The Best Documentaries of 2013

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From Sundance to the Oscars — and every festival, critics list and industry awards show we can find in between — we’re continually updating our list of lists of the “best” documentaries.

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View the complete list »

March 3, 2014: The Oscars are wrapped and, we have our final list! 20 Feet from Stardom won the Academy Award last night for Best Documentary, but based on the 75 sources we’ve tracked since the start of 2013, the film finished #3 overall. In the end, The Act of Killing had almost twice as many points as the #2 film Stories We Tell and topped the aggregated lists for industry awards and festival prizes. Now you’ve got a lot of films to catch up on… View the large interactive graphic to dig into the complete list of 117 films.

1. The Act of Killing
2. Stories We Tell
3. 20 Feet from Stardom
4. Blackfish
5. The Square
6. Cutie and the Boxer
7. Let the Fire Burn
8. At Berkeley
9. Leviathan
10. After Tiller

View the complete list »

March 2, 2014: As we wait for The Academy Awards tonight, we’ve made our second-to-last update to our list of lists of the best documentaries of 2013. Yesterday, The Independent Spirit Awards named 20 Feet from Stardom the best documentary of the year, and we’ve also recently heard the choices of The Satellite Awards (Blackfish), The BAFTAs (The Act of Killing), London Critics Circle (The Act of Killing), The American Cinema Editors Eddie Awards (20 Feet from Stardom), The Writers Guild Awards (Stories We Tell) and Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times. With these lists now in the database, the Top 10 is locked (see below or view the big chart).

1. The Act of Killing
2. Stories We Tell
3. 20 Feet from Stardom
4. Blackfish
5. The Square
6. Cutie and the Boxer
7. Let the Fire Burn
8. At Berkeley
9. Leviathan
10. After Tiller

View the complete list »

January 16, 2014: Since our last update, The Act of Killing has locked its spot as the “best” documentary in our list of lists of the best documentaries of 2013. It has about twice as many points as the #2 film, Stories We Tell. Our updated Top 20 list now includes the recently announced Oscar nominees, winners from the Cinema Eye Honors, box-office grosses and user ratings, and all the critics we’re tracking who supplied their year-end lists. New entries in the Top 20 are Tim’s Vermeer and Muscle Shoals.

1. The Act of Killing
2. Stories We Tell
3. Blackfish
4. 20 Feet from Stardom
5. The Square
6. Cutie and the Boxer
7. Let the Fire Burn
8. At Berkeley
9. Leviathan
10. After Tiller
11. Blood Brother
12. Gideon’s Army
13. The Crash Reel
14. The Summit
15. Room 237
16. Tim’s Vermeer
17 (tie). A River Changes Course
17 (tie). Song from the Forest
17 (tie). The Machine Which Makes Everything Disappear
20. Muscle Shoals

December 20, 2013: The Act of Killing has extended its lead this month thanks to critics. The film topped lists from Indiewire and Nonfics and critics based in Toronto, Boston, San Francisco and Chicago, but the race isn’t over yet! Still to come are some major awards (The Cinema Eye Honors, The Academy Awards) and final audience data (box office, IMDb ratings) that weigh heavily in the calculation. Since our last update, At Berkeley and Room 237 have entered the Top 20. We’ll have the full list and an interactive visualization of the 100+ films we’re tracking in the New Year. Until then, here’s the current Top 20:


#1. The Act of Killing
Points: 237 List Appearances: 29 Wins: 14

#2. Stories We Tell
Points: 125 List Appearances: 21 Wins: 4

#3. Blackfish
Points: 82 List Appearances: 13 Wins: 2

#4. 20 Feet from Stardom
Points: 73 List Appearances: 12 Wins: 1

#5. The Square
Points: 58 List Appearances: 7 Wins: 2

#6. Cutie and the Boxer
Points: 53 List Appearances: 6 Wins: 1

#7. Leviathan
Points: 45 List Appearances: 10 Wins: 0

#8. Blood Brother
Points: 38 List Appearances: 3 Wins: 2

#9. Let the Fire Burn
Points: 37 List Appearances: 9 Wins: 0

#10. After Tiller
Points: 35 List Appearances: 7 Wins: 0

#11. Gideon’s Army
Points: 31 List Appearances: 2 Wins: 1

#12. At Berkeley
Points: 25 List Appearances: 6 Wins: 0

#13 (tie). The Summit
Points: 24 List Appearances: 1 Wins: 1

#13 (tie). The Machine Which Makes Everything Disappear
Points: 24 List Appearances: 1 Wins: 1

