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2013’s Best Documentaries

Welcome to the first post in our Best of 2013 coverage. We’re already a bit behind most major media organisations (Empire posted its fairly meh Best of list on Sunday December 1st, since then it’s been incessant list after list) but who cares.

Throughout the week we’ll be publishing a documentary list, an Irish film round-up, ranking the blockbusters, lists from friends of the site and of course our individual top 10s and joint list of our favourites from the year. We’ll be wrapping all this up in a neat little bow with a special end-of-year round-up podcast.

I didn’t see as many documentaries this year as I did in 2012 – here’s last year’s round-up feature. Having moved from a city that has the sole documentary-only cinema in the world (hello Toronto’s Bloor Cinema), it just isn’t as easy to get to as much with only 2 or 3 documentary titles seeing release every month, and with that release you’ll usually only get a limited release in one of the Dublin arthouse cinemas. Having said that, the titles that get picked up by distributors have already been through the mill abroad and if they’re being picked up and shown here then you can rest assured that they’re very good.

Páraic has kindly shared two picks which I’ve yet to see which kick off the list at #12 and #11. They’re followed by ten from me giving us… wait for it… a dirty dozen of docs. 

Men at Lunch

#12 – Men at Lunch

IMDB // review

Páraic says: “These men, whether they were aware of it or not, were making history.”



#11 – McCullin

IMDB // review

Páraic says: “McCullin is a fascinating insight into the mind of a man who took it upon himself to show us what we didn’t want to see and has no doubt suffered for his efforts.”



#10 – Blackfish

imdb // review

The killer whale Tilikum had been in captivity for 27 years when it killed SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010. Despite warning signs over the years (including two other deaths) the authorities failed to act and had just kept their cash cow ticking over. The film’s real motive is to push for change in the labour laws for SeaWorld workers so it almost descends into a film of pure activism but at its heart is a phenomenal story which makes it an engaging watch.


The Class of '92

#9 – Class of ’92


A sentimental choice. This documentary from Ben and Gabe Turner tells the story of the ridiculously successful Manchester United youth team from 1992 and how their rise to glory culminated in 1999 with the club’s first European Cup since 1968. Aswell as the actual class (nobody famous, just David Beckham, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Gary Neville, Phil Neville and Nicky Butt), we also get some wisdom from the eclectic mix of Tony Blair, Eric Cantona, Zinedine Zidane, Danny Boyle and Mani from the Stone Roses.

Even if you’re not a Man United fan (or even a football fan), there’s enough to keep your interest here as the story coincides with a period of economic and political change in the U.K., and in particular the North of England.


West of Memphis

#8 – West of Memphis

imdb // review

The story that had already formed the basis for three separate HBO documentaries (the Paradise Lost trilogy) and a future dramatisation starring Colin Firth is probably now best told by Amy Berg’s documentary on the subject. For the uninitiated, the West Memphis Three were three teenagers wrongfully locked up and sentenced for the murder of three young boys. Despite flaky, unsubstantiated evidence they remained in prison from 1993 until 2011. It’s a perfect story of a miscarriage of justice and the twists and turns in the case will have you hooked if you don’t know how things play out. Essential viewing, hurt only by the fact that a lot of people will have already known the story inside out.


Cutie and the Boxer

#7 – Cutie and the Boxer

imdb // review

The ups and downs of an artistic relationships can be hard to understand. Director Zachary Heinzerling’s film looks at how the struggling New York painter Ushio Shinohara and his cartoonist wife Noriko have coped over the last forty years. She seems to have taken dog’s abuse for years and just gotten on with it, now they’re in their dotage and struggling to get the money together to pay the bills. It may sound gloomy and yet the film still packs an abundance of uplifting happy moments between two people who are stuck together whether they like it not.



#6 – Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God

imdb // review

Alex Gibney is a documentary machine. His other release this year (the Wikileaks exposé We Steal Secrets – review) may be just as good as this in some people’s eyes but at the time left me feeling like the story hadn’t been finished yet and needed a concluding segment. Since watching the completely forgettable The Fifth Estate I’m thinking now he actually made a decent documentary about the fairly boring one-dimensional figure that is Julian Assange. Perhaps on second viewing it would find its way into this list.

