20 Feet From Stardom
20 Feet From Stardom

It was a good year for documentaries. Maybe we say that every year, but 2013 felt particularly strong. How can anyone keep track of all the excellent non-fiction films you need to see (and check off the ones you’ve already seen)? By using this handy-dandy List of the Lists, as it were. We’ve collected many of our favorite Best of 2013 lists here, but do go to the individual pages linked here for each writer/writers’ detailed recap of each film and list. (And if we missed any other good ones, feel free to add in the comments.)

And because we can’t help ourselves, we’ve bolded and noted any documentary that is an Independent Lens film.

First of all, our friends at POV have done an excellent job of compiling the most acclaimed (in terms of reviews and awards) documentaries of 2013, which they’ve frequently updated.  We won’t list them all here right at the start (horn toot: 4 of the top 20 are Independent Lens films) but it’s a great place to start.

Now then…

The National Board of Review‘s Top 5 Documentaries:
(In alphabetical order)

  • 20 Feet from Stardom
  • The Act of Killing
  • After Tiller
  • Casting By
  • The Square

IndieWire Playlist staff:

  1. A Band Called Death
  2. Oxyana
  3. Blackfish
  4. 20 Feet From Stardom
  5. God Loves Uganda [airs on Independent Lens 5/19/14]
  6. These Birds Walk
  7. The Punk Singer
  8. Inequality for All
  9. Let the Fire Burn [airs on Independent Lens 5/12/14]
  10. The Trials of Muhammad Ali [airs on Independent Lens 4/14/14]
  11. Cutie and the Boxer
  12. After Tiller
  13. At Berkeley
  14. Stories We Tell
  15. The Act of Killing
Sarah Polley's Stories We Tell
Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell

The LA Times‘ 10 Best Documentaries of 2013, by Kenneth Turan:

  • After Tiller
  • Blackfish
  • First Cousin Once Removed
  • God Loves Uganda 
  • Let the Fire Burn 
  • The Summit
  • The Trials of Muhammad Ali
  • The Act of Killing
  • The Square
  • 20 Feet From Stardom

From DocGeeks‘ Alexandra Zeevalkink:

  • The Act of Killing
  • Stories We Tell
  • Blackfish
  • Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God
  • A Russian Fairytale
  • Blood Brother
  • Crash Reel
  • Dirty Wars
  • Moo Man
  • God Loves Uganda
God Loves Uganda
God Loves Uganda

Fandor: Best Documentaries, by filmmaker Caveh Zahedi:

1. I Hate Myself : )
2. The Act of Killing
3.  Our Nixon
4. We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks
5.  First Cousin Once Removed
6.  Call Me Kuchu
7.  Solar Mamas
8. Park Avenue
9. Levitating Mass
10. Chasing Ice

Fandor: Best Political Docs of the Year
A thoughtful piece from Steven Erickson which points out several documentaries you may not have heard of — but should absolutely seek out.

New Orleans Times-Picayune‘s 10 Best Docs of 2013, by Mike Scott:

10. Sound City
9. The Act of Killing
8. The Armstrong Lie
7. Room 237
6. A Band Called Death
5. Salinger
4. Bayou Maharajah: The Tragic Genius of James Booker
3. Stories We Tell
2. Twenty Feet From Stardom
1. The Institute

Nonfics: 13 Best Docs of 2013, by Christopher Campbell, Robert Greene, Daniel Walber, Dan Schindel, and Landon Palmer:

13. This Ain’t California
12. The Square
11. Dirty Wars
10. Caucus
9. After Tiller
8. At Berkeley
7. These Birds Walk
6. ¡Vivan las Antipodas!
5. Let the Fire Burn
4. Leviathan
3. The Act of Killing
2. Cutie and the Boxer
1. Stories We Tell

Let the Fire Burn
Let the Fire Burn

See also Robert Greene’s extensive list for the BFI (British Film Institute)’s Sight & Sound: The best of 2013 in cinematic nonfiction. It’s a terrific and provocative list that goes off the beaten path in a few places (in more loosely defining the term “documentary”).

  • ’Til Madness Do Us Part
  • Computer Chess
  • Our Nixon
  • Tina Delivers a Goat / Declaration of War / Lost Village: the Dark Side / A Story for the Modlins [short films]
  • Let the Fire Burn
  • An Oversimplification of Her Beauty
  • The Kill Team [airs on Independent Lens Fall ’14]
  • Bad Grandpa (!)
  • YouTube Cinema
  • The Expedition to the End of the World
  • Cutie and the Boxer
  • At Berkeley
  • SickF—people
  • Big Men
  • Caucus
  • The Square
  • Winter Go Away
  • Manakamana
  • Pablo’s Winter
  • Stories We Tell
  • 12 O’Clock Boys
  • Museum Hours
  • Sleepless Nights
  • These Birds Walk
  • Massive Attack vs Adam Curtis
  • The Last Station
  • The Act of Killing

And here’s our (okay, this writer’s) own picks for 5 best documentaries of the year, recusing myself from any Independent Lens films (though I sure wish someone above had thought to put Medora on their list). In order:
Stories We Tell, The Act of Killing, The Square, First Cousin Once Removed, After Tiller.

How many of the films mentioned here have you seen? Be honest, and reveal it in the comments. We won’t judge, unless you haven’t seen any of them, in which case we will gently chastise you. With many of them now readily available online or via DVD, you have the technology at your disposal to catch up on what was a terrific year for documentary film.