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The 15 Best Documentaries Of 2013

by The Playlist Staff
December 11, 2013 2:40 PM
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20 Feet From Stardom

12. “20 Feet From Stardom
After watching “20 Feet From Stardom,” we’ll never be able to hear “Gimme Shelter” by the Rolling Stones again without thinking of Merry Clayton. It’s an impressive song at its most basic elements, but Clayton’s backing vocals elevate the song to incredible heights, overshadowing even Mick Jagger. While that song prominently features backup singers, most of the time they’re relegated to the background, supporting the greatest artists in music history on both recordings and in live performances. This film, from rock doc veteran Morgan Neville, tells the story of some of the profession’s best, including Clayton, Darlene Love, Judith Hill, Claudia Lennear, Lisa Fischer, Táta Vega and The Waters. These women and men have backed up some of the biggest stars, including Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles and Sting. While these artists are often big enough to be known by a single name, most music fans couldn’t pick their backing vocalists if given multiple choices. “20 Feet From Stardom” explores just how close (but how very far) these incredibly talented singers are to fame. Our favorite songs wouldn’t sound the same without them, but we rarely give them a second thought. The film gave us new appreciation for not only the classic songs these artists appear on but also for the vocalists themselves, in fact, when we saw a public screening of the film, there were several moments where the perfection of their voices caused people to clap in the middle of the screening: the first time we’ve seen that happen. We’re often proud cynics, but we couldn’t help but join in.

God Loves Uganda

11. "God Loves Uganda"
Taking a broader view of some of the same territory as this year's equally powerful "Call Me Kuchu," but examining the root causes of the issue, "God Loves Uganda," the feature debut of Oscar-winner Roger Ross Williams (who took the documentary short prize in 2010 for "Call Me Prudence") is a clear-headed, quietly furious look at the insidious influence of American evangelical churches on the virulently anti-homosexual laws in Uganda. While homophobia in certain parts has been widely reported, the most prominent incidents have been in Uganda: after a wave of moral panic, M.P. David Bahati introduced a bill that would punish homosexuality with the death penalty, causing a worldwide outcry (along with the killings of a number of prominent Ugandan gay men, most notably David Kato, the late subject of "Call Me Kuchu"). Williams' film deals with the men and women suffering from persecution on the ground, and those like Bahati that are causing it, but also convincingly puts forward the thesis that the injustice trickles down from the effect of missionaries from evangelical mega-churches in the U.S. The sights in particular are focused on the International House of Prayer, and the frankly terrifying leader Lou Engle, whose teary-eyed fanaticism is one of the scariest things we saw on screen all year. Williams is from the give-them-enough-rope approach of advocacy documentary, and the film is positively enraging when it comes to the level of blind bigotry on display, but he's not bashing religion either—the eloquent excommunicated bishop Christopher Senyonjo and exiled-to-Boston Ugandan Reverend Kapya Kaoma are reminders of how against the spirit of Christianity the International House Of Prayer and their cohorts really are.

These Birds Walk

10. “These Birds Walk
Ostensibly a documentary about poor runaway children in Karachi, Pakistan, the Omar Mullick and Bassam Tariq-directed “These Birds Walk” could easily take on the attributes of social-realism documentary porn, the kind of made-for-guilt docs that Sally Struthers might narrate. But the film, which is almost more like a neorealist art film, has more complex aims tracking a runaway boy, a reluctant ambulance driver and their intersection with a dying humanitarian upon whom so much of their daily lives depend. Quietly heartbreaking and yet unsentimental and matter of fact, this atmospheric and gorgeously shot documentary chronicles the unlikely symbiotic relationship between this trio. Abdul Sattar Edhi runs a shelter for homeless children, Asad has to not only pick up dead bodies, but transport boys back to their families, and Omar is an escapee from Taliban country. When we discover Omar is homeless by choice and knows where his family lives, a distressing truth of socio-economic reality hits home; sometimes it’s easier for children to be sheltered at a homeless center than by their parents struggling to get by in huts without electricity or water. Shot over a three-year period, “These Birds Walk” isn’t particularly expansive in scope, but the carefully realized humanity depicted in stark, beautiful imagery transcends time and evinces deep empathy and observation in the details.

