The year in film is nearly half over, so we figured it was time to take stock of the films that have already opened and see where we're at. We've had six months of every type of movie, blockbuster to indie curiosity, and looking at the landscape of 2013 so far, things are looking pretty solid. Today, we're looking at the best, most eye-opening documentaries of the year - and it's a good year to do this, because some of the best films of 2013 so far have been docs. Here's what you should be going out of your way to see if you haven't already.
5. Oxyana: This 2013 Tribeca Film Festival entry is a clear-eyed, empathetic look at the effects of the oxycontin trade on a small West Virginia town. The accumulation of first-person accounts from parents, teenagers, doctors, both oxy addicts and not, is weighty and, if you'll pardon the pun, sobering. (Oxyana is self-distributed and premiered online yesterday.)
4. Call Me Kuchu: There is so much beautiful humanity on display in this documentary about modern-day Uganda and the push by some to criminalize homosexuality to the point of executing gay men and women. Enduring such ugly discrimination, the Ugandan gays in this film are vibrant, soulful, beautiful people and offer sufficient counterpoint to the wicked justifications of their enemies simply by existing. Eye-opening does not begin to describe it, and as events unfold, it becomes one of the most emotionally intense experiences of the year. (Now playing in NY and LA, opening in other cities.)
3. Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me: Another 2013 Tribeca Film Festival entry, this portrait of legendary stage-and-screen star Elaine Stritch is wildly funny and touchingly humane. A portrait of the Broadway diva as alternatingly brassy, stubborn, fragile, and ferocious, Stritch is as compelling as any character you're likely to see in either half of 2013. (Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me has been acquired by Sundance Selects, which has not yet announced a release date. Look for it hopefully soon!)
2. 20 Feet From Stardom: Background singers are invaluable players in music history. Background singers have been historically overlooked. Background singers lack that certain quality -- be it ego, presence, what have you -- to be a lead performer. Background singers have some of the most fascinating stories in all of rock history. All these statements are reflected in this superb documentary, looking kindly but clearly at the stories of some of the most notable backup vocalists in music and their fight to make themselves heard. (Now playing in NY, LA, select cities. Opening in more cities soon.)
1. Stories We Tell: Sarah Polley's film tells the story of her own family, how her mother's death affected them going forward, and most pointedly, an investigation into the funny little rumors that had always persisted about Sarah's paternity. The Polley family present as some of the more sparkling conversationalists you're likely to meet, and Sarah brings an inventive spirit and a storytelling flair that's not found in many films, documentary or narrative. (Now playing in NY, LA, select cities.)
Honorable Mentions: As professional film blogger types and general enthusiasts, we try very hard to see all the movies that come out. Certainly the ones that get a lot of positive attention. But sometimes it's not possible and we vow to catch them on DVD, only suddenly there are Half-Year-In-Review posts to write and you haven't caught up yet and and and and ... okay, the point is that certain acclaimed documentaries slipped through the cracks, but it should be noted that many critics cited the fishing-boat-POV doc Leviathan as a groundbreaking work. And also that Sound City, the history-of-rock film about the eponymous music studio, is currently the only 2013 film with a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Kudos all around.
Previously: 2013's Most Award-Worthy Performances So Far