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Dan’s Top 10 Documentaries of 2013


My look at 2013 continues as I review the best documentaries of 2013. Documentaries can serve a multitude of purposes. You will have your change the world docs that pick a certain cause and attempt to spread the word so people will rise up and do something. You have those that are just about a particular story that is just too incredible to believe. You also have those experimental docs that are all about playing with the perimeters with film and experience.  My list covers those categories and much more. It shows documentaries can really be used to do just about anything.

Honorable Mentions:



Directed By:  Linda Bloodworth-Thomason

Synopsis: BRIDEGROOM tells the emotional journey of Shane and Tom, two young men in a loving and committed relationship that was cut tragically short by a misstep off the side of a roof. The story of what happened after this accidental death- of how people without the legal protections of marriage can find themselves completely shut out and ostracized- is poignant, enraging and opens a window onto the issue of marriage equality and human rights like no speech or lecture ever will

Quick Take: When I first starting watching Bridegroom  I was a little worried about what I was watching. It felt like a movie with good intentions, but about a story that is really only interesting to those who were involved. As it progressed that opinion changed and I became emotionally invested into what was taking place. What started as a factor against it—this very personal internal dilemma—turned out to be the emotional linchpin that made it  such an effecting piece of work. One that made you feel like you were a part of this world and could share in the experience.





The House I Live InThe House I Live In

Directed By: Eugene Jarecki

Synopsis  From the dealer to the narcotics officer, the inmate to the federal judge, a penetrating look inside America’s criminal justice system, revealing the profound human rights implications of U.S. drug policy.

Quick Take: We have seen quite the shift of opinion on the War on Drugs in recent years. The House  I Live In  is a comprehensive  look into how ineffective it has actually been since its inception, and how it may have down more harm than good. By looking at the multitude of people involved it showed how its failure has effected so many. Some could argue it gives a rather one sided opinion, and it’s hard to dispute that fact. Still, it does quite the job supporting its case.’








Gideons ArmyGideon’s Army

Directed By: Dawn Porter

Synopsis: Gideon’s Army follows Travis Williams, Brandy Alexander and June Hardwick, three young public defenders who are part of a small group of idealistic lawyers in the Deep South challenging the assumptions that drive a criminal justice system strained to the breaking point. Backed by mentor Jonathan “Rap” Rapping, a charismatic leader who heads the Southern Public Defender Training Center, they struggle against long hours, low pay and staggering caseloads so common that even the most committed often give up in their first year.

Quick Take: The House I Live In  and Gideon’s Army  would make quite the double feature. Both go a long way in proving the system is broken. Gideon’s Army   depicts a profession that is unfairly criticized. As a former teacher and someone still heavily involved in the world of education I drew a lot of parallels. A profession that is understaffed, overworked,  and not given the necessary tools to get their job done. Gideon’s Army   put a face on an issue most of us ignore.






NETFLIX, INC. HANK10. Hank: Five Years from the Brink

Directed By: Joe Berlinger

Synopsis: For three weeks in September 2008, one person was charged with preventing the collapse of the global economy. No one understood the financial markets better than Hank Paulson, the former CEO of Goldman Sachs. In Hank: Five Years from the Brink, Paulson tells the complete story of how he persuaded banks, Congress and presidential candidates to sign off on nearly $1 trillion in bailouts – even as he found the behavior that led to the crisis, and the bailouts themselves, morally reprehensible.

Quick Take:  I do not know about you but I still can not completely grasp all the reasons for the economic down turn we have faced for what seems like forever now. Vile has been thrown around the political spectrum and facts have gotten lost in the shuffle. There have been many documentaries that have taken a shot at explaining what happened, and one I feel has done the best job is Hank: From Years from the Brink. It has a focused attack and never allows a political agenda to get in the way. I never felt like this was picking sides and it broke down the fall in a clear and concise manner.  This should have been boring, but I found it riveting.




Casting By9. Casting By

Directed By: Tom Donahue

Synopsis:  The surprising, never-before-told tale of the indispensable yet unsung Casting Director – Iconoclasts whose keen eye, exquisite taste and gut instincts redefined Hollywood.

Quick Take:  I am always looking to better understand how movies work. What are the ingredients that make certain movies such an enjoyable experience  and make other movies completely unwatchable.  Casting By  highlights a group of people that are rather overlooked. Casting agents have played a huge part in making Hollywood what it is today. For anyone who is a fan of film this is a must see. You see how some of the most legendary careers were launched.   It was a unique peek into a world few of us would ever experience.








Dirty Wars8. Dirty Wars

Directed By:  Rick Rowley

Synopsis: Investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill is pulled into an unexpected journey as he chases down the hidden truth behind America’s expanding covert wars.

Quick Take: Sometimes there are those documentaries the feel more important than the movie you are watching. That was the case with Rick Rowley’s Dirty Wars. The information that is obtained through this investigation was disturbing. We know with war the line of ethics shifts, but what this shows is that line may have shifted more than we even realize.  The lengths they go to obtain this information is a level of bravery I am not capable of achieving. Again, some may argue there is a bias to the film, but any time you approach topics of this nature you run that risk.









