Critical Confabulations

a theatre, film & pop culture review

Oscars 2011: Best Documentary Feature

Note: This is my personal ranking, listed in order from best to worst, with #1 being my favorite. Prediction for the actual winner is in orange.

BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE

1. Exit Through the Gift Shop

2. Inside Job

3. Restrepo

4. Waste Land

5. Gasland

Made by a self-described non-documentarian, Gasland is by far the most uninteresting of the feature  docs. Echoing similar sentiments of The Warriors of Qiugang , one of this year’s doc shorts nominees, Gasland brings a larger issue of pollution and the abuse of natural resources closer to home by uncovering the effects of “fracking,” a hydraulic drilling process that uncovers natural gas, and that’s being utilized across the greater United States. Of course, this affects the water quality in the area, offering the biggest shock of the doc: residents surrounding these wells can actually light their water on fire. Yes, the murky, contaminated water spurting right out of their faucets — the same water that the government says is A-OK to drink — bursts into flames when a lighter is near. Crazily, this is a vital concern for much of America, but unfortunately this documentary is not as vital. The director/writer/star Josh Fox narrates with so little passion, with such hipster-like indifference, that the topic never feels urgent (he should take a lesson from our good friend, Richard O’Barry’s highly emotional mission to save the dolphins).

Waste Land, on the other hand, is full of emotional uplift. A little too full. Top-selling — we are reminded of his fact multiple times — contemporary artist Vik Muniz travels to the world’s largest landfill on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro, where he picks out members of the community as casually as they pick up the trash. Despite the slightly self-satisfied, slightly smug artist, he and his strong, inspiring collaborators create beautiful work that highlights the transformative power of art and the endurance of the human spirit. This is the “feel good” doc of the year, but strangely it doesn’t seem to have gotten much traction with the Academy.

Restrepo, is a tightly structured, daring feat of journalism (these filmmakers were in the action) created from a year with one platoon in the deadliest valley of Afghanistan. It highlights many of the same themes as The Hurt Locker — but that fictional account of war was simply more gripping and effective, and I couldn’t help but think that while watching the entire documentary (not a good sign).

Inside Job, the likely winner here, is another Enron: the Smartest Guys in the Room: uncovering the causes and consequences of the financial crisis of 2008 (as opposed to the rise and fall of a corrupt corporation), this condemnation of our nation’s banks (and the government that knowingly supported them) is meticulous and infuriating, and with so much information, often comes off as a kind of lecture. But it’s briskly paced, super-slick, has the most ’80s-riffic soundtrack ever (“Greed is good,” I kept thinking), and its inflammatory and topical subject is sure to get under the skin of the Academy.

Exit Through the Gift Shop spans almost a decade and covers multiple continents to show how an uber-eccentric (read: crazy) amateur filmmaker infiltrated the secretive world of street art only to — bizarrely — become a hugely popular artist himself (the elusive Banksy appears only briefly to comment, rather too kindly, on the filmmaker’s “art”). Exit works so well because it asks so many fascinating questions regarding the definition and value of art, what it means to be an artist, and what it matters to both the art and the world at large when the public voraciously — and unthinkingly — consumes it. In the end, though, the philosophical-cultural topic won’t grab the Academy’s attention as much as the political-financial angle of Inside Job.

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This entry was posted on February 25, 2011 by in Award Predictions, Documentary, Oscar-Nominated.

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