Sunday, February 23, 2014

Academy Awards Week 2014: Best Documentary Feature ups the Ante

Throughout the the 2000s this category has become even more prominent.   With film makers like Michael Moore (Bowling for Columbine, Fahrenheit 9/11, Sicko) and Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me) attacking the systems around us.  People started paying attention because of the subject, whether it were guns, the Bush administration, or even McDonalds.  Documentaries about nature also launched this genre, with films like March of Penguins (2005), and An Inconvenient Truth (2006).  Fahrenheit 9/11 is still the highest grossing documentary, with 119 million domestic, and March of the Penguins comes in at number two with 77 million domestically.  While this years Documentary Feature nominees may not have lit up the box office, they have continued the growth in quality over the years, and represent one of the most consistent set of nominees at the Oscars this year.

Before we talk about this year and the nominees lets look at a history of this category.  There are actually two documentary categories at the Oscars Best Documentary Feature, and Best Documentary Short.  The Documentary Feature category has existed since 1942 where there 25 nominees and 4 winners.  After 1942 there were generally three nominees per year until 1963 when there was consistent 5 every year.  

While many take this category for granted, it has always been one of the categories which pushes the issues, or captures the time better than any other category.  In 1984 The Times of Harvey Milk won Best Documentary Feature, a film about the first openly gay elected official Harvey Milk.   This film category has also become quite controversial, like Best Foreign Language Film, in the way the nominees have been determined.  Michael Moore's Farenheit 9/11, was not even nominated because it had played on television once before the 2004 election, but an exception was made for past winner in 1982.  One of the best films of all time Hoop Dreams (1994) was also left the list.  When this happened the Academy President Bruce Davis looked into the actual voting.  At the time voters would give a film a score of 0 to 10, voters were basically stuffing the ballot box, and giving films they wanted 10s to stack the deck, and the more prominent films 0s.  Other reputable documentary features which missed the cut in this category were, Shoah (1985), The Thin Blue Line (1988), Paris is Burning (1990), and Grizzly Man (2005).

The process for nominating is still not perfect, two prominent films were left out of the final five Stories We Tell (directed by Sarah Polley), and Blackfish (directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite).  Interesting that both of these were directed by women.  Ellen Killoran from the International Business Times wrote a great piece about gender inequality in the Oscars.  While many have been citing that 12 Years a Slave is the lone representative of the numerous great films directed by black men about black characters, not many have been focusing on the lack of women in the directing, or technical roles.  For example no Thelma Schoonmaker for Editing The Wolf of Wall Street.  While the list of five are solid this year, two of these films could/should have been replaced with Stories and Blackfish, not because they were directed by women because they were two excellent films, but do these film cry gender gap? There is a strong possibility.

So what are this yes year's nominees?  They are:

  • The Act of Killing - Joshua Oppenheimer and Signe Byrge Sørensen
  • Cutie and the Boxer - Zachary Heinzerling and Lydia Dean Pilcher
  • Dirty Wars - Richard Rowley and Jeremy Scahill
  • The Square - Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer
  • 20 Feet from Stardom - Morgan Neville, Gil Friesen and Caitrin Rogers

  • The Act of Killing focuses on the Indonesian killings from 1965-1966 which killed 500,000 people.  The film is unique in that Joshua Oppenheimer asks those responsible to reenact there killings, and the men responsible do so with glee.

    Cutie and the Boxer follows an elderly couple who have been married forty years.  In the chaos of this relationship the cameras follow Ushio Shinohara a painter boxer, and his wife.

    Dirty Wars follows journalist Jeremy Schaill as he travels through Afghanistan, Yemen, and Somalia, namely places the USA has taken military action.  The documentary tracks some of the less than kosher tactics, the US has taken in the name of spreading democracy to these places.

    The Square centers on the strife in Egypt from 2011-2013, the protests and the journey many took to push for democracy in the Nation.  The Square was a Netflix original, and has earned Netflix its first Oscar nomination.

    20 Feet from Stardom's producer Gil Friessen is a major producer in the music industry, and he soon became fascinated with the women behind the central figures on stage, the back up singers.

    Who will win/Who should win?

    After having watched all the documentaries three films stand out from the five, The Act of Killing, The Square, and 20 Feet from Stardom.  Although Dirty Wars is solid too.  I can't imagine if Blackfish, and Stories We Tell were in this category, it would be even harder to pick, and this would be the most consistent category.

    With that said, narrowing down a predicted winner for me comes down to Tom O'Neil ( and his apple in a bag of oranges theory.  The apple in the bag of oranges of those three is 20 Feet from Stardom, you connect with the singers, their journey, and they bring forth a nostalgia that is just heart warming.  Stardom is not your typical gritty doc, but there are moments of sadness, which can make it just serious enough.

    Of the remaining two The Square packs a more overt emotional punch, throughout the whole film you feel as though you are on roller coaster journey with the people in the film, that you spent these two years with them.  If voters go for what hits them in the jugular they will pick this.

    The Act of Killing is a methodical slow burn, like Hannibal Lector seducing you with dinner from a guest from the night before.  These men are nuts, and their sociopathic ways do eventually reach a conclusion but in some cases they do not.  Can the voters get over the fact things are not tied up with little ribbon on them, no usually.

    I have this feeling if only this branch (documentary film makers) were voting, The Act of Killing would win.  Now every Academy member can vote, they just need to sign saying they watched all five, and I think that puts Killing in third, although it did win BAFTA, but was also nominated in Foreign Language film there.

    The Daily Beast voter, voted the way I expected an Academy would, The Square, hits your heart hard! The music branch, which is not big enough will go for Stardom, but Stardom hits at those actors/people who are part of the Academy who never made it big, the background players.  At the end of the day the Documentary Feature takes a back seat too, none have ever been up for Best Picture, and this is a travesty, when the have pioneered much of film making today.

    Will Win: 20 feet from Stardom
    Spoiler: The Square
    If I had a vote: Stories We Tell, but since its not nominated, The Act of Killing
    Never Underestimate: The Act of Killing 

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