Thursday, January 23, 2014

The 2013 Documentary Feature Oscar Nominees

It's not very often that I have the opportunity to see all of the nominees in a particular Oscar category before that year's ceremony. While I do actively seek out all of the nominees in the categories that I regularly cover (Picture, Director, acting, and screenplays), I usually have to catch up later on other categories such as Foreign Language Film or Animated Feature. However, this year I was able to see all five nominees for Best Documentary Feature, and I wanted to celebrate that fact by diving into the nominees and investigating what made them the Academy's choice for a year that was remarkably strong for documentaries. How strong? Fantastic documentaries like Stories We Tell (previously discussed), Blackfish, The Crash Reel, God Loves Uganda and The Armstrong Lie were all left out.

Here are the five films that did make the cut:

Cutie and the Boxer (dir. Zachary Heinzerling)

Take it from someone who knows, two creative-types in a relationship together can push the limits of their art and the limits of their patience for each other. Cutie and the Boxer focuses on Ushio Shinohara and Noriko Shinohara, artists who have been married for over 40 years. Whereas Ushio was an avant-garde rising star in the New York art world of the late 1960s and Noriko was an art student, he now finds himself struggling to salvage his legacy while her autobiographical drawings of "Cutie and Bullie" are becoming a breakout sensation. Though there's plenty of footage of the artists at work, the film is more about how these two have maintained their relationship and pushed themselves both creatively and personally. It's a remarkably poignant glimpse of how two people can bring out the best in one another, even when they're at their worst. (Streaming on Netflix Instant Watch and Amazon Instant Video)

The Act of Killing (dir. Joshua Oppenheimer, Christie Cynn, and Anonymous)

One of the most talked-about films of 2013, The Act of Killing finds the filmmakers approaching Indonesian gangsters Anwar Congo and Herman Koto, who were among the top agents in the genocide of Indonesian "communists" in the 1960s (more about that here), and allowing them to enthusiastically retell - and cinematically recreate - some of their "greatest" murders. What's remarkable about this deeply disturbing film is the way that it ultimately asks the audience to question the very reliability of documentary filmmaking and cinema in general, as these men revel in the opportunity to share what they've done and explain the influence of pop culture on how they carried out some of their atrocities. Yet the film never condemns nor celebrates these men and their actions, which sparked a lot of controversy over the film's intentions. This much is certain: it's the most difficult film in this crop to watch, but it's also the most rewarding. (Streaming on Netflix Instant Watch and Amazon Instant Video)

Dirty Wars (dir. Rick Rowley)

In terms of it's subject matter, Dirty Wars is an absolutely essential documentary: journalist Jeremy Scahill investigates the troubling uncover dealings of the U.S. military in Asia, particularly the cover-ups around the deaths of civilians in Afghanistan by U.S. soldiers, the deaths of tribesmen in Yemen by U.S. missile strike, and the assassination of American citizen Anwar al-Awaki. The ties that bind these events are the secretive Joint Special Operations Command, an organization that both President Bush and President Obama has utilized in the War on Terror. And there's a lot of important and jaw-dropping information presented here, and when it focuses on this the film is a strong critique of how the War on Terror is both a failure and a moral quagmire. The problem is that Scahill's presence on-camera often robs the film of its power, as he pulls the focus away from the information itself and more onto his quest to find it. (Streaming on Netflix Instant Watch and Amazon Instant Video)

The Square (dir. Jehane Noujaim)

Egypt became the center of the world's attention in early 2011 when a populist uprising - centered in Cairo's Tahrir Square - managed to force President Hosni Mubarak out of office and stage the first free popular election for president in Egypt's history. As The Square demonstrates, though, that result didn't come easily, and what happened afterward was a struggle that many of the protestors could not have anticipated. Filmed during the revolution and featuring incredible on-the-ground footage, as well as interviews with a number of government/military officials and activists, the film offers a fascinating and powerful glimpse at the mechanics of popular demonstration. What's unexpectedly brilliant, though, is how it seems to comment on the effectiveness of such unorganized protest: when there's no unifying agenda or plan for the future, it's easy for such movements to be divided and exploited by other forces. It's at once inspiring and sobering. (Streaming on Netflix Instant Watch)

20 Feet from Stardom (dir. Morgan Neville)

Their voices are on some of the greatest rock records of all time, but very few people know their names. 20 Feet from Stardom, though, puts a number of background singers in the spotlight, highlighting their contributions to the work of some of rock's biggest stars. Darlene Love, the seminal voice of a large number of Phil Spector records (most of which she never got credit for), dominates a large chunk of the film, but her story is equal parts inspiring and heartbreaking, and she was recently inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. But that doesn't diminish the segments with the other singers, and to watch them sing and perform and tell their stories is uplifting. If the film has any weak points, it's that it doesn't spend enough time exploring the racial implications of the subjects (many of the background singers are black, while the artists they're supporting are often white). That said, it's a crowd-pleasing, wonderful film that will make you want to listen to the classics in a whole new way. (Streaming on Amazon Instant Video)

If I were voting in the Academy, my ballot would look like this:

1. The Square
2. 20 Feet from Stardom
3. The Act of Killing
4. Cutie and the Boxer
5. Dirty Wars

"Just tell us who's going to win the Oscar, Jason, god." Well, the Academy went with a music-related doc last year (Searching for Sugar Man), so if they're still in that mode then 20 Feet from Stardom is possible. In fact, I would even go so far to say that it's the most likely to win, since overtly-political docs don't often win here and the most critically-acclaimed of these, The Act of Killing, may be too difficult for a lot of voters to sit through (I don't mean that as a slight; I had trouble watching it myself). However, I wouldn't be surprised if The Square snuck up and pulled the upset as well.

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