Another year has come and gone, and 2014 is already upon us. But as we prepare for everything that lies ahead, we wanted to take a look back at an extraordinary year for documentary film. 2013 was the year film critics woke up to nonfiction’s essential place in the cinema. This was reflected in the best-of lists, where a strong consensus emerged that documentaries were among the year’s best.
A good place to start is Scott Tobias’s Year in Documentary piece for The Dissolve, which praises 2013’s docs for their formal innovations. Tobias argues that 2013 was “a year in which documentary filmmakers liberated themselves from past formulas and found new ways to express the truth”; where docs were “committed to veering away from the realm of magazine pieces or Wikipedia, and finding truths only the camera can reveal”.
He opens his article by looking at Leviathan, which used tiny, light-weight GoPro cameras aboard a commercial fishing vessel to discover a new standard of cinematic immersion. Filmmakers Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel of Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab received our True Vision Award at a screening of this work at last year’s fest. It was recently named the film of the year by the staff at L Magazine, who noted “This heaving, churning epic defies pat classification. In this case it’s only reasonable to invoke a critical cliche: you have to see it for yourself.”
Tobias also cites These Birds Walk, which spies into the lives of the homeless and runaway boys of Pakistan with a sustained eloquence reminiscent of the cinema of Terrence Malick. This film is the first to play True/False twice, first as a work-in-progress in 2012 and then as a completed film in 2013. Peter Rainer of the Christian Science Monitor named it among his ten best, noting that Birds is “flooded with piercing sequences that open up an entire country and way of life”.
Another T/F 2013 selection receiving attention is After Tiller. The documentary debut of Lana Wilson and Martha Shane profiles the only four doctors left in America who perform late-term abortions. Taking on this most divisive of issues with a delicate and intelligent approach, the film takes us inside the confidential counselling sessions where women face impossible decisions. Naming it her number three film of the year, Katie Walsh at The Playlist observed “the remarkable thing about a film like After Tiller is the way in which Wilson and Shane take such a political topic and turn it into something so personal”.
The Act of Killing was named film of the year by both the Guardian and Sight & Sound magazine. The later, run by the British Film Institute, publishes a top 30 list every year after surveying over 100 international critics, curators and academics. The Act of Killing enlists the perpetrators of Indonesia’s mass killings of the 1960s to reenact their crimes in garish cinematic set-pieces. This truly startling work has already generated a massive secondary literature, including Sight & Sound’s latest piece by Carrie McAlinden.
Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell turns the revelation of an awkward family secret into an investigation of a deeper mystery, the role that narratives play in all of our lives. Stories came in 13th overall on the Metacritic meta-poll. Elizabeth Weitzman of the NY Daily News named it her film of the year, calling it “intimate in scale, but enormous in scope”.
Critics have also rallied around a T/F 2013 film perhaps too strange to be regarded as a documentary (or then again, maybe not). Andrew Bujalski’s undefinable Computer Chess takes us back to the dawn of the information age, to a strange hotel convention where a group of computer programmers are attempting to develop an artificial intelligence. Ignatiy Vishnevetsky at the A. V. Club picked this bizarre sci-fi comedy as his film of the year.
2013 also saw the launch of an excellent new online resource for documentary fanatics. Christopher Campbell’s new site Nonfics features news, reviews, pieces on classics, a podcast and the first annual Nonfics critics poll, which collects a plethora of nonfiction only best-of lists.
Finally, filmmaker Robert Greene shared his list of the year’s best cinematic nonfiction in his Unfiction column at Sight & Sound. Greene’s “highlights of a triumphant year for the art of documentary” include T/F 2013 pics Sleepless Nights, The Last Station, Winter Go Away, Declaration of War, A Story for the Modlins and the shortest film ever to play True/False, Tina Delivers a Goat.
These are clearly exciting times for documentary film. We can’t wait to see what lies ahead in 2014, and share it with you in just a couple months.