Critical Confabulations

a theatre, film & pop culture review

Oscars Predictions 2014: 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.



Jehane Noujaim & Karim Amer

Morgan Neville, Gil Friesen & Caitrin Rogers

Joshua Oppenheimer & Signe Byrge Sørensen

Zachary Heinzerling & Lydia Dean Pilcher

Richard Rowley & Jeremy Scahill

Should’ve been here: Stories We Tell

It’s tricky to spot a trend in the winners of this category. Sometimes environmental activist films come out on top (An Inconvenient Truth, The Cove) or the political/war-centric (The Fog of War, Taxi to the Dark Side); sometimes it’s  inspirational, family-friendly fare (March of the Penguins, Undefeated), and sometimes it’s artist-focused (Man on Wire, Searching for Sugar Man). This year offers three political docs and two explorations of artists and their work. So what’ll come out on top?

Well, it won’t be Dirty Wars. Of the three political docs, this one’s the least sexy (listen, I know that’s not a main criteria of documentary filmmaking, but we’re talking bout the Academy here) and offers up the most upsetting truths about U.!S.!A.! so, it’s not going to come off an overwhelming favorite. Co-written and narrated by journalist Jeremy Scahill, the film operates like a noir-ish detective story, investigating the war on terror’s increasingly, scarily, global reach. Richard Rowley’s outraged film largely builds toward a focus on Anwar al-Awlaki and his son, Abdulrahman, American citizens killed by American drone strikes in 2011, which suggest that there is essentially zero congressional restraint in this covert war. It’s distressing, and it’s unlikely Academy voters will want to go there.

But they probably won’t go for Cutie and the Boxer either, despite it’s lighter, artist subject. A small film, Cutie narrowly focuses on Ushio and Noriko Shinohara, husband-and-wife Japanese artists, who couldn’t be more different: He’s imperious and self-centered, the “successful” artist who paints by smashing his boxing gloves, dripping with color, against a white canvas, while she’s demure, but clearly resentful, having lived in his shadow for so long and never been  fully appreciated for her own artistry. It’s a film of contrasts, and it’s one every artist can relate to: being overlooked and dealing with other artists’ egos. Of course, Academy voters will appreciate that sentiment, but the obscurity of these particular artists (outside the fine arts community) makes Zachary Heinzerling’s directorial debut less affecting to this audience.

The Act of Killing is the critical favorite here, and it certainly has the most creative — and horrifying  — premise. Filmmakers Joshua Oppenheimer and Signe Byrge Sørensen asked former Indonesian death squad leaders to reenact their real-life mass-killings in a variety of cinematic styles (Hollywood crime, lavish musicals). This is as fitting as it is innovative (though a bit gimmicky), since the men began as small-time gangsters that modeled their demeanor off of the likes of Pacino and Brando. These men have never been punished; instead, they’ve been treated as heroes by both the government and civilians, and the process of filming allows them — and their country — to finally recognize the extent and implications of their horrible acts. This documentary process is ethically questionable, and the lack of remorse by most of the men, while loathsome, becomes tiresome to watch. That is, until the conclusion when one man, Anwar Congo, after decades of avoidance, finally confronts his genocidal past. Pacing back and forth across the small space where he’d tortured hundreds of people, Congo, emitting guttural sounds of revulsion, heaves and spits, as though trying to exorcise the memories of his atrocious acts. It’s a sensational conclusion — a moment that couldn’t have been staged even had Oppenheimer and Sørensen tried — but it’s unlikely that Oscar will go for such a troubling film.

Covering its bases with the political and inspirational is The Square, a from-the-battlefield-type document of not-so-distant history, following three young revolutionary friends as they take over Cairo’s Tahrir Square from 2011-2013 to protest the alternating corrupt rule of Egyptian presidents and the military. There’s no sugarcoating as events are relayed in real time, as is the violence, but what’s most winning about this film is its engagement with smart and captivating participants:  twenty-something optimist Ahmed Hassan sermonizes civil unity; intellectual Khalid Abdalla (actor, The Kite Runner) advocates restructuring of the government to enact lasting change; and spiritual Magdy Ashour struggles with his allegiance to the Muslim Brotherhood and his support for fair governance. The film will remind of Occupy Wall Street, as the young people struggle to lead rather than simply voice their protests, and it makes for a stirring account of oppression and rebellion, idealism and  justice. This seems the optimal nominee, but for some reason, no one’s talking about it as a top contender, which means it could be well-placed to spoil.

Then again, 20 Feet From Stardom is just so up Oscar’s alley, that it’s kind of silly to engage the idea of any other possible outcome,as this film is exactly like last year’s winner, Searching for Sugar ManBy that I mean, in its telling of the stories of several prolific backup singers, it touches, engagingly, on a variety of themes — the civil rights movement, birth of rock ‘n roll, sexism in the industry, the fickleness of fame, the nature of success, the use of blues and gospel in rock music — but director Morgan Neville never pulls them together into a cohesive overarching narrative. It doesn’t really matter, though, because these ladies — Merry Clayton, Judith Hill, Lisa Fischer, Darlene Love, and more — and their personal stories of striving and near-success (not to mention their voices) are remarkable, as are the endorsements and insightful commentary of the stars they sing backup for (Bruce Springsteen, David Bowie, Ray Charles, Mick Jagger, Sting). Ultimately, this is an uplifting account of the artist’s struggle, and what Academy voter can’t relate to that? It’s a shoo-in.


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