What a year for nonfiction cinema. The power and the poetry and the perspective of documentaries in 2013 all reached groundbreaking levels. Films are changing minds, maybe some industries, perhaps even eventually some national histories. They’re illustrating imaginations and emotions and memories in ways that expand the mode beyond realism to points of greater truth. We saw things this year that we’ve simply never seen on film before, and we also embraced the very familiar through totally fresh points of view.
Whether it was a story of one family’s secret or of the shockingly unhidden yet unexplored travesty of a whole country, or of an investigation into the covert dealings of our own military or of the previously unspoken complexities of a serious issue of medical and moral controversy, the best docs of this year dove deep into the unknown and came out offering astonishing tales and testimonies. Or they blew fiction films out of the water in terms of their cinematic spectacle and narrative creativity, their capability to depict romance and suspense and humor and even a sense of magic.
Below are the 13 titles that Nonfics has democratically determined to be the greatest U.S. theatrical releases of the year. Compiled and tallied from the individual lists of columnist Robert Greene and critics Daniel Walber, Dan Schindel and Landon Palmer, as well as my own, the selections do well to represent the bounty of varied works we had this year that continue to broaden the scope of nonfiction and raise the bar of documentary. They are not just the best docs of 2013, they’re among the best films of the year, period.
13. This Ain’t California
Everyone can fight me on the qualification of this film as a “documentary,” given that its central character is a fictional creation and much of its content is staged scenes made to look like legitimate archival footage (a growing trend in docs, most notable lately in The Summit and our #1 doc of the year below). It’s not so much a made up story supported by historical facts as it is a genuine history supported by a made up protagonist, employed to drive a chronicle of the skateboarding scene in East Germany in the 1980s through reunification. Regardless of its categorization, Marten Persiel’s hybrid is one of the most electrifying movies of the year, documenting a real energy and spirit if not actual events and people. It also has an awesome soundtrack. — Christopher Campbell
12. The Square
Jehane Noujaim’s chronicle of the Egyptian Revolution feels like history written in fire, a modern-day Battle of Algiers that will come to signify this particular watershed moment for years to come. The footage itself is what makes the film “important,” but the way it is shaped is why it is one of the best films of the year. Noujaim keeps things close to Tahrir Square itself, following the lives of a small and diverse group of revolutionaries from the fall of Hosni Mubarak through the renewed protests against Mohammed Morsi this past summer. The resulting documentary is a form of literature, telling the truth of Egypt’s experience through the lives of some of its most vocal citizens. — Daniel Walber
11. Dirty Wars
We hear about drone-related news items every other day on the news, to the point where The Daily Show and The Onion have turned the subject into a recurring joke. But this film dives full on into the world of black ops and drone strikes, and its revelations are deeply uncomfortable. Our leaders have the blood of innocents on their hands, bystanders caught in the crossfire of the War on Terror. As journalist Jeremy Scahill continues to push against the government’s wall of secrecy, the answers he finds are only half as disturbing as the questions they raise about how far this war could go. Where are the limits when the world is a battlefield? — Dan Schindel
The Iowa Caucuses are the strangest thing that we do as a nation, at least in the realm of politics. Every four years, candidates for president descend upon this small Mid-Western state, make a lot of speeches and eat a lot of fried food. The 2012 Republican Caucuses were particularly bonkers, a campaign with more ups and downs than many of us can probably remember. The accomplishment of AJ Schnack’s Caucus is the discovery of a narrative in this mess, showing the cast of candidates as a collection of real characters rather than the clown car it may have seemed at the time. The drama of Rick Santorum’s rise from relative obscurity to victory in the Hawkeye State, played here alongside starkly different campaign strategies and personalities of Michele Bachmann (and husband Marcus), offer more insight into the American system than much of our political media. — DW
9. After Tiller
This film approaches abortion, possibly the most incendiary topic of public debate in America today, with a grace that verges on the supernatural. It’s also a study in the kind of person who will stand for what they think is right in the face of overwhelming opposition. The four doctors in the country wbo perform late term abortions all have their own reasons for doing so, but they all agree that SOMEONE needs to be there to do it. And the movie demonstrates this need through interviews with women seeking to undergo the procedure. The camera focuses on their hands as they speak, an identity-protecting technique that also speaks to the film’s commendable sensitivty. — DS
8. At Berkeley
Frederick Wiseman’s latest is both his longest in quite a while (244 minutes) and his most arousing (this says a lot given his previous film mostly consisted of naked women). Whether he means for it to be of more political substance is not for debate, yet a good deal of the content of this doc is indeed ripe for discussion. At nearly four hours with little context and no exposition, At Berkeley’s look into the workings of the public higher education machine known as UC Berkeley allows for viewers to project a lot onto what they’re observing by way of Wiseman’s hand. From administrative meetings to classroom discussions to a silly musical number about Facebook to lectures on things the director admits to having absolutely no comprehension of, it’s all just a glimpse of what interested him during his three months on the campus. The fact that he captured the school during an intense time of economic crisis and political demonstration is really just a bonus. — CC
7. These Birds Walk
Omar Mullick and Bassam Tariq’s debut feature is a near-perfect burst of cinematic poetry, from the vigorous opening shot to the quietly devastating final scenes. What begins as a portrait of Pakistani humanitarian Abdul Satar Edhi and his orphanage transforms into a deeply poignant study of youth under pressure and a potent reminder of the affecting possibilities of observation. The searching camera is constantly reframing these charismatic boys’ experiences, favoring exhilaration and sadness over issue-driven analysis. These Birds Walk is delicate, lovely and pulsating with life. — Robert Greene
6. ¡Vivan las Antipodas!
