2013 Best Documentaries

The following list, selected and compiled by Video Librarian staff, honors the best new documentaries reviewed in the magazine and online during 2013. Unless otherwise noted, titles are available from most distributors.

Cover for "56 Up"

56 Up

(First Run, 138 min., DVD: $29.95)

The eighth film in Michael Apted’s groundbreaking landmark documentary series—in which the director has interviewed a group of subjects every seven years since 1964 when they were seven—finds the now-56-year-olds coping with the global financial crisis. (VL-7/13)

Cover for "Beware of Mr. Baker"

Beware of Mr. Baker

(Vivendi, 74 min., DVD: $14.95)

Filmed at his South African homestead, irate London-born septuagenarian drummer Ginger Baker of Cream and Blind Faith is profiled in this rock-and-roll saga from Rolling Stone writer and filmmaker Jay Bulger. (VL Online-6/13)

Cover for "Blackfish"


(Magnolia, 83 min., DVD: $26.98, Blu-ray: $29.98)

Nominated for a Sundance Grand Jury Prize, director Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s investigative report on SeaWorld is a thought-provoking and compelling piece of activist filmmaking, questioning the wisdom of keeping orcas—or so-called killer whales—in captivity as entertainment providers in staged shows. (VL-11/13)

Cover for "Branca’s Pitch"

Branca’s Pitch

(Strand, 87 min., DVD: $19.99)

Filmmaker Andrew J. Muscato’s “jockumentary” looks at the aftermath surrounding the scapegoating of 1950s Brooklyn Dodger pitcher Ralph Branca after he threw a ball that was hit for a game-winning home run—the legendary “shot heard round the world”—and also explores Branca’s collaboration on a book with colorful ghostwriter David Ritz. (VL-11/13)

Cover for "Brooklyn Castle"

Brooklyn Castle

(Millennium, 90 min., DVD: $19.99 [$60 w/PPR from First Run Features, www.firstrunfeatures.com])

Directed by Katie Dellamaggiore, this engaging documentary shines a spotlight on the highly-ranked junior high chess team at inner-city Brooklyn Intermediate School 318, celebrating the commitment of students, parents, teachers, and administrators. (VL-9/13)

Cover for "The Central Park Five"

The Central Park Five

(PBS, 120 min., DVD: $24.99 [$54.95 w/PPR from www.teacher.shop.pbs.org], Blu-ray: $29.99)

Famed filmmaker Ken Burns’s latest documentary—adapted from a book by his daughter, Sarah Burns—presents a gripping true crime story from the perspective of five black and Latino teenagers from Harlem who were wrongly convicted of raping a white woman in New York City’s Central Park in 1989. (VL-5/13)

Cover for "Ethel"


(HBO, 97 min., DVD: $19.98)

Directed by 11th and last child Rory Kennedy, this HBO-aired biographical documentary focuses on Ethel Kennedy, who describes an idyllic, active upbringing in the Skakel family followed by wonderful and terrible years as a Kennedy clan matriarch. (VL-9/13)

Cover for "First Position"

First Position

(MPI, 94 min., DVD: $24.99)

Filmmaker Bess Kargman’s beautiful dance documentary follows a group of multi-ethnic kids striving in a mighty performance competition: the Youth America Grand Prix world-traveling exhibition of both classical and modern dance, which serves as a route to school scholarships and job slots in professional troupes. (VL-3/13)

Cover for "A Girl & a Gun"

A Girl & a Gun

(First Run, 76 min., DVD: $24.95 [$200 w/PPR: public libraries, $350 w/PPR: colleges & universities from Collective Eye Films, www.collectiveeye.org])

Filmmaker Cathryne Czubek’s provocative documentary examines the relationship between American women and firearms through interviews with both enthusiasts and those who have experienced tragedy due to guns. (VL-9/13)

Cover for "Guilty Pleasures"

Guilty Pleasures

(PBS, 86 min., DVD: $19.99 [$39.95 w/PPR from www.teacher.shop.pbs.org])

Aired on PBS’s POV series, director Julie Moggan’s documentary offers a perceptive look at the romance novel genre, profiling individuals from India, Japan, England, and New York, including three women who read Harlequin (in Britain, Mills & Boon) romance novels, an elderly bachelor who has written nearly 50 bodice rippers, and a male model who appears on more than 200 Mills & Boon covers. (VL-1/13)

Cover for "Head Games"

Head Games

(The AV Cafe [www.theavcafe.com], 96 min., DVD or Blu-ray: $14.99)

Inspired by the titular book from former football player and wrestler Christopher Nowinski, filmmaker Steve James’s documentary exposes the dangers of sports concussions—aka “mild traumatic brain injury”—which are often anything but mild, especially when suffered by school-age athletes. (VL-11/13)

Cover for "The House I Live In"

The House I Live In

(MPI, 108 min., DVD: $14.99)

Eugene Jarecki’s Sundance Grand Jury Prize award-winning documentary presents a searing indictment of both the ineffectiveness and the flawed social justice of the so-called “War on Drugs,” detailing the chronic failure of government policy over the past four decades. (VL Online-7/13)

Cover for "The Imposter"

The Imposter

(Indomina, 99 min., DVD: $19.98)

Playing like a psychological thriller, Bart Layton’s suspenseful documentary—based on a 2008 New Yorker article by David Grann—interweaves interviews and dramatizations to tell the almost unbelievable-but-true story of a 23-year-old French Algerian man who assumed the identity of a missing Texas teenager. (VL-1/13)

Cover for "Into the Cold"

Into the Cold

(Shelter Island/TDC, 87 min., DVD: $24.98 [$199 w/PPR: public libraries, $249 w/PPR: colleges & universities from www.shelterisland.net])

Filmed using a handheld video camera, director Sebastian Copeland’s extraordinary documentary follows photographer Copeland and teammate explorer Keith Heger on a 400-plus-mile expedition through the Arctic Circle to the North Pole. (VL-3/13)

Cover for "Knuckleball!"


