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The Best Documentaries of 2013

January 27, 2014

By John Corrado

The Crash Reel PosterAlthough we are already several weeks into 2014, the time has finally come to share my thoughts on the best documentaries of 2013, which was an exceptional year for nonfiction filmmaking.  I saw so many great films in 2013, and there were a lot of options of what to include on this list, but these ten feel like an excellent representation of the power of documentaries.

Many of them were deeply moving accounts of real life, with some that introduced subjects who were so unique they could only be real, and others that entertained simply by capturing the pure joy of life.  There were also many films that just missed my list, including Cutie and the Boxer and The Square, a pair of Oscar nominees that deserve special attention.

Both Blood Brother and Call Me Kuchu were memorably emotional experiences.  Toronto filmmaker Alan Zweig delivered an excellent double bill of 15 Reasons to Live and When Jews Were Funny, both thought provoking and touching films.  Then there was the trio of great music docs that just missed my list, including Charles Bradley: Soul of America, Good Ol’ Freda and Sound City.  There was also the entertaining Hot Docs opener The Manor, and other festival gems like the captivating 12 O’Clock Boys, the masterful I Will Be Murdered, the rocking Pussy Riot – A Punk Prayer, the haunting Spring & Arnaud and the wonderful Tiny: A Story About Living Small that absolutely deserve more attention.

And these were just some of the many that didn’t make the final cut.  The only reason why Sarah Polley’s excellent Stories We Tell isn’t on this list, is because I already counted that one among the best docs of 2012.  Although some of these films only played at festivals and might not be released until sometime this year, I decided to give them their due right now.  These are my picks for the best documentaries of 2013, an eclectic list of ten outstanding films.  Enjoy!

#10: Tim’s Vermeer: The experience of watching art come alive is magical in Tim’s Vermeer, an enchanting and entertaining documentary from Penn & Teller.  After being introduced to the subject through a book, inventor Tim Jenieson became obsessed with proving the controversial theory that the paintings of Johannes Vermeer were created with the help of real images projected through a series of lenses.  His journey involves attempting to create his own version of a famous painting, and the results are astonishing to watch unfold.  This a triumphant doc that fascinates and plays well with a crowd.

#9: Trucker and the Fox: At the beginning of Trucker and the Fox, Mahmood Kiyani Falavarjani is in an Iranian mental hospital after a depressive bipolar episode, mourning the death of his pet fox who was the star of his homemade short films.  Determined to get back on his feet, he struggles to find another fox, to star in his upcoming donkey romance.  This is a quirky and immensely appealing hidden gem, that entertains while posing a fascinating question about caring for wild animals.  I’ve never seen anything quite like Trucker and the Fox, and this small triumph from Hot Docs deserves to get released.

#8: The Act of Killing: When the Indonesian military formed a dictatorship in 1965, they tortured and brutally killed everyone that was considered a “communist.”  Director Joshua Oppenheimer tracked down the men behind these crimes, led by the sickeningly proud executioner Anwar Congo, giving them cameras to cinematically reenact the killings, many of which were inspired by violent movies.  This is never an easy film to watch and many scenes leave us nauseated.  But The Act of Killing is an important documentary, a lurid and disturbing work that displays pure evil in a way that I have never seen before, powerfully depicting the real life implications of violence, even when being recreated onscreen.

#7: Only The Young: Growing up in a small desert town, teenagers Garrison and Kevin spend their days skateboarding and hanging out.  Their friend Skye is facing foreclosure on her home, and the three teens share their dreams for a bright future, while coming to terms with their deepest fears.  Directors Jason Tippet and Elizabeth Mims have crafted a touching and beautifully shot film that allows us to care about each of the subjects, before a genuinely moving final scene.  From beginning to end, Only The Young perfectly captures the moment in time when every teenager faces graduation and the final stretch of adolescence.

#6: Valentine Road: Back in 2008, Lawrence “Larry” King was just starting to come into his own as a transgendered teenager, when he was murdered by his 14-year-old classmate, a hate crime that shocked people around the world.  Directed by Marta Cunningham, Valentine Road admirably delves deep into the case, letting the tears flow freely while never underplaying the complicated nature of this tragedy.  This is a disturbing and vitally important doc about the need for widespread acceptance of sexuality and gender identity, and one of the most heartbreaking films that I’ve ever seen.

#5: Mistaken for Strangers: When Matt Berninger was going on tour with his critically acclaimed indie rock band The National, he invited his younger brother Tom along as a roadie.  Bringing a camera with him to capture all of the action, the result is Mistaken for Strangers, a deeply personal film about self discovery and a fascinating behind the scenes look at The National.  Essential viewing for fans of the band and a true crowdpleaser that is pretty much universally relatable, this is a wildly entertaining concert documentary with a very touching story about two brothers reconnecting.

#4: 20 Feet From Stardom: A celebration of the backup singers behind some of the greatest acts in music history, 20 Feet From Stardom follows vocalists such as Darlene Love and Merry Clayton, showing their struggles to break out from the shadows of the spotlight.  Many of them wouldn’t have been able to pursue their passions for music without these gigs, but they weren’t always given the recognition they deserved.  Featuring revealing interviews, a great soundtrack and excellent concert footage, this a joyous and moving film from director Morgan Neville, that ends on a note of pure inspiration.  This rousing music doc would also make a great double bill with my next pick.

#3: Muscle Shoals: When Lynard Skynard sang “Muscle Shoals has the Swampers” at the end of their iconic classic “Sweet Home Alabama,” they were referring to the small backwater town in Alabama that was home to FAME Recording Studios and their excellent backup band.  As a music fan, Muscle Shoals left me wanting to stand up and cheer.  With the performances providing an awesome soundtrack to the film, this is a beautifully shot and incredibly informative documentary that has invaluable interviews with pretty much everyone involved and is required viewing for classic music fans.

#2: When I Walk: Jason DaSilva was first diagnosed with multiple sclerosis when his legs literally gave out from underneath him, drastically changing his career as a promising young filmmaker.  Going behind the camera to capture his own journey, When I Walk is a deeply personal portrait and time capsule of his life, following him as his condition gets increasingly more severe.  From the first shot to the bittersweet final scene, this is an immensely powerful and unforgettable film, a movingly beautiful portrait of a filmmaker’s life with a disability.

#1: The Crash Reel: There where so many great documentaries in 2013, and this was the crowning achievement among them.  The film opens a few months before the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, as champion snowboarder Kevin Pearce is training to make the team.  But then tragedy strikes when he suffers a dangerous fall, and we are taken back in time to see his rise to fame, before witnessing his journey into and new life with a disability.  Directed by Lucy Walker, this is an incredibly well crafted film that touches on the dangers of extreme sports while offering a powerful message about self acceptance.  Exhilarating, moving and inspirational, The Crash Reel is everything that a great film should be, and the best documentary of 2013.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Dan Turek permalink
    January 30, 2014 10:25 am

    Lucy Walker even beats Pixar with her streak of perfect movies. For those who haven’t yet this amazing film The Crash Reel screens tonight in Durham


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