"The Punk Singer"

9. “The Punk Singer
Kathleen Hanna always seemed a reluctant hero—feted by the media as the pin-up for modern feminism (as contradictory as that sounds), she never seemed to enjoy her time in the spotlight outside of being on stage with her bandmates. Whatever you want to call her, hero, one-woman zeitgeist, lightning rod, etc., she inspired people all around the globe, and a documentary about her is as much about the Riot Grrrl scene she helped create and foster and eventually, take to the mainstream. For Hanna, the personal is always political, and it's reflected in her music, which director Sini Anderson manages to capture in what is an authentic, intimate and charismatic portrait. Even though the documentary zips by at 80 minutes, it manages to stop for a worthwhile pause on more reflective moments like Hanna’s recent return to stage with her new band The Julie Ruin. It's gratifying for fans to see the side of Hanna that always shied away from media, her marriage to Adam Horovitz and the shock of her leaving Le Tigre and the music scene she helped nurture in 2005, and of course her previously unknown battle with Lyme disease. Far and away the best thing about a film like "The Punk Singer" however, is all the new people it will introduce to Hanna and her music both past, present and future.

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  • readers | July 27, 2014 8:28 PMReply

    Documentary Addict has a list of 2013. Set them up in a playlist and just sit back!

  • zack | February 3, 2014 7:01 AMReply

    if you watched The Square you will see how its shallow and just profit making documentary not to mention the editing the directing are horrible, that way it cant nominated for best in its category, IMO the entire situation needs time to settle and to be heard from both sides

  • the Tourist | January 2, 2014 11:23 PMReply

    A Band Called Death was a 2012 documentary, but an amazing one at that

  • ska-triumph | December 17, 2013 11:36 PMReply

    If anyone doesn't have this top 5 in their top 5 - minus TRIALS OF ALI over LET THE FIRE BURN - then they didn't watch them. Period. Sorry but really I'm not.

    Personally LEVIATHAN would be number 6 for me. I can't get the images, let alone the stories, out of my mind.

  • JOe | December 14, 2013 1:08 PMReply


    Book of Manning?

  • Chris | December 14, 2013 3:16 AMReply

    I guess Is the Man Who Is Tall is not considered at documentary.

  • Steve | December 12, 2013 12:58 PMReply

    No mention of The Crash Reel?

  • SUNNY | January 19, 2014 10:43 PM

    Surely that is because it is in "THE BEST DOUCMENTARY OF ALL TIME" category?

  • Harmonov | December 12, 2013 10:20 AMReply

    This has been an exceptional year for docs, so putting this list together had to be hard. I would certainly have put The Square near the top of my list. I am very glad to see The Punk Singer repped here. I thought it was a really incredible portrait of Kathleen Hanna. This is a solid list, though. Well played, Playlist.

  • Tcup | December 11, 2013 7:12 PMReply

    This is the list I suppose, great for everything it includes, but did anyone else just think Room 237 was really really tedious and stupid?

  • sam chater | December 12, 2013 12:19 PM


  • cory everett | December 12, 2013 12:04 PM

    I will agree with you here. An exceptionally well assembled YouTube video essay with nothing of substance to say.

  • bohmer | December 12, 2013 12:04 AM

    Ho god yes me!

  • MATTHEW DAVID WILDER | December 11, 2013 5:25 PMReply

    LEVIATHAN, WE STEAL SECRETS and PERVERT'S GUIDE should have been way at the top. The condescending reference to recent Wiseman--which is as good as his very best--is not appreciated.

  • bohmer | December 12, 2013 12:05 AM

    Very much agree.

  • Film Fan | December 11, 2013 5:12 PMReply

    It is very strange that THE SQUARE did not even make top 15 and yet it won the 29th IDA Documentary Film Awards beating 'stories we tell' and 'act of killing' It also won the audience award at both Toronto and Sundance. I've never seen a doc like it. It plays like a feature film thriller as supposed to a documentary. Oh well i guess this article is just an opinion anyways as is mine.

  • Christopher Bell | December 14, 2013 2:09 AM

    "The Square" opens in January.

  • Zuges | December 11, 2013 5:21 PM

    Because they're supposed to think the same way as the IDA Documentary Film Awards?

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