The Best Documentaries of 2013 – My 2014 List of Favorites

Daniel House

Dave Grohl's Sound City Documentary

This year, I’ve seen all but one of the films nominated for best picture, and while I give kudos to a decent field of good films, I gotta say, I’m not particularly blown away by most of what I’ve seen. I thought that 12 Year a Slave was solid, and deserves to win for best picture, but I don’t know that I’ll ever feel driven to see it again. I thought that Her was one of the more interesting films, one that I will see again, and one of the quieter films of the year –Philomena–is one of my strongest recommendations, as is Dallas Buyers Club for which Matthew McConaughey will undoubtedly win for Best Actor in a Leading Role. Another McConaughey film that it seems almost nobody saw, but that is well worth tracking down is Mud, released theatrically in 2012, but not on DVD until 2013.

I’ve decided instead to focus my attention on my favorite documentary films of 2013, because –in all honesty–I found more in this area to be excited about than in the bulk of the films produced for mass market consumption.  So with that said, here are my favorite documentaries from 2013 from fave down to numero diez:

Sound City

#1 –Sound City

Rarely have I seen a music documentary that hit me so square between the eyes, and not just because it connects so readily with my own self-identification as a musician from the fabled Seattle music scene, but more so because Sound City is such a beautiful love story to the power of music , and to the aural magnificence of traditional recording techniques when compared to the digital technology of today.

The movie is not about Nirvana or any of the other artists featured in the film (Fleetwood Mac, Tom Petty, Fear, Neil Young, Pet Benetar), but instead is an homage to a recording studio where all of these bands recorded. The main character of the film is in fact a Neve recording console; not any particular person or band, just a piece of equipment that was a key element of much of the music that it recorded.

It’s a hard film to fully do justice to, but it’s heartfelt and joyous, a celebration to the power of music, and a remembrance of a time that we may never know again

Remarkable directorial debut from Dave Grohl.

#2 – Far Out Isn’t Far Enough: The Tomi Ungerer Story

Talk about an awesome surprise from far out in left field. Tomi Ungerer was one of those artists whose art I remember from childhood, but whose name I did not readily recall. It’s a fascinating character study of one of the most beloved and acclaimed children’s artists of his time, but who was forced into obscurity when he work moved into edgy erotica and visceral anti-Viet Nam poster art. Towards the end of the ’60s, he was effectively barred and exiled from the publishing world and subsequently vanished from the public eye.

Ungerer is uncompromising and wicked if not utterly charming. His talent is undeniable, and even with his erotica – an area that seems so far removed from his work as a children’s author – there is a playfulness and charm throughout. This is an insightful piece of work, celebrating one of the more interesting and curious artists of the last fifty plus years. It is unapologetic and titillating. See it.

#3 – The Source Family
Perhaps it’s because I have such vibrant recollections from my childhood and the cultural chaos and transformation going on in the early ‘70s, but The Source Family is a comprehensive exploration of one of the earliest cults based in Los Angeles. Centered around ex-marine and alleged bank robber, “Father Yod” was one of the first vegetarian restaurateurs, a man who became the spiritual leader of “The Source Family,” a small band of misfit hippies whose existence was centered around Yod’s teachings, polygamous lifestyle (of course) and his psychedelic space-rock band Yahowha 13, The Source Family is a compelling study of obsession and the search for a universal truth. The film follows the progression and eventual disillusion of the Source family from Los Angeles to Hawaii, and as always seems to be the case, the utopian idealism finally crumbling under the weight of its unrealistic naïveté.

#4 – A Band Called Death

Drag City had a good year. Not only did they release my #2 documentary for the year, The Source Family, but they also released A Band Called Death, a considerably more celebrated and viewed film, about a band of three brothers from Detroit in the ‘70s whose music was punk before much of anything like it existed.

After a short-lived run, and limited recording, the band hung it up only to be re-discovered decades later thanks to the diligence and vision of one documentarian and the label who helped get the film to DVD and their music finally re-released for the underground public to fully appreciate.

