (including the occasional beheading)—the director asked if they would be interested in re-creating their murders through fictionalized, filmed scenes. The men—most notably a gentleman named Anwar Congo, who was one of the death squad leaders—leapt at the chance.—Tim Grierson

10. The Square
Director: Jehane Noujaim
Bringing calm insight to an impassioned, still-developing historic event, the documentary The Square looks at the 2011 Egyptian Revolution from the perspective of those who were on the frontlines from the very beginning, personalizing the dramatic developments without losing a sense of the greater stakes. Director Jehane Noujaim, who previously helmed Control Room and co-directed, has delivered a snapshot of a grassroots political movement over its bumpy two-year history, embracing the emotional complexity and logistical obstacles that have made Egyptians’ road to democracy so difficult.—Tim Grierson

9. Cutie and the Boxer
Director: Zachary Heinzerling
Great artists are often forgiven for flaws in their personal lives, but such forgiveness usually hinges on success. Cutie and the Boxer, Zachary Heinzerling’s fascinating documentary about Ushio Shinohara and his wife, Noriko, depicts a man who is entering his 80s, but still dreams like he’s 20. Heinzerling leaves open for debate whether the old man is an important mind or a bum.—Jeremy Mathews

8. At Berkeley
Director: Frederick Wiseman
Frederick Wiseman is a national treasure, a filmmaker who has spent his career diligently and perceptively documenting institutions, whether they be mental hospitals (Titicut Follies) or French burlesque clubs (Crazy Horse). At Berkeley is one of his best, and one of his longest: a four-hour examination of the University of California at Berkeley that chronicles everything from administrative meetings to classroom lectures. With Wiseman’s trademark restraint—rather than interviewing his subjects, Wiseman simply stands back and observes them in their natural habitat—he asks us to consider the college experience as a microcosm for the world with its warring philosophies and agendas. And if Wiseman’s thesis is accurate, we live in a pretty remarkable world.—Tim Grierson

7. 20 Feet From Stardom
Director: Morgan Neville
20 Feet from Stardom is a thorough—to the point of feeling a bit long—document on the craft of backup singing, revealing the special skill set required to achieve a perfect blend of voices and the spiritual high that can sometimes result; the difference between backup singers and eye candy (looking at you, Ike Turner); and the recording of “Sweet Home Alabama” amid the Civil Rights Movement. And it’s all set to a soundtrack some of the best tunes to come out of the second half of the 20th century.—Annlee Ellingson

6. The Gatekeepers
Director: Dror Moreh
Nominated for an Oscar and winner of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association’s Best Documentary Feature award, Dror Moreh’s The Gatekeepers may sound dry on paper: It’s a Hebrew-language documentary on Shin Bet—Israel’s internal security service. But the film resonates with viewers largely due to its access to and the candidness of its interview subjects: the six surviving directors of the Israeli secret service. Through their retrospection—and some arresting special-effects wizardry—The Gatekeepers explores the role Shin Bet has played in Israel’s short, tumultuous history.—Annlee Ellingson

5. Stories We Tell
Director: Sarah Polley
With Stories We Tell, actress-turned-director Sarah Polley has proven herself a consummate filmmaker, transforming an incredible personal story into a playful and profound investigation into the nature of storytelling itself. The central mystery of her documentary—that the man she grew up believing to be her dad is not her biological father—is public knowledge and revealed in the film’s trailer. Yet Polley conceals and reveals information—starting with her relationships to her interview subjects—in such a way as to constantly surprise, even shock, her audience. The result is a film that entertains and delights viewers while elevating her investigation to art.—Annlee Ellingson

4. Room 237
Director: Rodney Ascher
There exists a rare species of obsessive moviegoer—the hyper-fan who focuses on one film, mentally and emotionally ingesting it dozens, maybe hundreds, of times. Along a certain parallel, there is also a serious breed of conspiracy theorist, compulsive in his or her beliefs, taking things far beyond just watching Doomsday Preppers for fun. Put these two types together, and you get Room 237, the confounding, eye-opening, and often hilarious documentary about individuals whose over-wired brains are devoted to one cinematic masterpiece: Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining.—Norm Schrager

3. Leviathan
Directors: Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor
“The film is a gesture, a physical and emotional reaction to our experience, almost like an epileptic crisis or something—an aesthetic translation of what we have been subjected to.” That’s how co-director Véréna Paravel describes her documentary Leviathan, an utterly ravishing and pummeling impressionistic account of life on a high-seas fishing boat. Instead of storylines or talking-head interviews, Paravel and her partner Lucien Castaing-Taylor’s film simply plunges us into the terror and isolation of a brutal, dangerous job, its cameras diving into the ocean or following along as a fish gets caught in the net on its way to being gutted. You don’t learn many facts about commercial fishing from Leviathan, but you leave the movie convinced you understand it on a primal, cathartic level, which is how art sometimes works best.—Tim Grierson

2. Let the Fire Burn
Jason Osder
On May 13, 1985, a deadly altercation broke out in Philadelphia between police and a radical organization called MOVE, resulting in 11 deaths and the destruction of several city blocks. First-time filmmaker Jason Osder’s riveting documentary brilliantly re-creates that day entirely through live local broadcasts and a televised city hearing months later that investigated who was at fault. Let the Fire Burn is a found-footage landmark that presents a troubling commentary on race relations in America that remain distressingly unresolved. Perhaps even more impressively, though, Osder’s film doubles as a moving, engrossing courtroom thriller populated with unexpected heroes and fascinating, nuanced insights into how human beings behave in a crisis.—Tim Grierson

1. Muscle Shoals
Greg “Freddy” Camalier
Freddy Camalier’s masterly Muscle Shoals is about the beginnings and heyday of the recording scene in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, a tiny town that improbably changed the face of rock’n’roll, putting out along the way some of the greatest records in the history of American music. Many of those moments are recounted to great effect in the film; first-timer Camalier is obviously a natural storyteller. But there’s so much more to the doc—the cinematography is lush and beautiful, the editing is crisp and precise, and it’s in turns heartbreaking, inspiring, wry, thought-provoking, nostalgic, and genuinely funny. It’s simply a stunning debut film. It helps that Camalier and his producing partner Stephen Badger are after more here than just a dry lesson in musical history. They delve into the Civil Rights Movement and its effect specifically on Alabama, especially as it relates to a Muscle Shoals music scene that was, shockingly enough, lacking in any racial tension. They return again and again to the ancient Native American legend about the river that flows through the town, and the water spirit who lived there, sang songs, and protected the town. And the personal life of Fame Records founder Rick Hall, the protagonist of the film, is itself worthy of a Faulkner novel. It’s thrilling, it’s engaging, it’s fascinating, it’s stirring. It’s the best documentary of the year, whether you’re a music lover or not.—Michael Dunaway

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