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The 15 Best Documentaries Of 2013

by The Playlist Staff
December 11, 2013 2:40 PM
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8. “Inequality For All
Towards the end of “Inequality For All,” the documentary featuring current Berkeley professor and former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, he recounts a heartbreaking story about the childhood bullying he suffered as a result of his Fairbanks disease. The older kids who protected him instilled a sense of fairness and standing up for the little guy in the future Rhodes’ scholar, and this concept permeates his work as an economist, policy maker and public intellectual. “Inequality For All,” based on Reich’s book, “Aftershock: The Next Economy and America’s Future,” posits a deceptively simple solution to the host of economic woes in America: stand up for the little guy—the middle class that is. Part Reich biopic and part Reich lecture, the film weaves lecture materials from his Wealth and Poverty class at Berkeley with the story of his life, and an explanation of just how we got here (hint: Reagan) and just what we can do to fix it. Though “commie” and “socialist” are thrown around by the likes of Bill O’Reilly, Reich really believes in properly regulated capitalism. His reasonable nature, easy charm, and determination to stand up for what’s right are a winning and inspiring combination and the film perfectly captures this. Incredibly educating, and surprisingly emotional, “Inequality For All” helps us to understand the world just a little bit more through Reich’s lens.

7. "Let The Fire Burn"
Surely the mayor of an American city wouldn't firebomb his own people, right? Wrong, as the rigorous and gripping "Let The Fire Burn" demonstrated. Using only archival footage, which gives it the drive and propulsion of a thriller, director Jason Osder relates the story of the MOVE organization, a controversial group in 1970s and '80s Philadelphia of mostly black membership, which to some was a harmless hippie-type commune, and to others was a sinister cult-like terrorist group. Either way (and Osder is careful to show the positive and negative side of the group), there's no excusing the events on Osage Avenue on May 13, 1985, when during an armed standoff between the Philadelphia Police and the group, a police helicopter dropped a small explosive device on the MOVE house, designed to drive them out, but which instead ignited a blaze that destroyed 60 homes and killed eleven MOVE members, including five children. It's a series of events that defies belief, and Osder's razor-sharp assembly of the archival footage does a beautiful job of establishing the players and telling the story. By eschewing reflective present-day interviews or voiceover, the film does occasionally feel a little lacking in context, but it makes up for it with an immediacy that makes it feel closer to a Paul Greengrass docudrama than a talking-heads non-fiction film. Required viewing.

6. “The Trials of Muhammad Ali
As New York Times writer Robert Lipsyte points out in Bill Siegel’s deeply fascinating, and often surprisingly moving "The Trials Of Muhammad Ali," the boxer was one of the most recognizable faces on the planet in the ‘60s and ‘70s. It’s a fact that bears repeating, particularly for an icon who is so often categorized simply as a boxer who had activist leanings, and a deep connection to his faith. But it’s the way those identities intersected, with the responsibility the pugilist took on his shoulders for an entire people, and the manner in which Muhammad Ali used his celebrity to further the causes he cared about and spur a very public discussion about race and class, that made him a very complicated legend. And in “The Trials Of Muhammed Ali”—which tracks in detail Ali’s life during the years he was barred from boxing following his legal battle after declaring conscientious objector status to the Vietnam draft—Siegel puts together a powerful and honest look at Ali during that period. A masterful assembly of vintage footage and news reports combined with contemporary interviews manages to shine a whole new light on Ali, one we don't often experience. Here is a man who risked his very livelihood and the facet of his life that defined who he was in the public eye, to take an initially very unpopular stand, one that put both himself and the Muslim faith on the line. ‘Trials’ doesn’t shy away from the mistakes Ali made, or the more outrageous statements that escaped his lips and it’s for the better. The result is a deeper appreciation and understanding of a man who swung just as hard outside the ring as inside it and who grappled very openly with his own shifting persona, helping to inspire not just a new generation of athletes, but young black men looking for a role model during a tumultuous time in American history.

5. "Cutie and the Boxer"
Ostensibly "Cutie and the Boxer" is about the somewhat tumultuous, decades-long relationship between Japanese painter Ushio Shinohara, known for his giant papier-mâché motorcycles, and his wife, Noriko, an artist in her own right (primarily for her autobiographical, cartoonish doodles). But like any good documentary, the Zachary Heinzerling-directed picture is about so much more. Structured around a joint art show, the movie reveals layers upon layers exploring the dynamic of artistic relationships, the hidden ego of even the most supposedly "grounded" artist, and the inner mechanisms of the art world—how, even after being proclaimed an underground sensation in the late '60s (dramatized via authentic, historic news footage of Ushio that aired during a special on Japanese artists), you can still live in the same crummy, overstuffed studio, getting the runaround from gallery owners and museum curators. (Their agent is as cartoonish as anything Noriko draws.) But ultimately, "Cutie and the Boxer" (its name taken from Noriko's cartoon alter ego and Ushio's paintings where he dons boxing gloves and pummels the canvas) is a story of enduring love. Illustrated, quite literally, through animated versions of Noriko's autobiographical drawings, their relationship has been more than rocky, with Ushio spending much of his earnings on alcohol and basically manipulating Noriko into bankrolling his work. It may have been a relationship that was founded out of necessity (and, given their huge age difference, a strain of sexually predatory behavior), but it's blossomed into something both bizarre and healthily relatable. Some of the most riveting moments in the movie involve the couple bickering over the dinner table at one another. It's a sight anyone who has ever been in a relationship can identify with and it becomes perfectly understandable where both artists' tormented output comes from. And the amazingly powerful score by Yasuaki Shimizu adds even more to the almost operatic weight of the movie's central love story. Shimizu's music has the rare distinction of being one of the best scores of the near, nestled inside one of the year's best documentaries.

4. "After Tiller"
In 2009, George Tiller, one of the last remaining doctors in the United States willing to perform valuable, oftentimes life-saving late-term abortions, was shot and killed by a pro-life zealot while serving as an usher at his church in Wichita, Kansas. His death was a tragedy, of course, and reignited the endless debate over women's reproductive rights in the United States. It also meant that the number of doctors qualified to perform these risky late-term abortions was whittled down to four, and those doctors are at the center of this gripping documentary. What's so great about "After Tiller" is that it's structured like a workplace drama. These are doctors just doing their job, which happens to be highly controversial, specific, and dangerous. Fearless young filmmakers Martha Shane and Lana Wilson take us into the clinics, offering fly-on-the-wall documentation of what these women and girls are faced with (and what the doctors deal with too). Many times we get dense biographical background on the doctors through their own words; they're all very humble people who, even after violent threats against their lives (including one doctor whose stable full of beloved horses was burned down, with the horses still inside) are committed to their job and to carrying on the legacy of Dr. Tiller. It's not an outwardly confrontational film, and encourages discussion rather than heated debate, and is all the more powerful because of it. Sometimes it's easier to change hearts and minds with a reasoned whisper rather than a furious scream.

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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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