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Documentaries you'll want to see
The whale Tilikum in a scene from the documentary “Blackfish.” - photo by Magnolia Pictures

If you are keeping track, and I know you are, I included three documentaries in my top 20 for 2013. Those were not anomalies but rather an indication of what a strong year it was for documentary film. As those films now move to home video, here are some you should track down.

“The Act of Killing”

This disturbing exploration into the minds and (a)morality of former Indonesian death squad leaders is one of the most unique films of any type to hit screens in quite some time. It’s difficult but worthwhile to watch and will permanently take up residence in your mind.

“Stories We Tell”

There is a moment in director Sarah Polley’s self-aware journey through her own history when her brother, sitting in front of the camera being interviewed, asks his sister, who is behind the camera asking the questions, about her recollection of an event. We hear Polley’s response but don’t see her speaking, thus shattering the usual interviewee/interviewer relationship.

It’s a strikingly original moment and epitomizes Polley’s approach. She is the voiceless object of a story she allows others to tell. It’s a tad self-indulgent, but she unravels the various, often contradictory, tellings of her own birthright with the skill of a mystery writer.

“Muscle Shoals”

2013 was a banner year for music documentaries, and none captures such a large, essential portion of its story than “Muscle Shoals.” Two recording studios in the small Alabama town have played crucial roles in modern music, and by telling their stories, this documentary offers a fascinating history lesson and a slew of interviews with musical legends.

“20 Feet From Stardom”

Would you like to know who sings on all of your favorite records? The voices that make a song great frequently do not belong to the people whose names are on those records, but rather one of the many lesser known background singers profiled in this film.

A sort of spiritual sister to “Muscle Shoals,” “20 Feet From Stardom” shines the spotlight on some incredibly talented people who have built careers just outside of it and squeezes an outrageous number of virtuoso performances into one documentary.

“Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me”

“Nothing Can Hurt Me” is more of a standard rockumentary than the other musical docs on this list. It chronicles the history of Memphis band Big Star, whom critics and musicians adore but whose songs only diehard music heads have heard. But it’s really about the music industry, the critical establishment, and how a great band can remain tragically unknown because they don’t fit a particular mold.


You’ll want to go ahead and cancel that summer vacation to Sea World.

“Blackfish” is difficult but essential viewing, and it will forever change the way you think about Sea World and all other wildlife attractions. Don’t believe me? Just watch the film.

“Dirty Wars”

Investigative reporter Jeremy Scahill follows up on a report of a U.S. night raid in Afghanistan and discovers a troubling pattern of covert military activities. A thought-provoking documentary that often feels like an action movie, this one should intrigue viewers regardless of political leanings. As news publications have run out of funding for investigative journalism, documentaries have helped fill the information void. This one is a must-see.

“Cutie and the Boxer”

This understated yet moving film profiles two artists who love each other deeply but embody the truism that what’s good for the heart is not always good for art.

Noriko Shinohara fell in love and married her husband, Ushio, at a young age and willfully relegated her own art to secondary status behind Ushio’s, which has attracted much attention but little income for decades. Now approaching 60, Noriko’s artistic voice is demanding to be set free, and Ushio obviously feels threatened. This personal story explores the complicated, rocky terrains between love and will, loyalty and independence.

“After Tiller”

I can’t promise you’ll appreciate “After Tiller.” In fact, you might hate it and me for recommending it. But if hate is your reaction, that only verifies the significance of the film.

“After Tiller” profiles the only four doctors in the U.S. who still perform third trimester abortions, after the murder of their colleague George Tiller in 2009, as well as numerous women and couples who discuss the unbearable decision they face when doctors discover their unborn babies are stricken with untreatable, life-threatening conditions. “After Tiller” pleas for dialogue instead of violence and reminds us that personal tragedy sometimes reveals the illegitimacy of absolute ideological positions.