If you’re looking to take a break from all your troubles this holiday, might I suggest ploughing into someone else’s? The documentary remains a great vehicle for incredible, true life stories, and the year 2013 had some remarkable ones. Thanks to the boom of online distribution and video on demand, it’s never been easier to get great docs in your home, and there’s always a selection of pretty great ones on the old-fashioned big screen too. Many of the titles below are available online in someway, shape or form, so if you’re looking for something to watch during your downtime this holiday season, these titles should fill your head and feed your soul.
Honorable Mention: Crystal Lake Memories: The Complete History of Friday the 13th
Artistically, there’s nothing terribly sophisticated about Crystal Lake Memories, but I think you have to salute the time, effort and energy that went into making a nearly seven hour documentary covering all aspects of the Friday the 13th franchise. From the same creators of the expansive Nightmare on Elm Street doc Never Sleep Again, director Daniel Farrands tracked down and interviewed as many people as possible who are connected with the franchise, and the result is an interesting and insightful look into one of the biggest names in slasher movies. Lovingly narrated by Corey Feldman, the film shows the Friday films for all their fun, frivolity, faults and occasional, accidental bouts of insight. It’s an investment of time, but for fans of Jason Voorhees it’s absolutely essential viewing.
10) The Rep
The Rep is hardly the most technically sophisticated documentary on this list, but it has a lot of heart and affection for its subject matter and the increasing difficulty small theaters everywhere are having just trying to put butts in seats. What started as a potential webseries to promote the Toronto Underground Cinema became a first person witness to the arduousness of turning one’s dream into reality. From the micro of the Underground to the macro of the current state of repository cinema, The Rep is a hopeful celebration of the movie theatre, and a loving kiss goodbye to a way of life. Shirking bitterness and convention, the cinephiles featured in The Rep prove that sometimes the lost cause is the one worth fighting for the most, even if you know you’re going to lose.
9) Dirty Wars
A lot of the war news this year had to do with surveillance, but the flipside to all that secret spying is the corresponding increase in black ops missions to act on that intelligence, usually in the form of drone strikes, but sometimes still with small units of highly trained soldiers. Investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill wrote a book on the subject, and Richard Rowley turned it into a thought-provoking movie that asks about the limits, or lack thereof, in modern warfare. Following Scahill we learn a couple of things, first the difficulties for reporters like him to cover national security under the black cloak of total secrecy, and the disturbing breadth of America’s worldwide anti-terror operations. For the average viewer, it will shake you to realize that in a very real sense, there is no check on the power of Commander-in-Chief prosecuting a neverending war.
Gay rights continued to march on 2013 (much to the chagrin of that Duck Dynasty guy, but that’s another story), and there’s no more powerful reminder regarding the importance of the fight for equality than the story of Bridegroom. Truly a child of the digital age - inspired by a Youtube video, with a budget raised through a highly successful Kickstarter campaign - Bridegroom’s story is as old as romance itself: the love between two people and the family that didn’t understand it and refused to accept it. The film unfolds like a love letter, but with a tragic ending as the accidental death of Thomas Lee Bridegroom couldn’t be mourned properly by his partner Shane Bitney Crone because Bridegroom’s parents refused to accept he was gay and did their best to deny it. It’s a touching and heartbreaking story told with an unusually light-touch by former sitcom writer Linda Bloodworth-Thomason.
7) The Manor
How’s this for unusual? The Manor is the director’s deeply personal look at his own life, and how he fits into his loving, Jewish family including father Roger, mother Brenda and brother Sammy. One more thing, Shawney Cohen’s family owns and operates a strip club in Guelph called, you guessed it, The Manor. But titillation isn’t The Manor’s preoccupation, there’s more than enough neuroses and troubles for the Cohens to contend with including the director’s own struggle for identity, his father’s issues being overweight, and his mother’s issues being underweight. It takes a brave man to turn the unflinching eye of his own camera on himself and his troubles, and The Manor is bracingly honest, and strangely intimate.
