As you may know, every week we update our Best Indies of 2013 list, highlighting the films that have the highest grade averages among this year's VOD and theatrical releases. Some of the titles that populate this particular assemblage of films are the usual suspects, the critical darlings whose praises have been sung numerous times over. But for every "Before Midnight" and "Frances Ha," there are a few lesser known entries that manage to crack this upper indie echelon.
Some of these underseen titles are documentaries, part of a genre that is sometimes difficult to pin down (as some of these films listed below prove). Of the nearly 50 films that now make up our Best Indies list, 11 of them are documentaries. Below, we've gathered all the docs from the most recent edition of our list. If some of these are unfamiliar, we've also included links to their film pages, where you can read plenty of reviews from our trusty Criticwire members.
The Top Documentaries of 2013 So Far, According to Criticwire
The Act of Killing (A, 40 grades)
There are very few films that can achieve the elusive "A" average, but that's what Joshua Oppenheimer has done with his look at a dark period of Indonesian history, told through the perspective of those who committed unthinkable atrocities. Oppenheimer gives his interview subjects some freedom to tell their own stories, in both traditional interviews and harrowing recreations. The resultant narrative eschews a standard documentary approach for something that says as much about how we absorb tales of evildoers as the deeds themselves.
Stories We Tell (A-, 62 grades)
There's a similar meta-narrative streak that also runs through Sarah Polley's look at her family history. But instead of highlighting deplorable figures half a world away, Polley turns her focus to her parents and siblings. The "mystery" behind the reason for making the film has already been solved at the production's outset, but there's a particular joy in seeing the retelling of this seismic familial shift bring some members of Polley's family closer together.
Leviathan (A-, 41 grades)
When "Leviathan" premiered at the Locarno Film Festival last year, Critics Academy member Alec Kubas-Meyer wrote how this chronicle of daily life on a fishing boat doesn't have traditional subjects. The film "functions on its ambience," Kubas-Meyer said. Regardless of whether the fisherman, the tuna, the seagulls or the boat itself is the main focal point, "Leviathan" is an immersive sonic and visual experience.
The Gatekeepers (A-, 40 grades)
Awards-savvy readers may remember this as a 2013 Best Documentary Oscar nominee, but reviews of its post-ceremony theatrical run have helped keep it in the indie consciousness. Some have questioned whether the "talking head" approach is the best way to approach these particular subjects, but Dror Moreh's film does give a heretofore unseen look at a particular area of Middle Eastern conflict. There are documentaries that rise and fall on the strength of its interviews and the six former Israeli secret service agents at the heart of "The Gatekeepers" seem to have captivated many of those who've reviewed the film.
Twenty Feet from Stardom (A-, 24 grades)
Morgan Neville's profile of prominent backup singers doesn't force its subjects alone to advocate their own brilliance. Neville wisely includes testimonials from some of the music industry's highest profile players (Mick Jagger, Bruce Springsteen, Bette Midler, Sting) to...well, sing these singers' praises. Two particular moments from the film - Merry Clayton listening to the isolated vocal track of her most famous work and the final sing-along - end up drawing their power from spotlighting these women's pure talents.
La Camioneta: The Journey of One American School Bus (A-, 19 grades)
Mark Kendall's debut feature benefits greatly from the discovery factor, of having one's eyes opened to a way of life that can be both simple and profound. Following the fate of a decommissioned American school bus, Kendall's travels took him to Guatemala, where the vehicle becomes more than just metal and rubber. Critics have noted that through a well-shot profile of one object, "La Camioneta" also captures a greater theme of global interaction and how products and policies can resonate far beyond U.S. borders.
Dirty Wars (A-, 16 grades)
For critics, much of the power of Richard Rowley's look at U.S. tactics in the War on Terror comes from its investigative angle. This is an area of policy that is ever-evolving, with both domestic and international consequences. As Tomas Hachard describes in his Slant Magazine review, "For all the ways 'Dirty Wars' may seem like old news this week, if history is any indicator, its true relevance will only be felt several decades down the road."
Blackfish (A-, 16 grades)
It may be Shark Week, but it's possible that the most gripping piece of filmmaking in theaters right now is Gabriela Cowperthwaite's indictment of water-park entertainment. "Blackfish" looks at the consequences for both humans and animals alike of keeping killer whales in captivity. But rather than casting a gigantic net over the entire industry, Cowperthwaite uses the specific example of one orca named Tilikum to illustrate the amazing beauty and destructive power of a misunderstood species.
Sound City (A-, 15 grades)
There are director's names you'd expect to see on a Best Indies list: Baumbach, Linklater, Allen, etc. But Dave Grohl? Yet, the Foo Fighters frontman, on the strength of a solid performance at Sundance and a theatrical run shortly thereafter, has submitted a solid entry in a great year for music docs. Rather than singling out a particular band or singer, Grohl idolizes the studio itself, turning his look at Sound City into an appreciation of the location and equipment that helped produce some of rock's legendary sound.
Room 237 (B+, 91 grades)
Rodney Ascher's look at alternate theories about "The Shining" is probably the most-discussed film on Criticwire that doesn't involve a character with a cape. In the past few months, we've featured posts discussing its movie about a movie approach, additional theories from Ari Gunnar Thorsteinsson and even an interview about criticism with Ascher himself.
We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks (B+, 18 grades)
Before "The Fifth Estate," the dramatized version of the Wikileaks saga starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Daniel Brühl, hits TIFF in just a few short weeks, there's still time to catch up with Alex Gibney's profile of Julian Assange. But in a move that may be at turns surprising and satisfying, many critics are arguing that Gibney observes his subjects with a level head. It's difficult to approach the film without any preconceived notions of Assange or Bradley Manning, but reviews suggest that Gibney does his best to provide critical look at Wikileaks in all its public forms.
Some of these have already arrived and left theaters. Others will shortly be available. There are even a few that might still be playing in your area. Regardless of their current distribution status, these are the kinds of films that will likely pop up again on year-end Top Tens and stay in the discussion as we head into the power-packed fall season. Adjust your queues accordingly.