If there were only one film genre left in the world and I had to choose what that would be, what I would spend all of my time consuming if every other form of filmmaking were to vanish – it would unquestionably be the documentary film. The admissible voyeurism of spending time with real-life characters in situations that span every subject matter imaginable, where you truly get inside someone else’s world for a substantial amount of time, appeals to the very essence of me. This is largely because documentaries satiate core traits of my personality – the need to always be learning, experiencing, or exploring something new – that allots for analysis, critical thinking, visual expression and entertainment. It is in hearing other’s stories, struggles, triumphs, and sometimes even ongoing battles without resolution as the film credits roll; that often find me leaving the theater questioning society, life, and myself. In many ways, documentaries challenge us through avenues that fictional features simply cannot. They are rooted in reality and because of it, there’s no real escape.
Here are my top 5 feature film length documentaries of 2013:
5. stories we tell
This film will resonate with anyone who has family drama, family secrets and elusive family myths. And what living, breathing person doesn’t? Stories We Tell is an intimate portrait of a woman trying to understand her mother’s past and the identity of her biological father once she learns of her mother’s extramarital affair. What director Sarah Polley does so well through sharing her personal story, is by creating an inviting space for those inside the narrative, and those outside who are merely observers in their seats. What likely was a difficult subject matter to document through the participation of actual family members and friends, comes across as authentic. We can genuinely feel the chemistry and emotion of the on-camera storytelling accounts, because Polley maintains a sense of nostalgia all the way through. Not only in how she got her interviewees to open about times past, but by virtue of how she gives life to her mother’s presence through Super 8 home video style footage. Though I later learned that these are “home video re-creations” using an actress (I somehow missed that at the time), their placement still isn’t distracting from the narrative. In fact, it has the opposite effect for the viewer. You feel as though you are gaining access. This invitation, along with whatever tough conversations Polley had, not only to convince much of her family to trust her as an artist to participate, but to trust herself enough to know that delicate line when airing dirty laundry, innately demands an honest intimacy all around to be effective. Admittedly at the time, I thought the film was just “okay” – who doesn’t have family secrets to uncover? Why should we care about this particular story? Though as I look back on it now, I applaud Sarah Polley for boldly making this film. I can’t say that I would have. The complexities of any family’s myths and digging around in forbidden territory, could lead to greater family disconnect, rather than uncovering the truth and bringing closure. The risk seemingly pays off for Polley, both artistically and personally.
4. a place at the table
What I take for granted walking into any grocery store in Los Angeles, California is a luxury for many areas in this country. The United States of America, the most powerful and wealthiest country in the world, is suffering from food insecurity and hunger. To this day, A Place at the Table is a film I think of often as I walk the produce aisle in the market buying fresh fruits and vegetables. I was so moved, upset, and saddened by this film, that I dedicated an entire post to it in early 2013. Please see my full review and thoughts just after seeing this incredibly eye-opening film here. America, we have a problem.
3. inequality for all
You have to admit, it’s pretty genius to have a self-described (and charmingly comfortable with it) “little person,” challenging “the big man” – sharing such a wealth of information about the state of the american economy and how we created a complete mess of it with fervor, intellect, and humor. Inequality for All follows former U.S. Labor Secretary, Robert Reich, as he raises awareness about a huge elephant in the room that seems to be gaining weight with every passing year. How is it that the rich keep getting richer; and the poor, getting poorer? Told in such a way that even those who flunked Econ would understand, without dumbing it down either, Reich effectively explains how the american economy got into the chaos it’s currently in and what we can do to lessen the gap of income inequality. In fact, Democracy itself is at stake as we see the very essence of politics being funded by top 1% of the wealthy – where politicians and platforms are largely driven with the sole agenda to protect the wealthiest of the wealthy, and holding the 99% in a constant cycle of playing financial catch-up. Reich’s message is simple, this imbalance will continue to lead to more harm than good for the american economy and the remnants of what was the American Dream is rapidly fizzing into, if not already, the unattainable. A must see for every American aspiring to that white picket fence, 2.5 children, and comfortable savings account ideal. According to this film, the only sure way to wealth in America is be born into it. Rags to riches stories are far and few in between.
2. 20 feet from stardom
Dreams lost, dreams found, dreams re-dreamed. 20 Feet From Stardom invitingly follows the unknown icons of the music industry. Those whose words we know better than the actual verse to a pop song because it’s the chorus that often sticks with us. And while it’s their lyrics and voices that melodically repeat in our heads when incessantly humming a tune, the spotlight is far from their reach. They are the background singers. They are literally steps away from the superstar, and are oftentimes more musically apt and vocally talented than the person at center stage. This touching documentary examines that 20 foot barrier that is nearly impossible to overcome. It takes a look into the lives of veteran and working background singers, whose only dream was and is the spotlight and their struggle to get there. What makes someone a star? As I walked away from this experience, I concluded that in many cases – almost all cases – simply having talent isn’t the answer.
1. american promise
American Promise is not only my favorite documentary of 2013, but will remain among my favorites in this lifetime. What Hoop Dreams did for the sport, American Promise does for education. It heroically follows the lives of two then 5 year-old boys as they embark upon what is considered a disadvantage in their academic careers: being born African-American and male. The film chronicles 13 years of triumphs and failures as each boy navigates an educational system designed to quickly weed out the weaker students, while building up the stronger ones with promises that if they can survive, any college of their choice is available to them. Part experiment, part video diary, American Promise serves as a series of sections from a “day in the life” of Idris and Seun, who both start out on an equal playing field by enrolling in one of the best (and most expensive) preparatory schools in New York. What happens as one continues with a rigorous prep school curriculum, while the other eventually moves to a public school system to finish out his education? The results were pretty eye-opening and admittedly both surprising and somewhat disappointing after you’ve invested in Idris and Seun’s worlds, cheering them on, simply expecting different outcomes. The years of struggles in grades k-12 for the opportunity to apply to the top-tier universities in the country, but finding perhaps that prep school may not be as pivotal as one might think to garner a seat at an Ivy League University after years of hard work, the film opens a much-needed discussion on how and where to educate future generations. One question I keep coming to as I think about this film is does the expenditure of private schools really make a difference when it comes to higher education? Can a public school train its students to have the same level of academic discipline as a private school? If American Promise isn’t a wake-up call about the state of our educational system from kindergarten all the way to higher education, about how we measure intellect, and the seemingly growing competitive pressure to always perform high under the guise that it ensures your chances at a bright future, I don’t know what is. The commitment of documenting a rather taboo, overlooked subject matter; coupled with the passion and pressure involved in seeking a good education, while highlighting the influence of parental guidance during these formative years, complete with the simple pit-falls of life along the way, American Promise portrays what has to be one of the most compelling and conversation-provoking documentaries I’ve ever seen.