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The Best Documentaries of 2013

Written by on December 17, 2013 

The source of the year’s most powerful stories, the documentary genre is once again thriving in 2013. Including deeply personal films, ones that enact wide-spread awareness, and entries that break the supposed definition of the genre, we’ve rounded up our 15 favorites of the year to share. Check out our rundown below and let us know your favorites in the comments.

20 Feet From Stardom (Morgan Neville)

You wouldn’t expect a documentary film about thwarted back-up singers who never quite made the big time to be filled with this much infectious joy, but that’s exactly the quality that director Morgan Neville brings to the table. For music fans, this 90 minute spotlight on the unsung singers behind the big names is a must see movie event. Even when the lot of this particular career profession results in frustration, the film itself never stops soaring. You won’t discover the definitive history of backup singers here, but what you will find is a collection of women whose stories are compelling, poignant and, in cases like Merry Clayton talking the Stones Gimme Shelter, the stuff of legend. – Nathan B.

The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer)

While Hollywood attempts to conjure the latest harrowing characters and situations in their offerings, one documentary this summer proves that nothing can beat the real thing, for Joshua Oppenheimer‘s document of real-life Indonesian serial killers is perhaps the most unforgettable experience one can have at the cinema this year. It’s a true testament to not only the film’s structure, but the bond our director created with these men that, without it, this — especially a devastating third act — could have easily been a superficial look at the events. Instead, its matter-of-fact nature will get under one’s skin and never let go. – Jordan R.

After Tiller (Martha Shane, Lana Wilson)

Although documentaries often present real-life people working in risk-filled areas, the results can be quite banal. Half of reality television is filled with potentially exciting subjects: ER surgeons; truckers crossing thin sheets of ice; Alaskan crab fishers; or cops working some of world’s most dangerous streets. The problem with these shows is that, more often than not, their content boils down to one simple idea: “pretty crazy stuff!” In a breath of fresh air, After Tiller actually explores the psychology of four late-term abortion doctors, a group whose work is not inherently dangerous, but whose professional embroilment in political controversies have made them potential targets. Instead of gaping at this profession and the dangers surrounding it, directors Martha Shane and Lana Wilson have crafted a nuanced psychological portrait of why the set would fight for women on these front lines, as well as the ethical, political, and moral decisions they face every day. – Peter L.

At Berkeley (Frederick Wiseman)

Frederick Wiseman’s At Berkeley is an insightful look at higher education from the top to the bottom. Working within his most complex and largest institution yet, the documentary master captures a multitude of experiences that barely scratch the surface. A comprehensive, four-hour look with startling frankness — from the faculty tenure process, to commissions crafting both PR and public safety responses to protests over rising tuition — it’s a fascinating and brilliant film. – John F.

Blackfish (Gabriela Cowperthwaite)

Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s Blackfish is the most unconventional murder mystery you’ll ever see. It’s also the one most likely to facilitate real-world change. The killer in question is a 32 year-old Orca named Tilikum and the film isn’t an indictment of the animal, but of Sea World and the practices associated with keeping and training these creatures in captivity. Fans of aquatic parks may be slow to acquiesce to what Cowperthwaite is putting forth, but she lets much of the damning truth—seen through footage and personal accounts, many from Sea World trainers—speak for itself. At the heart of Blackfish is the question of how much mistreatment a sentient being can endure before it will lash out. We’ve taken graceful, mercilessly efficient predators and made them into living beach toys for our amusement. Eventually, someone’s going to pay the piper. – Nathan B.

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