27 Days of Oscar: Day 16 The Documentary Features

The Best Documentary category is usually one of my favorite categories. However, I wasn’t as enthused about this year’s crop as a whole. Throughout the year, there were a couple of standouts and several audience favorites that didn’t get nominated, but in many either the filmmaking or the topics didn’t grab me. Which leads into an almost yearly discussion. Are the best films the ones with the most riveting subject matter? Or are the ones that are most cinematic? Do styles and artistic media come into play? Should entertainment outweigh information? Should films take a biased or heavy handed approach to make their points or should that count against them?

Let’s take a look at the Best Documentary nominations as well as a few more worth mentioning.

The Act of Killing
Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer, this one stands out from the others in its category. It’s alternately enthralling, reprehensible and moving. In 1960s Indonesia as part of the anti-communist purge, self-proclaimed gangsters Anwar Congo and Herman Koto were among the chief executioners, killing countless of victims. As Oppenheimer interviews them, they begin by casually demonstrating their process and bragging about what they did. But then he encourages them to recreate these scenes on film in any way they chose to. Probably due to their love for American cinema (they started out scalping movie theater tickets), they embrace this process and after watching them back decide they could be better. The recreations escalate and begin to utilize special effects and a make-up crew, with the killers themselves frequently playing the roles of the victims. It’s an incredibly thought-provoking, gut-wrenching film and definitely worthy of a viewing and the Oscar.

20 Feet From Stardom
This documentary is a celebration of the artists who are some of the most talented singers out there. There have been times when a backup singer moves into the spotlight and transforms into a star, but more often they remain tucked out of sight, just doing their thing. Or, possibly worse, they make the move out of the background and fail to sustain it. Featuring outstanding singers such as Darlene Love, Merry Clayton and Judith Hill, the film is about hopes, dreams and voices. It’s rare that a documentary about the entertainment industry makes it onto the shortlist, much less gets a nomination. Considering last year’s Searching for Sugarman was also about an underappreciated singer, as much as people love 20 Feet From Stardom, I highly doubt its chances for beating out the competition here.

The Square
Netflix has proven that it’s a force to be reckoned with, grabbing its first Emmy, Golden Globe and now Oscar nominations this year. The Square follows several young people through the years of revolution in Egypt, which played out across the world via social media, since the government controlled the news coverage. The stories are told from the viewpoints of a notable actor (Khalid Abdall) and a great orator, stirring up the people’s passions (Ahmed Hassan) among others. We have a front row seat to the demonstrations and their living room discussions. The major problem the protesters have is alluded to twice: there were no other options to the political regime in power and the revolutionists are saying no without offering a solution. Still, the commitment they have to cause is commendable and the camera work of those involved is incredible. At times, I had to remind myself these weren’t actors being filmed, this was real. If any film has a chance of beating forerunner The Act of Killing, this is probably it.

Cutie and the Boxer
Love is a Roar—it’s angry, jealous, passionate, sacrificing, stimulating—and so is art. Zachary Heinzerling’s film about the marriage and work of two renowned, if not successful, Japanese artists living in New York. The relationship between them alternately stifles one another and also inspires them both to better work. In their own way, they both have extremely appealing personalities, but ultimately it’s depressing to watch their ongoing struggles and dashed hopes. The viewer can’t help but wonder what she would have been without him, but when she rattles off a list of everything she does for him, it doesn’t sound bitter.

Dirty Wars
This film is a very dry telling of what should have been fascinating story. Director Richard Rowley’s exposé into secret military factions, assassinations and their cover-ups never quite gets to any answers. Furthermore, the “lead” of the film, reporter Jeremy Scahill, on whose book the film is based, lacks the  charisma of other on-camera reporters or investigative journalists.

Because of the popularity of some of the documentaries this year, I wanted to extend my coverage to include a few more and thoughts on why they may not have made the cut:

In Stories We Tell, one of the favorites that did not get nominated, Sarah Polley filmed scenes with actors as if they were home movies of her family’s past under a voiceover of her father’s recounting their background and intercut them between taped interviews with her other family members. This came together as an almost hybrid form of filmmaking and perhaps that was what kept it off this list. I personally felt it was a captivating film that came to a logical conclusion, but then continued for another 15-20 minutes, which dissipated the captivating work that had come before. Still, it has moments of excellence as it explores her mother’s hidden secrets and the impact they had on all of them.

Meanwhile, Blackfish, another of the early darlings, brought Sea World and other aquatic parks under fire for the conditions of both their animals and trainers. It’s a brutal film that has inspired a strong emotional response from many of its viewers, but it’s style and biased presentation make it feel just shy of tabloid journalism. Still, I definitely recommend it, with the caveat that you may never want to visit one of these parks again after seeing it.

One of my favorite documentaries of the year was The Armstrong Lie. It began filming in 2009 with Alex Gibney following Lance Armstrong’s comeback to cycling. The doping scandal derailed that project until it morphed into a bigger film altogether—getting closer to the truth than even Oprah was able to dig (though the film starts with that interview). It’s a fascinating film and up there with one of the most even handed representations of a subject—contrasting current interview footage with Armstrong with that from 2009 is almost chilling, despite his obvious charisma.

Lastly, while we’re on the subject, I’d like to mention one other film that scored a Best Foreign Film nomination. Cambodian film The Missing Picture recounts the period of time in director Rithy Panh’s childhood when the Khmer Rouge regime that slaughtered millions, including his own family. Not having archival footage of any of it, he recreates it with clay figures. The film has been highly acclaimed, however I couldn’t help feeling as if I had returned to my own childhood: going through a museum and enthralled by the dioramas set up, noticing every detail in the first one, reading along on the placards as the recorded voice intoned a description of early life in the area, but by the end skimming the writing on wall and barely taking in the figures. After a while, the film loses its steam. Still, it’s a beautiful and poetic film tackling difficult and rarely told events in world history that may appeal to many filmgoers.

There have been years where the documentary entries are the hardest to see before the awards ceremony, as frequently they haven’t yet been in wide release. This is year is quite an exception. Not only are all the films I covered here available on DVD already, four of the five Oscar nominees are available to watch on Netflix streaming, or other VOD platforms. If you haven’t yet seen them, check them out!


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