Best Docs of the Year... So Far

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Truth, the maxim goes, is stranger than fiction. And almost every week there's a feature documentary hitting theaters or VOD telling a story just as compelling, if not more, than anything that can be found in mainstream multiplexes and $200 million dollar tentpoles.

Unfortunately, it's relatively rare for these films to cross over to mainstream audiences: the biggest grossing-documentary of the year so far, depressingly, is Dinesh D'Souza's borderline-incompetent right-wing propaganda piece "America" (our review, and its attendant 470+ mostly batshit comments, is here). But that's not accurately reflective, as it has been a very strong year for non-fiction filmmaking so far, and to prove it, we've rounded up an easily D'Souza-free list of the best 20 documentaries of the year so far.

Some have hit theaters already, some are favorites from the festival circuit that should make their way towards your eyeballs before the end of 2014. But from histories of colonial Africa to visionary filmmaker what-ifs, from intimate portraits of world-famous rock stars to glimpses of the small-town version of the American dream, from star-driven baseball docs to a biography of the most famous film critic in the world, there should be something here for everyone. Take a look at the list below, and let us know your own favorites of 2014 so far in the comments section.

Concerning Violence

“Concerning Violence”
Director Göran Hugo Olsson certainly has a way with archival footage. In 2011 he released the excellent "The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975," which used footage shot by Swedish journalists about the black power movement, to present a fascinating new window into a charged time in American history. This time his focus is on colonial Africa, and Olsson’s ambitions are matched by his skill, with the film once again using vintage footage, but with a much headier thesis. Divided into chapters, and using quotes from Frantz Fanon's "The Wretched of the Earth" as the sole context, “Concerning Violence” essentially posits that any group of dispossessed people will eventually rise up to balance the scales. And the documentary takes viewers on a rich, fascinating trip through history, pointing out numerous examples in countries like Angola, Mozambique, Liberia and Burkina Faso, where groups and even political leaders, led an active resistance against Western forces. In an era where the line between documentaries and reality TV is beginning to blur, as personalities become their own subjects, “Concerning Violence” is a refreshing change. Olsson’s film is admirably literate, and trusts the audience to go with him into corners of the past that, if not forgotten by history, are certainly not commonly discussed. And they should be, as the message of “Concerning Violence” is that oppression is just one stop in a cycle that will see those underfoot rise up again. [Full Review]

Jodorowsky's Dune

"Jodorowsky's Dune"
In the history of the greatest movies never made, Alejandro Jodorowsky's attempt at "Dune" certainly ranks amongst the most tantalizingly unrealized. This documentary, energetically directed by Frank Pavich, details the Chilean-French filmmaker's attempt to adapt Frank Herbert's cosmic epic, using a combination of mind-altering metaphysical quandaries with cutting edge visual effects (years before "Star Wars"). Using extensive interviews with creative principals from the failed production and latter day admirers like "Drive" director Nicolas Winding Refn, along with fully animated sequences from the original production illustrations, "Jodorowsky's Dune" is the closest we'll come to actually seeing Jodorowsky's vision come to life. (Most startling is a montage of movies made after Jodorowsky's attempt that borrow images or ideas wholesale.) Anchoring it all is Jodorowsky himself, who comes across as both a complete genius and a used car salesman, selling a version of the movie that he would never actually have to follow through on. "Jodorowsky's Dune" acts as both a fascinating time capsule of a tantalizing would-be feature and the cinematic equivalent of an exaggerated fisherman's tale – Jodorowsky once planned a sci-fi movie this big… [Full Review]

Stray Dog, documentary
"Stray Dog"

“Stray Dog”
Debra Granik’s first film since the Oscar-nominated “Winter’s Bone,” “Stray Dog,” a glimpse into the life of the titular Vietnam vet, biker, dog lover, newlywed, RV park manager, grandfather and stepfather, is something of a slow-working miracle. Using no interviews, no voiceover, just a wealth of clips of Stray Dog going about his everyday life, strung together with deceptive simplicity, Granik’s formal rigor allows her subjects to speak for and amongst themselves. And they emerge with stunning clarity and humanism, most of all Stray Dog himself, a man burdened by PTSD (and the heartrending belief that forgiving himself would dishonor the memory of the dead), yet trying, and emphatically succeeding, to embrace life and meet the problems of friends, family and fellow vets, with pure compassion. A summary lesson to any of us who might assume a marginalized life is a narrow one, “Stray Dog” incisively mines what must be a wealth of footage to build an epic fringe-eye view of contemporary America. Offering no easy resolution (nor should it, when the theme of the film is that healing, helping, adapting--everything--is a process) we could wish it didn’t end so abruptly. But then, loving Stray Dog as much as we do by its close we could wish it didn’t end at at all. [Full Review]