Victor Kossakovsky’s mysterious, playful and mesmerizing trick-film is a portrait of four antipodes — places on Earth diametrically opposite one another — that plays out as magical realist ethnography. The director uses all the cinematic instruments at his disposal, superimpositions of cities in lakes, 360 degree rotating cameras, underwater match-cuts, etc., to actualize the poetic potential of the antipodal idea. Still, the film never feels light or hokey because Kossakovsky grounds it all in human observation. ¡Vivan las Antipodas! must be seen to be believed. — RG
5. Let the Fire Burn
The concept of an archival documentary can often suggest stale historical “objectivity,” a straightforward presentation of events unimpeded by the voice of the filmmaker. But Jason Osder’s Let the Fire Burn — an assemblage of occurrences before and after the Philadelphia Police Department set an activist group’s house aflame in 1985 — makes a case for the rich and affecting testimony that the archive alone can uniquely attest to. Meticulously constructing the film from news coverage, home videos, court testimonies and a passionate series of town council meetings, Osder presents a profound chronicle of the MOVE Organization that makes an intensely troubling historical moment feel like it’s unfolding right in front of you. — Landon Palmer
Thrill-ride, game-changing documentary filmmaking that pushes direct cinema techniques past observation into the realm of abstract art, Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel’s Leviathan is a landmark achievement. A product of Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab, this immersive portrait of a commercial fishing ship off the coast of Maine is built on moments of astonishing cinematic immediacy, as cameras go where they’ve never gone before. This is a horror movie where the monster is invisible, at turns surreal, frightening, uncompromising and electrifying. Documentary will never be the same. — RG
3. The Act of Killing
Joshua Oppenheimer’s staging of interrogations and killings by members of Indonesian death squads makes this perhaps the most provocative documentary concept to come about since The Thin Blue Line. The genius of the film lies not in its buzz-generating conceit, but in the opportunity that its scenario provides for exploring “the act”’s fraught relationship to its mediated depictions. The Act of Killing is neither singularly about mass murder nor about movie violence, but about the interminable gap between the horror of the act itself and our strained ability to truly comprehend that horror through its representation. — LP
2. Cutie and the Boxer
Cutie and the Boxer is not an art documentary, or a love story. It’s a film about two artists, a rocky but persistent marriage and their work. This might seem like a silly thing to point out, that a great nonfiction film is one that resists genre, yet it really is the central strength of Zachary Heinzerling’s debut, the dedication to the character of Ushio and Noriko Shinohara over other concerns. It comes through in the effort to animate Noriko’s work, and the care put into contextualizing both the arc of Ushio’s career as well as his perhaps more stolid relationship with his wife. The film shines because it lets these two individuals shine, allowing them to define themselves and then carefully crafting them into a beautiful portrait. — DW
1. Stories We Tell
A young woman wants to know about her deceased mother, who died when she was 11, so she talks to her father and her many siblings and family friends to learn the things she can’t remember or never’d been told. It’s a common situation, yet this is anything but a common documentary depiction of such a seemingly simple investigation. Actress-turned-filmmaker Sarah Polley records the whole process as she delves into the story of her own existence, and while finding that the past and even a person is difficult to know and understand through the various subjective memories, she winds up crafting a multi-textured project that looks nothing like the first-person autobiographical docs we’re used to. She expands upon the nature of true-story-telling and memory using the actual interviews, a scripted narration read by her father and reenactments that easily fool the viewer into thinking he’s watching old home movie footage. Also along the way she discovers something incredible about her mother and in turn herself that, even if you know the twist, comes about better than any movie twist of the past few years. It’s not because Polley is a bit of a celebrity or that her family is necessarily more interesting than anyone else’s, the reason Stories We Tell is so appealing and absorbing is in how her story is presented, with wonder and vigor and drama and a clever, well-executed structure involving a variety of technique. It may not be the best story of the year, but it’s the best telling of a story this year. — CC