(MPI, 85 min., DVD: $24.98)

Filmmakers Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg’s entertaining and informative documentary looks at a controversial and often marginalized group of baseball pitchers who specialize in throwing unpredictable knuckleballs, focusing on 18-year veteran Tim Wakefield of the Boston Red Sox and 37-year-old R.A. Dickey of the New York Mets. (VL-5/13)

Cover for "Last Call at the Oasis"

Last Call at the Oasis

(Docurama, 105 min., DVD: $29.95)

Filmmaker Jessica Yu’s globe-spanning eco-alarm documentary on dwindling water resources—a situation stemming from a combination of wasteful industries, shortsighted planning, and a human population of seven billion—features commentary from activists and experts, including Erin Brockovich. (VL Online-1/13)

Cover for "The Other Dream Team"

The Other Dream Team

(Lionsgate, 90 min., DVD: $24.98)

Filmmaker Marius A. Markevicius’s inspiring documentary celebrates Lithuania’s love for basketball—from being forced to play on Soviet teams after the country was absorbed by the U.S.S.R. following WWII, to their amazing 1992 Summer Olympics performance in Barcelona as an independent Lithuanian team that was financially backed by the Grateful Dead. (VL-1/13)

Cover for "The Revisionaries"

The Revisionaries

(Kino Lorber, 83 min., DVD: $29.95 [$349 w/PPR from www.kinolorberedu.com])

Detailing one aspect of the continual evolution-vs.-creationism argument, director Scott Thurman’s documentary offers a snapshot of theocratic strategies for insinuating a right-wing Christian agenda into U.S. schools, focusing on Texas School Board of Education Chairman Don McLeroy, who believes that the universe is only 6,000 years old. (VL-5/13)

Searching for Sugar Man

(Sony, 87 min., DVD: $30.99, Blu-ray: $35.99)

An obsession to uncover the truth about an obscure singer-songwriter brings surprising and affecting revelations in Malik Bendjelloul’s hugely entertaining, Oscar-winning documentary on Sixto Rodriguez, who commercially bombed at Motown but became hugely popular years later (unbeknownst to him) when several of his songs were adopted as anthems in apartheid-era South Africa. (VL-1/13)

Cover for "Somm"


(First Run, 93 min., DVD: $24.95)

Jason Wise’s entertaining documentary explores the exclusive world of the prestigious Court of Master Sommeliers, focusing on four wine buddies who study history, geography, and German-language idioms using flashcards in an effort to pass the famously intimidating Master Sommelier Exam, which challenges their ability to ID wine right down to a specific vineyard and year, by taste alone. (VL-11/13)

Soul Food Junkies

(PBS, 60 min., DVD: $24.99 [$275 w/PPR: colleges & universities from Media Education Foundation, www.mediaed.org])

Writer-director Byron Hurt’s PBS-aired Independent Lens documentary examines the complex relationship between black people and soul food, which health experts warn carries risks for diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, and other ailments. (VL-7/13)

Cover for "The Story of Film: An Odyssey"

The Story of Film: An Odyssey

(Music Box, 915 min., DVD: 5 discs, $69.95)

Beginning with the birth of motion pictures in the silent era and moving up through the digital age, Irish critic and filmmaker Mark Cousins’s 15-part personal tribute serves up a comprehensive history of cinema that features interviews with filmmakers and actors such as Gus Van Sant, Lars von Trier, Wim Wenders, Claire Denis, Jane Campion, John Sayles, and Abbas Kiarostami. (VL-1/13)


(Anchor Bay, 114 min., DVD: $14.98, Blu-ray: $19.99)

Filmmakers Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin’s Oscar-winning documentary follows the Manassas Tigers, a severely underfunded West Memphis high school football team striving to overcome their losing reputation with the help of volunteer coach Bill Courtney. (VL-1/13)

The Waiting Room

(Docurama, 82 min., DVD: $29.95 [$295 w/PPR from Bullfrog Films, www.bullfrogfilms.com])

Peter Nicks’s Academy Award short-listed documentary offers a powerful cinema vérité portrait of the stunningly overcrowded emergency waiting room at Oakland’s Highland Hospital. (VL-9/13)

Cover for "We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks"

We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks

(Universal, 130 min., DVD: $19.98)

Directed by Alex Gibney, this documentary thriller blends the stories of Julian Assange and the creation of WikiLeaks with that of document-leaker Pfc. Bradley Manning in the dissemination of top-secret material about the Iraq War, as well as a huge cache of State Department documents that were embarrassing to Washington. (VL-11/13)

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