It’s hard not to draw an immediate comparison to last years’ Oscar winner, Searching for Sugar Man, and the comparison is a fair one. Death’s music however is considerably more fierce, and their (re)discovery from a place of total obscurity is even more remarkable.

#5 – Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me

Finally! A proper film about one of the most beloved bands in indie America, the now-legendary Big Star, a band who at the time were almost entirely panned, and who now have a following that falls nothing short of worship.

For non-fans, the film might be something of a “so-what?”experience, but for fans like me, this is a welcome and joyous labor of love. It is thorough and full of so much great archival footage, even the die-hard fanatics will most certainly discover new revelations and a new appreciation for the trials and tribulations that this Memphis outfit endured in their rocky attempt to reach the world stage…something that never happened while they were all alive.

Nothing Can Hurt Me is bittersweet, but endearing and passionate. For the fans of Big Star and Chris Bell, this is essential viewing.

#6 – Dirty Wars

One of this year’s nominees for best documentary feature, Dirty Wars is an edge-of-your-seat piece of investigative political reporting that gets creepier and more disturbing and the film progresses. Peeling back layers upon layers of covert military activities, Dirty Wars shows us a web of conspiracy and collusion that is global in scale.

This is a film that makes you realize how very little, we the people have to do with the politics and aggressions that occur on the world stage, and more so how much of it is kept from us entirely. Not the feel-good-movie of the year. Sobering and intense, there’s a good chance you’ll feel angry afterwards.

#7 – The Square

A remarkable inside look into the beginnings and progression of the Egyptian revolution over the course of two years, where Tahrir Square in the middle of Cairo was the flashpoint for one of the more tumultuous political upheavals in recent history.

The Square gives unprecedented insight into a world as the events unfold. Several cameras were used by the protesters themselves, with much of the violence and military abuse documented in real-time.

The film is frenzy, and is chaotic and messy, exactly what you’d expect from a homegrown cultural revolution. This is a powerful  and up-close look at the power of determination and the resilience of the human spirit. The film itself has been banned for viewing in Egypt. That kind of says it all.

#8 – GLOW: The Story of the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling

This is one of those films that opened my eyes to a whole (sub) cultural oeuvre that I was completely oblivious to even though it happened right in my mid-twenties sweet-spot when I was in the heyday of my musical creative life. “The Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling” was a TV show that hit the airwaves in 1986 and lasted for all of four years, during which time, they apparently took America by storm. It’s a fascinating exploration into the campy and short-lived world of women’s wrestling on television with such unlikely stars with names like Matilda the Hun, Mountain Fiji, Ninotchka, Little Egypt, Tina Ferrari, and, Big Bad Mama. Unfortunately, the quality of the source footage is not great, but as a slice of history, it’s fascinating and fun, and the human element is real and sincere.

#9 – Inequality For All

In my mind, Robert Reich is one the great modern day heroes for the down-trodden and one of the strongest voices for social and economic equality in America. I was ready for this film to be overly preachy and self-righteous, but what I got instead was a semi-depressing, but equally powerful and hopeful documentary showing the staggering degree to which income inequality is crushing the middle class.

While the topic may sound like it might be sanctimonious, the film is a sobering slap of reality and an empowering treatise on non-complacently, urging the importance of awareness and the need to speak out.

#10 – Room 237

Maybe it’s because I am a big fan of Kubrick, or maybe it’s because I genuinely do believe that The Shining is among his best films, but a documentary devoted to the throngs of conspiracy theorists that surround this film in particular is such a compelling topic for a film, how could I not jump at the opportunity to dive in head-first?

While I do not subscribe to the bulk of the purported hidden meanings contained throughout The Shining as many interviewed in the film do, I find the perspectives and intricate dissection by these people to be utterly fascinating. It’s hard to separate the conspiracy-fanatics from the film itself, and that in and of itself is compelling and worthwhile.

Any movie about movies already has my attention, but a movie about a movie directed by Kubrick – you had me at “hello.”

For last year’s picks, check out The Best Films of 2012 – My 2013 List of Favorites

For the year before, check out The Best Films of 2011 – My 2012 List of Favorites

1 thought on “The Best Documentaries of 2013 – My 2014 List of Favorites”

Leave a Comment