#13 (tie). A River Changes Course
Points: 24 List Appearances: 1 Wins: 1

#13 (tie). Song from the Forest
Points: 24 List Appearances: 1 Wins: 1

#17. The Crash Reel
Points: 22 List Appearances: 4 Wins: 0

#18 (tie). Dragon Girls
Points: 21 List Appearances: 1 Wins: 1

#18 (tie). The House I Live In
Points: 21 List Appearances: 1 Wins: 1

#20. Room 237
Points: 20 List Appearances: 5 Wins: 0

December 7, 2013: Welcome to December! Since our last update we’ve learned the winners of a major festival and a major awards ceremony (IDFA and the IDA Awards), we received a shortlist of 15 Oscar contenders and we heard from the first batch of critics. The Square and Song from the Forest have entered the Top 10 after wins at the IDA Awards and IDFA, No. 2 Stories We Tell has gained more ground after being named the National Board of Review’s best documentary of 2013, and The Act of Killing still holds the lead after winning the Gotham Award for Best Documentary and topping Sight & Sound’s poll of the best films of 2013. Here’s the current Top 20:

#1. The Act of Killing: 109 pts, 13 appearances, 4 wins.
#2. Stories We Tell: 85 pts, 11 appearances, 3 wins.
#3. Blackfish: 45 pts, 5 appearances, 1 wins.
#4 (tie). Cutie and the Boxer: 43 pts, 4 appearances, 1 wins.
#4 (tie). The Square: 43 pts, 4 appearances, 1 wins.
#6. 20 Feet from Stardom: 40 pts, 4 appearances, 1 wins.
#7. Blood Brother: 38 pts, 3 appearances, 2 wins.
#8. Gideon’s Army: 31 pts, 2 appearances, 1 wins.
#9. Leviathan: 30 pts, 5 appearances, 0 wins.
#10 (tie). A River Changes Course: 24 pts, 1 appearances, 1 wins.
#10 (tie). The Machine Which Makes Everything Disappear: 24 pts, 1 appearances, 1 wins.
#10 (tie). Song from the Forest: 24 pts, 1 appearances, 1 wins.
#10 (tie). The Summit: 24 pts, 1 appearances, 1 wins.
#14 (tie). Dragon Girls: 21 pts, 1 appearances, 1 wins.
#14 (tie). The House I Live In: 21 pts, 1 appearances, 1 wins.
#16. After Tiller: 20 pts, 3 appearances, 0 wins.
#17. The Crash Reel: 19 pts, 3 appearances, 0 wins.
#18. Let the Fire Burn: 17 pts, 3 appearances, 0 wins.
#19 (tie). Dirty Wars: 12 pts, 2 appearances, 0 wins.
#19 (tie). First Cousin Once Removed: 12 pts, 2 appearances, 0 wins.

November 29, 2013: The Act of Killing has extended its lead after winning the PUMA Impact Award and receiving a nomination for a Spirit Award. We’ll start including the full list after we hear from critics. Until then, we’ve expanded the list to a Top 20:

#1 The Act of Killing 70 pts, 9 appearances, 2 wins.
#2 Stories We Tell 45 pts, 7 appearances, 0 wins.
#3 Blood Brother 38 pts, 3 appearances, 2 wins.
#4 (tie) Blackfish 36 pts, 3 appearances, 1 win.
#4 (tie) Cutie and the Boxer 36 pts, 3 appearances, 1 win.
#6 20 Feet from Stardom 35 pts, 3 appearances, 1 win.
#7 Gideon’s Army 31 pts, 2 appearances, 1 win.
#8 Leviathan 30 pts, 5 appearances, 0 wins.
#9 The House I Live In 24 pts, 2 appearances, 1 win.
#10 (tie) A River Changes Course 24 pts, 1 appearance, 1 win.
#10 (tie) The Machine Which Makes Everything Disappear 24 pts, 1 appearance, 1 win.
#10 (tie) The Summit 24 pts, 1 appearance, 1 win.
#13 Dragon Girls 21 pts, 1 appearance, 1 win.
#14 (tie) After Tiller 15 pts, 2 appearances, 0 wins.
#14 (tie) The Square 15 pts, 2 appearances, 0 wins.
#16 The Crash Reel 12 pts, 2 appearances, 0 wins.
#17 (tie) American Promise 12 pts, 1 appearance, 1 win.
#17 (tie) The Kill Team 12 pts, 1 appearance, 1 win.
#17 (tie) My Fathers, My Mother and Me 12 pts, 1 appearance, 1 win.
#17 (tie) Stop The Pounding Heart 12 pts, 1 appearance, 1 win.
#17 (tie) William And The Windmill 12 pts, 1 appearance, 1 win.

