To devotees of the medium like us, cinema has an unparalleled ability to give form and shape to previously unimagined worlds. But not all unimagined worlds are unreal, an infinite number, in fact, lurk all around us: the astounding personal history of a passerby; the human cost that the news headline crawling across our TV screen cannot capture; the treasure and trash and unclaimed bodies buried beneath our local shopping mall. But despite the unbelievable wealth of material available for it to mine, the documentary format (and we’ve been guilty of this too) has historically often been sweepingly generalized as narrative film’s less glamorous, workhorse sister.
Worthy? No doubt. Well-intentioned? Invariably. But the genre can be viewed as being as much fun as being forced to finish your vegetables. Recently, however, with the dawning realization that there is an audience for innovative, groundbreaking documentary work, and that the form itself has created its own superstars (filmmakers from Michael Moore and Errol Morris to Werner Herzog and Alex Gibney), more and better examples seem to be making their way monthly into theaters, even onto the smaller screens of your local multiplex.
And so we come to 2013. Was it a banner year for documentary features? We can’t say for sure, but we have certainly been utterly spoiled for choice when it has come to compiling a list of our favorites. In fact the wealth of high-quality and high-profile docs this year is such that really our chief issue has been that it’s been tough to keep abreast. Which means that pretty much every entry on the list is there because someone has really, really thrown down for it (and there are a few ongoing rankles over those that missed the cut). We are not documentary specialists, but the genre tells stories that are every bit as compelling, skillful an beautiful, as their higher-budgeted fiction counterparts. Here are the 15 documentaries released stateside this year that have allowed us access to unknown worlds, and made them all the more incredible for being real.
15. “A Band Called Death”
The story of one of the first proto-punk bands, Death, is one of the warmest and most heartfelt docs of the year, wrapping up themes of family, spirituality, and a tribute to vinyl in a neat rock doc package. Death, a group made up of four Detroit brothers, rocked the suburbs with a uniquely heavy funk rock sound for a time in the 1970s. Brother David was the visionary and pioneer of the group, giving the band its unique name and refusing to budge on record company pressures to change. The band broke up and the brothers drifted apart, and at the time of David’s death from cancer in 2000, their groundbreaking records were lost in an attic. Cut to a decade later, Death's record has become a cult and coveted piece of vinyl, chased down all over the country by enterprising collectors, catching the ears even of David's punk rocker nephews, who are completely unaware of their father and uncles' involvement. This sets off a delightful family journey of music, fellowship, and an ability to finally mourn and understand their brother and uncle. It's a great doc for music lovers, but the music (and it's fantastic) is really just the showcase for the story of family and faith that shines through.
After the local mining industry has closed down and left the local economy in a state of desperation, a new line of work has emerged in Oceana, West Virginia—the drug trade. A stark documentary set in an Appalachian community, the doc derives its title from the nickname the locals have given their town (“Oxyana”), after an Oxycontin epidemic has ravaged their tiny hamlet and made every resident a potential addict. Documentarian Sean Dunne came to our attention back in 2008 at the Independent Film Festival of Boston where his LP-obsessives documentary “The Archive” screened. The doc made an impression and later went on to be Emmy nominated. He’s since directed the short Insane Clown Posse Juggalos documentary “American Juggalo” and “Oxyana” is his feature-length documentary debut. Bleak, unflinching and often difficult to watch, “Oxyana” is a transfixing portrait of a community in crisis. Featuring a haunting, dilapidated score by members of Deer Tick, “Oxyana” doesn’t editorialize outside of some key moments of music, instead eschewing drama to tell raw-nerved stories of addiction and struggle via the townsfolk themselves. Little rays of hope shine into Oceana, but Dunne’s rendering of this devastated town is hopefully a cautionary tale for anyone even thinking about going down the road of hard drugs.
Maybe the most brilliant aspect of "Blackfish," easily one of the best and most gripping nature documentaries in recent years, is how it's structured like a murder mystery. In this case: the 2010 death of Dawn Brancheau, a 40-year-old SeaWorld trainer who was drowned during a performance with killer whale Tilikum. From there, filmmaker Gabriela Cowperthwaite, spurred by her own feelings that something about Dawn's death was fundamentally wrong, investigates Tilikum's murderous history (this was actually the third person Tilikum had killed), the cruelty that the whale faced at SeaWorld and other parks, and the operational practices that allowed for an accident like this to happen. The whole movie is cloaked in tragedy, and it says something that SeaWorld has been violently fighting back against it ever since. (If there was no validity to the documentary, the park would probably just ignore it.) Some of the most haunting moments of 2013 occurred within "Blackfish": the description of SeaWorld handlers separating a young orca from its mother (the mother produced sounds that had never been heard in science before; they later found out it was some kind of long-range distress call); the scientific evidence that there is a part of the brain that orcas have that humans don't that allows for a more deeply felt emotional sensitivity; and the first-hand accounts of SeaWorld trainers about the lax security protocols and haphazard training that they would receive before being thrust into a tiny tank with one of evolution's most streamlined killing machines. If you've ever thought about visiting a SeaWorld park, "Blackfish" will cause you to think again.