Blackfish7. Blackfish

Directed By: Gabriela Cowperthwaite

Synopsis: Notorious killer whale Tilikum is responsible for the deaths of three individuals, including a top killer whale trainer. Blackfish shows the sometimes devastating consequences of keeping such intelligent and sentient creatures in captivity.

Quick Take: This may be the most talked about documentary on this list. That is to be expected when you are accusing one of the world’s biggest attractions of wrong doing. Blackfish  got a lot of comparisons to The Cove, and while it is not nearly as good as that documentary it does approach a similar subject matter. What is interesting about Blackfish  is its focus is not solely on animal rights. The focus is more on workplace negligence, and confronting Sea World on how their practices a put the lives of their trainers. It is a great piece of investigation journalism that may forever stain the reputation of Sea World.








Cutie and the Boxer6. Cutie and the Boxer

Directed By: Zachary Heinzerling

Synopsis: This candid New York love story explores the chaotic 40-year marriage of famed boxing painter Ushio Shinohara and his wife, Noriko. Anxious to shed her role as her overbearing husband’s assistant, Noriko finds an identity of her own.

Quick Take: Cutie and the Boxer is not the type of documentary that is looking to make some sort of great social impact. It is just a depiction of a rather interesting couple and their lives together.  This couple is quite fascinating and their struggle to survive the artistic lifestyle.  There interactions are  unique to witness. It does get to some darker issues like abuse of alcohol and how it may have affected their son as well. It also works as a critique of the art culture, and what exactly people view as legitimate art.








The Central Park Five5. The Central Park Five

Directed By: Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, David McMahon

Synopsis: A documentary that examines the 1989 case of five black and Latino teenagers who were convicted of raping a white woman in Central Park. After having spent between 6 and 13 years each in prison, a serial rapist confessed to the crime.

Quick Take: There have been many documentaries that have focused on specific high profile criminal cases, and how those convicted may have been wrongfully accused. The Central Park Five  continues the tradition of movies like The Thin Blue  line and the Paradise Lost trilogy. What is chilling about this case of The Central Park Five  is the way the police prodded young teens into admitting guilt to a crime they did not commit. It showed how the public’s demand for immediate retribution can cause the justice system to search for the easy answer rather than the right answer. For those who get caught up in media scandals I advise watching this to see how we never really know the entire story, no matter how much we like to say we do.







Leviathan4. Leviathan

Directed By: Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Verena Paravel

Synopsis: A documentary shot in the North Atlantic and focused on the commercial fishing industry.

Quick Take: Leviathan  is not a film for everyone, nor does it pretend to be. Some may find it mind numbingly dull, others like myself will enjoy the visual experience it offers. You become the ultimate fly on the wall as this world comes to life. Some of the underwater imagery provided some great imagery that was unsurpassed in beauty .   If you can buy into what Leviathan  is doing you will see there are a lot of wonders to behold. Those who need a narrative to latch onto may would to steer clear of this experimental doc.









We Steal Secrets The Story of WikiLeaks3. We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks

Directed By:  Alex Gibney

Synopsis: A documentary that details the creation of Julian Assange’s controversial website, which facilitated the largest security breach in U.S. history.

Quick Take: People often say, “The book was better”.  The saying, “The documentary was better’” may not be as commonplace but it is often just as factual. This year we got two films that focused on WikiLeaks. One was the docudrama The Fifth Estate  and the other and better film was  We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeak. This doc wins out in this case because it gave a more comprehensive look into what WikiLeaks actually was and how it so quickly and rapidly rose to power.  It is a compelling account that attempts to determine the morality in what WikiLeaks accomplished.








Stories We Tell2. Stories We Tell

Directed By: Sarah Polley

Synopsis: A film that excavates layers of myth and memory to find the elusive truth at the core of a family of storytellers.

Quick Take: My last two choices are rather obvious, but they are obvious for good reasons. Stories We Tell  is an example of how truth is not nearly as attainable as we think it is. We have a tendency to mold our past into a clean narrative and Stories We Tell  shows how that practice causes our memories to play tricks on itself. This search for truth is a noble one, and in many ways Stories We Tell  works as a deconstruction of the genre of documentary by allowing the cameras to role before and after interviews end to let us see the entire story.









The Act of Killing1. The Act of Killing

Directed By: Joshua Oppenheimer & Christine Cynn

Synopsis: A documentary that challenges former Indonesian death squad leaders to reenact their real-life mass-killings in whichever cinematic genres they wish, including classic Hollywood crime scenarios and lavish musical numbers.

Quick Take: This choice was rather easy to make honestly. All the other documentaries on this list are notable in their own right, but none get to the level of The Act of Killing. The more I think about what took place in the film the more I cannot believe what happened. Watching these people who knowingly committed genocide so comfortable with their actions was chilling to witness. The structure is so cerebral you could spend hours upon hours breaking down its layers.  Of all the films that were released in 2013 The Act of Killing  may go down as the most important.



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