2013 gave us a lot of great documentaries. You can see it in the year-end lists of critics and in our poll and in our own top 13. You can see it in the box office and the iTunes charts and the ongoing conversations and the difficulty predicting which five titles will be Oscar nominees among the Academy’s shortlist. Almost as notable as the great documentary features as whole entities are all the amazing individual scenes and shots and quotes and extended nonfiction movie moments we saw in the past year. These weren’t limited to docs, either. Many narrative features have some level of nonfiction in them, too. And not just the hybrids and chimeras. Isn’t Inside Llewyn Davis partly a documentary about a cat who doesn’t know he’s in a movie? Maybe that’s stretching it. I’m sure there was at least one movie this year with a current establishing shot of the NYC skyline, though. That’s nonfiction.
The following list of the most memorable nonfiction movie moments of 2013 will have to be updated and added to as I see and remember certain scenes. I know, for them to be memorable means I should already remember them. But memory is a weird thing. Just look at the best doc of the year, Stories We Tell, for proof of that. This isn’t just a place to showcase the stuff we remember but also just the stuff that surprised us and the stuff that will remain important after this year is over. I didn’t want to say they’re the best scenes, as some of them involve terrible things, and I didn’t want to just call them my favorite, because a lot of them are much more significant than my subjective interests. I invite you to mention your own picks for anything I missed in a comment. Or agree with anything included here.
Omar running through the crowd in These Birds Walk
Even if I don’t love this movie I admit that the last third is pretty incredible. It all picks up when a young runaway named Omar, who the film is partly focused on, darts off into a crowded marketplace, seemingly to get away from the man who is delivering the kid home (and the filmmakers it would seem). One of the cameras (along with cinematographer/co-director Omar Mullick, I presume) swiftly follows the boy through the mass of people, down hallways, up stairs, never losing track of the subject, yet always seeming like it might. Maybe it’s staged and that’s why the film isn’t suddenly lacking its main character in the confusion, but it doesn’t matter. It’s a rush unlike we see much in documentary cinema.
Billy tells strangers they’re his new daddy in Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa
Omar Mullick used to be a cameraman for the Jackass show so it’s appropriate to move onto this hybrid movie next. In the many Candid Camera type stunts, child actor Jackson Nicoll gets the best laughs, whether he’s alone or overshadowing star Johnny Knoxville in their scenes together. Topping all other bits is the sequence when Nicoll, as Billy, is wandering a big city alone. When offered help by male passerby, he skips the asking stage and just assumes they’ll adopt him. “You’re my new daddy,” he tells them, after which the men understandably freak out. “You’re my dad, now. Hi dad.”
Niall gets a rise out of fans while in disguise in One Direction: This Is Us
Sadly, many of the pranks in Bad Grandpa were outdone a few weeks earlier by Morgan Spurlock’s One Direction film and the Beatles-like shenanigans of the young pop singers. There’s a whole montage of them playing dress up, some in drag, for Candid Camera type stunts aimed at their fanbase or random public. Some of these stunts even involved disguises as elderly people, not unlike Knoxville’s shtick in the Jackass movie. The best, though, is Niall Horan’s bit where he disguises himself as a roadie who doesn’t get the popularity of 1D. And he’s very vocal about his dislike of the music, so he gets into arguments and/or upsets young girls who are quick to defend their beloved boy band.
Recording “Gimme Shelter” in 20 Feet From Stardom
I feel like I saw the whole thing reenacted. But that’s just how well the tale is told of the backup vocals on the classic Rolling Stones song “Gimme Shelter.” Merry Clayton and Mick Jagger match well in their sides of the amusing story of then-pregnant Clayton being picked up in the middle of the night, she dressed in a robe and nightgown, her hair in curlers.
Three boys discover their dad was the original punk rocker in A Band Called Death
I was about to turn off this music doc about an hour in, but my followers on Twitter convinced me to stick with it. They were right about it getting better, because soon after I was going to quit, the film takes a turn for the better when the story switches to the second generation of Hackney brothers. One of the sons of one of the brothers who originally made up the little-known Detroit punk group Death tells the story of hearing about the band while in college, and it might be the most wonderful bit of talking-head chronicling of the year. He is stunned to learn his dad was an original punk rocker, and then he tells his two brothers and they can’t believe it either. And then they form a tribute band!
A robot folds a napkin in At Berkeley
Many are seeing the latest from Frederick Wiseman as having a serious statement about higher education, but it’s important to realize that not all of the four-hour film focuses on discussions of tuition hikes and public funding decreases and other political and economic matters of the school and the country. Sometimes we’re just shown what seems to be a robotics experiment involving a mechanical arm folding cloth napkins. It’s the image that has stuck in my head and I think it’s because I see it as metaphor. Sometimes the things we expect to have a really significant purpose are really just involved in a simpler, commoner function.
