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Essential Viewing: Best Documentaries of 2013 (part one)

Essential Viewing: Best Documentaries of 2013 (part one)

Documentaries have come a long way in the past 20 years, especially in the last decade. Documentary film has developed into a popular and visible form of entertainment, while having a bigger effect on society, usually addressing important issues with the goal of informing the public and pushing for social change. Ten years ago, it was more difficult to name 10 “great” documentaries released in one single year. Oh, how times have changed. There are so many incredible docs released each year – most never released wide – that it is impossible to catch up with each – but we try our best here at Sound On Sight. The following is a list of recent documentaries recommended most by our staff. It was hard to choose between the many great docs released this year, but we decided to narrow it down to a list of 10, based on what received the most votes from our end-year list (to be published on December 28th). Let us know if you can recommend any others.

Note: This list is ranked alphabetically.

Honourable Mentions:

56 Up

We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks

Birth of the Living Dead

Dirty Wars

The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology

Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer

Mistaken for Strangers

The Trials of Muhammad Ali

Cutie and the Boxer

After Tiller

God Loves Uganda

These Birds Walk


20 Feet from Stardom

Twenty Feet from Stardom
Directed by Morgan Neville
USA, 2013

20 Feet from Stardom ruminates on the lives of backup singers who have long been relegated to living in the shadow of showbiz royalty’s publicized accomplishments. Highlighting their continuous struggle for recognition and adequate compensation for their talents, this is a wistfully nostalgic documentary that packs a considerable emotional punch. Relentless in their quest to fully be acknowledged for the breadth of their work as much as countless headliners have been honored, many of these ladies (and some men) are compelling to watch because of the obvious pride they still take in their singing.

Older and younger generations of backup singers share similar but engrossing stories of giving it their all but failing to embody the industry’s fickle idea of who deserves to be a star. Infamous producer Phil Spector is seen in a particularly bad light for willfully holding Darlene Love back from fame by using her immense capability to bolster the profits of other acts without giving her credit. Looking at specific samples of how their gifts contributed to making legendary music, compelling stories emerge of how doggedly they have worked only to remain largely unknown. It is hard to feel cynical about the unabashed praise this doc heaps upon its subjects when they have been so thoroughly dragged down by circumstance, controlling producers, and unfair business practices. Joyful but tinged with heartache, this film reveals how being integral secrets to the success of a slew of memorable hits have taken their toll but ultimately delivers some much needed visibility and emotional catharsis for these outrageously talented artists who have waited so long to share their side of music history.

– Lane Scarberry


Act of Killing

The Act of Killing
Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer
Denmark, 2012

“Two wrongs don’t make a right.” As far as truisms go, it’s not a bad one, but it’s not a terribly useful one when it comes to film criticism, as Joshua Oppenheimer’s endlessly disturbing The Act of Killing proves. It’s difficult to dispute that, on a certain level, the film enables its subjects, who happen to be some of the most prolific, remorseless killers on the fact of the planet. But it’s equally difficult to deny that their social and political context has already enabled them to a much greater, and much more destructive, degree, and that the depths the film plunges into would not be possible without indulging the loathsome thugs at its center.

— Simon Howell



At Berkley
Directed by Frederick Wiseman
USA, 2013

Legendary 83-year-old filmmaker Frederick Wiseman has made a career of putting contemporary institutions under his ever-inquisitive microscope. This is once again the case with his latest documentary, At Berkeley, which documents a semester inside one of America’s most prestigious universities: University of California, Berkeley. Clocking in as one of his longest films at 244 minutes, Wiseman’s latest is, at its core, a sprawling and detailed examination of an institution dealing with fiscal issues in the fall of 2010, a troubled period brought on by a decrease in California’s investment in the university.

In some ways, At Berkeley plays as eerily similar to the true-life college experience. Wiseman may not show us life within dorms or dining halls, but he recreates the alternately stimulating and monotonous experience of a mind being transformed for the better. Endlessly educational and insightful, At Berkeley is, one could say, a taxing experience in the most productive sense. Anyone who questions the worth of learning will find themselves delightfully taken hostage by this game-changing film.

— Ty Landis



Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite
USA, 2013

Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, Blackfish centers around the life of Tilikum, an orca whale in captivity who made headlines in 2010 for an incident that resulted in the death of a SeaWorld trainer. For those who grew up seeing commercials for the marine amusement park, this film will shatter the images of happy, cute orca whales being rescued and happy at SeaWorld. Blackfish is an engrossing, emotional, and viscerally upsetting documentary that addresses head on issues of animal rights, workers rights, and the careless actions of SeaWorld in the name of their capitalist interests. Blackfish uses interviews with past SeaWorld trainers, whale hunters, scientists, footage from SeaWorld’s cameras themselves to bring light the underbelly of what keeping orca whales in captivity for “family” entertainment truly entails.

— Pamela Fillion


Call Me Kuchu
Directed by Katherine Fairfax Wright and Malika Zouhali-Worrall
USA, 2012

Equally gut-wrenching and inspiring, the heartbreaking documentary Call Me Kuchu (which takes its title from local slang for gay), captures the very best and the very worst of human nature. This report from the front-lines by co-directors Katherine Fairfax Wright and Malika Zouhali-Worrall revolves around David Kato, Uganda’s first out gay campaigner, as he battles the ongoing and intensifying struggle over LGBT rights and proposals to make homosexuality a capital crime. With unprecedented access, the filmmakers follow Kato and his colleagues as they do everything in their power to defeat the legislation. Sadly, Call Me Kuchu depicts the last year in the life of the courageous, astute and determined Kato, as he was brutally murdered during the production. Call Me Kuchu is shocking, moving, enthralling, and enraging – a doc so lively and urgent, it sent shock waves around the world. This is one of the best films of recent years, and like the brave man at its center, Call My Kuchu continues to inspire a new generation of human rights advocates to step up.

— Ricky D


Let The Fire Burn
Directed by Jason Osder
USA, 2013

In 1985, a confrontation occurred in a West Philadelphia neighborhood between the Philadelphia police and an activist group that called itself MOVE. By the conclusion of the incident, a fire had broken out that destroyed several blocks’ worth of residential homes. Eleven people died.

These are the facts of the incident, but the city of Philadelphia had to set up a massive commission and investigation to uncover the reasons why. Every moment of the commission’s public hearings was videotaped for posterity, but it was not until now that the entire video archive of the incident could be collected by George Washington University. Director Jason Osder has turned that footage into a film titled Let The Fire Burn, and other directors will be hard-pressed to produce a better documentary this year.

— Mark Young