For the first time ever I’ve had a chance to view all five best documentary films before the Oscars. Netflix has four of the five. The one film they didn’t have — Twenty Feet From Stardom — is available on Amazon Prime as a rental. First a quick look at the five nominated films:
The Act of Killing – Joshua Oppenheimer and Signe Byrge Sørensen – Imagine if the perpetrators of the Holocaust were not only still alive but alive and bragging about how they killed so many people. This film covers a similar mass killing of people based solely on their political affiliation. The killings took place in Indonesia over a two year period starting in 1965. The film has several of the people responsible for thousands of deaths reenact and discuss how they killed people. It sounds morbid and it is, but watching these men talk about their misdeeds without any sense of remorse or worry of retribution is mesmerizing. One killer talks about how messy it was to beat people to death and how he found a better solution by strangling them with wire. What’s fascinating about this film is you get a glimpse into the minds of psychopaths. Only near the end of the film do you see any glimpse of humanity.
Dirty Wars — Richard Rowley and Jeremy Scahill — This film, narrated in a monotone and somewhat discordant tone by journalist Jeremy Scahill, tells the story of the killings of other innocent people, this time at the hands of American special forces. After 911 a special operations force called Joint Special Operations Command or JSOC was formed for the specific task of going after high profile targets. Osama Bin Laden was one of their targets. Unfortunately, sometimes they get it wrong. Sometimes they kill innocent people simply because they happen to be near a target. Jeremy Scahill investigates one incident where five innocent Afghan civilians are killed by trigger-happy special forces who descend on the wrong target. The film paints JSOC and president Obama in a negative light. My gut feeling is that JSOC wasn’t started on his watch and those advising him of their actions today may be misleading him. I find it hard to believe that Obama would personally call a foreign government to keep a journalist imprisoned. I also find it hard to believe that President Obama would okay a drone strike to kill a sixteen year old boy, the son of Anwar Al-Awlaki, who was also killed in a drone strike. The film is about Jeremy Scahill’s investigation of these incidents; it was written by him based on his book; it is narrated by him; the end result comes across as biased.
The Square — Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer — This film covers the uprising in Egypt that began in Tahrir square. It’s an inside look at the success of the protests that brought down a dictator and how that act has not improved conditions for the average Egyptian. This is a ground level, in the midst, look at life in Egypt the last few years.
Cutie and the Boxer — Zachary Heinzerling and Lydia Dean Pilcher — This documentary is a portrait of two starving artists in New York. That’s not how it was sold or advertised, but that’s how I saw it. It was entertaining. It was interesting. It isn’t a best documentary contender. The filmmakers examine the lives of two Asian artists — Ushio Shinohara and his wife and sometimes assistant Noriko. The film reminded me a lot of another art documentary — My Kid Could Paint That — another film that examined what might be called modern art. Is punching a large canvas with gloves covered in paint art? Sorry, but I don’t think so. Norkio’s drawings are closer to what I think of as art. Ushio’s cardboard sculptures are a bit more artistic, but it’s easy to see why they’re not raking in the money. The one bright spot for these two, their artwork now actually might be worth something now that the documentary has been nominated for an Oscar.
Twenty Feet From Stardom — Morgan Neville, Gil Friesen and Caitrin Rogers — This is another entertaining and enjoyable film that I don’t believe is Oscar worthy. This film is about backup singers. I don’t know what the budget for this film was, but it had to be in the millions. There are so many songs and clips of songs that it had to have been a nightmare to get the rights for all that music. All of the backup singers profiled have fabulous voices. So what is it that allows some backup singers like Sheryl Crow and Luther Vandross to go from the back of the stage to the front? That’s the question this film tries to answer. That question is answered by a bevy of successful artists such as Sting, Stevie Wonder, and Bruce Springstein. It all boils down to drive and material. You have to have the drive to want to be a solo artist. Then you have to have the material that will get you noticed. My favorite scene in the movie involves a simple cut of singer Lisa Fischer. Lisa put out a solo album that won her a Grammy. She is onstage singing this beautiful, powerful song. She bows to applause. Cut to Lisa in street clothes at a Kinkos bending over to get a Fedx box. Why isn’t Lisa Fisher as popular as Mariah Carey? She has an amazing voice. She has, when she wants to, an amazing figure, but one song isn’t going to make you a star. You either have to be lucky enough to find material or smart enough to create your own.
Before I give my pick for best documentary, I want to mention a documentary that I thought was the best film I saw last year. The film is An Unreal Dream. It was a CNN special features documentary about the wrongful conviction of Michael Morton, who spent 25 years in a Texas prison for the murder of his wife. It’s an unbelievable story, expertly filmed and told by Michael Morton himself.
All of the films above are worthy of your time. But my pick for best documentary is The Act of Killing. It’s a film that stays with you long after the last image.