I know, I know, I know: It’s Oscar buzz time, and Sundance is going down. There’s snubs to talk about and indie works to look forward to, such as Richard Linklater’s 12-year experiment Boyhood.(I can’t wait.) But as I was flipping through Netflix Instant — a service that seems to have a one great film for every 20 meh ones — I couldn’t help but notice some really great documentaries from 2013. And considering docs don’t get the hype and buzz that fictional features do, I thought I’d mention a few that moved me as much, albeit in different ways, as their top shelf make-believe counterparts. Thus, here are five movies. Each is worth watching, or, at least, putting on your queue.

The Act of Killing

Director: Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn and Anonymous

The Act of Killing isn’t a masterpiece so much as a surreal, unnerving miracle of filmmaking. That this behemoth exists at all defies belief. The project took nearly a decade to complete, and it presents a look into genocide and human nature that is beyond sobering. In its most absurd moments, we watch former Indonesian death squad members reenact the 1960s slaughter of communists in the style of goofy Asian musicals and gaudy, old gangster flicks. However, this wasn’t the filmmakers’ idea at all. The killers, in fact, wanted to act out their sins as a means of explaining what they’d done, and glorifying it. The resulting mix of the real (the killers themselves) and unreal (their acting) creates a weird snuff reality — one capable of making you laugh uncomfortably as well as cringe, because what else are you supposed to do? As you might have guessed, this isn’t easy watching. The Act of Killing isn’t an aesthetic armchair or a work of infotainment, it’s art to grapple with. Violence, it shows, is a dark part of human nature. As long as we can rationalize what we’re doing, humans are capable of immense cruelty, even genocide.

Note: This film was on my best movies of 2013 list. It’s also up for an Oscar, and many of those involved in its making currently fear for their lives. That is, in part, why one of the directors is listed as anonymous.

More Than Honey

Director: Markus Imhoof

This had everything I’d ask for in a science documentary. For starters, it presents a complex global problem (mass deaths in honey bee colonies) and treats you like an adult. You go across the world and see the impact of various diseases, chemicals and parasites that are decimating bee populations. While the media often portrays the deaths as a mystery, Imhoof doesn’t. He attempts to show what went wrong and even tries to answer how it might be remedied. Amazingly, the filmmakers succeed in shooting gloriously crisp, close-up images of bees doing all the things that make them such complex and wonderful insects. The result is a joy for anyone who has a soft spot for David Attenborough documentaries. And while the imagery and construction of the film are beautiful, it will also leave you sympathetic to the plight of a creature that provides us with far, far more than honey.


Director: Gabriela Cowperthwaite

While it’s certainly a documentary about animals, Blackfish is a different sort of beast than More Than Honey. It’s not so much about killer whales, but why we keep those majestic, black-and-white mammals in captivity for commercial purposes. The film builds its foundation on the deaths of whale trainers at places like SeaWorld. Through many interviews with former whale trainers, Blackfish examines what caused the whales to kill in the first place. In one high-profile case, SeaWorld pretty much blamed a top trainer for her own death. She didn’t put her hair up the right way, they said. The movie, on the other hand, argues that captivity for killer whales makes them mentally unhealthy, capable of harming humans no matter how well trained. My biggest gripe with the film is that SeaWorld didn’t agree to go on camera, so Blackfish comes off like an ultra one-sided piece of reportage. Still, the film’s  argument sinks deep. And it appears to be making a difference. Just now, those invested in SeaWorld are breathing a sigh of relief that it wasn’t nominated for an Oscar. Had it been, perhaps the business of holding highly intelligent marine life in swimming pools for human entertainment would be…a bit different.

Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay

Director: Molly Bernstein

The lives of magicians are nearly as interesting as the secrets of their craft. That’s certainly true of Ricky Jay, a magic renaissance man of sorts. Aside from magic, Jay is also a historian, a writer and an actor whom you might well recognize. Deceptive Practice traces his magic career, and puts a lot of focus on the guys who taught him how to be a magician in both performance and personality. Like any film about magic, this one has many, many tricks that’ll leave you dumbfounded. And it’s near impossible not to appreciate the craft when you learn how much work it takes to master these illusions. Just imagine spending 10 hours a day alone with a deck of cards. Most of us would go nuts, but this movie celebrates those who take that tedium and make it into something simply wondrous. And if you’re looking for a hobby, here’s a springboard of inspiration.

Caesar Must Die

Directors: Paolo Taviani, Vittorio Taviani

Like The Act of Killing, Caesar Must Die takes real-life criminals and films them acting — even acting out killings, in some cases. But that’s pretty much where the similarities end. Whereas the Act of Killing is about exposing humanity’s dark complexities, Caesar Must Die has more to do with the power of art and how it can change peoples’ lives. In this case, the art belongs to Shakespeare, and the lives belong to men locked up in a high-security Italian prison. One of the film’s most amazing scenes is that of the men auditioning for roles, before which they state their crimes and their sentences. These are no petty thieves, but they hardly seem as criminal when they don their characters as though putting on a suit of Centurion armor. Most of the film is black-and-white, during which we watch the prisoners rehearse Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Color only shows in the beginning and the end, where we see bits of the prison’s production of the play. Almost all of what’s happening in the film is scripted, so it’s hard to call it a documentary, per se. However, the severe prison setting — where these men actually live — gives the drama a certain non-fictional gravity. A sense of freedom, it seems, is what art offers to these men. While they might not deserve it, the celebration of Shakespeare is hard to deny them. They’re still human, after all. And the celebration of our shared history and art seems somehow much healthier than pumping iron.


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