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.
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.
directed 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.