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The 15 Best Documentaries Of 2013

by The Playlist Staff
December 11, 2013 2:40 PM
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3. "At Berkeley"
Frederick Wiseman is one of the true masters of the form, and has remained hugely prolific into his 80s, but we'd be lying if we said we'd flipped for some of his more recent efforts, like "Crazy Horse" and "Boxing Gym." But with four-hour epic "At Berkeley," he's made a late masterpiece, probably his best film in a few decades. Wiseman turns his all-encompassing, ever-observing lens to UC Berkeley, arguably the last great public university, and one that finds itself increasingly under threat from funding drops. The normally neutral Wiseman quietly makes this into one of his more dialectic works (while maintaining a certain objectivity at the same time), mounting an irrefutable argument for the benefits of higher education not just for the students, but for society as a whole. There's a lot more on the film's mind than just that—a four-hour runtime doesn't just come from nowhere—with philosophy, student politics, literature, race and science all touched on in places, but it's the emphasis on community that makes "At Berkeley" feel like a film not just about a university, but about society in general. Wiseman's mosaic-like structuring has rarely been put to better use, and the result is one of the most rousing and curiously moving films—fiction or non-fiction—of 2013.

2."Stories We Tell"
It’s no coincidence that the rise of digital filmmaking over the past decade has coincided with the rise of documentary films. This year alone saw 151 films eligible for just five slots at the Oscars but a flood of new voices does not necessarily translate into an overflow of quality films. Most docs fall into a few basic categories (political, narrative, entertainment) and one's interest in the film can usually be gauged based on your interest in its subject. (I like the band The National, therefore I might enjoy their new documentary, etc.) This leads to an unfortunate side effect where docs are praised or dismissed more for what they’re about rather than how they’re executed, conflating an interesting subject with an interesting film. But every so often a documentary comes along that seems to break the form wide open and reminds us of the limitless possibilities that the format provides. Enter Sarah Polley’s lovely, magnificent “Stories We Tell,” an autobiographical doc that examines the filmmaker's own tangled family history centering on her mother, an actress whose big personality left an indelible mark on everyone she was close to. On the surface this would seem to be an exercise in extreme navel gazing, but what may have begun as a family photo album blossoms into an exploration of the fleeting nature of memory and how the truth may be a little bit different depending on who’s telling it. While the events that occur in the film are interesting, the way that they unfold is unforgettable. Through interviews, old home movies, newly staged voiceover and a few other surprises, Polley follows the story through its many unexpected twists, uncovering secrets she hadn’t set out to expose and uses the structure of the film to reflect and underline the themes of the story itself. It's a truly rare doc where the story being told is enhanced so dramatically by the way in which it's being told. Polley may have happened into the twisty nature of her film by accident but that doesn't make it any less brilliant.

1. “The Act of Killing
Joshua Oppenheimer's "The Act of Killing" is many things: shocking, absurd, sickening, and funny, despite itself, and it’s also one of the most important movies about the movies in recent history. Oppenheimer went to Indonesia to make a film about globalization and labor, and in doing so, stumbled upon the group of former gangsters who participated in one of the worst genocides in history, against the "Communists," in 1965. These men remain in power in Indonesia, and boy, are they are not shy. The film opens with Anwar Congo's grisly demonstration of how he used to garrote his victims (the most efficient mode of killing), accompanied with a jaunty merengue. And therein lies the crux and conundrum of "The Act of Killing," a tale of murder and memory careening between horror and perverse amusement. Oppenheimer decides to stage reenactments of the murders with some of the most boastful and cold-blooded killers, with Congo as his main point of reference. He admits to nightmares and drug use to drown out the horrific memories, which means he might someday be capable of understanding the ramifications of his actions, unlike some of his co-conspirators, the jolly, clueless Herman, and the cold-as-ice Adi. They readily agree to the reenactments, staged in different genres (gangster, Western, musical), because, you see, they are movie fans. Back in the ‘60s, Anwar, Adi and Herman were just a bunch of "movie gangsters" scalping tickets to Hollywood shows, when the “Communists” decided that Hollywood's influence needed to be shut out and shut down the theaters. They were easily conscripted into death squads, eradicating the "Communists" and native Chinese one by one, and using techniques like the garrote that they picked up in gangster films. The reenactments that they stage are beyond surreal and absurd; portly Herman is most often in drag (he is a STAR, by the way), some sequences are laughable, others stomach-turning, some, like the musical number, oddly transcendent. In true cinéma vérité tradition, Oppenheimer shows Anwar the clips of himself playing the victim in a reenactment, and that's when the veneer comes crumbling down, sledgehammered by cinematic truth and clarity. It's a film about killing, on the surface, but it's really a film about the power of movies: the influence of Hollywood (for better or for worse), the demands of capitalism, the exhuming of memory through storytelling. It's unsettling, vastly important stuff, and Oppenheimer is tremendously surefooted in making his way through these morally murky waters—no easy feat. The film is not just an exposé of this genocide and its continuing repercussions, it’s a piece that pushes the boundaries of documentary form even further, cementing its place in history.

Honorable Mentions

56 Up,” the eighth entry in Michael Apted’s “Seven Up” series following the same diverse group at seven-year intervals in their lives from the time they were seven years old is every bit as wonderful and compelling as the last seven, with themes of middle age disappointment and small-scale triumph coming to the fore. A terrifically human social experiment.

Leviathan” is a bleak but compelling, even terrifying, evocation of life at sea, a documentary framed as an art movie, according to our review from earlier this year.

Narco Cultura” is a chilling glimpse into the codified universe of Mexico’s drug gangs that doesn’t flinch from relating the brutality of their existence to the folly of the War on Drugs. (Our review).

We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks” is a vibrant piece of topical filmmaking that is maybe now slightly hamstrung by its very topicality—even in the months since its release, events in the world of high-level electronic espionage have moved along swiftly—but as an account of this inciting event it still fascinates. (Our review)

"Birth of the Living Dead" sees filmmaker Bob Kuhns do the unthinkable: make a new documentary about George A. Romero's classic "Night of the Living Dead" (roughly the nine thousandth in existence) that feels fresh and informative, thanks to talking head interviews with original crew members like Romero and cultural critics like Mark Harris and the New York Times' Jason Zinoman—so good it's scary.

"Room 237": Many of us saw it on the festival circuit last year, but Rodney Ascher's mind-bending doc got a bigger release this year, meaning the number of theorists seeing hidden messages in Stanley Kubrick's horror masterpiece "The Shining" has multiplied (the home video release featured commentary by a theorist who initially refused to be a part of it, adding another level to the Bloomin' Onion of Kubrick conspiracy docs).

And among the other films that missed out on the main list but had some of our number advocating for them were: Israeli security force doc “The Gatekeepers,” indictment of American foreign policy “Dirty Wars,” Tahrir Square doc “The Square,” Sophie Fiennes’ “The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology,” a look at the trial of Russian feminist punk collective in "Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer," powerful Ugandan gay rights doc “Call Me Kuchu,” rock doc “Muscle Shoals, inside baseball Cannes pic from James Toback and Alec BaldwinSeduced and Abandoned,” and The National’s “Mistaken for Strangers.” Bearing in mind there are a few great documentaries we’ve seen at festivals that don’t get their releases until next year and so we’ve excluded those, let us know what you think of our selects, and what you think we’ve missed, in the comments.

--Katie Walsh, Drew Taylor, Oli Lyttelton, Kimber Myers, Sam Chater,  Rodrigo Perez, Cory Everett & Jessica Kiang

Free Indie Movies and Documentaries    


  • 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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