Box office figures indicate that a trip to the cinema is, for most of us, a trip to see the latest action movie or romantic comedy. The comfy red velvet seats, the popcorn, and the complete immersion in darkness allow for a blissful escape from reality. However, although the booming film industry proves that the screen has mastered the art of escapism, it is also crucial to acknowledge its ability to show reality through documentary. Although documentaries usually are not met with the same hype or investment as fiction films, an unwavering demand for these non-fiction exposés of real life highlights their relevance and value.
Looking back on the releases of 2013, it’s interesting to note the diversity of the documentaries that were met with the greatest box office success and highest viewer popularity. Documentaries reflect world trends and psyches at a very specific time. From the exploration of arts to political issues, to investigations of hushed-up controversies – documentaries show it all. The work of the documentary-maker comes close to that of the detective: sifting through clues and evidence, to try and present a fundamental ‘truth’.
An array of voices – both conflicting and concurring – emerge in our list of documentaries from the last year. Indeed, several of these were sparked by political questions, social trends and debates, or in response to mediatic representations of an event. In a modern world where contemporary issues are so often reduced to headlines and viral images, the documentary allows for a depth that we as viewers sometimes crave.
The documentaries listed below have been chosen according to their IMDB popularity rating, and ranked according to their box office success. These documentaries are strongly representative of some of the crucial issues of the last few years, a snapshot of modern culture through the eye of all-seeing cameraman…
10. We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks – $195,000
Alex Gibney’s We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks traces Julian Assange’s establishment of Wikileaks, the journalistic website that publishes international secret information leaked by anonymous sources. This represented some of the biggest ever information leaks in modern history and caused havoc for government officials and secret services. Pairing the biggest revelations with interviews of key figures, Gibney sheds light on the effects that these leaks have had on world affairs. Moreover, fundamental questions emerge such as the value and relevance of state secrets in a world where the access to information has been democratised by the internet. Gibney invites us to question who should get to control information, and who should have the right to access it.
9. Dirty Wars – $366,000
Dirty Wars tells the incredible story of independent journalist Jeremy Scahill. When sent to report on the war in Afghanistan in 2012, Scahill stepped beyond the boundaries of his duties when he began to piece together a shocking and hushed military story. He became aware that undeclared wars are taking place around the world with the White House’s secret accord. He takes upon himself the difficult role of questioning the US government: The documentary powerfully asks the State to acquiesce and take responsibility for the devastations. By uncovering these dirty wars Scahill has raised public awareness, a first step towards significant change.
8. The Armstrong Lie – $381,000
While Alex Gibney was making a documentary about the exceptional career of seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong, it came to light that the cyclist was doped during his victorious races. The angle of Gibney’s documentary then changed drastically. The Armstrong Lie traces Armstrong’s repeated wins and his unbelievably strong return to racing after a battle with cancer – but it also reveals the string of lies told by the cyclist to attain that success. Gibney portrays the fallen legend as having manipulated his power as a celebrity to cover up his transgressions. Exploring the greatest deception of sporting history, The Armstrong Lie is engrossing and revelatory, especially in 2013 – the year of the 100th anniversary of the Tour de France.
7. Sound City – $422,000
Dave Grohl’s documentary film Sound City tells the story of the Sound City Studios in Van Nuys, LA where musicians such as Nirvana, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Neil Young and Fleetwood Mac recorded music. Grohl includes interviews with musicians and a history of the studio, evoking a strong sense of nostalgia for the grotty yet charming building that was shut down in 2011. Grohl’s primary intent is to draw attention to the shifting nature of art production in an age where practically all of it is modified by technology. He laments the death of small production studios competing with massive production companies. Sound City traces the development of Rock and Roll whilst inviting its viewers to question whether the chemistry of art can survive when denied its human soul?
6. Generation Iron – $850,000
In his documentary film Generation Iron, Vlad Yudin explores the lives of professional bodybuilders: men for whom physical perfection is the most valuable of arts. He follows the lives of 7 of top bodybuilders, going head to head for the world’s premier bodybulliding title: ‘Mr Olympia’. From the hours of working out at the gym, to meal plans, injuries and championships, Yudin reveals how bodybuilding is not just a profession but a lifestyle.
5. Salinger – $576,000
After the great success of his teenage-angst novel The Catcher in the Rye, American writer JD Salinger decided to fall off the map and away from the public’s gaze. Shane Salermo’s curiosity was sparked. He decided to produce and direct his own documentary about the elusive and legendary American writer. Kept secret for five years, the film was released in 2013, three years after Salinger’s death. Salinger uncovers many of the writer’s unexpected secrets. It features footage of Salinger, never before seen photographs, and interviews with numerous celebrities.
4. Inequality For All – $1.2 million
Robert Reich’s documentary Inequality For All discusses the ever increasing income inequalities of America – one of the most wealth-unequal countries in the word. Robert Reich was the secretary of Labour under Bill Clinton and is a professor of public policy at UC Berkeley. He passionatley argues on the part of the struggling middle class, exploring how this marked inequality devastatingly effects the country’s economy and its people’s well-being. His documentary effectively uses statistics, interviews and footage of protest campaigns to portray the struggle of the American worker.
3. Blackfish – $2.06 million
The world was shocked when SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau met her death after she was unexpectedly attacked by killer whale Tilikum, during a routine performance in 2010. The event sparked a heated debate which Gabriela Cowperthwaite pursues in her documentary Blackfish. She investigates whether the killer whale is at fault, or if SeaWorld is to blame. The film studies Tilikum’s life right from his capture off the coast of Iceland in 1983. The ethics of SeaWorld and of keeping such large animals in captivity are questioned through explorations of the psychology of the imprisoned animal and interviews with killer whale experts.
2. Twenty Feet From Stardom – $4.84 million
In Twenty Feet From Stardom, Morgan Neville turns the cameras on the backing singers of the big music stars of the 21st Century. The talented women that stand just beyond the spotlight are intimately portrayed. Neville gives us a glimpse into the lives of these women, the ‘unknown heroes’ of the music industry, by exploring the trials and tribulations of standing in the shadow of success. Amongst others, the film features the stories of Darlene Love, Judith Hill, Merry Clayton, Tata Vega and Lisa Fischer.
1. Kevin Hart: Let Me Explain – $32.2 million
Kevin Hart: Let Me Explain is Pennsylvanian comedian Kevin Hart’s greatest hit so far. Hart’s documentary is the sequel to his 2011 film Laugh At My Pain. He reveals his life as a stand-up comedian on and off stage. Most of the footage is from his tour around Britian, Holland, Canada and Scandinavia, and leads up to his home performance in Madison Square Garden. Although the documentary was subject to criticism in reviews, the documentary did well with its audiences and at the box office, bringing it to number one on our list.
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