6) The Crash Reel
Rivalries are at the heart of a lot of great sports stories, and so is personal triumph in the face of tremendous adversity. In The Crash Reel you get two for the price of one as director Lucy Walker recounts how then up-and-coming snowboard stars Kevin Pearce and Shaun White clashed on the slopes till Pearce suffered a severe head injury while training. The fun movie about the awesomeness and challenges of snowboarding then becomes a deeply personal story of how you put yourself back together. It also becomes a philosophical exercise about pursuing the things you love regardless of the risk, as Pearce pushes himself to get back on the board, even against the advice of all his doctors and the wishes of his family. Even though there’s a part of your brain that thinks Pearce (and many of his fellow extreme sports athletes) is out of his mind, the other part challenges you to wonder if there’s any limit you wouldn’t push yourself through to do what you love.
5) Stories We Tell
Sarah Polley continues to impress with her directorial ambitions by tackling the documentary format and completing a rare hat-trick by telling a deeply personal story that is also it’s own behind-the-scenes making of while occasionally allowing the interview subjects of her documentary to question the director’s own intentions. That’s a lot for documentary to carry on its own, but Polley is merciless in her own self-examination, and meticulous in the construction of her own life story and family tree. The film asks how much of what we remember is actual memory, and how much of it is a construction made up as much by rumour and myth as it is by facts? There’s something quite brave about the way Polley and her family air their dirty laundry in front of the movie-going public, and something very brave about their candidness and honesty when talking about it. Arguably, Stories We Tell is the most bizarre home movie of all time.
4) We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks
One of the big movies of the year was supposed to be The Fifth Estate, a dramatic film based on the true story of Wikileaks and its founder Julian Assange. And then it bombed. Critics weren’t impressed, and neither was the audience, it might be because the movie itself wasn’t that good, or it might have been that Alex Gibney told the story better in We Steal Secrets. There is no hero worship here for Assange, but instead a clinical and thorough examination of the culture he helped create and the good and ill that came from the fallout. Gibney painstakingly interviews Wikileaks insiders and Assange confederates, but never gets the man himself on camera in anything other than archival footage. That may be an oversight, but perhaps the best way to get the full view of Assange was to take him out of the equation, and really, I don’t think anyone is going to be more fair on either the man or his legacy than Gibney.
3) The Armstrong Lie
If you look at Alex Gibney’s filmography you can tell he’s no fan of liars. He’s taken on Enron, Eliot Spitzer, Jack Abramoff and the Catholic Church, so you can imagine how he must have felt to be part of a conspiracy when he decided to film Lance Armstrong’s cycling comeback. Armstrong’s hubris is as much on trial as his crime in The Armstrong Lie, which leaps off Armstrong’s sudden backpeddle on his denial of using performance enhancers and re-examines the warning signs, how the lie was constructed over the years and seven Tour du France victories, and ultimately how it all came unravelled. There’s no reprieve for Armstrong. Indeed, Gibney goes after him with the zeal of a prosecutor on a career-making trial, but there’s also the understanding of universal human frailty as well. Armstrong may not be forgiven for his actions, but his motivations to be the best at all cost is a struggle we call relate to.
The death of Dawn Brancheau wasn’t the first “accident” the Orca Tilikum was connected to, but it did raise serious questions about the treatment of killer whales in captivity and brought an unflattering light on the whole live animal performance industry. The villain, if there is a villain, is Sea World and they’re attempts to sell themselves as expert conservationists when they essentially keep such majestic animals in, as one woman puts it, a concrete bathtub for 25 years, and under the supervision of people who come into the business with no more skill than enthusiasm and the ability to fill out an application. Blackfish makes us take a good long look at the industry of aquatic animal entertainment - and it is an industry - and makes you ask the question if the enjoyment of seeing these whales close-up is worth the loss of quality of life to them.
1) The Act of Killing
Imagine if the Nazis were still in power, and a filmmaker went to Germany and asked the veterans of World War II to act out Schindler’s List. That’s one way to look at The Act of Killing, which asks members of an Indonesian death squads to re-enact their brutal violence during the 1965 coup attempt and its aftermath. What I think shakes a lot of people in watching it is that director Joshua Oppenheimer takes judgment out of the equation. He’s not putting them on trial, or demanding answers as to how human beings can perpetrate such horrors on other human beings, but as the Bard once said, he hopes that by putting on a play might capture the conscience of his subjects, and for one brief moment at the end, he does. What wins out in your mind, the moment where Anwar Congo actually breaks down and cries about garroting 1,000 people or when he’s re-enacting it and reminiscing about those days in “the office of blood” when he and his colleagues were talking about “more humane ways” to kill Communists? You be the judge.