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Summer's Must-See Documentaries

A smattering of fact-based films marks this season's solstice

Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer
Courtesy of HBO
June 25, 2013 12:20 PM ET

Sometimes the free-flowing beer and searing summer sun need to be counteracted with a little brain food and air-conditioning. Fortunately, a smattering of strong documentary films marks this year's solstice, with topics ranging from fracking to public defenders to the drug trade. Here are the eight we're most excited about.

Summer Movie Preview 2013

20 Feet From Stardom
The brainchild of former A&M head Gil Friesen, this exhilarating documentary from director Morgan Neville looks at the talent that stands just beyond the spotlight, or, as Neville told Rolling Stone, "the people whose fingerprints were all over the music we know, but we have no idea who they were." Interviews with artists like Mick Jagger and Bruce Springsteen, plus vocalists Darlene Love and Merry Clayton, help to correct the record.

We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks
Director Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side) tackles the subject of Wikileaks with a comprehensive take on Julian Assange, Bradley Manning and the upstart website that sent ripples across Washington. And if you find yourself itching for more debates on transparency, the pump will be primed for Benedict Cumberbatch's dramatization of Julian Assange in The Fifth Estate, due out this fall.

Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer
Maxim Pozdorovkin and Mike Lerner's tale of what happens when you stage a forty-second performance in a Russian Orthodox church is as much a story of activists told through their families as it is a take on the post-communist Russian Judicial System. Spoiler alert: It's still bonkers over there.

Manhunt
Sure, Zero Dark Thirty is a great movie, but who were the real CIA operatives behind the decade-long search for Osama Bin Laden? Which warnings fell on deaf ears? And what role did a team of female analysts (dubbed "the Sisterhood") play in the operation? Based on the bestseller by Peter Bergen, this film serves up an inside look at the hunt for OBL.

How to Make Money Selling Drugs
Cheekily taking the angle of a instructional video, this doc (produced by Entourage's Adrian Grenier) explores the financial incentive for entering the drug trade (over, say, minimum wage employment). Director Matthew Cooke frames his story around a series of interviews with drug dealers and prison employees, as well as Woody Harrelson, Susan Sarandon, Eminem, The Wire's David Simon, 50 Cent, Russell Simons and Freeway Rick Ross.

Gideon's Army
This emotional flick provides numerous reasons why you don't want to be arrested in the United States. Attorney-turned-filmmaker Dawn Porter tracks the lives of young, underpaid public defenders as they balance the challenges of their profession – too many cases, too few resources – with their own personal woes. Warning: the American criminal justice system is just as dysfunctional as the Russian courts.

Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me
Billed as "the definitive story of the greatest band that never made it," directors Drew DeNicola and Olivia Mori explore the history of the critically-acclaimed band Big Star with new footage, photos and a musical tribute by the bands they inspired: R.E.M., The Replacements, Belle & Sebastian, Elliot Smith and The Flaming Lips.

Gasland Part II
In this follow-up to the game-changing, Academy Award-nominated Gasland, Josh Fox revisits one of today's most hotly debated environmental issues – fracking. The director told Rolling Stone that he returned to the subject because "the story wasn't over," learning this time that "because there's so much gas leakage in the fracking process, gas infrastructure is actually worse than coal in a 20-year time frame."

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