Critical Confabulations

a theatre, film & pop culture review

Oscars 2012: Best Documentary

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


1. UNDEFEATED

2. PARADISE LOST 3: PURGATORY

3. HELL AND BACK AGAIN

4. IF A TREE FALLS: A STORY OF THE EARTH LIBERATION FRONT

 5. PINA

I know, I know: The Weinstein Company. Sean “P. Diddy” Combs, producer. Football.

Why would I like this?

I hate football, but I loooove a good football movie (and no, I don’t get it either). But especially when it’s Friday Night Lights meets Stand and Deliver meets The Blind Side — wait, what?  Yes, Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin’s doc, Undefeated, about inner-city high school football students in North Memphis, TN — where crumbling roofs, absentee dads and shootings are just as common as the Mannassas High School football team’s losses — actually includes an African American boy who spends a few nights a week with a rich white family so that he can get the tutoring he needs to score that college scholarship to play football (rest easy: he does). Another boy — “Money” (who wears a Wicked t-shirt and bafflingly gets away with it) — damages his knee and is devastated to be out for the season, and so, naturally, some 1%er anonymously offers to pay for his entire four-year college education.

This may sound like a great big heap of The Help-like white guilt, but seeing it is a whole other story. Hard to believe, but it all rings true as honest-to-goodness stuff. The crazy-dedicated and magnetic coach — we would all be so lucky to have a Coach Courtney whilst growing up — teaches these kids not only the game of football, but the game of life (I can’t stop the cheese! But it’s true!), and we actually see the evolution of these young men as Bill’s words affect them, deeply — and as their  actions and successes ultimately, and equally, affect him. There is just so much love and good will in this film that you can’t not root for it. And I think voters are going to act as its cheerleaders, too.

Until quite recently, before Undefeated showed up late in the game, Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory was the top contender. Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s third installment of their series dedicated to uncovering the truth about the brutal slayings of three boys and setting free the West Memphis 3 actually changed course in August when the three men, 18 years after being wrongly incarcerated, were set free. This is easily the most compelling doc of the bunch (so compelling, in fact, that Peter Jackson has also been working on a documentary of his own for the past seven years, and West of Memphis is getting quite the buzz). That the Academy snubbed Berlinger and Sinofsky’s first two films may still indicate a spoiler-like win after all for the  filmmakers who dedicated nearly 15 years to these films and to justice for Damien Echols, Jesse Misskelley Jr. and Jason Baldwin. 

As for the final three:

Hell and Back Again is this year’s Restrepo or The Hurt Locker (minus that pesky fiction factor) with its story of Nathan Harris, who was hit by a sniper bullet in Afghanistan, destroying his hip/leg and quite possibly any chance of his walking again, just three days before returning home to the States. Filmmaker and journalist Danfung Dennis befriended Harris overseas and captured some stunning war footage, which he juxtaposes to powerful effect with scenes of Harris’s struggle to acclimate to civilian life. No PTSD here — Harris is a battle junkie, suffering from action withdrawal, and it’s difficult to believe, but fascinating, that he wants to go back and do it all again.

If a Tree Falls: The Story of the Earth Liberation Front, offers a militant and messy look at the so-called “eco-terroists” of the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) who used guerrilla warfare (specifically arson to try to stop the exploitation and destruction of the environment (ie. loggers and the like). Following one member of the group, Daniel McGowan, Marshall Curry and Sam Cullman’s doc is intriguing at times, but ultimately a bit all over the place, with no clear message. What is clear is the parallel to the Occupy Wall Street movement  — and I’m not sure that’s a good or a bad thing for the majority of voters.

I know I should like Pina. It is, after all, the “artistic” documentary, but this cinematic tribute to the great choreographer-performer Pina Bausch who died in 2009 amidst filming is too esoteric and pretentious for the general Academy. Wim Wenders’s film is equal portions hagiography and movement: the ensemble members of the Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch, in their reflections of their choreographer-critic-friend, are all exaggerated reverence. I wanted less talking-gushing, more dancing. Or, if there needed to be talking, let it be about Pina, for I left the theatre knowing her no better than when I entered it.

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This entry was posted on February 24, 2012 by in Award Predictions, Documentary, Film Reviews, Oscar-Nominated and tagged .

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