November 6, 2013: The Act of Killing has taken an early lead. Below is our first Top 10, which gives the most weight to what we know already, including film festival winners from Sundance, Hot Docs and Sheffield, nominees for awards such as the IDA Awards and Cinema Eye Honors (announced moments ago…), a handful of critics’ “best so far” lists and some box-office numbers. We’re waiting on a few more lists to come in before we update this post and publish the “The big chart,” and we’ll explain the ranking methodology in a future post. Do you think The Act of Killing will be able to keep the top spot?

#1. The Act of Killing 49 pts, 1 win, 6 appearances.
#2. Stories We Tell 45 pts, 0 wins, 7 appearances.
#3. Blood Brother 38 pts, 2 wins, 3 appearances.
#4. Cutie and the Boxer 32 pts, 1 win, 2 appearances.
#5. Leviathan 30 pts, 0 wins, 5 appearances.
#6.  The House I Live In 24 pts, 1 win, 2 appearances.
#7 (tie). Gideon’s Army 24 pts, 1 win, 1 appearance.
#7 (tie). The Summit 24 pts, 1 win, 1 appearance.
#7 (tie). A River Changes Course 24 pts, 1 win, 1 appearance.
#7 (tie). The Machine Which Makes Everything Disappear 24 pts, 1 win, 1 appearance.

Looking for the best documentaries of 2012? Or the best documentaries of 2011?

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POV Staff
POV Staff
POV (a cinema term for "point of view") is television's longest-running showcase for independent non-fiction films. POV premieres 14-16 of the best, boldest and most innovative programs every year on PBS. Since 1988, POV has presented over 300 films to public television audiences across the country. POV films are known for their intimacy, their unforgettable storytelling and their timeliness, putting a human face on contemporary social issues.
  • Bryce K.

    I think American Promise should make the list! Also, Valentine Road.

  • joe36

    Vimeo.com/ondemand/jerusalem

  • Joe

    It would be great if these linked to somewhere (website, IMDB, anything really) I could get more info on each film.

  • Pingback: Top 10 favorita za osvajanje titulea najboljeg dokumentarca 2013. godine | Dokumentarni NET

  • mockma

    I think Blackfish should start getting some more press as well.

    • SmithDoc

      it’s a little too traditional.

  • Pingback: PBS – Best Docs of 2013 | All About Docs

  • thfrnchmn

    You guys need to check out MEDORA

  • http://justinmorrison.net Justin

    A link to imdb so we could at least read a synopsis would be responsible of you

  • Karin

    Belleville Baby by Mia Engberg, Forest of the dancing spirits by Linda Västrik – rewarded at Idfa (both swedish)

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  • Suzanne G Fox

    Indian Relay.

  • Pingback: Tom Roston’s Top 10 Documentaries of 2013 | Doc Soup | POV Blog | PBS

  • Jerry Mandering

    Dirty Wars should definitely be on this list.

  • Susan Cann

    Where’s “Unacceptable Levels”? http://www.unacceptablelevels.com/ EcoNews rated as one of their Top 10: http://ecowatch.com/2013/12/29/best-documentaries-2013/

  • Poustinia

    Valentine Road – for sure – and for short docs – must point out our own POUSTINIA – which won jury prize at Woodstock FF 2013 and will screen at Sebastopol Doc FF and Taos Shortz FF next month.

  • TheyCallMePathological

    Stop the Pounding Heart is NOT an actual documentary, a lot of it was scripted and it does not belong in this years winners!!

  • daisyandus

    Life According to Sam!!

  • Jane

    Life According to Sam !

  • noelle6230

    Karama Has No Walls – 2014 Oscar nominee for Best Documentary Short Subject.
    An incredibly powerful 30 minutes!!!

  • Kristian Berg

    Jury prize winners at Woodstock Film Festival 2013

    Best Documentary Feature :
    AMERICAN REVOLUTIONARY: THE EVOLUTION OF GRACE LEE BOGGS
    directed by Grace Lee

    and

    The Diane Seligman Award for BEST SHORT DOCUMENTARY was presented to
    POUSTINIA
    directed by Kristian Berg

  • Wayne Ewing

    What about “Playing with Magic” – audience award winner for Best Documentary Feature at 2013 Prescott Film Festival ??????