Minotaur in the skiing poster in Room 237
Sure, the whole moon landing hoax theory is pretty noteworthy, and I find the bit where one of the theorists has to deal with his kid in the background for a moment to be particularly significant to the style of this film, but everybody still highlights the comment made by one loony woman who talks about a minotaur being subtly visible in a skiing poster on the wall — which we are looking at while she’s saying it and not seeing that ridiculous visual at all. I love that people who even kind of take the film seriously still point to this moment as a reason to believe it’s also having a huge laugh at the expense of film analysis and conspiracy theory.
Birds eye views in Leviathan
This whole movie is one long memorable moment, but the one sequence that really blew my mind and gave me the biggest mystery of the year of “how did they shoot that?” is when a camera goes along for a ride attached to a seagull, through the air and into the water and everywhere. Later I learned what GoPro cameras are and the trick was cut down in my mind a bit, yet it’s still one of the sequences that make this a game-changing piece of nonfiction cinema. Anyone can use GoPro cameras, but directors Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel are masters at crafting a whole sensory experience with what they’re able to capture. And while the part where I felt like I was a dying fish on the floor of a ship was neat, the feeling of being a gull in flight is just exhilarating in a way we’ve never felt before.
Searching for the dog in ¡Vivan la Antipodas!
I can’t decide on a single camera or editing trick from Victor Kossakovsky’s wonderfully gimmicky look at the world and its diametrically opposite settings, so I’m going with one of my favorite locales and what we see take place there: Hawaii, where a man and his dog live on the side of a volcano in frighteningly close vicinity to lava flow. The dog disappears and all we can imagine is that it was taken away by the hot molten stream. I’m surely not the only person in the audience to get that visual. But the dog is eventually found, which is always a happy moment for moviegoers. We love dogs.
Alex Shinohara in the background of Cutie and the Boxer
Don’t get me wrong, I love everything this movie has to offer with its complicated love story between artists Noriko and Ushio Shinohara, but the thing I remember most of all is their son being all weird in the background of the first shot he appears in.
Marcus Bachmann thumb wrestles with voters in Caucus
There are a ton of great moments throughout AJ Schnack’s film about the 2012 Iowa caucus, many of them funny or embarrassing or awkward or simply revealing about the Republican presidential candidates we see on screen. This one just takes the cake for being so bizarre and also for being recorded in a way that almost seems impossible. The visual of Michelle Bachmann’s husband shaking hands and then challenging men to a thumb war as she speaks to a crowd would be enough. But there’s also audio, some of it pieced together and requiring subtitles, that is captured amidst the loud speech and room full of people. I don’t want to judge the subjects of this film, but what a weird guy.
“A behind is like a smile that you can hold in your hand” from Far Out Isn’t Far Enough: The Tomi Ungerer Story
Ungerer remains my favorite documentary subject of the year, for being a shining example of the wisdom and wit that keeps humanity going through all the horrible moments in the world. “Coping not hoping” is another quote I came away with from this film, the phrase being the children’s book and erotic illustrator’s philosophy. As insightful as he is about his life and history and the planet, he’s also often very hilariously crude, as when he says the above statement. There’s my main argument for why this is the most Crumb-like work in 20 years.
Nick and Sue have become close friends in 56 Up
Normally with one of the Up documentaries the most memorable moment would be whatever was going on with Neil or maybe something said by Tony, who does have a notable moment in this film when there’s an address of the London Olympics and in general how the city has changed demographically over the decades. But one of my favorite things that happens every now and then in this series is when it’s revealed that two of the subjects have become pals as a result of the program and in spite of their differences in location and lifestyle. This time it was the unexpected shot of Nick and Sue together in her home discussing the half-century of their being documented and of course how they wound up corresponding. Mentioning it might be a spoiler for some fans of the series who haven’t seen this one yet, so I apologize.
Reveal about the “archive” footage in Stories We Tell
This might also be a spoiler, but it’s one of the most excellent reveals in a documentary in years. No, not the moment we learn who Sarah Polley’s real father is, but in the end when we find out that the majority of footage of her mom is really newly shot reenactments featuring actors who so closely resemble the real people that we’ve been fooled all the way through. For a film that deals with memories and stories and how they’re always just current creations believed to exactly represent the past, it’s a brilliant device to remind us of that point. Plus, as all docs should do, directly or not, it also reminds us that we shouldn’t ever fully trust what we’re seeing as being the truth.
Courthouse shooting in Free Angela and All Political Prisoners
One of the finest uses ever of archival material for the purpose of what director Shola Lynch labels “historical verite.” There was no film or video footage of the 1970 Marin County courthouse shooting, but there was a lot of still photography, including a whole series of images taken up close as Superior Court judge Harold Haley is being kidnapped and taken to a getaway van and then a shootout commences. Lynch has the images cut to a pace that almost animates them, creating a thrilling form of reenactment using frozen pieces of the original action.