Anyway Mea Maxima Culpa is a look at the culture of clerical abuse in the Catholic church, with a particular focus on the Lawrence Murphy Case. The film proved all the more timely with the coincidence of it showing up in cinemas while Pope Benedict XVI was packing his suitcase. Whatever your faith or politics, you’ll be left angry at the Vatican’s knack for sweeping things under the carpet.


The Gatekeepers

#5 – The Gatekeepers

imdb // review

The pitch for Dror Moreh’s documentary was probably quite a hard one to actually believe. You’ve got six former heads of the Israeli security service Shin Bet who are willing to sit down and be interviewed? For real? For this reason, The Gatekeepers is most reminiscent of Errol Morris’ masterful oscar-winning 2003 film The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara which retold the Cold War and Vietnam years from the perspective of the U.S. Secretary of Defense from the 1960s.

The film’s CGI work is also quite remarkable as it takes the audience through some of the key incidents in Israel’s recent history. It’s a hell of a lot better than the old “moving photographs” trick we’ve been seeing for the last decade.


Mistaken for Strangers

#4 – Mistaken for Strangers

imdb // review

Having a big brother who is more successful than you probably ain’t easy. When your brother is the effortlessly cool Matt Berninger from the Brooklyn-based band The National, it must be pretty tough. And hell when that band has two sets of brothers playing either side of Matt, you’re can’t help but feel sorry for the poor bum brother left lying at home.

So how’s about the younger brother is allowed to come on tour and make a film and act as a bit of a roadie for a while? The resulting film Mistaken for Strangers is hilarious, sad, heart-warming and thought-provoking and one to watch whether you’re into the world of alternative music or not.



#3 – The Act of Killing

imdb // podcast review

One of the most memorable, mind-bending and insane films of the year – documentary or otherwise – with the UK film bible “Sight & Sound” having already named it their top film of 2013. The film tells the story of some Indonesian government warmongers who re-enact the atrocities they committed as heads of government-run death squads. The search for remorse and meaning as these men (some would say monsters) create more and more theatrical productions is one that will stick with you long after you’ve seen the film. The film’s executive producers are two documentary heavyweights in the shape of Werner Herzog and Errol Morris and both men should feel proud to be associated with the title. Would also win an award for one of the year’s best dance numbers.



#2 – Side by Side

imdb // review

Keanu Reeves could have a pretty bleak Christmas with all signs pointing to massive losses on his long-delayed ninja blockbuster 47 Ronin. Regardless of its fate, he should be commended on his contribution to the debate of an increasingly thorny issue in the cinema world – digital V film. With Side by Side, Keanu – as questioner and producer – and director Christopher Kenneally manage to get a wealth of Hollywood heavy-hitters to sit down and give their two cents. Names like James Cameron, Danny Boyle and George Lucas are firmly on the side of digital and computer aided work while no one makes a better argument for the continued use of celluloid than Christopher Nolan.

Rather than just focus on the production side of things (which doesn’t really matter to a lot of people outside of the industry), the film also manages to deal with how the issue has affected independent and DIY film-making and of course our favourite segment – the cinema-going patron and the quest for perfect projection standards in their cinemas. It’s essential viewing for anyone with even a passing interest in the magic (or economics) of cinema.


Stories We Tell

#1 – Stories We Tell

imdb // review

Toronto-based film-maker Sarah Polley has put together one of the year’s most stirring family stories which masterfully reveals itself by way of interviews with the major players -her siblings, parents and friends of the family. Polley set out on the endeavour by exploring her own relationship with her father (who is interviewed) and mother (who died some years ago) but she also had higher aspirations to look at the way families tell themselves half-truths and slowly then treat them as fact.

The less you know about the film before seeing it the better – a daughter’s memoir that slowly pulls you in.

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Nigel loves stupid films almost as much as he likes clever films. He'll watch anything but is usually drawn to documentaries, North American independent films, Irish cinema and gung-ho, balls-to-the-walls Hollywood blockbusters. Here's what he's been watching.