The Top Five Documentaries of 2013

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One of the biggest topics of discussion in film circles in 2013 was the dearth of women directors and leads, especially in mainstream films. It’s absolutely the right time to have that conversation (it’s way past due, honestly), but just because there weren’t enough women represented in the industry doesn’t mean there weren’t any worth noting. It just so happens that some of the best docs made in 2013 involved women as subjects or directors. Here is my pick for the best documentaries made in 2013 – and all of them featured women, either on screen or behind the camera.

Blackfish
directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, available on VOD

Easily the most important documentary of the year for Central Florida, Blackfish tells the story of Tilikum, the largest orca living in captivity, at Orlando’s SeaWorld. Tilikum has been involved in three human deaths, the last of which was in 2010, when trainer Dawn Brancheau was killed by the giant whale after a show. The power of this film comes from Cowperthwaite’s ability to make the case that, although Tilikum has killed, he is also a victim. She interviews former SeaWorld trainers, employees and a former orca poacher who calls the capture of Tilikum as a young, wild whale one of the worst things he’s ever done.

The Act of Killing
directed by Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn and Anonymous, available Jan. 7

There is no real precedent for processing this stunning film about a 1960s death squad leader, Anwar Congo, who agrees (quite proudly) to film re-enactments of his murders. By his own count, Congo has killed 1,000 Indonesian “communists” (read: anyone unwilling or unable to pay bribes; or not behind the military dictatorship; or Chinese) in his lifetime. The re-enactments are so calmly done that the film feels like a surrealist nightmare.

Cutie and the Boxer 
directed by Zachary Heinzerling, available on VOD

Love is a dumb emotion. It’s not a stupid emotion to have, it’s just dumb. And deaf. And blind. Love doesn’t care what’s best for you. This is a general truth, not a universal truth, but it’s certainly true for artist Noriko Shinohara, who is madly in love with her husband and fellow artist, Ushio, who is dubbed Bullie in Noriko’s “Cutie” graphic stories. The story of this dynamic pair unfolds at a natural pace as she struggles to find her artistic voice and he struggles to get someone to pay him for his talents so they can keep the lights on.

Manhunt
directed by Greg Barker, available on VOD

If you saw Zero Dark Thirty, you’ll recognize a lot in this documentary about the hunt for Osama bin Laden. It’s told primarily from the point of view of the crew of women at the CIA who assembled the secrets of al-Qaida from disparate pieces of information, sometimes discovered years and countries apart. Through interviews with the analysts, in-country agents and reporters, this engrossing film proves to be one of the most important documents of 9/11, its extremist roots and its aftermath.

Stories We Tell
directed by Sarah Polley, available on VOD/DVD

Polley emerges as a brilliant storyteller in this personal film about her mother, and whether or not her father is really her father. The film is occasionally too self-aware, but it’s emotionally compelling and intelligently constructed.

The Most Underrated Movies of 2013 IV: The Stragglers

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Good Ol’ Freda –  Ryan White (Available on Netflix)

The world is running out of original Beatles stories; in fact, this may be the last one, as the Beatles and their contemporaries enter their 70s and, as Freda Kelly notes at one point, many of them are already gone. The story is one of a young girl who won the social lottery, happening upon the Beatles in the Cavern Club before they made it big and becoming tight enough with the band that they eventually asked her to work for them as secretary. Kelly also served as president of the bands’ fan club, hounding each member for autographs and locks of hair for adoring fans who wrote in because she knew exactly what it was to be one. Kelly is remarkable for her service, but more still for not taking advantage of it, cashing in with a tell all book or selling any of her incredibly rare memorabilia picked up from her time with the band. It is at once frustrating and enamoring that Kelly still holds to her Beatles secrets to this day, even with a camera in her face.

No Place on Earth – Janet Tobias (Available on Netflix)

If it came to it, if Nazis were coming, could you survive in a cave for nearly two years? What a question, but that’s what it came to for a handful of Jewish families in rural Ukraine as the Nazis arrived during World War II. The film focuses on the Stermer family in particular in this recreation of the 511 days of fear, hunger and darkness the endured that was brought back to life after a man from New York came across shoes, keys and buttons while caving in the Ukraine. It took him a decade to suss out any part of the story before finally coming upon the diary of Esther Stermer, the matriarch of one of the families who survived life in the cave.

Ip Man: The Final Fight – Herman Yau (Available on Netfix)

By now, you must all know who Ip Man is, the legendary Chinese martial artist and teacher of the Wing Chung school whose most famous student was Bruce Lee. He is the new Wong Fei Hong right now, and your choices are almost limitless if you want to watch a movie about them. The Final Fight is more of a traditional biopic version of the story, condensing much of his life into two hours. There are plenty of fight scenes though, and the film won the Daniel A. Craft Award for Excellence in Action Cinema at the NY Asian Film Festival last year. This is the version of the story that brings its lunchpail to work with it.

Touchy Feely – Lynn Shelton (Available on Netflix)

It’s kind of hard to believe Josh Pais is the same actor who, vocally at least, brought the ball of rage that is Rafael to life in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (the first and best one, not this new bullshit). In Touchy Feely he plays a timid, conservative dentist. He is a comic foil for his wild, hippy massage therapist sister (Rosemarie DeWitt) until their fates interchange: he finds that his hands can heal, while she loses the ability she’s been honing and comes to loath the touch of another person’s skin. The cast of this bright, unassuming comedy is filled out by Allison Janney and Ellen Page. Lynn Shelton continues to be a voice to pay attention to in independent film.

Which Way Is the Frontline From Here: The Life and Times of Tim Hetherington – Sebastian Junger (Available to stream on HBOGO)

Tim Hetherington, the photojournalist who came to wide prominence for the Oscar nominated documentary Restrepo, is lovingly profiled here by his friend (and fellow Oscar nominee) Sebastian Junger following his tragic death in Libya, where he was covering the uprising. Featuring interviews from family, friends and fellow journalists, it is a compelling, no bullshit account of Hetherington’s too-short life. He was a brilliant photographer, seemingly because he didn’t care about photography — he cared about the people he was photographing. Borrow someone’s HBOGO password if you have to, but see this.