Opening sequence in Blood Brother
This may be one of my least favorite docs of the year (and not in any way because of the subject’s religion), yet it also has one of my favorite opening sequences of the year. It’s beautifully shot and perplexingly edited, keeping us concerned and intrigued about what is going on in this situation where a couple white guys are escorting a little Indian girl to the hospital and her dying on the way as the motorcycle convoy is stopped at a train crossing. If only what followed was so amazingly crafted.
David Kato’s Death in Call Me Kuchu
I guess it’s not as devastating for the audience who was familiar with Kato going into the doc, but when the Ugandan gay rights leader is slain halfway through the story we’re given in the film, I lost it.
Orca body slams a trainer in Blackfish
The whole montage of SeaWorld orca trainer incidents is terrifying, but if there’s one that is burned in my brain it’s when a guy get’s squashed between two orcas during a bad jump, which almost appears not to be an accident.
David Pearce’s speech in The Crash Reel
It doesn’t matter if Kevin Pearce’s brother has Down Syndrome or not, the emotional speech he gives at the dinner table to convince Kevin not to return to competitive snowboarding following a recovery from a near-fatal accident is the most touching moment of real life see in a movie in a while.
Dr. Shelley Sella admits they’re babies, not fetuses in After Tiller
Among the many complex elements to both the content of this documentary and the film itself is a real kicker: Dr. Sella talks about third term abortion in a way that makes it sound as awful as any pro-lifer might argue. These are babies that are being aborted, and that makes this a film about people whose job involves real ethical matters that even they can’t totally come to terms with. And thought this is enough to make the point, right after we get Dr. Susan Robinson state that “nobody fucking wants an abortion.”
Birth miracle in The Source Family
It didn’t help matters that I was fast approaching the birth of my first child when I saw this movie at SXSW last year (it was released this year), but I think in any circumstance this is a scene that is impossible to forget. We see the full home video of a young Source Family member in labor and for a minute it’s a great tragedy as the baby arrives stillborn. Then, cult leader Father Yod takes the child and breaths some magic into it and suddenly it’s alive! With the whole scene unfolding in the film unedited, it truly does seem like a miracle that can’t be explained any other way. Of course, I’m just not a doctor, but to me it was an amazing part of an otherwise so-so doc, and also a scene I never want to view again.
Juror tea party in Valentine Road
There are some terrible people in this movie about a middle school kid who was murdered for a difference of gender and sexual identity. There’s the 7th grade teacher who implies she would have done something violent, too. There’s the killer’s ignorant girlfriend. There’s the psychologist who claims it was the victim who was the true bully. And then there are the three women who served on the hung jury of the trial. We meet them while they’re having a little get together and defend their decision of non-guilt on account of this being a “new civil rights issue” for white, heterosexual people “being taunted.” No film this year made me hate humanity more. No film…
Anwar Congo shows how he murdered countless people in The Act of Killing
Maybe it’s that there are publicity stills and promotional clips of Anwar Congo on the rooftop where he strangled communists and other victims as part of a devastating purge in Indonesia in the 1960s, but this is the scene that we do and should come away with at the end of this unbelievable expose. Definitely more than all the bizarre reenactments and other staged bits.
“You definitely have a mole on your pussy” in The Act of Killing
Even more memorable for me than Congo’s confessional reveals of his murder tactics is this comment from Pancasila Youth leader Yapto Soerjosoemarno to a young assistant of some kind. It’s just such a weird thing to say, unless these guys really just don’t give a crap. And they’re obviously still exploiting their powers and being oppressive towards people who are afraid to fight back. This poor young woman is likely submissive because of who he is, and she stands in for a whole nation of people — not just those who are female, though more people should be addressing the misogyny of the men we meet in the film. Later, when another of the death squad members talks about raping teen girls, we’re reminded of the added horror for women in not only genocides but in societies ruled by the same people who ruled then. These guys do not care about what they’ve done, which is pretty terrible, but they also don’t care for how they treat human beings today, which is the real tragedy.
Demonstrators are run over in The Square
If there’s one scene I wish I could get out of my head from the past year, it’s the moment in Jehane Noujaim’s film about the Egyptian Revolution when military vehicles run over protestors, many of which die. It’s intense, powerful, necessary, horrifying footage and it’s important that I can’t stop seeing it in my mind’s eye. This sort of violence in documentary will always stun and fascinate me as much as it tears me down. I don’t want things like this to exist in the world and yet I want films to capture it if it must happen. Maybe eventually we won’t have the former and need the latter.