Sarah Polley in Stories We Tell

Actress/director Sarah Polley turns the camera on her family in ‘Stories We Tell.’

In today’s environment where information streams seem ubiquitous, the quality of said information feels lax more often than not. Network television desperately looks to viral trends on-line as it flounders to survive consistently dropping ratings. As digital media gains more traffic, the quality of information is not always better on-line. BuzzFeed continually generates “listicles” with little substance or research. Websites like Huffington Post and Yahoo! Count on witty headlines for “click bait.”

Those searching for substantive information are often left hungry. Well, forget that empty feeling and look up these excellent documentaries that offer an experience beyond information and uncover deeper truths of our beings, as they take insight to a whole other level. Below you will find five positively transcendental documentaries that emerged in 2013 (do not be surprised if you see some of these nominated for Oscars). All of these films boast a specific quality that moves beyond information. They offer a certain insight into the human soul, be it via the act of creativity or, to borrow one title, the act of killing. Here they are in no particular order:

Stories We Tell

This documentary by actress/director Sarah Polley could have easily been misinterpreted as self-indulgent. The feature film director turns her camera on her family in her first documentary, seeking insight into the identity of her mother, who lost her life to cancer when Polley was young. The result is far from the concrete portrait one would expect. What comes to light is the fleeting quality of a persona as interpreted by family members. No matter how deeply you might think you know someone, there are always layers below the surface. When tears flow from the family members it’s as much for the person they lost as for the person they never really knew.

Cutie and the Boxer

Family also provides the springboard for this story of two artists who have been creating their work side-by-side during 40 years of tumultuous marriage. Sixty-year-old painter Noriko Shinohara has long lived in the shadow of her husband, 80-year-old Ushio Shinohara, an artist who prefers boxing gloves to a brush. When an opportunity to display their work together arises so does a chance to reveal not only how life informs art but how it has kept them so tightly bound together. Though often difficult, their marriage is revealed as something essential to define not only their art but who they are as a couple. Cutie and the Boxer offers a rare, moving glimpse into the complexities of aged love.


Ushio and Noriko Shinohara in ‘Cutie and the Boxer.’

Beware of Mr. Baker

Though focused on the infamous rock drummer Ginger Baker, what emerges from director Jay Bulger’s portrait is another case where art has trumped family, albeit to more tragic results. As one of the founding members of Cream, Baker invested all his being into playing drums, leaving a trail of ex-wives, traumatized collaborators and children who never had a father they could connect with. Here is a man so deep in touch with his primal side he was able to parlay it into a career though it proves too fearsome for anyone to stay close to for long.

The Act of Killing

Horror has never presented a more surreal picture. Beloved grandfather Anwar Congo recounts stories of the thousands of instances he killed accused communists, ethnic Chinese and enemies of the state in Indonesia during the 1965 military coup that helped put the country’s current leaders in office. He and his collaborators recreate cinematic scenes of the persecutions and killings and filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer helps stage them with effects, props and carefully stages sets. Scenes inspired by gangster movies, ghost stories and even musicals unfold. Remorse comes up during an unshakable scene where Congo cannot say a word but struggles to hold back a need to wretch, as he finally comes to a revelation more visceral than anything in a horror movie.

Film still from the Act of Killing

A still image of a surreal dance sequence in ‘The Act of Killing.’

56 Up

As a work still in progress, director Michael Apted’s 7 Up series covers a timespan more spectacular than any documentary series. Long predating reality television when it began in 1964 by looking at several 7-year-olds in different class systems in England and revisiting with them every seven years, the effect of the camera comes to overshadow the social experiment. The subjects seem grounded but none doubt the influence of the series on their lives. At the ages of 56, the wisdom and reservations of those who have chosen to continue to participate feels more pronounced than ever.