Oscar Analysis 2014: Best Documentary
If there’s one thing in common between Best Foreign Film and Best Documentary, it’s that no matter what you’re gonna piss somebody off. That’s what happened this year when two popular documentaries didn’t get past the shortlist: Stories We Tell and Blackfish. 2013 was actually a terrific year for documentaries, but the best of the best is still underrepresented in this list of five.
Starting with the most insignificant of the five, Cutie and the Boxer follows Ushio and Noriko Shinohara, an elderly couple trying to live off of their art careers. Ushio is famous for his avant-garde pieces, while Noriko has sacrificed her own artistic ambitions to play the role of assistant to her husband. At a scant 81 minutes there isn’t much nuance to speak of, and a lot of interesting details are glossed over (Ushio’s troubles with alcohol in the past are briefly touched on, and the strained relationship with their son only gets several minutes of screentime). By the end it feels like a very slight film, and its subject matter won’t stand up against the competition.
20 Feet From Stardom, on the other hand, is the kind of fluffy doc that Academy voters adore. Director Morgan Neville puts the focus on backup singers, finding out who was singing behind classics (a highlight of the film gives the backstory on Merry Clayton’s vocals in “Gimme Shelter”) and wondering why such talented people could never break out on their own. Neville has picked a terrific topic for his documentary, and he’s lucky enough to have such charismatic personalities carry along his film while he flails from topic to topic. If Neville was able to find something to anchor his film, 20 Feet could have been much better. But it’s doesn’t matter anyways, audiences love the film, and Harvey Weinstein is putting all he can into ensuring it walks away with a trophy on Oscar night. While 20 Feet From Stardom is far from the best film in this category, its crowd-pleasing nature and heavy campaigning will probably make it win. I’m sincerely hoping that this won’t be a repeat of last year’s Searching for Sugar Man win, but the cynic in me says otherwise.
Unsurprisingly politics dominated the category this year. Rick Rowley’s Dirty Wars is the most overtly political film of the bunch, focusing on reporter Jeremy Scahill’s investigation into the US’s new methods of fighting wars. The truth is, of course, horrifying. Drone strikes and seemingly unlimited access to anywhere in the world (along with many, many other depressing revelations) show a level of unchecked power that would give anyone pause. Oddly enough, Dirty Wars is similar to 20 Feet From Stardom in that its subject matter does most of the heavy lifting. The doc’s attempt to play out like a conspiracy thriller falls flat; Scahill’s overly serious narration combined with Rowley’s attempt to make him look like a martyr don’t work well when seeing innocent people get slaughtered. Nonetheless, Scahill and Rowley are covering material that absolutely needs to be exposed to the public more. It’s a pleasant surprise that Dirty Wars was nominated at all, and even though it won’t win it should hopefully get more people watching the film.
When it comes to the battle for the overall best documentary in the group, it boils down to two films: The Act of Killing and The Square. The Square could provide a pleasant upset on March 2nd, as its immediacy and relevance may appeal to voters. The Act of Killing has been a critical darling ever since it premiered on the festival circuit in 2012, with its mortifying look at a country proud of the genocide it committed decades ago. Personally speaking, it’s no contest. As terrific as The Square is at showing the highs and lows of Egypt’s revolution in real-time, it’s still a film in progress (it was re-edited between its Sundance premiere and official release to include more recent developments). The Act of Killing is a documentary that will be referred to years from now as one of the major films in the format. Whether or not director Joshua Oppenheimer deserves mention alongside names like the Maysles, Wiseman, Herzog or Morris (the latter two love the film, and put their names on it as executive producers) remains to be seen, but he’s made a film that can easily be put next to those directors’ strongest works.
Like I said at the beginning, 2013 has been a terrific year for docs, so choosing only one that should have been nominated is quite tough. While I disagree with the consensus on Blackfish, I enjoyed Stories We Tell. My personal pick for best documentary last year would be Leviathan, but I’m not thick enough to expect AMPAS to ever nominate something that borders on avant-garde so much. My pick for what should have been nominated goes to Let The Fire Burn, Jason Osder’s terrific film about the tragic battle between a group of radicals and a city government at its wits end. It’s a balanced look at a messy situation, showing how failure from both sides led to devastation. The fact that Osder effortlessly shows all sides of the story through nothing but archival footage makes his film all the more impressive.