Essential Viewing: The Best Documentaries of 2013 (part two)


Directed by Lucian Castaing-Taylor & Verena Paravel
USA, 2012

The Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab is slowly out to reshape the way you see cinema and the world. Rather than set out to document the world via a recitation of facts and experiences, they’re strapping the cameras right at the edge of life – in this case, a fishing vessel off the New England coast. Even the most mundane images of fish lying about or being gutted become beautifully abstracted, almost nightmarish in the mess of flesh and organs piled upon one another. It’s when the cameras go out to sea, strapped to the bow of the boat, rocking above and below the water as seagulls follow alongside, all elements in complete harmony and cooperative unity, that Castaing-Taylor and Paravel are truly touching the heavens, achieving that which cinema so rarely dares to explore, let alone succeeds in doing so.

– Scott Nye



Mistaken For Strangers
Directed by Tom Berninger
USA, 2013 

Directed by Tom Berninger, Mistaken For Strangers is one of 2013‘s more unanticipated surprises. If Berninger’s name rings a bell, that’s because he is the younger sibling of Matt Berninger, also known as the lead singer of indie rock sensation The National. Although it could be mistaken for a music documentary, Mistaken for Strangers takes a candid look at the dynamic relationship between Tom and Matt as well as the process of artistic production itself. As Tom joins The National’s roadie crew on an international tour, viewers are privy to the ups and downs of having fame enter the family portrait and of being at a crossroads creatively in ones life. Mistaken for Strangers is one of the more engaging and refreshingly relatable stories to come out this year.

– Pam Fillion



Rewind This!
Directed by Josh Johnson
USA, 2013

Like the best cinematic calls to arms, Rewind This! is also a love letter to cinema. Through interviews with collectors, cinephiles, and filmmakers, documentarian Josh Johnson shows the far-reaching impact VHS culture had, and in many cases still has. The VHS revolution took over America in the mid ‘80s, democratizing cinephilia by allowing anyone who started a membership at a video rental store to see anything they wanted, allowing many to see international cinema for the first time, and so on. Without big box chains like Blockbuster, and other specialty mom/pop stores, people like Quentin Tarantino wouldn’t have been able to cut their teeth on world cinema. Heretofore, seeing films was predominantly relegated to first-run titles, with older films rarely making their way to repertory houses in big cities. Johnson’s documentary is not only a joy to watch, but also serves as an unexpected history lesson on production models and fan subcultures. This film invests in its audience’s nostalgia for the format, and shows, without a doubt, that that audience still exists.

– John Oursler



Room 237
Directed by Rodney Ascher
USA, 2012

Rodney Ascher’s documentary Room 237 explores the numerous theories and alleged hidden meanings lurking deep within Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, conceptualized by devoted non-casual observers, theorists and scholars. The Shining may be over three decades old but it continues to spark debate and speculation. For many, the film is just another horror pic, an auteur taking on a new genre. But to some, it is so much more. Subtitled Being an inquiry into The Shining in 9 parts, Room 237 focuses on five unique points of view, broken into nine sections and told entirely via voiceover. There are no talking head interviews. Ascher’s interview subjects never appear on film. The documentary is made up entirely of stock footage, animation, dramatic reenactments, digitally altered images and scenes from various movies – sometimes in slow motion, or sped up – with frame-by-frame analysis, sequences superimposed, manipulated, and so on. The doc itself is structured much like the movie’s hedge maze, drawing the audience into endless twists and turns. This is best seen in an explanation of the Overlook Hotel’s “synchronous space”, detailed in 3-D illustrations of the set layout. Yes, a devoted fan took the time to create a map of the hotel’s geography. There’s one spectacular sequence in which two celluloid strips of The Shining are superimposed backward and forward over one another to illustrate a famous comment made by a blogger named MSTRMIND, who once said that “The Shining was meant to be watched both forwards and backwards.” Just think REDRUM! If you put a movie through the microscope over and over, you will eventually see something that wasn’t there to begin with, including subconscious themes and ideas that somehow appear in the final product, even if unknown to the creator.

— Ricky D


These Birds Walk
Directed by Omar Mullick and Bassam Tariq
2013, Pakistan / USA

These Birds Walk is a deeply felt, impossibly observed inversion of the inspirational doc, addressing its filmic existence sparingly despite its intimacy. We open with what appears to be a celebration of a great, generous man in the operator of the home for runaway children Abdul Sattar Edhi, but focus immediately shifts to the children he purports to help. This isn’t to say the film is overtly depressing or a condemnation of his amazing work; it’s a look at the abandoned psyche that drives a misplaced sense of independence reflected in all of us, thanks to a society that values the individual above all else. It could make a stellar companion piece to Joan Tronto’s writings on the marginalization of care. A heartbreaking but never maudlin requiem of innocence at hands of the futility and unavoidability of our world’s solipsism that still, it still manages to contain a granule of hope for a kinder, gentler world.

– Simon Opitz


The Square

Directed by Jehane Noujaim

Egypt and USA, 2013

Anyone who has seen an average number of new documentaries over the last 5 years has likely sat through any number of political-advocacy docs, but it would be a mistake to lump Jehane Noujaim’s electrifying The Square in with that mostly forgettable lot. Filmed and edited in the thick of the Egyptian revolution, the film does a remarkable job of isolating and following through on multiple, equally compelling characters and narrative strands while managing to craft a coherent thesis about the difficulties of modern revolution. Some have criticized the film for telling an incomplete story, for choosing to turn off the cameras and head to the editing bay before all has played out. That’s sheer lunacy. One of the film’s key themes is that revolution is never done; that it’s the product of ceaseless effort, and that the complacency that is too often the result of victories big and small is at the root of the need for revolution in the first place. There are no endings.

— Simon Howell


Stories We Tell
Directed by Sarah Polley
Canada, 2012

Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell is a fascinating and engaging attempt to reveal life’s everyday secrets. As Polley seeks to uncover the true identity of her biological father, she encounters an assortment of recollections, assumptions, and opinions, some conflicting, some in sync, all contributing to a seemingly elusive truth about her heritage. It’s like Last Year at Marienbad meets Maury Povich. Stories We Tell is formally ingenious in its presentation of key figures in this familial drama. Contemporary interviews with siblings and acquaintances are mixed with reenactments deceptively and effectively shot to mesh seamlessly with genuine home video footage of Polley’s family. Even in this visual depiction of the past, the truth remains ambiguous and illusory. Adding to the self-conscious unspooling of the investigation, Polley films her “father” as he narrates the documentary in the third person, even when talking about himself and his feelings and impressions. Where the films gains its most potent power though, is in its basic chronicle of events. Stories We Tell is about just that – the narratives that form our lives. In this personal tale of one family’s lineage, Polley examines the intricacies, certainties, and fallacies that ultimately shape our individual existence: how we got here, who was involved, and what really happened … if we can ever really know.

— Jeremy Carr


Best Documentaries 2013

Essential Viewing: Best Documentaries of 2013 (part one)

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