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Saturday, February 8, 2014

2014 Oscar Preview: Best Documentary

Luckily, 4 out of the 5 nominees in this category are currently streaming on Netflix. Not only is this good for me, because that means I can (decently) accurately judge and write about these films, but so can you if you so choose! The 5th film (20 Feet From Stardom) is available to stream/rent via Amazon.

- 20 Feet From Stardom
- Cutie and The Boxer
- Dirty Wars
- The Act of Killing
- The Square


I thought Blackfish was the 3rd best film of 2013. The movie digs deep into Sea World (and other amusement parks like it) and how they treat their animals. I am certainly not one of those people who you would call an animal lover in the least, yet I was up in arms about the horrible treatment of whales and dolphins after seeing this film. This documentary is captivating, informative, and riveting. It is also currently steaming Netflix as of this writing, and this is the first film mentioned in the article that I would watch (spoiler alert: really the only 2013 doc I've seen worth watching).


CUTIE AND THE BOXER: I really do not enjoy being negative about films, so I am going to start with the only nominated documentary I actually enjoyed watching. This film follows around "famed" 80 year old hipster and New York artist Ushio Shinohara (The Boxer) and his 58 year old wife and aspiring artist Noriko (Cutie). The film is meant to portray how hard it is to make it as an artist- even when you're old and grey, but it works because of the dynamic between the husband and wife. Ushio and Noriko have such an interesting life and dynamic, that I actually liked what should have been a dull story on paper.

THE SQUARE: This documentary follows around a handful of Egyptian revolutionaries in 2011 and 2012 as they fight to create a fair democracy in their totalitarian dictatorship. It's an important topic that people should be aware of, but the problem is that you don't really care after about a third of the way into the film. I'm glad I watched it in the sense that now I am a little more educated on the strife of the Egyptian people, but solely as a film, this is not one I can recommend to others.

DIRTY WARS: This film follows around embedded war reporter Jeremy Scahill during the U.S. invasion in Afghanistan and Iraq. It first begins with Scahill discovering a secret air strike in which American soldiers killed a handful of innocent civilians in Afghanistan, and then it plays out like a neo-noir mystery from there. Truthfully, though, I don't know where it ends. I'm currently writing about this movie about a week and half after I watched it, and I can't remember a damn thing that happened during the second or third acts. Actually, I take that back, I do remember one thing: I remember being incredibly bored watching this film.

THE ACT OF KILLING: On paper, this should have been the run away best documentary out of the ones I saw. Director Joshua Oppenheimer follows around Indonesian gangsters that gloat and re-enact through a film they're making about how they brutally killed and massacred "Communists" 40-50 years ago during the uprising of the Government. In fact, just watch this interview that Oppenheimer did with John Oliver and tell me that the film doesn't look incredible.

The problem is that the movie is slow and dull as all hell. Listening to the same group of guys babble on and on and on about essentially the same thing over and over again just forced you to tune out. I tried watching this film in 30 minute increments, and I had a tough time even doing that. There is some comeuppance at the end which was nice, but it felt like it was too little, too late.

20 FEET FROM STARDOM: This documentary follows the story of prominent back up singers such as Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, and Lisa Fischer, and how influential they were in some of the greatest songs from the 50's, 60's, and 70's. It's extremely interesting in the sense that I learned so much about the music that I love (such as Merry Clayton was the amazing female vocals you hear on The Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter"), but it's kind of all over the place. Ultimately, it's a documentary that focuses on a core group of specific back up singers, but at many points the film tried to go broader and try to talk about back up singers as a whole, and those parts fall flat. In the end, this felt to me like it should be a 60 Minutes piece than a full length documentary. It's good, and once it becomes available for free it's worth a watch, but don't purchase it.


WHAT SHOULD WIN: Cutie and The Boxer
WHAT WILL WIN: 20 Feet From Stardom


While the Producers Guild of America (PGA) Awards is normally a great predictor for determining the Best Picture (more to come on that later), it is a weird predictor for who will win an Academy Award in this category. Mainly, because winning the PGA doesn't even mean you'll get an Oscar nomination. However, if you're lucky enough to win the PGA AND get an Oscar nomination, you're essentially guaranteed to win the Academy Award as well. In 2012, Searching for Sugar Man, won both the PGA and the Oscar. In 2009, the same was true for The Cove as well as for Man On Wire in 2008. However, in 2011, Michael Rappaprt's Beats, Rhymes, and Life won the PGA, but didn't even get an Oscar nomination. Undefeated won the Academy Award that year, even though it did not get a PGA nod. In 2010, Al Gore's Waiting For "Superman" won the PGA award, but it did not earn an Academy Award nomination. Inside Job won the Oscar that year, although it did at least get a PGA nomination as well.

This Oscar season is more like 2010 and 2011 versus 2009 and 2012. In fact, none of the 5 Oscar nominees earned a PGA nomination this year. That means, I have absolutely no Earthly idea who will win, or who even the favorite is. I tried looking up past Oscar winners to see if there's a trend the Academy prefers, but it's difficult. Here's what I found:

- Academy LOVES nominating war films, but hates giving them a win (Restrepo, 5 Broken Cameras, Operation Homecoming, Iraq in Fragments).

- They love awarding heartfelt, underdog stories (Searching for Sugar Man, Undefeated, Man on Wire)

- Environmental issues do well (An Inconvenient Truth, March of the Penguins [maybe? Who knows what category that really falls into], The Cove)

- Entertaining films that don't really have a social point don't win (Exit Through The Gift Shop, Jesus Camp, Murderball, Super Size Me)

Based upon this rough, horribly inexact data, that means that Dirty Wars and The Square are out immediately, because those are war films. Cutie and The Boxer is out too, because I would put that into the "Entertaining with No Social Point" category. The Act of Killing could possibly be considered a war film, or even an entertaining film, but this still seems to clash with recent, previous winners. However, I do think it has a damn good chance of winning. It won the BAFTA this year for Best Documentary, and it was considered the best film of 2013 by the highly pretentious Sight and Sound poll. However, neither are great Oscar predictors, and in the end, I just don't think it has the broad Academy appeal to win. Ultimately, I think that honor will go to 20 Feet From Stardom. It's an industry insider film that's lighthearted and easy to watch. It's somewhat of an underdog story, but overall I just think it fits the appeal of recent winners like Searching for Sugar Man and Man on Wire.

BONUS: Documentaries To Check Out

1) The Queen of Versailles
2) Dear Zachary: A Letter to His Son About His Father
3) Undefeated
4) 30 for 30: Broke
5) Young@Heart
6) The Making of South Park: 6 Days to Air
7) The People vs. George Lucas
8) That Guy Who Was In That Thing
9) Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work
10) Exit Through The Gift Shop

- This Film Is Not Yet Rated
- Word Wars
- 30 for 30: Raising Hell
- 30 for 30: Silly Little Game

- The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters

What was your favorite documentary of 2013?

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